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Athlon Sports is going division by division, asking and (trying to) answering the biggest question for every team in the league entering the 2015 season.
Arizona: Can Carson Palmer stay healthy?
This team has won 21 games the last two seasons but was bounced early in the this year's playoffs because its quarterback was missing due to another significant knee injury. This team is talented enough at almost every position to win a Super Bowl and has a rising star of a head coach leading the way. But it plays in a nasty division and has a 35-year-old signal-caller that has missed at least six games in three of the last seven years. Palmer has to stay healthy for Arizona to win big this year.
St. Louis: Is the offensive overhaul going to work?
The defense is salty in St. Louis and is loaded with quality young talent. But this offense will look completely different in 2015. New coordinator Frank Cignetti has a new quarterback (Nick Foles), new running back (Todd Gurley), a reworked offensive line and even a new quarterbacks coach (Chris Weinke). Yet this unit still lacks in proven playmakers despite using numerous recent draft picks on skill position players. Should the offense come together quickly, this team will once again be one of the more underrated in the NFL. If not, Jeff Fisher is staring at a fourth straight losing season.
San Francisco: What is the personality of this team without Jim Harbaugh?
Say what you want about his quirky and bizarre personality, Jim Harbaugh is a winner. He won at the University of San Diego, he won at Stanford and he won big at San Francisco (and will win big at Michigan). Questions are swirling through the Bay Area after a mass exodus of coaches and players. Is Jim Tomsula equipped to be an NFL head coach? Can Colin Kaepernick develop into a leader and not an off-the-field headline maker? Can an aging collection of veterans and unproven youngsters maintain the level of success that the 49ers' brass seemed to under appreciate? Say what you want about Harbaugh, but his teams have always had an identity. What is the new identity going to look like in the Bay Area?
Seattle: How will the offensive line look?
Let’s be honest, there aren’t really any questions about this team. The defense is still nasty, Marshawn Lynch is happy, Russell Wilson is signed and has a new toy in Jimmy Graham. Pete Carroll and the 12th Man are still ready to rock. The offensive line may be the only area of concern in fall camp after Max Unger and James Carpenter departed this offseason. Look for Patrick Lewis and Alvin Bailey to step in and try to maintain stability up front. Otherwise, if this team can shake off the bad taste from the Super Bowl’s final possession, it will once again be one of the best teams in the NFL.
Eddie Lacy. Powerful running back, not so powerful lumberjack.
The Packers running back, with the help of Gatorade, tried his hand at ax-throwing, tree-climbing, and wood-chopping. The results were mixed. As you can imagine his powerful arm strength dominated the ax-throwing portion, but trying to get that running back body up a tree proved to be more than difficult.
Miami Hurricanes head coach Al Golden is entering his fifth season in Coral Gables, but he has yet to return the program back to prominence. The team finished the 2014 season with a 6-7 record. The Hurricanes lost some talented players off last year's team, but they do return quarterback Brad Kaaya, who was named the 2014 ACC Rookie of the Year.
During the last three seasons, the Hurricanes have averaged 7.3 wins a year. Can Golden and Kaaya lead Miami to their first ACC Championship Game appearance since joining the conference in 2004?
Miami’s Five Biggest Fall Camp Storylines
1. Will Brad Kaaya Suffer From a Sophomore Slump?
Last year at this time, no one knew who the starting quarterback for the Hurricanes would be. Projected starter Ryan Williams was still recovering from reconstructive knee surgery.
That left Miami to choose between Kaaya and veteran Jake Heaps, a battle in which Kaaya came up victorious. Kaaya had an excellent first year at Miami as he threw for 3,198 yards, 26 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions.
Last year, there were no expectations of Kaaya since he was put through a baptism by fire in his first season. Now that he has been named to preseason watch lists for the Davey O’Brien Award and the Manning Award, among other accolades, can Kaaya live up or exceed expectations in his sophomore season?
2. Who Can Replace Phillip Dorsett and Clive Walford’s Production?
Now that wide receiver Phillip Dorsett and tight end Clive Walford are in the NFL, who are the players that will replace their production?
Stacy Coley has been considered one Miami’s hardest workers on the roster, but that hasn’t translated into production on the field. The Hurricanes will also rely on Braxton Berrios, Herb Waters and Standish Dobard to replace Dorsett’s and Walford’s production.
3. Lack of Experience on the Offensive Line
Miami loses 111 career starts with the departure of offensive linemen Ereck Flowers, Jon Feliciano and Shane McDermott. The only full-time starter returning up front is right guard Daniel Isidora.
Kc McDerrmott and Trevor Darling have gotten some meaningful snaps on the line but they're not very proven. Kaaya isn't mobile, so the offensive line will need to come together in a hurry.
4. Can Miami’s Front Seven Improve?
The Hurricanes’ defense ranked No. 14 in the country last season, but defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio took a lot of heat. In Miami's four losses against Nebraska, Georgia Tech, Virginia and Pittsburgh, the Canes gave up a combined 1,082 rushing yards.
The biggest question among the front seven is at linebacker, where tackling machine Denzel Perryman now plays for the San Diego Chargers. Raphael Kirby will be asked to take Perryman’s place. Jermaine Grace is undersized (6-1, 208), but he made a number of plays during the spring game.
5. Al Golden
There aren't many coaches in the country with a hotter seat than Golden’s. Sure he took over at Miami when the NCAA was investigating the program, but fans have grown impatient with the lack winning during the last decade.
Golden is 28-22 entering his fifth season in Coral Gables. Last season, Miami came into its game against Florida State with a 6-3 record. The Hurricanes finished the season 6-7 and lost four straight games to end the year.
If Golden doesn’t have Miami contending for an ACC Coastal Division title, he could be shown the door at season’s end.
— 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, Pro Player Insiders and is a reporter for Sports Talk Florida. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
Texas has a lot to prove in 2015. The inaugural season of Charlie Strong and his new version of Texas Longhorns football was anything but ideal. Strong brought in a whole new… everything. New system. New style of play. New style of leadership and coaching philosophy. Everything changed in Austin… except the Texas fan base, boosters, and fever pitch desire to win NOW. And win now is what Strong must do. If he and Texas are going to improve on 2014’s 6-7 showing, the Longhorns must be able to solve several different problems.
Texas' Five Biggest Fall Camp Storylines
1. Time To Grow Up
Last year Texas’ offensive line was young and inexperienced, and it showed over and over again. The young group could not provide protection for its QBs and by the time this unit began to figure it out, it was simply too late. This year, it doesn’t matter who the QB of this team is if the offensive line doesn’t mature into its massive potential. With better depth now, along with several high quality freshmen being added to the mix, the Longhorns’ line should see significant improvement.
2. And the Winner of the QB Competition is…
Texas left spring practice still not sure who the “official” starting QB is. Tyrone Swoopes technically has the starting job, but according to Strong, Jerrod Heard has closed the gap considerably. Swoopes made a lot of mistakes, but NO ONE was going to prosper behind that poor of an offensive line. If No. 1 on this list is fixed, then it is possible that Swoopes will perform adequately, as there were flashes of brilliance. However, it may be time for Heard to take the reins.
3. “Gray” Skies Could Be Clearing Up
Jonathan Gray could be poised for a true breakout season after suffering an ACL tear in 2013, and coming back to play well behind the now-departed Malcolm Brown last season. Gray has the potential to become a serious dual-threat player this season, if he can stay healthy. And if Texas is to become legit contenders, or even simply take the next step back to respectability, Gray needs to be great.
4. “Defense is My Claim to Fame”
Strong made his name and reputation as a defensive guru. His defensive strategies are the reason why those Urban Meyer Florida teams won championships. His defensive strategies are the reason why his Louisville teams owned Florida and Miami in back-to-back bowl wins. In year two of his stint in Louisville, the defense made significant strides, and seemed to create the identity that would define Strong’s tenure in the Bluegrass. The Longhorn faithful are hoping for a similar jump.
5. Block out the Burnt Orange Noise!
The major and most significant challenge that Texas will face in 2015 is not on the field, but off it. The coaches and players must figure out how to block out the distractions that are inevitably facing a team that will face more than a few challenges. This team must create an insular quality that is simply not phased by demands for the athletic director and/or head coach to be fired, or calls for position changes when players struggle. All this team can control is what happens on the field. These Longhorns must block out the noise to what happens off of it.
— Written by Lloyd H. Spence Jr., who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Spence has covered both high school and college sports for several years, and has written for several outlets, incuding ESPNLouisville.com and CardinalSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @TalkinNOIZ.
Now that is August we can officially call it fantasy football season. That means folks will be getting invites to their seasonal leagues, beginning to study, discuss rankings, and for some, participate in a mock draft or two (or three or 12 or 50).
Mock drafts are an important part for any fantasy offseason, as they can help you gauge where players are being valued high or low, enact draft strategies and quench your thirst for the upcoming fantasy football season. I have a little secret though. I know something better than mock drafts.
