Articles By Athlon Sports
You can call Shilique Calhoun whatever you want — he has at least three nicknames so far — but be sure to call him one of the best defensive ends in the nation.
Calhoun, a 6'4", 257-pound fourth-year junior from Middletown, N.J., shunned early entry into the NFL, despite a first-round draft grade, to return to Michigan State with the intent of earning his degree and leading the Spartans into the College Football Playoff.
Michigan State finished last season 13–1 and ranked No. 3 in the nation after a 24–20 victory over Stanford in the Rose Bowl and a 34–24 win over previously unbeaten Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Calhoun scored three defensive touchdowns for the Spartans in 2013 and recorded 7.5 sacks, 14 tackles for a loss and 18 QB hurries en route to being named the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year.
Coordinator Pat Narduzzi, whose defensive units have ranked in the nation’s top six each of the past three seasons, referred to Calhoun as “Shilique the Freak’’ in the days leading up to the Rose Bowl.
Athlon Sports caught up with the loquacious Calhoun, the unofficial spokesman of Spartan Nation, during the offseason.
Why did you choose Michigan State?
The biggest reason for me to come to Michigan State was not only the players, but also the coaches. It was like a close family here. Being here I was a part of a family. I didn’t feel like I was leaving home. My mom loved it here, and after my official visit here, she told me Michigan State was the measuring stick. When I came here, I actually had a Mohawk, and the guys at the table were having fun with me. It was like they were my older brothers, so I felt like it was family, even though they didn’t know who I was, and I was a simple recruit. It was like they’d known me for years. I just bought into this program.
Why do you think you weren’t rated higher than a 3-star recruit coming out of high school?
I’m not worried about where I’m rated or ranked. I feel like if I come out and play as hard as I can each and every day, I’ll be fine. Those stars and numbers don’t mean much to me. Part of the ratings process is going to camps, and I didn’t go to many; Rutgers was the only camp I went to. I didn’t have the resources to go to those camps. What I could do was go hard every play. It did push me to work harder. It was a motivator for me to work hard.
What are your various nicknames, and where did they come from?
Bane, Lynx … it depends on who you’re talking to. Different people have different nicknames for me. I have so many because of the personalities I have with different people. I don’t switch up, but sometimes I may be happy or sad. The nicknames vary. I don’t know really where they come from. I love Bane, I think that’s one that will stick with me when I’m 50. It is unique, and people around the country know it. Hopefully I can get Lynx to stick, too. I want a couple nicknames, because I like to change things up.
Other than Michigan State, what is your favorite place to play in the Big Ten?
Other than Spartan Stadium, the Woodshed, it would have to be Michigan. Seeing all those Michigan fans booing you out there on the field and telling you how much you suck. That pushes me. I can’t deal with Nebraska, who’s so nice to you. That’s kind of off base. Playing at Michigan, they want to throw you down and give you all these negative comments.
What’s your least favorite place to play in the Big Ten?
It would have to be Minnesota. It’s the icy tundra. It’s too much. We played there two years ago, last game of the season. It was freezing. I thought my fingers were going to fall off, and I wasn’t even outside yet. That has to be my least favorite because of the weather.
Why did you choose to come back for another season?
I would say one main reason was I wanted to get my degree. My mom and my dad were unable to obtain a college degree, so I felt that would be even greater than
making it into the NFL. It’s something that’s special to my family, and something that would be special to my mom would be walking across that stage. But another reason is I wanted to come back and have another year with my brothers. Being out there is like nothing else, running out of the tunnel and playing in front of Spartan Nation is a blessing, and I didn’t feel ready to give that up. I wanted to come back another year, and do great things, and please the coaches, and please the crowd, and play more games with guys I love and the guys I have built relationships with.
Who is the best offensive lineman you’ve gone against?
I have two. The best offensive lineman I’ve gone against when it pertains to run-blocking would be (Spartan center) Jack Allen, because he was a wrestler, and that man is great with his hands. He knows exactly where to place them to get you off balance. The best pass-protector would be (Spartan left tackle) Jack Conklin. He does that best on this team. He has an idea of the type of ways you’ll set, and how you’ll use your hands. Bull-rushing him isn’t going to work. He’s 320 pounds, so that’s not going to work. He’s not moving. Those are the best I’ve gone up against so far. Just when I think I’m getting a step ahead, they are finding new ways to win against me.
Who is the best running back you’ve faced?
There are two. One would be (former Spartan and current Pittsburgh Steeler) Le’Veon Bell. He did things you wouldn’t think a guy his size could do. Hurdling guys at 240, but then he wasn’t afraid to run you over and he could also spin. You never knew what you were going to get. The other one is (current Spartan tailback) Jeremy Langford, a guy with a lot of speed who was definitely an underdog. People didn’t know he was as good of a player as he is before last season because we had other great running backs. He’ll beat you with speed, and he’ll try to run you over, also. He’s not big on chopping you. If he has to pass-protect, he’ll stand you up and hold his ground, going against guys 260 and 300 — he doesn’t take the easy way out.
Which teammate would make the best coach?
That’s a hard one. Two guys come to mind, actually. I would say (former MSU linebacker) Max Bullough definitely. He knows defensive schemes. He knows offensive schemes. He knows the game of football, and his family is embedded into football. He knows all aspects of the game. Then (former MSU defensive end) Denzel Drone. He was an aggressive football player, but he knows how to work with little kids. It didn’t seem like it fit him because of how aggressive he was, but he could work with kids, and he could calm himself down. He was one of my teachers that I looked up to that mentored me. Coming in, I knew close to nothing about football, and he was definitely an influential person to me.
What is your hidden talent?
My hidden talent would be that I can actually do gymnastics. I can do backflips. When I was younger, me and my brother would try to find different things to do. That was one of the neat things we taught each other, watching other people do it, it was like, “I kind of know what to learn.” Of course, I fell on my head a couple of times, but I was always a trooper, I got back up, and I got back at it, and still to this day I can do it, even at this size. When people see it, they’re like, “Really? That just happened? Do it again.” I definitely don’t do it as often as I used to, but here and there I’ll do a couple flips for the kids.
Something interesting that we don’t know about coach Mark Dantonio?
Where it pertains to me, something people wouldn’t know is I have not gotten yelled at by Coach Dantonio yet. Maybe I’m doing something right, sitting up straight in the meeting room, or looking him in the eye. That man is a hard book to read sometimes, even for his players. But he is someone willing to talk to you, even though his facial expressions might not always indicate it. He is always willing to listen.
Player after player rotated through Charlie Strong’s office at 15-minute intervals. It was mid-January, and the dead period for recruiting was about to end.
Strong was about to leave Austin to crisscross the state and try to salvage Texas’ 2014 recruiting class, some of whom he’d never met — with three weeks left until Signing Day. But before he left, he wanted to make a personal connection with each of his players. It was critical in Strong’s mind, not only for first impressions, but also because he knew they were about to be subjected to the grueling workouts of his hulking strength and conditioning coach Pat Moorer.
“When a young man knows you care about him, then he’ll do everything that you ask of him,” says Strong, who went 23–3 the past two seasons at Louisville.
Much like a military officer conducting basic training, Moorer’s job would be to break down players and rebuild them while Strong was out selling recruits on helping to “Put the ‘T’ back in Texas.” In Strong’s mind, that ‘T’ stands for toughness, trust, togetherness and teamwork.
“Those things have to happen,” Strong says.
To make those things happen, Strong outlined his expectations for the players, most of which he learned coaching under Lou Holtz at Notre Dame and South Carolina: Live on campus the first three years; go to class every day and sit in the first two rows; no texting in class; no hats, headphones or jewelry in class; no drugs; no stealing; no guns; and treat women with respect.
Players were told coaches would be checking on them constantly to ensure compliance.
The consequences for violations:
A first offense would result in the player running.
A second offense would involve that player’s position group running.
A third offense would involve the position group and position coach running.
A fourth offense would involve the whole team running.
Strong also suggested to his new players they not throw their horns up — the hand gesture that has become synonymous with the Longhorns — until they earned that right and truly appreciated what it meant.
Gone, too, were the air-conditioned buses that used to take players the half-mile from the football complex to the practice fields.
Then, Strong introduced players to Moorer, who never smiles, and puts injured players in “the pit,” where they often work out harder than the healthy players.
Two players — safety Leroy Scott, who expected to be in the two-deep this season, and backup fullback Chet Moss — were dismissed from the team before spring ball. Others were told to pick it up.
When Strong wrapped up recruiting on Signing Day, he said his top priority was getting to know his players.
“For right now, I just need to find out who this football team is without distraction,” Strong said at the time.
Strong doesn’t sleep much, usually five to six hours tops. He gets up every weekday morning at 4:30 a.m. and runs five to six miles. It’s when he clears his mind and sets his priorities for each day. It also allows him to show his players that they are not outworking him.
“Every time we work out at 5:30 a.m., he’s already full of sweat,” says Texas offensive coordinator Joe Wickline. “Whatever he’s going to ask a player or a coach to do, he’s going to do more, and that’s an unbelievable mark of leadership.”
Strong, a former walk-on at Central Arkansas who can still bench 350 pounds according to friends, spends a lot of time in the weight room with his players. He talks trash, stirs them up, challenges them to bench-press contests and constantly pushes them.
“Don’t let this 53-year-old man outwork you,” he yells.
And while several Texas players say they’ve never worked harder than they have since Strong arrived, they say it’s what was needed.
“I’m sure everybody, at some point in their career, has had hard coaching,” says junior defensive tackle Malcom Brown. “When the new staff came in, I just felt like everybody knew by the way Coach Strong was talking he was serious about what he was going to do. And everything he said he was going to do, he has done.
“He outlined the punishments for us, and if you mess up, you’re going to get in trouble. They’re on that. So I feel like everybody knows we have to stay in line. If we do, we’re going to get it right.”
Strong knows the key is getting close to his players. So he took the electronic key card locks off the coaches’ offices. He invited players to come hang out in his office or do their homework in his conference room. If they didn’t show up, he reminded them until they did.
“He’s always visible, always around them,” says assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson. “He shows the demanding side and shows the humorous side. He does a great job from a fathering aspect. We’ll go to class. We won’t go to interrupt things. We’ll go to make sure the guys are there.
“Charlie raises these guys,” Watson adds. “And it’s the same way with the assistants. We want the players around us. They’re starting to be up around our offices now, which is really good. We’re going to be in a foxhole together. The more you get to know each other, the closer you are, the faster you get through issues.”
Texas athletic director Steve Patterson has said he narrowed a list of 30 candidates to six to replace Mack Brown. Those finalists included James Franklin, now at Penn State, UCLA’s Jim Mora, Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio and Baylor’s Art Briles.
In the end, Patterson says he was struck by Strong’s desire to have the interview in the kitchen of his Louisville home with Strong’s wife and two daughters sitting there with him.
Strong stressed to Patterson that he was relentless about his players going to class and graduating, because he knows it’s the ticket to a better life for many kids who couldn’t otherwise afford an education. And he’s all about building toughness and togetherness through discipline and structure, because he knows kids need it and respond to it, even though they may think otherwise at first.
“He’s a tireless worker,” says Wickline, who coached with Strong at Florida under Ron Zook in the early 2000s. “He’s unbelievably organized.
“The players see that. The morals he stresses and the fact that he truly cares about them graduating and being a successful human being — you can’t fake that. And it pours out of him.”
While Strong was the defensive coordinator at Florida, where he helped win national titles in 2006 and 2008 under Urban Meyer, he recruited quarterback Chris Leak.
Leak says Texas will never have to worry about being labeled soft again under Strong.
“It’s the mindset he brings,” Leak says. “You see it reflected in the program. You’ve seen it at Louisville. They bought in. Everyone there. Charlie’s been through a lot of adversity in coaching, getting passed over for a bunch of jobs, and all he’s done is prove himself over and over.
“As a team, you take on the personality of your coach, and his toughness is one of the biggest things you see reflected.
“He’s had that drive to succeed from Day 1. That’s who he is. He’s goal-oriented and has his priorities straight. He wants to win it all, and he has a plan. Charlie always has a plan. He’s always prepared. He wakes up thinking about every detail.”
Written by Chip Brown (@ChipBrownHD) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 Big 12 Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.
In the 2014 edition of Athlon Sports’ Pro Football preview, we called on Ourlads Scouting Services to rank the NFL’s best at every position on the field. When it comes to determining who is the best quarterback, running back, wide receiver, linebacker, cornerback, etc., who better to make that determination than a company that’s been in the gridiron talent evaluation business for nearly three decades?
Even though the NFL has become more of a pass-happy league in recent seasons, there’s still plenty of talent at running back. Adrian Peterson, whose career average of 98.2 yards rushing per game ranks third all-time behind only Jim Brown and Barry Sanders, won’t turn 30 until March and checks in at No. 1. LeSean McCoy, the reigning rushing champion, is next followed by Jamaal Charles, whose 5.6 yards per carry average is tops (min. 1,000 rushing attempts). One other thing worth noting, the lifespan of an elite running back isn’t as long as other positions, as evidenced by the fact that 31-year-old Frank Gore (no. 5) is the only one in the top 10 who is older than 29.
And not to be left out, Ourlads showed some love to the fullbacks as well. Usually called on to block more than to tote the rock, a valuable fullback’s contributions can’t be overlooked. Of the top five identified by Ourlads, three (Anthony Sherman, John Kuhn and Bruce Miller) led the way for 1,000-yard rushers last season.
Rankings courtesy of Ourlads Scouting Services
2014 NFL Player Rankings: Running Backs
1. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota
Rushed for 1,266 yards despite being banged up in 2013. Powerful, strong and punishing are his descriptors. Classic downhill runner who gets yards after initial contact.
2. LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia
Is one of the league’s elite runners and is the feature back in Chip Kelly’s run-oriented high-performance offense. Excellent vision, cutting ability and running skills. Dangerous in space.
3. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City
Is a slashing downhill runner who can catch the ball out of the backfield. He produced 1,287 yards as the Chiefs’ leading ball-carrier and snatched 70 passes as the leading receiver.
4. Marshawn Lynch, Seattle
His physical running style is catching up to him despite being only 28. Runs between the tackles with battering-ram power. Is blessed with exceptional contact balance and breakaway speed.
5. Frank Gore, San Francisco
He is the perfect back for this offense as both the featured runner and pass-protector. The ageless warrior is a competitive runner with great vision and balance. Runs through arm tackles. Has top-level run skills and instincts.
6. Matt Forté, Chicago
Was as productive and versatile as any back in the league last year with 1,339 rushing yards and 594 receiving yards. Quick feet in the hole. Finishes his runs with strength.
7. C.J. Spiller, Buffalo
A shifty and speedy back who teams up with Fred Jackson to give the Bills a solid one-two punch. A cutback runner with good vision and rare quickness. Quick-twitch enough to get yards out of a poorly blocked play.
8. Eddie Lacy, Green Bay
Was voted the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year after rushing for 1,178 yards. Ran with a low pad level and gored tacklers at times like he was back in the SEC. A thick and powerful runner who excels tackle to tackle.
9. Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh
Is an ascending talent who was drafted in the second round in 2013. He started off slowly with some nagging injuries, but by season’s end was the hammer the Steelers selected.
10. Ryan Mathews, San Diego
Had a breakout season in 2013, rushing for 1,255 yards. He was a completely different back playing healthy for the first time in his career. Presses the hole and runs behind his pads.
11. DeMarco Murray, Dallas
12. Darren Sproles, Philadelphia
13. Reggie Bush, Detroit
14. Ray Rice, Baltimore
15. Doug Martin, Tampa Bay
16. Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati
17. Pierre Thomas, New Orleans
18. Knowshon Moreno, Miami
19. Fred Jackson, Buffalo
20. Arian Foster, Houston
21. Alfred Morris, Washington
22. Zac Stacy, St. Louis
23. Chris Johnson, NY Jets
24. DeAngelo Williams, Carolina
25. Danny Woodhead, San Diego
26. Joique Bell, Detroit
27. Andre Ellington, Arizona
28. LeGarrette Blount, Pittsburgh
29. Rashad Jennings, NY Giants
30. Trent Richardson, Indianapolis
2014 NFL Player Rankings: Fullbacks
1. Anthony Sherman, Kansas City
A willing blocker who has some “pop” in his kickout blocks. Good vision, feet and strength to lead on isolation blocks. Has the courage to create off-tackle running lanes by driving his legs on contact.
2. Mike Tolbert, Carolina
A versatile role player who is tough as a third-down runner and receiver out of the backfield. Has had a positive impact on kickoff and punt coverage units. An explosive blocker with a low pad level.
