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When Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey broke Barry Sanders’ FBS record for all-purpose yardage but failed to take home the Heisman Trophy last season, a popular refrain was that the talented tailback would have held up the award had he not played so many late-night games.
The theory made some sense; given that eventual winner Derrick Henry from Alabama won five of six regions in the voting and was often seen in primetime during the Crimson Tide’s march to a national title. McCaffrey, on the other hand, was stuck with numerous 10:30 p.m. ET kickoffs despite his record-setting campaign.
Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, however, isn’t buying the idea that the lack of East Coast eyeballs was the reason why the Stanford star finished in second place.
“No one can say for sure, but I don’t think that would have made one iota of difference,” Scott said on Thursday from the league’s annual media days being held in Hollywood, Calif. “There were several games in primetime or during the afternoon. Oregon’s Marcus Mariota won the Heisman the year before with exactly the same TV schedule.
“The reason I say it so boldly, look at the zip codes of the Heisman voters and where they come and then look at how many of them didn’t even have McCaffrey on their ballot. I don’t care if you didn’t see McCaffrey play on TV a lot or not, can you imagine a credible Heisman voter not having McCaffrey on their ballot? What does that tell you about the Heisman voting process?”
Scott didn’t stop there however, even advancing the notion that players from his league face an uphill battle when it comes to garnering the right amount of respect nationally when it comes to voting for college football’s most prestigious individual trophy.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that there’s a competitive disadvantage to a player from the Pac-12 to winning the Heisman based just on the zip codes of the voters and the fact that many of them are just not watching the game,” Scott said. “I would say there’s a Pac-12 disadvantage but there’s also a Stanford disadvantage I believe. There’s a certain image that Stanford has, not just nationally, but in our own conference.
“Toby Gerhart. Andrew Luck. Christian McCaffrey isn’t the first time in my short tenure of seven years that a Stanford football player did not get the respect they deserve. There’s a Pac-12 issue and there’s a Stanford issue.”
With Scott just steps away from the Hollywood Walk of Fame, there were likely plenty of Cardinal fans who will nod their heads in agreement with his Rodney Dangerfield routine on this subject.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
On Feb. 6, 2013, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer addressed the media to discuss the recruiting efforts of the Ohio State coaching staff. "Our first year together as a coaching staff last year did not count because that was not a coaching staff. That was a bunch of guys coming together like a bunch of gypsies trying to find players anywhere we could find them. We did pretty good...This year it was a full cycle of recruiting. And I’m very impressed with our coaching staff."
My personal history when it comes to analyzing Ohio State recruiting classes goes back to 2005, when the new Buckeyes included the likes of James Laurinaitis, Brian Hartline and Malcolm Jenkins. That class was relatively small with 18 players signed, and was not highly rated by the recruiting analysts, but the coaching staff only lost three from that class due to transfer or academic issues, resulting in 15 who either started or contributed to Ohio State during their careers. This 83 percent success rate ranks that group highly in the unofficial "Rule of Thirds" concept that is applied to recruiting classes.
“The Rule of Thirds” is pretty simple — within any class, there will be approximately a third who will develop into starters as the coaching staff hoped and recruited, a third will be contributors in some fashion, and a third will not work out, leaving due to transfer, injuries or possibly disciplinary reasons.
For this exercise, I will review how the 2013 class ranked using the above criteria. For starters, no Ohio State should be surprised that the 2013 recruiting class ranks as one of the best in the program’s illustrious history. Ranked second in the country by 247Sports in 2013 behind Alabama, this Ohio State recruiting class will be held in high regard for years to come by Ohio State fans. The 2013 recruiting class originally numbered 24 players. Entering the 2016 season, a whopping 87.5 percent of this class either started or contributed in some way on the field for the Buckeyes.
Part one of this series will look at the few players who eventually left the Ohio State program. I will address each player, why they left and where they are currently in order based upon when he verbally committed to the Buckeyes.
1. Jayme Thompson, S
Thompson was originally a verbal commitment to West Virginia, but decided to switch to Ohio State. Thompson redshirted in 2013, and requested a release from Ohio State in April 2014. After playing for Iowa Western Community College at the junior college level, Thompson signed with Indiana in December 2015. Thompson is listed as a redshirt junior on Indiana's roster on its athletics Web site.
2. Tim Gardner, OL
Gardner never even made it out of fall camp of his freshman year with Ohio State. Cited by Columbus police for obstruction of official business, Gardner was dismissed by Meyer in July 2013. Gardner eventually signed with Indiana, and played for the Hoosiers in 2015, after sitting out in ‘14 as a transfer. It was recently announced that Gardner would not be with Indiana for the 2016 season.
3. Mike Mitchell, LB
Mitchell was one of the highest-rated players in the 2013 recruiting class, ranked as the best high school player from the state of Texas. Despite Mitchell's lofty high school accolades, he redshirted at Ohio State in 2013. Mitchell decided to transfer to Texas Tech after his first season. He sat out the 2014 season per NCAA transfer rules, played for Texas Tech last fall, and then decided to transfer from Texas Tech after the season.
Out of 24 players signed, only three (12.5 percent) left the Ohio State program without any contributions. In comparison, the 2012 recruiting class had 11 players of 25 signed (44 percent) who departed without any contributions.
Part two will look at the players Ohio State signed in February 2013 who have been contributors during their time in Columbus. Several of these players will have opportunities to not only contribute to Ohio State in 2016, but also emerge as possible starters this upcoming season.
— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a diehard Ohio State fan. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.
The Big Ten West is going to be a fun race although Iowa could be the team best built to win it, again. The Hawkeyes will have to fend off challenges from Nebraska and Wisconsin among others. The other intriguing race will be for last place between Illinois and Purdue, most likely.
For the purposes of this exercise, projected win totals are broken down into three categories — definite wins, definite losses and toss-ups. Most of the conference games will in the toss-up category, especially ones on the road. This preview will offer thoughts on each team and if there’s any value either over or under.
Note: Over/under odds courtesy of 5Dimes Sportsbook
Big Ten West
(Over 4.5 wins -120...Under 4.5 wins EVEN)
Record Last Year: 5-7, 2-6
Returning Starters: 9 (5 on offense, 4 on defense)
Offense: Quarterback Wes Lunt returns for his senior season and there's not a ton around him on this side of the ball. Malik Turner leads the way out wide. The offensive line is pretty set with the tackles and center back.
Defense: Illinois has a lot of its front line back as well as Taylor Barton at safety. New defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson has some work to do to keep this team at the level they played at last year (37th nationally in scoring defense).
Schedule: Illinois plays four of its first five at home with Murray State, North Carolina and Western Michigan representing the non-conference opponents. Michigan State and Iowa both come to Champaign this year.
Selection: I think there's a slight lean to the under. New head coach Lovie Smith has a lot to do in order to bring this team back after being away from the college game for 21 years. I definitely don't see the postseason in this team's future.
(Over 8.5 wins -110...Under 8.5 wins -110)
Record Last Year: 12-2, 8-0
Returning Starters: 13 (5 on offense, 8 on defense)
Offense: Key returnees make me optimistic that theHawkeyes will be solid on offense. Quarterback C.J. Beathard had just five interceptions compared to 17 touchdown passes in 2015. He's got wide receiver Matt VandeBerg and running back LeShun Daniels as his main weapons. The offensive line will be solid as well.
Defense: Desmond King is one of the best cornerbacks in college football. Linebacker Josey Jewell and his 126 tackles are back as well. This unit was 19th overall in scoring defense, giving up more than 24 points in a game on just three occasions.
Schedule: Miami (Ohio), Iowa State and North Dakota State are part of a three-game homestand to open up the season. The Hawkeyes play three of their next four on the road although those games are at Rutgers, Minnesota and Purdue.
Selection: Iowa's game against Michigan on Nov. 12 could feature two teams with just one or two losses. The Hawkeyes’ schedule is way too easy not to take the over.
(Over 6 wins -115...Under 6 wins -105)
Record Last Year: 6-7, 2-6
Returning Starters: 14 (7 on offense, 7 on defense)
Offense: This group was putrid at times in 2015, scoring just 77 points over the first five games. Quarterback Mitch Leidner needs to improve his TD-to-interception ratio from the 14:11 he posted last season. He has wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky back as well as talented running back Shannon Brooks.
Defense: The Gophers have the right pieces in place to be a good defense. They were especially stingy against the pass last season, allowing just 179.5 yards per game through the air to finish 11th in the nation. The team will have to replace reliable punter Peter Mortell.
Schedule: Minnesota has four of its first five at home with Oregon State, Indiana State and Colorado State representing the non-conference slate. The Gophers do not play Michigan this year, but they do host Iowa for their annual tilt with the Floyd of Rosedale on the line.
Selection: Six is the right number. This team screams .500 unless Minnesota improves upon its 106th-ranked scoring offense. The schedule is easier than last year so an uptick in the win column is possible.
(Over 8.5 wins -120...Under 8.5 wins EVEN)
Record Last Year: 6-7, 3-5
Returning Starters: 11 (6 on offense, 5 on defense)
Offense: Quarterback Tommy Armstrong gets one more year to lead Nebraska to a better bowl destination. Last year he threw 16 interceptions to 22 touchdowns while accounting for more than 3,000 passing yards. Running back Terrell Newby and wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp are his two best weapons. The biggest question mark is the offensive line.
Defense: Safety Nate Gerry quarterbacks the secondary after making 79 tackles last year. The front four will have to be completely rebuilt so coordinator Mark Banker has his work cut out for him.
Schedule: Much like the rest of the conference, Nebraska doesn't leave home for four of its first five games. The Cornhuskers take on Fresno State and Wyoming before a big tilt with Oregon. Their toughest stretch is towards the end with back-to-back road games against Wisconsin and Ohio State.
Selection: I think the under at even is worth a look. The Huskers have four tough road games and it’s possible they could lose all of them. Head coach Mike Riley is recruiting hard so this team may have its best years ahead of them.
(Over 6.5 wins -120...Under 6.5 wins EVEN)
Record Last Year: 10-3, 6-2
Returning Starters: 12 (6 on offense, 6 on defense)
Offense: Running back Justin Jackson is going to have to continue to be the workhorse with sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson under center. Jackson had 1,418 yards rushing last year despite some mediocre QB play. Thorson had just seven touchdowns to nine interceptions and his wide receiving corps in 2016 isn’t very experienced.
Defense: The Wildcats were really good defensively last year. They have two starters back in each level of the defense meaning they won't fall too far from where they were last year (12th nationally in scoring defense, 13th in total defense).
Schedule: Northwestern doesn't leave home in September, which means it will be on the road for most of the final stretch, closing things out with three road games over five weeks. Pat Fitzgerald’s team shouldn't be challenged out of conference with Western Michigan, Illinois State and Duke on the docket.
Selection: The over is a real good play here. Northwestern will aim to get off to a fast start after getting blasted by Tennessee in the Outback Bowl to close out the 2015 season. I think the schedule lays out nicely for the Wildcats to return to the postseason and possibly contend in the Big Ten West.
(Over 4.5 wins -105...Under 4.5 wins -115)
Record Last Year: 2-10, 1-7
Returning Starters: 16 (7 on offense, 9 on defense)
Offense: I really like running back Markell Jones, who ran for 10 touchdowns in 2015. He's back along with DeAngelo Yancey at WR to help an offense that was stuffed at or behind the line in 15.5 percent of its rushes. The offensive line gets three players back, but improvement is needed.
Defense: The Boilermakers return a lot from last year's defense that allowed almost 37 points per game. Lineman Jake Repogle had 14 tackles for a loss last year, but overall this was a group that struggled. The good thing is a lot of experience returns, but this unit as a whole has to tighten up.
Schedule: Continuing the trend, Purdue has all of its non-conference games at home, hosting Eastern Kentucky, Cincinnati and Nevada. The Boilermakers also get Iowa, Wisconsin and Northwestern at home.
Selection: I liked the over last year and it wasn't a winning side. I'm not falling for that again. Head coach Darrell Hazell's seat is hot after just six wins in his first three seasons. It may not get much better in 2016.
(Over 7 wins -110...Under 7 wins -110)
Record Last Year: 10-3, 6-2
Returning Starters: 11 (6 on offense, 5 on defense)
Offense: Badger fans won't have to worry about the run game with Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale in the backfield. Bart Houston and Alex Hornibrook should mount a spirited competition for the No. 1 quarterback job, although the former figures to have the edge because he’s a senior. The offensive line should be strong as usual.
Defense: Linebacker Vince Biegel gets one more year for the Badgers. The defense figures to take a step back after finishing first in the nation in points allowed and second in yards allowed last season because of the departures. Linebacker Joe Schobert and safety Michael Caputo are both gone.
Schedule: The Badgers are the only team in the Big Ten West to play a non-conference game outside of their own stadium, although they won't go far. Wisconsin will take on LSU at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., followed by Akron and Georgia State. The Badgers also must navigate the Michigan two-step on the road before hosting Ohio State.
Selection: Seven is a great number. The schedule strength is tougher than the rest of the Big Ten West. No one else plays a stretch as tough as at Michigan State, at Michigan, vs. Ohio State and at Iowa over a four-game span.
— 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.
When the first edition of the College Football Playoff kicked off without a Big 12 team, the league found itself suddenly in the middle of an existential crisis.
Expansion was discussed time again and time again. Tie-breaking procedures were finagled and clarified. Money was dumped by the truckload into consultants and marketing campaigns. Eventually, a conference title game — in a round-robin league, no less — was agreed upon just to give the Big 12 an extra boost when it came to making college football’s final four.
While getting left out of the College Football Playoff in 2016 was disappointing for the Pac-12, the league isn’t gearing up to question everything about itself in the wake of conference champion Stanford missing out on a semifinal game.
“Standing here today, looking at the incredible depth from top to bottom in our conference, I am confident no other conference has as many good teams as the Pac-12 this season,” commissioner Larry Scott said on Thursday to open up Pac-12 Media Days in Hollywood, Calif. “I expect this is going to be as exciting and deep a season as the Pac- 12 has had.”
What remains to be seen is if that tune holds true among the national conversation in December. No school made it into the top 10 of Athlon Sports’ Top 25 and the number of tough non-conference games the Pac-12 has during Week 1 could put the league out of the Playoff race by the first Sunday of the season.
That doesn’t mean Pac-12 football won’t be worth watching, just that there’s quite the uphill battle to not be on the outside looking in (again) when the Selection Committee makes their picks.
“With only a four-team Playoff, of course you worry about teams beating each other up,” added Scott. “But the philosophy in our conference and amongst our schools has always been to schedule tough, take on all comers, and if a team deserves to be in the playoff, they will be.
“With the advent of the College Football Playoff, we know that in any given year, there will be teams with similar records, and a determining factor that the College Football Playoff Selection Committee will make is based on strength of schedule. So our conference very much prides itself for a variety of reasons on playing the toughest schedule.”
If it seems like Scott is already laying the groundwork to campaign the Selection Committee based on the depth of the Pac-12 later this year, that’s because he is.
Stanford was picked by the media to win the league for the first time in 56 years and is headlined by Heisman Trophy favorite Christian McCaffrey. Washington has become a trendy pick out West under Chris Petersen and the Huskies’ Pacific Northwest rival Oregon is re-tooling on defense with the addition of former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke.
Both USC and UCLA are, as always, stocked with four- and five-star talent. Washington State returns perhaps the most complete team during Mike Leach’s tenure on the Palouse as well. The conference is so deep that it seems entirely possible that the entire Pac-12 South will make an appearance in the Top 25 polls at some point.
But is there a great team among all the ones we think will be good in 2016? Somebody who can truly make a run at the national title?
It’s possible and there is no shortage of candidates as summer winds down and fall camps begin. Things out West are, however, complicated by the fact that the Pac-12 has a history of underachieving teams pulling off an upset that ruins national championship aspirations.
“The Pac-12 is more talented now than it ever has been in its history,” Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez said. “That’s what makes it so difficult to defend.”
There were plenty of similar upbeat statements dished out on Thursday as the league officially kicked off the season. The Pac-12 appears confident of its place in the sport at the moment and there’s even an inkling outside the Hollywood Walk of Fame that that the conference could be the first one to sneak in a two-loss team into a semifinal at the end of the year.
The sky isn’t falling in the Pac-12 after getting left out of the Playoff last year but it will be interesting to see if such rosy, forward-thinking talk continues if Scott’s league finds itself on the outside looking in again in 2016.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
Braden Gall and David Fox are back in Nashville after returning from SEC Media Days and a honeymoon respectively. We've got a complete breakdown as well official championship predictions from 23 of our closest friends.
- Was Dan Mullen the biggest loser from SEC Media Days in Hoover? Was Nick Saban out of line or right on point in his verbal match with PAAWWWLLL? Was Hugh Freeze prepared for tough questions?
- Which coach was the most impressive? Which coach was best prepared to handle the tough questions? And which coach surprised the most? Who do we love more: Bret Bielema or Barry Odom?
- Getting to know the players is THE best part of SEC Media Days and the 2016 class was no exception. Who were the most impressive players in Hoover? (And who do we wish was there.)
- Which team has the biggest chip on its shoulder? (This one was easy.)
- We asked 23 different media experts to make their official SEC championship game predictions public and we put all 23 into one podcast. Names like Marcus Spears, Pat Forde, Tony Barnhart, Stewart Mandel, Brett McMurphy, Andy Staples, Barrett Sallee, Laura Rutledge, Adam Zucker and more offer up official SEC picks in 2016.
Check out the Athlon Sports 2016 College Football Rankings No. 1 to 128.