The secret is something called MFL10 Leagues, which are hosted on MyFantasyLeague.com. These are known as their name “MFL10” or sometimes “Best-Ball Leagues.” I will explain how these work and if you still need a little push to give one a try I will hopefully do that as well below.
What Exactly is an MFL10/Best-Ball League?
Once I explain to folks what an MFL10 is the first question they usually ask is what the heck is that? After an explanation most people not only join, but also become addicts like myself. I do as many as I can, but nowhere near what some others in the industry do in an offseason. I know of people who do hundreds of them. I am not that crazy, nor do I have that much money.
Best-Ball Leagues or MFL10s are fantasy football leagues that allow owners to draft a full team with 20 or more players and not have to worry about weekly lineups. (There are also options for weekly roster management as well but I won’t be focusing on them.)
Each week of the regular fantasy football season your team will play out its games. MFL10 leagues still use your standard nine starters (No kickers). However since there are no weekly lineups the league will automatically use the highest scoring players at each position.
So, if you have seven receivers on your squad it will take the top three on your team for certain, and possibly four depending on your flex position, and the highest scoring players. If you have seven running backs it will take your top two. Three quarterbacks? It will use your highest scoring QB. You get the idea.
Based on your highest scoring players your team’s cumulative point totals will then get ranked in the standings of your 12-team league. If you triumph, drafted well and hit a few long shots you can win $100! Nice little profit off of your $10 entry. Runner-up will get a free entry to an MFL10 in the following year.
Ok, So How Do I Join?
*Register for an account with MyFantasyLeague.com if you haven’t already.
*Deposit $10 or more to the site via this link.
*Once you deposit and are registered you can look for open leagues, click on the join button and in the very near future expect an email notifying you of when your draft will begin. Get ready for email alerts and most importantly to draft!
*You can change your password, team name in "franchise information" and even set up your Twitter accounts to be linked. This will tweet your picks as they happen. Get familiar with the site by playing around. Once you are in the most important buttons are the "rosters" and "draft" buttons on the left toolbar
*Read over the League Scoring and Rules too before drafting (as always) so you are prepared for the draft.
Sounds Interesting But Not Sold?
Ok, I will give you some more reasons than the potential of winning money:
1. This is a real league, and a real draft
People are paying to play in this league. That doesn’t mean everyone knows how to win, or will pay attention in the entire draft, but by in large you are not dealing with people mock drafting eight rounds and leaving. Or the guy who joins a mock draft for the sole purpose of taking random, terrible players and thereby destroying the entire mock. These folks are just as excited, love drafting and want to win money as badly as YOU!
2. It is a slow draft, but still moves quick
What is the No. 1 thing most people say about joining another fantasy league? I don’t have time, or in too many. MFL10s can solve both. There is no roster management post-draft AND MyFantasyLeague.com utilizes the slow email draft. Basically you will get notifications of each pick as they are taken and when you are on the clock. There is an eight-hour clock, which can get long, but most people who participate in these drafts are on the ball and fill queues or pick quickly.
The perk to a slow draft is you don’t feel the pressure of getting sniped and making a desperate pick. You still have time to research, plan ahead, and fill queues without that pressure or panic of a clock and peering eyes. When you are ready, you follow the link in your email go to your draft room and make your pick.
3. You can do more than one draft at a time
These leagues not only prepare you for your seasonal drafts, but they also are fun and allow you to enact different strategies, and reach for rookies or unranked players. In fact, that is encouraged because with no waivers or roster management there’s no chance to pick up the 2015 version of an Odell Beckham Jr. or Justin Forsett. Risk takers can excel in seasonal leagues via either the draft and/or on the waiver wire. In MFL10s you live and die by upside.
4. The odds aren’t terrible.
You have a 1-in-12 chance to win your MFL10. If you enter 10 leagues you are spending $100, but remember it only takes winning one league to break even. Everything else is profit! It isn’t easy, but you could do much worse elsewhere.
— Written by Chris Meyers, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the FSWA. Meyers' work appears on many other sites, including socalledfantasyexperts.com. Follow him on Twitter @FantsyChillpony.
One of the players fans and media members have been curious about at the start of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ training camp is quarterback Blake Bortles. Last season, Bortles made a number of mistakes as a rookie. The question is, how much will Bortles improve in his second season under center?
Last year, the initial plan was to start veteran Chad Henne at quarterback and to have Bortles, the third overall overall pick of the 2013 draft, watch from the bench. But Henne’s play was so bad that the coaching staff had no choice but to play Bortles sooner than the team would have liked.
In 2014, Bortles recorded 11 touchdowns compared to 17 interceptions, but in his defense Jacksonville didn't provide him with much of a supporting cast. The Jaguars’ offensive line allowed 71 sacks, the most in the NFL.
So far in Bortles’ second training camp, Jacksonville head coach Gus Bradley has liked the improvements he has seen in his young signal-caller.
"He’s always had poise and I think what you’re seeing now is with that poise he’s making good decisions," said Bradley. "When he knows what he’s supposed to do with the ball it just comes out; they’re tight, they’re accurate, so it was a good session for him.”
While leading receiver Cecil Shorts now plays for the Houston Texans, the Jaguars did sign former Denver Broncos Pro Bowl tight end Julius Thomas in free agency. Thomas will form a tag team with Marcedes Lewis at the tight end position, which will give Bortles two huge targets in the red zone.
The selection of running back T.J. Yeldon in the second round and wide receiver Rashad Greene in the fifth round also should help Bortles. Jacksonville’s running game finished 21st last season, as free agent disappointment Toby Gerhart rushed for only 326 yards and scored just two touchdowns in 14 games.
Last year at Alabama, Yeldon rushed for 979 yards and scored 11 times. Yeldon will give the Jaguars a back that can run the ball between the tackles and make defenders miss. He also should serve as a reliable target out of the backfield when Bortles needs a hot read.
Greene is a solid route runner who can catch the ball over the middle and near the sideline. While he won't be the team's first or second option, Greene will be an excellent complement to Allen Hurns, Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee in Jacksonville’s passing attack.
Along with the new skill position players, Bortles also got some much-needed help on the offensive line. Third-round pick A.J. Cann and a pair of free-agent acquisitions — center Stefen Wisniewski and tackle Jermey Parnell — will boost the Jaguars’ line.
With an improved line, new offensive coordinator Greg Olson should be able to use more of Bortles’ strengths such as his athleticism out of the pocket. Bortles averaged 10.4 yards per completion last season. That average should improve once the quarterback gets in sync with the rest of his offense.
"Yeah, you see it with the throws," said Bradley. "He scrambled, got out of it and took a chance. You’re seeing him do that. He’ll make some mistakes, but he’ll come back. We talked to them in the team meeting about discovering your skills both offensively and defensively, and they’ve got to find those things out in these practices.”
Should Jacksonville fans expect Bortles to emerge as a top-five NFL quarterback in 2015? Of course not. But working in Olson's new offense and with better personnel, Bortles should begin to show signs that he can at least become a quality starting signal-caller. It might not translate to a lot of in wins this season, but fans should begin to see how much Bortles has progressed from his rookie season to year two in the NFL.
— 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, Pro Player Insiders and is a reporter for Sports Talk Florida. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
As the Tennessee Volunteers took the field on Tuesday evening for their first fall camp practice of the preseason, there were two faces noticeably absent. Tennessee head Coach Butch Jones made it known on Monday in a pre-camp press conference that wide receivers Von Pearson and Preston Williams would not be participating in football activities until further notice.
Pearson, a senior from Newport News, Va., who came to Tennessee as a junior college transfer last year, has been absent from the program since the end of spring camp. He was placed on an indefinite suspension from the football team on April 24 after being named as a suspect in an alleged rape. Pearson has yet to be charged for the alleged crime. However, he remains suspended from both the university and all football activities while the matter is still being reviewed by the Knox County District Attorney General’s office.
In spite of missing two games due to an ankle injury and being somewhat limited in the weeks following his injury, Pearson still managed to lead Tennessee in touchdown receptions (5) in 2014. He also ranked second on the team in both receptions (38) and receiving yards (393). He capped off his 2014 campaign with his strongest performance of the season in the TaxSlayer Bowl by hauling in seven passes for 75 yards and a touchdown. He was expected to play a major role in the Vols’ 2015 offense as a starting wide receiver. At this time, Pearson’s future as a student athlete at Tennessee remains uncertain.
Williams' future with the Vols also remains unclear at this time. The true freshman and former 5-star High School All-American from Hampton, Ga., was recently deemed ineligible by the NCAA Clearinghouse after a standardized test score was red-flagged. Williams, who is recovering from ACL tear last fall, was on track to be a full participant in fall camp. He also was expected to be a contributor in Tennessee’s 2015 offense.