3. John Kuhn, Green Bay
Is an explosive and effective lead-blocker. Solid in pass-protection. A collision player who can put a linebacker or safety on his back. Also productive as a core special teams contributor.
4. John Conner, NY Giants
A consistent lead-blocker who takes pride in his blocking. A classic short-necked fullback who is physical kicking out or sealing an off-tackle defender. A major special teams coverage talent.
5. Bruce Miller, San Francisco
Is a high-motor, great-effort finisher who sells out every play. A productive lead blocker who is key to the Niners’ physical running game.
You have the first pick in your fantasy football draft and you are on the clock. Who are you taking? Peyton Manning may have lapped the field in fantasy scoring after his record-breaking season, but does that mean you should take him with the No. 1 pick?
Not according to the Athlon Sports editors and fantasy football contributors who were posed this exact question. In fact, everyone was in agreement that the first player taken should be a running back, not a quarterback. Which one? Well that apparently is something clearly up for debate.
Jamaal Charles for No. 1
As my draft results in this magazine’s mock draft proved, I’m behind Jamaal Charles as the 2014 No. 1 overall pick. In his first season under new head coach Andy Reid, with Alex Smith at quarterback, Charles posted a career season, with highs in yards, touchdowns, receptions and fantasy points. His 19 touchdowns were five more than the second-best running back.
It has often been said that you should draft this year’s fantasy team, never last year’s. There is one caveat with that saying — the person with the No. 1 overall pick shouldn’t be guessing at this year’s best fantasy player. He should take the guy who, barring injury or major offseason roster overhauls, is the best player in fantasy and has yet to be knocked from his seat.
Jamaal Charles for No. 1
This is not exactly a safe pick, because of Charles’ stature — listed at just 199 pounds by the NFL — and injury history, but Charles was the workhorse in Andy Reid’s running back-friendly offense. He is the reigning scoring leader thanks to his added use in the Chiefs’ short passing game, racking up 70 receptions for 693 yards. Charles can take the ball to the house on any given play, and he will touch the ball well over 300 times again, if he stays healthy.
Perhaps the clincher is we all should be inclined to knock some value off LeSean McCoy, because the Eagles added Darren Sproles to take some receptions from their lead back. Charles is very clearly his team’s No. 1 weapon. He also happens to be at his physical prime of age 27, which is the same year Adrian Peterson went over 2,000 yards. A.P. is too close to 30. Charles is No. 1 this preseason.
Jamaal Charles for No. 1
Is it not said, “To the victor go the spoils”? Well, in that case, Jamaal Charles should be the choice for No. 1, unless you think Peyton Manning will replicate his record-breaking success from last season. After all, Charles not only led all running backs in fantasy points in 2013, but he also finished with more points than every player but five quarterbacks. And only Manning and Drew Brees outscored Charles by more than 12 points.
As difficult as it will be for Charles to duplicate his 19 total touchdowns from last season, let’s not forget that he finished third in rushing yards, even though he wound up 10th in the NFL in carries. The appeal with Charles is that you know Andy Reid will do whatever he can to get the ball to him, as evidenced by his 70 catches, and it’s not like the Chiefs have upgraded their pass-catchers this offseason. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Charles gets more than the 329 touches he got in 2013. If that’s the case, who wouldn’t take the guy who has averaged 5.6 yards per carry in his career?
LeSean McCoy For No. 1
Chip Kelly’s high-powered offense led the NFL in rushing last season, as the Eagles averaged 5.1 yards per carry and finished with an average of 160.4 yards per game. LeSean McCoy was the team’s workhorse on the ground, posting career-high numbers in carries (314) and rushing yards (1,607). McCoy has never recorded back-to-back seasons of more than 270 carries, but Chris Polk and Darren Sproles won’t eat into his workload in 2014.
Another factor working in McCoy’s favor is his offensive line. Philadelphia kept its starting five intact, which should allow McCoy to push for 1,600 yards again. Even if McCoy doesn’t match last year’s rushing yards, he has two scoring areas in which to improve in 2014. He had just two touchdown catches despite hauling in 52 passes, and he recorded only nine scores on the ground on 314 attempts.
LeSean McCoy For No. 1
If you’re sitting in the top spot, grab LeSean McCoy over Adrian Peterson.
I took no college math classes, but even I can see regression potential throughout Jamaal Charles’ 2013 numbers. He more than doubled his career high in total touchdowns and blew up his receiving stats. And then the Chiefs lost their three highest rated O-linemen — according to Pro Football Focus — in free agency.
McCoy vs. Peterson is close only because Peterson is superhuman. His 2,000-yard 2012 shows why you can’t judge him by the late-career decline of most backs, but he has missed seven games over the past four years.
McCoy’s 26, he just finished leading the league in touches and rushing yards, and he still has touchdown upside. He also tied for just sixth in rushing scores last year despite playing for the league’s No. 4 scoring offense.
Matt Forté for No. 1
In his first year in Marc Trestman’s offense, Matt Forté jumped nine spots from 2012 to finish behind Jamaal Charles and LeSean McCoy for third place in fantasy points among running backs. And the biggest difference between Forté and leading scorer Charles was the seven additional touchdowns the Chiefs’ workhorse scored.
That said, the Chiefs lost three starters on the offensive line, and they still didn’t address the receiver position. Also, De’Anthony Thomas was drafted as a situational back, and Knile Davis is expected to chip away at Charles’ workload. Meanwhile in Chicago, rookie fourth-rounder Ka’Deem Carey is the only one set to challenge Forté. You can’t go wrong with Charles, McCoy or even Adrian Peterson, but I prefer Forté and the weapons around him more than any of the other three.
Adrian Peterson for No. 1
Adrian Peterson is the best running back to come through the NFL in a long while, and there is no reason to expect a slowdown for All Day — at least, not in 2014. His long-term keeper value is certainly more of a question, but for the immediate future, there is no one better in the league than Peterson. The Vikings’ offensive line was one of the better run-blocking units in the league last year. In seven pro seasons and three college campaigns, Peterson has never scored fewer than 10 touchdowns and only once rushed for fewer than 1,000 yards — and that was due to his torn ACL late in 2011. He’s not yet 30 years old, and, with rumors swirling about this being his swan song in Minnesota, A.D. should be extremely motivated to produce in ’14.
Fall college fantasy football drafts are right around the corner and Athlon is here to help win your league in 2014. Athlon Sports has teamed with Joe DiSalvo of thecffsite.com to provide the latest rankings for the upcoming year.
Thecffsite.com is the No. 1 place for college fantasy news, rankings and weekly projections during the year.
Below is the projected top 20 fantasy quarterbacks for 2014. Want to go deeper? Check out thecffsite.com’s draft kit, which contains keeper league information, more rankings and analysis.
Scoring system rankings based upon:
All draft values are based on a 12-team, 20-round draft using the following scoring system:
Passing — 25 pass yds = 1 point
Passing TD = 4 points
Rushing — 10 rushing yards = 1 point
Rushing TDs = 6 points
Receiving — .5 points per reception, 10 receiving yards = 1 point, Receiving TDs = 6 points
Updated: July 4, 2014, by Joe DiSalvo (@theCFFsite)
Note: This is not a list of the best players in college football. This is a ranking of the best players in terms of fantasy value (players who will have the best numbers in college football for 2014).
College Fantasy Football: Top 20 Quarterbacks for 2014
1. Marcus Mariota, Oregon
3. Braxton Miller, Ohio State
4. Rakeem Cato, Marshall
5. Matt Johnson, Bowling Green
6. Davis Webb, Texas Tech
7. Taysom Hill, BYU
8. Keenan Reynolds, Navy
9. Jameis Winston, Florida State
10. Dak Prescott, Mississippi State
11. Shane Carden, East Carolina
12. Nick Marshall, Auburn
13. Brett Hundley, UCLA
14. Taylor Kelly, Arizona State
15. Cody Fajardo, Nevada
16. Taylor Heinicke, Old Dominion
17. Chuckie Keeton, Utah State
18. John O’Korn, Houston
19. Marquise Williams, North Carolina
20. Maty Mauk, Missouri
In the 2014 edition of Athlon Sports’ Pro Football preview, we called on Ourlads Scouting Services to rank the NFL’s best at every position on the field. When it comes to determining who is the best quarterback, running back, wide receiver, linebacker, cornerback, etc., who better to make that determination than a company that’s been in the gridiron talent evaluation business for nearly three decades?
If there ever was any doubt about the importance of the quarterback on an NFL team, look no further than the five Super Bowl MVPs among the top 10 at the position. And that group doesn’t include Russell Wilson, who led the Seahawks to the world title this past season, just his second in the league. Don’t overlook the NFC North either, as three of its four signal-callers crack Ourlads’ top 10.
Rankings courtesy of Ourlads Scouting Services
2014 NFL Player Rankings: Quarterbacks
1. Peyton Manning, Denver
The reigning NFL MVP threw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns with the second-highest passer rating (115.1) in the league. His arm strength is not what it has been in the past, but his anticipation and ability to get out of a bad play are unparalleled.
2. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay
Was derailed for seven games with a broken collarbone but came back to lead the Packers on a late run for the division title. Continues with his outstanding accuracy and decision-making. Good timing and touch on passes. Has vision, feel and natural running ability.
3. Tom Brady, New England
The consummate pro overcame a leaky line, a young receiving corps and a depleted stable of tight ends to play in the AFC Championship Game. Age has not slowed his quick release and accuracy. Poised and confident.
4. Drew Brees, New Orleans
Turned 35 in January, but is coming off a year in which he threw for more than 5,000 yards and 39 touchdowns and won a road playoff game. Slides away from the rush and throws well on the move. Has outstanding touch and timing to keep receivers on their routes.
5. Philip Rivers, San Diego
Cut down on his interceptions while maintaining his gunslinger style and passed for 4,478 yards and 32 touchdowns in 2013. Plays with great patience, intelligence and confidence. A good improviser.
6. Russell Wilson, Seattle
Has now officially answered all of the questions about his height, arm strength and the ability to win from the pocket. Threw for more than 3,000 yards and 26 touchdowns in his Super Bowl-winning season.
7. Andrew Luck, Indianapolis
Cut down on interceptions and continued to grow in his second season. He proved that he could win the game in the pocket but is mobile and athletic enough to avoid a rush to extend a play.
8. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh
Is 32 years old and had a solid season in which he played all 16 games for the first time since 2008. He almost pulled out a playoff berth with a late-season run. A playmaker who can extend a play and pressure the defense.
9. Jay Cutler, Chicago
Battled injury and still passed for 2,621 yards with 19 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. A competitive leader who can take a hit and throw under duress. Adjusts his throws well under pressure.
10. Matthew Stafford, Lions
Completed 2013 with 4,650 yards passing with 29 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. He is physically gifted with excellent arm strength. A streaky passer who is more on than off.
11. Tony Romo, Dallas
12. Matt Ryan, Atlanta
13. Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco
14. Cam Newton, Carolina
15. Nick Foles, Philadelphia
16. Sam Bradford, St. Louis
17. Alex Smith, Kansas City
18. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati
19. Jake Locker, Tennessee
20. Eli Manning, NY Giants
21. Josh McCown, Tampa Bay
22. Joe Flacco, Baltimore
23. Carson Palmer, Arizona
24. Robert Griffin III, Washington
25. Michael Vick, NY Jets
26. Ryan Tannehill, Miami
27. Geno Smith, NY Jets
28. Matt Cassel, Minnesota
29. EJ Manuel, Buffalo
30. Matt Schaub, Oakland
It has been a rapid rise for Jeremy Pruitt from high school assistant coach to anointed savior of a major college football program.
Eight years ago, he was a defensive coordinator at Hoover (Ala.) High School. Five years ago, he was a non-coaching quality control assistant at Alabama. As late as last year, few fans of college football knew who he was.
But when Pruitt walked into a team meeting at Georgia in January, minutes after being hired as defensive coordinator, he received a standing ovation. It wasn’t so much for his credentials, though by then many players were aware of them. It was more because he represented a new start, something Georgia’s defense desperately needed.
“A lot of guys probably needed a fresh start,” senior cornerback Damian Swann says.
Before getting into why Pruitt is seen as the right guy at Georgia, it’s important to know the state of the defense — both playing-wise and emotionally — after last season.
Todd Grantham had his good moments in four years as defensive coordinator, especially the first two. He brought a much-needed fire to the defense, which was one of the best in the nation in 2011. But the unit struggled the following season, which was a surprise given all its talent, and last year it struggled even more, crippled by youth and inexperience.
After the regular season, head coach Mark Richt said Grantham would be retained, citing the need for coaching stability, and Grantham said he thought “the arrow was up” on his defense, due to returning all but one starter. But when Louisville came calling in January with a lucrative offer to Grantham, Richt and Georgia didn’t match it.
There was a sense around Georgia — fans and media, and some within the program — that Grantham’s act had worn thin. His self-assured attitude and fiery demeanor were great when the defense was doing well, especially in 2011. But when the unit struggled, Grantham rarely took personal blame. And given his NFL background, Grantham was also reluctant to simplify his scheme or go deep into his bench.
When Grantham bolted, Richt’s phone started lighting up, with plenty of coaches eager to get involved in the search. But the most important phone call was taking place between Pruitt and Georgia offensive line coach Will Friend, who were roommates at Alabama and remained close friends.
Pruitt has only been a college defensive coordinator one year. But it was a very good year: Florida State ranked first nationally in scoring defense, third in yards allowed, and, oh by the way, won the national championship. He also helped win two national titles as Alabama’s secondary coach.
Friend lobbied Pruitt to join him in Athens. Richt secured the promise of a big raise. And within 48 hours, Pruitt was in.
“If you follow this business, there’s highs and lows everywhere,” Pruitt says. “For the seven years prior to this year the SEC has won national championships and FSU’s on top right now, so there’s never an easy time to leave a place, especially a place where you have such good friends and the place that gave you an opportunity. But the opportunity to come to the University of Georgia and the opportunity to work with Coach Richt — well, there’s a lot of folks who would like to be sitting in this chair today.”
But Georgia players, without ripping into their former coach, made it clear during the spring that there was more benefit to them.
“It’s a fresh start. But it feels like it’s a different vibe around here,” junior outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins says. “Guys want to be holding everyone else accountable for something. We’re not letting guys get away with the small stuff, and the coaches certainly aren’t either. They’re getting on us. I feel like we’re doing a lot of the small things now. We’re doing the technique work. … The coaches really just want to see us succeed. They’re always available for us. They’re just going the extra mile, compared to last year.”
Georgia was eighth in the SEC in total defense last year, yielding 375.5 yards per game, the most of the Richt era.
The pass defense was mostly at fault: It yielded 227.4 yards per game, ninth in the SEC. (Georgia’s run defense was a respectable sixth in the league, and actually improved over 2012.)
Georgia also didn’t force turnovers, getting just 15 in 13 games, the second-worst rate in the conference.
Grantham-to-Pruitt doesn’t actually mean a sea change in defensive philosophy: Both run the 3-4 as a base defense, and both come from the Nick Saban coaching tree.
But Pruitt began making smaller changes in the spring:
• He asked players to drop weight, in order to form a lighter and quicker defense, one with speed more suited to defend no-huddle offenses. (Such as Clemson, the season-opening opponent.) Grantham preferred big, physical nose guards and even bigger defensive backs.
• Pruitt vowed to sub more, and use different packages. Grantham rarely employed a dime package last year.
• And perhaps most important, Pruitt simplified the defensive playbook. Last season, Georgia’s young players were clearly confused on the field.
“It’s a lot more easy,” senior inside linebacker Ramik Wilson said this spring.
Pruitt came up through the ranks as a high school coach, so it’s not surprising he would go that way. Teaching technique and fundamentals is central to his philosophy.
“There are a lot of details to it that I think get overlooked, and I think with my background in high school you’re sitting there teaching junior high kids about the fundamentals of how to play the game and how to get in a stance,” Pruitt says. “That’s how I’ll coach, and that’s my approach, so I think when you put emphasis on turnovers, hopefully you get the results.”
Pruitt owns three national championship rings, but he doesn’t wear them. He says he has them in a safe deposit box and doesn’t touch them.
But Pruitt didn’t have to wear the rings for his new players to be aware of them.
“He’s a smart guy. He’s got rings for a reason,” sophomore cornerback J.J. Green says.
“So his defense is gonna work.”
On Signing Day, a fan tried to bait Richt into saying something about Grantham, asking if Richt would thank Bobby Petrino for hiring Grantham away. The Georgia coach declined to answer the question, but as he walked away decided to say something.
“I’ll say this,” Richt said, looking at no one in particular, “I’m as excited and as energized as I’ve been in a long time. This whole thing has turned out to be quite a good thing for Georgia.”