You can order your preseason Athlon Sports college football magazines here with Amazon.com.
Send any ideas, questions or comments to @BradenGall @AthlonMitch or @DavidFox615 or email [email protected]. The podcast can be found on athlonsports.com/podcast, iTunes, Stitcher and our podcast RSS feed.
Conference USA's West Division may not be as talented as its East brethren, but it doesn’t appear to be as wide open as that side of the league either. Southern Miss should come out on top in the West rather easily although Louisiana Tech and UTEP may make things interesting.
There are six teams in Conference USA's West Division. This article will apply the win totals from one Vegas casino 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 South Point Casino
Conference USA West Division
(Over 7.5 wins +105...Under 7.5 wins -125)
Record Last Year: 9-4, 6-2
Returning Starters: 9 (6 on offense, 3 on defense)
Offense: Kenneth Dixon is gone, which means the offense will have to find weapons to get it rolling. Ryan Higgins figures to get the starting quarterback job with Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson out wide. Can't complain too much about the offensive line, but who is running behind them?
Defense: The Bulldogs are rebuilding on this side as well. The good thing is Xavier Woods returns at safety and he had 56 tackles and three interceptions last season. There is some continuity on special teams.
Schedule: Louisiana Tech plays three of its first four on the road. The Bulldogs’ non-conference opponents are Arkansas, South Carolina State, Texas Tech and at UMass, with the only home game being the one against the FCS opponent. In all they have seven games away from Ruston.
Selection: Slight lean to the under. I wanted to lean heavy to the under with all the personnel losses from 2015, but Louisiana Tech has a very easy conference slate. The Bulldogs will need Higgins to do a lot of the heavy lifting until the run game gets going.
(Over 2 wins -140...Under 2 wins +120)
Record Last Year: 1-11, 1-7
Returning Starters: 13 (7 on offense, 6 on defense)
Offense: One of the worst offenses in the country gets an Alabama graduate transfer in quarterback Alec Morris. He's going to struggle to move the ball despite having Jeffrey Wilson and three returning starters at wide receiver back. The offensive line wasn't very good last year.
Defense: I can't say much positive here as the team returns six starters from a group that allowed more than 40 points and 500 yards per game. Good luck co-coordinators Mike Ekeler and Troy Reffett.
Schedule: The Mean Green host SMU and Bethune-Cookman before road matchups with Florida and Rice. They also play at Army in mid-October amidst their C-USA slate.
Selection: I'd like to say there will be improvement, but I can't guarantee it. There are opportunities for wins, but I don't know if I can trust the defense to make enough stops.
(Over 6 wins +135...Under 6 wins -155)
Record Last Year: 5-7, 3-5
Returning Starters: 15 (7 on offense, 8 on defense)
Offense: Darik Dillard is going to be busy with Driphus Jackson not returning at QB. Only two returning receivers recorded at least 25 catches last year. The left side of the offensive line should be good.
Defense: It can only go up for the Owls after allowing the most yards per play in the nation (7.13). Ends Derek Brown and Brian Womac give coordinator Chris Thurmond something to build around up front.
Schedule: Rice plays three of its first five on the road. The Owls get Baylor at home as well as Prairie View A&M. They close out the season at Stanford.
Selection: Six wins seems about right. The shame of it is that I'd take the over at that price if I thought they could get there. The conference games represent most of Rice’s win chances with a road matchup against Army being a toss-up.
(Over 8 wins -110...Under 8 wins -110)
Record Last Year:
Returning Starters: 12 (6 on offense, 6 on defense)
Offense: The Golden Eagles averaged almost 40 points per game last year and return three key pieces in QB Nick Mullens, RB Ito Smith and WR D.J. Thompson. The middle of the offensive line will be strong. Expect a small regression here.
Defense: One of the reasons for the great season was the defense. Southern Miss improved a bunch on this side of the ball and have key returnees in end Dylan Bradley and linebacker D'Nerius Antoine.
Schedule: Three of the first five games are at home although the opener is at Kentucky. It's winnable along with the next two at home against Savannah State and Troy. The final non-conference game is at LSU on Oct. 15.
Selection: I like the over. Even with the unexpected coaching change (Jay Hopson taking over for Todd Monken, who left for the NFL) I think the Golden Eagles are best team in the C-USA West and it may not be much of a battle. There appear to be too many sketchy defenses that Mullens and company should be able to take advantage of in 2016.
(Over 5.5 wins -115...Under 5.5 wins -105)
Record Last Year: 5-7, 3-5
Returning Starters: 15 (8 on offense, 7 on defense)
Offense:The rare team that relies more on the run then the pass in college football. With running back Aaron Jones returning, that doesn't figure to change. Quarterback is a big question mark along with the WR group. As long as games are close, the running game stays in play.
Defense:The defense is moving to a 3-4 after running a 4-2 built around man-to-man coverage last season. Luckily Alvin Jones is back to man the linebacker corps. It's a veteran secondary that may have more pressure on it with the change in schemes.
Schedule:Four of the first six games are at home as the Miners open up with New Mexico State, at Texas and Army. UTEP has just five road games all year so this team could push for bowl eligibility.
Selection:I like the over. The run game is reliable and the defense is improved. The schedule lines up nicely for six or seven wins.< /p>
(Over 4 wins +105...Under 4 wins -125)
Record Last Year: 3-9, 3-5
Returning Starters: 12 (6 on offense, 6 on defense)
Offense: The Roadrunners experienced some growing pains in 2015 with no returning starters and now have first-year head coach Frank Wilson at the helm. They averaged just 22.6 points per game. Now they return several players, including 1,000-yard rusher Jarveon Williams.
Defense: The front line is going to be strong as the unit continues to utilize a 4-2-5 alignment. There are a lot of juniors and seniors in the two deep.
Schedule: UTSA continues its run of strong non-conference slate with road matchups against Texas A&M and Colorado State to go with home games against Alabama State and Arizona State. Three straight on the road to start November will be a rough way to close out the season.
Selection: Four is a good number. The problem comes that most of the winnable games aren’t until late in the schedule. I know the Roadrunners are scheduling up for money purposes, but eventually they have to change that if they hope to make a bowl. They are getting closer though as the program continues to build.
— 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.
Every college football team has players most would consider underrated. However, defining underrated players is no easy assignment, as that term varies in meaning between fans and experts. With the 2016 season approaching, Athlon Sports wanted to take a look at some players deserving of more preseason accolades or discussion. In an effort to get to 13 names, we tried to stick to players that had yet to earn all-conference honors in their career. However, a few exceptions were made.
Related: Conference USA Predictions for 2016
WKU center Max Halpin, UTSA running back Jarveon Williams and Louisiana Tech receiver Carlos Henderson are just a few of the players flying under the radar in Conference USA for 2016. Here's a look at one underrated player from each team:
Conference USA's Most Underrated Players for 2016
Dylan Bradley, DE, Southern Miss
New coach Jay Hopson has a few holes to fill on both sides of the ball this offseason, but the Golden Eagles’ defense has a good foundation in place with six returning starters. One of those starters is Bradley, who anchors the line after a strong junior campaign. In 14 appearances, Bradley recorded 45 tackles (12.5 for a loss), 6.5 sacks and two pass breakups. Despite the huge 2015 season, Bradley only recorded honorable mention All-Conference USA honors. Expect the senior to rank as one of Conference USA’s top defenders this fall.
Jerome Daniels, OL, UTEP
Considering coach Sean Kugler’s background as a former offensive lineman, it’s no surprise UTEP has boasted one of Conference USA’s top lines over the last two seasons. The Miners allowed only 11 sacks last year and cleared the way for rushers to average 4.7 yards per carry in 2014. Daniels is one of the unsung heroes for this group and has quietly emerged as one of Conference USA’s best offensive linemen. Daniels started one game as a redshirt freshman in 2013 and has earned 24 starts over the last two seasons.
Dillon DeBoer, OL, FAU
DeBoer has been a key cog in FAU’s offensive line over the last three seasons and is poised to close out his career with a strong senior campaign. DeBoer started six games as a redshirt freshmen in 2013, followed by 11 in 2014. And in 2015, DeBoer started all 12 games for the Owls, including 10 at center after anchoring the right tackle spot in the first two matchups. DeBoer should be one of the leaders for an improved FAU offense in 2016.
Max Halpin, C, WKU
With all five starters returning, WKU’s front five has a strong case as the best offensive line from the Group of 5 ranks in 2016. Left tackle Forrest Lamp is a candidate for All-America honors, but center Max Halpin shouldn’t be overlooked this preseason. The Kentucky native started seven games as a redshirt freshman in 2013 but suffered a season-ending back injury after three starts in 2014. However, Halpin rebounded in a big way last year, starting all 14 games for the Hilltoppers and helping to anchor a line that gave up only 16 sacks in 2015.
Carlos Henderson, WR, Louisiana Tech
Trent Taylor (99 catches) is one of Conference USA’s top skill players returning in 2016, but he will have plenty of help in the receiving corps from Henderson. While Taylor garnered most of the attention (and rightfully so) at the end of last year, Henderson showcased his big-play ability by catching 36 passes for 774 yards and five scores. He also averaged 22.1 yards on 21 kickoff returns. Henderson’s 21.5 per-catch average ranked sixth nationally among all receivers.
Alex Lyons, LB, Rice
Rice’s streak of seasons with a bowl trip was snapped at three last year, but the Owls are in good position to rebound in 2016. With eight starters returning, a defense gave up 35.8 points a game in 2015 should show improvement and help bolster an offense breaking in a new quarterback. Lyons is one of the leaders on defense for coach David Bailiff after collecting 148 tackles over the last two seasons. Additionally, Lyons has 10.5 tackles for a loss in that span and collected 1.5 sacks in 2015. He should be one of the top linebackers in Conference USA this season. Teammate Zach Wright (wide receiver) is another good candidate from Rice as an underrated player in 2016.
Thomas Owens, WR, FIU
With the return of nine starters – including quarterback Alex McGough – hopes are high for improvement on FIU’s offense this fall. The Panthers averaged 25.5 points a game in 2015 but recorded only 5.1 yards per play. Owens was McGough’s preferred target last season, grabbing 51 passes for 638 yards and eight scores. With another offseason to work with McGough under his belt, Owens should push for All-Conference USA honors in 2016.
Zach Pascal, WR, Old Dominion
Old Dominion’s offense struggled to find its footing in the post-Taylor Heinicke era last season. However, there are signs of optimism for coach Bobby Wilder, as the Monarchs now have two proven quarterbacks in David Washington and Shuler Bentley, while the ground game is in good hands with Ray Lawry. Despite the inconsistent quarterback play in 2015, Pascal quietly posted solid totals last fall. In 12 games, Pascal caught 69 passes for 975 yards and eight scores.
Kalif Phillips, RB, Charlotte
The 49ers took their share of lumps in 2015, which was the program’s first at the FBS level. While the long-term future at Charlotte is bright, 2016 could be another transition year for this program. Phillips is an underrated star for the 49ers, as he nearly eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark (961) in 11 appearances. In his career, Phillips has rushed for 3,113 yards and 37 scores.
Daniel Stephens, C, MTSU
Quarterback Brent Stockstill and receiver Richie James are the headliners for MTSU’s standout offense, but don’t overlook the steady play of Stephens up front. The Georgia native started all 13 games for the Blue Raiders last season and enters 2016 with 25 career starts. Stephens will help anchor a line that must replace two starters from last year’s group.
Jarveon Williams, RB, UTSA
New coach Frank Wilson has worked with plenty of talented running backs during his 11 years as an assistant at the collegiate level. And the first-year coach inherits one of Conference USA’s top backs to utilize in 2016, as Williams returns after posting 1,042 rushing yards and eight scores on just 173 attempts in 2015. In league games, Williams ranked fourth among C-USA rushers with an average of 96 yards per contest.
Jeffrey Wilson, RB, North Texas
Wilson was one of the few bright spots from a North Texas team that finished 1-11 last season. After rushing for 224 yards as a freshman in 2014, Wilson showcased his talent with 830 yards (in 10 games) and one score on just 155 attempts. He also recorded three 100-yard games in league play. Wilson should eclipse 1,000 rushing yards and is the Mean Green’s top playmaker in 2016 under new coach Seth Littrell.
Ryan Yurachek, TE, Marshall
Conference USA had its share of talented tight ends last year, which is a big reason why Yuracheck only earned honorable mention All-Conference USA honors. However, with Davonte Allen and Deandre Reaves departing the Marshall receiving corps, Yurachek is poised to take on a bigger role in Marshall’s offense. As a sophomore in 2015, Yurachek grabbed 44 passes for 417 yards and nine scores. He also closed out the year on a high note, catching a touchdown pass in each of the Thundering Herd’s last five games.
Coaches often go out of their way to downplay the expectations of their team while playing up the competition around them.
Missing the FCS playoffs for five straight years has the Delaware Blue Hens ready to lay it all on the line. With their rebuilding project complete, they feel they have to rebound in a big way.
“I think we are going to have a very good team in the fall - a playoff-caliber team,” fourth-year head coach Dave Brock said. “Certainly we had a very good spring.”
The tradition-rich Blue Hens haven’t been to the playoffs since 2010, when they lost to Eastern Washington in the national championship game. The longest stretch without a playoff appearance in school history has encompassed K.C. Keeler’s final two seasons at Delaware and Brock’s first three. Last year’s 4-7 record (3-5 CAA Football) was their worst since 2008, and second-worst since 1967.
But with 18 starters (10 on offense and eight on defense) returning as well as many more players from the second unit, the Blue Hens believe a return to the playoffs is within reach – if not imperative.
Last season, the Blue Hens played well at North Carolina and even beat CAA Football rivals William & Mary and New Hampshire, both playoff participants. But they also lost to two of the conference’s worst teams in Rhode Island and Albany, so they need to be more consistent to turn the corner this season.
Injuries factored into last season’s demise, but Delaware averaged only 14.9 points and 286.5 yards per game. Included was an FCS-low 67.1 passing yards per game – hardly a number befitting a program that boasts former quarterbacks Rich Gannon and Joe Flacco.
While returning starting quarterback Joe Walker or backup Blake Rankin would figure to be better with an experienced offense, the Blue Hens will run the ball extensively with one of the deeper running back stables in the FCS. Thomas Jefferson, the CAA offensive rookie of the year, and Kareem Williams broke into the rotation while Jalen Hills and Jalen Randolph were out with injuries. All four return behind a veteran offensive line.
The defense should be stout again after allowing only 20.5 points per game to rank third in the CAA. Penn State transfer linebacker Troy Reeder and cornerback Malcolm Brown, who was injured last season, will be part of a unit that returns 19 players from the final two-deep, including linebacker and leading tackler Charles Bell and standout defensive tackle Blaine Woodson, a pair of juniors.
Delaware will open its season by hosting Delaware State on Sept. 1.
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Top photo by Villanova University Athletics)
Two seasons removed from a Super Bowl victory, the Seahawks still hold several championship pieces — quarterback Russell Wilson, both kickers, receiver Doug Baldwin and much of a stifling defense that revolves around Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett and Bobby Wagner.
Nowhere to be found, however, are any of the starting offensive linemen who earned rings in New Jersey in 2014. Since that pinnacle moment, the Seahawks have gone through a total makeover up front. New faces across the offensive line were blamed for much of Seattle’s difficulties last season, which involved a slow start and didn’t involve a Super Bowl finish for the first time in three years. More new faces could bring added dysfunction this season.
While the Seahawks, under the direction of coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider, have been masters at finding elite talent where others don’t think to look — Wilson and Sherman come to mind — reconfiguring the offensive line again presents a significant challenge. Another season could depend on it.
The Seahawks have the steadily improving Wilson coming off a season in which he led the NFL in passer rating (110.1), set career highs in completion percentage (68.1) and yards per attempt (8.3), and went on a 24-touchdown pass, one-interception tear over seven games. Wilson has taken the Seahawks to the playoffs four times and to the Super Bowl twice. He has made great strides with standing in the pocket and continues to unnerve opponents with his improvisational scrambling. Wilson will need help in pivotal places on the offense following the retirement of workhorse running back Marshawn Lynch and the free-agent departures of seasoned left tackle Russell Okung and right guard J.R. Sweezy.
|Head Coach||Pete Carroll|
|Record With Team||60-36|
|Offensive Coordinator||Darrel Bevell|
|Defensive Coordinator||Kris Richard|
|Asst. Head Coach/Offensive Line||Tom Cable|
|Asst. Head Coach/Defense||Rocky Seto|
|Special teams Coordinator||Brian Schneider|
|Running Backs||Sherman Smith|
|Wide Receivers||Dave Canales|
|Tight Ends||Pat McPherson|
|Defensive Line||Travis Jones, Dwaine Board|
|Defensive Backs||Andre Curtis|
The second-most important player on the offensive side of the ball might be Garry Gilliam. The third-year player moves from right to left tackle. He’s big enough, measuring a rangy 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds, and athletic enough, well remembered around the league for catching a crucial 19-yard touchdown pass on a fake field goal against Green Bay in the 2015 NFC Championship Game. His drawbacks are his lack of a nasty streak, which makes him more of a reactionary player than an aggressor, and his limited experience as an NFL tackle — just 17 games as a starter. He returns with center Patrick Lewis and left guard Justin Britt. Lewis’ midseason insertion at center was credited with helping calm the Seahawks’ line in 2015; he demonstrated more of a flair for recognizing defenses and making proper play calls than his predecessor. Britt, who has bounced from right tackle to left guard, has no problem playing with attitude but has struggled at times with technique. Not surprisingly, the Seahawks drafted huge offensive linemen in Texas A&M’s Germain Ifedi in the first round and Boise State’s Rees Odhiambo in the third round to fill the glaring holes. The two rookies could become the starters at right guard and right tackle, respectively.