In order to return to the Tennessee football program, Williams will have to retake the standardized test and score within a reasonable margin of the red-flagged test. The timetable for Williams to re-take the test is unknown at this time, but it is unlikely that he will be able to re-join the team before the start of the season.
The absence of Pearson and Williams leaves the Vols with just eight scholarship wide receivers to begin fall camp. Two of which, junior Jason Croom and sophomore Josh Smith, remain somewhat limited as they return from serious injuries suffered last season. True freshman Jauan Jennings has been moved from quarterback to wide receiver in order to help supplement the current shortage at the position. There also has been some discussion about moving current defensive back and kick returner, junior Malik Foreman, to wide receiver. In the meantime, Tennessee will employ the services of several walk-ons to help fill the current void, including former 3-star blueshirt freshman Vincent Perry and University of Virginia transfer Adrian Gamble.
If Pearson and Williams are unable to return to the program at some point this season, it could have a significant impact, especially if injuries begin to accumulate at wide receiver, as they did for the Vols in 2014.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McVey is a diehard Tennessee Volunteers' fan who loves singing "Rocky Top" every opportunity he gets. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS
Each season, Clemson has high expectations. This year those hopes may be even a little higher than usual. Athlon Sports has the Tigers ranked at No. 14 entering the season, but some publications have them much closer to the top and there is even talk of a College Football Playoff run. Having a Heisman candidate ready to partner up with a slew of explosive skill position threats will always fire up expectations.
But there are some major questions surrounding the 2015 Tigers. The answers to these questions will determine Clemson’s place in the chase for a Playoff spot.
Clemson’s Five Biggest Fall Camp Storylines
1. Deshaun Watson’s Health
All eyes will be on Watson’s knee as Clemson opens camp. The star sophomore partially tore his ACL in practice late in the year and had surgery in December to repair the problem. He missed both the Russell Athletic Bowl and spring practice. He also injured his hand in a game against Louisville and sprained his knee prior to the tear in a game against Georgia Tech. Making sure Watson is 100 percent is priority No. 1 for Clemson this fall.
2. The Offensive Line
Much of Watson’s well being falls on the shoulders of the guys blocking for him. There will be four new starters in 2015 and there is a very good chance that a true freshman will have blind side protection responsibility. Also, running back Wayne Gallman showed a lot of promise as a freshman, but he will need some help from the line to improve Clemson’s rushing attack (88th in nation in 2014) and red zone offense (No. 113).
3. Adjusting to New Offensive Coordinators
This actually has little to do with new co-coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott. Both have been at Clemson for several years and know the offense that head coach Dabo Swinney wants to run. It’s really about the coach that left, Chad Morris. The new SMU head coach developed a great system at Clemson and as good as the two new coordinators may be, neither is Morris’s equal. At least not yet.
4. Depth on the Defensive Line
Clemson lost six of its top eight defensive linemen, including star Vic Beasley. End Shaq Lawson and tackle D.J. Reader appear ready to raise their play to a level that Clemson needs. But behind them, questions persist. The Tigers need to put together a rotation along the line that allows everyone to remain fresh.
5. Playmakers at Linebacker
While defensive coordinator Brent Venables has some possible impact players on the line in Lawson and Reader, replacing linebackers Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward may be more daunting. The Tigers have some solid options like Ben Boulware and B.J. Goodson, but it will be difficult for them to match the production of the two departed stars.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.
The most-known member of the Crimson Tide, player or coach, is Nick Saban.
That doesn't mean everyone else should be overlooked. It just might take certain fans a while to recognize a lesser-known player. After seeing this video, you will be able to recognize O.J. Howard from now on. The Alabama tight end interviewed fans who had no clue who he was. One guy even said Howard could stand to put in a little more practice. This is awkward.
There's a huge hole to fill under center for the Ducks.
Former Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota was drafted by the Titans but that doesn't mean people in Eugene don't miss him. This young fan probably misses him the most. Vernon Adams has a lot of work to do to get on this kid's good side.
UPDATE: The world makes sense again.
Mariota saw the little guy's video and decided to make him a peace offering since it's obvious he won't be heading back to Oregon to play this season.
It's not easy getting college football coaches to honestly comment on another coach, player or team. Most coaches don't want to give opposing teams billboard material, which is why there is a lot of coach speak or overused cliches used during the year.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from coaching staffs and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
SEC Coaches Anonymously Scout Conference Foes
“Who’s going to be the quarterback will have a lot to say about how their season goes. Treon Harris was effective at times, but I’m not sure that’s the answer long term. The old staff thought Will Grier was their most talented guy, but we’ll see.”
“If you look at what Jim McElwain did at Colorado State, he zeroed in on one guy early and developed the heck out of him. I bet he’ll do the same thing at Florida. He’ll pick the guy who gives him the best chance to win down the road and ride him through the ups and downs. I just don’t know who that guy is.”
“Whether it was injuries or lack of depth, offensive line was a big issue the last two years. With a new system, how will it affect them? If the offensive linemen they recruited are as good as advertised, they’ll have a chance to be good down the road. It’s hard to win playing freshmen in this league.”
“Who are their playmakers? The Demarcus Robinson kid has a chance to be pretty special at wideout, but who else? There’s a reason they struggled to score points.”
“Will Muschamp recruited some talent there so they have players on defense, but they lost three guys up front. It’s not easy to replace a Dante Fowler.”
“I would think their back end should be as good as anyone.”
“Hargreaves may be the best corner in the country”
“Geoff Collins had the No. 1 red-zone defense in the country last year at Mississippi State and one of the better third-down defenses. He’ll bring a lot of energy.”
“The quarterback situation is a big unknown. Who’s the guy? How will they use him? Will he be a guy who has to make plays or a guy they ask to just not get them beat? I’m sure Brice Ramsey is the guy they’re counting on, but he hasn’t played a lot of meaningful snaps. Is there a Plan B if he can’t get the job done? I’m not sure.”
“I don’t understand why people there gave Mike Bobo a hard time. Look at the numbers. Offense wasn’t their problem.”
“Nick Chubb is phenomenal, and he’s a great young man, by the way. Brian Schottenheimer will come in and build it around him. I don’t expect they’ll change much philosophically.”
“I think Jeremy Pruitt does a great job with their defense. They were a little bit inconsistent, but they were significantly better than the year before. You could see his DNA starting to impact the way they played.”
“Lorenzo Carter has a big-time future. I thought he was a very impactful linebacker as a freshman, and I expect him to have a breakout year. He could be a difference-maker for their entire defense.”
“I was surprised Leonard Floyd came back. He should be an All-SEC guy without question.”
“They lost some solid linebackers, and they finally got Damian Swann to play to his potential at cornerback last year. That’s a lot of experience to lose at key positions, so how they replace them will go a long way in determining how dominant they are.”
“He’s (Stoops) done a really great job recruiting, but it’s still hard at Kentucky to get the same level of player they face week in and week out. I know this, though: He’ll get the most out of the defensive talent he has.”
“The schedule caught up to them last year, but from afar it seemed like they made strides turning the culture around up there. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get any easier in this conference; plus they have to play Louisville. In any other league, they would’ve been a bowl team, but with their schedule they needed to pull an upset or two.”
“It was tough to scheme for them because they change up what they do offensively week to week. They played at a real fast tempo. Neal Brown left (for Troy), so it’ll be interesting to see how they make the adjustment and how they deal with staff changes because they had pretty good continuity early on.”
“I really like Patrick Towles. He’s big and he’s more athletic than you think. He doesn’t get a lot of publicity because he’s at Kentucky, but I think he’s one of the better quarterbacks in the league.”
“They have some nice-looking skill guys and do a good job spreading the ball around, but you still have to get it done up front in this league to win big.”
“They’ve never been a team that’s going to wow you with who’s on their depth chart, but they play hard, they play sound, they don’t beat themselves and they just win. There’s something to be said for that.”
“You can say the East has been down, but you don’t think Georgia or Florida would’ve liked to go to Atlanta the last two years? Hell, South Carolina has only gotten there one time ever since they’ve been in the league. It’s pretty amazing what they’ve done there over the last decade.”
“Dave Steckel was the most underrated defensive coordinator in the league. Just look at the guys they’ve developed on the defensive line the last two years.”
“They may not be as good on the edge without Shane Ray, but from a scheme and preparation standpoint they shouldn’t miss a beat with Barry Odom. He was with Steck for a number of years. He knows the style Pinkel wants to play, and he proved himself as a coordinator at Memphis. He’s real good.”
“Maty Mauk is definitely not the most accurate passer in the league, but they know what he is, he knows what he is and he’s won games for them. That counts for a lot.”
“What people overlook is how talented they’ve been at receiver. When they had Dorial Green-Beckham, L’Damian Washington and Bud Sasser two years ago, they were as good as anybody. I’m not sure they’ve replaced those guys with the same level of talent. But they have a veteran at quarterback, and if he can play a little bit better, they can be a real threat.”