Written by Seth Emerson (@SethEmerson) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 SEC Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.
Even though the Denver Broncos lost Super Bowl XLVIII to the Seattle Seahawks, they still set the single-season record for points scored (606). This, of course, was fueled in large part by Peyton Manning’s record 5,477 yards passing and 55 touchdowns.
Manning and the Broncos weren’t the only player or team that made history last season. And even in the AFC champions’ case, when it comes to record-setting moments during the 2013 season, some “firsts” are better left forgotten. As in what happened just 12 seconds in to Super Bowl XLVIII.
In 2013, for the first time in NFL history a team…
Featured a 450-yard passing game (Aaron Rodgers) and 125-yard rushing performance (James Starks) in the same game (Packers).
Allowed 25 points and committed at least three turnovers in each of its first six games (Giants).
Was pick-6’d in five consecutive contests (Texans).
Was favored by as many as 27 points in the Vegas line (Denver — which failed to cover — against Jacksonville).
Scored 17 touchdowns in its first eight games of a season, but none of them was rushing (Rams).
Scored on three rushes from 30 or more yards out in the same quarter (Eagles).
That won at least 12 games the previous season endured a 12-game losing streak in the next (Texans).
Gained 400 or more yards in 14 games (Broncos).
Rallied from as many as 28 points down to win a non-overtime playoff off game (Colts over Chiefs)
Won a postseason affair despite allowing 40 points and turning the ball over four times (Colts).
Scored on six consecutive drives of a conference championship game (Broncos).
Scored as quickly as 12 seconds into a Super Bowl (Seahawks).
Whose offense ranked more than 20 places higher in rushing than passing won a Super Bowl (Seahawks).
Threw 20 TD passes in a season before being intercepted (Peyton Manning).
Had an INT returned for a TD in four straight games (Matt Schaub).
Completed at least 25 passes in more than 10 consecutive games (Drew Brees).
Fired 16 TD passes in the first month of a season (Manning).
Scored on a run of longer than 80 yards (Terrelle Pryor).
Had a streak of more than 600 aerial attempts without completing one for a TD of longer than 20 yards (Christian Ponder).
Threw for multiple TDs in 21 consecutive home games (Brees).
Fired 359 TD passes for the same coach (Tom Brady for Bill Belichick).
Had 20 games with both a passing and rushing TD in the first three seasons of his career (Cam Newton).
Had a string of 16 TD passes in a single season that all came only in road games (Nick Foles).
Ran his career total of 300-yard/four-TD games to 23 (Brees).
Reached 50,000 aerial yards in fewer than 190 games (Brees).
Threw four or more TD passes in nine different games of a single season (Manning).
Flung 30 or more scoring passes in six straight campaigns (Brees).
Accounted for 8,000 total yards in his first two seasons (Andrew Luck).
Amassed more than 1,700 passing yards in a calendar month (Manning in December).
Started a postseason game for the 26th time (Brady).
Caught 100 yards worth of his passes in his first game with a third different team (Anquan Boldin).
Caught four TD passes in one game on plays that started in the red zone (Marvin Jones).
With at least 50 career TD receptions nabbed as many as 84 balls in a row without scoring (Andre Johnson).
Caught 774 yards worth of passes in a four-game span (Josh Gordon).
Caught 861 yards worth of passes in a five-game span (Calvin Johnson).
Recorded back-to-back 200-yard performances (Gordon).
Averaged 5.5 yards on his first 1,000 NFL carries (Jamaal Charles).
Ran for at least 125 yards and four TDs in a playoff contest (LaGarrette Blount).
Needed fewer than three carries to lead both teams in rushing in a Super Bowl (Percy Harvin).
— Compiled by Bruce Herman for Athlon Sports. This article is featured in Athlon Sports' 2014 NFL Preview magazine, which is available on newsstands or can be purchased online.
The NFL is like any other sport in that not everything goes according to plan. And while mix ups on play calls, botched handoffs, dropped passes and special teams breakdowns are just part of the game, there are often other things that occur, both on and off the field, that are a little harder to explain.
Here’s a rundown of the most bizarre things that took place during the 2013 NFL season, also known as Athlon Sports’ “Calendar of the Weird.”
Aug. 21 The league fines Bears linebacker Jon Bostic $21,000 for an “illegal” hit that, for the past several days, had been featured on the video module of the NFL.com website.
Sept. 8 The first scores of three different games on Kickoff Weekend are safeties.
Sept. 9 For the 19th straight season, the Eagles’ initial offensive play of a season is something other than a handoff to a running back.
Sept. 12 The Patriots win a game for the first time in the 14-year Bill Belichick era in which they have more punts (11) than first downs (nine).
Sept. 15 Packers receivers gain 283 yards after the catch in a rout of Washington.
Sept. 15 The Texans open their campaign with two victories on the final play of the game, making them the first team to do that since the merger. (They then fail to win again all season.)
Sept. 16 Fewer than 20 people — about the same number that actually enjoy watching the Jaguars — attend the Sign Tebow Rally in Jacksonville.
Sept. 22 The Jets beat the Bills despite 20 penalties — most by a victorious team in 62 years.
Sept. 22 Spencer Lanning of the Browns punts five times, lines up for a fake punt that results in a first down run, throws a TD pass as the holder on a fake field goal and kicks an extra point.
Sept. 22 Jordan Cameron and Cameron Jordan finish the week among the league’s top 10 in receptions and sacks, respectively.
Sept. 23 Peyton Manning puts 37 balls in the air against Oakland — 32 complete, four that hit his receivers’ hands but are not caught, and one that is batted away.
Sept. 24 Nate Burleson breaks his arm in a car wreck, losing control when he reaches to keep pizza boxes from sliding off the passenger seat.
Oct. 6 6:47 after the Seahawks score on a blocked punt, their opponents — the Colts — score on a blocked field goal.
Oct. 6 With 1:55 left to play, opposing second-year stars Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck each have completed 15 passes in 27 attempts for two TDs and no INTs. Wilson has thrown for 210 yards, Luck for 209.
Oct. 13 291 defensive plays into their season, the Steelers register their first takeaway.
Oct. 13 The Raiders commit 11 penalties, take 10 sacks and don’t snap the ball a single time in the red zone during a loss to the Chiefs.
Oct. 13 The Red Sox pull out an AL Championship Series contest in which their chances at one point (according to ESPN) were 3.8 percent. A few
hours later, their state-mate Patriots score with five seconds left to stun the Saints in a game in which their chances were once 5.3 percent.
Oct. 13 Oakland runs a play on a third-and-48.
Oct. 14 The week ends with 71 percent of games to date having been within seven points during the fourth quarter — an all-time high at this juncture.
Oct. 20 The first-ever implementation of Rule 9, Section 1, Article 3 — which makes it a penalty to push a teammate into the formation — gives Jets kicker Nick Folk a second chance at a game-winning field goal, which he nails to beat the Patriots in overtime. Controversy over its interpretation ensues immediately and, within two hours after the game, the wording of the rule on NFL.com is changed.
Oct. 27 Fantasy enthusiasts revel in Calvin Johnson’s regulation-game-record 329 yards, but cringe as he gets tackled inside the Dallas 5-yard line four times.
Oct. 31 The league’s three Florida teams go 0-for-October. Technically. The Dolphins’ overtime victory occurs after midnight.
Nov. 3 Of the 38 teams since 1968 to rush fewer than 10 times in a game, the Cowboys (who beat the Vikings) are just the second to win. Meanwhile, the Raiders endure the largest margin of defeat (49–20 to the Eagles) in 35 years by a team that rushes for 200 yards.
Nov. 3 For the second time this season, three of one team’s receivers catch at least 120 yards worth of passes and score a TD, doubling the number of previous times it had happened in NFL history.
Nov. 7 By hanging a goose egg on Washington in the fourth quarter, the Vikings end their streak of having allowed points in 24 consecutive quarters.
Nov. 10 A trio of former 1,000-yard rushers (Chris Johnson, Shonn Greene and Maurice Jones-Drew) combine to gain 93 yards on 42 carries.
Nov. 11 Miami, which had rushed for its season highs (120, 156 and 157 yards) in three straight weeks, is held to a franchise record-low two yards on the ground in a loss to the previously winless Bucs.
Nov. 17 Matthew Stafford eclipses Bobby Layne — quarterbacks who both attended Highland Park High School in Dallas — for most passing yards in Lions history.Nov. 17 Ten games into the season, Jacksonville scores its first TD in the state of Florida.
Nov. 17 The Jets, who have been outscored by 85 points to date, move to 5–5.
Nov. 17 Jacksonville’s Jason Babin proudly brandishes a handful of Andre Ellington’s five-year-old dreadlocks that he yanked out while tackling the Cardinals rookie.
Nov. 24 The Packers and Vikings battle to the seventh NFL tie since 1989 — all in the month of November, but the first to end in a score of 26–26. They also become the only opponents since overtime was adopted to play each other to a draw twice.
Nov. 25 For the first time in either college or the pros, a Robert Griffin III-led offense fails to score a touchdown.
Nov. 28 The Ravens and Steelers play a ninth game in their last 10 regular-season meetings that is decided by three or fewer points.
Nov. 28 Detroit wins by 30 points despite four turnovers, and Baltimore prevails despite allowing two more TDs than it scores.
Dec. 1 Toronto mayor Rob Ford — he of the crack-smoking in a “drunken stupor” — arrives at the Rogers Centre with six minutes left in the Falcons-Bills game wearing a Fred Jackson jersey just as the Buffalo back scores, then steals the seat of Canadian rocker Matt Mays, who appeals to security to get him relocated.
Dec. 1 The Giants’ Justin Tuck begins the game with 2.5 sacks, then plants Robert Griffin III four times in the span of seven Washington snaps.
Dec. 1 Geno Smith becomes the first QB since 1977 to neither complete 10 passes nor throw for a TD in four consecutive starts.
Dec. 8 The Patriots are the first team since 1993 to win three straight games in which they trail by double digits in the second half.
Dec. 8 As per the Elias Sports Bureau, Eli Manning suffers his NFL-high 41st tipped interception of the decade.
Dec. 8 Tavon Austin carries the ball just once in a Rams-Cardinals game that includes 50 other totes, yet he leads both teams with 56 rushing yards.
Dec. 9 The Cowboys become the first team in 73 years that fails to force its opponent to punt in two games of a season.
Dec. 12 Philip Rivers beats the Manning brothers in back-to-back weeks — something only Vince Young had ever done.
Dec. 15 The Chiefs, who score 56 points despite just 51 snaps from scrimmage, are the second team ever to notch at least 35 points in the first half of back-to-back games. (The first was the 2002 Chiefs.)
Dec. 15 Buoyed by five losing teams that tallied at least 30 points, the league scores a one-day-record 763 points.
Dec. 22 For the fifth time in six games, the Lions are vanquished despite holding a fourth-quarter lead.
Dec. 29 Michael Floyd’s string of 25 straight receptions that moved the chains ends on the first snap of the game.
Jan. 19 Colin Kaepernick is intercepted twice by Seattle in the NFC title game, giving the Seahawks seven of the 16 picks he has thrown in his career (including the postseason).
Feb. 2 Elias reports that, in the more than 10,000 regular-season and playoff games since the merger, the Super Bowl-winning Seahawks are just the third team to score in the first minute of each half.
— Compiled by Bruce Herman for Athlon Sports. This article is featured in Athlon Sports' 2014 NFL Preview magazine, which is available on newsstands or can be purchased online.
Nothing encapsulates the big-money posturing of conference expansion more than two middling East Coast football programs joining a historically celebrated conference thanks to branding and TV viewership.
Commissioner Jim Delany sent ripples through college football when plucking the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights out of the ACC and Big East, respectively, in November 2012, creating instability for those two conferences while strengthening the Big Ten’s strategic ground.
Never mind that Maryland and Rutgers are a combined 61–65 in football since 2009, or that the campuses are 11-plus-hour drives from the Big Ten’s home office in Chicago, or that more long-standing rivalries will likely be severed as a result.
Conference realignment was never about all that. It’s about the projected $270 million for the Big Ten Network in 2013. It’s about commercial markets, where Maryland and Rutgers happen to be well positioned. Yes, it’s about tradition — Maryland and Rutgers were playing football in the 1800s.
But it’s also about something happening four hours north of Maryland’s campus — the Big Ten office that Delany is building in Manhattan.
Not only did the moves partner Penn State with two East Coast schools, but they also accentuate the notion that the conference can get away with this because of its deep alumni base coast-to-coast.
SEC fans are unmatched, particularly in the South, but the Big Ten’s list of donors from California to New York is impressive.
So when cash-strapped Maryland needed a financial boost and Rutgers saw a bleak future in the depleted Big East, they showcased their meticulous resource/facility investments to offset any lagging football results.
Maryland and Rutgers were willing to jump when others — such as North Carolina and Georgia Tech — apparently were not.
Their reward: Entering a conference that’s expected to distribute $25.7 million to each of its schools next year, mostly from a contract with ESPN/ABC and the joint BTN venture with FOX, which also has the East Coast-based YES Network.
With both sides consummating the marriage in July, what will this long-distance relationship look like? And what do the football programs of Maryland and Rutgers really offer?
Maryland and Rutgers On the Field
While the Big Ten gets Maryland at a relatively good time in the Terps’ transitional arc, Rutgers has work to do to avoid the bottom of the seven-team East division.
Maryland coach Randy Edsall survived a shaky two-year start and produced seven wins last year despite several key injuries offensively. When healthy, receiver Stefon Diggs is one of the country’s best playmakers. Diggs will return as a top target for C.J. Brown, a quarterback who won’t overwhelm but has impressed many ACC coaches with his football acumen.
Having two solid coordinators — Mike Locksley on offense and Brian Stewart on defense — eases the transition. Maryland has been stout at linebacker and defensive back under Stewart, who loses top corners Dexter McDougle and Isaac Goins.
Inexperience is an issue on the offensive line, but that’s why Maryland brought in former LSU offensive line coach Greg Studrawa, one of three new Terrapins coaches.
Maryland won’t dominate in Year 1 but comes in as a respectable ACC team with program improvements looming.
Rutgers seems to have the steeper climb of the two. That can change if the Knights prove they have a reasonable quarterback option. Gary Nova flashed brilliance but hampered the offense with 14 interceptions. Nova is one of several quarterbacks competing for the starting spot.
The firing of defensive coordinator Dave Cohen amid bullying accusations from a former player cost Rutgers several highly ranked recruits. Rutgers’ 2014 class dipped to a No. 60 ranking on Signing Day. With the problems of basketball coach Mike Rice, the school couldn’t tolerate similar allegations. Recruits noticed.
Rutgers enters Big Ten play with two new coordinators, most notably Ralph Friedgen, a well-respected play-caller who enters the Big Ten at the same time as a Terps team he used to coach. Rutgers is counting on Friedgen to stabilize a rhythm-less offense. He’ll start by finding someone to get the ball to talented receiver Leonte Carroo.
One American Athletic Conference coach believes Rutgers will have a tough time competing in the Big Ten. “I think they will struggle to be .500 in that league, especially in the East,” he says.
How Much of an Upgrade is the Big Ten for These Two Teams?
The Big Ten is probably the country’s third- to fifth-best league, depending whom you ask.
The SEC still has the strongest profile. The Pac-12 and Big 12 have serious depth, and FSU’s national title lifts the ACC’s profile.
You could argue that Maryland is downgrading in football competition, though both leagues are probably equal top to bottom. Rutgers is upgrading, but this isn’t Division II to FBS. It’s a manageable move.
The Big Ten East should be a beast, though. It features Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, Penn State, Maryland, Rutgers and Indiana. The first four on that list range from national title contenders to potential conference winners. Maryland and Rutgers must play all six divisional opponents plus two crossovers.
But the bottom third of the league still plays uninspired football. Purdue, Indiana and Illinois have been bad for a while, and Northwestern is coming off a 1–7 conference season.
“The Big Ten is getting better,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer says. “Michigan State, Penn State coming off the sanctions, Wisconsin is a helluva football team. We were right there on the 35-yard line to beat Clemson. Traditionally there’s an Iowa, that’s a helluva team. I think it’s coming.”
A fully loaded Big East/American was known in coaching circles for its physical teams. Syracuse, Pitt and Boston College — current ACC schools with roots in the Big East — each won seven games last season with power-run principles.
The best move for Rutgers might be to mirror those programs.
For Maryland, improving in College Park will help its league debut. The Terps are 3–9 in conference home games since 2011. The games won’t get easier with Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State visiting Byrd Stadium this year.
The Big Ten East
Coaches and athletic directors use the word all the time — branding.
