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For the second consecutive year, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff have brought in yet another top-5 recruiting class featuring a handful of signees that many are expecting to contribute the second they arrive in Ann Arbor.
One likely recruiting pitch coming from the staff was the amount of playing time potentially up for grabs as the Wolverines lost as many as 17 starters from a season ago, in addition to numerous key contributors sprinkled all over the depth chart.
Along with some of the freshmen that redshirted last year, Michigan will have an abundance of new faces on both sides of the ball that will become key contributors in 2017.
Kareem Walker, RB, Redshirt Freshman
Michigan has options at the running back position heading into 2017, but no true workhorse. Enter Walker, who sat out last year due to reported academic issues. Walker spent the season on the scout team, but wound up being mentioned repeatedly by teammates during bowl practices as a younger player that has made an impression. He will likely begin the spring as the fourth option behind Chris Evans, Karan Higdon and Ty Isaac, but will have ample opportunities to steal a few carries.
Donovan Peoples-Jones, WR, True Freshman
While the recruit below this may be the most talented of the class, there is an argument to be made that Peoples-Jones was the most important of the incoming freshmen to land in Ann Arbor. Not only because of the need at the position with both Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson graduating, but also because keeping the highest-rated, in-state recruit at home and away from rivals such as Michigan State and Ohio State is equally as important. Sophomore Kekoa Crawford will likely secure one starting spot on the outside with speedster Eddie McDoom in the slot, leaving one job up for grabs. DPJ is projected by many to secure that spot by the season opener.
Aubrey Solomon, DT, True Freshman
With three starters departing along the defensive line, and the way in which coordinator Don Brown likes to rotate linemen in and out, depth along the front was a major focus in recruiting. Enter Solomon, as the 5-star tackle will not only provide another body along the defensive line, but also could end up starting next to fifth-year senior Maurice Hurst. The Wolverines played a whopping 17 true freshmen last season and among the first-year players this season, Solomon may be the likeliest to see the field immediately.
Cesar Ruiz, C, True Freshman
The Wolverines have major question marks along the offensive line heading into next season so nabbing the top-rated center in this year’s class was critical for Harbaugh and the staff. Current center Mason Cole does return for his senior season but could move back out to left tackle, leaving a vacancy in the middle of the line. If Cole remains at center, Ruiz can potentially slide into the right guard position formerly held by Kyle Kalis, who has graduated. Regardless of the position, Ruiz is expected to challenge for a starting spot immediately.
Quinn Nordin, K, Redshirt Freshman
One of Michigan’s best players down the stretch last season was easily senior placekicker, punter and kickoff specialist Kenny Allen, who closed the year connecting on 15 consecutive field goals. Likely taking Allen’s place is Nordin, a redshirt freshman who was regarded as the nation’s top kicker in the 2016 recruiting class. Nordin won’t be asked to handle both kicking and punting duties as Allen did, but is widely viewed as the odds-on favorite to win the starting job as the full-time placekicker.
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. For College Fantasy Football insight, be sure to follow him on Twitter @MikeBainbridge2.
For the last three seasons, the debate around the White Sox was persistent: Was management reloading or retooling? Were the Sox contenders in need of a tweak or pretenders destined to stay on the wrong side of .500? After three years of being stuck in the middle, management finally made a call. Rebuild.
Goodbye, Chris Sale. Farewell, Adam Eaton. Hello, seven prospects who immediately upgraded the farm system from one of the 10 worst in baseball to one of the 10 best. Expect the Sox to make more moves during the spring and through the trading deadline. They likely won’t contend until 2019. But at least they have settled on a direction.
How do you replace a guy who made the last five American League All-Star teams while averaging 203 innings, 227 strikeouts, 14 victories and 5.5 wins above replacement value? Ask new manager Rick Renteria and Sox veteran pitching coach Don Cooper. That is their assignment after Sale was traded to Boston for four prospects. Jose Quintana has averaged better than 190 innings with a 3.41 earned run average for five seasons. That’s ace territory, evidence Quintana deserves to be the No. 1 starter — if he isn’t also dealt. Cooper believes Carlos Rodon has ace stuff, too; but Rodon must improve his command, trust his changeup and keep hitters in the park. Rodon was hurt by 23 home runs in 165 innings. The White Sox rotation has tilted heavily toward lefthanders in recent seasons. That won’t change. Their primary free-agent signing was Derek Holland, who won seven games for the Rangers last season after missing most of 2014 and 2015 with knee and shoulder injuries. Miguel Gonzalez’s 3.73 earned run average suggested that he pitched better than his 5–8 record. James Shields profiles as the fifth starter, but only because the Sox owe him half of the $44 million he is guaranteed on the final two years of his contract. Shields will be on a short leash as the Sox hope a young arm such as Lucas Giolito, Carson Fulmer, Reynaldo Lopez or Spencer Adams is ready, at least by midseason.
Tim Anderson arrived ahead of schedule and immediately became the most encouraging story of the Sox season. In less than four months, Anderson scored 57 runs, delivered 37 extra-base hits, stole 10 bases and showed he could handle shortstop with range and reliability. Although he hit a respectable .283, Anderson must learn to control the strike zone to become an elite player. Renteria’s biggest infield decision will be at second base — Brett Lawrie provides more power while Tyler Saladino has a better glove and more speed. Yoan Moncada, a flashy middle infielder acquired for Sale, has the bat and speed to force his way into the lineup by midseason.
Third baseman Todd Frazier (40 home runs) and first baseman Jose Abreu (25) were the only consistent power threats, but management must decide if they’ll be part of the rebuild. With one season on his contract, Frazier is most likely to be dealt because of his 163 strikeouts and Lawrie’s ability to play third base. Abreu finished with his usual numbers, but most of his production came after the Sox fell out of contention. He pledged to become a better team leader, and Renteria will need that.
Look for the Sox to pursue outfield prospects in deals as the rebuild continues. Melky Cabrera remains a professional hitter in left field, but he is a below-average defender in the final year of his contract. Translation: another trade candidate. If his torn hamstring is healed, Charlie Tilson profiles as the starting center fielder because of his plus speed and left-handed bat. He lacks power, so his strength must be his glove and ability to get on base. Acquired for Jake Peavy in 2013, Avisail Garcia has not developed as a run producer. Once a top Padres prospect, Rymer Liriano missed last season after being hit in the face with a pitch in spring training. The White Sox also signed veterans Peter Bourjos and Cody Asche to minor league contracts and invited them to spring training. With the outfield depth as it stands, either of these guys could end up earning a spot on the 25-man roster.
Help wanted. Omar Narvaez tops the Sox catching depth chart, and his record shows 117 MLB plate appearances and 10 career RBIs. His backup, Kevan Smith, is less experienced, showing two hits (both singles) and no RBIs in 16 big-league plate appearances. The Sox will be looking to add a veteran who can handle a pitching staff, as their catchers ranked among the worst in the American League in pitch framing last season. This is why former NL Rookie of the Year Geovany Soto was signed to a minor league deal and invited to training camp. Minor leaguers Roberto Pena and Zack Collins also will be a part of the mix in the spring.
The Sox collapsed after their 23–10 start last season. Injuries and a thin bench ranked high on the list of reasons. Backup catcher Smith as well as infielder Matt Davidson are unproven big-league hitters. Leury Garcia brings speed and outfield/infield versatility but no pop. Infielder Carlos Sanchez is another good glove/no stick option. Saladino remains the best reserve, capable of playing every infield position as well as driving in runs. Adam Engel and Jacob May, both young outfielders, profile as outfield backups because of their speed and gloves, but Bourjos and Asche could work their way into the picture with strong showings this spring.
Theo Epstein certified Renteria as a top managing candidate in 2014 because of his patient ability to work with young players as well as his bilingual skills. Those were the same attributes Sox general manager Rick Hahn lauded after promoting Renteria from bench coach to Robin Ventura’s replacement. Cooper, the pitching coach since 2002, is energized by the assignment of remaking his starting staff and believes he can fix Shields during spring training. The focus this season will be on teaching, fundamentals and patience.
The Sox won’t contend in 2017, but at least there is a plan. Fans will be eager for the prospects acquired for Sale and Eaton to arrive and for even more trades as management sells the future. The Sox ranked 11th in the AL in runs scored last season, and the struggles will intensify as more veterans are traded. After years of patching holes, the rebuild is underway.
2017 AL CENTRAL PREDICTION: 4th
For the first time in a while, the Miami Hurricanes and their fans feel optimistic about the future of their program. Per ESPN’s recruiting class rankings for 2017, Miami finished with the 12th-best class in the nation. Rivals had the Hurricanes one spot higher, in 11th place.
Miami’s 2017 class is made up of 24 signees with 10 of those already enrolled and on campus. With several key players having graduated or off to the NFL, here are five newcomers to watch for during the 2017 season. For this exercise “newcomer” isn’t just limited to true freshmen, it also could include redshirt freshmen and junior college transfers.
Jack Allison, QB, Redshirt Freshman
With three-year starter Brad Kaaya electing to forgo his last season of eligibility to enter the NFL Draft, Allison could be the Hurricanes’ starting quarterback in 2017. Last season, Miami elected to redshirt Allison because coaches felt like he needed to put more weight on to play the quarterback position at the collegiate level. Allison worked with the scout team last season and he will compete with Malik Rosier and Vincent Testaverde Jr. for the chance to be the Hurricanes’ starter in their season opener against Bethune-Cookman on Sept. 2.
Navaughn Donaldson, OL, True Freshman
With the Hurricanes’ issues on the offensive line last season, the 6-foot-5, 335-pound Donaldson should see some time in 2017 even if it is on a rotational basis. Donaldson is one of the 10 members of the 2017 recruiting class that enrolled in January. A consensus four-star offensive line prospect by 247Sports, ESPN, Rivals and Scout, Donaldson could play at right tackle or guard.
Jeff Thomas, WR, True Freshman
Thomas may not look like anything special at just 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, but the four-star receiver has a wide collection of skills. He was the 2017 Under Armour All-American Game Offensive MVP as he recorded three receptions for 148 yards and two touchdowns. With his 4.3 speed, expect the Hurricanes to use Thomas a lot on special teams as a freshman.
Trajan Bandy, CB, True Freshman
With the losses in the Hurricanes’ secondary, Bandy will likely be thrust into playing a pivotal role in 2017. While his listed size (5-9, 180) may suggest otherwise, Bandy is a physical cornerback who isn’t afraid of contact.
Jhavonte Dean, CB, Junior College Transfer
With Corn Elder exhausting his eligibility, Dean is the most experienced cornerback in the Hurricanes’ 2017 class, which could lead him to playing right away. Dean played two seasons at Blinn (Texas) College and the 6-foot-2, 185-pounder was considered by multiple publications to be the No. 1 junior college cornerback prospect.
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
Year two of the Lovie Smith era at Illinois kicked off on Tuesday, as the Fighting Illini are the first FBS program in the country to begin spring practice.
Smith's first Champaign campaign did not go well, as his team finished 2016 with a 3-9 record. Illinois’ 2-7 Big Ten mark placed them second to last in the West Division, ahead of only Purdue.
The 2017 season looks as though it will present plenty more hurdles for the Illini. They start spring ball looking to replace several key players lost to graduation and transfer. Making that task more difficult is the absence of key returning players due to injury – including their projected starting quarterback.
Needless to say, the uphill battle to rebuild Illinois football doesn't look like it's going to get easier anytime soon for Smith and company.
5 Storylines to Watch in Illinois' Spring Practice
1. Player interaction with Lovie Smith
This is more of a body language thing. After a tough 2016 slate, are the returning players buying in to Smith and what he's trying to implement? Is there a positive culture being built? Until the upperclassmen are Smith's recruits, positive culture is going to need to replace and compensate for leadership. Smith is an extremely positive personality, so conventional wisdom says this should not be an issue.
2. Jeff George Jr.'s progression
George got some reps last season, and it wasn't pretty. He completed 40 percent of his passes and had a hard time taking care of the football. The Illini would like to see significant growth from him this spring, and he'll get plenty of chances. Projected starter Chayce Crouch will miss the entire spring with a shoulder injury. Having George grow into a trusted security blanket as a backup would do wonders for Smith's stress level.
3. Replacing Hardy Nickerson Jr.
The fifth-year senior transfer from Cal followed his father to Illinois a season ago and helped ease the transition into a new defensive scheme. His leadership and presence at linebacker was invaluable, and he'll be sorely missed in that regard. On the field, the Illini will be looking for a new defensive playmaker that also can emerge as a leader in the locker room. One leading candidate for that role to keep an eye on is Del'Shawn Phillips, a junior college transfer who flipped from his commitment to Arizona in December.
4. The offensive line
Some include the Illini offensive front in the long list of concerns about this team heading into 2017. That said, there is a real good chance that the unit ends up being one of the team's strengths. Five players with significant experience return up front – something that will go a long way in working in a new starting quarterback. If the line can gel in the spring, it could help the Illini get off to a fast start in the fall against a formidable-yet-manageable non-conference schedule.
5. The need for another pass-catching playmaker to emerge
Star wideout Mike Dudek is still injured and Desmond Cain is no longer on the roster. As a result, the Illini are in desperate need of playmakers outside of Malik Turner for Crouch (or George) to get the ball to. Between Turner being the only proven healthy target and running back Kendrick Foster leading the way for a thin running back corps, the Illinois offense does not appear to offer many matchup issues that will keep defenses on their toes. The emergence of another playmaker this spring is crucial to ensuring the Illini can field a dynamic enough offense to be competitive in the Big Ten West in 2017.
Pre-Spring Illinois Outlook in the Big Ten
Quite simply, it's looking pretty bleak. Between graduations and transfers, the 2017 Fighting Illini are likely going to be the youngest and least experienced team in the conference. Many of those young players do have a year under their belts in head coach Lovie Smith's culture, but that is not likely to overcome the talent deficit they'll face in nearly every game they play this season. Home games with Ball State, Western Kentucky, Rutgers and Indiana look like their best chances at wins – and even those are probably toss-ups. I'd call 2016 the cultural installation year, while the ‘17 slate looks to be Smith's foundational rebuilding season.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.