The Seahawks enter the season with nagging questions at running back. They hope that Thomas Rawls can bounce back from a broken ankle, regain his sensational rookie form and put people at ease in the post-Lynch era. Rawls had four games of 100 yards or more rushing. Averaging a hefty 5.6 yards per carry, he showed a knack for running up field with a purpose and staying on his feet after contact. Recognizing a need for depth here, the Seahawks drafted three backs, with Arkansas’ Alex Collins and Notre Dame’s C.J. Prosise the best bets to get on the field, in that order.
The receiving corps remains intact, with Jermaine Kearse and Baldwin back as veterans who work well with Wilson, Tyler Lockett supplying a previously missing deep threat, and Jimmy Graham and Luke Willson returning as reputable tight ends. Baldwin took his game to a high level last season, turning in a 78-catch, 1,069-yard, 14-TD performance. The team rewarded the former undrafted free agent in late June with a four-year contract extension worth $46 million ($24 million guaranteed). Baldwin's emergence has coincided with a steep decline in Graham’s production, some of which can be attributed to a serious knee injury he suffered last season. However, it’s unclear whether the former All-Pro can be the impact player he once was.
The Seahawks’ uneven season was no real fault of the defense: These guys were as stingy as ever around the end zone. For the fourth year in a row, Seattle led the NFL in points allowed per game (just 17.3) — a dominance unmatched during the Super Bowl era. Bennett gave this unit yet another elite player, taking his game up a notch as a highly disruptive defensive end. The defense once again appears formidable.
Above all, Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” secondary, the cornerstone of this productive group, is in much better shape approaching this season than last. A year ago, strong safety Kam Chancellor was a two-game contract holdout, free safety Earl Thomas returned from shoulder surgery as a less dominant player, and the team broke in a new cornerback who didn’t last the season. The Seahawks should get strong play from their safeties, and they made it an offseason priority to re-sign veteran cornerback Jeremy Lane, who overcame his own injury issues that limited him to just six games. They also reacquired Brandon Browner, a former starter who last played for the Seahawks in 2013 and will attempt to reclaim his corner job after coming off a subpar season in New Orleans. Sherman? He wasn’t as statistically dominant as in years past, but the gifted defender still showed he could be a lockdown corner when he had to be.
Fast and tough, Wagner and K.J. Wright are among the league’s best at their respective inside and outside linebacker positions. Wagner is considered one of the top two or three tacklers in the NFL, averaging 120 over his four seasons, and he’s a big reason the Seahawks have one of the league’s hardest defensive units to run against. The free-agent loss of Bruce Irvin, a hybrid linebacker/end, creates a sizeable opening, one the Seahawks hope to fill by using players in tandem: They’ve elevated reserve linebacker Mike Morgan and reacquired end Chris Clemons. A starter for the Seahawks’ Super Bowl-winning club, Clemons returns after two years in Jacksonville to serve as a role player as a pass rusher.
Once again in 2015 the Seahawks relied on the highly productive Steven Hauschka, who converted 93.5 percent of his field-goal attempts, and Jon Ryan, who averaged 45.5 yards per punt. The real boost, though, came from Lockett, who returned a kickoff and a punt each for touchdowns as a rookie and repeatedly supplied Seattle with great field position.
The Seahawks remain one of the NFL’s heavyweight teams. Their defense doesn’t give up much, and Wilson is extremely hard to contain. Seattle also has a more favorable schedule with fewer early games on the East Coast than usual. There’s a lot to like about these guys, but the bottom line is this: The Seahawks have serious questions across the offensive line. Can Gilliam become an adequate left tackle? Can the rookies make a smooth transition to the starting lineup? This team is likely playoff bound again, but considering the uncertainty up front, a Super Bowl return is probably too much to ask.
Prediction: 2nd in NFC West
The 49ers’ coaching carousel continues to turn at an alarming rate, and a once-dominant franchise that has won five Super Bowls appears to have lost its way. San Francisco will have its third coach in three years, going from Jim Harbaugh to Jim Tomsula and now Chip Kelly, who brings his warp-speed offense to the 49ers after being fired by the Philadelphia Eagles. Harbaugh was shoved out the door after going 49-22-1 (including postseason) and leading the 49ers to three NFC title games and one Super Bowl appearance over four seasons. The 49ers promoted defensive line coach Tomsula to replace Harbaugh, but that experiment failed quickly. Tomsula was fired after going 5-11 in his rookie season. Enter Kelly, who went 26-21 with one playoff season in three years.
San Francisco has lost a wealth of talent — including Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Frank Gore, Mike Iupati, Aldon Smith and Vernon Davis — since its run of three straight trips to the NFC title game under Harbaugh. There are no signs that this is going to be a quick fix. The 49ers entered free agency with a ton of salary cap space, but GM Trent Baalke’s biggest signing was ex-Jacksonville guard Zane Beadles. “We haven’t done much,” Baalke said of free agency at the NFL owners meetings. “We’re a draft-and-develop team. That’s what we are.”
Kelly is known for his fast, cutting-edge attack, but he faces a huge challenge getting San Francisco’s offense up to speed. The 49ers averaged an NFL-worst 14.9 points per game last season. They ranked 31st in total offense, 29th in passing and 21st in rushing.
|Head Coach||Chip Kelly|
|Record With Team||0-0|
|Offensive Coordinator||Curtis Modkins|
|Defensive Coordinator||Jim O'Neil|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Derius Swinton II|
|Running Backs||Tom Rathman|
|Wide Receivers||Bob Bicknell|
|Tight Ends||Jeff Nixon|
|Offensive Line||Pat Flaherty|
|Defensive Line||Jerry Azzinaro|
|Outside Linebackers||Jason Tarver|
|Inside Linebackers||Joe Bowden|
|Defensive Backs||Jeff Hafley|
During their Super Bowl championship seasons, the 49ers had Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young. Kelly will have to make do with Blaine Gabbert and, barring a trade, Colin Kaepernick, who lost his starting job after eight games last season. Kaepernick asked for and received permission from the 49ers to seek a trade, but a deal to Denver collapsed when he refused to take a major pay cut. Kaepernick has spent most of his offseason recovering from left shoulder, right thumb and left knee surgeries. Gabbert was drafted No. 10 overall by Jacksonville in 2011 but nearly played his way out of the league. He was traded to the 49ers in 2014 to be their backup and threw seven passes that season. But last year he threw for 2,031 yards and 10 touchdowns with seven interceptions. He has the size, arm strength and athleticism that might work in Kelly’s system. Kaepernick has more speed and arm strength, but he lacks the passing accuracy and touch that Kelly likes.
The 49ers’ wide receiver and tight end corps won’t scare any opposing defensive coordinators. Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin, who was still a free agent as of mid-July, tied for the team lead in touchdowns last year with four. Boldin led the team with 69 catches for 789 yards. Smith ranked second with 33 catches for 663 yards. No other wide receiver or tight end had more than 30 catches. Surprisingly, Baalke took only one wide receiver in the draft, Aaron Burbridge, a sixth-round pick from Michigan State.
Kelly relies heavily on the run game, and he should have a healthy Carlos Hyde to carry the load. Hyde, who missed nine games last season with a foot injury, averaged 4.1 yards per carry over his first two NFL seasons. The question is whether the 49ers’ offensive line will open enough holes. Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley is still one of the league’s top linemen, but his supporting cast is in flux. Beadles and rookie Joshua Garnett, a first-round pick from Stanford, are expected to be the 49ers’ new starting guards. Trent Brown, a seventh-round pick last year from Florida, should get first crack at right tackle after a strong rookie season. Daniel Kilgore, who has battled injuries, will start at center. The 49ers lost guard Alex Boone to free agency. Former Pro Bowl tackle Anthony Davis, who sat out last season, has said he plans to play this year but had yet to apply to the league for reinstatement as of mid May.
Just three years ago the 49ers had one of the NFL’s elite defenses. Last year they ranked 29th in total defense, were 29th against the rush, 27th against the pass and 18th in points allowed. New defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil, who spent the past two seasons in the same role with Cleveland, faces a huge challenge. O’Neil will direct a young defense that had only one Pro Bowl player last season, inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman. He’ll also have to adjust to likely having his group on the field longer than any other defense in the NFL. Kelly’s offense in Philadelphia ranked last in time of possession over the past three seasons.
Bowman came back last season after missing a year while recovering from reconstructive knee surgery and led the NFL with 154 tackles. He’s the leader on a young defense that needs to grow up in a hurry. Outside linebacker Aaron Lynch showed signs of becoming a dominant player in his second season; he had 6.5 sacks, tying for the team lead with outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks.
Free safety Eric Reid, who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie three years ago, anchors an inexperienced but promising secondary that is loaded with talented safeties. The 49ers used a first-round pick on Reid in 2013, a first-round choice on safety Jimmie Ward in 2014 and a second-round pick on safety Jaquiski Tartt in 2015. Starting strong safety Antoine Bethea missed the final nine games last season with a torn pectoral muscle and could have competition for his job. Starting cornerback Tramaine Brock had a bounce-back season last year after an injury-plagued 2014. After missing his entire rookie season with a foot injury, cornerback Kenneth Acker started 13 games in 2015. He should get competition from Keith Reaser and Dontae Johnson, among others, for the starting job.
The 49ers are rebuilding what was once a dominant defensive line. One year after drafting Oregon defensive end Arik Armstead with the 17th overall pick, Baalke used the No. 7 choice on DeForest Buckner, another former Ducks defensive end. They should eventually wind up as bookends on the line in San Francisco’s 3-4 defense. Veterans Quinton Dial, Glenn Dorsey and Tony Jerod-Eddie, among others, will provide competition on a line that will need to take full advantage of its depth to keep from wearing down. Nose tackle Ian Williams played all 16 games last year but had surgery on his left leg during the offseason, putting his availability for the start of this season in doubt. Mike Purcell could fill that gap early.
Kicker Phil Dawson returns for his 18th NFL season after making 24-of-27 field-goal attempts last season. Bradley Pinion averaged 43.6 yards per punt and handled kickoff duties as a rookie last season after the 49ers drafted him in the fifth round. Bruce Ellington showed some explosiveness at times as the 49ers’ top punt and kickoff returner, but this is an area that needs improvement.
The 49ers have their third coach in three years and did little in the offseason to upgrade the talent on a team that went 5-11 in 2015. It’s been just four seasons since San Francisco reached the Super Bowl and lost 34-31 to Baltimore, but that seems like ancient history. If the 49ers finish .500 this season, Kelly should get some votes for Coach of the Year.
Prediction: 4th in NFC West
New time. New town. New quarterback. But will they be the same old Rams? That’s the question as the franchise returns to Los Angeles after 21 seasons in St. Louis.
The logistics have been complicated, with the team holding spring OTAs and minicamps in one location, training camp in another and regular-season practices in a third. But once it comes to the football, the mission is straightforward. The Rams are counting on stout defense, a strong running game and improved quarterback play to end a streak of 12 consecutive non-winning seasons and 11 straight non-playoff campaigns.
The results could have a lot to say about whether coach Jeff Fisher is around in 2017. He quickly got the Rams back to respectability in his inaugural season in St. Louis (2012), but the program has been struck in neutral ever since. Not many coaches get to stick around after four straight losing seasons. Fisher doesn’t want to test his luck with a fifth.
History shows that a running back coming back from an ACL injury is usually better the second year after surgery. The Rams hope that’s the case with Todd Gurley, because he was better than expected his first season back, topping 1,000 yards in 13 games and earning AP Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. The hope is that Gurley has even more acceleration than he showed in 2015. He needs to stay healthy, because there’s a big drop-off behind him on the depth chart in the disappointing Tre Mason and the workmanlike Benny Cunningham.
|Head Coach||Jeff Fisher|
|Record With Team||27-36-1|
|Asst. Head Coach||Dave McGinnis|
|Asst. Head Coach-Offense/Tight Ends||Rob Boras|
|Passing Game Coordinator/Wide Receivers||Mike Groh|
|Defensive Coordinator||Gregg Williams|
|Special Teams Coordinator||John Fassel|
|Running Backs||Skip Peete|
|Offensive Line||Paul T. Boudreau|
|Defensive Line||Mike Waufle|
|Defensive Backs||Brandon Fisher, Dennard Wilson|
The line should be better, but you can expect growing pains because it’s still one of the league’s more inexperienced units. Two keys here: 1.) Left tackle Greg Robinson must progress from his disappointing 2015 season, which included way too many breakdowns in pass protection and way too many penalties. 2.) Guard Rodger Saffold, who has Pro Bowl potential in terms of strength and athleticism, needs to stay healthy. He has played a full 16 games only twice in six NFL seasons and has undergone shoulder surgery in each of the past two seasons.
At wide receiver, the team didn’t do much to address a glaring need for a difference-maker on the outside. Fourth-round pick Pharoh Cooper has potential, but he’s best suited for the slot. So it’s up to veteran Kenny Britt and Brian Quick to play better than ever on the outside. It was surprising to see the team even bring Quick back after a highly disappointing 2015 season coming off a severe shoulder injury. That leaves it up to Tavon Austin, who did score 10 touchdowns a year ago, to be at his elusive best on bubble screens, gadget plays and punt returns. For all of Jared Cook’s problems with consistency and drops, he averaged 47 catches for nearly 600 yards over the past three seasons. Whether it’s veteran Lance Kendricks or draft picks Tyler Higbee and Temarrick Hemingway, that production has to come from somewhere now that Cook is playing in Green Bay.
Fisher says he won’t play quarterback Jared Goff until he’s ready. But do you really trade up to No. 1 overall — and give away a boatload of draft picks in the process — to let a franchise quarterback sit? So look for Goff to be the opening-day starter. Veteran backup Case Keenum is long on intangibles and leadership, but short on arm strength and, to a degree, accuracy.
For the last several years, this group has shown flashes of great promise but has fallen short of expectations. Now in its third year under the tutelage of creative coordinator Gregg Williams, the Rams’ defense has a new look. Four starters from recent years are gone in cornerback Janoris Jenkins, free safety Rodney McLeod, middle linebacker James Laurinaitis and end Chris Long. The Rams willingly moved on from Laurinaitis and Long, the team’s longest-tenured players prior to their release in February. Injuries robbed Long of his effectiveness the past two seasons, and the Rams felt that Laurinaitis had lost a step in coverage and that it was time for a change. “Country strong” and one of the team’s emotional leaders, William Hayes has filled in admirably for Long the past two seasons and now becomes a full-time starter.
At linebacker, the key is Alec Ogletree’s ability to replace Laurinaitis in the middle, in terms of physical play and in making important pre-snap checks and adjustments and filling a leadership role. The Rams are betting that Mark Barron, who flourished in a hybrid linebacker-safety role last season, can do the same over a full 16 games as an undersized weak-side linebacker.
The front four should once again be formidable, particularly if two-time Pro Bowler Robert Quinn returns to form after missing half of last season with a back injury. Aaron Donald, the 2014 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, is a difference-maker inside paired with former first-round pick Michael Brockers, who does a lot of the dirty work taking on extra blockers. The Rams also signed 2014 first-round pick Dominique Easley, who was released in April by New England. The former Patriot has struggled with injuries, but could be a real steal if he’s finally able to maximize on the potential that made him a high draft pick.
The secondary will have two new starters, with E.J. Gaines expected to replace the departed Jenkins at one corner. Gaines was a steady rookie surprise in 2014 then missed the entire ’15 season with a foot injury. Trumaine Johnson, who received the franchise tag in the offseason, must now step up as the team’s top corner after a breakout 2015 season in which he shared the NFC interception lead with seven. Johnson is playing with more confidence and a more physical style; he’s always had good ball skills. But free safety remains an issue with the departure of McLeod to Philadelphia in free agency. Maurice Alexander is one possibility, but his skill set is more suited to strong safety. There has been some talk of moving Lamarcus Joyner back to safety from nickel back.
The Rams have a gem in Johnny Hekker, already a two-time Pro Bowler after just four years in the league and a punter who combines distance with directional skills. Hekker is one of the rare punters who can consistently flip field position, and his passing exploits make him a threat on trick plays. The outlook is murkier when it comes to placekicker Greg Zuerlein, who has yet to fulfill the great promise he showed early in his rookie season of 2012. Zuerlein has great leg strength, and Fisher’s confident enough to use him from long distance. But his accuracy suffered a year ago, and this will be a key preseason for him to regain his touch.
Austin can be one of the league’s most dangerous punt return men, but he still needs to be more decisive and do a better job fielding short kicks. The Rams seemingly search for a new kickoff returner every year, but it always ends up being Cunningham, who isn’t a home-run threat by any means but always seems to get the ball out to the 25 or 30.
The ingredients are there to compete for a playoff berth given the Rams’ frontline talent — if they can get consistent quarterback play. But that’s a big “if” over a full season. Depth is a real issue at linebacker and defensive tackle. And heaven help these guys if something happens to Gurley. The momentum of a new home and the joy of having the NFL back in Los Angeles could carry the team to some early victories. It had that effect 21 years ago when the new home was St. Louis. But sooner or later the talent must take over. And once again there’s a fine line between success for these Rams and yet another losing season.
Prediction: 3rd in NFC West
Super Bowl or bust? That might seem dramatic, but it also rings true for the Cardinals this season. After winning the NFC West and advancing to the NFC Championship Game, the Cardinals should be satisfied with nothing less than playing in the final game of the season.
