The ACC's nice guys

July, 11, 2014
Jul 11
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College football fans sure find easy targets to wear the black hat. Whether it's a coach bouncing from school to school, a recruit flipping to a rival or someone who just can't avoid making headlines, there remains no shortage of villains in this sport.

That doesn't mean it's without guys worth rooting for, though. Here, we give you five ACC guys whom even rival fans have to appreciate for what they do on Saturdays and beyond.

[+] EnlargeDaniel Rodriguez
AP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtWR Daniel Rodriguez walked on at Clemson after serving tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Daniel Rodriguez, Clemson. The Tigers receiver served roughly 18 months in Iraq and one year in Afghanistan. He served in the Army from 2006-10. He earned a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star Medal With Valor Device. Just watch this "College GameDay" feature on him. One of the better moments all of last season was Rodriguez scoring a 2-yard touchdown against The Citadel on Military Appreciation Day. He enters his senior year with 10 career catches for 30 yards and five punt returns for 31 yards. You don't see stories like Rodriguez's every day, and he certainly helps put the term "hero" in perspective.

Laken Tomlinson, Duke. Tomlinson arrived in Chicago from Jamaica at the age of 10, with little knowledge of the game of football. His recruitment and background is very similar to that of "The Blind Side," with Tomlinson ultimately committing to David Cutcliffe and a then-rebuilding Blue Devils program. He took part in a service trip two years ago in Ethiopia to help construct freshwater wells for local communities. He's blossomed into a pretty good offensive guard, too, earning All-ACC honors during Duke's run to the Coastal Division crown last season.

Kevin Haplea, Florida State. You're out for the season with a torn ACL. So what do you do? If you're Haplea, you help start a charity chapter at your new school. The Penn State transfer founded the Seminoles' chapter of Uplifting Athletes, which, coincidentally, holds its first event, "Lift for Life," today. The fundraising effort raises awareness and research money for rare diseases, with FSU's chapter championing Fanconi anemia, which is the disease that coach Jimbo Fisher's son, Ethan, was diagnosed with. A redshirt senior, Haplea could see his role expand this year, complementing Nick O'Leary in FSU's two-tight-end sets.

Lorenzo Mauldin, Louisville. With both of his parents in jail, Mauldin bounced between different foster families before one of his foster mothers introduced him to football in high school. He's excelled since, registering 9.5 sacks last season and earning second-team all-league honors from the American Athletic Conference. Mauldin does no shortage of community work as well.

David Durham, Pitt. The starting defensive end has done no shortage of work around his new community since transferring from Ohio State prior to the 2012 season. Durham has hosted youth football clinics, wrapped and delivered Christmas gifts to families in need, volunteered with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and, most recently, was part of a group of Pitt players who visited an orphanage in Haiti in May for a weeklong mission trip. Durham was the Panthers defense's winner of the Ed Conway Award this spring, which goes to the most improved player.
We've already covered the conference's potential villains, so it's only natural that we move on to the good guys.

You won't find them in comic books or out in the Big Ten footprint fighting crime. But even opposing fans won't find it all that difficult to root for this cast of characters. Some overcame injuries or other obstacles, some have been wronged, and others just seem like genuinely good people.

There are certainly plenty of other athletes and coaches whom this could apply to, so it wasn't easy just picking a handful. But true heroes don't expect media attention for their good deeds … plus, we had to cut this list off somewhere.

So, in alphabetical order, here are the unmasked Big Ten heroes:

[+] EnlargeNebraska
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAmeer Abdullah, left, decided to put the NFL off for another year and return for his senior season at Nebraska.
Ameer Abdullah, running back, Nebraska: About 100 juniors declared early for this year's NFL draft, and no one would've blamed Abdullah if he decided to join the herd. Instead, he decided to stay -- and he's said all the right things. As the youngest of nine children, the other eight of whom have earned college degrees, Abdullah stressed the importance of his education and finishing that degree. When a lot of other players are chasing dollar signs instead of diplomas, that's a refreshing viewpoint. Added Bo Pelini: “He's an All-American on the field. He's an All-American off the field.”

Adam Breneman, tight end, Penn State: Forget the fact he remained loyal and committed to the university throughout the sanctions, when he could've bolted to the likes of Florida State or Notre Dame. He's also used his football celebrity to champion a few charitable causes, something more common for coaches than players. In high school he started “Catch the Cure,” which helped raise more than $200,000 to fight Lou Gehrig's Disease. During his Under Armour jersey presentation two years ago, he even helped man a booth outside the auditorium to seek donations. Currently, he's the secretary of Penn State's nonprofit chapter of “Uplifting Athletes,” which raises money for the Kidney Cancer Association. You don't have to like the Nittany Lions, but you have to like what Breneman's doing.

Ralph Friedgen, offensive coordinator, Rutgers: Underappreciated. Underestimated. Underdog. That's why Friedgen is under two other heroes on this list. It's easy to root for someone who appeared to be unfairly punished – and is now seeking out justice on the gridiron. Friedgen is just about the only head coach to win conference coach of the year and then be fired that same season. It happened with Maryland in 2010; now, he's helping oversee a Rutgers offense that people aren't expecting a lot from. He's in the same division as the Terps -- heck, they're on the schedule this year -- and Friedgen has a chance to show Maryland it made a mistake. He certainly could've handled the dismissal better, but it's hard to blame him and easy to wish him well. As long as you're not a Terps fan, that is.

