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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State had the luxury a season ago of playing not only with future NFL draft picks all over its defense, but with senior leaders at each level.

Plenty of talent remains as the Seminoles look ahead to defending their national championship. But there is a major void in senior leadership. While the offense is full of seniors, the defense is not. There are no seniors projected to start on defense in 2014. Only two are projected for the two-deep. So who will step up to fill the hole usually filled by the most veteran players on the team?

[+] EnlargeP.J. Williams
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesFlorida State junior cornerback P.J. Williams had three interceptions in 2013.
"I quit putting an emphasis on seniors," coach Jimbo Fisher said. "I think seniors at times are overrated and at times underrated. I know that sounds crazy, but it depends. Jameis [Winston] took our team over as a freshman. In the older days, seniors mattered maybe more because you didn’t play the young guys. But at the same time I don’t want to take away from senior leadership because how many times you’ve been out there matters. That offensive line and all those seniors, don’t think that doesn’t make me sleep well. I think it just depends on teach teams’ personality and the dynamic of each team."

Though senior leadership is lost from the defense, experience remains. Seven starters return, including five juniors who started in the BCS national title game against Auburn. Starting linebacker Terrance Smith is a fourth-year junior. So is safety Tyler Hunter, who is expected to return after missing most of last season with a neck injury.

But perhaps the biggest leadership shoes to fill belong to departed safety Lamarcus Joyner, the heart and soul of the defense and one of the most vocal leaders on the team. Jalen Ramsey, who will play the same position Joyner did last season, seems uniquely qualified to step right in.

Not only does he return after playing in all 14 games last year as a freshman, he has the same characteristics that made Joyner stand out as a vocal leader. Ramsey is confident in his abilities, but not arrogant. He is not shy about being honest. Like Joyner -- who started leading the Seminoles well before he started his senior season -- Ramsey is not afraid of the added responsibility. His candor has already won his teammates over. Fisher says Ramsey has been "off the chain" with his leadership during the spring.

"I think I should hold myself to step up in that area. I feel I can push other people," Ramsey said.

So does cornerback P.J. Williams, another player who has stepped up in the leadership department. Being named Defensive MVP of the national championship game has not only boosted his own confidence, but given him more authority to speak up, especially with Joyner gone.

"It’s a big role to try and step up and do because Lamarcus was a great player," Williams said. "He led by example to everybody and everybody looked up to him. Now, I'm just trying to compete at a high level, talk to my players and make sure we’re on the right page. We want to win another national championship so we know we have to work hard."

Florida State hopes a lack of senior leadership on defense turns out to be no problem. It's like Fisher tells his team all the time:

"Is there an age limit on leadership?" Fisher said. "Is there an age limit on good players? How old do you have to be to be a good player? Why can’t you be a good player now? That’s what we’re finding out."
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UCLA's biggest recruiting victory in 2013-14 didn't involve a high school player.

ESPN.com's recruiting guru Jeremy Crabtree has a nice story on how USC unsuccessfully tried to hire UCLA's ace recruiter and offensive line coach Adrian Klemm away from Westwood. It begins like this:
UCLA offensive line coach Adrian Klemm was returning from a recruiting trip this past December, when he received a call from new USC coach Steve Sarkisian with an offer that all but included the opportunity to use the Trojans' famed white horse, Traveler, any time he wanted to avoid traffic on the 405. But UCLA coach Jim Mora wasn't about to lose one of his top assistants to the school across town, so he did what any good coach would do. He made an in-home visit and left with a commitment.

Sark's a smart guy. He knows that Klemm is an elite coach and recruiter, and luring him away from a crosstown archrival would make the hiring a double-whammy.

And Mora is a smart guy, too.
"I was out of town recruiting, and I landed and drove right to his house at about 10 at night," Mora said. "I think I stayed until till or 1 or 2, until I was sure USC wasn't going to come by. ... Until he signed that contract, I wasn't leaving. I wasn't going to lose him."

It's an interesting story because it touches a lot of bases -- the recruiting process, a battle between rival coaches -- it's also notable that Sarkisian and Mora are (were?) friends -- and a rising coaching talent and how he became so coveted.

Definitely worth a read, even you're not a Bruin or Trojan.
AUSTIN, Texas -- Dalton Santos made his plea Sunday afternoon. By Monday afternoon, his family's prayers had been answered and then some.

The Texas linebacker took to Twitter to ask his fans and followers for help raising money for his mother's open heart surgery. The initial goal was $5,000. The response was immediate and overwhelming.



According to her page on the website YouCaring.com, Mary Vista Santos was diagnosed with a thoracic aortic aneurism that will require open heart surgery to be repaired. A family friend who set up the donation page, Malinda McKnight, wrote that the mother of three does not have insurance that will cover the operation.

On the site, McKnight wrote: "We need to raise money to help her during this time. Even if you can only donate 5 dollars it will help ease the burden. The stress of finances should not be something our friend worries about during this time."

And so the Santos family and its friends went online, asking for the support of the hard-hitting inside linebacker's friends and fans. Santos' initial Twitter post has been retweeted more than 250 times and more than 260 donations have already come in.

The donation total passed $5,000, and then it kept going. It surpassed $10,000 by Monday afternoon, and more than $12,000 by the end of the day.