In the big picture, the branding presence of Maryland and Rutgers will be less about the schools and more about Big Ten sprawl. Not many New Yorkers will watch Rutgers sports over the Yankees, nor will D.C. fans watch Maryland over the Redskins. But these schools are in huge markets where the Big Ten will capitalize.
If the Big Ten ever goes to 16 teams, it will undoubtedly add East Coast schools to create a five-team division for travel purposes and commonality.
The question is, will Rutgers and Maryland lose their identities in the process? Maryland was a founding member of the ACC. When people talked about the ACC, Maryland was probably among the first seven teams the common fan would list.
Rutgers was in a league it was capable of winning. Greg Schiano had resurrected the program.
Of course, Rutgers would make about 10 times less in the American, which makes a few more potential losses on the field easier to bear.
Joining the Big Ten was never a 12-month decision for either school. It was a move made for the long term, with financial stability the primary motivation. And as strange as it feels — and it feels awfully strange — it just might work out for everyone involved.
Written by Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerCBS) of CBSSports.com for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 Big Ten Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.
The start of NFL training camps is still several weeks away and the 2014 regular season won’t kick off until September, but for all intents and purposes, America’s game has become a year-round sport.
So to help whet your appetite for some pigskin while counting down the days until the action returns to the gridiron, here are 14 storylines that will help shape how this season plays out.
1. Denver’s pursuit of its first Super Bowl win since the 1998 season
The Broncos had the AFC’s best record each of the past two seasons only to come up empty in the postseason. They went all in during free agency. It started with the signing of punishing strong safety T.J. Ward, a Pro Bowler for the Browns a year ago, to a four-year, $23 million deal with $14 million guaranteed. Cornerback Aqib Talib then signed a six-year, $57 million deal with $26 million guaranteed to replace Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the Broncos’ best cover corner last season. The rich only got richer when outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware signed a three-year, $30 million deal with $20 million guaranteed to give the Broncos a potent pass-rushing tandem.
The Broncos hope that the moves will improve a defense that ranked 19th last season in yards allowed, gave up 24.9 points per game and surrendered 43 points to the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII.
2. More quarterback drama in New York
Michael Vick declared Geno Smith the Jets’ starter upon his arrival in New York, and the Jets want the second-year quarterback to win the job. But the Jets signed Vick to a one-year, $5 million deal as insurance, providing yet more quarterback drama for the team.
Vick made six starts last season in Philadelphia, eventually losing his starting job to Nick Foles. With the Jets, he reunites with Marty Mornhinweg, who coached Vick from 2009-12 as the Eagles’ offensive coordinator. Vick, who turns 34 in June, had his best season in 2010, going 8–3 with a 62.6 completion percentage, 3,018 passing yards, 21 touchdowns and six interceptions. It ranks as his only season completing better than 60 percent of his passes. Vick only went 20–20 as a starter in five seasons in Philadelphia.
Still, he could provide the best option for an offense that finished 25th in total yards, including 31st in passing, with Smith’s 66.5 passer rating ranking 37th.
3. Playoffs or bust for Jason Garrett
Jason Garrett enters his fourth season as a full-time head coach and the final year of his contract, having produced only a 29–27 record since taking over for Wade Phillips as the interim head coach in 2010.
The Cowboys have not made the playoffs since winning the division in 2009, going 30–34 over the past four seasons combined. It’s looking like playoffs or bust for Garrett. Jerry Jones has hired seven head coaches since buying the Cowboys in 1989. Only Jimmy Johnson lasted more than four years, leaving after his fifth season in Dallas.
4. The Cardinals’ quest for a “Super” home game
You can make a strong case the two best teams in the NFL reside in the NFC West. The Seahawks are fresh off of a dominating win in the Super Bowl, and the 49ers — who have advanced to the NFC Championship Game in each of the last three seasons (with one win) — might have the best overall roster in the game. But there’s another potentially elite team out West. The Arizona Cardinals quietly won 10 games in 2013 under first-year coach Bruce Arians and are poised to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
The Cardinals boast one of the league’s top defenses and have enough firepower on offense — as long as Carson Palmer behaves — to hang with Seattle and San Francisco. A year ago, Arizona went 1–3 against the “Big 2,” splitting two games with the Seahawks and losing a pair to the Niners by an average of 7.5 points.
Arizona has extra motivation to make a deep postseason run: The Cards want to be the first team to play the Super Bowl at home.
5. Cam Newton’s ankle
Cam Newton had surgery March 19 to repair an ankle injury he has had since college. Coach Ron Rivera said Newton tweaked the ankle in a Dec. 22 victory against the Saints. With a recovery time of four months, Newton missed out on an entire offseason of working with a new cast of receivers.
The Panthers released Steve Smith, the team’s all-time leading receiver. Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon all signed with other teams in free agency. Carolina signed Jerricho Cotchery and Tiquan Underwood in free agency and drafted Kelvin Benjamin out of Florida State, but of Newton’s top four targets, only tight end Greg Olsen returns.
6. Eli Manning’s rebound
Eli Manning is a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, but he didn’t play like it last season. His 69.4 passer rating ranked below the likes of Matt Schaub, Brandon Weeden, Chad Henne and rookie EJ Manuel. In fact, only Terrelle Pryor’s and Geno Smith’s passer ratings were worse than Manning’s. And no quarterback threw more interceptions than Manning, who tossed 27, with three returned for touchdowns. Manning now has thrown 42 interceptions in his past 32 games.
The question is: Will Manning, 33, regain his golden touch? The Giants brought in new coordinator Ben McAdoo to fix Manning and the offense, which ranked only 28th last season and had an NFL-worst 44 giveaways. But with Manning signed only through 2015, the Giants are taking a wait-and-see approach before committing to more years with him as their quarterback.
7. Julius Peppers with the Pack
Julius Peppers, 34, appears to be on his last legs. He had only 7.5 sacks last season, and the Bears released him March 11. The Packers, though, believe Peppers has enough left to help them to the franchise’s fifth Super Bowl title. They signed him to a three-year deal with $7.5 million in guarantees.
Peppers, who has 118.5 sacks in 12 seasons, finally gets a chance to play in a 3-4. He should help the Packers defense improve from 25th. The question remains, though, whether he finally gets his first Super Bowl ring.
8. Jadeveon Clowney’s impact
The Chiefs would have made Jadeveon Clowney the No. 1 overall pick in 2013 if the South Carolina defensive end had been eligible for the draft. He wasn’t, but he played last season like he would have preferred the NFL. Clowney had only three sacks in 2013 and was heavily criticized for not going hard on every play.
But Houston, despite being in need of a quarterback, was won over by Clowney’s size, speed and athleticism. He stands 6'5", weighs 266 pounds, runs a 4.53, has a 37.5-inch vertical and has an arm length of 34.5 inches.
The Texans will pair him with the best defensive player in football in J.J. Watt, who desperately needed pass-rush help. Watt’s sack numbers dipped from 20.5 in 2012 to 10.5 in 2013 because opponents were able to consistently double-team him. As a team, the Texans recorded only 32 sacks.
Clowney will play outside linebacker in the Texans’ 3-4 base defense and then down in passing situations. Together, Clowney and Watt should return the Texans to their former status as one of the top defensive units in the NFL. The Texans’ only problem now is that they still lack a sure-fire franchise quarterback.
9. Andy Dalton’s future
Andy Dalton took the Bengals to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons. The Bengals, though, still haven’t won a playoff game since 1990. They lost at home in the wild card round last season, 27–10 to the Chargers, and have averaged 11 points in their three postseason losses the past three seasons — games in which Dalton has a combined one TD and six INTs.
Despite his 30–18 regular-season record as a starter, Bengals fans aren’t sold on Dalton as their franchise quarterback. The Bengals seem to be sold, however, with coach Marvin Lewis touting a long-term deal for Dalton.
10. Brady vs. Manning encore
It ranks as arguably the greatest quarterback rivalry in NFL history: Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady. Manning and Brady have met 15 times. The first meeting came in 2001 in Brady’s first career start, with Brady’s Patriots beating Manning’s Colts 44–13. Their most recent meeting came in the AFC Championship Game last season, with Manning’s Broncos winning 26–16.
Brady leads the series 10–5, with his Patriots scheduled to host Manning and the Broncos this season. With Brady turning 37 in August, and Manning already 38, every meeting could be their last meeting.
11. Jim Harbaugh vs. the 49ers
There might be some unrest in the 49ers organization, but the boys in Las Vegas don’t seem overly concerned. Only Seattle and Denver have better post-draft Super Bowl odds than the 49ers do at 15–2.
Jim Harbaugh has taken San Francisco to NFC Championship Games in three consecutive seasons, with a trip to the Super Bowl to end 2012. The 49ers, who had 39 wins in seven seasons before Harbaugh’s arrival, have posted a 36–11–1 record since 2011. They will contend again in 2014, despite the unrest of this offseason when reports surfaced that the Browns attempted to trade for Harbaugh.
Harbaugh elected to stay put, but speculation is that Harbaugh wants more power and/or money. He may or may not get along with general manager Trent Baalke, and may or may not want a raise from the five-year, $25 million deal he signed upon leaving Stanford. It won’t matter this year, but Harbaugh’s future in San Francisco no doubt is cloudy.
12. Michael Sam makes history
Michael Sam expects to fit in an NFL locker room just as easily as he did at Missouri. That might be easier than making the Rams’ roster. Though he recorded 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for a loss and shared the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year award, Sam stands only 6'2", weighs only 255 pounds and had a mediocre performance at the scouting combine. He ran the 40 in 4.91, recorded 17 reps in the 225-pound bench press and had a 25 ½ inch vertical. The Rams return Robert Quinn, Chris Long, William Hayes and Eugene Sims at defensive end, though Gerald Rivers, an undrafted rookie, did make the roster for 13 games last season. The NFL is rooting for Sam to make the Rams. He already has a following, thanks in part to a top-selling jersey.
13. Washington’s new weapon
DeSean Jackson stayed unemployed only for a weekend, accepting a three-year, $24 million deal with the Redskins shortly after the Eagles released him. Jackson helped Philadelphia win the NFC East last season with a career-best 82 catches for 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns. He could change the balance of power in the division this season.
Though the Redskins ranked 16th in passing offense, Pierre Garcon had 113 catches for 1,346 yards and five touchdowns. Garcon and Jackson give Washington the best set of receivers in the division, if not the NFL. Robert Griffin III could have a bounce-back season, as could the Redskins.
14. Ravens on the rebound
The Ravens went to the playoffs five consecutive seasons before missing out last season with an 8–8 record. Still, owner Steve Bisciotti gave his coach a vote of confidence by adding a year to John Harbaugh’s contract. General manager Ozzie Newsome spent a busy offseason trying to get the Ravens back to being Super Bowl contenders. He traded for center Jeremy Zuttah, signed safety Darian Stewart and receiver Steve Smith and re-signed receiver Jacoby Jones, left tackle Eugene Monroe, middle linebacker Daryl Smith and tight end Dennis Pitta. The Ravens are counting on a bounce-back season from quarterback Joe Flacco, who threw 19 touchdowns and 22 interceptions.
— Written by Charean Williams for Athlon Sports. This article is featured in Athlon Sports' 2014 NFL Preview magazine, which is available on newsstands or can be purchased online.
So this is a sobering reminder from West Virginia’s coach about last season. “We did not play winning offense,” Dana Holgorsen says.
This would be a fairly innocuous comment for most coaches coming off a 4–8 season, but we’re talking about Holgorsen, whose offensive prowess was supposed to ease WVU’s Big 12 transition — not derail it.
From 2007-12, Holgorsen’s offenses at Texas Tech, Houston, Oklahoma State and West Virginia ranked in the top 13 nationally in scoring — and three times in the top three. Last year, however, an combination of inexperience and uninspired quarterback play led to a national ranking of 79th.
Holgorsen isn’t about to change his coaching style. He still knows the intricacies of the Air Raid better than most. But last year proved that you can’t simply plug in any quarterback and expect to post gaudy offensive numbers. And if you don’t have elite skill players, you better have solid depth throughout your roster — something the Mountaineers are lacking.
“There aren’t many Geno Smith- or Tavon Austin-type bodies running around right now,” Holgorsen says, referring to his former All-America quarterback and wide receiver, respectively. “We have to win as a team. We’ve got to win with good depth. I think we’re at that point right now.”
The same factors that held the Mountaineers back — they have lost 14 of their last 20 games since that resounding 5–0 start to 2012 — can actually set them free.
Cluster at QB
West Virginia played three quarterbacks last year, which tells you everything you need to know about 2013 in Morgantown.
Holgorsen’s offense is about timing, rhythm and a deep understanding of the system, and West Virginia simply didn’t have that luxury last year. Clint Trickett, a transfer from Florida State and son of Seminoles offensive line coach Rick Trickett, didn’t arrive on campus until the summer and battled injuries during the season. Ford Childress wasn’t ready, as evidenced by his suspension and subsequent transfer to a junior college. Paul Millard is considered the proverbial “program guy” — good for the locker room, serviceable player, but not a long-term answer.
Two signees, junior college transfer Skyler Howard (expected to redshirt) and incoming freshman William Crest, will have the opportunity to compete for the job, but both likely will need time. This year’s show belongs to Trickett, who missed spring workouts because of shoulder surgery.
Looking back, Holgorsen wasn’t too upset with the offense’s overall production; after all, the Mountaineers averaged more than 400 yards per game. What drew Holgorsen’s ire were the turnovers (ninth-worst in the Big 12), third-down conversions (eighth) and red-zone production (ninth).
That, friends, is how you lose to Kansas in November.
“Things get hard on third down when you’re in the red zone,” Holgorsen says. “We need to handle that better.”
Trickett fits the coach’s-son mold Holgorsen likes and, given a full offseason to absorb the plays, should improve. His 88-of-149 performance for 1,104 yards over his last four full games isn’t stellar but is something to work with. “I’m really confident he’ll be able to play better,” Holgorsen says.
West Virginia seemed the ideal candidate to handle the demands of the upgrade to the Big 12. The Mountaineers won (or shared) six conference titles from 2003-11 in the Big East, and they did so with high-powered offenses — the specialty of the Big 12.
As Holgorsen sees it, the biggest issue in West Virginia’s transition has been a lack of depth. In 2011, Holgorsen’s first year, he carried 65 scholarship players — “borderline I-AA numbers,” he says. Initially, that wasn’t a huge issue, because play counts in the Big East ran in the low 60s. The Big 12, however, averages in the high 70s.
Holgorsen has since beefed up his roster, signing a combined 59 players from 2012-13, but WVU’s still not at 85 scholarship players.
The coach has a friend who can relate.
“(TCU’s) Gary Patterson and I have talked about that,” Holgorsen says. “You need to be able to play 50 or 60 bodies consistently.”
The Horned Frogs, who joined the Big 12 in 2012, also went 4–8 last season, losing four games by three points or less. Patterson, however, will get more of a pass because he has five conference titles on his résumé. Despite his Orange Bowl victory in his debut 2011 season, Holgorsen doesn’t have the same clout yet.
That can change if his players grow up in a hurry.
WVU’s 2013 recruiting class featured three junior college skill players — running back Dreamius Smith and receivers Mario Alford and Kevin White — who are talented but inconsistent. No Mountaineer receiver broke 600 yards last year. Expect White to make a jump.
Losing do-everything back Charles Sims is costly, but high-profile transfer Rushel Shell, who recorded 641 yards as a freshman at Pittsburgh two years ago, garnered buzz in the spring.
And there is hope that the much-maligned defense, which has ranked no higher than eighth in the league in WVU’s two seasons in the Big 12, might actually be a relative strength this fall. The Mountaineers return seven defensive starters and could be especially salty in the secondary.
On an Island
If Holgorsen gets enough time, West Virginia might have a stout roster by 2015. The Mountaineers polished off a top-40 recruiting class in February and are off to a very strong start with the 2015 class. Heading into late June, WVU was ranked in the top 20 nationally in the 247Sports Composite, headlined by five players from South Florida.
West Virginia has done well for years recruiting South Florida, and that shows no signs of slowing down. This summer, Holgorsen hired Damon Cogdell away from Miramar High, the school that produced recent Mountaineer stars Geno Smith and Stedman Bailey.
This is a reminder that no school from a power conference faces a more unique recruiting setup than West Virginia. The other nine Big 12 teams are relatively close to the conference hub in Dallas. West Virginia is a 19-hour drive from the Metroplex, with no travel partner.
The Mountaineers are building a roster with players from everywhere but Texas or West Virginia. The school signed players from 12 different states last year — with only one from West Virginia and one from Texas.
Holgorsen sees his outlier status as an advantage.
“We’re not competing with the guys we’re playing,” Holgorsen says.