Recruiting is the foundation for winning national championships, competing for CFB Playoff berths or winning at a high level in college football. While recruiting rankings aren’t 100 percent accurate, there is plenty of truth in the rankings and evaluations by the experts. It’s no secret what a program needs in order to win big at this level. Great coaching, support staffs, state-of-the-art training facilities and luck certainly helps, but talent on the roster provides a significant head start in the race to win it all each season.
Just how important are recruiting rankings and the overall talent evaluation? Consider this: Alabama, Ohio State and Florida State take the top three spots in this year’s best overall rosters. Those three teams have claimed five out of the last six national championships.
Below are the national recruiting ranking averages for the Power 5 schools, Notre Dame and BYU over the last five classes according to 247Sports Team Composite rankings and each team's record over the last five seasons. Obviously, this doesn't take into account attrition. However, with a five-year window in place, this should be considered relatively even across the conference.
Ranking College Football's Rosters for 2017
|2||Ohio State||Big Ten||2||4||7||3||2||3.6||61-6||39-2|
|21||Penn State||Big Ten||15||19||15||24||33||21.2||40-24||24-17|
|27||Michigan State||Big Ten||35||22||22||25||35||27.8||46-20||26-15|
|34||Oklahoma State||Big 12||38||44||39||28||30||35.8||45-20||30-15|
|39||West Virginia||Big 12||57||39||35||38||31||40||36-28||22-23|
|42||Texas Tech||Big 12||51||45||33||42||46||43.4||32-31||17-28|
|57||Iowa State||Big 12||53||52||66||58||60||57.8||17-44||9-36|
|59||Kansas State||Big 12||60||73||55||49||61||59.6||43-22||29-16|
|Conference||Avg. Class Rank||Teams in Top 25|
Recruiting Talent Translates Into Playoff Berths
Since the start of the BCS era (1998), no team ranked lower than 18th in this year’s roster rankings have claimed a national championship. Of course, the data has changed a bit since 1998, and the overall outlook for some programs has been altered in recent years, but as expected, teams need to rank high in recruiting in order to compete for the national title. Two of the lowest teams to win a national title since 1998 – Miami and Texas – are probably due to rebound in the roster rankings over the next five years.
During the playoff era, only one team to make the top four cut – Michigan State – ranked outside of the top 25 of the roster rankings. And the three champions – Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson – all ranked inside of the top 12. If a program is unable to recruit at an elite level, specializing in talent development (Michigan State), having one of the nation’s best coaches (Washington) or a Heisman Trophy winner/elite player (Deshaun Watson) at quarterback (Oregon) helps to level the playing field.
SEC Talent Domination
With a robust 17.6 national average and 11 of its 14 teams in the top 25 in roster talent, the SEC is a big winner on the recruiting trail. However, that talent hasn’t necessarily translated into wins. LSU ranks third but is just 25-15 in conference play since 2013. The records of Auburn (18-22) and Texas A&M (21-19) also raise a few eyebrows for the lack of success in relation to recruiting rankings. One team that isn’t underachieving is Mississippi State. The Bulldogs rank 11th among SEC teams but have more wins in league play than four programs ranked ahead of coach Dan Mullen's team from its conference: Arkansas, South Carolina, Ole Miss and Tennessee.
Talent Isn’t a Problem at Notre Dame
A disappointing 4-8 season has coach Brian Kelly on the hot seat entering 2017, but the Fighting Irish continue to recruit at a high level. Notre Dame hasn’t finished lower than No. 15 nationally over the last five seasons and is tied for eighth nationally with an average of 11 in roster ranking.
Talent Concerns in the Big 12
The Big 12 ranks third among conferences with an average class rank of 38.9. However, that total is certainly helped by the 10-team format, instead of the 14-team ACC (38.8) or Big Ten (39.2). The overall average isn’t necessarily cause for concern, but Oklahoma and Texas both ranked inside of the top 10 in this article in 2014. Since 2014, Oklahoma has slipped to No. 15 nationally and Texas ranks No. 17. Baylor ranks third among rosters in the Big 12, but the Bears slip to 33.8 when accounting for the adjusted recruiting rank (No. 41*) following the class defections following Art Briles’ dismissal in 2016. However, on the flipside of the recruiting rankings is talent development. Kansas State ranks ninth among Big 12 teams but is 29-16 in league play over the last four years. That’s tied for third among Big 12 teams since 2013.
Michigan and Penn State Trending Up
The Wolverines inked the No. 37 class in coach Jim Harbaugh’s first National Signing Day but have signed back-to-back top-five hauls. With another top-10 class in 2018, Michigan should inch a little higher on this list next fall. Coach James Franklin has signed three consecutive top-20 classes after ranking No. 24 for his first haul in Happy Valley. With another standout class expected to sign in 2018, Penn State should push into the top 20 of roster rankings next season.
Other Notes to Consider
* Colorado ranks No. 63 nationally and is the lowest-rated Pac-12 team. However, coach Mike MacIntyre delivered a breakout year in 2016 by winning the South Division. The Buffaloes also inked the No. 36 class on National Signing Day.
* The ACC has three of the lowest seven teams in the national roster rankings. Syracuse (No. 60), Wake Forest (No. 61) and Boston College (No. 65). However, two of those teams – Wake Forest and Boston College – went to bowl games in 2016.
* For the second time in three seasons, Purdue ranks as the lowest team from a Power 5 conference. The Boilermakers have not inked a class higher than No. 62 since 2013. New coach Jeff Brohm signed the No. 71 national haul in 2017.
* After not signing a class higher than No. 58 from 2013-15, Iowa has inked the No. 46 (2016) and No. 41 (2017) hauls.
* Duke continues to make progress under coach David Cutcliffe. The Blue Devils ranked 51st (2015), 60th (2014) and 70th (2013) in recruiting hauls. However, that total jumped to No. 47 in 2017 and No. 33 in 2016.
* Utah is another team trending up in the recruiting rankings. The No. 33 class in 2017 was one of the best in program history, and coach Kyle Whittingham inked a No. 36 haul in 2016. The Utes have improved to the No. 45 roster in 2017, up from No. 48 in 2014.
* Virginia signed four consecutive top-35 classes from 2011-14. However, the Cavaliers have signed the No. 50, No. 60 and No. 56 hauls over the last three seasons. Virginia’s roster talent average has dropped to 45.4 nationally – down from 37.4 in 2014.
* In the top 20 national rosters for 2017, Texas (33) has the fewest amount of wins since 2013. Tennessee (35), Auburn (38), South Carolina (38), Ole Miss (39) and Miami (39) are the next teams behind the Longhorns.
* Outside of the top 20 nationally in roster rankings, Stanford (53), Louisville (49), Wisconsin (49), Michigan State (46) and Oklahoma State (45) are the teams with the most overall wins since 2013.
Stephen A. Smith talks all day about athletes, so you expect him to at least have a little game. Think again.
The First Take host participated in a little shoot around with Rockets star James Harden and, well, let's just say he should stick to talking about sports rather than playing them. His jumper (and form) are horrible.
There's no way around it: Winning takes talent. In college football, talent is cultivated on the recruiting trail.
Plenty of factors beyond recruiting class rankings determine the success of a program. Developing athletes once they arrive on campus, both on the field and in the weight room, is as important
For example, Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre is yet to put together a top-25 recruiting class, and has consistently had some of the Pac-12's lowest-rated classes. However, this did not prevent the Buffaloes from winning the South division in 2016 or being ranked in the polls throughout much of the breakthrough campaign.
Still, recruiting class rankings function as a trustworthy predictor for success. Each of the last three Pac-12 title-winning teams landed multiple top-30 classes in recent years. Prohibitive 2017 Pac-12 favorite and reigning Rose Bowl champion USC has flourished on the recruiting trail, hence the hype for the Trojans' upcoming campaign.
Below are the national recruiting ranking averages for Pac-12 schools over the last five classes according to 247Sports Team Composite rankings and each team's record over the last five seasons. Obviously, this doesn't take into account attrition but, over time, this should be considered relatively even across the conference.
Ranking the Pac-12's College Football's Rosters in 2017:
USC Maintains Talent Advantage
USC has lost nothing on the recruiting trail, despite repeated coaching changes over the last eight years. Clay Helton has continued the recruiting dominance established under Pete Carroll and maintained through the short-lived Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian eras — and with a Pac-12 Championship Game appearance in 2015 and Rose Bowl win to cap '16, Helton's produced at a higher level with the program's cachet of talent.
Can UCLA Turn Talent into Wins?
The Los Angeles rivalry between USC and UCLA does not stop on the field. UCLA has routinely been the primary challenger to USC's recruiting dominance, taking advantage of the same Southern California pipelines that flow into Heritage Hall. However, UCLA lacks results commensurate with the victories on National Signing Day. Rick Neuheisel struggled despite stellar signing classes, and Jim Mora has yet to return to the Pac-12 Championship Game since his debut campaign in 2012.
Stanford's National Base
Stanford owes its sustained success under head coach David Shaw to his uncanny ability to recruit nationally. Such is the inherent challenge of coaching at Stanford, a university that rivals the Ivy Leagues in the classroom, but that seeks to compete with the Alabamas and Ohio States of the world on Saturdays. The 2017 Stanford recruiting class features signees from seven states, covering all corners of the continent: Washington in the Pacific Northwest; Utah in the Rocky Mountains; Texas; Georgia in the South; New Jersey in the Northeast; and California, for some local flavor.
No conference has seen programs exceed recruiting expectations quite as well as the Pac-12 in recent years. Last season's championship game illustrates that, with Washington beating Colorado in a matchup of underrated rosters. Arizona reached the league title tilt in 2014 with a roster of middling recruiting ratings. Washington State won nine games each of the last two seasons, and has yet to rank out of the 40s on signing day.
Utah's enjoyed one of the most consistent standards of success in the conference over the last three seasons, despite never boasting a recruiting class higher better than a national rank in the 30s. Of course, overachievement akin to Utah's begins to attract more interest on the recruiting trail, evident in the Utes' climb to No. 33 this season.
New Coaches, Different Situations
Pac-12 football welcomes two new head coaches in the 2017 season: Justin Wilcox at Cal, and Willie Taggart at Oregon. Neither is new to the Conference of Champions; Wilcox had a successful stint as defensive coordinator for Washington from 2012-13, and a less successful tenure in the same role at USC from 2014-15. Taggart was part of Jim Harbaugh's Stanford staff before resurrecting his alma mater, Western Kentucky, and flourishing in his time at South Florida.
The two newcomers take on much different-looking rosters in 2017. Oregon's run atop the conference through the first half of the decade led to some outstanding recruiting classes. Wilcox seeks to reestablish Cal as a player, but must first overcome a underwhelming initial recruiting class that impressed few, if any.
Coming off consecutive trips to the American League Championship Series, the Toronto Blue Jays are a team that remains a contender, but also a club entering a period of transition. Back for 2017 is the majority of the pitching staff that led the junior circuit with a 3.78 ERA last year, along with cornerstones Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista (at least for one more year), Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki. They’re now the foundation of the enterprise with Edwin Encarnacion gone. A lineup built around big power in recent years is sure to have a somewhat different identity now, with switch-hitter Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce headlining the more notable reinforcements. Whether the revamped order can avoid the feast-or-famine nature of the offense in 2016 and better support a pitching staff that must repeat its dominance will be pivotal in deciding whether the Blue Jays can emerge from a deep AL East to make a third straight postseason appearance.
Between Aaron Sanchez’s development into a legitimate ace, J.A. Happ’s steady brilliance, Marco Estrada’s continued dominance and Marcus Stroman’s 200 innings of stability, everything went right for the Blue Jays rotation last year. Can they do it again, or be even better? Francisco Liriano, acquired at the trade deadline to serve as a sixth starter, pitched well down the stretch after struggling with Pittsburgh and is likely to provide an upgrade over departed knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. Sanchez may just be scratching the surface, while Stroman is sure to benefit from going wire-to-wire for the first time. On the other hand, Happ, a 20-game winner, and Estrada, a first-time All-Star who posted a 3.48 ERA despite ongoing back woes, can’t be asked for much more. Depth is a major concern.
Tulowitzki’s first full season with the Blue Jays was solid, as he continued to provide sublime defense, although his .761 OPS was roughly 100 points off his career average. Much of that can be attributed to a poor opening six weeks of the season. If he can extend his performance over the final four months to the full season in 2017, the Blue Jays won’t feel Encarnacion’s loss quite the same way. Second baseman Devon Travis will be Tulowitzki’s partner up the middle as long as his surgically repaired right knee, the one he aggravated during the ALCS against Cleveland, holds up. Should he not be ready to go, the Blue Jays will turn to Darwin Barney and Ryan Goins to fill the void.
The Blue Jays will need Donaldson to deliver another MVP-caliber season at the hot corner to keep their offense from taking a step back. A big question is whether he’ll be pitched differently without Encarnacion batting behind him. Still, Encarnacion’s loss will be felt far more heavily across the diamond, where Justin Smoak is set up to carry the majority of playing time, with Steve Pearce expected to split duties between first base and left field. The Blue Jays heavily value Smoak’s defense at first, as his wingspan and ability to pick balls allow Donaldson and Tulowitzki more margin for error with their throws when making athletic plays. But Smoak’s strikeout percentage spiked up to a career-high 32.8 percent, which is a cause for concern.
Center fielder Kevin Pillar and right fielder Jose Bautista anchor a group that remains a work in progress. Bautista is back on a one-year deal (with two option years), and the Blue Jays need him to return to his MVP form after his numbers dropped significantly in an injury-plagued 2016 campaign. The key for Bautista will be how the 36-year-old holds up in the outfield, since the DH spot is spoken for. Pearce, Melvin Upton Jr. and Ezequiel Carrera give Toronto some capable depth, but not the proven production of the departed Michael Saunders, who signed with Philadelphia as a free agent. Pillar is among the game’s most gifted defenders, but his OPS dipped from .713 in 2015 to .679 last year. He’s heading into his age-28 season, and the Blue Jays are hoping there’s still some upside for him at the plate. Pearce is a more proven offensive player, and his bat will get into the lineup regularly between left field and first base. Upton regained his power stroke last year, although his production dipped once the Blue Jays picked him up from San Diego. Carrera provided some big hits during a couple of extended stints in the lineup. Dalton Pompey is expected to open the season at Triple-A Buffalo as is fellow prospect Harold Ramirez, who could make his big-league debut next year.