"We feel truly blessed and honored to be a part of such a caring football family," Dalton's father, Albert Santos, told ESPN.com.

Donations to the family are not a violation of NCAA rules, according to Texas' official Twitter account.


This week's "Take Two" topic: Who will be Texas’ starting quarterback in the Longhorns’ Aug. 30 opener against North Texas?

Take 1: Max Olson -- David Ash

[+] EnlargeDavid Ash
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesIf David Ash can stay healthy, he's Texas' best option at quarterback for 2014.
When is the last time we saw David Ash at his best?

There are two correct answers: Either the second half of the 2013 opener against New Mexico State (a team that would go 2-10), or the second half of the 2012 Valero Alamo Bowl to rally past Oregon State.

Texas fans have been clinging to those fleeting flashes of brilliance for, what, eight months now? Those quarters are some of the best evidence that, when everything is clicking, Ash can operate a tempo offense with confidence and creativity.

But he has to do it for four quarters and 12 games if he wants to hold on to Texas’ starting quarterback job.

I don’t doubt that, barring another injury, Ash will be the guy behind center when the Longhorns open their season. He did enough this spring in nearly a dozen practices to show Charlie Strong and quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson he’s the right quarterback to bet on.

The foot fracture Ash is recovering from now is a poorly timed setback, no question, and it prompts skeptics to point out Ash has now dealt with three troubling injuries (broken ribs, concussions, foot fracture) in less than two years.

An Ash optimist would point out this: As a true sophomore in 2012, he was a top-25 passer by QBR and efficiency standards. And, really, it won’t be easy for another QB to surpass him. Tyrone Swoopes should redshirt. Jerrod Heard is better off doing the same. That leaves potential transfer Max Wittek, who’d face three months of catching up this summer, to learn the offense.

As long as Ash doesn’t eliminate himself from the race with another injury, you only need that process of elimination to see it’s still his job to lose.

Take 2: Jake Trotter – Max Wittek

I don’t deny Ash has talent. But after missing an entire season due to lingering concussion issues, then most of a spring with a fractured foot, I’m skeptical of Ash’s long-term health. And that’s why I’m going another direction.

Swoopes showed in the spring game that he’s not ready to be the starting quarterback at Texas, even with a decent finish after a disastrous start. Heard is loaded with potential, but he’s going to be a true freshman.

That leaves USC transfer Max Wittek, who visited the Austin campus for a third time over the weekend, suggesting a decision to ink with the Longhorns could be imminent. Wittek will graduate from USC in May and will be eligible immediately wherever he decides to go. He has two seasons of eligibility remaining.

Wittek might not be Bobby Layne, but given Ash’s injuries, Swoopes’ lack of polish and Heard’s complete inexperience, Wittek could very well be the best option for Strong’s maiden voyage.
1. The Chick-fil-A Bowl reached back into its history to change its name to the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, and they didn’t do it out of fond memories for Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The College Football Playoff, looking for consistency, didn’t want any of the six bowls sharing the semifinals to have only a sponsor’s name. Sponsors aren’t forever. But the Rose, Sugar, Fiesta, Orange, and Cotton are. And now, back from the history books, so is the Peach.

2. Next time you think about parity in college football, think about this: Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU and Tennessee – six of 14 SEC members – have won the last 37 league championships. Kentucky shared the 1976 championship with Georgia. Before that, you have to go back to 1963, when Ole Miss won and 200-pound linemen roamed the earth. Not to mention that none of the four SEC expansion teams (Arkansas and South Carolina, 1992; Missouri and Texas A&M, 2012) has won the league.

3. I’m just not going to get excited about the fact that next season there will be 40 bowls. You can be outraged all you want that college football is choosing to accelerate its rewards for mediocrity. I feel like the marketplace will decide, and until it does, I’m not going to complain about having more games available to watch in late December and early January. I look at it as easing my transition into winter.
AMHERST, Mass. -- Patience, like big, quick defensive linemen, is in short supply in intercollegiate athletics these days.

The public sees billions flowing into the five major conferences and has decided that the faucet isn't working so well for the student-athletes. That makes for a compelling, quintessentially American fat-cat/little-guy narrative. Political careers have been built on flimsier foundations.

But in this case, the fat cats, the five conferences with bulging wallets, are on the same side as the little guys. You can argue that they came late to the party, or that they converted at the point of a legislative gun. At this point, that's a waste of time. They have gotten religion.

Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive spoke for the big schools when he said, "What we're trying to give them is what they (student-athletes) are asking for."

Slive visited the University of Massachusetts last week as the Executive-in-Residence for the Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management. In a keynote address, Slive laid out seven goals for the new subdivision of Division I that will house the following conferences: SEC, Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12.

To continue reading, click here.
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MADISON, Wis. -- Gary Andersen's current job description looks a lot like that of a first-year coach. Here's the thing: Andersen is entering his second season at Wisconsin.

Andersen's inheritance with the Badgers last year, in coaching currency, rivaled that of a Walton, a Bloomberg or Prince George. Most new coaches are saddled with teams plagued by youth, discontent or a culture of losing. Andersen stepped into a locker room filled with 25 seniors, including stars such as Chris Borland and Jared Abbrederis. Wisconsin had won three consecutive Big Ten championships. It had an identity and a proven path to success.