“Our recruiting battles happen with Florida schools, the East Coast. It’s obviously tough to beat Ohio State on Ohio kids, but we get into Ohio. A lot of good football players there and in Pennsylvania. We get into New Jersey. Maryland.”
The bottom line, of course, is winning. Holgorsen can sell the ‘Big 12 East’ to players who might not otherwise be exposed to the conference, but these players must be able to compete in the Big 12. And Holgorsen must prove he is up to the task of serving as the CEO of a major-conference program. Making the move from respected coordinator to head coach isn’t always smooth.
The jury is still out on Holgorsen, who is 21–17 overall and 11–14 in league play in three seasons — and that includes the 10–3 mark in a first year highlighted by a 70–33 win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl. The Mountaineers have had three losing streaks of at least three games in the past two seasons. And last November, West Virginia capped its season with consecutive losses to Kansas and Iowa State.
That is not what West Virginia had in mind when it joined the Big 12 — or when it tabbed Holgorsen to lead its program into a new era.
Written by Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerCBS) of CBSSports.com for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 Big 12 Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.
From the time he was in fifth grade through the end of his sophomore year in high school, James Franklin could be found just about anywhere on the football field except under center.
He played receiver, tight end, defensive end and linebacker. He was the backup quarterback on his prep sophomore team, but that was more of an emergency thing. A year later, Franklin’s high school coach, Jeremy Males, finally tired of hearing Franklin begging to play quarterback and installed him at the position. It was a good move.
Almost immediately, Franklin showed the big arm that had come to him through the wonders of genetics. “My dad could throw the ball 85 yards,” he says. As a high school junior, Franklin threw for 2,464 yards and 23 scores. A year later, he threw for 2,360, rushed for 1,282 and accounted for 41 TDs. Rivals rated him the nation’s fourth-best dual-threat QB. Tom Lemming considered him the nation’s fifth-best hybrid.
But most colleges didn’t share the same assessment of the 6'2", 230-pound Texan. They saw him as an “athlete,” that dreaded appellation applied to someone who might look good in the slot or at tailback. Perhaps he could play linebacker. Those schools were excised quickly from Franklin’s list.
Then there was Missouri.
“One of the biggest things about the school was that they recruited me as a quarterback,” Franklin says. “A lot of schools weren’t recruiting me for that position.”
It makes sense that the Tigers would see what others couldn’t, since over the past 13 years, they have produced some of the most successful college passers in the nation. Since Gary Pinkel took over after the 2000 season, Mizzou has become a quarterback factory of sorts, boasting a series of prolific passers, each of whom has moved on to play in the NFL. It began with Brad Smith and continued with Chase Daniel, Blaine Gabbert and Franklin. In 2014, Maty Mauk will likely take over, based on his strong relief work last year when Franklin was injured. The quartet sits atop the school’s career total offense list, and each is among the top five in passing yardage. The Tigers haven’t yet reached the same level as BYU did from 1973-99 — when it cranked out the likes of Steve Young, Jim McMahon and Ty Detmer — but they are on quite a run.
Pinkel and his staff look for the usual things when assessing a quarterback prospect. Arm strength, accuracy and superior athletic ability are vital. But Pinkel has a more nebulous characteristic in mind when he focuses on someone who could run his offense some day.
“For me, I have to get a good feeling that the quarterback has the ‘It’ factor, that this guy is special and is a great competitor,” Pinkel says. “We look for mentally and physically tough kids who are tenacious competitors.”
Pinkel’s quarterback lineage goes back well before his time at Missouri. While an assistant to his college coach, Don James, at Washington from 1979-90, Pinkel helped develop Husky standouts Steve Pelluer, Chris Chandler and Cary Conklin, all of whom spent at least five years in the NFL. “And every one of our quarterbacks at Toledo was all-conference,” he says.
When Pinkel left Toledo in November 2000 to take the job in Columbia, he was recruiting Smith, a dual-threat passer from Youngstown, Ohio, whom he convinced to follow him to Missouri. Okay, so David Yost really sold Smith on becoming a Tiger. No story about the Mizzou quarterback lineage can be told without Yost, who is now an inside receivers coach at Washington State. The shaggy-haired offensive savant created schemes that fit his team’s talent and pressured defenses from a variety of formations and strategic approaches. Pinkel delegated a lot of day-to-day control to his assistants, and Yost used that authority to build an attack that showcased the Missouri passers.
“David Yost was the biggest part of it,” Smith says. “I was with him every day, installing the offense and working on fundamentals and techniques. Coach Yost molded guys. He was passionate and spent countless hours on the offense to find ways to help players get better. He was very smart, and guys respected him.”
The excitement began almost immediately. In 2002, his redshirt freshman season, Smith became the second player in Division I-A history to throw for 2,000 yards (2,333) and run for 1,000 (1,029), a performance he would repeat in 2005 (2,304/1,301).
Pinkel’s first few seasons featured a more conventional attack, but by the time Smith was a senior, Yost had spread things out, put the QB in the shotgun and reaped the benefits. Mizzou went 7–5 and topped South Carolina in the Independence Bowl. Missouri won at least eight games in each of its next six seasons — the longest such streak in program history — and hit double figures in wins three times.
“It’s a really good offense,” Smith says. “It forces the defense to do more of what you want it to do.”
Daniel was next in line, and he didn’t have the running ability Smith did, gaining fewer yards on the ground in his career (970) than Smith did in three of his four seasons as a starter. But Daniel could sling it. He topped 4,300 yards through the air twice and helped the Tigers to a pair of Big 12 North championships. Daniel thrived in the wide-open system that took advantage of his ability to make quick decisions and deliver the ball on time.
“The mental side of the game is so difficult, and exciting,” Pinkel says. “Understanding the complexities of the defense requires constant training.”
Gabbert followed by throwing for at least 3,000 yards during both of his seasons as a starter. Then, it was Franklin’s turn. During his four campaigns — three as a starter — he completed 62.1 percent of his throws and finished third on the school’s all-time yardage list. “I felt really good as a senior, and I knew the offense really well,” Franklin says. “I understood it.”
Next up is Mauk, an aggressive bomber with a strong arm and little fear. It’s a good bet he’ll be the next Missouri quarterbacking standout and help fuel the brand that Pinkel now sells. Different schools have been known for developing successful players at various positions, and as Mizzou continues to be what Pinkel calls “a destination job,” he and his staff will herald their ability to produce outstanding passers.
“There is no question we sell it,” Pinkel says. “We evaluate well, and we do an excellent job of player development. Everybody does it, but we do it better than most.”
James Franklin can attest to that.
Maty Mauk: Next In Line as Missouri’s Next Standout QB
When Missouri starting quarterback James Franklin suffered a shoulder separation against Georgia last October, Tiger fans had to wonder whether Maty Mauk was going to handle the assignment of stepping in.
Earlier in the year, the redshirt freshman had been sacked twice in the Tigers’ win over Toledo and admittedly “wasn’t being me.” So, Mauk stopped “stressing” himself and pretended he was in high school all over again, when it was five wide and let it fly.
The results were encouraging. Mauk helped the Tigers extend their 28–26 fourth-quarter lead to a 41–26 triumph over the seventh-ranked Bulldogs. “It felt like high school again,” Mauk says. “After that, it was amazing how much the game slowed down.”
Mauk started the next four contests for Mizzou and posted a 3–1 record that included a tough overtime loss to South Carolina. Though his completion percentage (51.1) didn’t sparkle, he demonstrated the ability to get the ball downfield and played with a fearlessness not usually associated with a first-time starter.
“He really likes to make plays and sling the ball around,” Franklin says. “Even if he makes a mistake, he’ll come back and take a chance the next time. He’s not afraid.”
The Kenton, Ohio, native chose Missouri because of the family atmosphere he experienced on his visit. “Coach (Gary) Pinkel is like a second dad,” he says. His brother, Ben, was a quarterback at Wake Forest and Cincinnati, so Mauk has a good pedigree. Now, it’s about becoming a full-time starter at a school where quarterbacks are expected to stand out.
“I’m a playmaker,” Mauk says. “That’s why I’m here.”
Written by Michael Bradley (@DailyHombre) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 SEC Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.
It would make for great copy if Bryce Hager, the son of University of Texas’ all-time tackling leader, had spurned earnest pleas from his daddy’s alma mater to be part of the Art Briles Project in Waco and help fuel the Baylor renaissance that has angered all proud Longhorns.
But that wouldn’t be telling the truth.
Fact is, Hager had only one BCS scholarship offer, and it came from the Bears. About three weeks before 2010’s National Signing Day. That made leaving Austin a little easier, and no doubt put him in good company with a lot of other BU players at the time, who had chosen to play for Briles at a school that was in the midst of a 14-year string of losing seasons.
“I met with Coach Briles, and I thought (Baylor) was the right fit for me,” Hager says.
These days, Baylor isn’t just a match for players with limited options; it’s a destination for some of the state’s best. Briles has turned the Bears from a Texas-sized ragdoll into one of the hottest programs in the country. BU is not merely winning, but it is doing so with a kind of flash that has 18-year-olds around the country paying close attention. The Bears are fashion plates. Their offense is electrifying. And this season, they’ll move into a new 45,000-seat on-campus stadium. The momentum is building at a place that was once thought to be immune to excitement.
“Coach Briles told me, ‘We have a plan, and we want you to be part of the plan,’” Hager says.
Many coaches have plans when they approach significant restoration projects, but only a few are capable of carrying them out. Briles has taken Baylor to four straight bowl games, doubling the longest streak in school history, and he won the 2013 Big 12 title. He has coached a Heisman Trophy winner. And he is now charged with doing something no one thought was possible at Baylor: adjusting to life as a powerhouse.
Imagine that. Instead of suffering from gridiron envy, the Bears are causing other programs to covet their prosperity. That didn’t happen when BU was in the Southwest Conference, and it sure hadn’t been part of its Big 12 narrative.
“People want to have Baylor as an official visit now,” says senior quarterback Bryce Petty, last year’s Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. “It’s not, ‘I have to go to Baylor.’ It’s, ‘I want to go to Baylor.’”
That change in attitude comes courtesy of Briles, who arrived in Waco after four years at Houston, where he sent footballs flying all over the field. He understood that winning was vital but that doing it in a way that appealed to recruits was also important. His offense certainly did that, and when Robert Griffin III won a Heisman at its helm, high school players noticed. When Baylor started wearing uniforms that took the school’s green-and-gold colors in every direction possible, the program became cool. The Bears aren’t quite at the Jackson Pollock level favored by Oregon, but they have quite a menagerie of modern football costuming.
“When I came in, we didn’t have cool uniforms,” Hager says. “Last year, we were excited to wear the new uniforms with gold helmets and flat black. You want to be looking good.”
It’s all part of the new Baylor brand. More established, tradition-bound programs, like Alabama and Penn State, can outfit players in apparel better suited for the 1960s, because their national profiles are set. Baylor lacks that kind of historical narrative, so it must attract attention in other ways. Scoring lots of points will do it. Fancy threads will, too. Mom and Dad may not like matte black helmets and gold facemasks, but Junior sure does. It’s all part of selling the program.
“In this age, everything is visual,” Briles says. “Very seldom do people lock themselves in a room without a TV or computer. Kids see us, with our stadium and uniforms and style of play, and they like it.
“The team is trending up.”
The most obvious manifestation of Baylor’s new prosperity is $250 million McLane Stadium, which sits on the banks of the Brazos River and replaces the Bears’ old Floyd Casey home, which sat across town from campus. It offers slips for boats to dock before the game, a la Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium and Washington’s Husky Stadium, and will lead to increased participation by students, who can now walk to games, and alumni, who will be drawn to campus on Saturdays.
“It integrates football and the campus environment, and that’s something we have never had,” AD Ian McCaw says. “It connects the students and alumni and creates a pageantry around football games that we’ve lacked.”
The uniforms and stadium are all part of the overall presentation. But looking good doesn’t matter at all if a team is losing. One thing Baylor has on its side is the lack of historical perspective present in its target recruiting market. Teenagers have never been great students of past events, but this generation is particularly averse to anything that happened even 10 years ago.
“Tradition starts for these guys at age 15,” Briles says. “When we talk to high school students in the state of Texas about Baylor football, they think it’s the best thing in the world.”
That showed in February, when the Bears amassed a top-30 recruiting class heavy on wideouts and athletes needed to propel Briles’ offense. Granted, it wasn’t Bama’s five-star haul, but it continued the school’s recent upward movement and was a huge improvement from even five years ago, when Baylor struggled to get four-star talents to visit campus.
The influx of talent is vital, because no program can sustain success with B-list players. Briles’ challenge is to take the next step in his strategic plan. He has established the Bears. He has won a title. Now, he has to create something that can win and compete regularly. That’s the tricky part, because at a place like Baylor, a couple shaky seasons can kill any momentum that has been generated.
“That’s why it’s so hard for teams to repeat and stay on top at any level, be it college, the NFL or high school,” Briles says. “Once you hit that mark, everybody wants a piece of you. You have to learn how to practice with a target on your back. That’s what we’re going through as a program and a university. It’s at the forefront of our minds.
“Now, we’ve become the hunted.”
That brings problems. For Baylor football, those are good problems to have.
Written by Michael Bradley (@DailyHombre) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 Big 12 Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.
You may never play like a legendary athlete, but at least you can grill like one. To help up your game, we asked James O’Donnell, executive chef at Michael Jordan’s Steak House in Chicago, to give us his best tips for grilling a steak worthy of MJ’s name.
Buy a great steak
Ask for a “dry-age” USDA prime steak. Dry-age steaks are just that, aged in a dry atmosphere, where the moisture evaporates and concentrates the flavors. Get a steak that’s about 2 inches thick. O’Donnell prefers a large (around 30 ounces to serve several people) bone-in rib-eye, which has a lot of marbling that results in a lot of flavor. “Plus, it’s a manly looking steak,” he says.
Pull out of fridge 90 minutes before cooking
Bringing the steak to room temperature will allow it to cook at an even temperature and get a nice medium rare throughout.
And O’Donnell means “liberally.” Pat dry and sprinkle with coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Rub a teaspoon of olive oil over the salt and pepper.
Get the grill as hot as possible and place the steak. Leave unattended for 6 minutes. Don’t fiddle with it. Flip, cook unattended 6 more minutes. Flip, shut off the grill and let the steak roast in the covered grill for 6 more minutes.
Put steak on cutting board and walk away for 10 minutes
At this point the “juices in the hot steak are running around like wild,” he says. It’s important to give them time to redistribute in the fibers. If a steak doesn’t rest, “you’ll end up with a plate full of pink liquid,” O’Donnell says.
Whether you’re on the softball field, the basketball court or on a morning run, injuries are part of any sport. To get you back in the game, we talked to Jeff Ferguson, the San Francisco 49ers’ head athletic trainer and VP of football operations, for some advice on bouncing back from injuries.
Throwing a shoulder out
Prevention is easier than rehab, Ferguson says. “We have our throwers ice post-practice, shoulder and the elbow.” If you’re in a softball league and you just finished playing a game, throw some ice on for 15-20 minutes to minimize inflammation.
Tennis Elbow (a.k.a. elbow tendinitis)
Ferguson recommends a good ice massage for five to seven minutes at a time, a compression sleeve for support and maybe some OTC anti-inflammatories (check with your doctor first). Focus on progression when you come back. “For our throwers, we start off with some 10-yard soft toss, make sure the technique is sound, then go 20, 30, and then route progression as he heals,” he says.
After 48 hours of RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation), go to work on mobility. “We’ll have players walking. Then have them go through dynamic warm-ups (low-intensity exercise like high knees, butt kickers) getting all the muscles firing without prolonging the injury,” Ferguson says. The activity affects more than your health, though. “Building confidence, that’s a key component. We don’t want there to be any hesitation when guys are coming back from injury.”
After 72 hours of RICE, focus on learning to use the ankle again. “Proprioception (the ability to balance without looking at your foot) is critical when you’re coming back from these injuries,” Ferguson says. For your ankle, do a single-leg balance, and have someone toss a ball to you while you’re balancing.
Jogger’s Heel (a.k.a. plantar fasciitis)
Massage the bottom of your foot by stepping on a frozen water bottle and moving your foot around. “You get the benefit of both the ice and the compression/massage.” And with all foot-related issues, check your shoes. “Shoes are such a simple fix.”
—by Billy Brown
In case you missed Sunday's incredible World Cup game when the US squared off against Portugal, this GIF pretty much summarizes it.
There are the hats and the star rankings, the Signing Day ceremonies and the fanbase hopes that are rewarded or dashed with each announcement. February’s National Signing Day, as it’s known across the country, is the conclusion of a long cycle that’s complete with living room visits, phone calls and countless bags of mail.