Jerry Kill, head coach, Minnesota: Stop me if you've heard this before. “I'm rooting against them when they play us, but I'm wishing all the best to ________ the rest of the season.” Chances are Kill's filled in quite a few of those sentences the past few years. He has refused to let epilepsy get the best of him, and his longevity's been a testament to his toughness. He's been a coach since 1985, and he just led the Gophers to back-to-back bowls. Plus, he recently started a new epilepsy foundation for young patients, and he put $100,000 of his own money toward that. How can you not root for this guy?

Jake Ryan, linebacker, Michigan: Torn anterior cruciate ligaments are usually big setbacks, something that means missed seasons or at least gradual returns. Not for Ryan. The Michigan linebacker, a team captain last season, was on crutches last spring and returned in time for the Oct. 12 game against Penn State. Said defensive coordinator Greg Mattison: “If he ever truly logged the hours of extra treatment and extra rehab that he has done since the day that happened, I think it would floor you.” Nothing has really been handed to Ryan, as he wasn't a highly sought-after recruit. But he's worked hard and now finds himself on the preseason watch lists for the Bednarik and Nagurski awards. It's his final season at Michigan, and big things are expected from him.

Heroes on deck: Tracy Claeys, Stefon Diggs, Herb Hand, Jeremy Langford, Venric Mark

Five SEC players to root for

July, 11, 2014
Jul 11
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On Thursday, we examined five individuals who could be potential SEC "villains" in 2014. And while some people love to be "haters" let's be real, most of us like to feel good about who we root for. If you feel like the player you like is also generally a good guy off the field and does the right things, it makes you feel that much better when he scores a touchdown or makes a big tackle on Saturdays.

With that in mind, let's keep it positive today and discuss five guys that are worth rooting for this season, in alphabetical order:

Luke Boyd, LSU: Boyd's name might not be one known to SEC fans but he has quite a story. The 27-year-old walk-on is an active-duty Marine who served the last five years, including six months in Afghanistan. Earlier this month, he was promoted to staff sergeant. He walked on with the Tigers last season and dressed for home games and hopes to find his way onto the field as a special-teams contributor this season. Another interesting nugget: He was a guest at the 2012 NFL draft where, in full uniform, he announced the Seattle Seahawks' third-round pick -- Russell Wilson.

Shon Coleman, Auburn: Former Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson, who was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft, leaves some big shoes to fill. Coleman, who was his backup at left tackle last season, is a candidate to replace Robinson and what a story it would be if he does so. The 6-foot-6, 310-pound Coleman was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in spring of 2010 shortly after he signed with the Tigers out of high school. He was able to overcome that and saw his first collegiate action last season. To get to that point is impressive, to finish it off by becoming a starter this year would be a storybook-like development.

Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida: He's only a sophomore, but he is the model physically (5-foot-11, 194 pounds) and athletically when it comes to playing cornerback and is already the conference's best at the position. He has the right stuff mentally to be the heartbeat of that Florida defense. A third-team Associated Press All-American last year, Hargreaves is also one of the nicest guys you'll meet, a coach's kid who is incredibly humble.

Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: Prescott is already a talented quarterback who emerged into a real playmaker for the Bulldogs last season. He's a true leader and played through injuries last season and more importantly, the death of his mother, Peggy, who lost her life at 52 after a long bout with colon cancer. He returned to practice shortly after his mother's burial and played later that week against Texas A&M and compiled 303 offensive yards (154 rushing; 149 passing) and two touchdowns in a 51-41 loss. His toughness, both physical and mental, is one of his best qualities.

Deterrian Shackelford, Ole Miss: A rare sixth-year senior, Shackelford missed two whole seasons after an ACL injury that was worse than initially thought when he suffered it in 2011. After missing the 2011 and 2012 seasons, he returned last season to play every game at linebacker and finished seventh on the team with 44 tackles and fourth on the team with 7.5 tackles for loss. He is in the mix to be a starter for the Rebels at linebacker this season and one of the most respected players on the team. After football, he said he wants to be an athletic director or high school principal to positively impact teenagers.
Unfortunately it's the time of year when off-the-field missteps litter the headlines as college football players remind us they aren't much different than many other college students outside of their athletic endeavors. And while occasional misdeeds are getting the headlines other college football players are going out of their way to make a positive impact.

With that in mind, it's never a bad time to look at guys who impact their football team on the field yet strive to have a positive impact on their worlds off the field as well. Here are five Big 12 players to root for this fall, regardless of your normal allegiances:

Deep snapper Nate Boyer, Texas

If you aren't cheering for Boyer to excel, something is wrong with you, die-hard fans of the Sooners, Bears, Red Raiders included. His road to becoming the Longhorns long snapper has been well-documented, from his exploits as a Green Beret to his time in Darfur. Boyer has been a solid special teams' contributor at UT during the past two seasons. The recipient of the 2012 Disney Spirit Award, which is given annually to college football's most inspirational figure, Boyer is entering his final season at UT.

Quarterback Bryce Petty, Baylor

Petty isn't just exceptional on the field. He's a guy whose impacts lives off the field as well. The reigning Big 12 offensive player of the year is active in Big Brothers, Big Sisters and FCA. He also has spent time in Kenya on a mission trip with fellow Baylor athletes in 2011 and was a finalist for the Big 12 male sportsperson of the year in 2013. On the field, Petty is a guy who knows how to lead, shoulders the blame during tough times, brings a positive attitude to the Bears' football squad and elite production behind center. Petty's exploits during his time in Waco, Texas are probably coming to an NCAA student-athlete commercial near you at some point in the future.

