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The New York Knicks surprisingly drafted Latvian forward Kristaps Porzingis with the fourth pick in the NBA Draft, prompting boos from the Knicks fans in attendance. New Yorkers have a long history of booing their teams, especially against the Jets in the NFL Draft. With one of the worst records last year, they were in line to have their pick of high-caliber athletes to build the future.
Not surprisingly, New York native, Stephen A Smith, took to ESPN to voice his anger over what he believed to be a disappointing, hypocritical pick. He explained that there were several other NBA-ready prospects available, including Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein. Porzingis seems to be touted more as a project with a potentially high upside, but with other more defined players still on the board, the pick was rather surprising. It may take time before Porzingis reaches his full potential, and that is not something a New York fan wants to hear.
See some fan reactions and Stephen A Smith's:
Unlike the Pac-12 North, the conference's southern division will be a lot tighter. USC has the pieces to make it to the College Football Playoff while Arizona State, UCLA and Arizona all could make some noise of their own. Outside of Colorado, we could potentially make a case for the other schools going bowling as well.
There are six teams in the Pac-12's South Division. This article will apply the win totals from one online sportsbook and discuss if there is any value in these numbers. A selection is made based on the team's schedule, in which the games are broken down into three categories - easy wins, toss-ups and certain losses. Most conference games are in the toss-up category unless there is a clear difference in talent.
Note: Over/under odds courtesy of 5Dimes Sportsbook
Pac-12 South Division
(Over 7 wins -210...Under 7 wins +160)
Record Last Year: 10-4, 7-2
Returning Starters: 11 (6 on offense, 5 on defense)
Offense: Anu Solomon was a pleasant surprise his freshman season under center. Solomon had 28 touchdowns to just nine interceptions. Nick Wilson rushed for almost 1,400 yards as a freshman last year. The WRs will be led by Cayleb Jones and Samajie Grant, who each had over six touchdowns thru the air.
Defense: It all starts with Scooby Wright, who had 163 tackles as a sophomore last year. He makes things so much better. The team got good news when Reggie Gilbert was given another year of eligibility on the defensive line. The secondary will have to rebuild after last season.
Schedule: The Wildcats play three of their first four at home, hosting UTSA, Northern Arizona and UCLA. The lone road game in that group is at Nevada, whom they beat 35-28 last year. Starting in October, the team alternates home and road games the rest of the season.
Selection: The over is the play although I'd wait for the price to come down a bit. Arizona's schedule lays out nicely in that the Wildcats get some easy games to start out the year before hitting the stretch where they travel to USC and Arizona in November.
(Over 8.5 wins +130...Under 8.5 wins -170)
Record Last Year: 10-3, 6-3
Returning Starters: 12 (5 on offense, 7 on defense)
Offense: Taylor Kelly is gone, but ASU brings back experience in Mike Bercovici. The signal-caller had 12 touchdowns last year to just four interceptions. He's got D.J. Foster back, who accounted for 12 touchdowns last season when he split time between running back and wide receiver. The offense was 16th in the country last year, putting up 36.9 points per game.
Defense: Getting pressure up front could be an issue at the start with just one starting returnee on the front line. The good thing is that the secondary is almost all back as well as a stout linebacking corps.
Schedule: The season opens up with Texas A&M in Houston before three straight home games against Cal Poly, New Mexico and USC. The Sun Devils get their bye week towards the end of October.
Selection: The under is the play, but as I've said in other articles, not at this price. The offense could surprise, but this schedule is tough. Getting USC, Oregon and Arizona at home will help, but not enough to sway me to take the over.
(Over 4.5 wins -210...Under 4.5 wins +160)
Record Last Year: 2-10, 0-9
Returning Starters: 15 (6 on offense, 9 on defense)
Offense: Sefo Liufau is back, but he has to improve on his turnovers. Liufau threw 15 interceptions last year, which were drive killers. Nelson Spruce is back and he was an integral part of the offense last year with 106 receptions. Christian Powell should be fresh after getting just 85 carries last year.
Defense: Jim Leavitt comes over from USF to try and fix this side of the ball. The Buffs return nine players here, but last year they allowed 39 points per game. The secondary figures to be a lot better with Ken Crawley leading the way.
Schedule: Colorado gets four non-conference games, as it plays at Hawaii to start the season. After that it's UMass, Colorado State and Nicholls State. The Buffaloes get Oregon, Arizona, Stanford and USC at home.
Selection: I'm going under on the Buffaloes, as I just don't know if they will get a conference victory. Getting the better teams at home helps, but I'm penciling them in for a loss at Hawaii as well as their rivalry game with Colorado State. Add the value that the under gives and we are sold.
(Over 9.5 wins +160...Under 9.5 wins -210)
Record Last Year: 10-3, 6-3
Returning Starters: 17 (9 on offense, 8 on defense)
Offense: The majority of this unit is back although the Bruins will have to replace Brett Hundley under center. Jerry Neuheisel has a bit of game experience, but he'll compete with true freshman Josh Rosen for the job. Whomever wins will have Paul Perkins to hand off to and Jordan Payton to throw to. The offensive line is almost intact from last year as well.
Defense: Myles Jack is back and he's not alone. A questionable secondary will get some help from a front seven that will get after the quarterback.
Schedule: The Bruins play five of their first eight at home. They host Virginia and BYU with a road game at UNLV in between in September. November will be tough with three of their four games on the road.
Selection: I agree with the money move to the under on this one. If UCLA can pull one out at Arizona, Stanford or USC then maybe you can take the over, but I think each one of those road games is a loss.
(Over 8.5 wins -210...Under 8.5 wins +160)
Record Last Year:9-4, 6-3
Returning Starters: 14 (7 on offense, 7 on defense)
Offense: Cody Kessler figures to be in the thick of the Heisman race this season, especially if he improves in bigger games. Last year he had 39 touchdowns to just five interceptions. JuJu Smith will have to step up and replace Nelson Agholor, who went to the NFL. This offensive line could be the best in the Pac-12.
Defense: There are several big names back led by Su'a Cravens and Adoree Jackson. The front line will need to replace Leonard Williams and Hayes Pullard. The unit will improve on their 115th-ranked pass defense from last year though.
Schedule: The Trojans warm up with three straight home games against Arkansas State, Idaho and Stanford. They have one two-game road trip in November at Colorado and Oregon. Other then that, this is a pretty manageable slate.
Selection: I'm a huge fan of USC this year. I think they finally play like the national power we've always known the Trojans to be. I will say this though, there is a case to be made for the under. Tough road games at Arizona State, Notre Dame, California and Oregon could all be losses.
(Over 7.5 wins -125...Under 7.5 wins -115)
Record Last Year: 9-4, 5-4
Returning Starters: 11 (6 on offense, 5 on defense)
Offense: Travis Wilson is the key once again. His inconsistency forced the team to yo-yo him in and out of the starting lineup. Devontae Booker ran for over 1,500 yards last year and will be a big help to take a load off Wilson's plate. The offensive line is pretty solid.
Defense: Hunter Dimick is one of the best in the Pac-12 after posting 10 sacks last year. The secondary will have to replace several players, but has Dominique Hatfield to build around.
Schedule: The Utes host Michigan and Utah State before two straight road games at Fresno State and Oregon. They then play three of their next four at home before splitting home and road games in November.
Selection: Small lean to the under for Utah. I think the Utes could make a statement with a win over Michigan in their season opener. As it has been the past few seasons, this team will go as Wilson goes under center.
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.
There is a lot of moving and shaking happening in the Big Ten these days.
On the field, this league has taken a lot of flack over the years (particularly from the South) about how slow the game is played in the Midwest.
Off the field, Jim Delany has been a brilliant puppeteer of conference expansion and television revenue, making his league the most profitable and stable of any of the Power 5 leagues with quick and decisive action. Penn State and Michigan have made huge, splashy coaching hires that should allow the former college football giants to regain their past stature.
However, the play of the Big Ten on the field is beginning to match its performance off of it.
Ohio State and Urban Meyer got the maligned Big Ten back to the top of the college football mountain by first knocking off hated SEC king Alabama and then crushing Heisman Trophy-led, Pac-12 champion Oregon.
The Buckeyes enter the season ranked No. 1 in the nation with arguably the best roster and path back to the College Football Playoff.
But the rest of this league is what will make 2015 so interesting. In fact, the Big Ten could be in as good a position as any league to get a second team into the Playoff.
Michigan State is that team.
Mark Dantonio has some holes to plug at Michigan State, particularly with right-hand man Pat Narduzzi taking the head coaching job at Pitt. But this team comes in at No. 7 in the preseason rankings for a reason and could easily slip into the Playoff despite a potential road loss to Ohio State.
Connor Cook is an All-American candidate at quarterback who will be playing behind one of the best offensive lines in the nation. Shilique Calhoun and Lawrence Thomas set the edge for what is always one of the most imposing defensive fronts in the nation. Dantonio's squad is loaded again and will be the top challenger to Ohio State in the East Division.
The schedule, though, is what really allows Michigan State to sneak into the Playoff conversation — even with a loss and no division title.
Beating Oregon at home in Week 2 changes the entire complexion of finishing second in the Big Ten East. The Ducks are picked by most to win the Pac-12 North and play in the Pac-12 championship game. Winning the second-best league in America puts Oregon squarely in the Playoff conversation.
Would a one-loss Ducks team get the nod over a one-loss Michigan State team that beat them head-to-head? That's really hard to fathom. Certainly, a two-loss Oregon team wouldn't, right?
The rest of the Spartans' schedule features enough quality games to bolster their Playoff resume as well. Road trips to Nebraska and Michigan will be tough challenges and two quality wins away from East Lansing – something the Committee will have to respect. Home wins over Penn State and Maryland will look solid as well.
With one of the tougher schedules in the Big Ten and a marquee non-conference showdown against a fellow Playoff contender, Michigan State could easily find itself in the postseason conversation even with a loss to Ohio State.
If Michigan State beats the Buckeyes in Columbus on Nov. 21, this entire concept is thrown out the window and the Spartans become not only a lock to make the Playoff but a serious threat to win the national championship.
Of course, Michigan State may have to beat Ohio State again during the four-team tournament to clinch their first national title in over 50 years.
Be careful what you tweet.
The Lakers drafted Larry Nance Jr. with the 27th pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, and minutes later Twitter found an old tweet from him about Kobe Bryant. Now, it takes a lot to get on Bryant's good side in the first place, but I'm guessing this won't help.
Seems the Lakers' new draft pick just deleted this old tweet from 2012. Probably a good idea. pic.twitter.com/kC33QuIvPL— Baxter Holmes (@BaxterHolmes) June 26, 2015
Once the tweet was brought to the attention of Mitch Kupchak, Lakers general manager, he said it was something Bryant and Nance would have to work out.
LAL GM Mitch Kupchak said he & team PR boss John Black addressed Nance's Kobe tweet. Said Kobe & Nance will have to work it out themselves.— Baxter Holmes (@BaxterHolmes) June 26, 2015
Nance is going to get a lot of Kobe Bryant death stares next season.
Let this be a lesson, nothing goes away on the internet.
Just like last year, Athlon Sports' 2015 NFL Preview magazine includes NFL player rankings at every position. The rankings in the magazine are provided by Dan Shonka of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services, a company that's been in the football talent evaluation business for more than three decades.