A signature is just the beginning. College football recruiting is almost an entirely different sport — outside the hashmarks, complete with its own etiquette, rules, and regulations. Here are 13 things you need to know about it.
Players Commit to a Coach But Sign With a School
When James Franklin left Vanderbilt for Penn State earlier this year, he took with him eight Commodore coaches, four Commodore administrators and three Commodore strength coaches.
And, perhaps most controversial of all, he took five recruits who had been committed to Vanderbilt.
Verbal commitments are non-binding, but that certainly didn’t stop people in Nashville from accusing Franklin and the Penn State staff of poaching players.
“I didn’t see it that way,” says Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who made the move to Happy Valley with Franklin. “These kids were calling him, asking, ‘How can we come with you?’ It was kinda awkward at the time.”
Idealistically, recruits choose and enroll in schools. But they build personal relationships with those schools’ coaches, who check in with them about their grades and their lives and have sit-down conversations with their families in their living rooms.
It follows, then, that those recruits would wish to tag along with the coaches who sold them on the school to which they originally committed. Still, those who take advantage of the relationships they fostered are roundly criticized if the end result is recruits jumping ship after a coach changes jobs.
“It’s kinda hypocritical,” Shoop says. “I watch some get recognized as great recruiters for flipping guys, then we were criticized when guys said they wanted to come with us to Penn State. Coach (Franklin) got a bad rap for that.”
The Best Recruiters Are The Recruits Themselves
When consensus four-star quarterback Drew Barker, a native of Burlington, Ky., committed to Kentucky in May 2013, he revived the Wildcats’ credibility in the Commonwealth. Barker’s commitment was an initial piece of evidence that the new Kentucky staff, led by former Florida State assistant coach Mark Stoops, would be one to reckon with on the recruiting trail.
But just being a potential cornerstone for a struggling in-state program wasn’t enough. Barker wanted more; specifically, he wanted more players, as talented as himself, to join him at Kentucky.
So he grabbed the digital megaphone that is Twitter and challenged his peers to join him. He created a Twitter account (@UK2014Class) and sent out tweets like, “THE 2014 UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY RECRUITING CLASS WILL GO DOWN IN HISTORY!” and, “Come be a HERO.”
Recruits sift through letters and endure countless monotonous phone calls from college coaches. When a committed (literally and figuratively) recruit has another prospect’s ear, it can be a valuable asset for coaching staffs.
“(Drew) became the face of the class,” Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown says. “The class kind of gravitated to him. He took it and ran with it himself. He took the reins with the whole class.”
With an assist from Barker, perhaps, Kentucky’s 2014 signing class was its highest-ranked in the history of Rivals, at 17th overall — better than Ole Miss, Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt.
Recruits sift through letters and endure countless monotonous phone calls from college coaches. When a committed (literally and figuratively) recruit has another prospect’s ear, it can be a valuable asset for coaching staffs.
“(Drew) became the face of the class,” Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown says. “The class kind of gravitated to him. He took it and ran with it himself. He took the reins with the whole class.”
With an assist from Barker, perhaps, Kentucky’s 2014 signing class was its highest-ranked in the history of Rivals, at 17th overall — better than Ole Miss, Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt.
Unofficial Visits Are More Important Than Ever
One of the universally accepted facts of recruiting in college football is that unless you can get a prospect on campus for an unofficial visit — i.e., on his own dime — chances are, the prospect won’t choose your school.
There are two types of visits in recruiting: One is the official, which one Pac-12 staffer calls “sacred.” Under the official visit guidelines, schools are permitted to pay for things like transportation, hotel rooms, food (three meals a day) and entertainment. Each Division I prospect is allowed to take five such visits beginning in September of his senior year.
But, in the age of booming scouting websites, football coaches can’t wait until a prospect is a senior — which is why the unofficial visit has taken on more and more importance in today’s recruiting world. Prospects can take as many unofficial visits as their hearts desire. Many times, these happen in the form of Junior Day camps, where schools work hands-on with hordes of junior prospects in the spring.
“Everybody is basing their decision off of the experience of the unofficial visit,”
Tennessee assistant Mark Elder says. “Unofficial visits are unbelievably crucial. You go and look at recruiting rankings, and half the kids are committed by Sept. 1 of their senior year (the first day they can take official visits).”
Official Visits Are Not All-Expenses-Paid-Vacations
On a recent spring afternoon from his office in Tempe, Ariz., Patrick Suddes could only marvel at the weather.
“It’s perfect, man,” Arizona State’s recruiting coordinator said. “78 degrees. Slightly windy. It’s just perfect.”
With that kind of beauty, though, comes a challenge for Suddes and his coaching cohorts. They heavily research and vet prospects before inviting them to come to campus for an official visit. The Sun Devils don’t want to simply be a temporary vacation spot for a recruit; they want to ensure that there’s legitimate interest on the recruit’s end in attending the school.
“We don’t want guys to come in just to see the palm trees,” Suddes says. “So you do as much research as possible.”
Though places like Arizona State, Hawaii and Miami are some of the more aesthetically pleasing locales in the country, the problem isn’t unique to them. When Suddes was at Alabama, he said prospects took official visits just so they could get a taste of the environment at Crimson Tide home games.
“No matter where you are, if your school has a certain niche or is on some kind of bucket list, you always kind of experience that problem,” Suddes says. “You try to do as much on the front end, but you can’t tell a top kid he can’t visit for the experience.”
Letters Can Be More Headache Than Heartfelt
Drew Richmond is a consensus Top 50 junior offensive lineman prospect from Memphis University School. That being the case, he gets heaps upon heaps of letters from just about every school in the nation. One day, he came home to 200 pieces of mail — most of it sprawled out on the street — from an SEC school. For Richmond, hand-written equals hassle — because where could all this mail possibly fit?
“You get so much mail,” says the 6'6", 315-pound lineman, who has offers from Alabama, Auburn, Clemson and more. “That stuff doesn’t really mean a lot. I’m more of a Twitter guy.”
Richmond prefers his written interactions with college coaches be condensed into 140 characters (or less). That way, he can sift through recruiting pitch after recruiting pitch with one swipe and not have to worry about finding a place to stow them.
Not to say there haven’t been pieces of mail that stuck out. The University of Memphis, Richmond’s hometown school, sent him a mock newspaper article that laid out a detailed scenario in which the Tigers, led by Richmond in this fantasy world, could make the College Football Playoff in 2016.
Early Commitments Aren’t Always Firm Commitments
Tennessee assistant coach Mark Elder likens committing early to a college — as, say, an underclassman — to getting married at 19. It might work if you’ve found the right person. But, more than likely, you haven’t had enough life experience to know if you’ve found the right person.
If Elder were a relationship therapist, he would recommend more relationships. Since he’s a college football coach, he recommends that a prospect take as many visits as possible before settling down.
“If you’ve got a kid willing to commit that hasn’t been a lot of places and is just sort of wanting to commit to the best place he’s seen to that point, it’s too early,” Elder says. “You haven’t seen places and you haven’t had the experience.”
Those are the prospects, Elder says, who get cold feet — though there are exceptions. Legacies and local players who grew up Volunteer fans are always welcome. It varies case-by-case; when Tennessee makes the decision whether to accept an underclassman commitment, they properly vet the committing party beforehand.
“Early commitments can be very beneficial, especially if you can get a guy who can get involved in recruiting other kids,” he says. “The tough part is if you don’t feel it’s a strong one — if it’s more reservation than commitment — he can be difficult to hang on to for a long time.”
Location, Location, Location Still Matters Most
For as much as Nebraska has to offer, with its tradition and unrivaled state support, there are recruiting stigmas the Cornhuskers must face. Nebraska’s biggest battle, unfortunately, is one it can do nothing about: its location.
In an age when unofficial visits are more important than ever, it’s a constant challenge for a program like Nebraska’s — smack-dab in the middle of the Midwest — to get recruits on campus on their own dime. The recruiting pool in the state is shallow at best.
“If you drew a four-hour circle around every school in the Big Ten, we would have the least population,” Nebraska director of recruiting Ross Els says. “It puts us at a disadvantage, purely on numbers.”
It’s not like Nebraska is exactly going without on the recruiting trail; its 2015 class is currently ranked No. 17 by Rivals, and three of the last four Huskers classes finished in the top 25.
Once prospects set foot on campus officially, the program sells itself. But, for Nebraska, the official visit tends to be more of a culmination of the recruiting process. And what precedes it.
The Huskers coaches first must debunk myths for their targets: It’s not, in fact, simply a cornfield where they play football. To facilitate that cause, the coaches in Lincoln have a program in place called “Teach Nebraska.” They start recruiting players as early as possible, sending them waves and waves of information through social media, mail and every medium available to them.
A prospect may or may not be able to make it to Nebraska for an unofficial visit — but this way, at least, he’ll know exactly what the school has to offer.
“We do have a lot of contacts throughout the country,” Els says. “We develop those relationships and the trust factor and send kids as much information as possible so that they can realize just what a special place we have here.”
High School Senior Seasons Are An Afterthought
With the explosion of combines, camps and websites like HUDL, which allow prospects to upload their own highlights, college coaches agree: As it concerns top prospects, the senior season is obsolete.
Recruiting works at hyper-speed in 2014. Coaches race to get to a prospect first simply to call dibs. The prevalence of unofficial visits and online scouting websites has sped up the cycle. By early May, 33 of Rivals’ Top 100 2015 prospects were committed to a school.
Bob Shoop, the defensive coordinator at Penn State, says he and his staff have already watched film of 150 safeties in the Class of 2015 and a “significant” number of local 2016 prospects in the region. These days, coaches can’t afford to wait for senior film; they have to evaluate prospects and determine if they’re good enough much earlier.
“A significant portion of evaluation is done well prior to the senior year,” Shoop says. “It’s sort of become, ‘Let’s get an offer out to this guy, let’s get one out to that guy.’”
As always, there are exceptions. As a junior at Katy High School in Texas, Andy Dalton didn’t even start full-time at quarterback. He split time and wasn’t handed the reins until he was a senior. Now an NFL starting quarterback, Dalton had just two offers in high school: UTEP and TCU, where he ultimately ended up.
“Sometimes people can get overlooked,” says Memphis coach Justin Fuente, who coached Dalton at TCU. “We take a little bit more of an old-school approach to it. We try to slow down just a little bit.”
Dead Period? What Dead Period? There is None
By definition, the dead period in college football recruiting keeps a coach from making any evaluations or basic in-person contact with a prospect. Telephone calls are allowed. The next dead period in the 2014 calendar, for example, goes from June 30 to July 13.
When asked about the existence of a dead period, however, more than one college coach laughed. You follow the rules, of course, but make no mistake: For a good recruiter, dead period does not mean days off.
On Christmas Day, there are Merry Christmas texts to be sent. Don’t you dare forget about birthdays, either.
“There’s always recruiting going on,” Tennessee assistant Mark Elder says. “You have to be constantly recruiting. If you’re not, somebody else is.”
The dead period isn’t the only contact period coaches have to navigate. There’s the quiet period, which allows coaches to make in-person contact in addition to phone calls with a prospect and his family provided it’s on campus. The evaluation period gives coaches the freedom to visit prospects for practices or games to assess their skill level.
While the dead period regulates in-person contact, the NCAA’s restrictions on social media use are far less stringent, giving coaches another way to circumvent the limitations of the recruiting calendar.
“You’ve got to stay in constant contact,” Nebraska’s Ross Els says. “Recruiting never stops. Never, ever, ever.”
Don’t Forget to Recruit Coaches and Family Members
There is a growing concern among college football coaches that their sport’s recruiting is becoming more and more akin to college basketball, where AAU coaches and self-serving family friends with the self-applied label of “mentor” suddenly find themselves with influence over a college recruit’s decision.
There’s no AAU football, but there are traveling 7-on-7 tournament teams. And it’s those organizers and outside influences that concern coaches like Memphis’ Justin Fuente.
Fuente encourages and expects parents and high school coaches to be involved in the recruiting process. As a man who spent several years in Texas, where high school football is part sport, part religion, Fuente is used to high school coaches having a say. He’s not, however, a fan of the grey area that handlers and mentors sometimes represent and exploit.
“It’s part of our charge as coaches to keep it within the family and high school coaches in football recruiting,” Fuente says.
Two years ago, a 7-on-7 coach based in Nashville named Byron De’Vinner was at the center of an NCAA investigation when he was said to have witnessed a Mississippi State booster hand money to then-Bulldogs recruit Will Redmond.
The increased presence and influence of characters like De’Vinner is what disappoints Fuente and other coaches the most.
“Are we going the direction of AAU with these handlers?” Nittany Lions assistant coach Bob Shoop says. “It’s just another piece and another angle. It’s become challenging.”
Today’s Recruits Are Savvier Than Ever Before
Thirty years ago, coaches used to have to explain the recruiting process to parents and kids. Those days are no longer. Nowadays, recruits know everything from depth charts to contract extension statuses.
“Used to, in December, you’d go in the living room and have to explain they have five official visits,” Dickey says. “They know all that now. They’re much better educated than they used to be. Social media has had a pretty big impact on recruiting — and it’s not just us keeping up with them.”
Drew Richmond, a four-star offensive lineman, studies depth charts. He knows what recruits are coming in and what players are graduating or leaving for the NFL. If avoiding a transfer down the line is the goal, poring over as much information as is available is the key.
“Coaches will tell you anything,” Richmond says. “You believe (some of) it to a certain extent, but I’d rather have more proof for myself.”
Recruiting Budgets Vary Widely Within Conferences
There’s a common denominator with every coach at every school in the country: Coaches want full support and commitment from their administration. Whether it’s as big-picture as facility work or immediate as a recruiting budget, it’s difficult for coaches to operate without resources.
Tennessee spent $2.4 million on recruiting in the 2012-13 fiscal year. Kentucky spent $1.7 million. Ole Miss spent $1.2 million. Mississippi State spent just over $1 million.
There’s a wide range of recruiting budgets throughout the country, but the expenses are generally universal: Mail, coaching visits and official visits.
Earlier this year, Kentucky grabbed headlines when it sent 182 letters in one day to 372-pound defensive lineman Matt Elam.
One American Athletic Conference coach, however, downplays certain aspects of an engorged recruiting budget.
“People can out-mail you and out-propaganda you through spending dollars,” the coach says. “There’s always someone out there with a bigger stick.”
A long expense sheet in recruiting doesn’t always correlate to a huge recruiting class, just as a more modest budget doesn’t doom a program to mediocrity. Florida State, for instance, spent a hair over $1 million — less than most of the SEC — and still finished with the No. 4-ranked recruiting class, according to Rivals.
An Offer is Not an Offer Until the LOI is Signed
It’s an instant-information, instant-gratification recruiting world we live in, and nothing has proven to be more ambiguous than the scholarship offer. Prospects get lost in coach-speak and half-hearted overtures, oftentimes confusing interest for a concrete, all-expenses-paid invitation to join the program.
In taking steps to avoid misinterpretation, assistant coaches Mark Elder and Darrell Dickey say they try to be as crystal-clear as humanly possible.
“We don’t deal in committable vs. non-committable,” Elder says. “We’re not offering someone that (we wouldn’t accept) on the same day. That’s not how we do business.”
Dickey, the former head coach at North Texas, says he tried to avoid casting an overly-large net knowing he had only 25 spots to fill.
“There’s places out there that have 150 offers out and only so many spots,” Dickey says. “I never felt very comfortable having thousands of offers out there and then all of a sudden you’ve got to tell kids you can’t take them.”
There’s an important difference, however, between rescinding an offer and a prospect being misled.
Unlike in basketball, where coaches can afford to ride out an elite-level prospect’s recruitment until the end due to smaller numbers on the roster, the task for college football coaches is more complex. Every year, there’s a (usually) set number of holes to fill. If a prospect waits too long and a school takes another player at the same position, it’s not that he was lied to about having an offer — he was simply beaten to the spot.
“The offer is good at that moment,” Elder says. “But it may not be good all the way up to Signing Day, because we may offer, for example, a couple of other tight ends. It’s good until we fill up at that position.”
Written by John Martin (@JohnMartin929), columnist for 92.9 FM ESPN Radio in Memphis, Tenn. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 College Football Regional Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.
As the Sun Bowl approached last December, the reward for an 8–4 regular season, Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer offered a rare moment of candor regarding his future. The resignations of Texas’ Mack Brown and Wake Forest’s Jim Grobe, two of his contemporaries and closest friends in the coaching business, weighed heavily on his mind.