The Badgers needed a leader after Bret Bielema spurned them for Arkansas, but Andersen's primary task could be reduced to four words: Don't screw it up. To his credit, he didn't, guiding Wisconsin to a 9-2 start before the year ended with losses to both Penn State and South Carolina. He also provided a calm, stabilizing presence that resonated both with players and Badgers fans. Wisconsin has recorded better seasons, but Andersen's first made a strong enough impression on the Cleveland Browns, who reached out to him about their coaching vacancy, and on Barry Alvarez, who awarded Andersen a raise and a new contract.

But it's fair to wonder about Andersen. Program maintenance, while challenging, isn't the same as program building. Wisconsin doesn't lack a foundation -- Alvarez provided one and Bielema kept it from cracking -- but there's a lot of hard labor ahead for Andersen and his assistants as their roster turns over significantly.

"We are a very youthful crew," Andersen told ESPN.com. "It's like my second year at Utah State. We were youthful, we were excited, but our coaching was so important to be able to put the kids in the proper positions, which is the ultimate goal. It's not how much offense you have or how much defense you have. It's how well you’re performing the basics: how many missed assignments, how are we tackling, how are our administrative penalties.

"You want to do everything you can to make sure you're teaching them how to play football the right way."

Utah State went 4-7 in Andersen's second year before reaching bowls the next two seasons. Wisconsin's expectations are much higher despite its new-look depth chart.

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
Keith Gillett/Icon SMIGary Andersen sees the opener against LSU as a factor that should push his team through the summer and fall camp.
The Big Ten West Division is a collection of flawed teams and Wisconsin, with more recent success than the others and a favorable cross-division schedule -- no Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State -- will be a popular pick to reach Indianapolis. Running back Melvin Gordon turned down the NFL draft for a chance to lead the Badgers to the initial College Football Playoff.

Wisconsin is not rebuilding, but it faces an unusually high number of questions on a depth chart that shouldn't be written in anything permanent.

"It's a reset, you're starting at ground zero," offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "Even with the veteran O-line, a couple guys are out, you're mixing and matching, so you can't assume or take anything for granted. Even with [quarterback Joel Stave], it's a chance to reteach things that he's had hundreds of reps on, because there's always a new way to look at it."

Stave is part of the mystery at Wisconsin. Despite starting 19 games the past two seasons, he must outshine Tanner McEvoy in camp to keep his job, especially after missing much of the spring with a pesky throwing shoulder injury. McEvoy, a gifted athlete who played both safety and wide receiver last season, could represent a shift in what Wisconsin wants from its quarterbacks.

Andersen's first two quarterback recruits, McEvoy and D.J. Gillins, both are true dual threats.

"He's got a tremendous skill set, obviously," Ludwig said of McEvoy. "An athletic guy, starting as a safety last year. The weapons he brings to the quarterback position, it's a huge asset for us."

The quarterback run threat, when paired with dynamic backs in Gordon and Corey Clement, becomes even more critical if Wisconsin can't bolster the wide receiver spot. The team's leading returning receiver, Jordan Fredrick, had only 10 receptions in 2013. Fredrick, Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright all missed part or all of the spring with injuries.

Wisconsin had only four receivers for most of the 15 practices.

"It's pretty tiring," senior Kenzel Doe said. "You're basically taking every rep."

The Badgers defense had fewer injuries this spring but went through a more substantial facelift. Inside linebacker Derek Landisch is the only returning starter in the front seven.

Most defenders spent spring ball working at multiple positions as the coaches looked for ways to upgrade speed. Michael Caputo, a starting free safety last season, went to linebacker and then back to safety before the spring ended.

"We definitely wanted to see how guys fit in other places," Caputo said. "The goal is to be a mean, aggressive, fast defense. We're slowly getting to that, but it's definitely a transition with a lot of the younger guys and playing different positions."

There have been positive developments already. Andersen points to players such as Chikwe Obasih, a redshirt freshman who ended the spring as a starting defensive end.

Andersen When you've got young kids, you've got to get them reps if you want them to get better.

-- Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen
"You look how far Chikwe has come," Andersen said. "If you put on Day 1 of spring ball and Day 13 of spring ball, it's an unbelievable difference in his pad level, the use of his hands, his understanding and knowledge of the defense.

"When you've got young kids, you've got to get them reps if you want them to get better."

The summer takes on added importance for these Badgers. As Ludwig said, Wisconsin's first workout in August must be Practice 16, not Practice 1.

If all the uncertainty and opportunity in practice doesn't drive players, the season opener against LSU certainly will. Last year, Wisconsin thumped Massachusetts and Tennessee Tech to open the season before its infamous trip to Arizona State. This time, the test comes sooner.

"I really like that opener for this team," Andersen said. "It's got to be a driving force."

Which Badgers team shows up at Houston's NRG Stadium remains to be seen. But it will have more of Andersen's fingerprints on it.

The big reveal at Wisconsin is still to come.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It made sense for Nick Saban to begin his post A-Day spring game news conference with a caveat. After what everyone had seen that Saturday afternoon, a reasoned voice was needed, and Saban stepped to the podium to deliver his own sense of perspective.