Although often unheralded, a strong offensive line is an extremely valuable, and equally rare, commodity in the NFL. Take Dallas for example. What does having the No. 1 tackle (Tyron Smith) and No. 2 guard (Zack Martin) and center (Travis Frederick) get you? How about the league's second-ranked rushing offense, which also led in time of possession, for a team that won 12 games and the NFC East division title. And while DeMarco Murray, the reigning rushing champion, is no longer a Cowboy, whoever gets the carries this season should be well-positioned for success running behind arguably the league's No. 1 line.
Rankings courtesy of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services
2015 NFL Player Rankings: Tackles
1. Tyron Smith, Dallas
Physically, he has it all with his extra-long arms, huge hands, strength and athletic ability. He seals the play side with good technique and rare lateral quickness. He is equally skilled as a run blocker or pass protector.
2. Joe Thomas, Cleveland
He has an outstanding combination of size, athletic ability and a gritty style of play. Demonstrates explosiveness and power in the run game.
3. Joe Staley, San Francisco
A Pro Bowl talent who is highly competitive and works to finish his blocks with a nasty streak.
4. Jason Peters, Philadelphia
He has anchored the Eagles’ offensive line since being acquired in a trade from Buffalo in 2009.
5. Andrew Whitworth, Cincinnati
He is heading into his 10th year in the league as a physical tackle who can manhandle defensive ends and tackles with his hand strength.
6. Lane Johnson, Philadelphia
An ascending tackle who has started 28 straight games for the Eagles after being drafted in the first round in 2013. A physical and aggressive right tackle.
7. Sebastian Vollmer, New England
A native of Germany, Vollmer has become more of a technique player rather than a mauler in the run game.
8. Jared Veldheer, Arizona
Signed as an unrestricted free agent a year ago from Oakland and has been a huge upgrade on the left side of the Cardinals’ line.
9. Duane Brown, Houston
A natural athlete with long arms and big hands for the left tackle position. Good body control and balance.
10. Kelvin Beachum, Pittsburgh
A good athlete who plays square and has an explosive punch. A top-level technique player who plays with confidence.
11. Donald Penn, Oakland
12. Branden Albert, Miami
13. Anthony Castonzo, Indianapolis
14. Ricky Wagner, Baltimore
15. Will Beatty, N.Y. Giants
16. Bryan Bulaga, Green Bay
17. Zach Strief, New Orleans
18. Trent Williams, Washington
19. Derek Newton, Houston
20. Doug Free, Dallas
2015 NFL Player Rankings: Guards
1. Marshal Yanda, Baltimore
Uses his hands well to control the defender. He is the total package of run blocker, pass protector, football instincts, functional strength and hell-bent-for-leather finisher.
2. Zack Martin, Dallas
Made the transition from college tackle to pro guard. Under the tutelage of line coach Bill Callahan (now with the Redskins), Martin took his blue-collar work ethic and talent to another level.
3. T.J. Lang, Green Bay
An intense and competitive blocker who plays square with balance and leverage. Aggressive off the snap and finishes his target with good head position and leg drive.
4. Evan Mathis, Free Agent
Has a reputation as a consistent competitor who battles hard every play. He is an efficient position blocker with good first-step quickness. Was a surprise cut by Philadelphia head coach Chip Kelly earlier this month.
5. Kelechi Osemele, Baltimore
He has elevated his game under line coach Juan Castillo. The wide-bodied road grader has the physical tools to lock up a defensive tackle.
6. Mike Iupati, Arizona
A powerful man with a wide, athletic body, he plays with a good base and competitive streak. Controls the defender with strong hands and an explosive punch.
7. Joel Bitonio, Cleveland
Uses his hands to seal the inside gap from a defender’s penetration. Physical and strong on down blocks.
8. Brandon Brooks, Houston
Has a thick and powerful body and can manhandle a pass rusher if he maintains his knee bend and leverage.
9. Ronald Leary, Dallas
The former undrafted free agent plays with a good power base to position and wall off a defender in the run game.
10. John Greco, Cleveland
A smart and instinctive player who is very technique-conscious. Keeps his hands inside the frame and controls his target.
11. Josh Sitton, Green Bay
12. Kevin Zeitler, Cincinnati
13. Brandon Linder, Jacksonville
14. Kyle Long, Chicago
15. Orlando Franklin, San Diego
16. Andrew Norwell, Carolina
17. Clint Boling, Cincinnati
18. Chance Warmack, Tennessee
19. Larry Warford, Detroit
20. David DeCastro, Pittsburgh
2015 NFL Player Rankings: Centers
1. Nick Mangold, N.Y. Jets
The durable and dependable pivot has an explosive punch that stuns a defender. Plays with good technique and strong hands.
2. Travis Frederick, Dallas
A power player who gets push in the run game. Has demonstrated the size and strength to neutralize a nose tackle or drive down a gap defender.
3. Alex Mack, Cleveland
The leader of the Browns’ offensive line was well on his way to an All-Pro selection when he went down with a broken fibula in October.
4. Rodney Hudson, Oakland
He is undersized by NFL standards but plays with quickness and agility. Especially effective as a zone blocker, getting to the second level where he seals off linebackers and cuts off pursuit.
5. John Sullivan, Minnesota
Plays with light feet in pass protection yet can anchor versus a power rusher. He has the size, strength, balance and base to control a defensive lineman.
6. Jason Kelce, Philadelphia
A classic zone-blocking center who is athletic with good technique and footwork. Quick to redirect and change direction.
7. Max Unger, New Orleans
A strong drive blocker with nifty feet in the run game. Plays with a solid punch, lockout and foot quickness in pass protection.
8. Ryan Kalil, Carolina
He is an intense and sound technician who is physical and aggressive in his play.
9. Kory Lichtensteiger, Washington
A tough and physical throwback blocker who works to finish his blocks. Plays with quick hands and good technique.
10. Maurkice Pouncey, Pittsburgh
Earned an All-Pro selection in 2014 and is recognized in league circles as an athletic center who plays with attitude and aggression.
11. Chris Myers, Free Agent
12. Jeremy Zuttah, Baltimore
13. Corey Linsley, Green Bay
14. Evan Dietrich-Smith, Tampa Bay
15. Stefen Wisniewski, Jacksonville
16. Bryan Stork, New England
17. Eric Wood, Buffalo
18. Luke Bowanko, Jacksonville
19. Samson Satele, Free Agent
20. Russell Bodine, Cincinnati
The Patriots' hate train has picked up another passenger.
Emmanuel Sanders doesn't think New England's Deflate-gate punishment fits the crime. The champs should have to relinquish their title.
"I'm kind of mad," Sanders told ESPN. "I don't think that they [New England] should be the Super Bowl champions this year."
The Broncos wide receiver says cheating of any nature should not be rewarded.
"You aren't supposed to cheat," Sanders said. "Cheating is not good, especially when you've got guys who are working their butts off for 365 days out of the year and one person cheats — whether it helps them win the Super Bowl or not, they still cheated and shouldn't be a champion."
There are others who share Sanders' thoughts on the issue, but Tom Brady doesn't seem to be letting outside chatter take away from his championship win.
Last season, the Cornhuskers finished two games behind Wisconsin in the Big Ten West standings and were defeated 59-24 by the Badgers in mid-November.
What will it take for Nebraska to close the gap in 2015? Quarterback play.
Adjusting to a new scheme or coaching staff is never an easy task for a quarterback. New coach Mike Riley plans on shifting Nebraska’s offense to more of a pro-style attack in this season, and the first-year coach inherits some talented pieces to work with.
The receiving corps could be among the best in the Big Ten, and the offensive line returns two seniors at the tackle positions. At running back, Terrell Newby and Imani Cross should anchor a productive ground game.
Considering the strength of Nebraska’s supporting cast, returning starting quarterback Tommy Armstrong will be under the microscope in 2015.
The junior has showed plenty of promise in his career, but there’s work for coordinator Danny Langsdorf and Riley to do this offseason.
Here’s a quick snapshot of Armstrong’s numbers in 2014 (all games):
|G||Comp||Att||Comp %||Pass Yds||TDs||INTs||QB Rating||YPC||YPG|
In Big Ten-only games:
|G||Comp||Att||Comp %||Pass Yds||TDs||INTs||QB Rating||YPC||YPG|
Against Ranked Opponents:
|G||Comp||Att||Comp %||Pass Yds||TDs||INTs||QB Rating||YPC||YPG|
Armstrong has showed the ability to make plays on the ground, as he ranked second among Big Ten quarterbacks with 705 yards rushing. Although Armstrong's playmaking ability on the ground will be utilized, Langsdorf needs Armstrong to develop as a passer. A 53.3 completion percentage in all games needs to go up, and the interceptions — especially in conference play — need to be cut.
Related: 2015 All-America Team
To get a look at how critical Armstrong's development is to Nebraska's 2015 season, let's take a look at Oregon State's offenses under Danny Langsdorf from 2005-13.
|Points Per Game||Yards Per Play||Pass Att. Per Game||Passing Yards Per Game|
For comparison, since 2008 the Cornhuskers have averaged less than 30 passing attempts per game. Under Riley and Langsdorf at Oregon State from 2005-13, the Beavers never dipped below 30 per game.
There’s no doubt Riley and Langsdorf will adapt to the personnel in place to win games in 2015. However, there’s definitely a shift coming for Nebraska’s offense. How quickly will Armstrong develop in this offense? The career trajectory of quarterbacks shows rushing attempts and yards decrease as the player becomes more comfortable as a passer.
Entering his junior season, Armstrong has 21 career starts. Increasing the efficiency and reducing the turnovers are two areas to watch in 2015. If Armstrong accomplishes both of those goals and adjusts to the new scheme, Nebraska could close the gap on Wisconsin in the West.
He’s describing the maturity required to allow a younger teammate to become his mentor. He’s describing the maturity that same teammate must possess not to see him as a threat.
If Tennessee is going to continue on its path back to prominence, the Volunteers are going to need Kamara, a new arrival, to be part of a dynamic duo of running backs — a staple of some of the best SEC teams in recent years.
Tennessee finished last season with half of that equation. Jalen Hurd was one of the Volunteers’ breakout stars during the program’s first winning season since 2009. A five-star recruit and one of the jewels of Butch Jones’ first full signing class in Knoxville, Hurd established himself as one of the best freshman backs in Tennessee history, rushing for nearly 900 yards. But fielding merely one standout running back is not a foundation for SEC championships, so Tennessee added another highly touted prospect in Kamara from junior college.
“I’m older, but he’s established here,” Kamara says. “I came with respect for him. That might be one of the hardest things for guys, putting that pride aside, that ego aside and learning from someone younger than you. I had to come in and be mature about it.”
While Kamara’s addition may be a key development in turning Tennessee into an SEC contender once again, the road to his awakening wasn’t short or direct. The top-100 national recruit from Norcross, Ga., started his college career at Alabama, left the Crimson Tide with more suspensions than carries and landed at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College. He arrived at Alabama two years ago amid a talented running back class that included four recruits rated four-stars or better, Derrick Henry among them. And a year before Kamara’s class, Alabama had signed two other four- and five-star running backs, one of them being T.J. Yeldon.
There were only so many carries to go around, but Kamara made decisions easier for Alabama. He suffered a knee injury in the preseason, but he also was not on the sidelines for a 2013 game against LSU due to what Alabama deemed were “behavior reasons.” Alabama later suspended him from the Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma. Kamara transferred to junior college weeks later.
Kamara’s absence from Division I football, and the SEC in particular, lasted only one year. Getting a second chance at running the ball in the SEC was reason for him to exhale.
“You know when something’s right and you’re stepping into a good situation, you’re like, ‘Ahh, OK,”’ Kamara says. “It was like relief.”
If all goes as planned, the relief in Knoxville will be twofold. Kamara steps onto a roster that’s thin at the position but with its leader firmly established.