“It just kind of reminds you that nothing is certain about this business,” the 67-year-old Beamer said. “I’m very sensitive to staying around too long. …
“It’s just the reality of the business. I understand it. I haven’t seriously thought of (retiring), but I’ve certainly thought about it. But I feel good about things right now. Our recruiting is going great. I like my coaching staff very much. Things are really very positive right now.”
There are few things tougher to pull off in football than the graceful exit of a long-time coach. Joe Paterno’s end was ugly at Penn State. Bobby Bowden’s wasn’t as scandalous but still came too late at Florida State.
With those situations as a backdrop, the question now facing Virginia Tech is this: Can Beamer, the winningest active Division I coach and about to begin his 28th season in Blacksburg, pull the Hokies out of a two-season swoon and get back to competing for ACC championships?
Beamer is partly a victim of his own success. Virginia Tech was the standard bearer for consistency for much of the 2000s, winning at least 10 games in eight straight seasons from 2004-11. But the bottom has fallen out recently. Years of offensive indifference and the decline of Tech’s play on special teams — not many people have been using the term “Beamerball” of late — finally caught up to the Hokies, putting the program at a crossroads.
A 7–6 mark in 2012, when Tech nearly missed a bowl game for the first time in two decades, prompted an overhaul to the offensive coaching staff. The Hokies went 8–5 last year on the back of a top-five defense and could have gotten back to 10 wins if not for several turnover-plagued games.
Still, 15 wins in two years and no ACC Championship Game appearances — amazingly, the longest drought the Hokies have had since the inception of the title game in 2005 — aren't what folks in Blacksburg are accustomed to.
“We’re used to winning 10 games a year, and we haven’t done that,” running backs coach Shane Beamer says. “Not to justify it, but at some places if you win eight, you win seven, they’re giving everyone contract extensions and having celebrations. That’s not our expectation here at Virginia Tech. Our expectation each year, why these players came here, is to win championships.”
Those around the program — and even former players like running back Kevin Jones, who was on the committee that recently hired new athletic director Whit Babcock — are confident that the last two years have only been a brief hiccup, although the Hokies’ task of reclaiming their spot atop the ACC they dominated for so long is made tougher by Florida State’s resurgence and Clemson’s recent run.
The hope comes from the changes Virginia Tech made on offense prior to the 2013 season. After years of underachieving on that side of the ball, Beamer revamped his staff, going outside the program to hire former Temple and Auburn offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler and two more offensive assistants (and since then, another one). For Beamer — who hadn’t hired an outside coordinator since 1994 and, it was reported later, considered calling upon old pal Ralph Friedgen to run the offense — it was a bold step, one outside his comfort zone.
“I think what he did last year as far as the coaching change showed that the guy still has a burning desire to go win a national championship and see this program continue to grow,” says defensive coordinator Bud Foster, whose consistently strong group has put the Hokies in the mix for two decades now. “You just don’t do that if you don’t have fire. … We’re not going to be complacent here. I think that’s a telltale sign.”
While Year 1 under Loeffler wasn’t a wild success — Tech actually went backward in the national rankings in total yardage, from 81st to 101st, and had one of the worst rushing attacks in Beamer’s tenure — it provided a starting point in modernizing the Hokies’ offense, utilizing multiple shifts and more complex schemes than Virginia Tech had used in the past.
The issue now is talent. The offense lacks difference-makers of the recent past like Tyrod Taylor, David Wilson and Ryan Williams, the result of several subpar recruiting classes, although Loeffler and Co. have gone about fixing that on the recruiting trail. In the new staff’s first full recruiting cycle, it signed 16 offensive players to replenish the ranks, the biggest influx of talent the program has had on that side of the ball in years.
In addition to a pair of freshman quarterbacks, Andrew Ford and Chris Durkin, Loeffler convinced Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer to join the Hokies, adding to the competition to replace three-year starter Logan Thomas.
“I see the young talent,” Shane Beamer says. “You look around this room and there’s a lot of young faces of guys that have three years or more of eligibility left. And our talent level hasn’t been probably what it needs to be the last couple years in certain positions, and we’ve known that. We’ve tried hard to get it right in recruiting and I feel like we have.”
A significant turnaround might be a matter of time and timing — time for those recruits to mature and timing to get all the parts lined up. This season, the Hokies have to retool on defense after losing seven senior starters and have no known entity at quarterback, despite an older offensive line that could start as many as four seniors. Next year, when an experienced quarterback might be in place and the defense is a year older, the offensive line could be starting an overhaul.
Will Beamer still be on the sideline by then? His current contract runs through 2016, and those closest to him say he hasn’t slowed down with age or taken on a figurehead role that many assume is the case.
“I’m his son, and we’ve never once talked about how long he’s going to coach,” Shane Beamer says. “Not one time. … I don’t see him slowing down at all.
“Anything you need him to do recruiting-wise, he does it. ‘Hey, I need you to call these 10 high school coaches today.’ The next day, he’s got it done. We just played Georgia Tech on a Thursday, he’s in Richmond all day Friday going to high school football games. If he was slowing down, I think he’d say, ‘You know, I think I’d rather just stay home and watch college football all day.’ But he doesn’t. Whatever needs to be done, he does.
“He sees the youth. The youth on this team keeps us all young. And I know he’s excited about the next step.”
Written by Andy Bitter (@AndyBitterVT) of the Roanoke Times for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 ACC Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.
Analytics have become commonplace in sports. Casual baseball fans know about Moneyball and the value of on-base percentage over batting average and have at least heard of WAR (Wins Above Replacement), even if they don’t really know what it’s good for. Casual basketball fans were probably exposed to John Hollinger’s PER (Player Efficiency Rating) system at some point, know about Houston general manager Daryl Morey’s background, and may have even picked up on stylistic shifts that were impacted by analytics — more corner 3s, a shunning of long 2-pointers, et cetera.
The analytics revolution has not quite reached mainstream status with the country’s most popular sport, however. Football is a more random, complicated sport, with a pointy ball and 22 players who all carry out unique tasks at one time or another. There is more luck and specialization involved in football than in most team sports, and it makes it more difficult to draw obvious conclusions about players, teams or front offices.
Still, at the NFL level, there has been progress. A lot of teams have analytics departments, and sites like Football Outsiders, Advanced NFL Stats and others have been gaining a foothold. Any breakthroughs for football analytics, however, have taken place at the professional level. In college football, where the head coach is the general manager and some graduate assistant is the analytics department, things are a little trickier. Some teams and coaches have a much better feel for when to go for it on fourth down, but that’s only one aspect of stats in football.
But the college football statistics community does exist and has been putting out some interesting work for a while. We are on an everlasting quest for more hands on deck, but we get a little further, a little more detailed and a little more engrained with each passing season.
At this stage in the game, what you need to know about college football analytics can be more properly explained by certain truisms instead of specific measures. Here are five points that you need to know about college football and its stats.
1. There are Five Factors to Winning a Football Game
So much of football boils down to where you start, how you move the ball, how you finish, and whether or not the pointy ball bounces in your direction. Or to put it another way: The five stats that matter most in football are efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives and turnovers.
• If you win the field position battle, you win the game 72 percent of the time.
• If you win the turnover battle, you win the game 73 percent of the time.
• If you finish drives better than your opponent, you win 75 percent of the time.
• If you are more efficient than your opponent, you win 83 percent of the time.
• If you are more explosive than your opponent, you win 86 percent of the time.
The college football box score hasn’t changed much since the 1920s, and if we were to rebuild it from scratch, we would be well served to build it around these five factors. These concepts are in no way advanced stats, but they are and could be the basis for such.
2. The Difference Between Standard Downs and Passing Downs is the Difference Between Winning and Losing
You can define standard downs as first down, second-and-7 or fewer, or third- or fourth-and-4 or fewer. Passing downs are the other plays: second-and-8 or more, third- or fourth-and-5 or more.
We’ve all heard coaches preach the importance of staying on schedule. It is a cliché, but sometimes clichés exist for a reason. A team’s Success Rate on standard downs was, on average, 48 percent in 2013; on passing downs, it was 32 percent. Once you fall behind schedule, it is rather difficult to catch up.
Interested in learning more about advanced stats? Check out Bill Connelly's book for an in-depth look at all things college football, the issues facing the sport in future seasons and a detailed breakdown of advanced statistics and what they mean.3. In Advanced Stats, Adjusting for Opponents is Everything
One of the biggest problems with college football stats is that you cannot simply look at them and come to immediate conclusions. Fresno State averaged more yards per game than Texas A&M in 2013, and Northern Illinois averaged more than Ohio State. Marshall and Rice won 10 games while Washington won only nine. We know to pause and ask, “Yeah, but who have they played?”
Statistically speaking, there are countless ways to adjust for the quality of the opponent at hand (some better than others), but no matter how you do it, you have to do it. In essence, it is what makes “advanced stats” advanced, and while we account for this in every sport, it is never more vital than in college sports. The talent gap from team to team is just too wide.
4. Garbage-Time Stats are Mostly Garbage
One of the least productive moments of the BCS era (1998-2013) came when decision-makers decided margin of victory should play no role in the BCS formulas. They didn’t want to encourage teams to run up the score against overwhelmed opponents. (This ignores that human pollsters are still very much swayed by big margins.) If Team A beat Team B by one point, it was the same as beating that team by 38. It intentionally removed the most telling piece of data for systems that use only points scored and allowed.
There’s a better way, anyway. Play-by-play and full-drive college football data can be found publicly now, either at the NCAA’s official site, on school sites or at CFBstats.com. And when you use data beyond simple points scored or total yards gained, you can filter out what happens in garbage time, when the game is out of reach. You can look only at what transpired when a game was considered competitive, which retains the important piece that we gleaned from point differential (level of dominance) while removing the part nobody likes (running up the score).
5. Pace Adjustments are Almost as Essential
If Florida State’s 2013 offense had run at Baylor’s pace, the Seminoles would have projected to average 633 yards and 63 points per game. If Georgia’s 2012 offense had played at Oregon’s pace, the Bulldogs might have averaged 575 yards and 47 points per game.
We get distracted by big, shiny point and yardage totals, and we sometimes fail to recognize the offenses or defenses that are truly the strongest (or weakest). If you play in the Big 12 or Pac-12, your defense is going to face a ton of high-paced, high-quality offenses and will by default give up more points and yards. That doesn’t mean the defenses in those conferences stink any more than it means that ACC or Big Ten defenses are better because they face fewer plays. If advanced stats aren’t your thing, you could still do yourself a huge service by looking at yards per play in the box score instead of total yards.
Measuring The Five Factors:
In this article and in the 2014 Athlon Sports’ College Football Preview, you’ll find a series of references to what we call the Five Factors. They are interrelated and are more descriptive than prescriptive — you can’t simply say, “We need to improve on turnovers” and make it so — but they are wonderfully useful in examining what went right or wrong for a team in the previous season.
So what’s the best way to look at these factors? Some are more simple and direct than others.
Field Position: Simply looking at a team’s (and its opponent’s) average starting field position is a clean way of determining how a team leveraged the field in its favor. A team can create an advantage (or disadvantage) through numerous means — good kicking or punting, good returns, turnovers, avoiding three-and-outs (and creating plenty for the opponent) — but average starting field position is the easiest way to measure the result.
Finishing Drives: In the 2014 Athlon Sports’ College Football Preview, we took a look at one simple measure to judge the ability to finish drives: points per trip inside the opponent’s 40. There is more separation between good and bad teams if you stretch the “scoring opportunity” definition to the 40, but you can get a good feel for drive-finishing ability by looking at the typical red-zone definition, too. WARNING: Avoid “red zone scoring percentage” averages. Over time, there is an enormous difference between scoring a touchdown and settling for a field goal, and “scoring percentage” treats them the same. Aim more toward touchdown percentages or the superior “points per trip.”
Turnovers: You can certainly look at turnover margin to roughly gauge the impact of turnovers. You can also look into the field position and points immediately created by those turnovers if you want to get a little bit more accurate.
To aim at both the effect and randomness of turnovers, you will find in the 2014 Athlon Sports’ College Football Preview a comparison of actual numbers and “projected” turnovers based on what a team’s turnover margin would have been with an average number of fumble recoveries (50 percent on average, obviously) and interceptions (a team normally averages one interception for every four pass break-ups). That will give you an idea for both who committed and forced the most and who was particularly lucky or unlucky regarding the bouncing of the pointy ball.
But what about efficiency and explosiveness? They are dominant when it comes to winning football games, but how do we most easily and effectively measure those terms?
Efficiency: Success Rate is an on-base percentage for football; it creates a definition of success for every play — 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, 100 percent on third or fourth down — and, over time, gives you a clean, easy look at how well a team stays on schedule and ahead of the chains. Explosiveness, your ability to create big plays and easy scores, is often seen as the most important factor in football, but you still have only three to four plays to gain 10 yards, and Success Rate tells you almost everything you need to know about how teams perform in that regard.
Explosiveness: In a pinch, Yards Per Play will suffice just fine when it comes to gauging explosiveness. From an advanced level, there are other options. PPP measures the equivalent point value of every play by assigning a point value to every yard line (based on the net points an offense is expected to generate from yard to yard). Isolated PPP looks at the point value of a team’s successful plays (as determined by the Success Rate equation above). With IsoPPP, you can boil offense down to two questions: How often were you successful? And when you were successful, how successful were you?
How do efficiency and explosiveness interact? Here are a couple of examples.
Miami’s offense was quite explosive in 2013. The Hurricanes ranked 11th in yards per play (6.8) and third in IsoPPP (1.38), but they were just 51st in Success Rate (44.5 percent). This paints the picture of an offense that could eat up wide swaths of yardage in a short amount of time but made too many mistakes to score consistently.
Alternately, Arizona State’s defense ranked a healthy 13th in allowing only a 36.5 percent Success Rate; the Sun Devils were able to create plenty of passing downs and three-and-outs, but they also ranked 67th in yards per play allowed (5.5) and 118th in IsoPPP allowed (1.33). The big plays they allowed were far too big.
Written by Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) of Football Study Hall for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 College Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for June 13.
• How would the U.S. men's national team look with soccer great Alexi Lalas' hair? Find out.
• Petra Nemcova gets physical in GQ Portugal. Thank you, GQ. Just thank you.
• Things just keep getting better for Michael Jordan. According to sources, he's now a billionaire.
• Apparently Bill Simmons was not happy with the amount of face time he got on ESPN following the Spurs win over the Heat in Game 4 of the NBA Finals.
• In honor of Father's Day, Jimmy Fallon and Gov. Chris Christie performed the Evolution of Dad Dancing.
• Watch Rory McIlroy hit a golf shot out of a bunker full of coleslaw. Go on, you know you want to.
• Minor leaguer Quinton Berry wasn't happy about his ejection from a recent game, so he did something absolutely crazy.
• In case you were wondering what the most popular beer is from every 2014 World Cup country, wonder no more.
• Who are college football's most underrated players?
• During last night’s Yankees-Mariners game in Seattle, Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Stoll surprised his family, who were on the field as part of a pre-game ceremony. This gets us every time.
With the World Cup kicking off today, the interweb is abuzz with excitement. What better way to show our excitement than checking out the balls that have graced the soccer field over the decades.
College football’s talent pool isn’t just relegated to the FBS ranks, as plenty of NFL products have emerged from the FCS level.
Athlon Sports has released its top 25 for the FCS in 2014 and now it’s time to take a look at the All-America team.
Eastern Washington’s Vernon Adams headlines the team at quarterback, followed by David Johnson at Northern Iowa and South Dakota State’s Zach Zenner at running back.
2014 FCS All-America Team
Year of Eligibility
|QB Vernon Adams||6-0, 190||Jr.||Eastern Washington|
|RB David Johnson||6-3, 225||Sr.||Northern Iowa|
|RB Zach Zenner||6-0, 220||Sr.||South Dakota State|
|FB Emmanuel Holder||5-11, 255||Jr.||Towson|
|WR Sam Ajala||6-0, 195||Sr.||Fordham|
|WR Cooper Kupp||6-2, 195||So.||Eastern Washington|
|TE MyCole Pruitt||6-3, 250||Sr.||Southern Illinois|
|C Max Holcombe||6-3, 290||Sr.||Jacksonville State|
|G Robert Booker||6-3, 315||Jr.||Missouri State|
|G Collin Seibert||6-4, 280||Sr.||Eastern Illinois|
|T Antione Everett||6-3, 325||Sr.||McNeese State|
|T Jack Rummells||6-5, 301||Sr.||Northern Iowa|
|DE Zach Hodges||6-3, 235||Sr.||Harvard|
|DE Davis Tull||6-3, 240||Sr.||Chattanooga|
|DT O.J. Le’iatua Mau||6-2, 302||Jr.||Gardner-Webb|
|DT Troy Moore||6-3, 285||Sr.||Sacred Heart|
|LB Quinn Backus||5-10, 215||Sr.||Coastal Carolina|
|LB Tony Bell||6-1, 200||Sr.||UT Martin|
|LB Lynden Trail||6-7, 260||Sr.||Norfolk State|
|CB Harlan Miller||6-0, 170||Jr.||Southeastern Louisiana|
|CB Tye Smith||6-0, 170||Sr.||Towson|
|S Daniel Fitzpatrick||6-2, 210||Sr.||Tennessee State|
|S Caleb Schaffitzel||6-0, 214||Sr.||Missouri State|
|K Thomas Kinney||5-8, 174||Sr.||Southern Illinois|
|P Kyle Loomis||6-2, 210||Sr.||Portland State|
|KR Xavier Roberson||5-9, 170||Jr.||Southeastern Louisiana|
|PR Adrian Wilkins||5-8, 170||Jr.||North Carolina Central|
College football isn't just about the major conferences, as the FCS has provided plenty of intrigue on a national level in recent years. North Dakota State has dominated the FCS ranks with three consecutive national titles, but Eastern Washington ranks as Athlon’s projected champion for 2014, with the Bison picked No. 2 nationally.