 

Defensive end Ryan Mueller, Kansas State One of the Big 12's top sack masters, Mueller befriended Kaiden Schroeder, a nine-year-old boy who suffers from Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia. Their relationship lead to one of the Big 12's most memorable moments in the spring when Schroeder scored a touchdown in the Wildcats' spring game. Mueller, who had 11.5 sacks in 2013, was a finalist for the Big 12 male sportsperson of the year and has been named as one of KSU's captains for the 2014 season.

Cornerback JaCorey Shepherd, Kansas Another guy who is active with Big Brothers, Big Sisters, Shepherd also volunteers at local elementary schools. He won KU's Galen Fiss Award, which is given for exemplary service to the community and campus. On the field, he's a impact cornerback and kick returner for the Jayhawks leading KU with 15 passes defended in 2013. He was a finalist for the Big 12 male sportsperson of the year.

 

Quarterback Trevor Knight, Oklahoma

Knight is just starting to approach his potential on the field but he's already made a mark off it. The Allstate Sugar Bowl MVP has gone to Haiti twice as a member of OU's “Sooners4Haiti” contingent and is active in FCA, often appearing as a public speaker when his schedule allows. On the field, he's developing as a leader and playmaker and could rise to battle Petty for All-Big 12 honors with consistent performances in 2014.

 

Five Pac-12 players to root for

July, 11, 2014
Jul 11
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There is no shortage of players who will excite on the field in the Pac-12 this season, but it's not all about on-field performance. Whether it's for their off-field contributions or their on-field demeanor, here are five guys worth rooting for even if they don't play for your team.

Taylor Kelly, quarterback, Arizona State: Quick, who was the second-team All-Pac-12 quarterback last season -- UCLA’s Brett Hundley or Arizona State’s Kelly? Outside the Pac-12, the assumption would probably be Hundley, and that would be wrong. Kelly quietly led ASU to the best regular-season record in the Pac-12 last season and has a likely NFL future. His time in Tempe hasn’t been one big party, either. The Master’s candidate volunteers at local schools two days a week and is heavily involved in the Scholar Baller leadership and outreach program, for which he teaches high school students about leadership and character among other things. Kelly is also an accomplished drag racer, but that passion is currently on hold at the request of ASU coach Todd Graham. As a result of his vast car knowledge, Kelly has turned into the de facto mechanic for the ASU football team.

[+] EnlargeMariota
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsWhen Marcus Mariota isn't piling up big stats on the field, he can usually be found studying somewhere.
Marcus Mariota, quarterback, Oregon: After passing up a good shot at being the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft to return to school, Mariota has all the makings of a Heisman Trophy favorite. And he won’t come with much controversy. If Andrew Luck set the standard for unassuming superstar quarterbacks in the Pac-12, Mariota isn’t far behind. He’s quiet, he’s polite, he’s humble and while pursuing a degree in General Science, he has developed a reputation as one of the most studious athletes on campus. For those looking for reasons to root against him, as an individual, it will be hard to justify.

Toni Pole, defensive tackle, Washington State: When Pole intercepted a Keith Price pass in overtime and nearly returned it for a touchdown in the 2012 Apple Cup, he created a memory Washington State fans will remember for a long time. For many, that is not the only lasting impression he has produced. Pole is a frequent volunteer in the Pullman community, and his philantrophic efforts have included helping to put on “Butch’s Bash,” a holiday party for local kids. He makes trips to the local senior center where he plays games with the residents and is musically inclined. When the Cougars are on the road, he can be found playing the piano in hotel lobbies and has sang the National Anthem at women’s basketball games.

Ty Montgomery, receiver, Stanford: Stanford coach David Shaw has said Montgomery has the talent to be a No. 1 receiver in the NFL, but after big junior year with the Cardinal, Montgomery didn’t even consider a pre-graduation jump to Sunday football. He didn’t even ask for an evaluation from the NFL or for a draft-round projection, which is common for draft-eligible players. He chose Stanford largely for academic reasons and chose to stay for the same. As soft-spoken as they come, Montgomery has already been named to the Maxwell and Hornung Award watch lists and is one of the more dynamic kick returners in the country.

Stefan McClure, cornerback, Cal: After a solid true freshman season in 2011, McClure appeared on his way to a great career for Cal. It hasn’t quite worked out that way, but it’s not for a lack of talent. He sat out the 2012 season rehabbing a torn ACL, then suffered another torn ACL five games into last season. If there is anyone who could use some good vibes coming his way, it’s McClure.

Player list for ACC media days

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
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The 2014 college football season is inching ever so closer, with ACC media days set to take place in less than two weeks.

The league released its list of players who will be attending the July 20-21 event at The Grandover Resort in Greensboro, North Carolina. Here they are:

BOSTON COLLEGE
C Andy Gallik, R-Sr.
DB Dominique Williams, R-Sr.

CLEMSON
QB Cole Stoudt, Sr.
DE Vic Beasley, R-Sr.

DUKE
OG Laken Tomlinson, R-Sr.
LB Kelby Brown, R-Sr.

FLORIDA STATE
QB Jameis Winston, R-So.
CB P.J. Williams, Jr.

GEORGIA TECH
OG Shaquille Mason, Sr.
LB Quayshawn Nealy, R-Sr.

LOUISVILLE
WR DeVante Parker, Sr.
DE Lorenzo Mauldin, Sr.