Hurd rushed for 899 yards last season, the third-highest freshman total in Tennessee history after Jamal Lewis’ 1,364 yards in 1997 and James Stewart’s 908 yards in 1991.
Kamara, though, started spring as the only healthy scholarship tailback on the roster. Hurd participated in spring drills, but he was still recovering from a shoulder injury from the end of the season. Hurd has twice had shoulder surgery since his senior year of high school. And all too often, the Tennessee offense seemed to rest on those shoulders. Without Hurd running the ball effectively, Tennessee had few other places to turn in the running game.
The arrival of Kamara, in theory, should put another top running back on the field and limit some of the wear and tear on Hurd. Winning in the SEC in 2015 will likely require two or more tailbacks anyway.
Take Alabama and its pairings of Yeldon and Henry, or Eddie Lacy and Yeldon, or Trent Richardson and Lacy, for example. Georgia replaced one Heisman-contending running back (Todd Gurley) with another (Nick Chubb) last season. LSU seemingly has two or three NFL-caliber running backs at its disposal on an annual basis.
Tennessee’s issues have been numerous over recent years. The run game might not even be at the top of the Volunteers’ list of their most pressing priorities, but it will be a part of the solution in 2015.
What has been lacking at Tennessee hasn’t been individual running backs, necessarily; the problem has been running back depth. Tennessee hasn’t finished in the top half of the SEC in rushing since 2004 when Gerald Riggs and Cedric Houston both topped 1,000 yards on the ground that season. Not coincidentally, Tennessee has played in the SEC Championship Game only once since then.
Tennessee also hasn’t had a first-team All-SEC running back since 2001 when Travis Stephens and Travis Henry earned those honors in back-to-back years. (Granted, Houston, Arian Foster and Montario Hardesty all were second-teamers at some point.)
Hurd would seem to be a logical candidate to end that drought, but even with Hurd enjoying a standout season in 2014, Tennessee ranked 13th in the SEC in rushing yards per game (146.4) and yards per carry (3.6).
His value, though, could not be overstated. Hurd had some of his best moments in Tennessee’s most important games. He rushed for 119 yards and a touchdown in a three-point loss at Georgia. He had 125 yards on 21 carries in the 45–42 upset of South Carolina. And he completed his season with a 122-yard, two-touchdown performance on 16 carries in the 45–28 win over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
The final game in that list of Hurd’s highlights might be the key. He had more than a month before the game to get healthy, and there was perhaps a little extra motivation. Bowl practice was also the first time Hurd met Kamara, who was committed to the Vols when he visited Tennessee’s practice in Jacksonville, Fla.
“I need guys to push me every day,” Hurd says. “The more competition we have, the better I’m going to get. When I see him break a long run, I want to break a long run.”
The two backs might be a clear No. 1 and No. 2. Or they might be better suited for particular situations. Or they could be interchangeable. None of that is quite clear yet.
“These guys will carve out who they are as football players on their own,” Tennessee running backs coach Robert Gillespie says. “These guys will determine who they are as playmakers. They’ll determine the role they play in the offense.”
That said, the skill set of each of Tennessee’s top two running backs is easy to see. Hurd is 6'3" and 230 pounds and trying to get bigger before the season. Tennessee would love for Hurd to get to a sturdy 235 pounds.
“It’s hard for me to get fat,” Hurd says. “I was trying to eat everything I could, drink as many shakes as I could, get as many calories as I could.”
Kamara is 5'11" and 210 pounds and more likely to run to the outside. Hurd does some of his best work between the tackles.
“We’re two backs that are going to feed off each other,” Hurd says. “He’s more of a shifty back. That’s something he can push me on. I play a little bit bigger.”
The goal, though, is for both to be complete backs with the ability to excel in all situations.
With a year in the system compared to Kamara, Hurd is used to Tennessee’s up-tempo style, which is a stark contrast to what Kamara experienced at Alabama. Hurd knows the protections and blocking concepts, and he caught 35 passes last season, so he can play on third down.
By the time Tennessee opens against Bowling Green on Sept. 5 in Nashville, Hurd will try to do what he can to help Kamara get up to speed.
“Running the ball, that’s easy for Alvin,” Hurd says. “He’s a natural athlete. It’s just understanding the scheme of our offense, who to block, where to be, your alignments.”
This is a simple proposition for Hurd: If Kamara improves by fall, then Hurd probably does, too. And if Kamara and Hurd make up one of the best running back duos in the SEC, Tennessee’s rise will be that much quicker.
“(Hurd has) been able to see that some of the best running backs in the league are part of a tandem,” Gillespie says. “Alvin came on where he could see that, too, where everyone would be a bit better with competition.
“We have two guys that are going to be special.”
Auburn is planning to have a massive scoreboard in place by the start of the 2015 season. The video scoreboard measures 190 x 57 feet and is going to be the biggest in the nation.
And the program is celebrating the new scoreboard by having the 2015 football seniors sign the top beam for the frame.
Needless to say, this is a neat way to commemorate the new video board, along with a hat tip to the seniors that helped the program over the last few seasons. (Photos from (@AuburnPix and @FootballAU)
Muhammad Ali arguably remains the greatest boxer ever and his influence still continues worldwide. However, he also must be recognized for his role in creating Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA for short. On this date in 1976, Ali fought Antonio Inoki, a wrestler, in the first match that combined both boxing and wrestling. The background to the fight is both interesting and mysterious, as it allegedly began as a fixed, exhibition, but ultimately became a real fight.
The fight became something of an unexciting spectacle, as many people were disappointed in it. There were many rules and restrictions placed due to the new nature of the fight. However, both fighters suffered brutal injuries, including a broken leg for Inoki and two leg blood cots for Ali. The fight still drew a large audience and has been seen as a reason for the advent of MMA.
Watch the fight below, it's certainly unique:
Offensive lines are often one of the most overlooked groups during the season or with preseason predictions. While the five players in the trenches aren’t going to be on many highlight reels, offensive lines are the key to any team's offensive attack.
Clemson’s offensive line was already far from settled by the end of spring practice. The Tigers had only two returning starters and depth was a concern. And the uncertainty surrounding this unit was increased on Thursday, as left tackle Isaiah Battle entered the NFL’s supplemental draft.
Although Battle had his share of inconsistencies at Clemson, the New York native entered 2014 with 15 starts and was considered a top 10 prospect at tackle for the 2016 NFL Draft.
Without Battle, center Ryan Norton is the only returning starter for coach Dabo Swinney.
Related: ACC 2015 Predictions
A returning starter count isn’t necessarily the best way to judge any position, but it’s no secret Clemson’s offensive line is going to hold the key to the 2015 season. Much of the offseason focus at Clemson has been on new offensive co-coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott, who are tasked with replacing Chad Morris.
However, even if the offense takes a small step back without Morris calling the plays, this group won’t get on track without productive play up front. And adding to Swinney’s concerns: quarterback Deshaun Watson is coming off of a torn ACL.
And it's not as if the offensive line didn't have its own issues in 2014 either. Clemson allowed 27 sacks, and rushers averaged only 3.3 yards per carry in ACC games. The Tigers also ranked No. 101 in Football Outsiders' adjusted line yards measure and No. 126 in power success rate.
On the positive side for Swinney, Clemson’s offensive line has talent ready to emerge in the form of freshmen Mitch Hyatt and Jake Fruhmorgen. Hyatt was a five-star recruit by 247Sports Composite and was the No. 22 overall recruit in the 2015 signing class. Fruhmorgen was graded as a four-star prospect and the No. 119 recruit.
How long will it take for this group to mesh? As fast as possible will be the hope for Swinney. The schedule won’t do the Tigers any favors. Louisville, which has one of the ACC’s top defensive fronts, hosts Clemson in Week 3. And the Tigers play Notre Dame, Georgia Tech and Boston College in the first three weeks of October. All three defenses have enough talent to disrupt Clemson’s offense if the line struggles.
Improvement from the offensive line was needed in order for Clemson to win 10 games for the fifth consecutive season. With the uncertainty up front and new play-callers in place, there’s even more pressure on the shoulders of Watson, who is just a sophomore himself.
Talent certainly isn’t an issue for Swinney. But the question marks for the 2015 team are significant. With Florida State also dealing with similar concerns, Louisville reloading on its offensive line and at quarterback, the ACC Atlantic is going to be an interesting race to watch this fall.
Here’s a look at the projected starting offensive line, with the career starts and recruiting rank:
|Position/Player||Career Starts||Recruiting Rank|
|LT Mitch Hyatt (True Freshman)||0||5 Stars, No. 22 Overall|
|LG Eric Mac Lain (Senior)||1||4 Stars, No. 182 Overall|
|C Ryan Norton (Senior)||24||3 Stars, No. 690 Overall|
|RG Tyrone Crowder (Sophomore)||1||4 Stars, No. 117 Overall|
|RT Joe Gore (Senior)||3||3 Stars, No. 408 Overall|
A triathlon is one of the benchmarks for measuring fitness in the endurance realm. Combining distance swimming, cycling and running, the sport requires at least a moderate mastery of all three disciplines. A full-distance triathlon (a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run) might be too much for the average weekend warrior, but a shorter distance like a sprint (0.5-mile swim, 12-mile bike ride, 3.1-mile run) or an Olympic distance (.96-mile swim, 25-mile bike, 6.2-mile run) is a very reasonable item for your fitness bucket list.
To get you ready, we got some insightful tips from Jesse Kropelnicki, managing director and professional athlete coach at OutRival Racing, a Texas-based endurance sport training service for numerous Ironman champions and professional racers.
“You’ll need about 10-12 weeks for the average person with some sporting background to train for a sprint, 16 weeks for someone who doesn’t,” Kropelnicki says. Pick a local race about three months out, so you have a deadline, then go to work on the three disciplines.
“It’s all about frequency,” he says. “Get in three bikes, swims and runs (per week), even if they’re all equal distance.” If you run 30 minutes three times, ride an hour three times, and swim a half hour three times a week, you’ll be ready by the time race day comes around.
Go Above and Beyond
As you get closer to race day, ramp up the following formula from Kropelnicki: “As a general rule, you should be able to triple the swim yards, ride eight thirds of the bike distance, and run seven thirds of your run distance in at least two weeks in the previous six weeks coming up to the race.” That means for a sprint tri, swim a total of 1.5 miles, bike a total of 32 miles, and run 7 miles in the weeks approaching your race. “Those are the benchmarks to say that durability won’t be the limiter,” he says.
Don’t Worry About Long Sessions
“The biggest mistake beginners make is putting in a long session,” he says. “Especially in the run.” Doing a long run, then doing it again after a two-day layoff, will allow your muscles to tighten up and set you up for an injury on your next run, even though you’re swimming and cycling on that two-day break.
“A good rule of thumb is to never have one run that makes up more than 35 percent of your weekly mileage,” he says. “A lot of runners will do two 45-minute runs and then a two-hour run, and that just crushes them.”
Grab a Bite
About 2.5 hours before the start of the race, Kropelnicki recommends fueling up with food. Here’s his go-to pre-race meal.
0.5 - 2.0 cups of unsweetened applesauce, depending on size of athlete
1 bottle of PowerBar Ironman Perform
1 scoop of whey protein in 2 - 3 oz. of water
—by Billy Brown
Athletes often love social media, especially Twitter, because it gives them a platform to speak upon to their millions of fans. They can interact with others, and it gives a way to broadcast to a large audience whenever. However, there are also plenty of negatives, including backlash and everybody trying to give advice. That is exactly why Coach K of Duke has made his Twitter account secret, under an alias.