Martin proved his worth time and again in 2016, and the Blue Jays can now better manage his playing time. How much of an adjustment is made to his workload — Martin’s 1,069.1 innings caught ranked second in the AL last year — will depend on who ends up as his backup. Longtime farmhand A.J. Jimenez is in position to grab the role, but the Jays also will be hunting for an experienced upgrade.
Morales takes over as the DH, and he should see his numbers tick up at hitter-friendly Rogers Centre and in the homer havens of the AL East. Too often, the Jays’ right-handed-heavy lineup made it easy to plan for late in games for the opposing manager. Now with a productive switch-hitter in the heart of the order, opponents will have to burn more relief arms. With some combination of Pearce, Upton Jr., Smoak and Carrera on the bench, manager John Gibbons should have more matchup options.
The front office’s failure to re-sign Encarnacion and the quick reallocation of his money to Morales and Pearce will be the prism through which much of this season is viewed. Succeed, and president Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins will be forgiven for allowing a franchise icon to depart. Fail, and their offseason will be held against them. Gibbons will likely be the one to bear most of the immediate fallout. He remains a holdover from the Alex Anthopoulos regime and is an obvious target if the team doesn’t start strong, even after back-to-back appearances in the ALCS.
The gap between the Blue Jays and Boston appears to only have widened. The Blue Jays will once again be heavily reliant on their pitching staff, and they’ll have precious little margin for error on that front. And the new-look offense bears watching, as the Blue Jays can no longer count on being able to bludgeon opponents into submission. Still, they are too talented to count out, and another playoff berth is a realistic possibility.
2017 AL EAST PREDICTION: 3rd
Trying to find your optimal DraftKings lineup for this week's (Feb. 16-19) golf tournament: the Genesis Open at the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif.? Our fantasy golf experts are ready to help.
Here's what our optimal lineup looks like.
Dustin Johnson ($11,400)
DJ has spun some hits at Riviera, posting five top-4 finishes in the last seven years. Coming off a solid third-place showing at Pebble Beach.
Sergio Garcia ($9,300)
Garcia won at Dubai in his last start, which will help pay for the rock he recently bought his new fiancee. Another top 5 at Riviera — he has two in his career — will help, too, for the over-aged kid who's finally settling down at age 37.
Phil Mickelson ($7,900)
Lefty let us down last week with a 44 on his closing nine, but he's flashed enough of the old Mickelson to get us back on the horse. He's the all-time money leader at this event, going back to back in 2008-09.
Keegan Bradley ($7,500)
Bradley finished T4 here in 2015 and lost in a playoff in 2012. He has three top 10s and two missed cuts in a feast-or-famine season thus far, but we expect him to cash a nice check this week.
Brooks Koepka ($7,100)
He's never played Riviera as a pro, but we're expecting big things out of Koepka in 2017, and this would be a good week for him to start delivering.
Jim Furyk ($6,700)
Still shaking the rust off, but he's finished in the top 25 at Riviera in four straight appearances, including an eighth-place showing in 2015.
It may seem like the World Series just ended, but the start of spring training in Florida and Arizona signals the countdown to the 2017 MLB season has begun. While no doubt much attention will be paid to the reigning world champion Chicago Cubs, the potential dawn of baseball’s latest dynasty is just one of several exciting storylines that will help shape the upcoming season on the diamond.
1. Start of a Cubs dynasty?
For a team that waited 108 years between championships, the Cubs’ triumph in the 2016 World Series seemed as much like a beginning as an end. Yes, they concluded a monumental quest. But did they also begin a dynasty? It’s not a crazy question. The Cubs’ dazzling young infielders — Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Addison Russell and Kris Bryant — are all under club control through 2021. Theo Epstein proved in Boston that he could build an elite player-development system, and he’s done so again in Chicago. A trove of prospects, plus ample funding from owner Tom Ricketts and an extremely savvy baseball operations department, should make the rest of the league fear a long run of Cubs success. Whether that translates to a dynasty can only be determined in October, baseball’s most unpredictable month. But these Cubs overcame several tense moments in their run to the title last fall, strengthening their mettle for future pursuits. And there’s every reason to think this group will have many more chances to add to its trophy case.
2. Pulling up a new chair
A generation ago, it seemed like a big deal when Jay Leno replaced Johnny Carson as host of “The Tonight Show.” Now, another transition behind an L.A. microphone will make that seem trivial. For the first time since 1949, the Dodgers will open a season without Vin Scully on their broadcast team. Scully, 89, is retired now, and Joe Davis, 29, will be his primary replacement. Davis called 50 road games for the Dodgers’ cable network last season and now inherits the full-time gig. Scully worked without an analyst, but Davis will work alongside Orel Hershiser or Nomar Garciaparra. A native of Michigan, Davis has called baseball, college football and basketball for Fox and was once the voice of the Class AA Montgomery Biscuits. Now he’s replacing The Voice, and Hershiser thinks he’s up to it. “It’s ridiculous how confident he is, how prepared he is, how much passion he has for the job,” Hershiser told the Associated Press. “That’s going to serve him really well.”
For casual observers, the 2016 home run explosion might have seemed subtle. No individual came close to reaching the absurd heights of the steroid era. Yet while nobody hit 50 home runs, everybody seemed to hit 30. Just one season in history featured more home runs: the 2000 season, with 5,693. The 2016 total was close behind, at 5,610. Overall, players hit 701 more homers than they did in 2015 and 1,424 more than they did in 2014. Commissioner Rob Manfred insists the ball has not been altered, and baseball’s steroid-testing program has been praised as the toughest in sports, with players scheduled to be tested even more frequently in 2017. So what’s the cause: lacquered bats, hitters with leg kicks, pitchers relying too much on fastballs over secondary stuff? We’ll keep a close eye on the home run trend in 2017. If there’s another upward spike, suspicions about juice — in the ball or in the players — will grow stronger.
4. Preller’s punishment?
Fans of the stumbling Padres must have wondered what might have been as they watched the last World Series. The Indians’ ace, Corey Kluber, and the Cubs’ slugging first baseman, Anthony Rizzo, were both traded by the Padres before they could prove themselves in the majors. General manager A.J. Preller didn’t make those deals, but his aggressive moves upon arriving in San Diego failed to shake the team from its slumber. Preller has reversed course and tried to restock the Padres’ farm system, but in doing so, he instructed trainers to keep two files on players’ medical records: one to be shared with rivals, one to be kept private. When the scam became public, specifically stemming from last summer’s trade of Drew Pomeranz to Boston, the commissioner’s office suspended Preller for 30 days. More significant than that lenient sentence could be the loss of trust from rival executives. If the Padres struggle again and Preller tries to peddle his players, will other teams be too skeptical to make strong offers? Most trades are motivated by desperation, so the guess here is that Preller will still command solid returns. But his deception will surely give teams pause, creating another obstacle to improvement for the Padres.
5. This time, it doesn’t count
For 14 seasons, baseball allowed home-field advantage for the World Series to be determined by the winning league in the All-Star Game. By linking the two, MLB hoped to improve All-Star TV ratings while producing more inspired competition. The first goal didn’t happen. As for the second, it was hard to tell. Some of the All-Star Games were thrillers, but mostly, nothing changed — managers still tried to use as many players as possible, and players just tried to have fun. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, the All-Star Game will return to being a pure exhibition, with home-field advantage going to the World Series team with the better record. It will be a shame if players abuse the event on July 11 by grooving pitches or failing to run hard on the bases. The guess here is we won’t tell the difference, and can go back to celebrating the best in baseball without fretting over what it will mean in October.
6. Championship for Sale?
In the last five seasons, just one major-league pitcher has a lower earned run average than Chris Sale’s 3.04, with more strikeouts than his 1,133: Clayton Kershaw. The difference is that Kershaw led the Dodgers to four division titles in that stretch, while Sale has never pitched in the playoffs. Expect that to change now that Sale works for the Red Sox, who acquired him from the White Sox in a December trade. The Red Sox didn’t really need Sale, but they had the prospects to get him and could easily afford the three years and $39.5 million left on his contract (including option years). So they parted with Yoan Moncada and three others to give themselves a trio of aces, with Sale, David Price and Rick Porcello. Expectations are always high in Boston, and Sale — a famously intense competitor — will have to get used to the glare. But replacing an elite run producer (the retired David Ortiz) with an elite run preventer could be a stroke of genius for the Red Sox as they seek their fourth championship in 14 seasons.
7. A pitcher will lead them
The Rockies suffered their sixth losing season in a row in 2016, but they had their best record (75–87) and highest NL West finish (third place) within that span. Their offense was typically fearsome, with batting champ DJ LeMahieu (.348) and a lineup of prime-age sluggers leading the NL with 5.22 runs per game. Their pitching, while posting a 4.91 ERA, also appears to finally have some answers. Jon Gray, Tyler Chatwood, Chad Bettis, Tyler Anderson and Jeff Hoffman are all 27 or younger, and each had an ERA+ of better than 100 while combining for a winning record. Now, they’ll have one of baseball’s best pitching minds leading the dugout in manager Bud Black. The Rockies have had six other managers in their 24-year history, but Black is the first former pitcher. “I think that will be huge,” star third baseman Nolan Arenado told the Denver Post, and Black sounded just as enthusiastic. “I see the game through the pitchers’ eyes,” he said. “The information I’ve gathered is we have some talented pitchers. I’m just a piece of the puzzle to help these guys along.” The Rockies hope Black is the piece they’ve been missing as they try to wedge themselves into the annual fight between the Dodgers and the Giants for NL West supremacy.
8. Reversing the Texas curse
We’ve now had a century’s worth of baseball in the Lone Star State — between the Astros (first known as the Colt .45s in 1962) and the Rangers (who moved from Washington in 1972) — with exactly zero championships.
It’s not the kind of drought to inspire poetry, cinema and song; there’s no Bambino or Billy Goat to blame for a curse. But it is striking to think of two franchises, neither in a small market, both located in a state with such a vibrant amateur scene, having such a history of futility. Now, though, the Rangers and the Astros sit squarely in a championship window. Though they were swept by Toronto in the division series, the Rangers had the best record in the American League last year and have reached the playoffs in five of the last seven seasons. The Astros fell just short of the postseason last year, but they made it in 2015 and added veteran stabilizers Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Josh Reddick to an impressive young core of Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, Lance McCullers and more. Yes, one of these years, possibly soon, there will be a championship parade in Texas. Let’s just hope it doesn’t conflict with a high school football game.
9. End of the Royal run?
The Royals have made the most of their competitive window, winning two AL pennants and the 2015 World Series for their first title in three decades. But after they slipped to .500 last season, it’s reasonable to wonder how much longer the team can stay a contender. The Royals have Sal Perez and Alex Gordon signed to long-term deals, but after this season, all of the following players can be free agents: Lorenzo Cain, Danny Duffy, Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Jason Vargas. That’s the guts of a championship roster, and if the Royals start slowly, you have to wonder if GM Dayton Moore will sell off those stars and start re-shaping the team with an eye on the long term. He’ll have plenty of interested trade partners if he does.
10. Brave new home
When the Braves moved to Turner Field in 1997, they had won four of the last five NL pennants and seemed destined to return regularly to the World Series. Yet they never won a World Series game in 20 seasons at The Ted, and now they’re off to a new home, SunTrust Park, in suburban Cobb County. The Braves arrive in the midst of a vast rebuilding effort, but they’ve assembled a nice collection of young prospects who should help the team compete again soon. While fans wait for that, they’ll enjoy what the team calls “the perfect marriage of classic ballpark feel, modern amenities and southern hospitality.” The team, which had played only downtown since moving from Milwaukee in 1966, believes it will be closer to its fan base now, with the ballpark as the hub of a mixed-use development plaza featuring dining, shopping, residential and work areas, and year-round entertainment. With 188 losses the last two years, there hasn’t been much entertainment on the field. But the Braves are making progress, and their new venue should give them more financial muscle when the time is right.
11. The (WBC) Hangover
Players get hurt every spring training, no matter where they are working out. But the prevailing thought is that players who take part in the World Baseball Classic put themselves at greater risk. For one thing, they’re breaking from their established routines and leaving the cocoon of team supervision. They’re also, perhaps, trying to do too much too soon in the games. The last time the event was held — in 2013, when the Dominican Republic won — the USA had so much trouble recruiting starting pitchers that the only ones on the roster were Gio Gonzalez, Derek Holland, Ryan Vogelsong, Ross Detwiler and knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. This year, Max Scherzer and Chris Archer have agreed to take part, but Noah Syndergaard backed out, noting his responsibility to the Mets and citing the injuries that ravaged their rotation last season. Others — and not just Americans — will surely follow Syndergaard, leaving the event to be a fun but muted competition, and holding the health of the participants up to scrutiny as the actual regular season wears on.
12. The Marlins move on
It was all set up for 2017 to be a memorable year for the Miami Marlins, who host the All-Star Game this summer at their gleaming postmodern ballpark. The Home Run Derby will feature Giancarlo Stanton, trying to defend his title. And the game should have been a showcase for Jose Fernandez, one of baseball’s most electrifying young players, who very well could have been the NL’s starting pitcher. Horrifically, Fernandez was killed with two friends last Sept. 25 in a boating crash in Miami. The immediate aftermath was devastating for the Marlins, who all wore Fernandez’s No. 16 in an emotional victory over the Mets the next day. Owner Jeffrey Loria vowed that no other player would ever wear the number, and there was lots of talk about how to honor the memory of a player who brought such verve and passion to the game. During the World Series, news came down that nobody wanted to hear: Fernandez was drunk at the time of the crash, with cocaine also in his system. Will those revelations impact the way the Marlins honor their franchise icon? And how will the Marlins move on without their ace? The human toll of the tragedy will resonate deepest, of course. But the Marlins have the longest playoff drought of any NL team (their last appearance was 2003), and the task of returning is a whole lot tougher now.