And why not? Carolina lost cornerback Josh Norman. Marshawn Lynch hung up his cleats in Seattle. Arizona, meanwhile, maintained the core of its team and added two important parts in pass-rush specialist Chandler Jones and guard Evan Mathis.
There’s also the realization that the Cardinals’ window is closing fast. Quarterback Carson Palmer is 36. Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald will be 33 when the season begins. Defensive end Calais Campbell could leave in free agency after the season.
Arizona legitimately is the team to beat in the NFC. The key: Getting home field advantage throughout the playoffs so the NFC Championship Game will be played at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Truthfully, there’s only one significant question going forward: Can Palmer erase the memory of his brutal NFC Championship Game performance against Carolina when he threw four interceptions (he had six turnovers in all) and play big when Arizona needs him most?
|Head Coach||Bruce Arians|
|Record With Team||34-14|
|Asst. Head Coach/Offense||Tom Moore|
|Offensive Coordinator||Harold Goodwin|
|Defensive Coordinator||James Bettcher|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Amos Jones|
|Running Backs||Stump Mitchell|
|Wide Receivers||Darryl Drake|
|Tight Ends||Rick Christophel|
|Offensive Line||Larry Zierlein|
|Defensive Line||Brentson Buckner|
|Inside Linebackers||Larry Foote|
|Defensive Backs||Nick Rapone|
Palmer had terrific numbers during the regular season, and it’s fair to assume his injured right thumb affected him in the playoffs, but until he plays well on the big stage, there are going to be doubts about his ability to lead the Cardinals to the Super Bowl.
Other than that, there’s little not to like about Arizona’s offense. Third-round pick David Johnson emerged late last season as one of the best backs in the NFL. He’s big, he has breakaway speed and he’s a terrific receiver. A 1,000-yard rushing season and 50 catches aren’t out of the question. Veteran Chris Johnson, at this stage of his career, is an ideal backup. He had 814 yards in 11 games before going down with a fractured tibia injury against the 49ers.
The wide receiving corps is deep and versatile. Fitzgerald, now operating out of the slot, is still Palmer’s go-to-guy, and there’s been little drop-off in his skill level. Last year, he had 109 catches — his first with 100-plus since 2007 — and 1,215 yards. Michael Floyd can beat smaller cornerbacks to jump balls, and John Brown is the home-run threat; he averaged 15.4 yards per reception last season. The only quibble: Arizona still doesn’t have a tight end who can beat teams down the middle. Darren Fells has the athleticism, but he was targeted only 28 times last year because Palmer has so much confidence in his wideouts.
The offensive line is probably the weakest link offensively, but that unit got a big boost in the offseason with the signing of Mathis to play right guard. The question marks are at center and right tackle. Will rookie fourth-round pick Evan Boehm be ready to start at center? And can 2015 first-round draft pick D.J. Humphries, often criticized by coach Bruce Arians last year, handle right tackle? If the answer to both those questions is yes, the line will be fine. If not, it could compromise Arizona’s Super Bowl hopes.
How badly did the Cardinals need a premier pass rusher? Elder statesman Dwight Freeney led the team with eight sacks last year, and no one else had more than five. Enter Chandler Jones, who had 12.5 sacks for New England last year and gives Arizona the one dimension it was desperately missing defensively: someone to scare quarterbacks.
Now, with Jones, Campbell and first-round pick Robert Nkemdiche, Arizona can get pressure from its line and not have to blitz as much as it has in past seasons. Jones isn’t stout against the run, but the Cardinals will live with that shortcoming if he racks up double-digit sacks.
Arizona plays five defensive backs on almost every snap, but that’s a bit of a mis-perception, because natural safety Deone Bucannon lines up at inside linebacker and, despite his 220-pound frame, is a fierce defender against the run. The Cardinals aren’t blessed with great talent at linebacker, so in some ways Bucannon may be the defense’s most important player. It will be interesting to see if teams start attacking the Cardinals with jumbo packages and extra offensive linemen, trying to take advantage of Bucannon’s lack of size at inside linebacker.
The secondary could be the weak link of the defense this season. Arizona needs to find a cornerback who can hold his own opposite Patrick Peterson (Justin Bethel couldn’t do it late last season), and safety Tyrann Mathieu is coming off his second reconstructive knee surgery. Mathieu says he’ll start the opener against New England, but there has to be some question about his readiness.
If Mathieu has recovered, and if the Cardinals can find a competent No. 2 corner, this has a chance to be Arians’ best defense in his four seasons as coach.
The only thing holding Chandler Catanzaro back from becoming one of the league’s best placekickers is consistency. He was 28-of-31 on field-goal attempts last year, including 6-of-7 from 40 to 49 yards, but he also missed five extra points, a surprise given that he connected on every field-goal attempt inside 40 yards.
Punter Drew Butler doesn’t have the biggest leg, but he gets great hang time — only 25 of his 60 punts were returned last year — and he had 22 punts downed inside the 20-yard line compared to only six touchbacks.
Arizona’s return game could be in a state of flux. David Johnson was terrific returning kickoffs in 2015 — he averaged 27.2 yards per return and had a 108-yard return against Chicago — but he’ll be the No. 1 back this season. Arians might not want to risk his health returning kickoffs. Possible replacements include J.J. Nelson and Brown. Peterson likely will be the primary punt returner, but he hasn’t been as dynamic as he once was; he averaged 8.1 yards per return last year, and his longest return was only 38 yards. Arians could look for more explosiveness in his return game while also preserving Peterson.
The Cardinals aren’t a perfectly constructed team — they need a cornerback to step up opposite Peterson, and their offensive line remains a question mark — but general manager Steve Keim has built a deep, talented roster that should compete for a championship. And, in Arians, Arizona has a coach that gets the most out his players. If Palmer stays healthy — at his age and with his injury history that’s a big if — there’s no reason the Cardinals shouldn’t win at least 12 games. It’s amazing to think how far Arizona has come since its days at Sun Devil Stadium. Once a laughingstock of a franchise, it is now one of the best-run in the NFL. Super Bowl or bust? Absolutely.
Prediction: 1st in NFC West
When Dino Babers was the wide receivers coach at Baylor in 2008, he and the rest of coaching staff knew the Bears had ground to make up to stand up to Oklahoma and Texas. As a coach at Baylor, that’s part of the deal.
Babers didn’t have a full picture of Baylor’s failures against the league’s powerhouses until he thumbed through a media guide for the series history against Oklahoma, and the reality of Baylor’s position in the Big 12 became clear.
Lots of “Ls.” 17 of them. And no “Ws.”
Babers would be a part of three more losses to the Sooners before Baylor finally ended the streak in 2011.
Still, the futility seemed to defy the laws of chance.
“The ball bounces wrong one time — how can you roll seven 19 times in a row?” Babers says. “I’m not talking about those guys, but stuff happens.”
Babers could repeat the same exercise at his new head coaching job at Syracuse — another program buried in a conference with perennial national championship contenders. Syracuse is 0–8 against Florida State since 1978 and 0–3 against Clemson since joining the ACC in 2013. The Orange have two wins all-time against the Seminoles and Tigers.
Babers won’t be alone in the ACC, though. If the other three new coaches in the conference are so inclined, they can find their own version of futility against the ACC’s top two.
Bronco Mendenhall could look at Virginia’s 3–15 all-time mark against Florida State and 0–3 record against Clemson since 2008. Justin Fuente can look at Virginia Tech’s ACC title banner won at Florida State’s expense in 2010 but also three losses to Clemson since 2011 by a combined score of 99–30.
Mark Richt can look at Miami’s humiliating 58–0 loss at home to Clemson last season that got his predecessor fired. Even the Hurricanes’ series against rival Florida State, once one of college football’s must-see matchups, has become an afterthought with Miami losing six in a row.
Every year in college football, new coaches bring a sense of optimism, but what’s happening in the ACC is not ordinary. Fans at Miami, Syracuse, Virginia and Virginia Tech can all reasonably believe that their school made a game-changing coaching move.
Mendenhall and Richt both revived power programs and sustained long and successful tenures at BYU and Georgia, respectively. Babers and Fuente are up-and-coming coaches who are considered among the sport’s best offensive minds.
This feature and more can be found in the 2016 Athlon Sports ACC Football Preview, available on newsstands now and in our online store.
The ACC’s round of hires in this season isn’t in a vacuum, either. Louisville re-hired a proven commodity in Bobby Petrino in 2014, and Pittsburgh hired one of the most in-demand coordinators in the country when the Panthers pulled Pat Narduzzi from Michigan State in 2015. Those coaches have added to a non-Clemson/Florida State lineup that includes Paul Johnson and David Cutcliffe entrenched at Georgia Tech and Duke, respectively.
“If you were looking from the outside in, the conclusion you would draw is that the league is becoming more competitive,” Mendenhall says. “The league is striving to become very balanced, which is every team making a commitment to compete at the highest level in football and each team willing to put resources into the pursuit of that goal.”
The ACC’s four coaching hires for 2016 could signal the most important shift for the league since it added Miami and Virginia Tech in 2004. From a coaching standpoint, the closest parallel to the ACC’s new class of coaches could be the recent history in the Pac-12.
In 2012, the Pac-12 added four new coaches who added credibility to underperforming programs. Of those four coaches, three — Jim L. Mora at UCLA, Rich Rodriguez at Arizona and Todd Graham at Arizona State — have reached the Pac-12 Championship Game. The fourth hire that season, Mike Leach at Washington State, ended a decade-long bowl drought.
Like the ACC, the Pac-10/12 had a problem with being too top heavy for its own good, starting with USC’s run in the early 2000s. The arrival of Chip Kelly and Jim Harbaugh at Oregon and Stanford, respectively, shook up that paradigm. And thanks to those four coaching hires in 2012 and others in the last five years (David Shaw at Stanford and Chris Petersen at Washington, specifically), the Pac-12 now boasts a coaching lineup that matches up with any major conference.
In the ACC, either Clemson or Florida State has claimed every conference title since 2010, but neither had to be a powerhouse to do it for two of those seasons. The ACC didn’t have a team finish in the final AP top 20 in 2011 nor in the final top 15 in 2010 — a reminder that the Tigers’ and Seminoles’ rise as CFB Playoff contenders is the byproduct of the recent coaching hires of Dabo Swinney and Jimbo Fisher.
But since the conference began its current wave of expansion in 2004, only six ACC teams not named Clemson or Florida State finished the season ranked in the final AP top 10. Four of those were Virginia Tech, though not since 2009. The other two were 2014 Georgia Tech and 2007 Boston College.
This much has been clear for several years: ACC commissioner John Swofford probably expected different results when the league first poached Miami and Virginia Tech from the Big East.
It’s not as if the ACC hasn’t been producing in other ways. From 2005-15, the league produced 401 NFL Draft picks, second only to the SEC in that span. The 2015 draft marked the fourth time in five years the ACC was second among all conferences in total draft picks.
“It seems like every time there’s an NFL draft, there’s a boatload of players coming from the ACC,” Richt says. “I think there’s a lot of talent. A lot of guys have had great success coming out of the league and being professional football players.”
That disconnect is a good reason why Al Golden — or for that matter Randy Shannon or Larry Coker — isn’t the coach at Miami anymore.
Miami produced five first-, second- and third-round picks in 2015, a long way from where the Hurricanes once were in the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s, but too many high draft picks for a team that hasn’t finished better than 5–3 in the ACC since 2005.
In 2015, the Hurricanes got a head start in the coaching carousel by firing Golden after seven games and soon ended up with an opportunity to grab Richt, a former Miami quarterback under program architect Howard Schnellenberger in 1982.
Richt’s 145 career wins and two SEC championships at Georgia make him arguably the most accomplished head coach to take the Miami job since Lou Saban in 1977.
That said, the former Bulldogs coach fell into Miami’s lap when Georgia struggled to meet expectations in his final years in Athens. The Bulldogs won 28 games in Richt’s last three years but failed to reach the SEC Championship Game in any of those seasons.
Perhaps that gives Miami fans some pause, but the Hurricanes aren’t in all that different a spot than Georgia was when Richt took over there in 2001. The Bulldogs then were 21 years removed from a national championship and 19 years removed from their last SEC title. Richt steered the Bulldogs back to prominence, even if it never culminated in a national title game appearance.
Richt’s first task at Miami will be to rebuild connections with the local high school programs that turned Miami into five-time national champions. Golden, the former Temple coach and a Penn State assistant, always had a lukewarm relationship with Miami-Dade and Broward County high school coaches.
The most damning example of this was Amari Cooper from Miami Northwestern. Cooper grew up a Miami fan, but the coaching staff slow-played the talented receiver in recruiting. Spurned, Cooper found a more enthusiastic suitor in Alabama, where he won the Biletnikoff Award and became a first-round pick.
Cooper’s story wasn’t isolated, and Miami’s place among the high school coaches in South Florida has been strained.
To mend fences, Richt has set up a “Cane Talk” every Wednesday to meet with high school coaches and extended an open invitation to practice, not only for coaches, but also former Miami players — many of whom have been openly critical of the direction of the Hurricanes’ program over the years.
“They want to send their young men to a place where they can reach their full potential,” Richt says. “I believe most of them think that can happen here. That’s what we’re trying to prove to them — that we’ve got a plan and we’ll take care of those guys.”
If Miami’s hire of Richt seemed like a solid and safe move, Virginia Tech’s hire of Fuente was a downright coup.
Fuente, a former offensive coordinator at TCU, took over one of the worst situations in college football when he landed at Memphis in 2012. The Tigers had gone 5–31 in the previous three seasons with little fan support and little talent. By Fuente’s third season, Memphis finished 10–3, and by his fourth season knocked off a top-10 Ole Miss team and went 9–4. The 39-year-old coach with Oklahoma roots was one of the hottest commodities in the country.
Virginia Tech quietly drew his interest. Fuente could have picked dozens of jobs, but Virginia Tech offered more than a program that was five years removed from an 11–3 finish and a Sugar Bowl. It offered a high-level school that still seems distant in some ways from the hoopla of big-time college football.
“Tempo of life, quite honestly, was something I was drawn to,” Fuente says. “I enjoy going fishing and being outside, and this place has all those things close to town.”
It didn’t hurt that Fuente had the blessing of Frank Beamer, who retired as the most important figure in program history. A key piece of the transition is Bud Foster, Beamer’s longtime defensive coordinator and right-hand man who elected to stay on staff with Fuente.
All the talk about what a great fit Fuente is at Virginia Tech, though, can’t mask the work to do. The Hokies were 29–23 in Beamer’s final four seasons, never better than 8–5. The Hokies had won at least 10 games every season from 2004-11 and were the de facto flagship program in the ACC during its first six seasons.
“We need to get back to that level of play,” Fuente says. “The bottom line is that they haven’t played at the same level. It’s been really close.”
Fuente will look to fix major deficiencies in a program that, despite its recent struggles, has still reached a bowl in 23 consecutive years. He’s considered by his peers — Syracuse’s Babers among them — to be one of the brightest offensive minds in the country. The Hokies haven’t finished in the top 70 nationally in total offense since 2011.
Fuente also promises to close the gap in recruiting, particularly in the Virginia Beach 757 area code that fueled much of the Hokies’ rise under Beamer. Virginia Tech has never been a recruiting powerhouse like some of the programs in the ACC, but the Hokies can’t settle for being second choice among the state’s top prospects.
Virginia Tech has signed five of Virginia’s top-10 prospects total in the last four recruiting cycles combined. The Hokies signed five of the top 10 in 2012 alone and four in 2010.
The Hokies, however, will have to battle another new coach for the top-flight in-state recruits.
Virginia made the most surprising coaching hire when it grabbed Bronco Mendenhall from BYU. He had been entrenched with 11 seasons at BYU, and the Utah native had never coached east of the Mississippi River. After 99 wins and no losing seasons, there was little reason to believe Mendenhall would part ways with BYU.
But Mendenhall also may have taken BYU as far as it could go in its current incarnation. He revived the program with two Mountain West championships and four consecutive top-25 and 10-win seasons from 2006-09.
As an FBS Independent, however, BYU settled into the solid-but-unspectacular eight- or nine-win range.
BYU’s place as the flagship university of the LDS Church also set up a unique set of recruiting challenges. Football players at BYU must adhere to an honor code that forbids alcohol, profanity and pre-marital sex and requires specific grooming standards.
“Here just by eliminating one of those standards, in terms of being faith-specific, it’s probably increased our recruiting pool by five-fold,” Mendenhall says. “That’s just been amazing to me. We’ve had to redesign some of our processes to handle that volume.”
Mendenhall considers “organizational design” as one of his strengths at Virginia. It’s a catch-all term that includes efficiency in recruiting and communication avenues but also rebuilding the culture.
Players are required to earn one piece of the Virginia football experience each step of the way, including the program’s V and cross-sabre logo. They must maintain a clean locker to keep it, and they earn the right to practice through their performance in conditioning, Mendenhall says.
At Virginia, Mendenhall sees a program with unfulfilled potential. The Cavaliers have been to only two bowl games since 2005. George Welsh, the Cavs’ coach from 1982-2000, is the only man to win consistently in Charlottesville.
If the state of Virginia can produce a consistent winner at Virginia Tech, if the state can send its No. 1 prospects to Florida State, Alabama and Penn State, and if the University of Virginia can win in sports other than football, Mendenhall sees no reason why his program can’t thrive as well.
“The program is dripping with opportunity, and the chance to make a difference — to make something sustainable — was really appealing to me,” Mendenhall says.