Coach K claims that he uses the account only to check his players and make sure that they are acting appropriately on social media. It is a smart idea, considering plenty of athletes have made detrimental mistakes on Twitter. While his use is secret, the players apparently know when he’s on his account, as Jahlil Okafor said. Although he may not be any spy, he at least understands the potential consequences Twitter.
Here are some example Tweets of why Coach K does this:
Whether you’re going to work or hitting the gym, you’re usually heading out the door in a hurry. Too often that means skipping breakfast, which most nutritionists agree is a bad idea. “Skipping can lead to several unwanted side effects, including a sluggish metabolism, loss of lean muscle and overeating at night,” says Cynthia Sass, sports nutritionist for the New York Yankees and New York Rangers.
With a little pre-planning and a well-stocked fridge, there’s no reason to leave your house hungry when you’re in a rush. We asked Sass to recommend some quick meals that’ll get you ready for a busy day ahead.
Loading up on sausage on your way to the gym is a terrible idea. “Keep protein and fat low if you’re going to be getting your heart rate up within an hour of eating,” Sass says. Stick with nutrient-rich carbs to fuel your workout, like oatmeal drizzled with a little organic honey and a sliced banana (prep time: about 5 minutes). Don’t even have five minutes? Sass recommends a bowl of organic corn flakes with a little almond milk (about 2 minutes).
A mad dash
Already late? No problem, Sass says. Grab a to-go cup and fill it with ¾-1 cup organic nonfat Greek yogurt. Add a dash of cinnamon, some fruit (Sass recommends a chopped apple or pear, cut pineapple or berries), some cooked chilled quinoa for protein and nuts or seeds (such as chopped walnuts, almonds or sunflower seeds) for some good, filling fats (about 2 minutes). Don’t have quinoa lying around? Throw in some raw or toasted rolled oats.
Expecting a late lunch
If you’re not going to be eating lunch for a while, 10 minutes and a few eggs can go a long way. “Sauté your favorite veggies (like tomato, onion, mushrooms and spinach) in a little organic low sodium vegetable broth and Italian herb seasoning,” Sass says. “Then add one whole organic egg and three whites and scramble.” Some black beans and avocado on the side will provide additional protein and fat to keep you going well into the afternoon.
It’s a good idea to have a quick smoothie recipe ready to go if you sleep through your alarm. “One of my favorite simple smoothies is vanilla almond milk, frozen cherries, almond butter, protein powder (either pea protein or organic, grass-fed whey) or nonfat organic Greek yogurt, a handful of fresh spinach, and a dash of cinnamon,” Sass says. Blend until smooth, then drink it on your way to work.
How to Make It
1/2 - 3/4 cup vanilla almond milk
3/4 - 1 cup frozen cherries
1-2 tbsp almond butter
1 scoop protein powder,
or 3/4 - 1 cup nonfat organic
1 cup fresh spinach
A dash of cinnamon
—by Billy Brown
Jones is a do-everything kind of player, who lines up as a dual-threat quarterback on offense and a tough-nosed linebacker on defense for Aquinas Institute. The 6-3”, 230-pound, athlete picked up 715 yards passing with five touchdowns and ran for another 205 yards with another score in 2014 in a Wildcat offense, but also made his mark on defense. Jones was credited with 47 tackles, 15 tackles for a loss, and had a pick-six in eight games played.
College coaches in the northeast have flocked to Rochester in hopes of forging a relationship with the two-way athlete. Boston College, Rutgers, Pitt, UMass, Old Dominion, Connecticut, Buffalo, and Syracuse have all dropped offers. Speculation was Jones was split between the Orange and the Fighting Irish before his verbal commitment to Kelly on Tuesday.
Notre Dame has hosted Jones on two unofficial visits, attending Junior Day on March 21 and during his visit yesterday when he received an offer and then promptly committed. Kelly and his staff have recruited Jones as a linebacker.
Jones joins wide receiver/cornerback Jalen Elliott and wide receiver Kevin Stepherson on the Fighting Irish commitment list this week. In total Notre Dame has nine commitments. Of the nine only two are from the same state thus far, Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer out of Ohio.
Notre Dame 2016 Verbal Commitment List
CB/WR Jalen Elliott, 6’1”, 175 lbs, Lloyd C. Bird HS, Chesterfield, Virginia
CB Julian Love, 5’11”, 175 lbs, Nazareth Academy, LaGrange Park, Illinois
LB Jamir Jones, 6’3”, 230 lbs, Aquinas Institute, Rochester, New York
DE Julian Okwara, 6’4”, 220 lbs, Ardrey Kell HS, Charlotte, North Carolina
OT Liam Eichenberg, 6’6”, 290 lbs, St. Ignatius HS, Cleveland, Ohio
OT Tommy Kraemer, 6’5”, 305 lbs, Elder HS, Cincinnati, Ohio
LS John Shannon, 6’2”, 230 lbs, Loyola Academy, Wilmette, Illinois
RB Tony Jones Jr., 6’0”, 212 lbs, IMG Academy, Bradenton, Florida
WR Kevin Stepherson, 6’0”, 180 lbs, First Coast HS, Jacksonville, Florida
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManinLA.
Peyton Manning is everyone's favorite quarterback, and with gestures like this one, it's easy to see why.
The Broncos quarterback sent a birthday gift to one of his biggest fans Indiana. Logan Brown was killed earlier this year by in a head-on-collision with a drunk driver.
"As a grandmother, I felt like I should let Peyton know this young man idolized him and what he meant in his life," Brown's grandmother told WFIE-TV.
Tuesday would have been Brown's 16th birthday, and a package came in the mail from Manning himself. The quarterback sent a handwritten letter and an autographed photo of himself with "In memory of Logan Allen Brown."
"It blew me away," Brown's grandmother continued. "I know Logan is up there looking down. He's smiling. I think he will be happy."
A touching gesture from Brown's, and everyone's, favorite quarterback.
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. And needless to say, it’s difficult to challenge for a conference championship or national title if the quarterback play is an issue all year or if the coaching staff’s status is uncertain after a slow start.
Despite most of the preseason focus on other positions, the battles in the trenches, at linebacker, cornerback or in the receiving corps are just as important to any team’s success in 2015.
Related: Pac-12 Predictions for 2015
With that in mind, let’s set aside the quarterbacks and head coaches for a moment and examine some of the other positions that must produce in 2015.
12 Pac-12 Position Groups Under Pressure in 2015
Arizona Offensive Line
Yes, Arizona’s defense also deserves a mention here, but the Wildcats’ best shot at winning the South once again hinges on an explosive offense. With quarterback Anu Solomon, running back Nick Wilson and receiver Cayleb Jones returning, Arizona features one of the top offensive trios in the nation. But there’s concern up front entering fall practice. The Wildcats lost three starters, with Cayman Bundage and Jacob Alsadek back as proven options. Cal transfer Freddie Tagaloa is expected to anchor the left tackle position, leaving two jobs up for grabs. There is experience in place – seniors Carter Wood and Lene Maiava – to step into the vacant jobs. But how quickly can this group mesh in 2015?
Related: All-America Team for 2015
Arizona State Wide Receivers
Jaelen Strong’s physical presence and big-play ability will be missed. To help alleviate the departure of Strong, along with Cameron Smith’s knee injury in the spring, the Sun Devils plan to shift D.J. Foster from running back to receiver on a full-time basis. Foster caught 62 passes in 2014 and should be the leading receiver for quarterback Mike Bercovici. Coordinator Mike Norvell is also counting on contributions from Gary Chambers, Eric Lauderdale and Ellis Jefferson. UCLA transfer Devin Lucien was a key pickup on the recruiting trail and should push for immediate playing time this fall.
California Defensive Backs
Any unit on California’s defense is worth a mention in this space. The Golden Bears allowed 39.8 points per game in 2014 and surrendered 42 touchdown passes. Coordinator Art Kaufman returns five starters, but the overall depth and talent level is improving. Sophomore – and converted quarterback – Luke Rubenzer shifted to safety to earn playing time in 2015. Rubenzer is just part of the hope for improvement in pass defense, as junior college recruit Antoine Albert is also expected to push for snaps. Experience certainly isn’t an issue among the potential starters. Seniors Stefan McClure (safety) and Darius White (cornerback) have to elevate their performance for California to take a step forward in pass defense this year.
Colorado Defensive Line
The Buffaloes enter coach Mike MacIntyre’s third season poised to make a jump in the win column. Making a bowl won’t be easy, but Colorado could push for five victories this year. The offense averaged 28.5 points per game in 2014 and is the strength of the team once again. But for the Buffaloes to push for a postseason bid, the defense must improve. This unit allowed 39 points per game last year and is under the direction of new coordinator Jim Leavitt. There is proven depth with eight starters returning, but standout nose tackle Josh Tupou was suspended for the 2015 season. How much improvement can Leavitt get out of a defensive line that allowed 204.8 rushing yards per game last year?
Oregon Defensive Line
There’s no question quarterback play will be under the microscope with Marcus Mariota off to the NFL. But the Ducks are loaded with skill talent and may not drop too much in terms of offensive production with Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams under center. The defense is a bigger concern for coach Mark Helfrich. Oregon allowed 21 rushing plays of 20 yards or more, which tied for 10th among Pac-12 defenses. DeForest Buckner opted to return to Eugene for his senior year, but Arik Armstead left for the NFL and Sam Kamp retired at the end of 2014. Buckner and fellow seniors Alex Balducci and Tui Talia is a good core to build around. And it certainly doesn’t hurt the coaching staff reeled in top recruit Canton Kaumatule in the offseason.
Related: Pac-12 Predictions for 2015
Oregon State Linebackers
New coach Gary Andersen has plenty of work to do this offseason. The Beavers return just nine starters and only two of those are back on defense. With the switch to a 3-4 scheme, Andersen and coordinator Kalani Sitake need to find the right pieces for this group to fit the new gameplan. This is a big offseason for players like Rommel Mageo and Kyle Haley, along with sophomore Darrell Songy, who returns to the team after missing 2014 due to a suspension.
Stanford Defensive Line
Even though the Cardinal loses a handful of key contributors from last year’s defense, coordinator Lance Anderson could keep this unit among the best in the Pac-12. Reaching that level will require a quick rebuild up front. All three starters from a productive 2014 group are gone and depth is an issue. Senior Aziz Shittu and sophomore Harrison Phillips will be counted on for major contributions, while Cal transfer Brennan Scarlett is likely to push for a starting job at end. Redshirt freshman Solomon Thomas is also a name to remember.
UCLA Offensive Line
This unit was under attack last year, as the Bruins gave up 40 sacks in 13 contests. While the sack total was high, this unit played better in the second half of the season, and there’s optimism for 2015. With all five starters returning, the offensive line could be a strength for UCLA. Left tackle Conor McDermott stabilized this unit after he started the last eight games of 2014 and is expected to anchor the blindside for quarterback Josh Rosen. Center Jake Brendel is also one of the best in the nation. With a true freshman taking over at quarterback, UCLA needs its supporting cast to step up in a big way with key games against Arizona, Arizona State and BYU early in the year.
USC Defensive Line
With Leonard Williams off to the NFL, USC has to reload in the trenches and find a new player to disrupt opposing offenses. In Pac-12-only matchups last year, the Trojans allowed the fewest yards per game (97.4) but also faced the fewest attempts (298). Additionally, Williams and departed senior J.R. Tavai accounted for 14 of the team’s 33 sacks last season. It’s up to seniors Delvon Simmons, Antwaun Woods and Claude Pelon to keep this unit performing at a high level. Depth is a concern for coordinator Justin Wilcox.