13. Sonny with a chance of moving
It’s a fact of the baseball life: When a young player rises to stardom with the Athletics, he inevitably prices himself out of Oakland’s range, making it only a matter of time until the A’s trade him. Considering the weak class of free-agent starters over the winter, Sonny Gray should have been a prime trade candidate — but injuries and underperformance diminished his value. Gray was limited to 117 innings last season because of a strained right trapezius and inflammation in his right elbow and forearm. He went 5–9 with a 5.69 ERA, hardly resembling the pitcher who starred in the 2013 postseason and won 14 games in each of the next two years. Gray was shut down after Aug. 6 but returned for one inning on Sept. 28, hitting 95 mph on the radar gun. If he returns to his old self and the A’s struggle as expected, look for Billy Beane to work aggressively to make a deal. A healthy and productive Gray — who cannot be a free agent until after the 2019 season — should command a huge bounty of young players in return.
14. Short stories
Two decades ago, a group of dynamic young shortstops began to make their marks in the majors. Their impact turned out to be extraordinary: Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, Miguel Tejada and Edgar Renteria provided unforgettable careers and moments. Another gang of shortstops has come onto the scene in the last two years, and we’re already enjoying the show. The Cubs’ Addison Russell hit a grand slam in the World Series. The Indians’ Francisco Lindor hit .368 in the ALCS. The Astros’ Carlos Correa won the AL Rookie of the Year award in 2015, and the Dodgers’ Corey Seager took the NL honor in 2016. There’s even more to the bounty: Trevor Story was a slugging sensation for the Rockies last season, Aledmys Diaz was an All-Star for the Cardinals, and Dansby Swanson — a former No. 1 overall pick, like Correa — emerged as a cornerstone for the Braves. The athleticism, power and savvy of these newcomers — plus others with a bit more service time, such as Xander Bogaerts of the Red Sox, Brandon Crawford of the Giants and Didi Gregorius of the Yankees — make this another golden age for the shortstop.
15. D.C. speedway
It’s been a decade since any player reached 75 stolen bases in a season. (Jose Reyes had 78 for the Mets in 2007.) Pitchers have gotten quicker and quicker to the plate, and most front offices believe runners must be safe at least 80 percent of the time for the gamble to be worth it. In Washington, though, Trea Turner could defy the modern trend. Turner electrified the Nationals as a rookie last season, hitting .340 with 35 stolen bases in 78 games (postseason included). He was caught only six times, giving him an 85 percent success rate. Manager Dusty Baker, 67, played in the era of stolen base kings Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines, and perhaps he will encourage Turner to be even more of a difference maker on the bases. The Nationals have a good chance to return to the playoffs, and if they meet the Cubs there, Turner might do what the Dodgers could not last fall: use his legs to disrupt Jon Lester in a big spot.
16. Knuckling into the future
While R.A. Dickey keeps going, signing to join Phil Niekro’s old team in Atlanta at age 42, the latest All-Star knuckleballer had a discouraging second half — through no fault of his own. At 32, Boston’s Steven Wright emerged last season as the man to keep the knuckleball flame burning, earning a trip to the midsummer classic and going 13–6 with 3.33 ERA in 24 starts. Because his fluttering pitch is so easy on the arm, Wright should have many more years to use it. Problem was, he hurt his shoulder when diving into a base as a pinch-runner and never pitched after Aug. 31. Here’s hoping Wright makes a full recovery and carries the knuckleball into the next generation. The pitch will always endure as a last-chance beacon for failing conventional pitchers and even washed-up position players. But if Wright struggles, the best hope for the knuckleball’s post-Dickey era — whenever that begins — could be Tampa Bay’s Eddie Gamboa, who made seven relief appearances last September.
17. The Dark Knight returns
The Mets’ Matt Harvey pushed past his recommended innings total in 2015, working into the ninth inning of the final game of the World Series until everything collapsed in Queens. It was a noble effort, and nobody would ever again question Harvey’s toughness or commitment. Then came 2016, when Harvey’s earned run average rose by more than two runs in a disastrous half-season. Harvey was 4–10 with a 4.86 ERA in 17 starts as his strikeout rate dropped, his walk rate rose, and his trademark consistent, high-end velocity abandoned him. Harvey’s season ended mercifully with a shellacking by the Marlins on July 4, his final outing before surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. As the Mets have learned from Zack Wheeler — who has now missed two full seasons after Tommy John surgery — no operation guarantees that a pitcher will return to full strength. With the steady Bartolo Colon off to Atlanta, and Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz also coming off arm surgery, the return of a swaggering, ace-level Harvey is essential for the Mets to challenge Washington for divisional supremacy and, they hope, get a playoff rematch with a Cubs team they overpowered in those glory days of October 2015.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)
Recent history shows that if you want to win in the NFL, you need to have a solid-if-not-elite defensive line to do so. Recent history also shows that if you are looking for elite defensive linemen in the college ranks, the Southeastern Conference is a great place to start.
Auburn's Montravius Adams is among the best the SEC has to offer.
In terms of physical makeup, Adams is not your typical defensive tackle. At 6-foot-4, 310 pounds, he's a svelter specimen than your Vince Wilforks of the defensive linemen world. That frame translates into making Adams a more athletic player at the position than most of his peers.
In 2016, Adams seemed to have finally lived up to his potential as a dominant force in the trenches. He logged 4.5 sacks on the season and recorded a tackle in all but one game. And in that contest, he had an interception. He also used his height to his advantage, knocking down two passes. To his credit, some of his best work came against some of the better opponents on Auburn's schedule. He had five or more tackles in games against Clemson, LSU, Arkansas, Georgia and Oklahoma.
As of right now, most scouts and mock drafts project him to be selected in the late second or early third round. Look for those projections to improve after the Scouting Combine. He has run an unofficial five-second flat 40-yard dash in the past. If he can pull that off again, he'll create some significant buzz. Additionally, look for him to be near the top of his position group in the vertical and broad jumps.
As long as he puts on a solid showing at the Combine, he has a realistic chance of boosting his stock and potentially become a late first-round selection. Once defensive tackles start to come off the board, they go fast. Adams' ability to play both inside positions in a 4-3 and inside and outside in a 3-4 also will boost his value in the eyes of NFL executives of teams with creative defensive coordinators. Those same execs can also rest assured that he'll be able to keep up in the film room, as Adams made the SEC's Academic Honor Roll in 2016.
Between that and his current projections, there is a fairly decent chance he ends up on a team already built to be a contender. That's a scary thought – unless he ends up on your favorite team.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.
There are plenty of veteran NASCAR drivers who would love to put up the numbers that Chase Elliott posted in 2016. He had more top-10 finishes than series champion Jimmie Johnson, led more laps than former champion Kurt Busch, and recorded a better average finish than three-time champion Tony Stewart. Elliott also finished 10th in driver standings despite not winning a race on the season.
Did we mention that Elliott was just 20 years old, and a rookie?
Elliott faced an unenviable task last year, taking over the No. 24 after the retirement of future Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon, who drove the car to 93 victories over 23 years. Even for the son of a NASCAR Hall of Famer in Bill Elliott, it was a daunting proposition.
Chase Elliott was up to the task.
After a rough Daytona 500, which he started from the pole, Elliott posted a top 10 at Atlanta. And another one at Phoenix, and Fontana. By the time the series returned to Daytona at midseason, Elliott already had 11 top 10s and had led six races, a few of them for an impressive number of laps. Elliott made the Chase on points and averaged a finish of 6.3 in the first three Chase races. A crash at Charlotte and issues at Kansas ended his title bid, but Elliott clearly made a statement. He went on to finish no worse than 12th in the final five races.
And when the win comes, Elliott has the look of a driver who will keep on winning. That’s not a given, and it’s certainly not as simple as it sounds on paper, but nobody should be surprised if it happens.
What does Elliott have on his side? Let’s start with Hendrick Motorsports equipment. He’s got championship-caliber cars and engines from Hendrick’s in-house shop — equipment that has frustrated other teams for years. He’s got teammates who will gladly share advice and setup information with him. And they win races — Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne have 123 victories among them, and what they can share with their younger teammate is extremely valuable. Both Johnson and Earnhardt had multiple wins by the end of their second seasons in the series. They will help Elliott any way they can, and that’s not something every team does.
Sponsors? Elliott’s got good ones. NAPA Auto Parts covers the lion’s share of races, but 3M, SunEnergy1, Kelley Blue Book and Mountain Dew all have a piece of the action as well. The support of companies like these is invaluable, and having it allows Elliott to worry about just one thing: winning races.
Crew chief? Got that too, in veteran Alan Gustafson, who has led Kyle Busch, Mark Martin and Gordon to Victory Lane in the past. Hendrick is known for turning athletes into pit crews, and Elliott’s team performed well last year. In a day when races can be won or lost in the pits, a good team is crucial to success.
It would seem that Elliott has all of the pieces in place to have a top-5 season. So where’s the catch? If there’s a weakness, it’s that Elliott is very, very hard on himself. He sincerely apologizes to his team for a top-5 run that didn’t turn into a win. Balancing that pressure is an important lesson — there is a vast difference between racing to win and racing not to lose, and putting too much pressure on himself could lead Elliott down that dangerous latter path. He hasn’t let it happen yet, and it’s not a huge concern right now, but it’s worth watching out for.
If Elliott can let it ride and learn from his stellar 2016 run? Watch out.
As fantasy baseball has grown and evolved, so has the search for the best clever, witty and obnoxious team names. These days, coming up with the perfect team name can be as important as winning your MLB fantasy league. Well, almost.
But to help you find the perfect name, you can either scan our list of funny fantasy baseball team names, or look for something even more unique. Here's a look at some of the best fantasy baseball team name generators we could find on the internet. Here they are in no order of awesomeness.
Sports Unlimited's Fantasy Baseball Team Name Generator
Sports Unlimited offers up a couple of options, allowing you to choose to generate a name based on your favorite MLB team (from the New York Yankees and Mets, to the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers) or you can choose to use one of their thousands of randomly generated names. If there's a downside, it's that it could use some updating in terms of some of the player's names. Still you can still find some real gems and it's the best at incorporating players' names. You can try it out here below or click here to visit their site.
Razzball's Fantasy Baseball Team Name Generator
This one is fun and offers up some clever options. You get to choose one adjective (Agitated, Fancy, Goofy, Non-Pro City Names) and mix it with one noun you choose (1980/90s Player Last Names, Sounds Dirty But Isn't, Charlie Manuel Terms, Non-Sexual Anatomy & Medical Conditions, Unimposing Sea Creatures, Grab Bag Mascots, Old Street Slang, and War Terms). The results range from wildly confusing to dumb, but funny. Try it out here.
FF Toolbox's Fantasy Baseball Team Name Generator
This generator starts by giving you 25 fantasy team names from the get-go. Then you can either select a unique category (Animals, Astronomy, Fish, Misc., Mythological Creatures, Tools and Weather) or just randomly generate 25 new names. If you're looking for something that's a little more generic and a little less baseball-specific, this may be worth trying. Try it out here.
Coming off of their best season since joining the Big 12, West Virginia will have to replace some key departures as the Mountaineers prepare for the 2017 campaign. The losses of quarterback Skyler Howard, wide receiver Shelton Gibson, center Tyler Orlosky, and cornerback Rasul Douglas have left vacancies at some key positions.
However, there are plenty of newcomers to help fill those voids. For this exercise, the below list is made up of only freshmen (true or redshirt) and junior college transfers. There is no argument that quarterback Will Grier will likely end up as the most impactful newcomer for West Virginia in 2017, but as a transfer from Florida, he doesn’t qualify here.
Brendan Ferns, LB, Redshirt Freshman
Ferns was the biggest commitment in the Mountaineers’ 2016 recruiting class. The linebacker from Ohio was highly sought after and now is his time to contribute. With the departure of outside linebacker and team captain Justin Arndt to graduation, Ferns will be looked upon to step up this coming season. The redshirt freshman will see plenty of time and will more than likely become the anchor of the linebacker corps.
Isaiah Hardy, OL, Junior College Transfer
At 6-foot-7 and 330 pounds Hardy immediately becomes the largest offensive linemen on the roster. Coming to Morgantown via Lackawanna (Penn.) College, Hardy brings the size and strength the Mountaineers are looking for in both run blocking and pass protection.
David Sills, WR, Junior College Transfer
Yes I know Sills was once a Mountaineer. But he qualifies for this list as a junior college transfer, this time returning to Morgantown as a wide receiver. Sills originally committed to West Virginia as a quarterback in 2015 but was converted to a wide receiver. He made some contributions on the field, including catching the game-winning touchdown in the comeback win over Arizona State in the 2016 Cactus Bowl, but left the program last summer to chase his dream of being a quarterback. However, after one season at El Camino (Calif.) College, Sills returns to Morgantown committed to being a wide receiver.
Derrek Pitts, DB, True Freshman
Pitts was the No. 1-rated prospect in the state of West Virginia in the 2017 recruiting class. Originally a Penn State commit, the Charleston product decided to stay close to home and signed with the Mountaineers. While West Virginia has depth at the safety position, don’t be surprised to see Pitts on the filed this fall. His athleticism and ability to get to the ball will give him a chance to play right away in defensive coordinator Tony Gibson’s system.
Lamonte McDougle, DL, True Freshman
At 6-foot-1 and 295 pounds McDougle has an explosiveness that most don't possess given his size. The defensive lineman out of Plantation, Fla., should immediately compete for playing time at either nose guard or defensive tackle.
There are others worthy of consideration here, as West Virginia looks to its underclassmen and new faces to remain competitive in the Big 12. One thing is for sure, if you have the talent and desire head coach Dana Holgorsen will ensure you see the field for the Mountaineers.
— Written by Jeremy Simon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and editor-in-chief of BlueGoldSports.com, a must visit for any and all West Virginia Mountaineer fans. Follow BlueGoldSports.com on Twitter @Blue_GoldSports.
(Top photo courtesy of BlueGoldSports.com)
Injuries are an unfortunate part of any college football season and usually take a toll on every FBS team by the end of the year. Several key players were hit by the injury bug in 2016, including a handful of big names from the Big 12. TCU wide receiver KaVontae Turpin played in too many games to be considered for this list, but the standout playmaker never seemed at full strength due to an early injury. His return will be crucial for TCU's offense in 2017. West Virginia safety Dravon Henry-Askew, Oklahoma State receiver Marcell Ateman, Texas running back Chris Warren and TCU running back/receiver Shaun Nixon are just a few of the top players returning from injury into Big 12 action this fall.