“I think what happened to them defensively last year was more of a fluke than a trend because they’ve been really good for four or five years before that. I expect them to bounce back and be much better.”
“They were definitely the biggest disappointment in the league, but they had some crazy losses. If they don’t blow big leads against Mizzou, Tennessee and Kentucky, it’s another 10-win season and they go to Atlanta. Shows you how fast things can change in this league.”
“Who’s going to replace Dylan Thompson? He was a tough customer. I really don’t know much about their young guys. This is really the first time in awhile they’ve gone into the fall without a pecking order at quarterback, but Coach Spurrier always does a good job with their offense and you’ve got to think he’ll figure it out.”
“Mike Davis didn’t have the year they expected, but he was a big part of their team. Who knows, they may be just as good running the ball. Brandon Wilds has had some big games for them.”
“They lost some guys, but they have playmakers at receiver. The variety of ways they use Pharoh Cooper will make them hard to gameplan for. They can line him up in the slot, out wide or under center and get first downs when they need to.”
“If they do have a quarterback, you have to like their chances in the East.”
“Even though Mike Bajakian left (for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) right when they were starting to figure things out offensively, I know they feel really good about Josh Dobbs and the direction they’re going to go. Stylistically, I think they’ll probably be a lot like Auburn with Nick Marshall, a guy who can put pressure on the defense with the way he runs it.”
“Their wide receivers are big-time. They can run and they’re long.”
“Jalen Hurd, that dude is going to be a stud. They have a ton of skill coming back.”
“My question is can they run the football well enough outside of the quarterback? They had to overhaul the offensive line last year and they need some more consistency there to take the next step.”
“A.J. Johnson was their best defensive player in my opinion. He was really good and I don’t know if they can replace everything he did.”
“Cam Sutton is an excellent cornerback. He finds ways to make plays on the ball.”
“They’ve upgraded their talent level overall, but I just don’t know if they have a bunch of difference-makers on defense.”
“The next couple years, I think if they can keep some guys healthy and win a close game or two it wouldn’t surprise me to see them at nine wins.”
“Defensively, they did some really nice things. They’re sound, they’re fundamental. It was a no-brainer for (Derek) Mason to take a more active role in the defense. It can be tough for a first-time head coach to get a feel for how much involved to be on one side of the ball, but if he thinks their defense will be better if he’s more hands-on, it’s the right move.”
“I know just from talking to people that they do feel like the intensity in spring ball was a lot higher than last year. They said it was a positive, noticeable change and I would expect them to be better.”
“It was a complete trainwreck offensively last year. They couldn’t settle on a quarterback, and I think moving them around so much hurt their whole team. It didn’t seem like they knew what they were offensively or what they wanted to be. Once they establish who their quarterback is going to be, they’ll get better in Year 2. But who is that guy? I have no idea.”
“I still don’t know if they have dynamic playmakers. The Webb kid played pretty well for them as a freshman, but that was about the only bright spot offensively.”
“I’m guessing they may struggle to score again, so they’ll need to be really good on defense.”
“It’s an NFL-style attack on both sides of the ball, and they have big people that understand the system and play really well together.”
“They do a lot of different things with motions and shifts, and they’re very sound fundamentally.”
“Their defensive front will be as good as it’s been the last five years. They’re two-deep — at least — at every position. They eat up a lot of space and don’t let you run the football. That’s what they’re built to do.”
“They don’t have a C.J. Mosley-type at linebacker, but Reuben Foster is unbelievably talented. That’s a good solid part of their defense.”
“Teams hurt them on the back end of their defense last year, but they have guys returning in the secondary who are great athletes. They should be better there. Teams picked on Tony Brown a little bit last year as a freshman, but he’s a really talented corner. I’d be shocked if he doesn’t take the next step.”
“The quarterback question is interesting. With (Jake) Coker, throwing the ball isn’t the issue. They tried like crazy to make him the guy last year, but (Blake) Sims just outplayed him. Does (Coker) have the moxie? That’s the intangible you need to go out and win games in this league.”
“Nobody in the league was real sad when T.J. Yeldon and Amari Cooper declared for the draft, but the way they’ve recruited you know they’ll have playmakers on the perimeter.”
Related: SEC Predictions for 2015
“The thing that comes to mind with them is just how big they are. They’re freaking huge, and they’re physical. Yeah, they do a lot of shifts and motions offensively, but the big thing is they’re going to establish the run game, pound you and try to wear you down.”
“The defense is sound. They play with great fundamentals, and they’re not going to beat themselves. They’re going to let the offense eat the clock up.”
“Robb Smith did as good a job as anybody in the country last year with that defense. His scheme is very sound, very solid and he doesn’t ask those guys to do too much, but he puts them in position to make plays. He’s really good scheming up his opponent and taking away what they do best. I was really impressed with the way he had those guys playing by the end of the year.”
“Losing the (Darius) Philon kid early will hurt them up front. He and (Trey) Flowers were two difference-makers.”
“Bijhon Jackson is their best inside guy, and Deatrich Wise is a really good long player at defensive end that can maybe be similar to what Flowers was for them.”
“I don’t think they have elite guys on the back end, but they don’t play a lot of man. They’re a zone team and his scheme allows those guys to play well with what they do.”
“Brooks Ellis is a solid player at linebacker. He made great strides last year from the year before. I think he’ll be very good.”
Related: SEC Breakout Players for 2015
“They’re really, really fast. They had a dynamic quarterback for what they did in Nick Marshall, but the times you saw Jeremy Johnson come in, he’s got legitimate arm talent. He’s proven in games what he can do.”
“Getting Duke Williams back for another year was huge for them. He is bigger than they list him. He’s a big, big man and he can run — great hands, great catch radius.”
“They lost Sammie Coates, but I don’t see a big drop-off at receiver. They have a bunch of guys who can make plays.”
“They’re surprisingly physical. The spread gets a misnomer that it’s not a physical attack, but their base play is power, and their second play is a buck sweep.”
“They weren’t as good at the H-back position without Jay Prosch, but the word is they have some physical young guys who can play that position so their running game may be better.”
“They’re younger in the backfield and don’t have the one big-name guy like Tre Mason or Cameron Artis-Payne, but they may be more talented overall.”
“On defense, a healthy Carl Lawson will be huge. He can impact the game in a big way. Auburn’s defensive line will be about as good as anybody in the league, but will there be the depth there they need?”
“Can they get consistent play on the back end? That’ll be the key. Jonathan Jones made a bunch of plays last year, and he’s pretty good.”
“(Johnathan) Ford is in position to have a monster year at safety. He’s about as fast as anyone in the SEC.”
Related: SEC Quarterback Rankings for 2015
“I’m mystified why they haven’t been good offensively. They have dynamic receivers. Their offensive line is big, and (Leonard) Fournette is phenomenal. They have talent on the perimeter. Really, they have everything they need. If they can get better quarterback play, they’ll be one of the better offenses in our league.”
“Brandon Harris is as gifted as any player as you can find throwing the football. Can he win the job or can they make him fit into their system? If it works itself out, he’s very talented. If he’s not the guy they’ll be very similar to last year, really conservative.”
“They’ll be great in the secondary. They always are. They have long athletes that can cover and run.”
“It’ll be interesting to see which direction they go schematically with Kevin Steele.”
“Kendell Beckwith has a chance to maybe be the best linebacker in our league. He’s big-time. He’s what you think of when you think of an LSU linebacker, and their other backers are good, too.”
“They struggled a bit at defensive tackle last year, and it may be a lot of the same, but Davon Godchaux is going to be great. He played a lot as a freshman and he’ll be a factor.”
“They don’t have the defensive ends they’ve had in the past. Maybe (Kevin) Steele will have a different scheme that allows the guys they do have to be what they need, but they don’t have those typical LSU guys you’re scared you can’t block.”
“Dak Prescott isn’t the most talented guy, but I just think he’s a winner. As long as he’s there, they can be really, really good.”
“There are some defensive question marks, but I think with the bulk of the offense coming back, they’ll be fine.”
“De’Runnya Wilson is one of the most underrated receivers in the league. He’s a little bit raw, but if he takes another step forward he’s going to be a big-time player.”
“Defensively, they lost a bunch up front. Chris Jones will still be a big factor, but they were six or seven deep on the defensive line last year. They would roll their second unit in and sometimes they were just as good as the first unit. I can’t see that happening again.”
“Losing Benardrick McKinney will hurt them at linebacker. He was a really good player. He was the key to the style of defense they played, and I’m not sure how they replace that.”
“I think Geoff Collins did a great job there, but Manny Diaz plays a different style completely. Geoff had more of a ‘bend, but don’t break’ type defense. You could get yards, but he didn’t give up many points. Manny’s style is really good at forcing turnovers. He’s probably a little more aggressive and creates a little more havoc.”