Related: Pac-12 Predictions for 2015
Utah Wide Receivers
The quick synopsis of Utah for 2015 is very similar to the 2014 version: Great defense and rushing attack but a questionable passing game. Quarterback Travis Wilson returns after throwing for 2,170 yards and 18 scores last season, and he will have a new co-coordinator setup with Jim Harding and Aaron Roderick taking over for Dave Christensen. The Utes connected on 19 passing plays of 30 yards or more last season, which ranked No. 8 among Pac-12 teams. Adding to the uncertainty for Wilson is a receiving corps that lost Kaelin Clay, tight end Westlee Tonga and Dres Anderson. Kenneth Scott is a good No. 1 option. But the Utes need to find capable No. 2 and No. 3 targets in fall camp.
Washington Defensive Line
Chris Petersen has some major roster remodeling to do in his second year in Seattle. The Huskies return only nine starters, with quarterback play a huge question mark entering this fall. But the defense also needs attention, as five key members of last year’s front seven are gone: Linebackers Shaq Thompson and John Timu and defensive linemen Andrew Hudson, Danny Shelton and Hau’oli Kikaha. Coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski and Petersen will feature a young defensive line in 2015, as a handful of freshmen could be counted on for significant snaps. Sophomore Elijah Qualls is a breakout candidate after recording 13 tackles in limited action last year.
Washington State Defensive Backs
All three defensive units deserve a mention here, but new coordinator Alex Grinch plans on implementing a 4-2-5 approach, adding extra pressure to a secondary that allowed 33 passing scores last season. The Cougars finished the spring with uncertainty surrounding this group, as help is on the way in the form of junior college recruits Treshon Broughton and Shalom Luani and freshman Sean Harper. All three newcomers could play a huge role in filling out the depth chart, while the coaching staff is counting on increased contributions from sophomores Charleston White, Darius Lemora and Isaac Dotson.
Tom Brady may be suspended, but his fans have only backed him more since the whole Deflategate scandal erupted. The four-time Super Bowl champion has surely earned this support, and now it has shifted to another sport: golf. Foxboro Country Club is showing their defense for Brady by replacing all of the golf course’s flags with 12. While each flag usually marks the hole number, they have instead placed Tom Brady’s jersey number in each hole.
Any public support for Brady will have no impact on the appeals process, but it surely pays homage to the success he has brought to the team. It is unknown when the decision will be, but he should surely have some extra time to play golf if his suspension is upheld.
Take a look below at what the flags look like:
Texas A&M legend and Heisman Trophy winner John David Crow, who passed away earlier this month, carved a niche in college football history with his outstanding play at both linebacker and running back.
Crow played in the era from 1954 to 1965 in which college football rules banned specializing, thus all players participated on both sides of the ball in a “one-platoon” system.
The 2014 season teased a one-platoon comeback of sorts, with a number of two-way standouts popping up around the nation.
USC freshman Adoree’ Jackson turned heads late in the campaign with his performance across all three phases. NFL-bound Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson filled a void as the Huskies' top ball carrier for several games, and teammate John Ross — injured for the duration of 2015 — pitched in on offense, defense and special teams.
A half-century after the one-platoon restriction was lifted, more college players are doing their part to bring it back.
Budda Baker, Washington
One of the gems of Chris Petersen’s first recruiting class, Baker lived up to his lofty prep billing as an anchor at safety. He recorded 80 tackles, a sack and an interception en route to Freshman All-American recognition.
As Petersen has proven wont to do, last year doing so with Thompson and Ross, the Huskies' head coach is expanding the talented Baker’s role in 2015.
In addition to playing some wide receiver in spring practices, Petersen told Adam Jude of the Seattle Times Baker “will definitely be factored into our return game.”
Kalen Ballage, Arizona State
Ballage will form one-half of a thunder-and-lighting backfield with fellow Sun Devils running back Demario Richard. Specifically, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Ballage will bring the thunder both as a ball carrier and pass catcher.
Ballage could also be that same force of nature as part of the Arizona State linebacker corps. Sun Devils head coach Todd Graham’s defensive philosophy of routine, aggressive blitzing calls on multiple linebackers contributing.
Graham sees the potential for Ballage to make plays on both sides of the ball. In preseason camp last year, the coach gave Ballage No. 9, the significance of which the Arizona Republic’s Doug Haller writes is it’s the same number Charles Clay wore while playing for Graham at Tulsa.
Clay played a multitude of offensive positions, as well as linebacker.
Cameron Echols-Luper, TCU
Echols-Luper served as TCU’s primary return man in 2014, and did the majority of his work for the Horned Frogs on special teams. He averaged more than 10 yards per punt return and took one to the house.
Echols-Luper was somewhat limited in as one of the many receivers in a deep corps last season, catching just nine passes for a modest 72 yards. The bevy of targets for Heisman-contending quarterback Trevone Boykin fueled a move into the secondary, where Echols-Luper, a two-sport athlete, now has the potential to be TCU’s next great star.
His speed, evident on the track where he’s one of TCU’s premier sprinters, as well as his athleticism make Echols-Luper a prime contender for the starting job Kevin White vacates.
And, with as much as offensive coordinator Doug Meacham likes to air it out, there are still opportunities for Echols-Luper to use his speed on offense.
Cody Grice, Akron
Grice is a defensive lineman first and foremost — and a very good one. He recorded 31 tackles, four tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks and forced a fumble playing on the interior of the Akron defense a season ago.
But, in the tradition of Chicago Bears legend William “Refrigerator” Perry, Grice has proven more than willing to mix it up on the offensive end, lining up in the Zips backfield for short-yardage and goal-line situations.
Grice rushed 20 times for all of 44 yards, and never any more than six yards on any given touch, but he scored four touchdowns.
The big man’s proficiency in such situations prompted Zips head coach Terry Bowden to tell Elton Alexander of The Plain Dealer, “We should have had [the offensive package featuring Grice] earlier.”
Myles Jack, UCLA
As the old adage goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and it was necessity that prompted UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone to use standout linebacker Jack at running back in November 2013.
More than anyone else in college football, Jack ushered in the current boom period for two-way play when he earned Pac-12 Freshman of the Year on both offense and defense that season.
Jack’s contribution to the Bruins offense was limited in 2014, thanks in part to the breakout of Pac-12-leading rusher Paul Perkins. However, glimpses of Jack’s ability with the ball in his hands shined through — most notably, a stiff arm-punctuated rush at Washington almost one year to the day he carried for 120 yards and a touchdown in a win at Arizona.
Adoree’ Jackson, USC
USC sophomore Jackson isn’t just a two… well, three-way standout for Trojans football: He’s also a two-sport star, competing in the NCAA Track & Field Championships in the long jump earlier this month.
Jackson is working to become the first Olympic gold medalist and Heisman winner, FoxSports.com’s Aaron Torres writes. He already started making headway on the Heisman part of that impressive two-pronged goal at the end of last season, when Jackson scored touchdowns on offense and special teams in the Trojans' Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska.
USC head coach Steve Sarkisian didn’t shy away from drawing the comparison between Jackson and Michigan great Charles Woodson, the last true two-way player to win college football’s most prestigious individual award.
Like Woodson, Jackson actually plays in all three phases extensively, and at the same positions: cornerback, wide receiver and returner.
Charles Nelson, Oregon
As Ryan Thorburn of the Register-Guard notes, Nelson’s official position heading into his sophomore campaign is “TBA.”
Helfrich on Charles Nelson, position TBA: "He's the kid at the all-comers meet that does every event and ends up with 700 blue ribbons."— Ryan Thorburn (@rgduckfootball) June 23, 2015
Though Nelson’s full-time spot is unknown, one certainty for Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich is that he wants to have Nelson on the field.
Bralon Addison’s knee injury in spring practices afforded Helfrich the opportunity to play Nelson on special teams, and the then-freshman delivered with a pair of punts returned for touchdowns in 2014.
Addison returns, resuming his place as Oregon’s likely No. 1 receiver. There’s no shortage of talent in the Ducks' wide receiving corps, thus Nelson’s place there is not as necessary as it was a season ago. He caught 23 passes for 327 yards in 2014, but standing out among a group that includes Addison, Devon Allen, Darren Carrington and Byron Marshall may be a challenge.
Thus, Helfrich and defensive coordinator Don Pellum tested out Nelson on defense in the spring. Nelson’s break-neck speed and nose for the ball make him a potential difference-maker in the secondary in the same vein as former All-American Duck Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
Nkemdiche averaged a healthy 6.4 yards per carry in 2013 — granted, those came on just five carries. Furthermore, the preseason All-American defensive lineman did not play any offense in 2014.
However, as the nation’s consensus No. 1 recruit in the 2013 signing class, Nkemdiche boasted some impressive two-way credentials for Grayson High School in Loganville, Ga. There, he rushed for seven touchdowns in 2012.
Should Rebels head coach Hugh Freeze go into his bag of tricks this fall, Nkemdiche can do some damage with the ball in his hands.
Eddie Vanderdoes, UCLA
UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone enjoys tinkering with formations and lining up defensive players on his side of the ball. Last year, that philosophy gave birth to the “Big Panda” set, a goal-line package that put the 6-foot-3, 305-pound Eddie Vanderdoes in the Bruins backfield.
There’s no controversy brewing as to where Vanderdoes should focus his energy, as was the case with teammate Myles Jack at one time. Vanderdoes is one of the Pac-12’s premier defensive lineman heading into 2015.
But his surprising dexterity on offense gives Mazzone a few interesting options with which to tinker.
Vanderdoes caught a pass in his freshman season, but the next step in his offensive contribution is to catch a touchdown. Former Bruins defensive line teammate Cassius Marsh was on the receiving end of one in 2013.
Nick Vigil, Utah State
Brother Zach Vigil cast a long shadow as the top playmaker on a Utah State defense that has consistently been one of the nation’s best for the last half-decade. Nick Vigil was certainly integral to the Aggies allowing just 19.7 points per game in 2014, 12th-best in the nation.
However, where Nick broke away from brother Zach was on the other side of the ball. Nick Vigil filled a pressing need at running back for the Aggies, rushing 41 times for 152 yards with three touchdowns. Vigil even completed a pair of passes.
With Zach gone, Nick Vigil can take over as the Aggies’ tackling-machine linebacker while also helping out on offense. Talk about making a name for yourself.
Josh Donaldson has certainly been having an All Star caliber season and is only a few votes off the lead for the starting third base spot. He might have just found the late boost he needs after making arguably the league’s best catch of the year. In the top of the eighth inning with a perfect game in the work, the Rays’ David DeJesus came up to bat hoping to break it up. He fouled a ball off into the stands by third base.
Instead of letting the fans fight for the ball, Josh Donaldson ran over to the seats and leaped into them, and came down with the catch. He had to dive a few rows into the stands to come up with the ball, but it kept the perfect game intact. That is, until the next batter outran an infield grounder for a single. Yet, the Donaldson play remains the highlight of the game and possibly the defensive play of the year. It certainly invokes memories of Jeter’s catch in 2004, where he also ended up in the stands with the fans.
Take a look below and compare Donaldson's catch to Jeter's:
The Broncos, coming off a 12-win season and their fourth consecutive AFC West title, may well win another 12 games and another AFC West title. But then, in the Mile High City, where the local NFL team’s standards rest considerably higher than the city limits, it isn’t about the regular season. And it isn’t about the playoffs, either. It’s about winning a Super Bowl, period, end of conversation. Question is, are the Broncos any closer to doing it this season than they were in their three previous seasons with Peyton Manning under center? By all accounts, they’re not as talented as years past, with a handful of impact players having left via free agency. But general manager John Elway, having cleaned house after last year’s one-and-done fiasco in January, is hopeful that the new coaching staff, headlined by head coach Gary Kubiak and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, can give the 39-year-old Manning one last chance at feeling the confetti.