“Nobody ever has a bad spring game,” Alabama’s head coach told reporters. “Let’s start with that.”

Fourteen practices behind closed doors led to a great deal of expectation surrounding A-Day, where the biggest question was, of course, at quarterback. Everything uttered about Blake Sims had been positive heading into the weekend. He’d improved his mechanics, they said. He’d made progress at becoming a better pocket passer, they added. Saban praised Sims for his command of the offense, his accuracy and his consistency. Throw in some pretty remarkable statistics provided by the school -- 515 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions in two scrimmages -- and it amounted to the kind of credentials that would lead anyone to believe that Sims had really turned the corner, that he was indeed the front-runner to replace AJ McCarron.

[+] EnlargeJacob Coker
Jeff Gammons/Getty ImagesAs Alabama's quarterbacks struggled in the spring game, the spotlight on incoming transfer Jacob Coker becomes even brighter.
Then practice No. 15 arrived.

Much of the controlled environment from earlier practices and scrimmages was removed on Saturday. Saban, for instance, wore a tan suit and played the role of commissioner. A television audience and more than 73,000 fans looked on. Sure, it was a far cry from the usual 100,000-plus fans and the buzz that accompanies a regular-season game, but A-Day offers its own brand of pressure. If you mess up on that stage, not only is it a very public experience, but you’ll also have to dwell on for the months to come.

And given the way Sims and the rest of the quarterbacks closed out the spring, they enter the offseason with a sour taste in their mouths.

Sims was a shell of himself, completing 13 of 30 passes for 178 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. A first-half pass over the middle should have been turnover No. 3, if Landon Collins hadn’t dropped it. And the other quarterbacks? Cooper Bateman, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and David Cornwell went 14-for-33 for 165 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Alabama’s combined effort equaled an 86.37 passing efficiency rating -- lower than any of the top 104 quarterbacks in the FBS last season.

Saban did his best to downplay the significance of A-Day after the game ended, but it did little to erase what everyone saw. In fact, when put up against his comments only a few days earlier, his plea for reason came off as hollow.

“It’s an opportunity for them to go out and play a game-like circumstance, a game-like situation,” Saban said Thursday about the A-Day game. “It’s really your first opportunity as an individual, as a unit or as a team, to really create an identity for who you are and how you play.”

By that standard, his quarterbacks failed miserably.

“Blake had a really good spring, and he did a really good job in the scrimmages,” Saban said when asked to measure the performance of his quarterbacks, again attempting to weigh a poor spring game against a previously solid spring. “I thought in the game he was trying to speed everything up a bit. ... It’s like when a baseball pitcher tries to throw the ball a little harder and all of a sudden he can’t throw a strike.”

In other words, the pressure got to Sims. Though Saban would raise some valid points about how the setup of A-Day robbed Sims of some of what made him an effective quarterback, the bottom line was unavoidable. Sure, wearing a no-contact jersey kept Sims from taking full advantage of his athleticism to escape the pocket and buy time. But, to be fair, it also removed the pressure of facing a threatening pass rush.

“There’s a lot of things [Sims] could do to be an effective quarterback that he didn’t do in this game today,” Saban explained before changing directions. “We recruited a guy. Blake knows this and Blake embraced the guy before the game. They're going to compete through the summer and through fall camp.”

Ah, Jacob Coker.

If there was a bright spot amid the sloppy offense Saturday, it was the 6-foot-5 quarterback on the sideline wearing a crimson polo and camouflage hat. Coker, who backed up Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston at Florida State, is due to graduate from FSU and enroll at Alabama later this spring, when he’ll immediately join the race to earn the starting job.

"It was awesome," Coker said of his visit to Tuscaloosa. "Excited about getting there."

In a way, Coker went to A-Day with the possibility of seeing just how far the other quarterbacks had come. He might have been worried that if someone stood out, they could carry a lead into the offseason that would be hard for him to overcome.

But Coker had to leave A-Day feeling good about his chances. Nothing he saw there should have scared him. Hearing Saban mention him afterward in regard to the quarterback competition should have only reaffirmed his standing as a favorite to replace McCarron.

While it’s true that you can’t win or lose anything during a spring game, you can take a step back. There's always ground to lose. And Sims & Co. did just that on Saturday, yielding momentum to Coker. Whatever standing they built through 14 practices seemed to vanish with each errant pass and interception.

The perspective Saban pushed so hard for in his postgame news conference was hard to swallow considering the sour taste the passing game left behind. A-Day isn't everything, but it was the last thing this spring, and it wasn't the note any quarterback would have wanted to go out on.
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EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Ask Mark Dantonio for his favorite moment from Michigan State's magical 2013 season, and he’ll tell you about the stories he’s heard.

Since the Spartans beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, Dantonio has received countless letters and emails from fans. He has been stopped in stores and restaurants. Every fan, it seems, wants to tell him about the way they enjoyed their favorite team’s first trip to Pasadena, Calif., since 1988.

He’s listened to tales of people who squeezed into the middle seat in the back of a sedan for the three-day drive from Michigan to California; people who slept all night on an airport bench; people who went to the Rose Bowl with their fathers or grandfathers, or who remembered going with their fathers 26 years ago and were able to take their own children this time.