MIAMI
RB Duke Johnson, Jr.
LB Denzel Perryman, Sr.

NORTH CAROLINA
QB Marquise Williams, Jr.
LB Norkeithus Otis, Sr.

NC STATE
RB Tony Creecy, R-Sr.
DE Art Norman, R-Sr.

PITT
WR Tyler Boyd, So.
DB Ray Vinopal, R-Sr.

SYRACUSE
OT Sean Hickey, Sr.
LB Cameron Lynch, Sr.

VIRGINIA
RB Kevin Parks, Sr.
SS Anthony Harris, Sr.

VIRGINIA TECH
WR Willie Byrn, R-Sr.
DT Luther Maddy, DT

WAKE FOREST
FB Jordan Garside, R-Sr.
CB Kevin Johnson, R-Sr.
Keith Heckendorf lives the college football grind, where days are eaten up in meeting rooms or on the practice field, in long car rides or on the phone. It is easy to become completely consumed, to lose track of time and perspective.

Whenever that happens, all he does is look at the light blue band on his wrist.

B. Strong.

B. Strong. For Bryce.

[+] EnlargeBryce Heckendorf
Courtesy of Heckendorf familyBryce Heckendorf is fighting a rare genetic disease that affects the nervous system. His uncle, Keith, is an assistant with the Tar Heels.
While Heckendorf works in Chapel Hill as a North Carolina assistant, his nephew lives nearly 1,000 miles away in Wisconsin fighting Krabbe disease, a rare genetic disorder that impacts the nervous system. Bryce Heckendorf, 14 months old, is slowly dying. He can no longer swallow. Or smile. Or roll over. Or move his arms and legs. Nobody will ever know the sound of his voice.

He spends most days sleeping, snuggled up with his mommy or daddy. Those snuggles are all that make him happy.

Doctors do not expect him to live past 2.

"How do you wrap your head around why is this happening to this little boy?" Keith Heckendorf said in a recent phone interview. "You look at him and he's the cutest, most precious little boy and if you didn't know any better, you wouldn't know anything was wrong with him. But he's at the point now where he should be talking, he should be crawling around and he can't do any of that stuff. It's just so hard."

The diagnosis was incomprehensible to the Heckendorf family. Bryce was born completely healthy, a beautiful boy with blonde hair and clear blue eyes. He hit all his milestones like any growing, healthy baby. Then around 5 1/2 months, he started regressing. He no longer used his arms and legs as actively. He could no longer hold himself up in a sitting position.

Doctors were initially puzzled, and referred the family to several hospitals in the area. Multiple tests were done, including MRIs, EEGs and a spinal tap. Blood was taken to determine whether Bryce was suffering from a genetic condition.

The family got the tragic news in November. Keith was in Pittsburgh the night before North Carolina played the Panthers when his brother, Kyle, called.

"You don't know what to say or what to do," Keith said. "We try to cherish every moment we can with him."

Both Kyle and Jenna are carriers for Krabbe disease, which affects about 1 in 100,000 births. Jim Kelly's son, Hunter, also had Krabbe disease and lived to the age of 8. When both parents are carriers, they have a 25 percent chance of delivering a baby with the disease.

[+] EnlargeBryce Heckendorf
Courtesy of Heckendorf familyThe Heckendorf family promotes making the screening for Krabbe disease a routine part of newborn tests.
Bryce was the first child born to Kyle and his wife, Jenna. Neither had any idea they were carriers for the disease until Bryce was diagnosed. Only 4 states test for Krabbe disease during routine newborn screenings, one reason why there remains so little awareness about the disease. While there is no cure, if the disease is detected at birth, bone marrow or cord blood transplants could be used as a treatment. Both the Kelly and the Heckendorf families are advocating for Krabbe disease to be included in routine newborn screenings.

Costs for treating Krabbe disease are also high even with insurance, given the various medications used, doctor visits and hospital trips. A golf tournament fundraiser and barbecue -- Birdies & Bogies for Bryce -- will be held this Saturday in Mosinee, Wisconsin. Keith and the entire family will be there. Kyle hopes Bryce is feeling well enough to attend a small portion.

In addition, Keith and his wife came up with the idea for the B. Strong bands to raise money and awareness. Several North Carolina players wore the bands in the Belk Bowl against Cincinnati. Keith coaches the quarterbacks. Each one wears the bracelet, too.

"I know for me, I wear the bracelet every day and it's a constant reminder to what's really important," Keith Heckendorf said. "We live and work in a profession that is 100 miles an hour every day of the week, every day of the year. This has been good for me to every once in a while step back and say as hard as we're working ... I'm pretty fortunate to be in the position I'm in and I'm blessed. You hate for something like that to do it for you, but this has probably brought our family so much closer."

Bryce has required 24-hour care for months. Kyle and Jenna had to leave their jobs as teachers, though Kyle plans on going back in the fall. Bryce is now fed through a button in his stomach. Feedings can take up to 2 hours because he has to eat slowly. If he eats too fast, he could vomit. Either Kyle or Jenna is always with him, mostly holding him because that stops his fussiness.

An occupational therapist, physical therapist and hospice nurse come once a week to help, along with a big support group of friends and family. But all the help in the world, all the love and support in the world, cannot change the inevitable.

Their baby is being taken from them every second of every day, and they are powerless to stop it. Just 15 months ago, Kyle and Jenna sat ready to give Bryce anything he wanted. They still do that today, only they can't give him what they want most.