Additionally, West Virginia offensive lineman Yodny Cajuste, Iowa State lineman Jake Campos and Baylor defensive linemen Byron Bonds are just a few of the other key players slated to return to action around the Big 12 in 2017.
Big 12's Top 15 Players Returning From Injury in 2017
Rodney Anderson, RB, Oklahoma
With Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon off to the NFL, there are a lot of opportunities available in the Oklahoma backfield this spring. Abdul Adams (53 carries) is the early frontrunner based upon last year’s workload, but Anderson, junior college recruit Marcelias Sutton and freshmen Kennedy Brooks and Trey Sermon are in the mix. Anderson has been hit hard by the injury bug, suffering a season-ending leg injury in 2015 and a neck ailment in 2016.
Marcell Ateman, WR, Oklahoma State
With James Washington, Jalen McCleskey and LSU transfer Tyron Johnson in place, Oklahoma State’s receiving corps has a strong case for the best in college football for the 2017 season. Additionally, this unit will get a little deeper with the return of Ateman from injury. The Texas native did not play in 2016 after recording 45 catches for 766 yards in 2015.
Jordan Brailford, DL, Oklahoma State
Brailford showed flashes of potential in a limited stint as a redshirt freshmen in 2015. In 10 appearances, Brailford recorded 23 stops (3.5 for a loss) and one sack. The Tulsa native was poised to push for a starting job in 2016 but missed the entire year due to a stress fracture.
Byron Bonds, DL, Baylor
Bonds played in 32 games in the first three seasons of his career with the Bears but was sidelined for 2016 due to a knee injury. The Texas native was a projected starter last preseason and was expected to fill a void on the interior of Baylor’s defensive line. The 290-pound lineman has recorded 36 stops and one forced fumble in his career.
Related: Early Big 12 Predictions for 2017
Jake Campos, OL, Iowa State
Similar to last season, the offensive line enters offseason workouts as a significant concern for coach Matt Campbell. But the second-year coach is taking steps to ensure improvement, as graduate transfers Dave Dawson (Michigan) and Khaliel Rodgers (USC) join the mix, and Campos is set to return from a season-ending leg injury. Campos started all 12 games in 2015 and posted 11 starts in 2014.
Yodny Cajuste, OL, West Virginia
Cajuste won the starting job at left tackle for the Mountaineers last fall but suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener against Missouri. The Florida native’s return is a huge boost for a West Virginia line set to lose three starters, including All-America center Tyler Orlosky.
Joe Dineen, LB, Kansas
Dineen originally started his career at Kansas but shifted to linebacker in 2015 and emerged as a solid defender for coach David Beaty. In 12 games during the 2015 campaign, Dineen recorded 86 stops and three sacks. Dineen’s 2016 season was cut short by a hamstring injury and was limited to just three games (16 tackles).
Brendan Ferns, LB, West Virginia
Ferns was regarded as a four-star recruit in West Virginia’s 2016 signing class but suffered a season-ending knee injury in August. He should push for time in a linebacker unit that returns Al-Rasheed Benton and David Long but loses Justin Arndt.
Cody Ford, OL, Oklahoma
Oklahoma’s offensive line should be one of the best in the nation in 2017, and this unit will have extra reinforcement with Ford’s return. The Louisiana native started the first three games at left guard last year but suffered a season-ending leg injury against Ohio State.
Dravon Henry-Askew, S, West Virginia
Henry-Askew was one of just three returning starters for West Virginia’s defense in 2016. However, Henry-Askew was lost for the year due to a knee injury in fall camp, dealing a significant setback for coordinator Tony Gibson’s secondary. The Pennsylvania native could emerge as of the Big 12’s top defensive backs in 2017, as he returns with 26 career appearances and 104 tackles.
D’Vonta Hinton, LB, Texas Tech
As a true freshman in 2015, Hinton emerged as a key cog in the linebacker unit for coordinator David Gibbs. Hinton played in all 13 games and finished eighth on the team with 53 stops. The Texas native was poised to build on that total in 2016 but was limited to just 19 tackles through the first six games.
Shaun Nixon, RB, TCU
Nixon’s versatility will be a huge asset for TCU’s offense in 2017. The Texas native played in all 13 games as a freshmen in 2015 and became a key contributor at receiver due to injuries. Nixon caught 47 passes for 501 yards and one touchdown and added 66 rushing yards in 2015. He missed all of the 2016 campaign due to injury.
Chris Warren, RB, Texas
After rushing for 2,028 yards and 15 scores last year, D’Onta Foreman departed Austin early for the NFL. While Foreman will be missed, new coach Tom Herman regains a key piece of the offense with Warren back in the mix. Warren rushed for 470 yards and four scores as a freshman and recorded 366 yards in four games prior to suffering a season-ending knee injury.
Larry Williams, OL, Oklahoma State
Williams started the first six games of 2016 at right guard for coach Mike Gundy but was sidelined for the rest of the regular season due to an injury. With Michael Wilson expiring his eligibility, Williams should slide back into the starting spot at right guard.
Montrel Wilson, LB, TCU
After a solid freshman season, Wilson was poised to take on a starting role in TCU’s linebacker unit in 2016. However, after earning a start against South Dakota State in the opener, Wilson played in only one game the rest of the season and was lost due to an injury. Wilson recorded just six tackles last year.
Other Key Players Returning From Injury
Denver Johnson, WR, Iowa State
Vili Leveni, DL, Oklahoma State
Marquise Overton, DL, Oklahoma
Xavier Pegues, DL, WVU
Ryan Schadler, RB, Kansas
Dillon Stoner, WR, Oklahoma State
J.D. Waggoner, DL, Iowa State
Year in and year out the LSU Tigers pull in some of the best high school talent in the nation on National Signing Day. However, with the dismissal of head coach Les Miles four games into the 2016 season, Bayou Bengal fans were concerned how recruiting would be impacted with Ed Orgeron making the final pitches. A sigh of relief could be heard in Baton Rouge, throughout Louisiana and Tiger Nation on Feb. 1 when Orgeron put the finishing touches on a consensus top-10 recruiting class.
Miles’ final class, the 2016 haul, was ranked No. 5 in the nation by Rivals with 15 four-star players and seven three-star talents among the 24 total commits. Rivals rated Orgeron’s first class, which also consisted of 24 players, eighth in the country but it represented a big difference favoring the new director of the football program. Orgeron signed three five-star players, 12 four-star standouts, and nine three-star prospects only trailing Alabama (7) in the SEC in the number of five-star prospects.
With so much highly regarded talent coming in, here are five that could have an immediate impact for LSU in 2017.
JaCoby Stevens, SS, True Freshman
When All-America safety Jamal Adams declared early for the NFL Draft on Jan. 6, a big hole in LSU’s secondary opened up. The Tigers lay claim to the moniker “DBU” (Defensive Back University) thus there is already top talent on the roster, but Stevens has a chance to contend for immediate playing time. Stevens was a dynamic player on both sides of the ball for Oakland High School in Murfreesboro, Tenn., during his senior season but truly shinned on defense with 64 reported tackles and nine interceptions. Helping Stevens’ case, he was an early enrollee and already possesses good size (6-1, 200).
Tyler Shelvin, DT, True Freshman
Another big hole on LSU’s defense due to early draft departures is at tackle with Davon Godchaux off to the NFL. The Tigers’ 3-4 base defense is predicated on having a gap-plugging nose guard to eat up the center and guards, which is where Shelvin comes in. The mammoth (6-3, 360) Under Armour All-American is an in-state product from Notre Dame High School in Crowley where he was coached by former LSU linebacker Trev Faulk and helped the Patriots go 14-1 in 2016.
K’Lavon Chaisson, DE, True Freshman
Starting defensive end Lewis Neal is among the key departures from the 2016 defense, so coordinator Dave Aranda will need another pass-rushing presence to pair with Arden Key. Chaisson had a huge junior season with 84 total tackles and 21 sacks for North Shore in Houston, earning first-team 6A Texas All-State honors. Even though he missed four games due to injury last season, Chaisson still earned first-team All-State honors again and also was named the 21-6A Defensive MVP of the Year.
Mannie Netherly, WR, True Freshman
Netherly is a dynamic athlete that played quarterback for Crosby (Texas) High School in 2016. And he was more than just a Wildcat quarterback, completing 96 of 159 passes for 1,634 yards and 19 touchdowns. His athleticism as a runner also showed, averaging 9.1 yards per carry for a total of 612 yards and nine scores. He’s raw when it comes to route running, but his experience as a quarterback could help him carve out a role early in LSU’s passing attack. Being an early enrollee also should assist Netherly’s transition.
Jacob Phillips, LB, True Freshman
The Tigers will need to replace All-SEC middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith in 2017; and Phillips may end up being the guy. Phillips led his East Nashville (Tenn.) Magnet squad with 123 tackles, seven tackles for a loss, and three interceptions as a senior. The challenge for the U.S. Army All-American is the big step up from Tennessee 3A competition to life in the SEC where seemingly every player was one of the top recruits in their respective class.
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManInLA.
(Ed Orgeron photo by Chris Parent, courtesy of LSUsports.net)
College football never stops ... not even for The Price is Right.
While spinning the wheel on the popular game show, one Alabama fan couldn't hold in her excitement for her beloved team. When she got a chance to shout out to the people at home, this Crimson Tide fan had to let out a big "roll tide, roll!"
Price is Right NEVER disappoints pic.twitter.com/0I00A2KVVz— Mark Armstrong (@ArmstrongABC11) February 10, 2017
Back in the day, the Devil made them do it. But what possessed the 2016 version of the Rays to lose more games than in any year since the name truncation was an unholy amalgam of shoddy fundamentals, slapdash base running, leaky defense and patchy pitching. On paper, little has changed. That means either the Rays believe enough in their players to regard last year as an aberration, or their scarcity of resources make an upgrade impossible. They do have reason to believe in the starting rotation, which alone can make them respectable. As for the rest of it, Baseball Ops president Matt Silverman admitted to the Tampa Bay Times, “We don’t and we can’t and we won’t, as people say, ‘go all in.’ That means you’re trading your future.” So for the present, that translates to another season in purgatory.
Chris Archer threatened to join Nolan Ryan as the only pitcher ever to lead the AL in both defeats and strikeouts thanks to the gopher ball and meager support. A 3.11 ERA in his last 11 starts prompted manager Kevin Cash to predict that “a very elite pitcher” would emerge in 2017. Jake Odorizzi’s weapons lack the sex appeal of Archer’s 95-mph fastball and elite slider, and he’s an extreme flyball pitcher who needs too many pitches to take care of business. If and when Alex Cobb can survive a full season (something the 29-year-old has yet to do), he has the pitching goods and clubhouse cachet to be the leader of the staff. Since posting a 2.82 ERA in 2013-14, he’s been rehabbing an elbow. Although hyped lefty Blake Snell has yet to forge even a passing acquaintance with the strike zone, his raw stuff has not been overrated. And with Drew Smyly traded to Seattle, the Rays hope they acquired one of their building blocks for the future in right-hander Jose De Leon. The 24-year-old came over from the Dodgers in the deal for second baseman Logan Forsythe and despite his struggles (6.35 ERA in four starts) in his first taste of the majors, he has ace potential.
The good news was that the 2016 Rays were the second team in history to get a home run from six different shortstops in one season. That was also the bad news. With Brad Miller’s defense no longer tenable, Cash shuffled bodies until pitcher Matt Moore was dealt to the Giants for long-term solution Matt Duffy. The 2015 NL Rookie of the Year runner-up (as a third baseman) grappled with a bum heel all year, but surgery has repaired the problem. Duffy is now a core player with a bat that plays well for the position and an unassailable glove. With the trade of Forsythe, Miller could be moved back to second base, provided his defense improves. Other internal options at second include Nick Franklin and Tim Beckham.
Prior to the Forsythe trade, Tampa Bay was planning on putting Miller at first to take advantage of his power, which resulted in a surprising jump from 164th in the majors in 2015 in home runs to 31st last season. Of his 30 home runs, 22 were at The Trop. That’s not an aberration; he can spin on a ball and go hard oppo with equal facility. But if his defense holds up at second, he will play there, which then opens up a hole at first base. The Rays signed Logan Morrison to a one-year deal in early February and could decide to look elsewhere with several free agents still looking for jobs at the start of spring training. Evan Longoria was another player whose subtle adjustments paid off. He reversed his recent decline by becoming the first AL third baseman ever to amass at least 80 extra-base hits and commit fewer than 10 errors. The franchise cornerstone, however, wasn’t too pleased with the Forsythe trade, saying he was “surprised and upset” at the move.
As sound as the infield is, the guys behind them are, collectively, substandard. “Collectively” because Kevin Kiermaier is bedrock. “Nobody’s gonna play center field like KK,” lauds Cash, who calls it a “privilege” to watch him. “It’s very tough to quantify what he does for us.” He could start with a 12.8 WAR in 2015-16 that was 52 percent higher than any other Ray or the 68 Defensive Runs Saved since 2014 that top the position by 28 or the team’s 14–34 record when he was out with a broken hand last year. The corners are, in the kindest word possible, “problematic.” Athletic-but-unproductive right fielder Steven Souza Jr. rocked a swing-and-miss percentage of 32.9. Left fielder Corey Dickerson has power, but he’s an out-making machine who must be platooned and is defensively suited for DH. Colby Rasmus was signed to a one-year, $5 million deal. He can play all three outfield positions and is a left-handed bat with power (five straight seasons with 15 or more home runs), but the average (.206 in 2016) leaves plenty to be desired. Tampa also acquired speedster Mallex Smith in the Smyly trade with Seattle. Smith played 72 games for Atlanta (he was traded by the Braves to the Mariners before being traded again to the Rays) before a thumb injury basically ended his season. Even though he hit just. 238 and was caught stealing a third of the time (16-for-24), he has the potential to be an asset on both the base paths and in the outfield, if he can win a spot on the 25-man roster.
When the Rays got priced out (as usual) of first-choice free agent Jason Castro, they signed Wilson Ramos, who is coming off an All-Star/Silver Slugger season. He was affordable only because he’s also coming off major knee surgery and may miss the first couple months of his two-year pact. The stopgaps are Curt Casali and Luke Maile. The former rakes for distance but with infrequent contact; the latter has a defensive edge but can’t hit a lick. Tampa also acquired former Mariner Jesus Sucre, but he will have to earn his spot on the roster in spring training.