"It had a deep meaning to our fans," Dantonio told ESPN.com. "That's what I get out of it: the feeling that we made a lot of people happy. It wasn't just a game. You made a life experience for people."

Remnants of that experience are impossible to ignore around Michigan State this spring. The Spartans’ three big trophies from last season -- from winning the Legends Division, the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl -- stand together in a prominent glass display case in the Skandalaris Football Center. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s cell-phone case displays the Rose Bowl logo, while offensive coordinator Dave Warner keeps the placard of his name from a Rose Bowl news conference in his office.

The coaches and players are rightfully proud of one of the best seasons in school history, but they are also wary of lingering too much on their 2013 accomplishments and failing to build on them for 2014.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesConnor Cook and MSU enjoyed every second of their 2013 Rose Bowl season, but they say it's now time to focus on the 2014 season.
"Even when we were on spring break, a lot of people approached us on the beach and said, 'Oh, you guys won the Rose Bowl,'" quarterback Connor Cook said. "We don't even want to hear about it anymore. We want to put that aside and start a new legacy this year. If it were up to us, we’d want people to stop talking about it and focus on the now."

Dantonio spoke to his team about avoiding complacency almost immediately after returning home from Pasadena. Michigan State was one of the last Big Ten teams to begin spring practice, waiting until March 25. Dantonio said that was by design, as the team spent more time than most on grueling winter conditioning. There’s nothing like weeks of 5:30 a.m. workouts to keep you from resting on your laurels.

"I think we've proven to ourselves that we can play on a large stage," Dantonio said, "but we have to retain the thinking of what got us there. We have to sort of strip ourselves down and remember how many hard lessons we had to learn. We can’t fall backward into thinking that it just happens."

The Spartans know how quickly fortunes can change. After back-to-back 11-win seasons in 2010 and 2011, they dipped to 7-6 in 2012, needing to win their final regular-season game on the road just to make a bowl game.

"That’s a great scale to show us what could happen if we’re complacent," junior defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. "Sometimes, you feel like you’ve earned it, but you didn't earn anything. You have to come out every day and play like you want to earn it."

To be sure, this isn’t the same team that went 13-1 and beat every Big Ten opponent by double digits a season ago. Several star defensive players are gone, including Thorpe Award winner Darqueze Dennard, linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen and safety Isaiah Lewis. They were mainstays on a defense that finished in the top six nationally in yards allowed each of the past three seasons and was No. 2 in the FBS in 2013.

But virtually every skill player is back on an offense that made steady improvement last season. That includes Rose Bowl and Big Ten championship game MVP Cook and 1,400-yard running back Jeremy Langford. The defense still has Calhoun, the Big Ten’s reigning defensive lineman of the year, plus several players who have been waiting for their opportunity to shine.

"The good thing about our defense is we have depth," said Taiwan Jones, who is expected to replace Bullough at middle linebacker. "When Will Gholston left, everybody was like, 'Who's going to step in?' Shilique stepped in, and you saw what he did last year. When [safety] Trenton Robinson left, Kurtis Drummond stepped in, and so on.

"We’ll probably miss those guys, but we won’t miss them that much because the guys coming in can make the same amount of plays they did."

Maybe the most important returnee was Narduzzi, who won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach. He’s more than ready to be a head coach but didn’t find the right opportunity this winter after turning down UConn.

Narduzzi has been Dantonio’s defensive coordinator now for a decade, dating back to their days at Cincinnati in 2004. That uncommon stability at the top has been the cornerstone of Michigan State’s success and should prevent any major backsliding.

"One of the great things about Mark is he’s just so steady," co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said. "There’s not going to be a lot of changes. I think the program kind of reflects that."

Dantonio readily concedes that "expectations have been raised" now for the Spartans after last season’s breakthrough. They should start the season somewhere in the top 10 and have a highly anticipated Week 2 showdown at Oregon.

"That's an experience game," Dantonio said. "When you play on the road in that kind of environment, with that kind of exposure, those are things you can build on, good or bad."

By then, the 2014 Spartans will surely be building their own legacy. And maybe creating some new unforgettable stories.

Video: Spring game wrapup

April, 19, 2014
Apr 19
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Spring games across the country finish up but still leave many unanswered questions for Alabama, Auburn, Texas and USC.
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LOS ANGELES -- When the day comes that USC football needs a culture change, touchdowns will be worth 10 points, swine will take to flight and I’ll win a Brad Pitt look-alike contest.

USC football is a culture unto itself. It knows what it is with its 11 national championships, 32 bowl wins and six Heisman Trophy winners. Changing coaches doesn't have to be synonymous with changing culture, especially after you won 10 games the previous season.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsNew USC coach Steve Sarkisian is embracing the school's standard for winning.
Perhaps a culture restoration might be in order, however, following a tumultuous 2013 that fractured the fan base and divided the devout.

Enter Steve Sarkisian, a top lieutenant of the Pete Carroll era who left to make his mark in the Pacific Northwest and returns to Troy unfazed by the championship-or-bust mentality.

"All of these guys come here to be the best, and that reminded me why I came back here. I want to be the best," Sarkisian said. "This place breeds that environment, that culture. That jumps out at you the moment you are on campus.