So life takes on a newer, different meaning. Each day that passes becomes more important than the last. Because it means one more day with their baby.

"It's been extremely difficult knowing that day is going to come where we have to say goodbye," Kyle Heckendorf said. "But we're also thankful we are able to spend as much time with him as we possibly can. We can love him, snuggle him, give him kisses, rather than taking life for granted and something unexpected happening, where you don't have that opportunity to say goodbye.

"We're thankful for that."
Arizona has quickly developed a reputation for recruiting innovation -- and fun -- with a series of YouTube videos this offseason.

SportsNation

What is your favorite video the Arizona football program has produced this offseason?

  •  
    52%
  •  
    12%
  •  
    9%
  •  
    27%

Discuss (Total votes: 596)

It has produced four videos that have combined for more than 400,000 views on YouTube since the first one was released in March. While the videos are primarily to help the program's recruiting efforts, they have doubled as way to keep Arizona fans -- and those throughout college football -- entertained during the wait for the regular season.

Today, we're asking which #OnToTheNextOne production this offseason has been your favorite.

And the nominees are:

Arizona Fast #TheNewNormal

The newest installment, released this week, emphasizes that Arizona football does "everything fast."

.

Hard Edge

It's High Noon in Old Tucson, where you can meet the coaching staff in a trailer for the 2014 season.

.

Hard Edge II

Another 2014 trailer in Old Tucson that features some of the Wildcats' most high-profile players, including some that have departed for the NFL.

.

Arizona Speed

Coach Rich Rodriguez spoofs the movie "Speed," in a way to come out against the proposed 10-second rule.

.
Chris Conley’s recent cinematic adventure was quite an accomplishment.

Georgia’s senior receiver might make his name on the football field, but he grew up in a geek culture. His chiseled 6-foot-3, 206-pound frame is SEC, but his passions scream Comic-Con.

Months before Saturday’s highly anticipated debut of Conley’s no-so-amateur “Star Wars” short “Retribution,” Conley fidgeted in a rolling chair under the fuzzy lighting of a conference room inside Georgia’s football facility as he discussed the process of his project.

There was anxiety and excitement on his breath when he spoke about his film and how he dove headfirst into the project with football very much the center of his college life.

“I just kind of blindly picked up the phone and started recruiting people to be part of this team,” Conley said.

[+] EnlargeChris Conley
AP Photo/ Richard ShiroChris Conley has 81 catches, 12 for touchdowns, in three seasons at Georgia.
Conley’s mind has always been filled with comics, superheroes and science fiction. His real movie-making days began with a stop-motion animation film starring Legos he made with his brother Charles, whose middle name just happens to be Xavier, making him Charles Xavier for all you "X-Men" fans.

He and his brother both made comics that stretched from three to seven pages long, but Conley insists that Charles was the more artistic one.

And to tackle “Star Wars” seemed ideal. He was introduced to the series through the original three and he grew up with the most recent trilogy, causing him to embrace all six movies.

“To a kid, who doesn’t know any better, those [recent three movies] were amazing,” Conley said with a smile. “Everybody in my generation doesn’t understand what purists complain about because we’re like, ‘We love the whole thing.’”

Equipped with state-of-the-art computer graphics, slick choreography and a heart-pounding soundtrack, Conley brought to life an action-packed, 26-minute ride inside Georgia’s campus through a George Lucas-like lens.

“I like to be an avid learner, so it’s been a real learning process to learn how to do film and how to do it the right way, being someone who’s never gone to film school,” Conley said.

He started gathering his team in December. Writing, casting and choreography bled into February, when filming officially started. Conley, meanwhile, was entering spring practice as one of Georgia’s top returning receivers, doing morning mat drills with teammates.

“This was a unique experience,” Conley said. “I’ve worked on some small projects, but nothing ever this big. This is the first time that I’ve had about 60 people who are all looking at me for the answers, like when to be where and how we were going to go about things.”

Conley was learning the directing ropes. He was learning terminology, ordering shots, learning how to conduct himself on set, learning how to properly schedule shoots, figuring out framing, finding the right lighting, structuring blocking and studying how people react to what he said on set.

Interacting with people came naturally, but learning how to actually direct them was challenging, Conley said.

He also successfully juggled the sport he loved, academics and his ever-growing passion through discipline and cutting into one of his favorite activities.

“Planning a production takes a ridiculous amount of time,” Conley said. “The question when I told my coaches was where are you going to have time to do that, and I said, 'I don’t know.' So that time really came out of my sleep. I spent a ridiculous amount of hours up and planning this stuff because I couldn’t take anything out of my football obligations.”

The first weekend of shooting took 23 hours. The following Monday, Conley was up at daybreak for mat drills. He never let the movie become a distraction, which helped raise the respect his teammates had for him, Mason said.

“He’s a senior who’s been around a lot and he’s made plays, so guys kind of shut up and listen when he talks,” quarterback Hutson Mason said. “Guys know that he’s different. He’s not saying one thing and doing the other. Guys know that he’s genuine.

“Conley is the guy that you want modeling the name of Georgia and the name on the back of your jersey.”

Now we’ll find out how difficult it is to be a famed director and star SEC receiver. After catching 45 passes for 651 yards and four touchdowns last fall, Conley will be asked to do even more in 2014. With Malcolm Mitchell recovering from an ACL injury, Conley assumed the role as No. 1 receiver and dominated the spring.

Conley had time to direct and write a movie while playing a diabolical Sith lord. Returning to the gridiron shouldn’t be an issue.