The Bison lost coach Craig Bohl to Wyoming, and there are a handful of key seniors departing. However, the defense should be solid, and there’s still talent at the skill positions on offense.
The Eagles are explosive on offense with quarterback Vernon Adams back at the controls, and the defense is expected to improve in 2014. Eastern Washington will have a chance to play spoiler at Washington on Sept. 6.
2014 FCS Top 25 and Playoff Predictions
1. Eastern Washington
Few teams are motivated quite like the Eagles, who have lost at home in the FCS semifinals the last two seasons. Coach Beau Baldwin’s program has the firepower to match the 2010 national championship squad, as opponents must pick their poison between trying to stop quarterback Vernon Adams (4,994 yards, 55 TDs), wide receiver Cooper Kupp (93 receptions, 1,691 yards, 21 TDs) and running back Quincy Forte (1,208 rushing yards, 16 total TDs). While the offense scores in bunches, linebackers Ronnie Hamlin and Cody McCarthy will push for improvement from the defense.
Related: FCS 2014 All-America Team
2. North Dakota State
(15–0, 8–0 Missouri Valley) New coach Chris Klieman inherits a team that graduated 24 seniors, so the Bison must display the overall depth built up by the previous regime while chasing what would be an FCS-record fourth straight national title. The nation’s best defense for three straight years still features linebacker Carlton Littlejohn and safety Colten Heagle. New quarterback Carson Wentz has go-to weapons in wide receiver Zach Vraa and running back John Crockett.
3. Southeastern Louisiana
(11–3, 7–0 Southland) Former Oregon quarterback Bryan Bennett has set the bar high for the many transfers whom coach Ron Roberts has brought into the program. The 2013 conference Player of the Year is a dual threat, but he also wants to get the ball to playmakers Rasheed Harrell and Xavier Roberson. Pass-rushing linebacker Isiah Corbett fuels the defense.
4. New Hampshire
(10–5, 6–2 CAA) Many key players return from last season’s surprising national semifinalists, including 1,000-yard rusher Nico Steriti and 1,000-yard wide receiver R.J. Harris. The big plays on coach Sean McDonnell’s defense often come from linebacker Akil Anderson and safety Casey DeAndrade. New Hampshire doesn’t face Villanova or Towson in CAA play.
5. Northern Iowa
(7–5, 3–5 Missouri Valley) The Panthers ended the 2013 season strong after injuries wrecked their promising start. Better health with quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen, running back David Johnson and linebacker Jake Farley, son of coach Mark Farley, could lead to a conference title run. Opposing ball-carriers will look to avoid 6'4", 311-pound defensive tackle Xavier Williams.
6. Jacksonville State
(11–4, 5–3 OVC) Offensive coordinator John Grass was elevated to head coach after Bill Clark left for UAB. Grass’ veteran team will keep relying on bulldozer running back DaMarcus James and sophomore quarterback Eli Jenkins. The Gamecocks added Alabama transfer LaMichael Fanning, a defensive end.
Projected Playoff Teams
» Coastal Carolina (Big South champ)
» Eastern Washington (Big Sky champ)
» Fordham (Patriot champ)
» Furman (at-large)
» Jacksonville State (OVC champ)
» McNeese State (at-large)
» Montana (at-large)
» Montana State (at-large)
» New Hampshire (CAA champ)
» North Dakota State (Missouri Valley champ)
» Northern Iowa (at-large)
» Richmond (at-large)
» Sacred Heart (NEC champ)
» Sam Houston State (at-large)
» San Diego (Pioneer champ)
» South Carolina State (MEAC champ)
» South Dakota State (at-large)
» Southeastern Louisiana (Southland champ)
» Southern Illinois (at-large)
» Chattanooga (Southern champ)
» Tennessee State (at-large)
» Towson (at-large)
» Villanova (at-large)» William & Mary (at-large)
(10–3, 6–2 Big Sky) Senior quarterback Jordan Johnson ignites an offense that has plenty of options with wide receiver Ellis Henderson and running backs Jordan Canada and Travon Van. Although there are big losses at linebacker, defensive end Zack Wagenmann is among the best in the nation. The special teams are strong.
(6–5, 5–3 CAA) Last year’s CAA favorites were among the nation’s more disappointing teams, but the Wildcats will return to prominence behind dual-threat quarterback John Robertson, who can be unstoppable, and running backs Kevin Monangai and Austin Medley. Linebackers Don Cherry and Joey Harmon both had breakthrough seasons.
9. McNeese State
(10–3, 6–1 Southland) Coach Matt Viator must replace quarterback Cody Stroud and other key players on offense, but running backs Kelvin Bennett and Derek Milton, a Mississippi State transfer, are ready for lead roles. There were fewer losses on defense, where senior end Everett Ellefsen is the leader.
(13–3, 6–2 CAA) The early departure of 2,500-yard running back Terrance West to the NFL has set back the national runner-up Tigers. But his understudy, Darius Victor, impressed as a freshman last season, and coach Rob Ambrose has raised the talent level. Defensive end Ryan Delaire and cornerback Tye Smith are difference-makers.
11. South Dakota State
(9–5, 5–3 Missouri Valley) Senior running back Zach Zenner can become the first FCS player to rush for 2,000 yards in a season three times. The Austin Sumner-to-Jason Schneider passing combo takes pressure off Zenner. Still, the Jackrabbits have to fill some holes on both lines.
(8–4, 6–2 Southern) The Southern Conference is down, and the Mocs, seeking their first FCS playoff berth since 1984, return the SoCon Offensive Player of the Year (quarterback Jacob Huesman) and Defensive Player of the Year (end Davis Tull). A healthier Keon Williams could make a run at a 1,000-yard season.
(12–2, 0–0 Patriot) The Rams, who began awarding scholarships three years before the rest of the Patriot League, are eligible for the league title again. Senior quarterback Michael Nebrich (4,380 yards, 35 touchdowns) will pick apart defenses with his three 1,000-yard wide receivers — Sam Ajala, Tebucky Jones and Brian Wetzel.
14. Coastal Carolina
(12–3, 4–1 Big South) Junior quarterback Alex Ross is one of the better-kept secrets in the FCS. Running back De’Angelo Henderson will try to replace All-American Lorenzo Taliaferro. Speaking of All-Americans, linebacker Quinn Backus already owns two Big South Defensive Player of the Year awards.
15. William & Mary
(7–5, 4–4 CAA) There will be a mugging or two reported in Williamsburg, where the Tribe have a suffocating defense led by All-CAA selections Mike Reilly at end and Airek Green and Luke Rhodes at linebacker. The offense features running back Mikal Abdul-Saboor and wide receiver Tre McBride.
16. Montana State
(7–5, 5–3 Big Sky) One of the easier Big Sky schedules will help the Bobcats try to rebound from a disappointing season. All-purpose standout Shawn Johnson racks up the yards, and Na’a Moeakiola returns from injury to join Alex Singleton at linebacker.
17. Tennessee State
(10–4, 6–2 OVC) Ball-hawking safety Daniel Fitzpatrick allows defensive end Anthony Bass and linebacker Nick Thrasher to dominate in the front seven. Quarterback Michael German needs to remain on the field, although Ronald Butler is capable of spelling him.
(6–6, 4–4 CAA) The CAA’s most dangerous passer, senior Michael Strauss, will operate behind a veteran offensive line and alongside excellent weapons, including wide receiver Stephen Barnette. The defense forces turnovers, and defensive tackle Evan Kelly gets into opposing backfields.
(8–6, 6–2 Southern) Coach Bruce Fowler flipped the switch on a team that was 2–4 in mid-October. Much of the talent is back, including quarterback Reese Hannon, blue-collar running back Hank McCloud and the defensive playmakers, defensive end Gary Wilkins and nickel Jairus Hollman.
20. Southern Illinois
(7–5, 5–3 Missouri Valley) Sophomore quarterback Ryan West will spread the ball around to running back Malcolm Agnew, All-America tight end MyCole Pruitt and all-purpose threat LaSteven McKinney. The former FCS power has to win more of the close games.
21. Sam Houston State
(9–5, 4–3 Southland) Former FCS title-winning coach K.C. Keeler from Delaware is the new sheriff in Huntsville, Texas, but change was coming regardless after the Bearkats’ standout senior class moved on. Running back Keshawn Hill is a breakaway threat, while free safety Michael Wade fuels a retooled defense.
22. James Madison
(6–6, 3–5 CAA) The big crowds at Bridgeforth Stadium are hoping for quick returns from new coach Everett Withers, who was the interim head coach at North Carolina in 2011. Georgia Tech transfer Vad Lee takes over at quarterback. Safety Dean Marlowe and linebacker Gage Steele are standouts on defense.
(7–5, 4–4 CAA) The Trent Hurley-to-Michael Johnson passing connection is dangerous, and linebacker Patrick Callaway fortifies the defense. The Blue Hens missed the 2013 playoffs by losing their final three games last season.
24. Eastern Illinois
(12–2, 8–0 OVC) A drop-off is likely after the Panthers lost star quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to the NFL and coach Dino Babers to Bowling Green. First-year coach Kim Dameron still has top receivers and playmaking running back Shepard Little (1,551 yards, 19 total TDs).
25. Youngstown State
(8–4, 5–3 Missouri Valley) Opponents will key on sophomore tailback Martin Ruiz now that four-year quarterback Kurt Hess is gone. The new signal-caller will have a strong group of receivers, but the four-time FCS championship-winning program hasn’t been to the postseason since 2006.
By Kyle Kensing, CFBHuddle.com
San Jose State defenders hesitated as Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds faked a pitch to Darius Staten. It was flawless execution of the Midshipmen’s signature, triple-option offense.
A block down the field left nothing but daylight ahead of Reynolds, and he scampered 25 yards to cap a wild, 58-52 Navy win in triple-overtime.
“That’s a testament to our offense and production as a team,” Reynolds said of the Mids’ historic night.
The game-winner was Reynolds’ eighth touchdown of the contest and seventh via the rush. He said on the cross-country trip from San Jose back to Annapolis, Maryland, the magnitude of his performance hit him.
“On the plane ride, it kind of dawned on me that I’d scored every touchdown,” he said. “I’d never done that in middle school or Pee Wee [League]. That’s the most I’ve ever scored.”
No one in NCAA history can say they scored as many rushing touchdowns in one game, either.
And no other Football Bowl Subdivision quarterback can stake claim to 31 rushing touchdowns in a single season, as Reynolds can.
In Navy’s next outing, its annual rivalry encounter with Army, Reynolds surpassed former Kansas State standout Collin Klein and Navy alum Ricky Dobbs to break the record with touchdown No. 28.
He tacked on one more against the Cadets for good measure, then added two in the Armed Forces Bowl win over Middle Tennessee State.
The single-season record was a goal Reynolds said he set for himself, but had “lost track” of his progress during the season’s course. It wasn’t until the San Jose State trip and those seven rushing touchdowns that the mark was in sight.
“I definitely didn’t expect that,” he said.
Presumably, neither did the national television audience tuned in on ESPN. The Mids and Spartans commanded the football spotlight in the only game that late-November Friday night, and Reynolds delivered a star performance that has brought him attention since.
“The biggest mistake you can make is starting to believe your own hype.”
In the wake of his record-setting campaign, accolades are making their way to Reynolds. Preseason Heisman Trophy watch lists, such as Chris Huston’s via HeismanPundit.com, include his name.
“It’s a big deal and I’m definitely grateful to be [mentioned] in the presence of great athletes who have won the Heisman like Jameis Winston and others who are going to be first-round [NFL] draft picks,” he said.
With 39 total touchdowns, Reynolds was not far behind Winston, the Florida State quarterback who claimed the award in 2013 with 44 scores—albeit in one game more than Reynolds and Navy played.
Certainly he’s a dark horse for the most prestigious individual award in college football. Voters follow a pattern that does not have room for players beyond the cast of power-conference programs.
The last Heisman recipient outside of one of those five leagues was Ty Detmer in 1990. The last service academy player to hoist the Heisman was Navy quarterback Roger Staubach in 1963.
Still, even being suggested for the award is an honor in and of itself for Reynolds. He called it “very humbling,” but added his focus is elsewhere as the 2014 season approaches.
“My concern is Ohio State. All that matters is Aug. 30,” he said.
Aug. 30 is when the Mids kickoff the 2014 season against Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes, a team expected to compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
The date is the second half of a series first played in 2009. Behind Dobbs’ four touchdowns that September afternoon, the Mids took the Buckeyes to the brink.
Ohio State escaped with a 31-27 victory, but Navy’s performance—and especially that of Dobbs--left an impression on Reynolds.
“Even before I knew about Navy football, I watched the Ohio State game in 2009, so I knew the legacy [Dobbs] had left,” Reynolds said. “He’s on the flyer they send out [to recruits].”
Since setting the rushing touchdown record, Reynolds is well on his way to establishing his own Navy legacy—another goal he said he set for himself.
“I wanted to do some great things with special guys that other people here haven’t been able to do,” he said.
Upsetting a juggernaut such as Ohio State would certainly qualify. And he’ll have had almost eight months to focus on it by the time the Buckeyes and Mids kickoff in Baltimore.
“Jan. 1,” Reynolds said is when the team turned attention to Ohio State, just two days after the Armed Forces Bowl. “As soon as the new year started…[the team discussion] was ‘we have Ohio State next year.’”
Navy’s months of preparation for a likely Top 10-ranked opponent are not being invested in simply putting up a good fight.
Reynolds described an attitude at Navy that certainly applies to the Ohio State matchup.
“Every Saturday, we got out to play and win,” he said. “We’re not there to survive. We’re there to win.”
Playing with the Buckeyes, winners of 24 games combined in the past two seasons, is certainly a challenge. But then, playing football, being a student and working toward commission as an officer at the Naval Academy is about routinely overcoming challenges.
A decision for “20-30 years down the road”
Coming out of Madison, Tennessee’s Goodpasture Christian School, recruiting feelers came Reynolds’ way. Navy was one suitor that offered him an opportunity to play his prep position, quarterback.
But Mids head coach Ken Niumatalolo could also offer an opportunity for Reynolds to start as freshman. Navy replaced Kriss Proctor after the 2011 season, opening a competition Reynolds won by the Mids' Week 5 game against Central Michigan. Prior, he traveled for the 2012 season opener in Dublin, Ireland, against Notre Dame, his first exposure to the college game.
“That was a big opportunity, to go to another country to play a game,” he said.
Opportunity defines Reynolds’ decision to enroll at the Naval Academy. The student-athlete experience in Annapolis is unique, as he explained.
“The midshipman life [compared] to the normal college student life,” he said. “It’s a complete 180.”
And for Navy football players, the process can be even more demanding.
“Everyone, for the most part, is allotted four weeks of leave. [Football players] take one or two,” he said. “The rest of the time we’re training up in Annapolis. We sacrifice most of our summer.
“But that’s something we knew coming into the Naval Academy, joining the military,” he added. “We were going to have to be part of the structured lifestyle to better prepare ourselves to be Naval officers.”
Receiving commission as either a naval or Marine Corps officer is an opportunity Reynolds said goes beyond what he does on the football field.
“There are so many great things that come from graduating from the Naval Academy,” he said. “I even had a coach recruiting me to a different school tell me, ‘you’d be dumb not to take [the Navy] offer.’
“’Make this decision for 20-30 years down the road, not five years down the road.’”
Much like his game-winning touchdown rush to beat San Jose State in triple-overtime that late-November night, there’s daylight ahead for Keenan Reynolds—20 years down the road, or simply in the upcoming football season.