Of the four new coaches in the ACC, the biggest climb to the top belongs to Babers.
Syracuse has reached the postseason more recently than Virginia, but the Orange have struggled to find their footing since the late ’90s. Not only is Syracuse the ACC’s furthest recruiting outpost in upstate New York, but the Orange share a division with Clemson and Florida State in the Atlantic.
Babers’ counterparts in the Coastal are in the more wide-open division — four different teams have won the Coastal in the last five seasons. The last non-Clemson/Florida State representative from the Atlantic was Boston College in 2007.
So not only does Babers take over one of the toughest jobs in the league, reaching the ACC Championship Game would mean knocking off Clemson and/or Florida State, not to mention Louisville. For Babers, this situation isn’t much different from being at Baylor in a Big 12 led at the time by Oklahoma and Texas.
“When you’re on the other side and you don’t know who the champion is going to be, you may not prepare the way you’re going to have to prepare to go through the road that we have to go to become a champion,” Babers says. “We want to play the best. We think we have the best side of the conference. And I think we’ll attract the best recruits to play on that side.”
That, however, has been a major hurdle for Syracuse coaches since the end of Paul Pasqualoni’s tenure.
Babers is quick to point out that Syracuse isn’t Baylor. The Orange have a rich history, including Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and the 1959 national championship. That history belongs not even to the parents of his current recruits, but their grandparents.
To high school juniors and seniors, Syracuse in 2016 is just as much of an afterthought as Baylor was in 2008.
“For the kids we’re recruiting there is no difference,” Babers says. “The kids think it’s the same.”
Babers, though, brings an edge of modernity to Syracuse. That means high tempo and plenty of yards through the air. Both of Babers’ Eastern Illinois teams (2012-13) ranked in the top 10 of the FCS in passing and total offense.
In his second season at Bowling Green — when he finally had a healthy quarterback at his disposal — the Falcons finished in the top five in the FBS in passing and total offense on the way to a 10–3 season.
In four seasons as a head coach, Babers has won three conference championships, twice in the Ohio Valley and once in the MAC.
But Syracuse needs players, and the Orange don’t have the same access to recruiting territory as Miami and the Virginia schools — much less Florida State and Clemson.
This feature and more can be found the 2016 Athlon Sports ACC Preview, available on newsstands now and in our online store.
Babers says he’s keeping his recruiting blueprint close to the vest, but the results show at least a glimmer of the strategy. His first class included six players from metro areas in Florida (Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Orlando). Speed will be at a premium.
For the players on campus, Babers is trying to change mindsets.
“Normally young men play the way you treat them. If you treat them like losers, they’ll play like losers. If you treat them like winners, they’ll play like winners,” he says. “It’s the way you talk to them. If you talk about the positives and tell them where they can go and that you see them as a blossoming rose, they will respond in a positive manner.”
Babers won’t be the only one preaching this in the ACC, and he’s not the only one starting at square one in a bid to catch up to the giants in the conference.
“It’s a pretty equal playing field,” Fuente says. “There’s a bunch of good programs that are kind of battling to create their identity and take a foothold in the ACC.”
SEC Media Days are always good for getting an interesting quote or two but when Nick Saban is there, you might end up with a whole lot more.
Saban was not asked about Cam Robinson's off-season arrest during his earlier press conference, something that was pointed out by muliple media members. SEC Network's Paul Finebaum mentioned that the media should've asked the Alabama coach tougher questions even though he stated he didn't want to answer them.
The two men had a somewhat awkward exchange when Saban stepped on-set to join the crew, specifically discussing his handling of the Robinson situation.
That wasn't all. After the cameras were turned off Saban evidently had a little more to say to Finebaum, and this time he didn't seem as calm. Although we can't hear what was being said, Saban's body language told the story.
Apparently Saban just went absolutely nuts on the SEC Network crew during commercial break after being asked about the Cam Robinson stuff.— Danny West (@DannyWest1) July 13, 2016
SEC Media Days are always quite the event.
Every year but one since the 2010 season, Stanford has been in the race for the college football national championship deep into the campaign. However, the Cardinal have yet to actually play for the game's top prize.
Coming off one of the most impressive single seasons amid this altogether remarkable run, the 2016 version of Stanford football has the pieces to not only again be in the mix for the national championship, but finally compete for one.
Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey transformed the identity of the Stanford offense and returns to make another run at college football's top honor.
Also back for his sixth year at the helm is head coach David Shaw. Shaw's built one of the most impressive resumes in college football in short order. The only thing eluding him in his wildly successful tenure is that shot at the top prize. Might this be the year?
Three Reasons Stanford Will Reach the College Football Playoff in 2016
1. Christian McCaffrey
One man does not a championship team make, but seriously; have you seen this guy? McCaffrey looks like the Tecmo Bowl version of Bo Jackson, come to life.
Last season, McCaffrey rushed for more than 2,000 yards, functioned as the Cardinal primary pass-catching option with 645 yards receiving, and blew past coverage units as a returner.
He joined Reggie Bush (2005) and C.J. Spiller (2009) as the only players ever to score touchdowns in five different ways.
2. Offensive Line
Without a terrific offensive line, McCaffrey does not have the freedom to make those incredible plays that filled his highlight reel. And, despite losing Outland Trophy winner Joshua Garnett, Shaw gushed about the performance of Stanford's offensive line in April.
Though Stanford is tasked with replacing a four-year starting quarterback and short-yardage running back extraordinaire Remound Wright, the presence of a stout front five eases the learning curve.
By season's end, the Stanford line could be one of the most dominant in college football.
3. Defense Wins Championships
Stanford has enjoyed uncommon success in the Pac-12 by employing an uncommon style. The Cardinal relied on a traditional, huddle-up offense while much of the rest of the conference employed hurry-up spreads.
More importantly, the Cardinal's offensive philosophy functions as a complement to one of the most stifling defenses in all of college football.
Former defensive coordinator Derek Mason -- now the head coach at Vanderbilt -- crafted a scheme that pounded many of the up-tempo offenses prevalent around the Pac-12 into submission. Successor Lance Anderson has kept it going.
Stanford loses a few key pieces from the 2015 defense, like linebacker Blake Martinez. But with rising stars such as Quenton Meeks and Solomon Thomas, the pieces are there for defense to win a Pac-12 title for the fourth time -- and perhaps a national title for the first time in Stanford's modern era.
Three Reasons Stanford Will Not Make the College Football Playoff in 2016
1. Passing Game Questions
Since the start of its run of double-digit-win seasons in 2010, Stanford has finished each campaign with one of two starting quarterbacks: former No. 1 NFL draft pick and two-time Heisman runner-up Andrew Luck, and three-time Pac-12 champion Kevin Hogan.
Shaw has not exactly had to rebuild the offense much in his tenure as head coach thanks to the quarterback stability.
Both Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns came to The Farm with prep accolades, but their college experience is limited mostly to practices. Meanwhile, Stanford's corps of pass catchers boasts more experience with McCaffrey and Michael Rector back, but replacing tight end Austin Hooper and wide receiver Devon Cajuste will be a big concern -- literally.
The duo of Hooper and Cajuste towered over most defensive backs, giving the Cardinal quintessential targets in the red zone or up the middle on intermediate routes.
2. A Brutal Schedule
Stanford once again plays a schedule with 11 Power Five opponents, including perennial Big 12 overachiever Kansas State, and fellow College Football Playoff contender Notre Dame in non-conference action.
Those non-conference dates are particularly noteworthy, given that losses outside of Pac-12 play ostensibly denied Stanford two opportunities at the national championship.
The first came in 2012 in an overtime contest at Notre Dame. The Cardinal have not won in South Bend since 2010, and return there in October. The second was last year's opener at Northwestern.
The Kansas State game bears similarity that goes beyond the purple uniforms. Stanford will still be working out changes in its lineup, putting it at its most vulnerable against a quality opponent.
In Pac-12 play, Stanford travels to Oregon and Washington, as well as UCLA. The Ducks and Huskies figure to be the top two competitors for supremacy in the North division, and the Bruins are favorites in the South.
3. Replacing the Pass Rush
A tenacious pass rush played a key role in each of Stanford's successful seasons since 2010, and last year was no exception. The Cardinal registered 34 sacks and 83 tackles for a loss.
Somewhat surprising is that last season was among the Cardinal's least prolific in those categories. Even in 2014, when the Cardinal regressed below 10 wins for the first time since ‘09, they ranked in the top 20 nationally for tackles for a loss and top 10 in sacks.
Maintaining consistent pressure keys the Stanford defense, and coordinator Lance Anderson must find ways to do so without heavy hitters Aziz Shittu, Kevin Anderson and Brennan Scarlet. The aforementioned Thomas is a breakout star in the making at defensive tackle, but will need support to keep the #PartyInTheBackfield going.
Stanford almost always schedules ambitiously, which last year was to the detriment of its College Football Playoff aspirations.
A road trip to fellow Playoff hopeful Notre Dame looms large right in the middle of Pac-12 play. And, as far as Pac-12 competition goes, a team from the conference has run the table just once since USC in 2005. Coincidentally (or not), 2005 was the league's last year playing eight intra-conference games, and unbeaten Oregon in ‘10 marked the Pac-12's last champion before implementation of a league title game.
Until the Playoff Selection Committee proves it emphasizes strength of schedule, or Stanford goes through a brutal docket relatively unscathed, the Cardinal will always have a tougher road to the title. Shaw may get his shot soon, but probably not in 2016.
Notre Dame was very close to making the College Football Playoff in 2015. Three more points in both the Clemson and Stanford games would have put the Fighting Irish at 12-0 and squarely in the final four.
But victory eluded Notre Dame in both of those contests and in reality the Irish were not worthy of an invite to the Playoff. The loss to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl was further proof that head coach Brian Kelly's team was not quite at the top level of the college football hierarchy last fall.
Can Notre Dame reach that standard in 2016? Here are three reasons why the Fighting Irish will... and three reasons why they won’t.
Three Reasons Why Notre Dame Will Make the College Football Playoff
1. Quarterback Play
The story is well-known to college football fans. The 2015 Irish were Malik Zaire’s team but when the lefty signal-caller broke his ankle in the season’s second game at Virginia, redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer came in and led the team to a 10-win season and a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl. Kizer is not assured of a starting spot despite his impressive debut. However, if Zaire is good enough to beat out Kizer, he will be good enough to lead the Irish to a Playoff appearance.
2. Running Game
Left tackle Mike McGlinchey and left guard Quenton Nelson lead what should be a very good Notre Dame offensive line. That group will be opening holes for a talented trio of backs. Josh Adams flashed his abilities as a freshman last fall, Dexter Williams has the potential to do the same as a sophomore, and Tarean Folston is poised to return to his pre-injury form. Zaire, whether he starts or plays as a reserve, also will be a factor in the running game. Kelly likes to throw the ball and that will not go away, especially if Kizer is under center. But the Irish have the tools for another balanced offensive attack.
3. Special Teams
Really? Notre Dame with elite special teams? It could be. Tyler Newsome averaged 44.5 yards per punt last year, which placed him 15th in the nation. In his first season kicking on the collegiate level, Justin Yoon was 15 of 17 on field goals and converted his last 12 attempts. In close games a strong kicking game could decide whether Notre Dame makes the Playoff or not. Also, C.J. Sanders gave the return game a jolt of energy last season and if he can return from a hip injury, he can again make an impact this fall.
Three Reasons Why Notre Dame Will Not Make the College Football Playoff
1. Inexperience on Defense
The past two years have been filled with questions about the merits of defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder and his system. There is a belief that his methodology is too complex given the limited amount of practice time allowed on the collegiate level. This season, the Irish will be without veterans like Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, KeiVarae Russell and Romeo Okwara. If the game plans were too complicated for those seasoned defenders, how will the newcomers fare? There is talent on the Notre Dame defense and athleticism should not be a problem. But whether or not the players can grasp the system is a concern.
2. Lack of a Pass Rush
Romeo Okwara led the team with eight sacks in 2015 and Sheldon Day was more disruptive in the pass game than his four sacks showed. Notre Dame only registered 25 sacks in 2015 and players responsible for 64 percent of those sacks are gone. Linebacker James Onwualu is the leading returning sacker with three and he is not expected to be the primary pass rusher in 2016. Andrew Trumbetti and Jay Hayes are juniors that will be counted on to provide pressure and early enrollee freshman Daelin Hayes may get a shot in certain situations.
3. Replacing Receivers
Notre Dame has recruited well at the wide receiver position and there are players at the position with ability. But the team’s top three receivers have moved on, including the great Will Fuller and his 62 catches, 1,258 yards and 14 touchdowns. Torii Hunter is expected to make a leap forward and position mates like Equanimeous St. Brown, Miles Boykin, Corey Holmes, and a hopefully healthy C.J. Sanders, need to see their potential lead to production. Freshmen Kevin Stepherson and Javon McKinley also will get an opportunity and increased output from the tight end position would help as well.
There are many positives heading into Notre Dame’s 2016 season. Brian Kelly and the Fighting Irish believe that despite the personnel losses that there is enough talent to maintain the winning culture. The players lacking in field action have the talent to perform at an elite level. Offensively, Notre Dame should have no problem scoring points. The schedule also is set up nicely with as many as nine opponents breaking in new quarterbacks this fall. Plus, at some point the Irish will have to get luckier on the injury front. But this team has holes, most notably on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder’s system is a question mark and a lack of a pass rush could make life easier for the quarterbacks Notre Dame will face. The Fighting Irish will be good this fall and should make a return trip to a major bowl game. But they will not be part of the College Football Playoff picture.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 8
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 10-2
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 9
5 Dimes Projected Over/Under Odds: 9
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.
Two of the Conference USA's three bowl victories last season came from the Eastern division. You'll notice a lot of big-time names have moved on while other schools hope to build off an optimistic finish to their 2015 campaigns. Can Charlotte get things going in year two of FBS action?
There are seven teams in Conference USA's East Division. This article will apply the win totals from one Vegas casino 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 South Point Casino
Conference USA East Division
(Over 2.5 wins -145...Under 2.5 wins +125)
Record Last Year: 2-10, 0-8
Returning Starters: 16 (8 on offense, 8 on defense)
Offense: Quarterback was a massive issue for the 49ers, which couldn't find any consistency under center. Running back Kalif Phillips returns and he nearly had 1,000 yards on the ground. Austin Duke is a solid WR. There are a lot more seniors on this side of the ball so improvement should occur.
Defense: The 49ers didn't provide much resistance last season, allowing 36.3 points per game. Defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi is back leading a front four that is intact from 2015. More seniors on the depth chart here as well.
Schedule: Charlotte opens at Louisville before returning home to host Elon and Eastern Michigan. The 49ers also get a return matchup with Temple in Philadelphia. Two of their final three are at home with the road tilt at UTSA.
Selection: Getting Elon and EMU at home should be victories for this fledgling team. There are a few chances in conference to add to the win total so I'd consider the over although not at this price. It's a little much to pay for a meager win total.
(Over 4.5 wins -125...Under 4.5 wins +105)
Record Last Year: 3-9, 3-5
Returning Starters: 12 (6 on offense, 6 on defense)
Offense: Jaquez Johnson is gone and taking over at QB is either Daniel Parr or Jason Driskel. Greg Howell and Jay Warren form a solid rushing attack, which will be needed considering the lack of talent at other positions. The offensive line is back for the most part.
Defense: FAU had a middle of the road defense last year with Trey Hendrickson’s 13.5 sacks leading the way and coming in second in the nation. He's back along with two linebackers and three defensive backs.
Schedule: The Owls host Southern Illinois before taking on Miami and Kansas State on the road. Luckily they come back home to play Ball State before conference play. FAU has two of its last three at home.
Selection: I think this one is an over unless the offseason reports continue to show struggles at QB. It's a battle between a freshman and a sophomore. I think the defense improves and helps the offense along in C-USA play.
(Over 6 wins -110...Under 6 wins -110)
Record Last Year: 5-7, 3-5
Returning Starters: 13 (9 on offense, 4 on defense)
Offense: Continuity is the theme for the offense. QB Alex McGough, RB Alex Gardner, WR Thomas Owens and TE Jonnu Smith are all back to lead the way. The Panthers had a good passing attack, finishing 52nd nationally with 237.8 yards per game through the air.
Defense: Michael Wakefield and Denzell Perine have both moved on so the front four will be looking to improve. Linebacker Anthony Wint had 88 tackles in 2015. Depth could be an issue as well as certain spots being a bit younger.
Schedule: It's a big-time opportunity for FIU as the Panthers host Indiana and Maryland as well as UCF outside conference play. The Panthers lost by 14 points last year against the Hoosiers. Three of FIU’s final five games are at home.
Selection: I think six is a good number. If you follow my articles during the season, you'll see this team on there a lot especially early on against their Big Ten opponents. The offense should score a lot in this conference. The question will be if the defense can make the stop when needed.
(Over 8.5 wins -125...Under 8.5 wins +105)
Record Last Year: 10-3, 6-2
Returning Starters: 12 (8 on offense, 4 on defense)
Offense: Quarterback Chase Litton was a revelation after the Thundering Herd lost Michael Birdsong early last year. The then-true freshman threw for 23 touchdowns with just eight interceptions. Wide receivers Deon-Tay McManus and Justin Hunt and tight end Ryan Yurachek figure to benefit from Litton’s return.
Defense: I didn't think the defense could improve from last year, but it did, allowing just 17.8 points per game (10th nationally). Defensive end Ryan Bee is just one of four returning starters and he will provide solid pressure. The special teams will have to be fixed as well after graduations at punter and snapper.