The versatility of the bench compensates for its shallowness.The aforementioned Franklin was a one-time blue-chip shortstop prospect who now dabbles at most every position. He’s not the optimal DH, but he’s the best on board barring a belated pick up or until Ramos can ease back into catching. Rookie Daniel Robertson and doghouse denizen Beckham oil up all the infield mitts as well. The Rays hope 2014 No. 1 pick Casey Gillaspie breaks a streak of drafting bats that never develop. He might be an option in a platoon at first base and/or challenge Franklin. Tampa also signed Rickie Weeks to a minor league contract to add to the competition in spring training.
The soft underbelly of the strategy of trading established assets for prospect packages is that those deals yield exactly that — packages, not impact players, although it remains to be seen with the De Leon acquisition. That, in concert with poor drafts and trade miscalculations, has made for a star-power deficit that has eroded results. With an eye toward addressing those insufficiencies, the front office was reorganized this winter to make Erik Neander the Rays’ first traditional GM since 1995. Owner Stu Sternberg has termed Cash “a long, long-term guy.”
This is a crossroads season. Can the shuffled management team exhume the cash-strapped franchise’s record of innovation and success, or was that a proprietary product of the predecessing Andrew Friedman/Joe Maddon dream team all along? To approach its potential this season, the team must unearth two more offensive hammers — an unlikely scenario even if any of the arm-for-bat trade opportunities it was seeking deep into the winter reaches fruition. Still, insists Silverman, “There’s a lot to be optimistic about as we look towards 2017, and it begins with our starting pitching.” Unfortunately, it may also end there.
2017 AL EAST PREDICTION: 5th
Matt Kenseth’s 2016 season ended in a considerably different manner than the year before, but the final result included the same disappointment about what could have been.
There was no intentional crashing, no bitter feud with Joey Logano and no landmark NASCAR suspension this time around — although Kenseth’s 2015 wreck of Logano and subsequent two-race penalty won’t be forgotten soon — but Kenseth was again on the short end of the stick when it came to a tight finish with major championship implications. This time it was Phoenix, as Kenseth led late in the season’s penultimate race.
A win or a top-5 finish would have secured Kenseth a place in the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway and his best chance at a championship since 2013, when he finished runner-up. Instead, Kenseth’s hopes ended when his No. 20 spun into the Turn 1 wall during an overtime restart. Contact with Alex Bowman, largely initiated by Kenseth thinking he was clear at corner entry, was the culprit.
“It’s more than disappointing,” Kenseth said then. “We still had the race in control even on that last restart, and I ended up giving it away.”
The spoiled result was a small sample of a larger problem for Kenseth last season. No driver in NASCAR’s Premier Series (now Monster Energy NASCAR Cup) lost more positions after a race’s halfway point than Kenseth. He lost, on average, more than five spots in that span, and the effects were notable as Kenseth scored only eight top-5 finishes to mark a six-year low.
Still, Kenseth had 19 top-10 runs, and he called it an “overall competitive season.” Chemistry with longtime crew chief Jason Ratcliff remains strong as bad breaks, not bad handling, proved to be their biggest problem.
“We only had one pole and didn’t qualify as well as we had for the last few years,” Kenseth says. “We only won a couple of races but I felt like we were in position to win a lot more.
“I just feel like we had a lot of things go wrong at the end of races that held us back. It was for different reasons all of the time.”
Kenseth, 44 years old and 614 starts into his Cup career, now moves to the 2017 season amid routine questions about his future in NASCAR. There’s been no word about a contract extension between him and Joe Gibbs Racing (his current deal expires at the end of this season), and the No. 20 will see a shift this year as sponsor Dollar General departs the sport entirely. Longtime Kenseth sponsor DeWalt is covering some extra races as a primary sponsor to fill the void but no additional backers have been announced.
“I don’t really feel like I’m that close to where I can put a date on (retirement), to be honest with you,” Kenseth told reporters last August. “I feel great. More times than not, I’m having fun. I feel like we’re really competitive more times than not. We’re capable of winning races and championships still. So that’s just way on the bottom of my list of things to think about or worry about at the moment.”
But sponsor concerns are likely not the driving force behind where Kenseth will end up after this season. Instead, JGR is facing the dilemma of what to do with its roster of young drivers. One of them, Erik Jones, will spend at least this season in the new No. 77 Toyota at JGR affiliate Furniture Row Racing.
Just don’t expect fear of the unknown to paralyze Kenseth. He’s been here before, like when he signed and announced his 2013 move to Joe Gibbs Racing early in the 2012 season and still managed a “lame duck” campaign at Roush Fenway Racing that included three wins and 13 top-5 finishes. No matter his future, the present remains promising at JGR.
Coastal Carolina’s run to the 2016 College World Series title was somewhat unprecedented in that the Chanticleers accomplished the feat in their first-ever appearance. But it also continued a trend in that it marked the fourth straight year the College World Series was won by a team for the first time. UCLA started it in 2013, followed by Vanderbilt and then Virginia.
Will this trend continue in 2017? It’s possible considering TCU (4 CWS appearances) leads off Athlon Sports’ preseason top 25, while the likes of Florida State (21 appearances), Texas Tech (2), Clemson (12), Florida (10) and UC Santa Barbara (1) are in the top 10. But the first spots in the poll also have plenty of representation from the sport's blue bloods, if you will, with LSU (6 CWS titles), Cal State Fullerton (4) and the aforementioned Commodores also landing in the top 10.
And the last member of the preseason top 10? None other than the defending champions, who are aiming to join an elite group by becoming just the sixth team to win back-to-back College World Series titles (USC, Stanford, LSU, Oregon State, South Carolina).
Here is Athlon Sports’ complete College Baseball Preseason Top 25 and All-America team for the 2017 season. This is just one of the features that can be found in Athlon’s 2017 Baseball Preview, which is available for purchase online and on newsstands everywhere.
Athlon Sports’ College Baseball Preseason Top 25
(2016 record listed)
1. TCU (49–18, 15–9 Big 12)
It’s good to be Jim Schlossnagle right now. The Horned Frogs maestro has a team stacked with talent that should get back to Omaha. Eight starters return, including 3B Elliott Barzilli (.339-7-48), C Evan Skoug (.301-9-51), the double-play duo of 2B Cam Warner (.300-6-43) and SS Ryan Merrill (.298, 11 SBs) and hulking DH Luken Baker (.379-11-62). The pitching staff returns 55 of 67 starts from last year and also gets incoming LHP Nick Lodolo, who was a first-round draft pick last June.
2. LSU (45–21, 19–11 SEC)
The experienced Tigers are looking to make amends for a Super Regional collapse against Coastal Carolina last June. SS Kramer Robertson (.324), 2B Cole Freeman (.329) and 1B Greg Deichmann (.288-11-57) all return despite getting drafted last summer. Alex Lange (8–4, 3.79) could be the top pitcher in the country, and LHP Jared Poche (9–4, 3.35) turned down the Padres as a 14th-round draftee. Expect big things from freshman flingers Hunter Kiel and Zack Hess, who were part of another top-10 recruiting class.
3. Florida State (41–22, 16–10 ACC)
Every year we ask, “Is this the year for the Seminoles?” And yes, indeed, this could be. Mike Martin has a full arsenal of arms back, including LHP Tyler Holton (3–4, 2.79) and RHPs Drew Carlton (8–3, 3.94) and Cole Sands (6–7, 4.13) who combined for 44 starts a year ago. SS Taylor Walls (.355-6-46) is a dynamic team leader and Brooks Wallace Award candidate, while Cal Raleigh (.301) and Dylan Busby (.323) combined for 24 HRs and 105 RBIs. Freshman 1B Drew Mendoza is a sure-fire future All-American.
4. Texas Tech (47–20, 19–5 Big 12)
Remember all the talk about the freshman-heavy arms that pitched the Raiders to Omaha? Well, those greenhorns are a year wiser and better now as Davis Martin (10–1, 2.52), Steven Gingery (4–2, 3.18), Ryan Shetter (4–2, 4.02) and Erikson Lanning (3–4, 5.02) enter Year 2 in Lubbock. There were some big losses in the batting order, but top bat Tanner Gardner (.379) and the middle infield of Orlando Garcia (.265) and Michael Davis (.268) should be outstanding. Freshman OF John McMillon is going to be a star soon.
5. Cal State Fullerton (36–23, 17–7 Big West)
As you know, when the Titans have dominating arms, they have Omaha contention written all over them. All-America candidates LHP John Gavin (6–3, 2.09), RHP Colton Eastman (8–3, 2.24) and RHP Connor Seabold (7–6, 2.48) helped hold opposing batters to a .212 average. Yikes. A ton of experience is back in the field with SS Timmy Richards (.280-9-31), who was an 18th-round draftee last June, C Chris Hudgins (.220) and 3B Taylor Bryant (redshirt). Incoming 2B Dillon Persinger and OF Chris Prescott have MLB tools.
6. Vanderbilt (43–19, 18–12 SEC)
The Commodores are hoping for smoother seas for 2017 thanks to returnees such as starting pitchers Kyle Wright (8–4, 3.09) and Patrick Raby (7–1, 2.61) plus relievers Matt Ruppenthal (5–1, 2.33) and Collin Snider (4–0, 2.57), all righties. OF Jeren Kendall (.332-9-59) spent last summer with Team USA and figures to be a top-5 pick in the 2017 draft. Look for INF Will Toffey (.227) to bounce back and provide some punch in the middle of the lineup. The 11th-ranked incoming class will fill some holes to keep the machine chugging along.
7. Clemson (44–20, 16–14 ACC)
The Tigers have a pair of legit All Americans in lumberjack slugger Seth Beer (.370-18-70) and versatile LHP Pat Krall (10-2, 1.67). OF Chase Pinder (.295-11-46) and Presbyterian transfer OF Weston Jackson (third-team All American in 2016) will lead a potent offense. Six of the top seven pitchers return, including Alex Eubanks (6–5, 4.09) and Charlie Barnes (6–4, 4.66), who combined for 27 starts a year ago.
8. Coastal Carolina (55–18, 21–3 Big South)
Our national champions aren’t going away anytime soon. Nearly the entire arms corps returns, as the Friday-Saturday combo of Andrew Beckwith (15–1, 1.85) and Alex Cunningham (10–4, 3.62) are joined by mid-90s RHPs Jason Bilous (3–1, 4.43) and Bobby Holmes (7–2, 4.20) as CWS vets who thrive in pressure situations. The rebuilt order has CF Billy Cooke (.324, 27 SBs) and 3B Seth Lancaster (.326, 15 SBs) as leaders, while SS Jordan Gore and 2B Wood Myers are transfers from South Carolina and North Carolina, respectively, who will be studs.
9. Florida (52–16, 19–10 SEC)
The Gators lost a lot off the 2016 squad, but as a testament to the talent that coach Kevin O’Sullivan has brought in the last few years, they are still a top-10 squad. Alex Faedo (13–3, 3.18), SS Dalton Guthrie (.305), 3B Jonathan India (.303, 13 SBs) and DH JJ Schwarz (.290-7-60) are the next line of All-America types, and sophomore RHPs Jackson Kowar (3–0, 3.37) and Brady Singer (2–2, 4.95) will move from the bullpen to the weekend rotation and will probably excel. It’s in their DNA.
10. UCSB (43–20–1, 13–11 Big West)
Though they’ll miss staff ace Shane Bieber, the miracle beach boys have Joe Record (6–5, 3.91) and Noah Davis (7–4, 4.46) returning to their weekend posts, and relief ace Kyle Nelson (10 saves) heads up a deep bullpen. The middle infield of SS Clay Fisher (.285, 14 SBs) and 2B J.J. Muno (.294, 17 SBs) could be the nation’s best, and 1B Austin Bush (11 HRs) adds some thump. Freshman pitchers Chris Lincoln (13th round), Ben Brecht (36th round) and Jack Dashwood (Area Code Games alum) will contribute right away.
11. Oregon State (35–19, 16–14 Pac-12)
Hard to believe the Beavers sat at home last June, but worry not — they’ll make amends this time around. OSU will feature LHP Luke Heimlich (7–4, 3.53) and RHP Bryce Fehmel (10–1, 2.31), who are absolute studs. They’ll have LHP Max Engelbrekt (11 saves) to lock down late leads. Sophomore middle infielders Nick Madrigal (.333) and Cadyn Grenier (.240) are former 17th- and 21st-round draft picks, respectively. Expect a big season from 1B K.J. Harrison, who hit only .265 but spent last summer with Team USA.
12. Arizona (49–24, 16–14 Pac-12)
Jay Johnson and his staff pulled the Cats to within a two-RBI single of winning it all last year. They’ll get LHP JC Cloney (8–4, 2.45) back plus LHP Cameron Ming (3–3, 3.59) and RHP Cody Deason (1–2, 3.73), who had great fall camps. 1B JJ Matijevic (.287) and C Cesar Salazar (.276) return, plus the recruiting class was ranked No. 4 nationally and features transfers in OF Cal Stevenson (.359 at Nevada), 1B Cory Voss (.346 at New Mexico) and 6'8" hurler Tylor Megill (6-3, 3.95 at LMU), all former Freshman All-Americans.
13. South Carolina (46–18, 20–9 SEC)
The Gamecocks have seven position players and five of their top six pitchers back in the fold for this year’s run to Omaha. In the rotation, Clarke Schmidt (9–5, 3.40) and Adam Hill (7–0, 3.53) return, plus Wil Crowe is back from TJ surgery and is hitting mid-90s again. Closer Tyler Johnson (nine saves) pitched for Team USA last summer, and Josh Reagan (11 saves) also returns. USC lost some firepower, but OFs Alex Destino (.321-10-59) and TJ Hopkins (.322) are mainstays to build around.
14. Miami (50–14, 21–7 ACC)
As usual, this is Miami, so Omaha is always a possibility. Two big studs will lead the arms corps in RHP Jesse Lepore (9–0, 2.20) and LHP Michael Mediavilla (11–2, 3.40). Losing saves ace Bryan Garcia is tough, but RHP Frankie Bartow (6–0, 2.72) had 43 appearances. Offensively, Carl Chester (.336) is one of the best leadoff guys in the country, and Johnny Ruiz (.342) and Randy Batista (.272) are stout middle infielders. JC transfers James Davidson and Hunter Tackett will be high-impact outfielders.