"You can go back 50 years of USC football. Every decade they have gone on a run: The 2000s and the run that Pete [Carroll] had; the 90s and what Coach [John] Robinson was able to do; The 80s, the era there with Rodney Peete and everything, and the early 80s what they were doing into the 70s with Coach [John] McKay and the run that he had and into the 60s, and it goes on. I just feel like now is our time. We’re about due for another run. Here we go, and we’ve got half the decade left to do it. I have a firm belief that we can because history tells us that we should."

Of course, that run can’t start until the Trojans officially kick off the 2014 season on Aug. 30 against Fresno State. In the meantime, there is only so much the new coaching staff can do to win back the hearts and minds of skeptics still smarting the final mediocre months of the Lane Kiffin era.

Public opinion was already down following a massively disappointing 7-6 season in 2012. It crested when Kiffin was fired following a blowout loss to Arizona State in the fifth game of last season. That begat the brief Ed Orgeron era, which included a 6-2 record -- though losses to rivals Notre Dame and UCLA were contributing factors to Orgeron not getting the job. After Sarkisian was announced as coach, Orgeron stepped down and Clay Helton led the Trojans to a 45-20 win over Fresno State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. Helton was retained as offensive coordinator, and, at least for now, there is stability in the football office.

With crippling sanctions in the past, Sarkisian & Co. made a huge national statement by landing the league’s top-ranked recruiting class, which included lauded prospects Adoree' Jackson, Juju Smith and Damien Mama. Sarkisian has opened up spring ball to the public and done everything possible to reunite the fan base.

"Ultimately, it’s going on the field and performing and doing what we’re here to do and that’s win football games," Sarkisian said. "Are we going to try to win them all? There’s no doubt we are. Are we going to win them all? I don’t know. I don’t know. The football is shaped a funny way for that very reason. It bounces in funny directions sometimes. But you have to put yourself in position to be successful, and I think we’re doing that."

Helton, one of just two holdovers from the Kiffin era (along with receivers coach Tee Martin), understands the expectations from his time on campus. Even defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who was Sarkisian’s defensive coordinator at Washington, is prepared for the fact that a 10-win season might not be good enough for USC’s standards. In his mind, those expectations shouldn’t be daunting. They should be embraced.

"If that’s what you’re worried about, then you don’t come here," Wilcox said. "That’s what you sign up for. We expect to win. We should be good. We should win championships. I don’t think about like that [as daunting]. If I did, or if any of us did, we shouldn’t come here. But every one of us jumped at the opportunity to come here. The expectations are extremely high, but that doesn’t change how we operate. That wouldn’t say much about you as a coach: 'Now you’re really going to work hard because you're at USC.' It shouldn’t matter if it’s Division III or high school or USC. You coach to be the best you can be."
Scottie Montgomery returned to Duke last year from an NFL world where quarterbacks were never, ever hit in practice.

So when his quarterbacks started begging him to go live this spring, his first reaction was, ‘No way!’ He was in protection mode, the way he was as a Steelers assistant. But veterans Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette persisted, and he slowly relented -- only a few times, and with clear instructions to the defense.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston, Jimbo Fisher
AP Photo/Phil SearsFlorida State coach Jimbo Fisher had Jameis Winston go live last spring when he was dueling Jacob Coker for the starting job.
“My initial feel is, ‘Don't ever let anybody get touched, so I have to fight myself at times, because I want to protect these guys and these guys want to compete for jobs,” said Montgomery, the offensive coordinator.

His is a dilemma that many coaches across the league have faced this spring. Do you allow your quarterbacks to get hit in practice to help simulate game situations and foster competition, knowing you have increased their injury risk? Or do you never even broach the subject because the priority should always be to protect the quarterback?

Four ACC teams allowed their quarterbacks to go live at some point during spring practice, more than any other power-five league. Clemson did it for the first time under offensive coordinator Chad Morris, believing he would see more out of the three quarterbacks vying for the starting job. Early enrollee freshman Deshaun Watson ended up getting hurt and missing the spring game.

Florida State allowed its younger quarterbacks to go live this spring. Coach Jimbo Fisher said he did the same last year, when Jameis Winston was a redshirt freshman competing to win the starting job.

“They’ve got to be able to feel things around them and react,” Fisher said. “They get in a false security blanket sometimes.”

Does that cause him extra worry?

“It’s no different than when we run the running backs, and I get nervous in the scrimmages when the backs are running and get tackled,” Fisher said. “Our guys know if they’ve got a kill shot, not to. There’s a certain limit of how we practice with each other. You know those shots that everyone wants to have? We won’t take those on each other even if we’re in a live scrimmage because it’s not productive to the organization. Tough to me is when you’re eyeball to eyeball, not when a guy’s exposed and you can do that.”

The coaches are not the only ones who wrestle with the idea. NC State quarterback Jacoby Brissett was not live this spring. But when he was competing for the starting job at Florida with Jeff Driskel back in 2012, both were allowed to go live early on in fall practice. The first day they were allowed to take hits, Driskel hurt his shoulder.