Schedule: Marshall hosts Morgan State, Akron and Louisville before playing at North Texas. The Thundering Herd get Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky at home.
Selection: Small lean to the under. I'll say it again that the defense has to take a step back. The schedule is tougher, but the better opponents come to Huntington. Not the most confident selection on the board.
(Over 7.5 wins -110...Under 7.5 wins -110)
Record Last Year: 7-6, 6-2
Returning Starters: 11 (6 on offense, 5 on defense)
Offense: Quarterback Brent Stockstill is one of my favorite players in the conference and he'll be just a sophomore in 2016. Stockstill threw for 30 touchdowns compared to just nine INTs last year. Richie James and Terry Pettis are his two leading returning receivers. Running back I'Tavius Mathers started his college career at Ole Miss.
Defense: Five of the top six tacklers from last year are gone so this team could be in a bunch of shootouts. Mike Minter and Jeremy Cutrer are one of the better cornerback duos in C-USA.
Schedule: Middle Tennessee plays Alabama A&M at home while traveling to Vanderbilt, Bowling Green and Missouri. The Blue Raiders have a stretch of four of their final six at home. It's an ugly slate overall with just five home contests.
Selection: I think the under is the play here. I'm concerned about all the road games even with a pretty good offense. This is the case of a good team with a tough schedule.
(Over 5 wins EVEN...Under 5 wins -120)
Record Last Year: 5-7, 3-5
Returning Starters: 16 (9 on offense, 7 on defense)
Offense: David Washington started last season at wide receiver but ended up at quarterback due to the struggles of Shuler Bentley. Both are back this fall and whoever ends up with the starting job will have a stacked WR corps to throw to led by Zach Pascal. Don’t forget about running back Ray Lawry and his 1,136 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground.
Defense: The Monarchs continue to be a porous defense, one that allowed 437.3 yards per game last year. Linebacker T.J. Ricks racked up 123 tackles in 2015. Special teams will need to get better.
Schedule: The Monarchs host Hampton and UMass while playing at Appalachian State and NC State. ODU lost to the latter two teams at home by a combined score of 87-14 in 2015. Three of ODU’s last four games are at home.
Selection: This team screams 6-6. It has an offense that will be towards the top of a lot of categories in the conference, but it'll continue to lag behind on defense. I'll be on the over quite a bit in ODU games.
(Over 8 wins -125...Under 8 wins +105)
Record Last Year: 12-2, 8-0
Returning Starters: 10 (6 on offense, 4 on defense)
Offense: No more Brandon Doughty at quarterback means someone new will be leading this offense. Whoever wins the job in fall camp will have Anthony Wales and D'Andre Ferby in the backfield. Taywan Taylor also returns after catching 17 touchdown passes in 2015.
Defense: The defense took a massive step forward in 2015 improving its scoring defense by 14 points (from 39.9 ppg in 2014 to 25.9). However, this unit could take a step back this year with just four returning starters. Linebacker T.J. McCollum had 106 tackles and three sacks.
Schedule: The Hilltoppers open up with a conference game against Rice before playing non-conference foes Alabama, Miami (Ohio), Vanderbilt and Houston Baptist. WKU gets Louisiana Tech and Middle Tennessee on the road.
Selection: Slight lean to the under and that's assuming that WKU beats Vanderbilt at home, which is no guarantee. Last year the Hilltoppers won 14-12 in Nashville. Head coach Jeff Brohm’s teams are known for their offense, but WKU may not be scoring as many points this season because of the QB change.
— 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.
As has been the case in recent seasons, the race for the top overall spot on fantasy football big boards is wide open. Last year, Le’Veon Bell’s two-game suspension resulted in owners of the No. 1 pick to at least think twice before taking the All-Pro running back.
This season Bell is back in the conversation but may not be the safest choice considering he’s returning from a serious knee injury. In fact, when the question “Who would you take with the No. 1 pick in a fantasy draft” was posed to several Athlon Sports editors and fantasy football contributors, only one said it would be Bell. Three other backs besides Bell got a vote but it was another Steeler at a different position who led the way. Read who each picked and why and see if you agree or disagree.
Antonio Brown for No. 1
While I’m certainly not a huge believer in the Zero RB Theory, Brown stands above all other players because of his consistency, age, offense, quarterback and the fact that no running back enters the 2016 season without a couple of questions surrounding him. Brown had nearly 200 targets last year and hasn’t missed a game since 2012. Whether Le’Veon Bell plays or doesn’t play, Brown gets his targets, yards and touchdowns. Not since the early ’90s, when Jerry Rice was at his peak, has a wide receiver been a serious No. 1 pick candidate. — David Gonos, SoCalledFantasyExperts.com
Antonio Brown for No. 1
I resisted last year, to my own detriment. Now it’s too clear to deny: Brown’s the guy. Heading into just his age-28 season, the Steelers’ leading man has paced the league in receptions for two straight years. He has caught at least five passes in 48 of 50 games since the start of 2013, including the playoffs. Brown has racked up 678 more receiving yards over the past three years than anyone else in the league. He delivered in 2015 despite losing Ben Roethlisberger for four games. Now Martavis Bryant’s suspension leaves targets on the field, and Le’Veon Bell’s questionable for Week 1. All the more reason for Pittsburgh — and you — to target Brown. — Matt Schauf, DraftSharks.com
Antonio Brown for No. 1
I know it’s a boring pick, but if you’re drafting No. 1 overall, do you really trust anyone else with the pick? All Brown does is produce, and most importantly, he’s consistent. Just look at his stats over the past three seasons — he just keeps getting better and better, and he’s still only 27. Last year he averaged 15.4 fantasy points per game (standard scoring), and with the Steelers’ high-octane offense, there is a very good chance that Brown breaks the all-time NFL single-season receptions mark of 143 and goes over 2,000 receiving yards. Picking Brown No. 1 overall should be the easiest decision anyone has to make in any fantasy draft this year. — Michael Horvath, AtlhonSports.com, fantasy football contributor
Antonio Brown for No. 1
Antonio Brown was my No. 1 pick last year and he remains so this year. With a healthier Le'Veon Bell back and Martavis Bryant facing a year-long suspension this once again opens the door for the most unstoppable wide receiver in the game. Receptions, yardage and touchdowns? Check. Check. Check. — Chris Meyers, AthlonSports.com fantasy football contributor
Adrian Peterson for No. 1
Last year, Peterson was arguably the No. 1 pick in fantasy drafts. In standard scoring, he finished second out of all running backs in terms of fantasy points (short by four to Devonta Freeman). With position scarcity at running back, it is important with the first pick to grab someone who is as close to a sure thing as possible. He doesn’t have the injury history of some of the other top backs (Le’Veon Bell, Jamaal Charles), and he is on a team in which he is the bell-cow back, something that is rare now. While the argument can be made to take a wide receiver with the first pick, the wide receiver position extends deeper than running back. — Sarah Lewis, AthlonSports.com fantasy football contributor
David Johnson for No. 1
This has to be the most wide-open draft board in the history of fantasy football. In a PPR league, I’d lean Antonio Brown or Julio Jones as my top pick. In a two-QB league, I’d lean Cam Newton or Aaron Rodgers with my first overall selection. But in traditional formats — and because dependable value at the position continues to be more difficult to pinpoint — I’d still go with a running back. I’m taking David Johnson over Le’Veon Bell and Todd Gurley — both of whom have injury or suspension histories. Only four players in all the NFL scored more TDs than Johnson’s 13 last year, and he did that in only five starts. He caught 36 passes and posted 1,038 yards from scrimmage. His all-around game as the feature back in a loaded offense gives Johnson my nod for the top pick. — Braden Gall, Athlon Sports
Le’Veon Bell for No. 1
I suppose it’s understandable for a serious knee injury (torn MCL) to give you pause here. But seeing as Bell was tweeting videos of himself dunking basketballs in April, I am going to go ahead and assume he will be ready to roll come September. And that makes this an easy choice. Maybe a repeat of his 2014 numbers (2,215 yards from scrimmage, 11 TDs) is unlikely. But last season in about five and a half games he still averaged 115 yards from scrimmage and scored three times — without injured Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey and without Ben Roethlisberger for four of those games. Bell is healthy again. Roethlisberger and Pouncey are healthy again. Bell’s numbers will be healthy again as well. — John Gworek, Athlon Sports
Editor’s note: This exercise was done before it was announced that Le’Veon Bell is facing a possible four-game suspension for violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
Todd Gurley for No. 1
Coming back from a torn ACL, Gurley didn’t play until Week 3, and he still finished third in the league in rushing. In fact, if you throw out the three games where he had fewer than 10 carries, you get 1,037 yards at a better than five yards per carry over 10 games. Extrapolate those numbers over a full season and it equals more than 1,600 yards rushing with about 21 carries per game. Given the fact the Rams took quarterback Jared Goff with the No. 1 overall pick, it’s safe to assume that whoever is under center will be handing the ball off to Gurley a lot. Defenses may know what’s coming, but that was the case last year, and Gurley was still productive. Imagine what he will do with even more touches this season. — Mark Ross, Athlon Sports
Every college football team has players most would consider underrated. However, defining underrated players is no easy assignment, as that term varies in meaning between fans and experts. With the 2016 season approaching, Athlon Sports wanted to take a look at some players deserving of more preseason accolades or discussion. In an effort to get to 12 names, we tried to stick to players that had yet to earn all-conference honors in their career. However, a few exceptions were made.
Tulsa quarterback Dane Evans, USF receiver Rodney Adams and Houston cornerback Brandon Wilson are just a few underrated players to watch in the American Athletic Conference in 2016. Here are a few other names to watch this fall:
The AAC's Most Underrated Players for 2016
Rodney Adams, WR, USF
Adams earned second-team American all-conference honors last season, but the senior is quietly flying under the national radar. After catching 25 passes in his first two years on campus, Adams had a breakout 2015 campaign, grabbing 45 receptions for 822 yards and nine scores. For the first time in Adams’ career, USF has stability at quarterback with the return of Quinton Flowers. With Flowers expected to take a step forward as a passer this fall, Adams should exceed his 2015 totals in a huge senior year.
Deyshawn Bond, C, Cincinnati
Bond is one of the unheralded stars from a Cincinnati offense that averaged 33.8 points a game in 2015. The Indianapolis native started 12 games last fall and earned second-team all-conference honors. Bond enters his senior year with 33 career starts and is Athlon’s pick as the American Athletic Conference top center for 2016.
Doroland Dorceus, RB, Memphis
Even though new coach Mike Norvell has to replace standout quarterback Paxton Lynch, the cupboard is far from bare on offense. The receiving corps is one of the best in the American Athletic Conference, and there’s a solid foundation in place up front. Until Riley Ferguson, Jason Stewart or Brady Davis settles in at quarterback, Norvell should get plenty of mileage out of the running backs. Dorceus leads a solid stable of backs after rushing for 659 yards and eight scores last season. Under Norvell’s direction at Arizona State, the Sun Devils ranked fifth in the Pac-12 in rushing offense last season. Expect Dorceus to threaten the 1,000-yard mark after recording only 155 carries in 2015.
Dane Evans, QB, Tulsa
Tulsa showed marked improvement under first-year coach Philip Montgomery last season. After a 2-10 record in 2014, the Golden Hurricane finished 6-7 last year and made the program’s first bowl trip since 2012. In addition to Montgomery’s arrival, a big reason for the improvement in the win column is due to Evans’ development. The Texas native threw for 4,332 yards and 25 scores last season and ranked seventh nationally by averaging 333.2 passing yards per game.
Justin Holman, QB, UCF
Holman’s 2015 season was derailed by injury, but the Georgia native was on the verge of earning a spot among the American Athletic Conference’s top quarterbacks prior to last year. In nine appearances in 2015, Holman struggled with a young supporting cast and injuries and was limited to just 1,379 yards and seven passing scores. That’s a significant drop from his 2014 totals – 2,952 passing yards and 23 scores. With new coach Scott Frost directing a fast-paced spread attack at UCF, Holman should have a huge rebound year in 2016.
Zay Jones, WR, East Carolina
Jones’ play-making ability and overall talent is no mystery to opposing American Athletic Conference coaches. However, Jones doesn’t get enough credit on the national level after a standout 2015 season. In 12 games, Jones grabbed 98 receptions for 1,099 yards and five scores. And for his career, Jones has 241 receptions and ranks third in school history with 2,533 receiving yards. After earning second-team American Athletic all-conference honors last season, Jones should receive a spot on the league’s first team for 2016.
Nico Marley, LB, Tulane
It may seem strange to list a first-team American all-conference selection here, but more around the nation need to take notice of Marley. The grandson of legendary reggae singer Bob Marley has accumulated 231 tackles (36.5 for a loss) and generated six forced turnovers over the last three seasons. Marley doesn’t have prototypical size (5-foot-10), but the Florida native simply makes plays and is one of the American Athletic Conference’s top defenders.
Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU
Year two of Chad Morris’ rebuilding effort is underway at SMU, and it’s tough to identify a player flying under the radar going into 2016. However, let’s give a tip of the cap to Sutton. While the American Athletic Conference had a crowded group of talented receivers in 2015, Sutton didn’t earn a spot on the postseason all-conference team after grabbing 49 passes for 862 yards and nine scores. Additionally, Sutton’s 17.6 per-catch average ranked fifth in the conference. The sophomore is not only one of the rising stars in the American Athletic Conference, but he also heads into 2016 as an underrated player.
Jamir Tillman, WR, Navy
It’s no secret opportunities to throw will be limited in Navy’s offense. The Midshipmen attempted only 122 passes last season and that was with standout senior quarterback Keenan Reynolds leading the way. While Reynolds will be missed, new quarterback Tago Smith should keep the offense performing at a high level. Tillman has quietly posted solid receiving totals over the last two years and grabbed 27 receptions for 570 yards and five scores in 2015. Additionally, Tillman’s 20.6 yards per catch average ranked second among receivers in the American Athletic Conference. Opportunities are limited, but Tillman has emerged as one of the league’s top big-play threats on the outside.
P.J. Walker, QB, Temple
Houston’s Greg Ward, Navy’s Keenan Reynolds and Memphis’ Paxton Lynch garnered most of the attention at quarterback in the American Athletic Conference last season. However, Walker quietly produced a solid junior campaign for the Owls, throwing for 2,973 yards and 19 scores. The New Jersey native heads into his senior year with the school record in touchdown passes, total offense and completions, while needing just 121 passing yards to set a new program high.
Jhavon Williams, CB, UConn
Anchored by standout cornerback Jamar Summers, UConn’s secondary was one of the best in the nation last year. While Summers is going to garner most of the preseason attention, Williams is a pretty good cornerback in his own right. The Florida native has started every game in each of the last two seasons and has 30 career starts since stepping onto campus. Williams finished the 2015 season with 55 tackles (two for a loss), three interceptions and seven pass breakups.
Brandon Wilson, CB, Houston
The departure of safeties Trevon Stewart and Adrian McDonald and cornerback William Jackson III leave big shoes to fill in Houston’s secondary for 2016. However, coordinator Todd Orlando can start the rebuilding effort around Wilson. The Louisiana native was a valuable two-way player for the Cougars at the end of last season and finished the year with 58 tackles, two forced fumbles, one interception and averaged 26.6 yards on kickoff returns. With injuries limiting running backs Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson, Wilson stepped into the backfield and contributed 111 yards in the 52-31 win over Navy and 70 yards against Temple in the American Athletic Conference Championship.
After the ugliness of the Chargers’ attempted move to Los Angeles, 2016 will be the most pivotal year in franchise history. After agreeing to stay in San Diego at least one more year rather than join the Rams in L.A., the Chargers are attempting to qualify a ballot initiative for the No. 8 election to raise hotel taxes to help pay for a $1.8 billion stadium-convention center annex. The Chargers will play eight games before Election Day.
Everyone knows that San Diego likes a winner, and the team is hoping a strong start will help convince voters to support its plan. Victory at the polls would solve the long, bitter attempt to replace aging Qualcomm Stadium. Defeat could hasten the Chargers’ exit, if they’re willing to play at the Los Angeles Coliseum for two seasons before joining the Rams in Inglewood in 2019.
It’s hard to imagine a team led by Philip Rivers finishing 4-12 and going winless in the AFC West, but that’s what happened. In short, everybody has to play better, starting with the line. The blocking was ineffective, and the starters couldn’t stay healthy. The Chargers didn’t select a left tackle in the draft, in part because they had given King Dunlap an extension a year ago and extended right tackle Joe Barksdale this offseason.
|Head Coach||Mike McCoy|
|Record With Team||22-26|
|Offensive Coordinator||Ken Whisenhunt|
|Defensive Coordinator||John Pagano|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Craig Aukerman|
|Running Backs||Ollie Wilson|
|Wide Receivers||Nick Sirianni|
|Tight Ends||John McNulty|
|Offensive Line||Jeff Davidson|
|Defensive Line||Giff Smith|
|Defensive backs||Ron Milus|
The Chargers will have to quickly solve the mystery of their 2015 first-round draft pick, running back Melvin Gordon, who failed to score a touchdown or record a 100-yard game before missing the final two games with a knee injury. Gordon reportedly underwent microfracture surgery on his knee in January but maintains he will be ready for preseason camp. Gordon showed flashes of the back he was at Wisconsin, but a lot of his problem was simply a lack of good blocking. Perhaps conveniently, the Chargers drafted his Badgers fullback, Derek Watt, the younger brother of Texans star J.J. Watt, hoping they could rekindle their college chemistry.