15. Stanford (31–23, 15–15 Pac-12)
It’s one final go-round for head coach Mark Marquess, who has 1,585 career wins. The Cardinal led the nation in defense (.983), and four-fifths of the infield is back to defend its fielding crown. The team ERA was 3.17, and the weekend rotation of Tristan Beck (4–5, 2.03), Chris Castellanos (8–2, 3.41) and Brett Hanewich (3–2, 3.92) returns intact. Plus, Tyler Thorne and Colton Hock are back to lock down late leads. The .252 team average just won’t do, so improving that is the make-or-break factor this year.
16. Louisiana (43–21, 21–9 Sun Belt)
This should be a fun team to watch in 2017 as every pitcher of note returns, including LHP Gunner Leger (7–3, 2.26) and RHPs Nick Lee (7–1, 3.31), Evan Guillory (5–6, 4.34) and Wyatt Marks (5–7, 4.50), who accounted for 62 of the 64 starts last season. 3B Alex Pinero (.312, 25 SBs) and CF Joe Robbins (.286-10-37) lead a group of seven starters back. Catcher Handsome Monica and 1B Tyler Stover have both been drafted and played at Arizona and Kansas State, respectively, as freshmen.
17. Virginia (38–22, 19–11 ACC)
As you know, you should never doubt coach Brian O’Connor and his staff, especially when they’ve got tons of pitching back. Ace Connor Jones is gone, but LHP Adam Haseley (9–3, 1.73, also .304 as CF) and RHPs Tommy Doyle (2–7, 5.06), Alec Bettinger (3–5, 5.43, seven saves) and Tyler Shambora (5–1, 3.22) are all old war horses. Robbie Coman returns to catch after missing 2016, and 1B Pavin Smith (.329-8-57), 2B Ernie Clement (.351) and SS Justin Novak (.273) will make for a solid defense.
18. Ole Miss (43–19, 18–12 SEC)
Although there is a good nucleus returning for the Rebels, the future is even brighter as they have brought in the top-ranked recruiting class in the country. Five incoming players were MLB draftees last summer, led by SS Grae Kessinger, C Cooper Johnson and LHP Ryan Rolison. Of the returnees, RHP James McArthur (6–1, 4.26), LHP David Parkinson (5–3, 2.78) and RHP Will Stokes (2–1, 2.93, seven saves) will lead the pitching staff, and 2B Tate Blackman (.322) and 3B Colby Bortles (.270-8-50) will be building blocks for the order.
19. Oklahoma State (43–22, 16–8 Big 12)
Last year, Josh Holliday guided the Cowboys back to Omaha for the first time in 17 years. Now they’re hungry for back-to-back trips. Both Tyler Buffett (9–3, 2.81) and Trey Cobb (4–7, 3.09) spurned the pros for one more season and will join RHP Jensen Elliott (9–3, 3.50) to form a great core group. The offense will need some re-tooling, but 3B Garrett Benge (.292), 1B Dustin Williams (14 HRs) and OF Garrett McCain (11 SBs in limited role) will help ratchet up the hit parade.
20. North Carolina (34–21, 13–17 ACC)
Oh man, the Tar Heels are steaming after missing the postseason last year. Weekenders J.B. Bukauskas (7–2, 3.10) and Jason Morgan (3–3, 4.10) lead a deep staff with a lot of promise. Eight regulars are back in the field, including top bats in OF Brian Miller (.345, 21 SBs) and SS Logan Warmoth (.337), plus mercurial OF Adam Pate (.285, 17 SBs). A top-5 recruiting class features RHPs Luca Dalatri and Austin Bergner and C Brandon Martorano, who all turned down serious overtures from the MLB draft.
21. Mississippi State (44–18–1, 21–9 SEC)
There was lots of change in Starkville this offseason, most notably John Cohen’s move to AD and former LSU assistant Andy Cannizaro’s move to Mississippi State’s head coach. State also had 11 players drafted off last year’s team. But All-American Jake Mangum (.408), All-SEC OF Brent Rooker (.324-11-54) and three-year starting SS Ryan Gridley (.284) form a great nucleus. The pitching staff will need to be overhauled due to attrition, but there are some promising recruits, led by 12th-round draftee RHP Graham Ashcraft and Junior College All-America RHP Peyton Plumlee.
22. Nebraska (37–22, 16–8 Big 10)
A ton of experience is back for the Big Red in 2017. Nearly every pitcher of note returns, led by weekend starters Matt Waldron (7–3, 2.87) and Derek Burkamper (6–3, 3.09). Also, Nebraska has one of the top two-way players in the country in Jake Meyers, who went 6–1 on the mound and hit .326 at the plate. Elsewhere, RHPs Chad Luensmann (13 saves) and Reece Eddins (4–3, 1.85) are ace bullpenners, and 1B Scott Schreiber (.325-16-55) and DH Ben Miller (.317-6-46) are power-jacks at the dish.
23. Louisville (50–14, 22–8 ACC)
Golden Spikes Award candidate Brendan McKay (.333-6-41 and 12–4, 2.30) will be joined by fellow 12-game winner Kade McClure and reliever Shane Hummel (2–1, 1.99) to rebuild the mound corps. All-ACC SS Devin Hairston (.361) will be joined by 3B Drew Ellis (.309) and 2B Devin Mann (.303) to form a sound defensive infield, and OFs Logan Taylor (.280, 18 SBs) and Colin Lyman (.301, nine SBs) are flyers.
24. Texas (25–32, 10–14 Big 12)
David Pierce takes over for the legendary Augie Garrido, and he inherits a full cupboard in Austin. The pitching staff was all freshmen and sophomores last year, and RHPs Kyle Johnston (3–2, 3.72) and Morgan Cooper (3–5, 4.03) could be high-round picks in June’s draft. Seven regulars return to the lineup, led by 1B Kacy Clemens (.303-5-31), 2B Zane Gurwitz (.295-5-36) and 3B Bret Boswell (.241). The banner recruiting class will provide quality depth.
25. NC State (38–22, 15–13 ACC)
Six regulars return to the batting order, and all six hit .296 or better, led by 3B Evan Mendoza’s .362 and OF Brock Deatherage’s .319. Middle infielders Joe Dunand (.297-4-41) and Stephen Pitarra (.291) are steady gloves with range. Pitching-wise, there are plenty of options on a deep staff, especially with LHP Brian Brown (7–3, 3.70) starting Fridays and if Joe O’Donnell (3–2, 4.06) can stay healthy.
2017 Preseason All-America Team
C: Evan Skoug, TCU
1B: K.J. Harrison, Oregon State
2B: Ernie Clement, Virginia
SS: Taylor Walls, Florida State
3B: Jake Burger, Missouri State
OF: Jeren Kendall, Vanderbilt
OF: Jake Mangum, Mississippi State
OF: Keston Hiura, UC Irvine
OF: Seth Beer, Clemson
DH: Luken Baker, TCU
UTL: Brendan McKay, Louisville
SP: Andrew Beckwith, Coastal Carolina
SP: Seth Romero, Houston
SP: Alex Lange, LSU
RP: Glenn Otto, Rice
RP: Pat Krall, Clemson
(Rankings and All-America team provided by Eric Sorenson for Athlon Sports)
Kansas State coach Bill Snyder announced Monday that he has throat cancer.
The Wildcats coach said he expects to be ready to go in time for spring practice. The 77-year-old coach won't let this affect his coaching duties, and passed along a statement to the K-State faithful.
K-State coach Bill Snyder diagnosed with throat cancer. In statement, he says treatment will not affect his coaching duties: pic.twitter.com/fDRcnU0tn8— Jake Trotter (@Jake_Trotter) February 13, 2017
The K-State family and fans alike will be hoping for a speedy recovery.
Before National Signing Day on Feb. 1, many considered Florida’s 2017 recruiting class disappointing. The Gators were ranked in the 30s by several recruiting services and had a few of their targets such as Elijah Blades and Kai-Leon Herbert commit to other schools.
But after signing 10 recruits on National Signing Day, the Gators finished with a top-10 class per 247 Sports’ and ESPN’s rankings. Florida is set to lose several key players, such as Jalen Tabor, Quincy Wilson and Caleb Brantley, to the NFL, so who are some of the newcomers that could help fill the void as the Gators look to make it three straight SEC East titles in 2017?
Feleipe Franks, Quarterback, Redshirt Freshman
It’s no secret that the Gators haven’t had a consistent quarterback under center since the Tim Tebow days. Last season, starter Luke Del Rio battled both injuries and inconsistency as he finished with the same number of touchdowns and interceptions (eight apiece) in just six games. Shoulder surgery will sideline Del Rio during spring camp, presenting Franks with the opportunity to potentially win the starting job.
Many Florida fans wanted the 6-foot-6, 220-pound Franks to play in the Outback Bowl, but head coach Jim McElwain never put his young signal-caller on the field, as the Gators coasted to a 30-3 win over Iowa. Whoever is at quarterback when the 2017 season does start, he needs to show immediate improvement with Michigan on tap for the opener.
Christopher Henderson, Cornerback, Freshman
After decommitting from Miami in October, Henderson decided to stay in the state of Florida by signing with the rival Gators. Based on what he has said, Henderson was looking for the opportunity to play right away as a true freshman, and Florida can do just that.
With Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson off to the NFL, cornerback is the biggest hole on the Gators’ defense. The 6-foot-1, 175-pound Henderson will get plenty of chances this spring to earn playing time in the fall.
Zachary Carter, Defensive End, Freshman
Carter (6-4, 260) already has the look of a SEC defensive end even though this is his first season. The coaching staff was looking to restock the defensive line with this recruiting class and Carter is one of several new faces that could see a lot of playing time early since Florida likes to rotate its bodies up front.
Brad Stewart, Defensive Back, Freshman
With the secondary seeing plenty of turnover, Stewart could very well see playing time as either a nickel back or safety as a freshman. The 6-foot, 194-pound four-star signee is the first player from Louisiana the Gators have brought in since Gerald Willis in 2014.
T.J. Moore, Offensive Lineman, Freshman
With David Sharpe entering the 2017 NFL Draft, offensive tackle was a priority and Florida added one of the nation’s highest rated in Moore. A four-star lineman out of Charlotte, N.C., Moore could work his way into the rotation early in part thanks to his ability to play both tackle and guard.
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
Without question, the Louisville Cardinals ended the 2016 season on a sour note, losing three straight games, including one to in-state rival Kentucky and a 20-point setback at the hands of LSU in the Citrus Bowl that wasn't all that competitive.
The good news, however, is that Bobby Petrino and Co. have plenty of reason for optimism to build on what was otherwise a strong season.
Obviously, everything will revolve around quarterback Lamar Jackson, the electric playmaker who won the Heisman Trophy and will at least start the season as someone who will be in the conversation to win it again.
Outside of that, though, there is enough experience to see the Cardinals perhaps challenge for an ACC Atlantic Division title, even though powerhouses Florida State and Clemson will be the favorites.
Still, there are holes to fill, and the Cardinals will have a number of newcomers who can do so and maybe push this team to a stronger finish this time around.
Colin Wilson, RB, True Freshman
Brandon Radcliff, the team's starting running back from a year ago, has graduated and taken his 906 yards and six touchdowns from 2016 with him. There are some more veteran options, but Wilson, a true freshman out of Florida, chose the Cardinals over some big-time programs, and his 6-foot-1, 220-pound frame could translate well right away.
Ronald Rudd, OT, Junior College Transfer
The offensive line was the poorest unit on the team in 2016, so improvement in that area is desperately needed. Enter Rudd, a JUCO pickup from California, who can step in and play right away. The 6-foot-7, 305-pound Rudd has the type of length and physical maturity to at least earn some quick playing time.
Jordan Davis, TE, Transfer from Texas A&M
While Jackson returns a good amount of talent and depth returning at the wide receiver spots, he will miss one of his favorite targets in tight end Cole Hikutini, an All-ACC performer. One player who could fill that void is Davis, a once highly-touted recruit for Texas A&M who saw time as a true freshman in College Station.
C.J. Avery, S, True Freshman
Multi-talented Josh Harvey-Clemons is gone, but the safety position remains one where the Cardinals should be strong in 2017, as Chucky Williams will be one of the best in the conference. Still, Avery was one of the Cardinals' best pulls in this recruiting class as an Under Armour All-American. An early enrollee, the Mississippi native is already on campus, which could help his chances of early playing time.
Russ Yeast, CB, True Freshman
As with the safety position, the Cardinals are fairly well-stocked at cornerback spot heading into 2017, but that didn't stop them from targeting some big-time talents in this recruiting cycle. Yeast was a four-star recruit out of one of Indiana's best high school programs in Center Grove and could push for playing time in a unit that already has a strong base.
— Written by Adam Kurkjian, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and is a reporter for the Boston Herald. He has covered the World Series, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup playoffs, Boston Marathon and Little League World Series, among other events from the high school, college and pro ranks. Follow him on Twitter @AdamKurkjian.
Finding or developing a quarterback is no easy task for any college football coach. This position is one of the hardest to evaluate in high school, and quarterbacks often transfer early in their career in search of more playing time if they are entrenched behind a proven starter. Needless to say, quarterbacks are the position likely providing the most headaches for coaches throughout the year. While developing a quarterback through the high school ranks is the preferred option for coaches, the junior college level presents quick-fix options and players who were often overlooked in the recruiting process. The junior college level always produces a handful of impact transfers each year, and the quarterback position has a handful of intriguing names back on the scene in 2017. Jarrett Stidham (Auburn) and Blake Barnett (Arizona State) are two former top recruits headed back to Power 5 teams after a short stint at the junior college level. Additionally, Peyton Bender (Kansas), Jake Luton (Oregon State) and De'Andre Johnson (FAU) are just a few of the other junior college quarterbacks expected to make an impact in 2017.