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Watson
AP Photo/Anderson Independent-Mail/Mark CrammerClemson freshman Deshaun Watson was injured in practice and missed the spring game.
“There's a right time and wrong time for quarterbacks to be live,” Brissett said. “We haven't done live practices, but in the fall sometimes we will have a live scrimmage on a Saturday. It helps out with the game speed reps.”

For a running quarterback such as Brissett, that helps. Same for the Duke quarterbacks. Georgia Tech has its quarterbacks live during practice for that reason.

Some coaches believe going live helps separate the competition. But Clemson was the only school with an open quarterback competition to allow its quarterbacks to go live during scrimmage situations. North Carolina, for example, has Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky battling to win the starting job, but offensive coordinator Seth Littrell does not believe it is necessary to allow quarterbacks to get hit. “I’ve never done it,” he said.

Virginia Tech also is in the middle of an intense competition, but quarterbacks have been off limits so far this spring. Veteran Mark Leal would have no problem if the coaches changed their minds.

“Honestly, I'd like to be live,” he said. “I think the rest of the quarterbacks would, too, because it gives more of a game feel. If you're not live, sometimes the whistle gets blown early when you don't think you should have been sacked or the play gets messed up because when there's a rush around you, the first thing the coaches want to do is blow the whistle, rather than you continue to play or go through your reads and progressions and finish the play.”

Depth concerns often dictate what coaches do. Pitt only had two scholarship quarterbacks this spring, so there was no way they were going live. Virginia Tech only has three quarterbacks on the roster this spring.

Still, all the protections most coaches take are not enough to keep their quarterbacks injury-free. Miami quarterbacks were off limits this spring, but Ryan Williams tore his ACL during a scrimmage.

It was a noncontact injury.
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State has produced a first-team All-Big Ten defender in eight of the past nine seasons, but no Nittany Lions defensive back has made the list since 2008 (safety Anthony Scirrotto). The drought could end this year.

If safety Adrian Amos plays to his potential, it will end.

"I don't know if I've ever coached a player with Adrian's skill set before," Lions defensive coordinator Bob Shoop told ESPN.com. "He’s so big, so strong, so fast. He can contend for first-team All-Big Ten and be a guy who receives national recognition if he pushes himself to the next level."

[+] EnlargeAdrian Amos
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsAdrian Amos' size, speed and versatility make him a key cog in Penn State's secondary.
Shoop has yet to coach Amos in a game, but sees the potential on tape and on the practice field and is setting the bar high for the senior. Amos has the size -- nearly 6-foot-1 and 212 pounds. He has the speed, clocking a 4.43 in the 40-yard dash as a sophomore (unlike 99.9 percent of the population, he actually gets faster as he gains weight). He has the playmaking ability, with four interceptions and 12 pass breakups.

He also has versatility, although where he plays has sparked debate among Penn State fans.

"He's got a lot of things we're all looking for in recruiting, and what people are looking for at the next level in terms of drafting: height, weight, speed," PSU head coach James Franklin said. "He processes information fast as well. There are some guys that will test fast but they don't think fast on the field, so it slows them down.

"He does all those things extremely well."

Whether Amos' unique skills translate at safety remains to be seen. He played predominantly cornerback in high school in Baltimore and had success there early in his Penn State career, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2012.

He moved to safety last year to mixed results, as Penn State slipped to 59th nationally in points allowed and 73rd against the pass. Amos moved back to cornerback late in the season and performed well in an overtime win against Illinois, deflecting a pass that led to the clinching interception.

"Amos, his natural position, is corner," then-coach Bill O'Brien said at the time. "I think he's a good corner."

But he's a strong safety again with the new coaches. Shoop's rationale: it's the position a team's best defensive back should play.

"He's a natural safety," linebacker Mike Hull said of Amos.

Amos' take: "I'd say I’m a cornerback but I play well at safety. I can be very, very good at safety. The movements and everything are more natural and they come easily to me."

So which is it: safety or cornerback? Franklin acknowledges that Amos' versatility creates a debate. Amos and Jordan Lucas form an effective tandem at cornerback. Then again, having one standout at both secondary spots could be Penn State's best route. And the Lions coaches seek versatility, perhaps more than any other trait, on a roster where depth remains in short supply.

The truth is Amos can play well at both spots. But the comfort level he displayed during spring practice didn't come from his position.

"If I'm comfortable in the defense, I'm comfortable at any position," Amos said. "This defense allows me to play fast, so I enjoy playing safety in this defense. It allows me to be aggressive. It allows me to be around the ball a lot more, just making more plays.

"When you're a safety and you understand the defense, you play faster."

Amos calls the new defense a "fresh start," and has spent more time studying himself and his teammates on film. Shoop also shows him tape of his former Vanderbilt defenses and how certain unique players similar to Amos moved from safety to corner to nickel to dime.

This spring, they watched Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Mark Barron, the former Alabama star, shift from covering the slot receiver to being the dime linebacker to working at strong safety and then free safety.

"He's a unique weapon for a defense," Shoop said of Amos. "To use a basketball analogy, you try to get him his touches."

Amos was too banged up to run the 40-yard dash for the new coaches before spring practice, but his goal is to break 4.4 at the next testing session. He believes he can play both secondary positions in the NFL, where bigger cornerbacks are trending and sturdy, physical safeties are still in demand.

But first thing's first. "We want to be the best secondary in the Big Ten," he said.