The media has had a field day speculating how Manning will fare in Kubiak’s zone-blocking, run-oriented offense. While only time will tell how good a fit the two will be for each other, this much is safe to say: Manning will go into this season considerably healthier than he ended the last one. He was altogether ordinary in the latter stages of the 2014 season, throwing 17 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions in the final nine regular-season games, leading to speculation that Father Time was fast approaching in his rear-view mirror. Four words: Don’t count on it. Manning’s problems were more a function of a tear in his right quadriceps and a decimated offensive line that gave him little time to throw. Manning, in fact, agreed to return for a fourth season only after receiving assurances that the issues on the offensive line would be addressed.
Unfortunately, one of the issues the Broncos will have to deal with yet again is the absence of All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady, who tore his ACL during OTAs in May. Clady missed nearly all of the 2013 season because of a Lisfranc injury. Clady’s loss will put even more pressure on second-round pick Ty Sambrailo and veteran free agent pick-up Ryan Harris, as Chris Clark figures to serve as Clady’s replacement at left tackle once again. Harris is no stranger to the Broncos, having made 34 starts in 46 games for them from 2007-10, and also played for Kubiak in Houston in 2012-13. Last season, Harris served as the Chiefs’ starting right tackle.
But even assuming that the offensive line will be improved, Manning doesn’t figure to put up the same type of passing numbers that long ago assured him a bronze bust in Canton. Kubiak has a long history of producing huge numbers in the running game, with relatively unheralded talents such as Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson and Arian Foster becoming fantasy league studs in his offense. Now it’s C.J. Anderson’s turn to see how productive he can be behind Kubiak’s zone-blocking schemes. Anderson, undrafted out of Cal in 2013, began last season as a blip on the depth chart and finished it in the Pro Bowl. After logging 17 carries in the Broncos’ first seven games, he rolled for 648 yards in the final six.
Not that Manning won’t remain the focal point of the offense. He threw 39 touchdown passes in 2014 and could approach that number again. He’ll have to do it without tight end Julius Thomas, who wasn’t presented with a serious contract offer after catching 12 touchdown passes in 2014. Thomas signed with Jacksonville, leaving newcomer Owen Daniels as the main pass-catching threat at tight end. Then there’s wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, a mercurial talent who refused to attend the team’s offseason workouts or Manning’s annual passing camp at Duke University after being slapped with the franchise tag. If you’re looking for an X-factor, there you have it. If the two sides can’t agree on a long-term contract, Thomas’ attitude issues could be a divisive factor in what could be Manning’s final NFL season. No such issues are in play with wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who clicked with Manning from the earliest moments of 2014. Sanders caught 101 balls, 10 fewer than Thomas.
If Kubiak and his staff can revamp the offensive line, and if Thomas buys in, there’s no reason to believe the Broncos won’t have one of the league’s most lethal offenses.
Phillips, by his own admission, was “a lousy head coach’’ in his previous life. But if there were a Hall of Fame for assistant coaches, the 68-year-old Phillips would be a lock. The man has a way of making rock stars out of pass rushers, having worked with the likes of Reggie White, DeMarcus Ware, Rickey Jackson and J.J. Watt. The Broncos’ pass rush was sporadic last season, but with Phillips and No. 1 draft choice Shane Ray in the equation, that figures to change. Ware racked up 60.5 sacks in four seasons while playing in Phillips’ 3-4 scheme in Dallas. He should be good for double digits again coming off the corner opposite Von Miller, who needs a big season to solidify his case for a possible $100-million contract.
Ray will be in the mix mostly as a nickel pass rusher, but his role could expand as the season wears on. The defensive line has its share of question marks, particular on the nose, where 2013 first-rounder Sylvester Williams, a prototypical 4-3 tackle, has been challenged by the coaches to step up — or else. The Broncos’ blueprint calls for Bill Kollar, one of most respected defensive line coaches in the business, to solidify things up front.
All in all, Phillips and his staff have a lot of nice pieces with which to work, including a handful of Pro Bowlers. “This is probably the best situation defensively that I’ve come into,’’ says Phillips. The starting corners, Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, form one of the top tandems in the business, and Bradley Roby, the 2014 first-rounder, had an exceptional rookie season. While having three quality corners is a basic necessity for a Super Bowl contender in today’s NFL, it’s conceivable that Roby could shift to free safety after the free-agent departure of Rahim Moore. Add hard-hitting safety T.J. Ward to the mix, and the Broncos’ secondary should be among the best in the business. If the pass rush improves as Phillips’ history suggests it will, the Broncos could improve significantly over last season’s 25 forced turnovers, which tied for 13th in the league.
The Broncos are one of the few NFL teams that can afford to burn two roster spots on kickers. Veteran Connor Barth, who made 15-of-16 field-goal attempts in 2014, doesn’t have the leg to consistently produce touchbacks in the altitude, so Brandon McManus figures to handle kickoffs. Punter Britton Colquitt is coming off a mediocre season, but his roster spot is all but guaranteed. The coaches will consider a cast of seemingly thousands as return candidates, with Sanders a possibility as a punt returner and Omar Bolden and Andre Caldwell in the picture as kickoff returners. Elway and his staff didn’t draft a college player with a significant history in the return game, but a handful of rookies will get a look. Yes, there are a number of candidates to sift through, but look for new special-teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis to get the most out of the return game.
For a team coming off a Super Bowl appearance, there was a lot of unrest surrounding the 2014 Broncos. Sure enough, when they came up short in the playoffs, Elway didn’t waste any time blowing up the coaching staff. The presence of Kubiak and a veteran staff represents a breath of fresh air for the players, who are anxious to buy in to the new approach. Assuming Manning stays healthy, there’s no reason to believe the Broncos won’t win the West and be a factor in the playoffs. To win the Super Bowl, though, they’ll need to be on a roll, not an emotional downswing as they were last season, when the playoffs arrive.
Prediction: 1st in AFC West
Almost every conversation concerning the Chargers eventually veers to the question of whether they will move to the Los Angeles area beginning with the 2016 season. While the City of San Diego has never been this motivated to try to come up with a realistic plan to build a replacement for aging Qualcomm Stadium, the Chargers have never been this close to bolting up the freeway to L.A.
While the contentious issue plays out between team ownership and City Hall, general manager Tom Telesco and coach Mike McCoy are trying to stay focused on how to improve on last year’s mostly unsatisfying performance. The Chargers finished third in the AFC West for the second straight year and missed the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.
While stars Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates and Eric Weddle return, there’s a lot of room for improvement for a team that has gone 19–15 in two seasons under McCoy, including a playoff win and loss after the 2013 season.
Most of the pre-draft buzz surrounding the Bolts was a rumor that they would trade Rivers to the Tennessee Titans in order to draft Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota. Rivers is entering the final season of his contract and has expressed reservations about moving to the Los Angeles area — if that’s what the team decides to do. The Bolts didn’t trade Rivers, so he’ll be back for his 10th season as starter. Rivers is coming off an up-and-down season that ended when he was sacked seven times in a lackluster loss at Kansas City in the season finale that knocked the Bolts out of playoff contention.
As L.A. rumors began to swirl, Telesco worked on two areas that hurt the Chargers in 2014 — a shaky offensive line and an unproductive running game. He re-signed left tackle King Dunlap, who had a big 2014 season protecting Rivers’ blind side, and brought in free agent guard Orlando Franklin. Five different guys snapped the ball to Rivers last year, including Chris Watt, who heads into camp as the starter after getting valuable experience as a rookie.
Telesco spent heavily to move up just two spots in the first round of the draft to take Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, who led college football with an astounding 2,587 rushing yards in 2014. Gordon will replace Ryan Mathews, whose five years in San Diego included too few Pro Bowl appearances and too many injuries and fumbles. The slashing Gordon is expected to help take the pressure off Rivers, who had a second strong season since McCoy arrived as coach.
The Chargers should be in great shape at running back, if they can stay healthy. Branden Oliver returns after stepping in as a rookie to fill in while Mathews was injured. He ended up leading the Chargers with 582 yards and three touchdowns. Third-down back Danny Woodhead returns after missing much of last season with a leg injury. In 2013, his first season with the Chargers, he rushed for 429 yards and caught 76 passes for 605 yards.
Rivers’ top targets — Antonio Gates, Keenan Allen and Malcom Floyd — will be supplemented by the addition of receiver/returner Jacoby Jones and Stevie Johnson. Gates, entering his 13th season, caught 69 passes and scored 12 touchdowns (one off his career high) last season.
The Chargers have to get more production out of their defensive line, pass rush and, specifically, inside linebacker Donald Butler. The Chargers had only 26 sacks last year, one of the weakest efforts in the NFL. At the very least, the two guys who led the team are back, defensive end Corey Liuget (4.5) and outside linebacker Melvin Ingram (4.0). Still, the Chargers have to come up with more pressure against opposing quarterbacks. They also need to get Butler back to his hard-hitting ways after he practically disappeared once he signed a long-term contract. Butler did finish third on the team with 73 tackles, but he didn’t play with the same impact he had in previous years.
There are some bright spots. Liuget had a breakout season, and the Chargers will look for even bigger things from the former first-round draft pick, especially after signing him to a five-year contract extension in early June. He had some impact plays — he recovered two fumbles, one for a touchdown in a comeback win at San Francisco, and forced two more, including one on a strip-sack that linebacker Andrew Gachkar returned for a touchdown against the Rams. Inside linebacker Manti Te’o continues to develop and had a solid second season. He finally had his first big impact play when he intercepted a pass — off Tom Brady, no less. The Chargers look for him to continue to develop, particularly in pass coverage.
Weddle stayed away from early offseason workouts, feeling disrespected because the team hasn’t offered a contract extension. He’s still growing his beard, vowing not to shave until the Chargers have won the Super Bowl. He will team with third-year pro Jahleel Addae, who started five games in 2014, and Jimmy Wilson. A San Diego native who went to Point Loma High School, Wilson signed with the Chargers as a free agent after spending his first four NFL seasons with Miami.
The Chargers remain in good hands in this department with kicker Nick Novak and punter Mike Scifres, and they’ve added Jones to the mix as a kick returner. Eddie Royal left as a free agent, leaving Allen to handle punt returns. Novak had another strong season, making 22-of-26 field-goal attempts (84.6 percent). He ranks second in franchise history with an 86.3 field-goal percentage. His franchise-record streak of 32 consecutive field goals came to an end on Nov. 16 against Oakland when he missed from 48 yards, his first miss in just more than a year. However, he bounced back and hit a season-long 52 yarder. In a home game against New England on Dec. 7, Novak had to fill in as the team’s punter for the first time in his career after Scifres suffered a shoulder injury. Novak hadn’t punted in a game since high school, but he averaged 40 yards on six attempts with a long of 51 and one punt inside the 20. It was the first time since 2003 that someone other than Scifres had punted for the Bolts. San Diego could use a little more juice in the return game, and Jones, who has 10 career special teams touchdowns including a memorable 108-yard kickoff return in Super Bowl XLVII, could provide it.
Rivers and the Chargers know exactly where they have to improve — in games against AFC West foes. The Chargers were swept by both the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs last year, beating only the lowly Oakland Raiders in the division. A lackluster effort at Kansas City in the finale, against backup quarterback Chase Daniel, cost the Chargers a playoff spot and had people wondering about their focus and motivation. A return to the playoffs isn’t out of the question, especially with the addition of Gordon, but another third-place finish is just as likely.