Which junior college quarterbacks will make the biggest impact in 2017? Here’s a look at 20 who could make an impact this fall, ranked by the most likely to start or see significant snaps:
College Football's Top 20 Impact JUCO Transfer QBs for 2017
Others to Watch: Cameron Burston, New Mexico; Ryan Brand, Maryland; Michael Curtis, UMass; Rathen Ricedorff, Boise State
20. Jordan Ta’amu, Ole Miss
Shea Patterson is set as the starter for coach Hugh Freeze in 2017, but depth is an issue at quarterback. Ta’amu arrives in Oxford after throwing for 3,014 yards and 32 scores for New Mexico Military Institute in 2016. He will compete with Jason Pellerin for the No. 2 job.
19. Nathan Rourke, Ohio
Quinton Maxwell heads into offseason workouts as the No. 1 quarterback for Ohio, but Rourke is an interesting addition after a prolific high school career and a short stint in the junior college ranks. After spending his first three years in high school in Canada, Rourke played his senior season at Edgewood Academy in Alabama. During that season, Rourke threw for 3,779 yards and 59 scores. The Canada native landed at Fort Scott Community College for the 2016 campaign and threw for 2,367 yards and 18 touchdowns.
18. McLane Carter, Texas Tech
It’s no secret Patrick Mahomes leaves big shoes to fill in Lubbock next year. However, it’s also safe to assume the Red Raiders will remain prolific on offense with coach Kliff Kingsbury calling the plays. Nic Shimonek impressed in limited action (464 yards and six passing scores in 2016) and heads into 2017 as the team’s No. 1 quarterback. While Shimonek seems entrenched as the starter, depth behind him is a concern. Carter should fill that void after transferring in following one year at Tyler Junior College. In his only season at the junior college level, Carter threw for 3,226 yards and 30 scores.
17. Neil McLaurin, Minnesota
Replacing Mitch Leidner at quarterback is one of Minnesota’s biggest offseason question marks for new coach P.J. Fleck. Former walk-on Conor Rhoda (8 of 16) is the most-experienced option, but redshirt freshman Seth Green and junior Demry Croft return for 2017. McLaurin committed to Minnesota under former coach Tracy Claeys and enrolled in time to compete during spring practice. The Mississippi native threw for 964 yards (52.8%) and eight scores and added 440 yards and six touchdowns in 2016 at Southwest Mississippi Community College. McLaurin ranked as a three-star prospect and the No. 172 junior college recruit in the 247Sports Composite.
16. A.J. Bush, Virginia Tech
With Jerod Evans leaving early for the NFL Draft, all eyes in Blacksburg will be on the quarterbacks this spring. Coach Justin Fuente has an outstanding track record of developing quarterbacks, so while this position is a question mark headed into offseason workouts, the Hokies should find the right answer. Bush started his career at Nebraska and transferred after two seasons to Iowa Western Community College. Bush played in 10 games in 2016 and threw for 602 yards and three touchdowns. He also added 285 yards and five scores on the ground. Redshirt freshman Joshua Jackson is considered the early favorite to win the job, but Bush provides some much needed depth and competition for the spring.
15. Kado Brown, Georgia Southern
Georgia Southern’s quarterback depth chart took a big hit this offseason after Kevin Ellison and Favian Upshaw expired their eligibility after the win over Troy in the regular season finale. Seth Shuman played in five games and gained valuable experience last year, but new coordinator Bryan Cook plans to shift the offense back to more of an option approach in 2017. Brown seems to be a good fit for the offense after rushing for 757 yards and nine touchdowns and throwing for 1,427 yards and eight scores at Moorpark Community College in 2016. Brown started his collegiate career at Army before a stint in the junior college ranks.
14. Devlin Isadore, North Texas
Seth Littrell was regarded as one of the nation’s top offensive coordinators prior to taking the top spot in Denton, and the first-year coach capped off a solid debut with the Mean Green by guiding the program to an appearance in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Littrell has this program trending up entering 2017, but the coaching staff is still putting all of the pieces in place on offense. Alabama transfer Alec Morris expired his eligibility after the bowl game, which leaves Mason Fine (261 attempts) competing with five other quarterbacks for the starting nod this spring. Isadore is one to watch after transferring to North Texas following a two-year stint at Navarro College. The Texas native missed most of 2016 due to an injury but threw for 2,173 yards and 20 scores as a freshman in 2015.
13. Nick Johns, Akron
Injuries forced Akron to utilize three quarterbacks last season, and the outlook for the 2017 starter is unsettled heading into spring ball. If healthy, Thomas Woodson (264.1 total yards per game in 2016) is the likely starter. However, Woodson had offseason shoulder surgery and is not expected to participate in spring workouts. With Woodson sidelined, Tra’Von Chapman and Johns will have a chance to close the gap this offseason. Johns started his career at Virginia and used a redshirt year with the Cavaliers in 2015. The Virginia native transferred to Northeastern Oklahoma A&M for the 2016 season and threw for 2,243 yards and 16 scores in 10 games. Johns has three years of eligibility remaining and ranked as a three-star prospect by the 247Sports Composite.
12. D.J. Gillins, SMU
SMU coach Chad Morris has stockpiled an impressive group of quarterbacks for 2017. In addition to returning starter Ben Hicks, Arkansas transfer Rafe Peavey and Gillins – a former Wisconsin signal-caller – are all set to battle for the job this spring. This group could get even deeper if Matt Davis is awarded an additional year of eligibility after a season-ending injury in 2016. Gillins was rated as the No. 5 junior college quarterback by the 247Sports Composite but was limited to one game at Pearl River Community College due to a knee injury in 2016.
11. Jordan Hoy, Old Dominion
The Monarchs are coming off a 10-3 record and the program’s first trip to a bowl game. Despite losing starting quarterback David Washington, coach Bobby Wilder’s team should be one of Conference USA’s top teams once again in 2017. Sophomore Blake LaRussa (14 of 24 attempts for 140 yards) is the early frontrunner to replace Washington, but Hoy and freshman Drayton Arnold are also in the mix. Hoy spent 2016 at Fullerton Community College and threw for 3,434 yards and 37 touchdowns. Additionally, the Texas native added 712 yards and nine scores on the ground.
10. Jorge Reyna, Fresno State
Reyna was one of the top additions in new coach Jeff Tedford’s first class at Fresno State. The California native arrives after two seasons at West Los Angeles College and was named the Metro League Offensive Player of the Year in 2016. Reyna threw for 3,646 yards and 39 scores and added 386 rushing yards and seven touchdowns in 2016. He’s regarded as a three-star prospect in the 247Sports Composite and is expected to compete with Chason Virgil for the starting job this spring.
9. Dwayne Lawson, Illinois
Lawson might be the toughest quarterback to rank on this list. The former Virginia Tech signal-caller has the potential to start right away in 2017, but he was not listed on the school’s rundown of signed recruits on National Signing Day. Lawson is still working to transfer in time for fall practice and has to compete with Chayce Crouch and Jeff George, Jr. once he arrives on campus. Lawson rated as the No. 310 overall recruit by the 247Sports coming out of high school and ranked as a three-star junior college prospect. Lawson’s status will be worth monitoring this offseason.
8. David Pindell, UConn
UConn’s offense struggled mightily in 2016, finishing 12th in the American Athletic Conference by averaging just 14.8 points per game. New coach Randy Edsall wasted no time looking for help on this side of the ball, as the staff inked three quarterbacks on National Signing Day. Pindell has the chance to make the biggest impact right away, as the Missouri native joins UConn after two years at Lackawanna Community College. Pindell played in all 11 games in 2016 as the team’s starting quarterback and threw for 2,424 yards and 31 scores and added 459 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. Pindell ranked as a three-star recruit by the 247Sports Composite.
7. Jonathan Banks, Tulane
Willie Fritz has Tulane trending in the right direction, and the second-year coach may have found his answer at quarterback with the addition of Banks. In addition to needing an effective passer under center, the Green Wave’s offense requires a quarterback with mobility. Last year, Glen Cuiellette (216 rush yards) and Johnathan Brantley (202 yards) struggled to jumpstart the attack. After accounting for 1,953 yards and 16 total scores at Independence Community College last season, Banks is a good fit for Tulane’s offense. Prior to Independence Community College, the Texas native started his career at Contra Costa College in 2014 and spent one season as a redshirt at Kansas State in 2015.
6. Torrance Gibson, Cincinnati
Luke Fickell scored an early victory for his first season at Cincinnati by landing Gibson to play in 2017. Gibson was regarded as a four-star recruit out of high school and started his career at Ohio State as a quarterback, before shifting to receiver during his redshirt year in 2015. Gibson was suspended for the 2016 campaign and never played a down for the Buckeyes. The Florida native is taking classes at Cincinnati State in order to gain immediate eligibility for the 2017 season with the Bearcats. Assuming Gibson is cleared in time, he will compete with Ross Trail and Hayden Moore for the starting job. Gibson is a bit raw in his passing ability, but he’s an excellent athlete who could be a difference maker at quarterback for the Bearcats.
5. De’Andre Johnson, FAU
FAU inked the No. 1 recruiting class from Conference USA in the 247Composite rankings, with Johnson listed as the Owls’ best incoming prospect. Johnson started his career at Florida State but was dismissed following an incident in the 2015 offseason. The Jacksonville native landed at East Mississippi Community College and recorded a prolific 2016 campaign. En route to guiding East Mississippi Community College to a Mississippi Bowl State Championship, Johnson threw for 2,645 yards and 26 scores and added 834 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. He’s expected to compete with Jason Driskel and Daniel Parr for the starting job this spring.
4. Jake Luton, Oregon State
Injuries forced Oregon State to utilize three different quarterbacks under center last season. Marcus McMaryion, Darell Garretson and Conor Blount all return in 2017, and this unit will add another name to the mix in spring ball. Luton arrives in Corvallis after a successful stint at Ventura College. The Washington native threw for 3,551 yards and 40 touchdowns in 2016 and added 175 yards and six scores on the ground. Luton originally started his career at Idaho in 2014 and played in four games with the Vandals in 2015. Luton ranked as the No. 54 junior college prospect in the 2017 247Sports Composite.
3. Peyton Bender, Kansas
Kansas desperately needs to find a spark on offense after averaging only 20.3 points a game in 2016. The good news for the Jayhawks? Coach David Beaty made one of the offseason’s top coordinator hires in Doug Meacham (from TCU), and Bender arrives from the junior college ranks as potential impact player. Bender began his collegiate career at Washington State and started one game for coach Mike Leach in 2015. In his only season of action with the Cougars, Bender completed 53 of 91 passes for 498 yards and three touchdown tosses. The Florida native played at Itawamba Community College in 2016 and threw for 2,733 yards and 21 scores. He should push to start this spring.
2. Blake Barnett, Arizona State
Barnett opened 2016 as the starting quarterback for Alabama but transferred to Palomar College in late September. In his short stint with the Crimson Tide last year, Barnett threw for 219 yards and two scores on 11 completions. Barnett did not play at the junior college level in 2016 but was ruled eligible for the entire 2017 season at Arizona State. Barnett’s arrival is a huge addition for an Arizona State offense that tossed only 12 touchdown passes in Pac-12 games. The California native ranked as a five-star prospect coming out of high school and is joined in Tempe by former Alabama assistant Billy Napier to call the plays in 2017.
Related: Early Pac-12 Predictions for 2017
1. Jarrett Stidham, Auburn
Stidham is the nation’s No. 1 impact player from the junior college ranks for 2017. The Texas native was regarded as one of the top quarterback recruits in the 2015 signing class and played in 10 games as a true freshman at Baylor. Stidham completed 75 of 109 throws for 1,265 yards and 12 scores in 2015 and spent 2016 out of football at McLennan Community College. Auburn’s ground game is already one of the best in the SEC. And with Stidham at the controls under center, coach Gus Malzahn now has one of the league’s best quarterbacks.
Climbing the ladder in the Pac-12 hasn't been limited to results on the field for Utah. The Utes are making equal upward strides in recruiting.
Utah brought in its highest ranked class in school history in 2017. The Utes added several players poised to make an immediate impact on both sides of the ball. Utah, in particular, shored up depleted depth in the secondary and feature several players who have the explosiveness and vision to make the defensive backfield an area of strength in the upcoming season.
Here's a closer look at five new Utah football players who could make a name for themselves during the 2017 season:
5 Newcomers for the Utah Utes to Watch in 2017
1. Corrion Ballard, DB
Filling the void left behind by Marcus Williams should be much easier with Ballard in the fold. The 6-foot-3 safety has the size and speed to be a monster in coverage. Ballard isn't afraid to hit and has a knack for zeroing in on the ball and making disruptive plays. He totaled 41 tackles, five sacks, three interceptions, eight pass breakups and a forced fumble during his sophomore season at Blinn College (Tex.) in 2016.
2. Jaylon Johnson, DB
Johnson is the type of athlete that can neutralize all sorts of tall and speedy receivers on the outside. He has a 40-yard dash time of 4.47 seconds and a 38' 3” vertical jump. The 6-foot-1 defensive back made a name for himself at Central High (Calif), earning offers from a legion of schools including USC, Oklahoma and Nebraska before choosing the Utes. Johnson could step in and start at corner right away during his first season.
3. Bryan Thompson, WR
Thompson promises to be the sort of playmaker that can take Utah's offense to a higher level. The 6-foot-2 receiver has the height and speed to stretch the field, making him a truly dynamic threat on the outside. He runs clean routes and is a skilled blocker. Over his final two seasons at Rancho Verde High (Calif.), Thompson totaled 2,636 yards and 27 touchdowns on 135 receptions. He has the ability to step up and be a major contributor from day one.
4. Marquise Blair, LB/S
Blair has the right tools to be a disruptive force on defense. During his time at Dodge City College (Kan.), he played at outside linebacker and earned first-team NJCAA All-American honors as a sophomore. He totaled 100 tackles – including 24 tackles for loss – in 2016 to go along with three sacks, four interceptions, five pass breakups, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and a fumble return for a touchdown. Blair has enough versatility to play either safety or linebacker.
5. John Penisini, DL
There's never a shortage of defensive line standouts at Utah and Penisini is the latest player who could thrive up front for the Utes. The 6-foot-3 sophomore fits the mold of past defensive lineman who have excelled in the program. He's physical and athletic and knows how to make his presence known on practically every down. Penisini totaled 40 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks at Snow College (Utah) in 2015. He also totaled 92 tackles and six sacks during his senior season at West Jordan High (Utah) in 2014.
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.