Related: SEC Quarterback Rankings for 2015
“They’re just as athletic as anybody in our league. They may have the most athletic front, and (Robert) Nkemdiche can really move for a big guy.”
“People don’t really talk enough about Isaac Gross. I thought he was the best nose tackle we played last year.”
“Their ends aren’t big guys, but they can really rush the passer.”
“Losing Senquez Golson hurts them at corner, but they’ll be solid on the back end. Trae Elston was their best safety the last two years. Cody Prewitt got all the accolades, but we thought Trae was the better player all along.”
“Dave Wommack is just so sound and his guys play hard.”
“If you don’t have a quarterback in our league you’re going to struggle. That’s a big question for them, but they’ll be talented at wideout again if (Laquon) Treadwell comes back healthy.”
“They’re different because they don’t really try to run the ball. They just run it because they have to, to keep you as honest as they can.”
“If the (Chad) Kelly kid can become a player they’ll have a chance to contend because their defense is going to be good enough. I just don’t know if their depth on the offensive line is that great.”
“Do they have a big-time SEC running back? If not, your quarterback better be special. As good as Bo Wallace was, everybody knew he’d beat himself a little bit, too.”
“Who knows if Kelly can produce, but they have talent.”
“You could see Kyle Allen progress as the season went on. I’m not sure why he didn’t start from Day 1. Everyone was talking about Kenny Hill after that first game, but Allen was the more talented player all along. It was only a matter of time before they made the switch.”
“I really like how they used Speedy Noil. He’s a dynamic guy you can move around, do different things with. I’d try to get him as many touches as possible and I’m sure that’s what they’re planning to do, but with smaller guys like that you have to be careful not to wear them down.”
“They’ll be better on defense with John Chavis, no question. You know what you’re going to get with him. He’s been so good for so long. He’s just going to do what he does.”
“Schematically, what you’ve seen from LSU the last decade is what you’re going to start seeing from A&M.”
“They probably have the most talented defensive player in our league in Myles Garrett. He’s the one guy for sure that you know you’re going to have to give your tackles help with. He’s phenomenal. He was hard to block as a freshman, so what he’s going to be in Year 2 is pretty scary. He’s not real physical against the run but as a pass rusher he’s the best in our league — and it’s not even close. He can really change a game by being that kind of player alone.”
“They lost a lot in the secondary and have some guys back in the middle, but I’m not sure how elite they really are.”
Hi Deangleo. Welcome to Pittsburgh. It's good to have you here.
See, I like the fact the Steelers have added you, the greatest running back in the history of the Carolina Panthers, to the roster. Le'Veon Bell won't be around for the first two games and in the season opener against New England you'll provide better name recognition for the Steelers at running back than Jimmy Garoppolo will for the Patriots at quarterback.
After those first two games, when Bell comes back from his suspension, I have the confidence you'll provide all the things a veteran backup will provide. You'll be fundamentally sound. You'll instill confidence when you enter a game. You'll exude professionalism.
Hold that thought.
That exuding professionalism part. Might need to work on it.
It’s just the first day of training camp and you're asking why Mike Tomlin isn't helping you with your bags. This is after the confrontational rant you made in minicamp about, well, we're not sure. Something about being able to become more of a pass catcher in the Pittsburgh offense and adjusting to a new role. All I know is you said it in a patronizing manner.
Already in Latrobe you've dragged Bell away from reporters and criticized a line of questioning from another reporter, dismissing him as "local."
Scott Brown, John Clayton, Len Pasquarelli, Vito Stellino and Norm Vargo were all once Pittsburgh-based reporters who covered the Steelers. Did they only have credibility and skill once they wrote for national publications?
What about broadcasters like Dick Stockton, Sam Nover or even Mark Malone; all of whom covered the Steelers on a local level before going national?
You've been in the league for a while. Surely you know it does an athlete no favors to pick fights with the press.
True, a player can overcome poor media skills if he plays well. Ben Roethlisberger was notoriously arrogant early in his career.
Still, this arrogance, coupled with some well-publicized off-field issues with women, have doomed him forever from the endorsements and national recognition enjoyed by the likes of Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers.
So yes, DeAngelo, if you lead the NFL in rushing this season fans at Heinz Field will be wearing No. 34 jerseys. Just not as many as you could have if you continue the path you're taking when you open your mouth.
And you're not going to lead the NFL in rushing this season.
Perhaps no other city in America will turn on a sports figure for bad media relations than Pittsburgh. Boston doesn't hate Ted Williams, Philadelphia doesn't hate Steve Carlton, Indianapolis doesn't hate Bobby Knight, and so on.
Yet even Bill Cowher was often a polarizing figure during the second half of his coaching tenure in Pittsburgh due to his bullying of reporters that often made him seem defensive and derisive in press conferences.
Outside of football, Pittsburgh even said "good riddance" to Barry Bonds after two MVP awards when he departed via free agency for San Francisco. This sent the Pirates spiraling towards a 20-year era of futility, yet you'll be hard pressed to find a Pirates fan who will say "it all started when Bonds left."
DeAngelo, it doesn't have to be this way. That pink nail polish on your toes and the career you've had make you a most interesting character the press would love to engage.
But you can't belittle the press. You can't win, and it doesn't bode well for team chemistry. Stop it.
Besides, if also lends itself to clichés. And the last thing anyone wants is to hear or read "the media is the line of communication to the fans. When an athlete refuses to speak or belittles the media, he is belittling the fan base."
A line which, in your defense, usually does come from media that has belittled said fan base at some point as well.
(Photos courtesy of www.steelers.com)
— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson has been a contributor to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 15 years. He has covered the Steelers, Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.
The Penn State Nittany Lions are still rebuilding depth across the board, which means James Franklin’s squad is not quite ready to go head-to-head with the top of the Big Ten just yet. But they are getting there. In 2014 there were some bumps in the road in Franklin’s first season in Happy Valley, along with some head-scratching moments, but Year 2 of the Franklin era in State College has some good promise.
We have come to expect Penn State’s defense to be a steady force to reckon with, and that should once again be the case under defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who chose to stay at Penn State instead of accept a rumored job offer from LSU. While Shoop does his thing to ensure Penn State’s defense is up to the task of locking down opponents, the offense looks to gain some momentum early on and prove just how much damage it is capable of doing. That work begins now, in fall camp.
Penn State’s Five Biggest Fall Camp Storylines
1. How Soon Can the Offensive Line Get in Sync?
The biggest weak spot for Penn State in 2014 was without question the performance of the offensive line. No other position was hit as hard from recent NCAA recruiting sanctions as the offensive line, but the depth issues are starting to be plugged through recruiting. Penn State had just one returning starter last season but returns four this season, while adding graduate transfer Kevin Reihner from Stanford and JUCO tackle Paris Palmer to beef things up a bit. Offensive line coach Herb Hand will be tasked with getting this line ready to show some strides in the fall, and that should pay dividends for the entire offensive production.
2. How Much Will Christian Hackenberg Rebound?
And who else would benefit more from improved offensive line play than the quarterback? Nobody. Hackenberg enters his junior season with plenty of starting experience behind him already. Hackenberg has started all 25 games since he arrived, and now he goes into a season with some coaching consistency and stability. At times it looked as though Hackenberg had regressed, but much of the concerns could be put on the offensive line, which may have led Hackenberg to try and force plays that had little chance of succeeding under duress. Look for a calmer and more mature Hackenberg to thrive in what could be looked upon as a rebound season.
3. Who’s Next at Linebacker U?
Much like the offensive line, linebackers seemed to be the defensive position hit hardest by NCAA sanctions recruiting-wise. For a school touted as Linebacker U, this was a bit of an oddity, but things should improve this season. Gone is leader Michael Hull, but an experienced Nyeem Wartman should prove worthy of filling the middle of the defense. With Brandon Bell to one side and either Ben Kline or Jason Cabinda to the other, Penn State’s first-team linebackers should be a legitimate unit. The depth also is padded as well as any position on the roster, with some young blood entering the mix, like Troy Reeder and Koa Farmer (both redshirted in 2014).
4. How Good is the Secondary?
Penn State’s secondary returns three starters between defensive back Trevor Williams and safeties Marcus Allen and Jordan Lucas. The secondary could be one of the best in the Big Ten outside of Columbus, and it may be tested at times. This unit should be difficult to find many openings against, and could be even better if the front seven on Penn State’s defense can apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
5. How Often Will Akeel Lynch Have Room to Run?
The Penn State offensive line should show improvement, and that should allow for the running game to finally get back on track. Lynch came on strong last season and showed what he can do. He ended his sophomore season leading the Nittany Lions with 678 yards rushing and was second on the team with four rushing touchdowns. He went over 130 yards in back-to-back games towards the end of the regular season and capped things off with 75 yards in a Pinstripe Bowl win over Boston College. Look for Lynch to lead the ground game from Week 1 and provide some opportunities to take the pressure off of Hackenberg behind an improved offensive line. He may not be Ezekiel Elliott, but Lynch should play a big part in Penn State’s offense this fall.