Prediction: 3rd in AFC West
It’s been 13 seasons since the Raiders made the playoffs and that long since they finished above .500. Bill Callahan led them to an 11–5 regular-season record in 2002 and to Super Bowl XXXVII, where they were crushed by Tampa Bay and former Oakland coach Jon Gruden. The next year the Raiders went 4–12 and Callahan was fired. Since then, Norv Turner, Art Shell, Lane Kiffin, Tom Cable, Hue Jackson, Dennis Allen and Tony Sparano have tried but failed to resurrect a once-dominant franchise that has won three Super Bowls overall but none in the past 31 seasons. Enter former Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio, a Bay Area native who will try to lead the team back to respectability and, ultimately, prominence in the NFL.
“I’m really not spending a whole lot of time worrying about what was,” Del Rio said at the NFL Scouting Combine. “I’m really focused on what needs to be going forward. We’re going to have a very competitive mentality throughout our organization in everything we’re doing.”
Del Rio spent the past three seasons as defensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos, who won the AFC West last season, finishing nine games ahead of the Raiders. That’s a huge gap to close, and the Raiders had hoped to gain ground after entering free agency with more than $60 million in salary cap space. Owner Mark Davis said he was ready to back up the Brinks truck and spend big money to land big-name free agents, but the Ndamukong Suhs and DeMarco Murrays of the free-agent world went elsewhere. So Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie spread the money out among a group of solid, less expensive players, including center Rodney Hudson, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton and defensive tackle Dan Williams.
The Raiders ranked last in total offense, last in rushing, 26th in passing and 31st in scoring. New offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave faces a huge challenge, but at least McKenzie got him a true No. 1 receiver, taking Alabama’s Amari Cooper with the fourth overall choice in the draft. Former 49er Michael Crabtree will likely start alongside Cooper, giving second-year quarterback Derek Carr two sure-handed targets who know how to get open. Shortly after the draft, Oakland released wide receiver James Jones, who led the team with 73 catches last season. Rod Streater and Andre Holmes, a pair of big, young receivers, should compete for playing time. Tight end Mychal Rivera is coming off a 58-catch second season, but Clive Walford, a third-round pick from Miami, could wind up starting because he’s a solid receiver who can also block, which is not Rivera’s strong suit.
Musgrave, who spent last season as quarterbacks coach for Chip Kelly in Philadelphia, plans to use some of Kelly’s warp-speed spread attack. That should help Carr, who thrived in an up-tempo offense at Fresno State. Carr started all 16 games as a rookie. He passed for 21 TDs with 12 interceptions, and was sacked only 24 times. But Carr averaged just 5.5 yards per pass, lower than any other quarterback with a top-40 passer rating. That number should improve now that he has a year’s experience in the NFL and more weapons on the field.
Running back Latavius Murray appears ready to become the Raiders’ No. 1 running back after Darren McFadden left as a free agent and Maurice Jones-Drew retired. The 6'3", 225-pound Murray rushed for 424 yards and two TDs on 82 carries for the season and started the final three games. Roy Helu Jr. will give Oakland a change of pace out of the backfield, and Trent Richardson will try to ignite his NFL career in what could be his last chance. Pro Bowl fullback Marcel Reece will likely be used in a variety of roles in Musgrave’s scheme to take better advantage of his receiving and running skills.
The Raiders’ offensive line gave Carr decent protection but opened too few holes for running backs last season. The addition of Hudson and the further development of second-year left guard Gabe Jackson could help Oakland’s power running game. Left tackle Donald Penn had a strong season last year after signing with Oakland as a free agent. Austin Howard, a former Jet, started at right guard last year in his first season as a Raider, but he’ll move to right tackle, his best position, and battle Menelik Watson for the job. The starting job at right guard could come down to a battle between veteran Khalif Barnes and rookie Jon Feliciano.
The Raiders ranked 21st in total defense last season and gave up 28.2 points per game, more than any other team in the NFL. New defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. and Del Rio have plenty of work to do just to make the defense respectable, let alone dominant. They have a nice building block in outside linebacker Khalil Mack, who had a superb rookie season after being taken with the fifth-overall pick in the draft. Mack was a monster against the run, and the Raiders believe he can become a game-changing pass rusher, too. He had only four sacks as a rookie. The Raiders should have a stronger and deeper linebacker corps after adding Lofton, who will start between Mack and Sio Moore or and ex-Seahawks outside linebacker Malcolm Smith. Miles Burris was released just days after the Raiders drafted a pair of linebackers.
Free safety Charles Woodson, who turns 39 in October, led the Raiders in tackles (110) and interceptions (four) and will play his 18th NFL season, giving Oakland’s defense an unquestioned leader. Nate Allen, a free-agent pickup from Philadelphia, should start alongside Woodson at strong safety. The question is whether the Raiders will have enough quality cornerbacks. They are counting heavily on D.J. Hayden having a breakthrough campaign after two injury-plagued seasons. Hayden, a first-round pick in 2013, could be paired with T.J. Carrie, who had a strong rookie season last year after being drafted in the seventh round.
The Raiders had just 22 sacks last season, and defensive end Justin Tuck led the team with five. They desperately need to generate more pass-rush pressure, but McKenzie did little in free agency or the draft to boost Oakland’s pass rush. Defensive end Mario Edwards Jr., a second-round pick from Florida State, had only eight career sacks. So it will be largely up to Mack and Tuck to get to the quarterback.
Kicker Sebastian Janikowski, 37, didn’t get much work last season, but he made 19-of-22 attempts, including a 57-yarder, after going 21-of-30 in 2013. The Raiders would like to reduce punter Marquette King’s workload. He punted 109 times last season, averaging 45.2 yards with a net average of 40.0 in his second year since replacing Shane Lechler. Carrie handled most of the punt return duties last year, averaging 7.5 yards with no touchdowns. Taiwan Jones, a speedster who suffered a season-ending foot injury in the opener last year, could give the Raiders a dangerous kickoff return man if he’s healthy. The team also signed Trindon Holliday, who has returned a total of six punts and kickoffs for touchdowns in his career, in early June.
After back-to-back solid drafts, the Raiders have raised their talent level and added some solid building blocks, particularly Mack, Cooper and Carr. They won three of their final six games last season, and a .500 season this year is not out of the question. That will depend on how quickly the team adapts to yet another coaching change.
Prediction: 4th in the AFC West
At 39, after 17 years of absorbing blindside hits and carrying the weight and fate of two franchises on his shoulders, is it any surprise that Peyton Manning is tired? He’s tired, all right. Tired of answering all those questions about his age.
NFL history is littered with cautionary tales of quarterbacks who were highly productive into their mid-30s, only to lose the race with Father Time as they approached 40. So how will Manning fare in this, his 18th season of working on Sundays?
“You can’t lump them all into the same category,” says Manning, when asked about all those other 39-year-old quarterbacks. “I think there are young 39s and old 39s. I’m in that young group, for sure. It’s all about trying to do your job no matter how old you are, whether you’re a 22-year-old rookie coming in or not. I guess I have to answer questions about it, but I’m not interested in talking about how old I am.”
That age-old saying about being only as old as you feel? Now that’s what Manning is talking about. Like Bob Seger, he has turned the page on a disappointing, if not depressing 2014 season, and is ready to rock ’n’ roll.
There’s no denying how ugly Manning’s third season in Denver was. Sure, the Broncos won 12 games and their fourth straight AFC West title. But they didn’t just lose their one and only playoff game. With their season on the line, they didn’t bother to show up. Instead, they imploded under the weight of personal agendas, with several players and coaches running for their professional lives the moment the final anticlimactic seconds ticked away.
Manning ended the season with a torn right quadriceps, a sizeable dent in his ego, and a major career decision to make: To return or not to return? That was the question. Or at least that was the storyline among the media. Truth is, Manning was never serious about walking away.
It happens every spring. Manning, in a personal rite of passage, sets aside his emotions and soldiers on in preparation for another season. It’s in his DNA. It’s what he does, who he is, how he’s wired. The myth and the legend can wait. He still wants to be The Man. Whether retirement is off on the horizon or just over the dashboard, he’s going to keep the pedal to the metal and compete.
Oh, and let the record show that a new coaching staff, headlined by former Broncos offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and several assistants with long-time ties to the organization, has only served to rejuvenate him more than usual. It isn’t just apparent. It’s blatantly obvious to everyone who’s seen Manning sweating it out behind the scenes at the Broncos’ suburban Denver training facility.
“He’s still got a lot of juice in him,” says Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. “For everyone, last year was a disappointment. But at the same time, it’s a new year so everyone is rejuvenated. It’s the same thing with Peyton. You talk about a guy who understands that the clock is ticking for him. He loves this game. I’ve never seen a guy who loves the game of football as much as he loves it. That passion and that spark is there.”
Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, Manning’s offensive coordinator back in the day at the University of Tennessee, wasn’t sure what to expect when Manning arrived in Durham, N.C., for his annual offseason passing camp. But Cutcliffe told nationally syndicated radio host Jim Rome that Manning was a “boatload of energy and enthusiasm.”
Why shouldn’t Manning be excited? He has fielded countless questions about how he’ll fit into Kubiak’s zone-blocking, run-oriented offense that requires the quarterback to make plays outside the pocket, foreign territory for Manning. But all those questions miss the fundamental point. Fact is, Manning and everyone else in the Broncos organization needed a change.
After three years of Super Bowl or bust, former head coach John Fox had run his course in Denver. Emotions were frayed, and game-planning sessions were giving way to travel itineraries. In the days preceding the Broncos’ 24–13 playoff loss to Indianapolis, both coordinators, Jack Del Rio and Adam Gase, were off interviewing for head coaching jobs. On the morning of the game, a national television report linked Fox to the head coaching job in Chicago.
Add a handful of starters with one eye on their playbooks and another on free-agent paydays, and the Broncos were anything but focused to make a second straight Super Bowl run. The day after the loss, Fox was gone. Three days later, he was hired by the Bears amid speculation — which Fox denies, but no one in the Broncos’ organization is buying — that he leaked his interest in the job because of Elway’s refusal to give him a contract extension. Del Rio, meanwhile, became head coach of the Raiders, and Gase joined Fox as offensive coordinator in Chicago.
If last season was filled with friction in Denver, this year will be defined by the excitement over the hiring of Kubiak, who served as Elway’s roommate and backup for nine years and later was Mike Shanahan’s offensive coordinator from 1995-2005 before leaving to become head coach of the Houston Texans. After leaving Houston he had settled in as offensive coordinator in Baltimore, telling teams he wasn’t interested in interviewing for head coaching positions. And then all heaven broke loose: The Broncos job became available.
“This is a game changer,” says Kubiak. “It’s as simple as that. This is where I got my start. This is home for me. I can’t wait to just go out there and fight the fight and believe in this city, this team and this organization. I was standing there with them when they won their last championship, and that’s what we all work for.”
“I know what Gary Kubiak is about,” Elway says. “I had a chance to play with him and play for him. I know his philosophies and I know what he can do. I know his goals are the same as mine, and that’s to win and win world championships. He’s a Denver Bronco. He knows the culture of this organization. He knows the culture of this building.”
And he isn’t alone. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips had the same job in Denver from 1989-92 before serving as the Broncos’ head coach from 1993-94. Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison played linebacker for the Broncos and was an assistant coach on Shanahan’s staff before joining Kubiak in Houston. Then there’s special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis, who has become one of the most respected assistants in the league after cutting his teeth on father-in-law Dan Reeves’ Broncos staffs more than 20 years ago.