One training camp battle will be at center, where USC’s Max Tuerk, a third-round draft pick, and free-agent signee Matt Slauson are added to the mix with veterans Chris Watt and Trevor Robinson. Watt missed the second half of the season with a shoulder injury. Tuerk comes in after missing the Trojans’ final nine games with a knee injury. When he’s finished his rehab, he’ll join the competition for the starting spot.
The Chargers will benefit greatly from the return of star wide receiver Keenan Allen, who missed the final eight games with a lacerated kidney. How good is Allen? His 67 catches through eight games were the third-most in NFL history. Despite missing the final eight games, he still finished second on the team with those 67 catches, for 725 yards and four touchdowns. He was voted the team’s Offensive Player of the Year and in June signed a four-year contract extension worth $45 million.
While Allen returns, Rivers lost one of his favorite receivers when Malcom Floyd, a deep-ball threat, retired. San Diego will replace Floyd with Travis Benjamin. When Benjamin signed with the Chargers as a free agent from Cleveland, he said the main attraction was the chance to catch passes from Rivers. He’ll also be tapped to help bolster the return game.
San Diego has loaded up with tight ends, including drafting Arkansas’ Hunter Henry. Star tight end Antonio Gates was given a two-year contract extension, assuring that he will retire as a Charger. Gates is still pursuing that ever-elusive Super Bowl championship and is looking to play a full season after missing the first four games of 2015 due to a PED suspension.
After purging most of the offensive coaching staff, including offensive coordinator Frank Reich, the Chargers brought back Ken Whisenhunt as coordinator. Whisenhunt held that job with San Diego in 2013 before being hired as Tennessee’s head coach. He was fired by the Titans after a 1-6 start in 2015. During his first tenure as coordinator, Whisenhunt was instrumental in helping Rivers bounce back from a few rough seasons.
Whisenhunt also will get the chance to work with another of his former players in quarterback Zach Mettenberger, whom the Chargers claimed on waivers after the Titans released him in May. Mettenberger, who went 0-10 as the starter in Tennessee in 2014-15, will battle veteran Kellen Clemens for the backup job.
It’s out with safety Eric Weddle and in with defensive end Joey Bosa. The Chargers move on from their messy separation with Weddle, one of their undisputed leaders, and begin what they hope is a long run with Bosa giving them some long-lacking punch up front. While most observers thought the Chargers would use the No. 3 overall draft pick on a left tackle or a flashy pick such as Jalen Ramsey, they took Bosa, the former Ohio State star whose father, John, was a first-round pick of the Miami Dolphins in 1987. Bosa is described as being all football, all the time. He’ll be asked to do it all, from boosting the often-anemic pass rush to helping stop the run.
There are other reasons for optimism on defense. That hope centers around a young nucleus that includes cornerback Jason Verrett and linebackers Jerry Attaochu, Kyle Emanuel and yes, Manti Te’o. San Diego needs to continue the momentum developed on defense late in the season, when it did its job by holding division rivals Denver and Kansas City to 10 offensive points on consecutive Sundays, only to watch the offense fail to fire. Verrett has become one of the game’s top young ball-hawking corners, as evidenced by his interception of Kansas City’s Alex Smith that halted the quarterback’s streak of 312 attempts without a pickoff. Despite his small size, Verrett has more than held his own against opponents’ top wideouts. After his rookie season was cut short by injury, he benefited from a full 2015. Denzel Perryman and Attaochu need to continue to develop into the kind of thumpers that Donald Butler failed to be after he signed a long-term deal. Butler was released in the offseason.
The Chargers went the free-agent route to continue to punch up the defense, adding nose tackle Brandon Mebane and free safety Dwight Lowery, who has been penciled into the spot vacated by Weddle. The Chargers hope to get from Mebane the kind of disruptive force they really haven’t had inside since nose tackle Jamal Williams left after the 2009 season. Cornerback Brandon Flowers has to reappear after going MIA following a multi-year deal.
The Chargers have gotten younger — and cheaper — at punter and kicker. Mike Scifres, who had been with the team since 2003, was released after the Chargers drafted Drew Kaser out of Texas A&M. While hailing Scifres as perhaps the best punter in franchise history, the Chargers are moving on because of the veteran’s sub-par 2015 performance. Kaser joins fellow Aggie Josh Lambo, a younger and cheaper replacement in 2015 for Nick Novak. Lambo made 26-of-32 attempts, including a long of 54. He made 28-of-32 extra points.
The Chargers think so much of coach Mike McCoy that they gave him a contract extension through 2017 while firing most of his offensive staff. McCoy, known for his conservative bent and clock-management issues, is 22–26 in three seasons, with a playoff victory and loss in his rookie season of 2013. With only one playoff appearance in the last six seasons, the biggest improvement has to come in division play, where the Chargers have only two wins the last two years. If anything carries the Chargers to the playoffs, it will be the will of Rivers and Gates. Otherwise, this could be the Bolts’ last hurrah in San Diego.
Prediction: 4th in AFC West
Coach Jack Del Rio took over a Raiders team last year that was coming off a 3–13 season and more than doubled that win total, finishing 7–9. The Raiders haven’t made the playoffs or finished above .500 since 2002 when they reached Super Bowl XXXVII and lost to Tampa Bay. But expectations are soaring in Oakland this year, and a return to the postseason and double-digit wins appear to be reasonable goals instead of pipe dreams.
Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie, who took the job in 2012, had a slow start but has hit his stride, adding elite talent through the draft and free agency. In 2014, he used the fifth overall pick for Khalil Mack, who had 15 sacks last year and earned All-Pro honors at defensive end and outside linebacker. McKenzie found a franchise quarterback in the second round that year, taking Derek Carr. He added wide receiver Amari Cooper last year with the fourth overall pick. Carr and Cooper joined Mack, running back Latavius Murray, fullback Marcel Reece and safety Charles Woodson, who has since retired, at the Pro Bowl.
McKenzie had a strong free-agent haul this year, adding offensive guard Kelechi Osemele, cornerback Sean Smith, outside linebacker Bruce Irvin and safety Reggie Nelson.
“On paper it looks great,” Carr said when the Raiders began their offseason workouts in Alameda. “We don’t want to be paper champs. We’ve got some good guys, but none of that matters unless we put the work in. Everything can look good in theory and in practice it all falls apart. As a leader of this team, I’m going to concentrate on pushing to get better every day.”
The Raiders made big strides on offense last season and should be even better this year in Carr’s third NFL campaign and second under offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. The Raiders went from last in total offense to 24th, from 31st in scoring to 17th, from 26th in passing to 16th and from last in rushing to 28th. Carr took full advantage of an upgraded receiving corps, passing for 3,987 yards and 32 touchdowns with only 13 interceptions.
|Head Coach||Jack Del Rio|
|Record With Team||7-9|
|Offensive Coordinator||Bill Musgrave|
|Defensive Coordinator||Ken Norton Jr.|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Brad Seely|
|Running Backs||Bernie Parmalee|
|Wide Receivers||Rob Moore|
|Tight Ends||Bobby Johnson|
|Offensive Line||Mike Tice|
|Defensive Line||Jethro Franklin|
|Defensive Backs||Marcus Robertson|
Cooper became Oakland’s first 1,000-yard receiver since Randy Moss in 2005, grabbing 72 passes for 1,070 yards and six touchdowns. Michael Crabtree had 85 catches for 922 yards and nine touchdowns after signing as a free agent. Tight end Clive Walford, a third-round pick from Miami in 2015, was slowed by injuries early in the season but came on strong and appears ready for a bigger role. He reportedly suffered a gash to a knee in an ATV accident during the offseason but is expected to be ready for training camp. The Raiders have depth at the position with Lee Smith, who’s primarily a blocker, and Mychal Rivera, a skilled receiver.
The Raiders enter 2016 with what appears to be one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, a big, powerful group that McKenzie has put together through the draft and free agency. The Raiders re-signed left tackle Donald Penn and added Osemele, a former Raven. Guard Gabe Jackson, a third-round pick in 2014, has been a starter since Game 1 of his rookie season. McKenzie signed former Chiefs center Rodney Hudson as a free agent last season. Penn, Osemele, Jackson and Hudson are locks to start. Austin Howard, a free-agent pickup in 2014, and Menelik Watson, a second-round pick in 2013, will compete for the starting job at right tackle.
Murray rushed for 1,066 yards and six touchdowns and averaged 4.0 yards per carry in his first season as a full-time starter. He made strides, but the Raiders averaged only 91.1 rushing yards per game, and Murray had too many games in which he all but disappeared. DeAndre Washington, a fifth-round pick from Texas Tech, could give Oakland an explosive option on third downs.
Khalil Mack is already a superstar. He became the first player in NFL history last year to be named All-Pro at two positions — outside linebacker and defensive end. After having four sacks as a rookie, Mack racked up 15 last year, finishing second in the NFL behind Houston’s J.J. Watt (17.5). He’s been an extraordinary run stuffer since his rookie year, but Del Rio and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. gave him more time as an edge rusher last season, and he took his game to another level.
Mack needs help, so McKenzie signed Irvin, Nelson and Sean Smith. He also re-signed outside linebacker Aldon Smith. Smith has 44 career sacks, but he is serving a one-year suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on substance abuse and won’t be eligible to be reinstated until mid-November. Irvin gives the Raiders another dangerous edge pass rusher to pair with Mack.
The Raiders boast a pair of big, physical tackles in Justin Ellis and Dan Williams, who came to the Raiders last season from Arizona as a free agent. They appeared to be set at right end with Mario Edwards Jr., a second-round draft pick last year, but his rookie season was cut short by a neck injury, and it’s not known whether he’ll be able to play this year.
Weak-side linebacker Malcolm Smith, a free-agent pickup last year, had a solid season, and second-year pro Ben Heeney likely will start at middle linebacker after taking veteran Curtis Lofton’s starting job midway through last season. Lofton was released in March.
The Raiders likely will have three new starters in the secondary, which lost Woodson, the heart and soul of the defense the past three seasons. McKenzie signed Nelson and Sean Smith as free agents and used a first-round pick on hard-hitting West Virginia safety Karl Joseph. All three likely will start along with cornerback David Amerson, the lone holdover. Nelson tied for the league lead in interceptions last season with eight and made the Pro Bowl for the first time. Smith gives the Raiders an upgrade at one corner spot. Amerson started 12 games after the Raiders claimed him off waivers on Sept. 22 from Washington, which drafted him in the second round in 2013. Former Eagles safety Nate Allen, who missed 11 games last season with a knee injury, could compete for a starting job if he’s healthy. TJ Carrie, who spent time at safety and cornerback last season, adds versatility and depth.
Punter Marquette King has become a valuable weapon for the Raiders since replacing Shane Lechler in 2013, and the team rewarded him with a five-year, $16.5 million contract. Last season he averaged 44.5 yards per punt with a franchise-record 40 downed inside the opponent’s 20. Kicker Sebastian Janikowski made 80.8 percent of his field-goal attempts (21-of-26), down from 86.4 percent (19-of-22) in 2014. But Janikowski, who turned 38 on March 2, still has a big leg. The Raiders didn’t return a punt or kickoff for a touchdown, but Taiwan Jones averaged 26.7 yards on 31 kickoff returns with a long of 70.
The Raiders won’t sneak up on anyone this year. If they can handle life in the spotlight, they have enough talent to end their 14-year playoff drought. They play three of their first four games on the road, including trips to New Orleans and Baltimore, and it will be crucial for them to get through that stretch without too much damage.
Prediction: 3rd in the AFC West
Kansas City closed 2015 on a team-record 10-game winning streak after a 1-5 start. The positive vibes even continued into the franchise’s least favorite month — January — with a 30-0 demolition of the Houston Texans during Wild Card weekend, the Chiefs’ first postseason victory since the winter of 1993-94.
It represented the club’s second playoff berth in three years under Andy Reid. But success led to noticeable staff upheaval for the first time in Reid’s AFC West tenure. Offensive coordinator Doug Pederson left for Philadelphia (and took quarterback Chase Daniel with him), with Brad Childress and Matt Nagy promoted to co-offensive coordinators in his stead.
On the plus side, more than a few familiar faces are back in the fold, including safety Eric Berry, who went from crushing cancer to cracking opposition receivers in miraculous time, and tailback Jamaal Charles, who tore his ACL in Week 5 against Chicago and returns to an offense that somehow managed to survive without him. With three out of the last four games scheduled for Arrowhead Drive — including a Christmas Day tussle with Denver — the Chiefs are poised (on paper) for another closing kick.
Kansas City went 11-1 in Charles’ absence and won its first playoff contest in a generation, showing that there might be life after No. 25. A transcendent talent — his 5.5 career average yards per carry ranks second among active players — and a red-zone magician when healthy, Charles turns 30 in December and is coming off his second major knee surgery in five years. Understudies Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware combined for 1,037 rushing yards and 11 TDs, and GM John Dorsey re-signed both, which means the Chiefs have serious depth — and, possibly, some very serious questions about their featured back going forward.
|Head Coach||Andy Reid|
|Record With Team||31-17|
|Asst. Head Coach/Wide Receivers||David Culley|
|Co-Offensive Coordinator||Brad Childress|
|Co-Offensive Coordinator||Matt Nagy|
|Defensive Coordinator||Bob Sutton|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Dave Toub|
|Running Backs||Eric Bieniemy|
|Tight Ends||Tom Melvin|
|Offensive Line||Andy Heck|
|Defensive Line||Britt Reid|
|Defensive Backs||Emmitt Thomas|
The legs that helped to pick up much of the slack with Charles’ absence belonged to quarterback Alex Smith, who set career highs at age 31 in rushes (84), rushing yards (498) and yards per carry (5.9) while continuing to move the chains and play it safe. Smart, athletic and risk-averse, Smith continues to give both his fans and critics fresh material.
The veteran built an almost instant rapport with new wideout Jeremy Maclin, who caught eight TDs (after the Chiefs had zero TDs from their wide receivers in 2014) and synced with Smith well enough to turn 49 of his 87 catches (56.3 percent) into first downs. The Chiefs raced to sign the former University of Missouri standout as their new No. 1 wideout, to the point the NFL accused the franchise of tampering in their contact during the ’15 free agency period, charges that cost the club a third-round pick this spring. Tight end Travis Kelce continues to improve his ball protection while remaining a matchup nightmare up the seam. The search for a consistent threat at the No. 2 wideout spot will likely continue through the late summer.
Left tackle Eric Fisher offered glimpses of the ceiling hoped for as the No. 1 overall pick in 2013 — enough that the Chiefs picked up his fifth-year option. Mitch Morse, a collegiate tackle, made a solid transition to NFL center and looks to be an anchor. Underrated Mitchell Schwartz signed as a free agent to shore up what had been a shaky rotation at right tackle. The number of sacks allowed dipped slightly last fall (from 49 to 46), although Smith’s legs have helped to cover for some of the unit’s shakier moments.
Bookend outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali are both recovering from recent knee surgeries, casting doubt on the defense’s most assured asset — its pass-rushing prowess. Dorsey expects Houston to be back at full strength by training camp. Hali, who turns 33 in the fall, had surgery to repair a broken thumb and is coming off a season in which he failed to reach double digits in sacks (6.5) for the third time in four years. Houston’s health puts even more onus on former first-round selection Dee Ford, who took a decent step forward in his second season (four sacks) but will need to take another.
The Chiefs came out of the spring with fewer concerns at inside linebacker, save for Derrick Johnson’s age — the club’s all-time leading tackler turns 34 in November — and the matter of an eventual succession plan. Johnson missed all but the first two quarters of the 2014 season with a torn Achilles and spent last year playing as if he was making up for lost time (116 tackles, four sacks, two picks). Up front, the Chiefs lost one of their better veteran stoppers in defensive end Mike DeVito, who retired in April at age 31. Jaye Howard developed into a rotation standout in place of the injured Dontari Poe on the interior and a good partner with the underrated Allen Bailey at end (4.5 sacks).
Berry made a heartwarming return less than eight months after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The Georgia native almost picked right back up where he left off (61 tackles, 10 passed defended, two interceptions) en route to a Pro Bowl (his fourth) and NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors. No. 29’s return solidifies a secondary that has to reload after veteran Sean Smith left for Oakland and safety Husain Abdullah retired. Marcus Peters was an impact rookie, picking off eight balls, breaking up 18 others and returning two picks for scores. He helped the Chiefs lead the AFC in turnover margin (plus-14). Smith’s departure opens a door for cornerback Phillip Gaines, who showed promise before falling to a season-ending knee injury after three games.
The Chiefs’ favorite returns weapon, speedster De’Anthony Thomas, is now a what-if; the former Oregon Duck (7.8 yards per punt runback) was placed on the reserve/non-football illness in late December. In the spring, Dorsey was reportedly shopping kick returner/running back Knile Davis (25.1 yards per return), who found himself marginalized largely to special-teams appearances despite Charles’ early-season injury. Maclin and Frankie Hammond can return punts in a pinch, and the drafting of return man Tyreek Hill might not portend well for the short-term futures of either Thomas or Davis. Veteran punter Dustin Colquitt (44.4 per attempt) still has the kind of leg you can set your watch to. And young kicker Cairo Santos is hoping for slightly less work and even more consistency.
Is it time for a new sheriff in the AFC West? The Chiefs seem poised to step into the divisional breach, although Denver’s defense will have something to say about that. If 2015’s schedule was weird and winding, with a November “home” game in London keeping the club away from Arrowhead for more than a month, then 2016’s dance card is more straightforward — though no less challenging. Smith and Johnson aren’t getting any younger, so time is of the essence. If the Chiefs can match the ball-hawking form they showcased the second half of last season, that time might be now.