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also writes for CollegeFootballTalk.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.
The calendar has flipped to August, and the college football season is creeping closer and closer.
We’re marking these final days before the 2015 season with podcast covering every major conference. Today, we take an extended look at every team in the ACC, plus Notre Dame.
Florida State is our unanimous pick to win the league, but the Seminoles — without Jameis Winston — are facing challenges in their own division from Clemson and perhaps from teams in the crowded Coastal.
On this edition of the Athlon Sports Cover 2 College Football Podcast:
• We try to pick a winner in the crowded as usual Coastal Division. Georgia Tech has the personnel to win the division again, but Virginia Tech is hoping for a rebound season behind an elite defense and a more experienced Michael Brewer. The Tech schools are the top two, but Miami, Pittsburgh and North Carolina aren’t far behind.
• We ask if the Coastal could have as many as four new coaches in 2016.
• Louisville and NC State are getting better, but we ask if they have the horses to challenge Florida State and Clemson in the Atlantic division.
• While the national media is picking Clemson, we’re taking Florida State. One of our hosts asks if Clemson has a better chance to finish third in this division than it does to win the ACC.
• Florida State has lost one game in two seasons and has won three consecutive ACC titles, yet the Seminoles are looking more vulnerable than they have in years. We take stock of where Florida State is in the national title race.
• And finally, since Notre Dame will play six ACC teams this season, we ask where the Irish fit in this league and how they might crash the Playoff party.
It's that the time in The Swamp again.
The Gators are anxious to get the season started and have released an awesome video to commemorate the moment. Famous Gator alums from Tim Tebow to Joe Haden all make appearances in what's probably one of the best videos you'll see.
San Diego State is expected to be one of the top teams in the Mountain West this season, and the Aztecs will be pushing for a conference championship in style.
On Tuesday, the program unveiled new football uniforms and helmets for the upcoming year. And these uniforms and helmets have to be among the best of the offseason, as San Diego State incorporated the Aztec Calendar into the helmets and uniforms.
Read the full release from the school on the new uniforms. And here's a link to the full gallery from San Diego State.
Here’s a look at the new helmets and uniforms for 2015:
Norm Chow knew recruiting quarterback Max Wittek to Hawaii was a long shot.
“The Mountain West could not get a guy like that out of high school,” the Rainbow Warriors head coach Chow said at Mountain West media days in Las Vegas. “He’s a Power Five guy, Pac-12 guy.”
And indeed, Wittek went from a prep powerhouse in Southern California, Mater Dei, to a college powerhouse, USC. The highly touted prospect becoming a Trojan was just natural. He followed the same path as USC greats Matt Leinart and Matt Barkley, the latter of whom Wittek was once the heir apparent.
The natural fit, however, wasn’t to be. Wittek lost a drawn-out quarterback competition to Cody Kessler, the Trojans’ returning starter and Heisman Trophy contender.
With one season of eligibility remaining, Wittek has only the 2015 season to make his mark at the college level and prove himself as an NFL prospect.
“This is it,” Wittek said frankly.
Seeing the opportunity ahead of him, Chow said, motivates Wittek to have a big campaign for the Rainbow Warriors.
“He’s anxious to go,” Chow said. “This is kind of the second chance.”
Wittek’s motivation already manifested in what Chow described as a “leaner” physique than in the quarterback’s USC days. Wittek still goes about 240 pounds at around 6-foot-3, but his work in the weight room cultivated a cut frame that almost makes him look like a linebacker.
Wittek’s decision to transfer after the 2013 season narrowed the odds on Chow’s long shot considerably. After rumored flirtations with Florida and Texas, Wittek landed at Hawaii and has discovered a new natural fit.
“It was coach Chow that did for me,” Wittek explained. “Everything that he brings to the table, from the mentor standpoint and just his pedigree… If he tells a scout you’re the real deal, that means something.
“And just the history of [Hawaii] airing it out,” he added. “That didn’t hurt.”
Chow boasts a rich background working with quarterbacks, including Wittek’s fellow Mater Dei alum and 2004 Heisman winner Leinart.
Meanwhile, Hawaii’s track record of prolific passers includes one-time NCAA passing yardage leader Timmy Chang, and a fellow Mater Dei alum who made good on his own second chance as a Rainbow Warrior: Colt Brennan.
Brennan landed at Hawaii after his dismissal from Colorado in the mid-2000s, and developed into a Heisman finalist in the Rainbow Warriors’ historic 2007 season.
Setting the bar at an invitation to New York City and a spot in the Sugar Bowl may be asking a little much of Wittek. Most in and around the Hawaii program would probably settle for the program’s first bowl appearance since 2010.
But the quarterback’s new teammates offered him a tremendous vote of confidence.
“The guys voted him the [team] captain without any hesitation,” Chow said.
Earning a captainship without ever taking a snap is impressive, but Wittek didn’t receive it before making himself a part of the Hawaii locker room.
“It happened pretty naturally,” he said of his nomination as captain. “Last season, I went to all the games because I just wanted the team to know I cared.”
Showing care is one thing; preaching to Hawaii as it endured a tough 4-9 season, which included five one-possession defeats.
“Who wants to listen to the guy who can’t even play?” Wittek asked rhetorically. “So I just sat back and built relationships…then just kind of stepped into that role [as captain] and it worked pretty nicely.”
Wittek’s presence through a season full of heartache was obviously not lost on his new teammates. Offensive lineman Ben Clarke said the combination of Wittek’s respect within the locker room and impressive play once he became eligible for practices made the decision to name him captain easy.
“It was important to see him there at every game,” Clarke said. “Then going into spring ball, getting to play with him, everybody could see what he could do, but he already knew everyone.”
One of the Rainbow Warriors with whom Wittek’s become acquainted is wide receiver Marcus Kemp, a 6-foot-5 standout capable of pushing Colorado State All-American Rashard Higgins as the Mountain West’s most productive pass-catcher.
Kemp will be one of Wittek’s favorite targets come fall, the quarterback said, and the duo will get ample opportunity to connect with Hawaii employing a revised offensive outlook under coordinator Don Bailey.
Bailey brings an up-tempo style Wittek calls “controlled speed,” which last season produced the Football Championship Subdivision’s leading passer in Idaho State quarterback Justin Arias.
Hawaii’s new offensive dynamics make for a natural fit with Wittek. The stage is set for the quarterback to flourish as his lofty high school credentials suggested he would.
With an impressive enough season, Wittek could reunite with Kessler during the NFL Draft next spring — something his former Trojan teammate is rooting for.
“Obviously we were competing for the same spot. We weren’t dumb; we knew going back and forth one of us was going to get [the starting USC job] and one of us was going to leave,” Kessler said. “I just talked to him last week… he’s doing a really good job. I told him I wish him nothing but the best.
“We’re still good friends to this day. It was business,” Kessler added.
Wittek's ability to build relationships is indeed the cornerstone of his second-chance season. His destiny may not have been USC and the Pac-12, but his relationship with Chow and the Hawaii roster could see Wittek finally shine in the Mountain West.
Detroit was one of the final teams to commence training camp, as veterans reported on Sunday. The Lions are looking to improve upon an 11-5 season that ended in despair following a crushing 24-20 loss to the Cowboys in the Wild Card round.
Optimism is brimming in Allen Park following the team’s first trip to the playoffs since 2011, but there are plenty of detractors outside the organization that wonder if the success is sustainable with some key personal losses on defense.
Let’s take a look at five key questions surrounding the Detroit Lions as they enter the 2015 season:
How Do You Replace Ndamukong Suh?
The front office acted quickly once word came out that Suh would be signing with Miami by securing a trade for five-time Pro Bowler Haloti Ngata minutes after the free agency period opened. Ngata will not provide the pass-rushing presence Suh brought to the line, but will more than hold his own in stopping the run — the No. 1 point of emphasis in defensive coordinator Teryl Austin’s defense.
Alongside Ngata will either be second-year man Caraun Reid, who spent the offseason training with Suh in Florida, or free-agent signee Tyrunn Walker, who was heavily sought after by other teams. Fourth-round draft pick Gabe Wright also will factor into the rotation, and starting defensive end Jason Jones will kick inside on passing downs.
Matching last season’s 42 sacks will be difficult without Suh attracting double teams on a consistent basis, but the Lions should still remain among the league’s best at stopping the run with the addition of Ngata to the group.
Will Matthew Stafford Take the Next Step?
Seems like we have been wondering this very thing the past few seasons now with Stafford, but here we are again in 2015 with the same questions lingering around the Lions’ franchise quarterback. In his first season under the direction of new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, Stafford made necessary strides by improving his completion percentage while also lowering his interception totals. With that, though, came a peeled-back offense that did not take enough shots down the field — leading to a 22nd ranking in scoring.