Phillips doesn’t renovate defenses, he resurrects them. To wit: The 1988 Broncos had perhaps the worst defense of the Reeves era. One year later, with Phillips orchestrating the defense, they played in the Super Bowl. The 2003 San Diego Chargers finished 4–12. After hiring Phillips, they won 12 games and finished atop the AFC West. The Texans were 6–10 before Kubiak hired Phillips, whereupon they made their first-ever playoff appearance.
Phillips faces a different type of challenge in Denver. The Broncos return a handful of Pro Bowlers on the defensive side of the ball. Granted, statistics can lie in today’s NFL, but the Broncos finished third in the league in 2014 in overall defense. The challenge, then, isn’t to resurrect the defense so much as take it to the next level. That, of course, being the stuff of Super Bowl champions.
“I was a lousy head coach, but I’m a pretty good defensive coordinator,” says Phillips, who came out of retirement to rejoin Kubiak in Denver. “That’s what I do well. I just wanted to get back to doing that and I couldn’t be happier. This is probably the best situation, defensively, that I’ve come into. … Normally they have a bad year and they’ve brought me in as defensive coordinator. This team has a lot of talent on defense, but we’re going to do better.”
Twelve wins and four consecutive division championships, and the song remains the same in Denver: What have you done for us lately? Welcome to life in the Rockies with Manning under center. Ever since the five-time MVP’s arrival in March 2012, the Broncos have been a one-trick pony with one singular goal, one primary purpose, one reason for being. As Fox discovered, getting to the Super Bowl isn’t good enough.
Elway knows what Manning is going through, having walked in those shoes in a previous professional life. It’s remarkable, the similar paths the two have taken. Elway was the first pick in the 1983 draft, 15 years before the Colts selected Manning No. 1. Elway, like Manning, received more than his share of criticism before finally winning a Super Bowl. Elway spent 16 seasons with the same franchise, two more than Manning. During his Hall of Fame career, Elway engineered 35 fourth-quarter comebacks and 46 game-winning drives. And how many did Manning have on his résumé when he signed with the Broncos? Thirty-five comebacks and 46 game-winning drives.
Elway won Super Bowls at age 37 and 38 despite an assortment of injuries, including a deteriorating left knee that ultimately led to replacement surgery. How did he do it? With Terrell Davis behind him in the backfield grinding out huge clumps of yards in Shanahan’s system, the same one employed by Kubiak. Now comes C.J. Anderson, who emerged from the shadows last season — 17 carries in the Broncos’ first seven regular-season games, 648 rushing yards in their final six — to earn a Pro Bowl berth. In Elway’s mind, the threat of Anderson breaking loose for big plays in Kubiak’s offense can do for Manning what Davis did for him.
“Peyton could fit in this offense very easily,” says Elway. “It’s a very helpful offense. It’s a lot more dependent on balance so Peyton is hopefully not going to have to throw the ball 50 or 55 times. As an older quarterback, it’s a perfect system to be in. It’s really a great system for any quarterback, but I think it’s even more helpful the older you get.”
It’s not like Manning will morph into a game manager or one of those other catch phrases that describe your basic mediocre quarterback. He’s coming off a season in which he threw 39 touchdown passes, a career year for most quarterbacks, and undoubtedly would have had more if he hadn’t struggled down the stretch with the quad injury. If he’s going to win that elusive second Super Bowl, it will be in Denver, with Elway and another former quarterback, Kubiak, forming the foundation of his support system.
Ask him about adjusting to Kubiak’s offense, and Manning has to suppress a laugh.
“I like to think I’m pretty versatile, believe it or not,” says Manning, smirk completely intact. “I feel like I can execute whatever plays the coach calls. … You’re always looking into learning football. Whether you’ve got changes or you’re doing the same thing, you’re always learning out there. As soon as you stop learning, something is not going right. So I’m looking forward to learning Coach Kubiak’s philosophies and trying to do my part as a quarterback. I’m looking forward to the process.”
Says Kubiak: “We’re going to do what he does best. Obviously, if we run the ball well, which we plan on doing, we’re going to move the quarterback (out of the pocket) at some point. … He’s been very excited. He’s been challenged. He said that to me a couple of times: ‘I’m challenged again. I’m having to learn new stuff because I’ve been doing this for so long.’ I think that’s good for all of us no matter how long you’ve been in the league.”
Now about all those other 39-year-old quarterbacks. Elway, at 38, is the oldest starting quarterback ever to win a Super Bowl. Since 1983, only two quarterbacks 39 or older — Phil Simms and Brett Favre — have won playoff games. Some 39-year-olds, most notably Favre and Warren Moon, have put up nice numbers, but quarterbacks that old typically are stopgaps. They’re starters by default because their teams couldn’t find a younger alternative. Now comes Manning, who’ll try to lead the new-look Broncos to a Super Bowl victory with his 40th birthday on the horizon.
No-huddle offense, meet the no-time-to-waste offense.
“With Peyton, obviously there isn’t much he can add to his legacy,” says Elway. “As I told him, ‘You don’t have to throw for another yard and you don’t need to throw another touchdown pass because your legacy is going to be one of the all-time greats as it is.’ Where he can really add to his legacy is to win a Super Bowl.”
-By Jim Armstrong
The only team with wins over both the AFC and NFC champions on its résumé in 2014? That would be Andy Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs, who, despite a confounding slew of injuries and suspensions, tended to play up — or down — to just about every opponent last fall. Lose to Tennessee at home, then crush New England; top Miami and Buffalo on the road, then lose at Oakland. Which explains the end result: A roller-coaster, schizophrenic 9–7 campaign.
A healthy Jamaal Charles would get 2015 off on the right foot. As would a happy Justin Houston, who put together perhaps the quietest 22-sack season — a half-sack short of Michael Strahan’s NFL record — in modern NFL history, a run for the ages overshadowed by the monster campaign of J.J. Watt. But a slate that features just seven true home games — a Nov. 1 date with Detroit is being played in London — only makes a challenging schedule that much tougher to navigate.
Charles says he was never more “frustrated” as a pro than last fall, but the Pro Bowl back still accounted for 1,324 yards, averaged 5.0 yards per carry and totaled 14 touchdowns — nine rushing — on one good leg. Not much was done to upgrade the position behind backup Knile Davis, who could see more work to limit the wear and tear on Charles.
Quarterback Alex Smith signed a big-money extension before the start of the regular season that set him within his peers but also put him the squarely in the sights of some Chiefs fans who see that cash as better splashed elsewhere. Still one of the smarter and most accurate (65.3 percent completion rate in 2014) passers in the game, Smith has, on paper, as many toys to play with as he’s ever had in Kansas City. Chase Daniel is gaining street cred as one of the NFL’s top backups, and he’s paid like it ($3.75 million base salary in 2015).
The Chiefs became the first team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to go an entire regular season without a touchdown thrown to a wideout. Jeremy Maclin, signed away from Philadelphia to replace aging Dwayne Bowe, is expected to change all that, and quickly. Second-year target Albert Wilson found his groove over the final third of 2014; incoming draftee Chris Conley has crazy tools; and veteran Jason Avant, a former teammate of Maclin’s and a longtime Reid protégé, knows this offense back to front. Tight end Travis Kelce (862 receiving yards, five touchdowns) was a revelation in his first full active season; if he keeps his temper and ball security in check, Kelce could be the best tight end to put on a Chiefs uniform since Tony Gonzalez was traded out of town in 2009.
A succession of injuries and Eric Fisher’s bum shoulder forced general manager John Dorsey to piece together a makeshift offensive line last fall, and it showed, as the total sacks allowed jumped from 41 to 49 while Smith spent many Sundays running for his life. The addition of Ben Grubbs (Saints) and Paul Fanaika (Cardinals) should stabilize the interior blocking, but center Rodney Hudson, now with Oakland, could be sorely missed.
Things you can count on: death, taxes and four grinding quarters each week from nose tackle Dontari Poe. The Memphis native led all NFL interior defensive linemen in snaps played for a second straight year, rolling up a career-best six sacks in the process. Poe should benefit from the return of veteran end Mike DeVito, one of two defensive starters to suffer a season-ending Achilles tendon tear in a Week 1. DeVito’s injury allowed the club to get longer looks at Allen Bailey (five sacks) and Jaye Howard (one sack) at end in defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s 3-4 scheme. With DeVito and former reserve Mike Catapano reportedly healed up, the Chiefs have strength, depth and flexibility up front.
Stalwart linebacker Derrick Johnson was the other veteran to tear an Achilles in the home opener, and the unit never quite recovered from the loss of its spiritual leader — especially against the run, where the Chiefs seemed to really wear down after early November. Like DeVito, Johnson said in the spring that he felt at least 80 percent of the way back. Even at that he is a more reliable anchor in the middle than super subs Josh Mauga and James-Michael Johnson, special-teams contributors who were forced to carry the rope in No. 56’s absence. Mauga was re-signed and is expected to have the inside track and a starting spot, but don’t be surprised if rookies Ramik Wilson and D.J. Alexander work their way into specific packages.
Rather than pout over the failure to land a long-term contract, Houston took his grief out on opposing quarterbacks, stringing together a career-best in sacks and affirming his status as one of the most exciting pass rushers in the game. Contract issues still loomed in the spring, though, and the former Georgia star bristled when the Chiefs slapped the franchise tag on him in March, staying away from the start of the voluntary spring OTAs. Houston’s outside linebacker bookend, Tamba Hali, saw his production slip (11 sacks in 2013; six last fall) but endeared himself to Chiefs fans by taking a pay cut rather than trying to force his way onto the open market via a release. First-round pick Dee Ford was a non-factor during the first half of 2014 but could take on more snaps (and responsibility) if the 31-year-old Hali fades.
As stunning as the Johnson/DeVito injuries were, it was nothing compared to the shocking news of late November, when Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, ending an injury-plagued season on a somber note. While expected to make a full recovery, Berry may not be healthy enough to return to football fitness before the start of the regular season. With that in mind, the Chiefs signed veteran Tyvon Branch from Oakland and re-upped with journeyman Ron Parker, who can slot into any role in Sutton’s secondary but seemed to excel as a safety. Cornerback Sean Smith is coming off his best season (18 pass breakups) in Kansas City but was expected to receive a multi-game suspension for this fall because of a drunk-driving incident dating back to last summer.
De’Anthony Thomas was drafted to change games with his legs, and the speedster didn’t disappoint as a rookie, averaging 11.9 yards per punt return with a touchdown and 30.6 yards per kickoff return. Thomas is a perfect complement to Davis, who has run a kickoff back for a score twice now in two seasons. After an impressive spring and summer, rookie kicker Cairo Santos beat out veteran Ryan Succop and rebounded from a terrible regular-season debut to hit 25-of-30 field-goal attempts and 8-of-12 from 40 yards or longer. Punter Dustin Colquitt (44.6 yards per boot) is the locker room’s resident grey beard, having survived five coaches and three GMs since joining the club in 2005.
Peyton Manning is fading, but he’s 13–1 against the Chiefs; as long as he’s at the controls, the Broncos probably aren’t going anywhere. A schedule that pairs the Chiefs with the NFC North doesn’t do them many favors, nor does getting stuck away from Arrowhead Stadium from Halloween to Thanksgiving. But three of the final four games are winnable and at home, and the locker room believes in Reid. If an answer is found at center and if Kelce stays healthy, the Chiefs should be primed to chase a playoff berth again.