“He represents his name and Georgia well, to a ‘T,’” Mason said. “Then, you take a guy who is a big, tall receiver, who just as far as the football field is another great weapon for us.

“He’s a guy that we feel if you leave one-on-one, it’s a mismatch. Conley’s just one of those guys that we feel if it’s in the red zone or in the middle of the field, we have to find ways to get him the ball.”
It's getting closer, folks. The 2014 season will be here before you know it, and Big Ten media days are less than three weeks away.

The league today released the list of players who will be on hand at the Hilton Chicago on July 28-29 for media days and the kickoff luncheon.

Here they are ...

EAST DIVISION

INDIANA

David Cooper, Sr., LB
Nate Sudfeld, Jr., QB
Shane Wynn, Sr., WR*

MARYLAND

C.J. Brown, Sr., QB
Stefon Diggs, Jr., WR*
Jeremiah Johnson, Sr., DB

MICHIGAN

Frank Clark, Sr., DE*
Devin Gardner, Sr., QB*
Jake Ryan, Sr., LB*

MICHIGAN STATE

Shilique Calhoun, Jr., DE*
Connor Cook, Jr., QB*
Kurtis Drummond, Sr., FS*

OHIO STATE

Michael Bennett, Sr., DL*
Jeff Heuerman, Sr., TE*
Braxton Miller, Sr., QB*

PENN STATE

Bill Belton, Sr., RB
Sam Ficken, Sr., PK*
Mike Hull, Sr., LB

RUTGERS

Michael Burton, Sr., FB
Darius Hamilton, Jr., DL
Lorenzo Waters, Sr., DB

WEST DIVISION

ILLINOIS

Simon Cvijanovic, Sr., OT
Jon Davis, Sr., TE
Austin Teitsma, Sr., DL

IOWA

Carl Davis, Sr., DT*
Brandon Scherff, Sr., OL*
Mark Weisman, Sr., RB

MINNESOTA

David Cobb, Sr., RB
Mitch Leidner, So., QB
Cedric Thompson, Sr., S

NEBRASKA

Ameer Abdullah, Sr., RB*
Kenny Bell, Sr., WR*
Corey Cooper, Sr., S*

NORTHWESTERN

Ibraheim Campbell, Sr., S*
Collin Ellis, Sr., LB
Trevor Siemian, Sr., QB

PURDUE

Raheem Mostert, Sr., RB
Sean Robinson, Sr., LB
Ryan Russell, Sr., DE

WISCONSIN

Melvin Gordon, Jr., RB*
Rob Havenstein, Sr., RT*
Warren Herring, Sr., DL

* indicates previous all-conference selection

I really like this list. The main reason: the number of non-seniors. Nothing against the graybeards, but too often Big Ten teams have brought only seniors to media days even if other players were better, more marketable, strong team leaders and more charismatic with reporters. Yes, I'm incredibly biased about this event: I want the best talkers.

While several Big Ten teams are taking the senior-only approach, others are bringing underclassmen who fill key roles. Minnesota will bring sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner because he's now the leader of the offense. The same goes for Indiana with junior signal-caller Nate Sudfeld. Michigan State is bringing juniors Connor Cook and Shilique Calhoun because they both played huge roles in last year's championship run. Stefon Diggs is the most recognizable Maryland player, even though he's a junior. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon isn't technically a senior, but barring injury this will be his last year as a Badger -- and his only chance to attend media days.

There's a decent contingent of quarterbacks -- seven in all -- that includes two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year Braxton Miller, Cook and Michigan's Devin Gardner. The only major omission is Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who could be one of the league's top players this season. The Lions throw us a bit of a curveball with kicker Sam Ficken. Interesting.

On behalf of all Big Ten media members, I'd like to thank Nebraska for bringing Bell. We are eternally grateful. And Kenny, I will make fun of you for being a Canucks fan.

Staying with the Huskers, senior running back Ameer Abdullah will speak on behalf of the players at the Big Ten kickoff luncheon on July 29. An excellent choice.
Several Big 12 players popped up on the watch lists for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, awarded to college football's best defensive player, and the Outland Trophy, given to the best interior lineman.

Here are the Big 12 players that made each list:

Nagurski
Outland

Already this week, the Maxwell (player of the year), Bednarik (defensive player of the year), Hornung (most versatile player), Mackey (best tight end), Rimington (best center), Groza (best kicker) and Guy (best punter) watch lists have come.

Below is the rest of the preseason watch list schedule:

Friday, July 11
- Jim Thorpe Award, best defensive back

Monday, July 14
- Butkus Award, best linebacker
- Lombardi Award, best lineman

Tuesday, July 15
- Biletnikoff Award, best receiver

Wednesday, July 16
- Davey O’Brien Award, best quarterback.

Thursday, July 17
- Doak Walker Award, best running back

Friday, July 18
- Walter Camp Award, best player
David Cutcliffe placed the call while he was on the treadmill. DeVon Edwards tried to play it cool when Cutcliffe offered him a scholarship, asking whether he could talk with his mom first.

But the truth is, Edwards knew all along what he would say. Five minutes later, Edwards accepted the only scholarship offer that came his way.

[+] EnlargeDeVon Edwards
Peter Casey/USA TODAY SportsDuke return man DeVon Edwards joined the track team to help improve his speed for the 2014 season.
Incredible now to believe only one school believed in him. Edwards is going into his sophomore season at Duke as one of the top kick returners in the country.

So how did he get virtually no interest in high school?