With a restocked offensive line, two Pro Bowl targets on the outside and a full season under his belt in the Lombardi offense, excuses should be out the window at this point. If Detroit wants to reach its immediate goal of a division title, Stafford has to be better in all facets of the position.
Does Eric Ebron Live Up to His Draft Status in 2015?
To put it bluntly, the Ebron selection was not a popular choice in Detroit. The Lions had already re-signed starting tight end Brandon Pettigrew to a new four-year deal. Undrafted free agent Joseph Fauria just caught seven touchdown passes the year prior. Three of the team’s key defensive tackles were all impending free agents with soon-to-be Defensive Rookie of the Year Aaron Donald still sitting on the board. And to make matters worse, Odell Beckham Jr. and Zack Martin were chosen within the next six picks following the Ebron selection — both of which have the look of potential superstars after just one season.
Despite the trepidations amongst the fan base that Ebron can live up to his draft status, confidence within the team has not wavered. Wide receiver Golden Tate has expressed on multiple occasions this offseason they expect the young tight end to thrive in his second year as he gains a better understanding of the offense.
While these types of fluff quotes are a standard during the offseason, it is evident that Ebron will be given every opportunity to become that third target the team needs behind Tate and Calvin Johnson .
Has the Offensive Line Improved?
General manager Martin Mayhew certainly did his part in attempting to improve an offensive front that gave up 45 sacks a season ago, using the draft to not only select guard Laken Tomlinson with the team’s first-round pick, but also landing the versatile Manny Ramirez in a trade with the Broncos. Tomlinson, an All-ACC selection out of Duke, did not allow a single sack last season with the Blue Devils, and should immediately step in at left guard to fortify that side of the line along with Riley Reiff.
Ramirez was brought over from Denver as insurance in case Tomlinson or second-year center Travis Swanson are not ready for starting duties right out of the gate. The eight-year veteran has the ability to play both center and guard, but the hope is that the younger options are prepared to play immediately.
The remaining concern on the line is at right tackle where LaAdrian Waddle is still on the mend from a torn ACL suffered last season and will start training camp on the PUP list. Second-year undrafted free agent Cornelius Lucas filled in well in Waddle’s place, including a start in the playoffs against the Cowboys, but the expectation is for Waddle to regain his starting spot when he is back to full strength.
Can the Lions Win a Division Title in 2015?
Possible, yes. If that is to happen, a few things need to occur.
Navigating through the early portion of the schedule is job No. 1. The Lions are on the road in three of their first four games, including matchups against the Broncos and a Monday night tilt with Seattle. Step two is trying to find a way to win at Lambeau — a feat that has not taken place in 24 long, painful years.
Even with the loss of Suh, the Lions are not devoid of talent. Emerging stars like Ziggy Ansah, Darius Slay and DeAndre Levy will help keep the defense ranked near the top of the league, while the offense will undoubtedly improve in the second year of Joe Lombardi’s system.
A return to the playoffs is not the only objective for this team any more. If Detroit is to reach its ultimate goals, overcoming the Packers will largely determine if the Lions can become kings of the North and achieve a home playoff game for the first time since 1993.
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois and also currently writes for CollegeFootballGeek.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBainbridge2.
There will be plenty of new faces and looks in Madison this season, as the Badgers are going through their third coaching change since the end of the 2012 season. Thankfully for Wisconsin, the new coach is a former Badger quarterback and offensive coordinator who knows the program, the people and the expectations.
Speaking of expectations, Wisconsin has played in the Big Ten Championship Game in three of the last four years. The bar is set — and in the minds of the Badger faithful — there is no excuse not to reach it again. Can Paul Chryst rally this talented-yet-inexperienced bunch and lead them to another division title? That's the big question in Madison.
Wisconsin's Five Biggest Fall Camp Storylines
1. Dealing With Another Coaching Change
This is the third coach the Wisconsin senior class will have played for. Can the Badgers remain resilient in the face of constant change from year to year? Chryst's coaching style in terms of X's and O's probably won't change much from what Wisconsin ran under Gary Andersen. All-Big Ten-caliber talent at various spots on the defense and upperclassmen at key positions on offense should help with whatever transition there will be.
2. Can the Offensive Line Gel Early?
We know Wisconsin has recruited some talented linemen as of late. Only two starters return from a season ago, and some of those young recruits are going to be starting as underclassmen. There is little time for growing pains, as the first test of the season comes right out of the gates in the form of the Alabama Crimson Tide.
3. Can Corey Clement Carry the Load?
We know Clement is talented, as he nearly reached 1,000 yards on the ground while playing second fiddle to Melvin Gordon in 2014. The fact is, he's a different kind of back in terms of his physical build and his running style than both Gordon and James Conner — Chryst's elite back at Pitt. If Clement is unable to withstand the number of carries expected from a feature back at Wisconsin, we may see much more of the big, physical freshman Taiwon Deal in the Badger backfield.
4. Joel Stave Needs to be a Factor Under Center
Stave has struggled with consistency throughout his career. He'll have a dependable go-to receiver in Alex Erickson — the senior who caught 55 passes in 2014. After that, there isn't a whole lot of experience in the receiving corps. The good thing about the Chryst/Joe Rudolph offense is that it does feature a heavy dose of tight ends in the passing game. This should take some of the pressure off Stave and reduce his tendency to try and force something downfield that isn't there. If the passing game doesn't develop, the Badgers may not be talented enough in the run-game to overcome their predictability.
5. Can the Defense Make Plays?
Being stingy alone may not be enough to win the Big Ten West — Wisconsin's defensive unit will need to do more to maximize offensive possessions. The Badgers must establish a consistent pass rush up front, while increasing the number of takeaways from the secondary (only 6 INTs in 2014). There are some stars roaming around on defense, but they'll need to set the tone for an otherwise young and inexperienced group.
Rob Gronkowski singing a country song about iced coffee was not on my bucket list.
The good folks at Dunkin' Donuts thought it would be a good idea for Gronk, with fellow musician David Ortiz, to make a song about the wonders of iced coffee. Country may not be for everyone but unless you want to get Gronk-spiked, you'll watch it and like it.
Gronk recently gave everyone a sneak preview of the newest song by the duo set to release in Summer 2016.
Larry Fedora came to North Carolina in December 2011 with a great offensive reputation based on his success as a coordinator at Oklahoma State and as the head coach at Southern Mississippi. In no time, the Tar Heels offense improved, averaging 13 more points per game in 2012 than they did in ‘11.
Now Fedora must fix the other side of the ball and he has brought in a well-known defensive mind to get things going in the right direction. Former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik will have his work cut out for him as he takes over a unit that ranked among the worst in the country in all four major defensive categories.
North Carolina’s Five Biggest Fall Camp Storylines
1. Adapting to Chizik’s Scheme
One thing is obvious: last year’s plan set forth by defensive coordinator Vic Koenning didn’t work. The Tar Heels defense was most effective against the pass… and this unit still finished No. 101 in the country in that department. Chizik, who was an outstanding defensive coordinator at Auburn and Texas before becoming a head coach, will switch to a 4-3 from the previous 4-2-5.
2. Getting Stouter Up Front on Defense
North Carolina really struggled stopping the run last season, ranking 117th by coughing up 240.5 rushing yards per game. The defensive linemen have pretty good size and have some talent; it’s all about learning their assignments this August. The Heels only had 22 sacks last year, but ends Jessie Rogers and Dajuan Drennon should improve that number this season. So in both defending the run and pressuring the quarterback, the defensive line must make some progress.
3. The Development of the Offensive Line
Four of five starters are back and new left tackle Brantley Spain has a ton of potential. That’s the good news. However, despite the strong showing of the offense in 2014, the line struggled at times. A lot will be learned in camp as the hopefully improving offensive line battles the hopefully improving defensive front on a daily basis.
4. The Running Game
UNC was not a great rushing team last year and a lot of that is on the offensive line. But Fedora would like to establish some type of rotation with the running backs. T.J. Logan will be the starter and he is a solid all-purpose back. What the Heels really need is for 220-pound Elijah Hood to stay healthy and become a between the tackles punisher to complement Logan. Quarterback Marquise Williams led the Heels in rushing last year and with the star quarterback recovering from hip surgery, North Carolina needs more out of a conventional running attack this season.
5. The Kicking Game
Two kickers combined to go 6-of-13 on field goals last year with a long of 30 yards. Yuck. Nick Weiler was one of those two kickers and he is the odds-on favorite to win the job going into camp. But freshman Freeman Jones will have a chance to claim the spot. Another freshman, Corbin Daly, is the leading candidate to replace punter Tommy Hibbard.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.
Athlon Sports is going division by division, asking and (trying to) answering the biggest question for every team in the league entering the 2015 season.
Denver: How do Gary Kubiak and Peyton Manning mesh?