Prediction: 1st in the AFC West
Talk about your seismic shifts. In the span of barely a month, the Broncos went from champagne-soaked, confetti-covered Super Bowl champions to just another NFL team in desperate search of a quarterback.
Peyton Manning took his ball and his slew of NFL records and went home, and his would-be successor, Brock Osweiler, bolted for Houston via free agency. With Mark Sanchez, he of ESPN butt-fumble infamy, keeping the seat warm for No. 1 draft pick Paxton Lynch, the Broncos find themselves a team in transition. But that doesn’t mean they can’t return to the playoffs. Manning’s 55 touchdown passes in 2013? That’s ancient history in Denver. Armed with the league’s most dominant edge rushers and an all-world secondary, the Broncos will go old school in 2016, grinding out time and yardage in the running game and letting their defense steal the ball and control the game. According to no less an authority than Cam Newton, it’s a formula for success, even in today’s pass-giddy NFL.
GM John Elway tried to pry Colin Kaepernick away from the 49ers, but, in the end, he settled for Sanchez and drafted Lynch. The Broncos’ coaches love Lynch’s arm strength and his ability to extend plays outside the pocket, but he doesn’t figure to put either on display much, if at all, this season. That leaves Sanchez, whose job will be to keep his hands on the ball, which will definitely be under the microscope following the surgery he had in May after injuring the thumb on his left (non-throwing) hand reportedly while lifting weights. Amazing as it seems for a team with a defense for the ages, the Broncos of 2015 finished minus-4 in turnovers, thanks to Manning’s league-worst 17 interceptions. They won’t tempt such fate again. Instead, they’ll rely on their running game and intermediate gains through the air.
|Head Coach||Gary Kubiak|
|Record With Team||12-4|
|Offensive Coordinator||Rick Dennison|
|Defensive Coordinator||Wade Phillips|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Joe DeCamillis|
|Running Backs||Eric Studesville|
|Wide Receivers||Tyke Tolbert|
|Tight Ends||Brian Pariani|
|Offensive Line||Clancy Barone|
|Defensive Line||Bill Kollar|
|Outside Linebackers||Fred Pagac|
|Defensive Backs||Joe Woods|
Gary Kubiak’s zone-blocking, run-oriented offense figures to create big chunks of yardage on the ground. Question is, who’ll be carrying the rock? The Broncos matched Miami’s offer sheet to retain C.J. Anderson, but he has yet to cobble together an injury-free, big-number season. Anderson will be challenged by Devontae Booker, a fourth-round steal from Utah who could emerge as this year’s top fantasy dark horse. Kubiak loves his one-cut-and-go style.
The good news for both is that Elway has patched up an offensive line that was among the worst in the league last season. He dipped into free agency for tackles Russell Okung and Donald Stephenson. If last year’s second-rounder, guard Ty Sambrailo, can bounce back from a season-ending injury, the line figures to be much more stable this time around.
Another huge plus for the offense: Former Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman, a third-rounder in 2015, is healthy. The coaches targeted Heuerman as a big factor in the passing game, only to see him blow out a knee on the first day of mini-camps. Look for him to emerge as a big-play receiver, taking some of the pressure off wideouts Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Thomas will look to bounce back from a season defined as much by drops as touchdowns, and Sanders, arguably the best free-agent signee of the Elway era, is in a contract year.
Assuming you didn’t spend Super Sunday at the mall on a pre-Valentine’s Day shopping spree, you already know how dominant the Broncos’ pass rush is. Outside linebacker Von Miller is the single most dangerous edge rusher in the business, and his partner, future Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware, is back for what could be his NFL swan song. But wait, there’s more. The Broncos have assembled nothing short of an embarrassment of riches on the corner. Backup outside linebackers Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett would start and star for virtually every other NFL team.
There are questions on the defensive line in the aftermath of Malik Jackson’s free-agent exodus, but the coaches, specifically line coach Bill Kollar, believe rookie Adam Gotsis can step in and make an immediate impact. The Broncos still are waiting for nose tackle Sylvester Williams to play up to his status as a former No. 1 pick, but he’s at least serviceable.
The linebacking corps took a hit when Danny Trevathan hit the free-agent trail, but the team’s best inside backer, Brandon Marshall, is back and should be around for a while after signing a four-year, $32 million contract extension in June.
Then there’s the secondary. It doesn’t seem fair, a team with the Broncos’ pass rush having arguably the best corner tandem in the league. Chris Harris and Aqib Talib can cover with the best of them, and they’re ball hawks always in search of tipped balls or errant passes. Talib suffered a gunshot wound to his right leg in early June in an incident at a Dallas nightclub. While the injury isn’t believed serious it remains to be seen what charges Talib could be facing and any subsequent punishment from the league as a result.
Fortunately for the Broncos their cornerback depth goes beyond Harris and Talib. Former first-rounder Bradley Roby would be a fixture on most other teams, but in Denver he’s simply the best nickel back in the game. All three corners bring serious intangibles, too. They have a nasty streak that plays well against the run, not that the Broncos’ safeties, T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart, need much help in that department. Given the constant pressure applied by the edge rush, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is comfortable taking Ward out of coverage and planting him in the box, making it virtually impossible to run against the Broncos.
Yes, the offense will rely on the defense to carry the load, but this group wouldn’t have it any other way.
When a team burns a draft pick on a punter, that’s not a good sign for the incumbent. That would be Britton Colquitt, once the highest-paid punter in the league who was forced to take a pay cut and, if he doesn’t perform in training camp, may be out of a job. The punting game figures to be a bigger factor for the Broncos this season than in recent years. With fewer big plays expected — or even attempted — in the passing game, the Broncos’ M.O. will be to control the ball with the running game, dominate and force turnovers on defense and win the field-position battle with the kicking game. Colquitt’s average kick in the past five seasons has dwindled from 47.4 yards to 43.6. If he doesn’t bounce back from another shaky season, the coaches won’t hesitate to give the gig to seventh-rounder Riley Dixon. Now for the good news: Kicker Brandon McManus is coming off an excellent season in which he converted 20 out of 20 inside the 40 and 5-of-7 from 50-plus.
Andre “Bubba” Caldwell signed with the Lions in free agency, leaving Sanders to handle return duties, at least for now. In a perfect world, a young player would emerge to return punts and relieve Sanders of some physical pounding.
Prediction: 2nd in AFC West
The momentum of the preeminent conference in the FCS appears to be getting stronger.
With a nation focused on the North Dakota State dynasty, there’s great depth all across the Missouri Valley Football Conference, as two straight years of a record-tying five playoff berths indicate.
The offseason has probably even brought added fortune to the conference, which has pushed to get more-balanced playoff selections after the five Valley qualifiers were placed together in one-half of last year’s 24-team bracket. An expected NCAA approval of an adjustment in policy would mean any conference with four qualifiers would have its teams split between the two halves of the bracket.
And, yes, the Valley plans to have many playoff qualifiers again this year.
Here are five key questions about the MVFC for the season ahead:
1. Is six the number with North Dakota State?
North Dakota State has won a record five consecutive FCS national titles and five straight Missouri Valley titles, and beaten five FBS opponents in a row. The first chance to add to those streaks comes Sept. 17 at Iowa. The other two streaks are more important, though. The Bison continue to graduate top seniors, but this year’s team still returns 14 starters. Their run game will be superb and their ability to stop the run is unmatched. They’ve been so good that they still won the national title last season with quarterback Carson Wentz sidelined for eight games, and that pays off for this season with starter Easton Stick, who was undefeated as he became seasoned. The pressure to win will be enormous, but nobody doubts coach Chris Kliieman’s squad is positioned to handle it.
2. Is six the number with the Missouri Valley?
No FCS conference has sent six teams to the FCS playoffs, but this might be the year for the Missouri Valley. All five teams that qualified for the playoffs last season — North Dakota State, Illinois State, Northern Iowa, South Dakota State and Western Illinois — have enough key players returning that they can be confident in a return to the postseason this year. The next-best candidate is Youngstown State, which has a veteran team under second-year head coach Bo Pelini but has continually fallen short of the playoffs. To gain six qualifiers, the MVFC probably has to dominate non-conference FCS opponents like 2014, when it was 23-1 in the regular season. But adding to the possibility of six is that other playoff-level programs have left the FCS in recent seasons. Plus, the playoff selection committee recognized the strength of the Valley and a top schedule by giving Western Illinois the first at-large bid following a 6-5 regular season last year.
3. How good is Illinois State?
Head coach Brock Spack has built up Illinois State’s level of talent, so all is not lost despite the loss of quarterback Tre Roberson and running back Marshaun Coprich, who spearheaded great success over the last two seasons (a 23-5 record, two MVFC co-titles and a 2014 national runner-up finish). With pocket-passer Jake Kolbe, the Redbirds will be different, but still strong at the position, especially with All-America wide receiver Anthony Warrum back to help out. Running back could take on a committee look, but the entire starting offensive line will pave the wave. The defense will be more inexperienced than the offense, so the new starters have to jell quickly. Missing Northern Iowa in the conference’s unbalanced schedule helps, but the Redbirds still remain a top 10-level team until proven otherwise.
4. Is there room for a dark horse?
Obviously, the Missouri Valley has become the strongest conference in the FCS, riding the coattails of the North Dakota State dynasty. But a surprise emerges among the top-tier programs each season. Last year, it was Western Illinois, which tied for third place. Well, South Dakota now has WIU’s Missouri Valley Coach of the Year Bob Nielson leading its program. Coupled with a win at North Dakota State last October and the Coyotes appear to be a program on the rise. Quite frankly, Youngstown State needs to end its 10-year playoff drought with so many key seniors. Indiana State, a 2014 playoff qualifier, could be this year’s surprise team, but the Sycamores’ loss of talented quarterback Matt Adam to academic issues has set them back.
5. Who are the NFL prospects?
It’s a good season for defensive standouts in the Missouri Valley — all right, when isn’t it? In the senior class, the two top candidates for the 2017 NFL Draft are North Dakota State’s Nick DeLuca and Youngstown State’s Derek Rivers. DeLuca (6-3, 240) has good size for a middle linebacker and has a skill set to defend the run or pass. Rivers (6-4, 250), a defensive end who moves well for his size, holds the Youngstown State record for career sacks (26) with a season to go. One of Rivers’ teammates, strong safety LeRoy Alexander (6-0, 195), and Southern Illinois inside linebacker Chase Allen (6-3, 240) are others to watch. It will be a banner season in the MVFC.
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Top photo by Richard Svaleson/North Dakota State University Athletics)
Whenever sports media outlets publish “Greatest Ever” pieces, it almost always leads to intense discussion on social, many times drawing ire not just from the fans, but from excluded players as well. One of the reasons media outlets continuously compile these subjective lists is that they spread like wildfire on social media. All it takes is the right person to take issue with it and an entire day can be spent debating the worthiness of players on a specific list. This is exactly what happened with former USC linebacker Su’a Cravens and a list recently published by Dan Weber of USCFootball.com.
Before picking apart the issue at hand, it is worth mentioning that Cravens has always been a leader for USC. Even going back to his vaunted recruiting class, Cravens was picked by several people — myself included — to be the most important recruit the Trojans had added that cycle. In a class that included Max Browne, Justin Davis, Chris Hawkins, Darreus Rogers and Kenny Bigelow, Cravens looked and sounded like a leader of men. It wasn’t long before his play for USC matched the hype.
There can be no doubt that part of Cravens’ legacy was moving positions on a near yearly basis. While he came in as a safety, he left the Trojans as one of the most effective and feared pass rushers on the team. Regardless of where he was asked to play, Cravens did so and he did so with passion and results. He always put the team before himself and he encouraged those around him to do the same.
By and large, Cravens has a long and established history of being a well-spoken, well-rounded, intellectually-driven, and even-keeled young man. He has never been the type of person to seek individual attention within the media. That doesn’t mean he’s a recluse, far from it. Cravens has been known to give his thoughts on a number of issues, but the vast majority of his words and deeds match those of the ultimate team player and leader. Then July 6 happened.
As was already mentioned, Weber had compiled a list of the best players USCFootball.com has covered during its time as publishers of the product. Site owner Ryan Abraham took over in 2002, thus inspiring an All-Trojan team from the seemingly arbitrary years of 2002-15. The list ended up with 29 All-Americans on it. Those who were left off are certainly no slouches in their own right, but the general idea was one player per position (though this ended up being loosely enforced).
After seeing the list, Cravens ended up a bit miffed and took to Twitter to discuss his feelings. He opened his argument in a rather odd way. More than likely, it was the opening that inspired so much debate among fans and it was certainly the impetus for this column.
In the most humble way possible, I believe I'm one of the best USC football players in school history. What hurts my case is the sanctions.— Su'a Cravens (@Sua_Cravens) July 10, 2016
I came N at one of the worst periods of time in USC football history and managed to play in a 10 win season, PAC 12 ship, beat 2 top 5 teams— Su'a Cravens (@Sua_Cravens) July 10, 2016
Don't get me started on the All-American voting.... But I showed out at 2-3 different positions over 3 years with different staffs each year— Su'a Cravens (@Sua_Cravens) July 10, 2016
I take anything USC personally because I am a die hard and will always be a Trojan. I bleed anything Cardinal and gold.— Su'a Cravens (@Sua_Cravens) July 10, 2016
I respect and love Daniel Weber for everything he does, his work is always great. But this list bothered me I guess. https://t.co/4TvDiyd1Gh— Su'a Cravens (@Sua_Cravens) July 10, 2016
Keyword - ONE OF THE BEST to ever wear Cardinal and Gold. Alright, I leave it to yal to do as you please with it . #FightOn ✌🏽️— Su'a Cravens (@Sua_Cravens) July 10, 2016
Cravens’ thesis appears to be that the sanctions limited USC’s ability to play in high-profile games as a result of the program not being able to recruit full classes. There is no way to infer his views on the quality of the players next to him, but it’s pretty clear that Cravens felt USC should have had a couple more. Whether or not this was one of the worst periods of time in USC football history is a matter of perspective.
Despite the sanctions, the Trojans won a total of 27 games during his tenure and only had 14 losses. In all, Cravens never lost more than four games during his tenure at USC, but is using the platform that it was one of the worst periods in the program’s history. Dealing with sanctions made things extremely difficult for USC, but it wouldn’t be out of bounds for someone to point out that the on-the-field results were a decent distance away from the worst three-year stretches in program history.
It also wouldn’t be unfair to point out that this is a completely fun and pointless list Weber has compiled, but Cravens sent six tweets discussing how people should have recognized his efforts more than they did in “the most humble way possible.” The definition of humble is to have or show a modest or low estimate of one’s own importance, but that’s pretty much the opposite of what these six tweets did.
There’s also the hidden element of unrealized expectations. Without specifying which aspect of the sanctions was what held him back, Cravens hinted at having to play out of position on multiple occasions because of a lack of depth or production. These are the kind of things team players do without asking to receive the attention for having done so.
There is the case that the sanctions also hurt USC in terms of being able to play in high-profile games, but this also is pretty subjective. Everything USC does ends up being a production, good or bad. Two of the bowl games Cravens played in were against Wisconsin and Nebraska — extremely high-profile programs. That doesn't account for the number of primetime games and marquee matchups in which Cravens participated.
Cravens’ decision to go pro was his decision, but it's unfair to say "he had a lack of high-profile games" when he did, in fact, have several high-profile games and the chance to play Alabama (if he had stayed for this season). His legacy is his to manage, but Cravens opened the door for this line of conversation when he claimed it was the sanctions that hurt his legacy. He manages his own legacy and opted to end his run with USC when he did. That's on him and perfectly acceptable, but that also means the person using the argument must accept that bigger games were available to them to cement their legacy and they opted to go a different route.
Cravens was a tremendous player and representative for the University of Southern California. His legacy is that he was the lynchpin in a recruiting class that was very much needed after sanctions. His performances on the field speak for themselves, but so do the performances of those individuals Weber listed ahead of Cravens. Whether or not Cravens likes it, leaving as a junior leaves him with less of a body of work than some of the other people who Weber slotted ahead of him. More time at a school gives you more chances to cement your legacy.
Cravens is free to define his own path. Nobody knows more about what was best for him than him. But he also has to accept that part of the deal with going pro early is that there will be other players who put in four years of work and their legacy leaves them with a bit more to chew on for creating a list like this. It's not as much throwing it in his face as it is accepting the reality of what it means to go pro early at a school with more NFL Hall of Famers, players, and first-round picks than any other school in the nation. He's got a lot of really good competition.
At the end of the day, that’s what it means to play at a school like USC. Ten-win seasons are considered the minimum, not something to celebrate. USC’s sanctions may have kicked in a different way with the reduction of scholarships in Cravens’ class, but that discounts the 10-win season Matt Barkley had, which included a win over Oregon on the road. Now that I mention his name, Barkley wasn’t on Weber’s list either and he, as a true freshman, faced on the road an Ohio State team that went on to win the Rose Bowl and won. He was the first-ever USC quarterback to start as a true freshman, he didn’t make Weber’s list.
Because the thing with lists like these is that they could be filled out a million different ways and none of them would be wrong. Cravens is going to have to learn not to get bothered by things like this if he wants to have a sustained NFL career.
There are plenty of lists Cravens won’t make, but the only one he should be focused on right now is the Washington Redskins’ 53-man roster.
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Webb is a recruiting analyst for BarkBoard, Scout’s Fresno State affiliate. A contributor to USCFootball.com, Scout’s USC affiliate. He is also a regular guest and contributor for CFBHuddle. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.