Edwards played at a relatively new school in Covington, Georgia, that opened in 2006. Nobody from that school had ever received a football scholarship to an FBS program. So the school itself was off the map. And so was Edwards, after a broken collarbone sidelined him for his junior season.

His high school coaches sent out game tape from his sophomore season, but nobody seemed interested. With no interest and no offers, Edwards began to face reality. He turned his focus to basketball, where he played on AAU teams and was an all-region selection for his school.

If nobody wanted him as a football player, maybe they would as a basketball player.

"It was a tough feeling, not knowing if you were going to get to play at the next level and then your friends were getting scholarships," Edwards recalled recently. "I figured I was not doing something right, maybe I was too small or too short or something. I had a high GPA, so I knew I could get into college but playing football was something I like doing and I was just starting to cope with the fact that I might not get a scholarship."

Enter Cutcliffe. He saw something in Edwards in those old game tapes. He asked for senior year game tape. At this point, the football season was over. But Edwards was playing basketball. Cutcliffe took a trip to see him during practice.

He was sold, and offered Edwards in December -- just two months before signing day.

"I guess God just told me I need to play football," Edwards said.

Edwards came into Duke with little fanfare. He was the only player in the class of 2012 without any stars or ranking from ESPN Recruiting. Edwards redshirted his first season, then went into fall camp last year hoping for playing time at cornerback. But he was moved to safety and admitted frustration over his undetermined role.

With the help of former star Duke CB Ross Cockrell, Edwards tried to look ahead, waiting for his shot. It came on defense and special teams around the same time.

Cutcliffe had always promised Edwards a chance to return kicks. It happened after Johnell Barnes broke his hand in late September. Edwards started at kick returner in the sixth game of the season, against Navy, and held on to the role the rest of the season. He also started the final seven games of the season at safety.

Edwards started to make a name for himself soon enough. He ended up returning two kickoffs for touchdowns and two interceptions for touchdowns. Three of those scores came against NC State (two INT returns and a 100-yard kickoff return).

"It didn’t hit me how well we played until the next morning when I was watching 'SportsCenter' and people kept talking about it and I was like, 'Wow, that was a big deal,'" Edwards said.

He ended the season ranked No. 3 in the nation in kickoff return average (30.2 yards per return) and was one of seven players to return multiple kickoffs for touchdowns. Edwards has worked on his speed this offseason in order to get better, and joined the track team for the outdoor season with several other football players. Edwards says he is a much better runner now than he was when spring football ended.

That will only help him build off his impressive first season. After all, he's no longer an unknown.

"I’m going to keep playing how I was playing and keep on working hard. I knew who I was when nobody else knew who I was," Edwards said.

Potential 2014 SEC villains

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
10:00
AM ET
It’s over now, so you can admit it.

AJ McCarron and Johnny Manziel are gone, so it’s time to come clean.

Chances are you hated one or both. How much they won, how they won -- you hated it all. There might have been some respect for their play, but above all, most of you couldn’t stand them.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsSEC fans don't have Johnny Manziel to kick around anymore.
It’s OK. AJ and Johnny were the SEC’s necessary villains last season. And for that they will be sorely missed.

This year won’t be the same without them. Who will you boo? Who will you tune in to watch in hopes of seeing them fail?

It’s totally unreasonable, but it’s also unavoidable: SEC fans are haters.

Who will fill their unceremonious shoes in 2014? Who will be the ones SEC fans love to hate?

Note: Before we get to the candidates, let us apologize to them. We’re sorry, fellas. It’s not fun being disliked, but look at it this way: The more people boo you, the more you’re probably doing something right. So take this as a badge of honor. After all, villains make the SEC a more entertaining place.

Subjects are listed is in alphabetical order, as there is no scientifically known way to measure levels of dislike.

Jacob Coker, Alabama: He’s no McCarron. Let’s get that out of the way first. Unlike his predecessor, Coker is about as unassuming as a major talent can get. He started out as a humble three-star recruit, and his disposition has remained the same. But with the runaway hype machine that’s surrounded his landing at Alabama -- not to mention that he transferred to Alabama in the first place -- you’ve got the perfect recipe for blind dislike.

Jeff Driskel, Florida: Is anyone else tired of hearing about how Driskel is going to get better? Before you start, that was a rhetorical question. The answer, for everyone outside of Gainesville, is a resounding yes. You can hear the chants of “O-VER-RATED” now, can’t you? Because he’s Florida’s starting quarterback, Driskel has to be discussed. Because he has a cannon for an arm and good mobility, his potential is a constant source of discussion. And because he’s so discussed, he’s so disliked. If Driskel does progress into an All-SEC quarterback, he’ll have plenty of detractors. They’ll boo him because he plays for Florida and they’ll boo him because they’ll all want to know what took so long to get there.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesNew Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has said some things that caused a stir in SEC country.
Lane Kiffin, Alabama: Coordinators are rarely the subject of such scorn, but the hate for Kiffin burns more intensely than for any head coach in the SEC. And the naysayers need only focus on his tumultuous time at Tennessee. There, he “turned in” Urban Meyer for a recruiting violation only to find that no violation was committed and that he, in fact, was the one violating an SEC rule by mentioning a recruit by name. He also made the Alshon Jeffery “pumping gas” comment, which didn’t exactly ingratiate himself to the rest of the league. Then, after one season, he left the Vols to return to USC. And now, after flunking out of Southern Cal, he’s back as offensive coordinator at Alabama.