The former Houston Texans head coach brings a run-first offense to Denver after John Elway fired John Fox and many wonder how his system meshes with the 39-year-old future Hall of Famer. Two things that will help, Manning will be significantly healthier than last year and the offensive line should be better than it finished. Manning will be much stronger, more durable and ready for one last run. Losing Ryan Clady in the summer hurts the O-line but this team addressed the issues by using two of their first four picks in the draft and signing two interior blockers in free agency. If the line is better and Manning is healthy, he will work just fine in the system and Denver should be celebrating its fifth straight AFC West title.
Kansas City: How healthy is the star power on defense?
Alex Smith and the passing game needs to improve but Jeremy Maclin and an improved O-line figure to help that. Justin Houston posted the quietest 22-sack season in history but there remain question marks on what could be a good defensive unit. Up-the-middle stalwart Dontari Poe recently had back surgery, Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Johnson and steady defensive end Mike DeVito both suffered torn Achilles last year in Week 1, superstar safety Eric Berry is battling back from lymphoma and rising corner Sean Smith will miss three games with a DUI-related suspension. Even first-round pick Marcus Peters was kicked off his team during his final season at Washington. Should all these pieces return to full health and stay focused; the defense could be one of the NFL’s best.
Oakland: How fast can this young team grow up?
Last year, the Raiders lacked any running game and were very old on defense. But in just two quick years, this team has added a lot of intriguing young talent. Derek Carr, Khalil Mack and Gabe Jackson were all rookie standouts last year so general manager Reggie McKenzie and new head coach Jack Del Rio are hoping that trend continues with more rookies — Amari Cooper, Mario Edwards, Clive Walford — and some young free agents. This team appears to be at least a year away from competing in the AFC West but the front office has done a remarkable job stockpiling quality young players. How quickly they grow up will be key for the Bay Area in 2015.
San Diego: Where is Philip Rivers head?
The fiery and emotional San Diego quarterback is entering the final year of his contract and was at the center of two major offseason stories for the Chargers — a potential trade for Marcus Mariota and his desire NOT to play in Los Angeles. The 10-year vet is coming off two big seasons under coach Mike McCoy and both the O-line and running game have been upgraded. How balky is Rivers' back? Do the relocation rumors hurt the Bolts' contract negotiations? Does the longtime franchise quarterback want a change? This team has been on the verge for years, winning either eight or nine games in four of the last five years, so one has to wonder if this is the Chargers' last shot with their star quarterback.
Earlier in the summer, Urban Meyer got revenge on a player who parked in his spot. Now the tables have turned.
It seems the Buckeyes coached parked in Jacoby Boren's preferred spot and the offensive lineman wasn't having it. Taylor Decker sent a tweet that will undoubtedly have them running suicides until they drop.
Ohio State is having way too much fun this offseason.
After losing four cornerbacks this offseason, as well as their top two running backs, there was no question the New England Patriots would feature a number of new faces in significant roles in 2015. While high-round draft picks and high-profile external free agents often get most of the attention, mid-round rookies and low-priced veterans are often the Pats' players of choice.
With a handful of training camp practices under their belt, these new faces could make big impacts this season.
We begin with the two headline external free agent signings — defensive end Jabaal Sheard and tight end Scott Chandler — both of whom have been thrown right into the fire. Chandler will combine with Rob Gronkowski to form twin towers of power in the red zone especially, while Sheard has been seen lining up in three-defensive end packages along with Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones.
Sheard and Chandler were handpicked for their perfect fit into the defense and offense, respectively, in New England, and both appear to be fitting right in.
The Patriots signed multiple free agent cornerbacks this offseason, and early on it is former Oakland Raider Tarrell Brown who is standing out, making multiple pass breakups in Sunday's practice. Slot corner Robert McClain also has drawn some praise from Belichick, while Bradley Fletcher has remained under the radar so far, but is sure to get plenty of reps in the preseason.
Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler appears to be the Patriots' best cornerback, while Logan Ryan remains in the mix with his smarts and versatility. It's still early but the Pats' secondary hasn't been the disaster many thought it might be, at least in practice. We'll see how they do against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers next week, a challenge for even the best secondaries out there.
With at least two running back roles available, the competition will be fierce. LeGarrette Blount looked unstoppable in his first practice after spending a couple extra days on the PUP list until he passed his conditioning test. Tyler Gaffney took a vicious hit in Saturday's first padded practice and hasn't been seen since while Jonas Gray hasn't garnered much early attention.
The passing down role is more wide open, with James White and Travaris Cadet both getting reps with the top offense and both making some notable plays. Proficiency in pass protection could be the difference in this battle, but both could find themselves on the roster.
Finally we end at the guard spot where Dan Connolly's retirement and Ryan Wendell's recovery have left the Pats with holes at both starting guard spots. The Pats have inserted rookies Tre Jackson and Shaq Mason right out of the gate, with both showing flashes. Mason, whose size (6-1) could be a concern, made a notable hit on monstrous defender Zach Moore, demonstrating Mason knows how to utilize his leverage.
It would be quite a feat to start the season with two rookie guards, but with Wendell's eventual return we should get more clarity on how a realistic competition will play out. At this point Jackson seems a lock to step right into the fire.
There's a still a long way to go and possible injuries to overcome, but the position battles are off to a strong start with a number of new faces playing prominent roles.
(Photos by David Silverman, courtesy of www.patriots.com)
West Virginia enters the 2015 season with its deepest roster since joining the Big 12. More than 50 players have Big 12 experience and head coach Dana Holgorsen has not hidden his excitement about the upcoming season.
However, with fall camp set to begin, there remain multiple questions on both sides of the ball that will have a large impact on the Mountaineers’ success this season.
West Virginia’s Five Biggest Fall Camp Storylines
1. Can the Mountaineers Survive October?
WVU has possibly the most difficult October of any school in the country. The Mountaineers travel to Oklahoma on Oct. 3 followed by a home game against Oklahoma State. Then the Mountaineers travel to Baylor on Oct. 17 and, folllwing a bye, finishes off the month at TCU on the 29th. While WVU will most likely be favored against Oklahoma State at home the other three road games are challenging. Getting through October at 2-2 would be a feat, 3-1 would be impressive, and 4-0 would be a legendary month for Holgorsen’s team.
2. Who Replaces Kevin White and Mario Alford?
While WVU has a history of producing NFL-caliber wide receivers, replacing both White and Alford will be a tall task. Holgorsen has praised redshirt sophomore Shelton Gibson as being one of the fastest wide receivers he has ever coached. Unfortunately Gibson is unproven on offense, as he was used primarily on special teams last season. Junior Daikiel Shorts is just slightly more experienced than Gibson. Incoming freshmen Jovon Durante and Gary Jennings may see significant playing time in their first seasons. Jordan Thompson is the most experienced wide receiver on the roster but he will work primarily out of the slot. Moral of the story, no matter who starts on the outside receiver position he will be inexperienced.
3. Will the Secondary be the Heart and Soul of the Defense?
Karl Joesph, KJ Dillon, Dravon Askew-Henry and Daryl Worley all return, but who plays opposite of Worley? Smart money is on Terrell Chestnut, who was named to the Wuerffel Award watch list, but can he stay injury free? If Chestnut is the man, offenses will likely attack him early and often as Worley is considered by many to be a shutdown corner.
Sophomore Dravon Askew-Henry emerged as a potential shutdown corner last season as a true freshman and there are incoming players who have the ability to contribute there as well. The secondary, which is arguably the best in the Big 12, will have plenty of experience and talent, both of which is needed in a conference like that likes to go to the air early and often.
4. Will the Defensive Front be Able to Compete Against Larger Offensive Lines?
WVU returns the same defensive line that had issues against larger offensive lines and had difficulty at times stopping the run last season. Can the Mountaineers’ front measure up against larger offensive lines such as Oklahoma’s?
During the spring senior linebacker Nick Kwiatkowski was moved to the outside in favor of senior Jared Barber, who is returning to the middle following ACL surgery. Will the changes in the middle hurt the defense’s chemistry and overall speed? Will they miss Kwiatkowski in a spot where he has previously thrived?
5. Will Skyler Howard be the Answer at Quarterback?
Holgorsen has a history of developing quarterbacks dating back to his tenure at the Houston. However, the most successful quarterbacks under Holgorsen have been primarily pocket passers. Howard does not exactly fit that mold. Howard became the Mountaineers’ starter late last season, replacing Clint Trickett against Kansas State. Howard stayed top the depth chart due to what turned out to be a career-ending concussion suffered by Trickett, and finished the season 1-1 as the starter.
While Howard is comfortable outside the pocket, Holgorsen’s offense doesn’t exactly conform to that type of improvisation. Howard brings options to the WVU offense that have not been available in recent seasons, but his accuracy needs to improve. Will Holgorsen change his offensive scheme to accommodate Howard’s strengths or will the quarterback have to conform to Holgorsen’s style?
— 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.