Elite secondaries have elite players, and Penn State could have one in Amos this fall.

"He has so much athleticism and skill," Hull said. "I haven't seen that out of very many players in the Big Ten. He has the whole package. He just needs to put it all together this year."
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LOS ANGELES – UCLA’s much-ballyhooed dual-threat threat Myles Jack -- the first player in league history to win the Pac-12’s defensive and offensive freshman of the year -- has zero carries this spring.

None. Nada. A 230-pound donut of spring offensive production. And the reason is obvious to the man pulling the strings in Westwood.

“He is a defensive player -- period -- who maybe will have some offensive packages,” stressed UCLA coach Jim Mora. “He hasn’t taken a single offensive snap this spring, nor will he. In training camp, either. He plays defense for us. The important thing is to help us maximize his abilities at linebacker. He’s phenomenal on either side of the ball. But in his mind and the reason he came here is to play linebacker. I’m not going to take that away from him. It would hurt our football team.”

In a whirlwind 2013, Jack went from heralded recruit to starting linebacker to overnight social media/SportsCenter sensation. Six carries, 120 yards and one rushing touchdown later against Arizona, the “Jack of all trades” puns were as viral as the common cold.

[+] EnlargeMyles Jack
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillUCLA's Myles Jack is focusing on defense this spring, but he could have some offensive packages during the fall.
“It was definitely crazy,” Jack said. “My life pretty much changed after that Arizona game. People really knew who I was after that. It was definitely pandemonium in terms of my phone. Guys I hadn’t talked to in a long time were hitting me up. It was wild.”

This spring the UCLA coaching staff has reminded Jack that he is, above all else, a linebacker. They’ve kept him strictly on one side of the ball, but haven’t ruled out that we might see him get some carries when the leaves start to turn. For now, the emphasis is on making him the best linebacker he can be.

And he was pretty good last season, posting the second highest number of tackles in school history for a true freshman with 75. That was enough to earn him second-team All-Pac-12 honors and placement on several freshman All-America teams. He was good, but not great. And he knows it.

Too often last season, Jack would rely on his athleticism rather than trusting in his still-developing technique. He’d guess. When he guessed right, the result would be a tackle for a loss or a highlight play. When he guessed wrong, what could have been a sack turned into a 3-yard gain. He was athletic enough to compensate. But the coaching staff is confident that when he reaches that sweet spot between athleticism and technique, well, look out.

“I’m not even close to where I need to be yet,” Jack said. “In high school I carried the ball and played defensive end. I was in a four-point stance and I’d just run around the other guys. But in the Pac-12, these offensive linemen are big and fast. I need to do a better job with my hands and shedding blocks and reading my keys.”

His collegiate offensive exploits speak for themselves. His 66-yard touchdown run against the Wildcats thrust him into the national spotlight and he ended the season with 267 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. He set a UCLA true freshman record with four rushing touchdowns against Washington, and on the other side of the ball, he led the Bruins with 11 passes defended and added a two interceptions with a pick-six in the bowl win over Virginia Tech.

Mora was quick to note that Jack isn’t the only dual-threat the Bruins have on their roster. Last season defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes rushed for a touchdown and had an 18-yard reception. Linebacker Jordan Zumwalt had a 12-yard catch and defensive lineman Cassius Marsh had a 2-yard touchdown reception.

“If they can help us on either side of the ball, we’re going to continue to use them,” Mora said. “We’re going to continue to use Myles on offense and in packages. We’re going to continue to use Eddie Vanderdoes. We’re going to continue to use Kenny Clark. We’re going to find a guy that can replace Cassius. We’ve got guys like Ishmael Adams that we can play on both sides of the ball. But we have to make sure they are full entrenched at one position before we ask them to branch out. Otherwise you hurt their ability to grow.”
MOBILE, Ala. -- Idle is not a position Jacob Coker prefers. Yet here he is, amid the constant swish of windshield wipers, sitting impatiently in the passenger seat of a silver sedan as a thunderstorm continues to pummel this swampy patch of the Gulf Coast.

It's a Friday morning in late March, and while many of Alabama's football players are laid out on sunlit beaches enjoying spring break, Coker has his mind set to working in his own slushy backyard.

The 21-year-old put aside a jam-packed final semester at Florida State to drive 250 miles home to Mobile, sit in a car and watch as rain threatened to wash away his scheduled throwing session with David Morris, his quarterback coach of more than 5 years.

A week earlier, Coker spent his spring vacation in Tuscaloosa watching film and working out. He missed walking in on AJ McCarron's pro day by minutes, leaving Alabama's indoor facility just as the Crimson Tide's former star quarterback began throwing for scouts.

Coker is the favorite to inherit McCarron's throne when he finishes his undergraduate degree and transfers to Alabama next month, but not before days like this -- days where you either push through less than ideal conditions or waste away at home. If there's the slightest hint of precipitation, his future teammates move practice indoors to an air-conditioned, 97,000-square foot facility. Meanwhile, Coker is left to create his own version of camp at empty high school stadiums and busy city parks. Wherever there's room and whenever there's time, he's training.

So even though a window of decent weather won't appear, it's no matter. Coker swings open the car door and steps on the field with his cleats already laced.

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