Nick Marshall, Auburn: He’s as quiet as a church mouse, but Marshall has baggage. His unflattering dismissal from Georgia ruined whatever reputation he had long before he found his way to Auburn. Then he led the Tigers to the BCS title game and invoked the ghosts of Cam Newton. Marshall might not have invited the limelight a fraction of the way Newton did, but hate is unreasonable like that. They’ll obsess over his supposed shortcomings as a passer and neglect his utter effectiveness as a runner and orchestrator of Gus Malzahn’s offense. Marshall’s quiet nature ultimately will be mistaken for cockiness and fans will hate him just the same.

Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss: He’s been a rock star since he was 16 years old, and that alone is enough to do him in. It’s a matter of overexposure and jealousy. By simply choosing to commit to Ole Miss in the first place, he offended every other fan base that was actively pursuing him. In many ways, Nkemdiche is the face of Hugh Freeze’s out-of-the-blue 2013 signing class. Fans cried foul when the Rebels finished in the top five of the recruiting rankings that year, and Nkemdiche was the primary target. The fact he plays with so much fire will be wrongly taken as showboating, and if he dominates on the defensive line the way he should, he’ll accumulate haters quickly.
Maryland and Rutgers fans might have the wrong idea about their new Big Ten brethren.

For the most part, Midwesterners are excessively nice and hospitable. Coastal arrogance or aloofness has no place in the heartland, and the only frostiness in these parts is the weather. Big Ten fans might not have done backflips when they found out Rutgers and Maryland were joining the league, but now that the Scarlet Knights and Terrapins are part of the league, they will embrace their new, well-located friends.

But there are certain individuals that rankle even the most sensible Midwesterners. They are the folks you love to boo. Sadly, some of our favorite Big Ten villains -- Bret Bielema, Terrelle Pryor, Taylor Lewan -- are no longer here to kick around, but others remain.

Some of these folks have done absolutely nothing wrong. They have been too good on the field or on the sideline or as high school recruits. Others have said or done things to stir the pot.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
MCT via Getty ImagesPenn State coach James Franklin's exuberance has grown a little annoying for some around the Big Ten.
Today, we unmask these villains.

To those on this list, an important point: the only true villains in college football are good enough to be villains. No one cares what the last-place coach or quarterback thinks. So you have earned this distinction. Put it right next to your playing or coaching awards.

Another reminder: this is all in good fun.

Without further ado, the list in alphabetical (not villainous) order:

Jim Delany, commissioner, Big Ten: He is one of the most powerful figures in college sports and has built the Big Ten into a revenue superpower through initiatives like the Big Ten Network. The Big Ten will never have a commissioner who makes a greater impact for such a long period of time. But Delany is still known more for his pro-BCS stance, Legends and Leaders, and the eyebrow-raising additions of Rutgers and Maryland. He lacks Larry Scott's polish or Mike Slive's willingness to stump for his constituents no matter what. Delany is a true independent voice and, at times, it has hurt his image among Big Ten fans. He might not be truly appreciated until he's gone.

James Franklin, head coach, Penn State: Remember when Penn State's offseasons used to be quiet? Franklin has generated noise -- joyful noise for Nittany Nation, not so much for other fan bases -- since his opening news conference in January. He has made bold statements about dominating regional recruiting and backed it up so far, compiling a top-5 class for 2015. Franklin soaked up the spotlight during his May tour around the state and appears to be in front of every microphone and camera. Recruits and many fans love the guy, but some question his authenticity and get tired of the incessant hype.

Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State: He is about as subdued a superstar as we have seen in the Big Ten and a welcome departure from his predecessor, Pryor. But the introverted Miller has inflicted quite a bit of damage on Big Ten fan bases, leading Ohio State to a 16-0 mark in regular-season league games the past two seasons as the starter. Miller has been the king of comebacks during his Buckeyes career, leading six game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, the most among any FBS player. Knock him if you'd like for lack of a Big Ten title, but his best could be still to come.

Pat Narduzzi, defensive coordinator, Michigan State: He is the overlord of the Big Ten's best defense and one of the nation's most dominant units. Michigan State and Alabama are the only FBS teams to rank among the top 11 nationally in the four major defensive categories in each of the past three seasons. Narduzzi's incessant blitzes punish quarterbacks and offensive linemen. Just ask Michigan. The Spartans have a good thing going and Narduzzi knows it, telling ESPN.com, "I don't think there's a team in the country that does what we do. ... We've been ahead of the curve for years."

Jabrill Peppers, DB, Michigan: How can Peppers be a Big Ten villain when he hasn't even played a Big Ten game? I'll answer that question with a question: How many recent Big Ten players have generated more headlines before they step on the field than Michigan's prized incoming recruit? It's not Peppers' fault, but 13 of the 14 Big Ten fan bases likely are tired of hearing about the next Charles Woodson, his connection to "Naughty by Nature" and Peppers being the potential savior for an underachieving Wolverines program. Peppers might be the most anticipated Big Ten recruit since Pryor in 2008. He has a lot to prove this fall, and quite a few folks hope he busts.

Villains on deck: Urban Meyer, Bo Pelini, Connor Cook, Julie Hermann, Christian Hackenberg
While the nation waits for LeBron James' next decision, Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, made its own pitch on Wednesday to the NBA superstar. The athletic department's Twitter account had some fun in the process:



James, who met in Las Vegas on Wednesday with the other Miami sports organization, is still weighing his options, sources told ESPN.com. Maybe the RedHawks can sneak into the picture.

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