SEATTLE -- There’s no part of football that Washington wide receiver Jaydon Mickens doesn’t love.

The grind of practice? Love it.

The weightlifting when you can’t feel your legs? Love it.

The 5 a.m. wake ups? Love it.

OK, what about the ice baths? Ohhhhh.

“The ice baths? I don’t know about that one,” Mickens said. “That might be one niche in my happiness. Actually, no. When you get out, it’s the happiest moment ever because you’re feeling so good to get out.”

Mickens has been an optimist since he started playing football. Even when he was an offensive lineman (it only lasted two days) or a running back all through Pop Warner, or making the move to wide receiver in high school, he always believed it was for the best.

And through all those changes and years, he always had one goal in mind: There would be no one on the field who would have more fun than he would.

“The stadium changes, the venue changes but it’s the same sport -- like Pop Warner,” Mickens said. “It’s all fun.”

On his Pop Warner team in California, the Inglewood Seminoles, it was easy to always have fun. Everyone always played and he was close on and off the field with coach Jamar Applewhite.

[+] EnlargeJaydon Mickens
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenJaydon Mickens made 65 receptions and scored five touchdowns last season for Washington.
Inglewood was never the safest place, and through the years there was plenty that Mickens saw and heard about that wasn’t fun. But football? Football was always fun.

Applewhite would use Mickens as his speedometer for the Seminoles. Anytime he put Mickens on the field, players would speed up their games to keep up with him. They’d also increase their energy to keep up with Mickens, and Applewhite saw guys enjoy the game more when they played with Mickens.

Every spring they’d attend USC’s spring game together, and Mickens would tell Applewhite how someday he’d play for the Trojans.

“Just wait,” Mickens would tell his coach. “I’ll be out there.”

They’d leave and Mickens and his teammates would go back to Applewhite’s house, where they’d play video games. Mickens would tell Applewhite, his Pop Warner teammates, a stranger -- really anyone who would listen -- how someday he’d be in that football video game.

“Just wait,” Mickens would say. “No. 4 will be out there.”

But those were all goals for down the road. Happiness on the field, on the other hand, was the one that was constant throughout his entire career. He never had to wait to have fun playing the sport he loved.

“He has always loved it, been fanatical about it,” Applewhite said. “He loves playing football. That’s all he ever talked about.”

Eventually, USC came calling, but Mickens had readjusted what he wanted in a college and committed to Washington. And yes, that video game dream happened, too. Applewhite will never forget the phone call he received last spring when Mickens called screaming that he was playing “UW No. 4” in "NCAA Football 14."

As a freshman, Mickens appeared in all 13 games but only averaged 1.5 catches per game.

He could feel that it was taking him a bit longer to catch up to the size of Division I football and at 5-foot-11, he wasn’t the biggest guy out there. There were established receivers in front of him on the depth chart. But he was a former track guy, and he had that speed to get him his looks every now and then. But he wanted to be consistent. Playing was fun, but contributing was even better.

In his second year under Steve Sarkisian, he really started to develop. He started 12 games and had his biggest game of the season against Boise State. He tore apart Chris Petersen’s Broncos secondary with nine catches for 109 yards.

In his third year with the Huskies, he had plans to really come into his own. But then Sarkisian left for Mickens’ former dream school and a new guy -- the guy he had his best game against -- came in and completely changed the Washington program.

Guys like that are fun to coach. Jaydon is at the top of the list with that type of energy and spark and spunk and all that good stuff.

-- Washington coach Chris Petersen, on WR Jaydon Mickens
The coaching staff was new. The program was different. Players questioned whether they wanted to buy in to what Petersen was selling. Some considered transferring, others didn’t.

But Mickens wanted to look at this as optimistically as possible. So he considered it to be professional training. This experience, like so many others, would help him if he makes it to the NFL. Coaches move around on a coaching carousel there, and if he couldn’t handle it now, how would he be able to handle it then?

And he listened to Petersen preach about discipline, accountability and integrity. He thought if he bought into those ideals, maybe football could be even more fun because there’d be more of a purpose.

And he went through his first spring with Petersen, coming into his own without any kind of a hitch despite the coaching turnover. Mickens became a guy for Petersen like he was for Applewhite -- a constant, positive force on the field.

“Guys like that are fun to coach,” Petersen said. “Jaydon is at the top of the list with that type of energy and spark and spunk and all that good stuff. Football practice is hard, and it can be grinding and boring and those types of things, so you need those personalities to bring some freshness and some fun to practice.”

It has been all fun for Mickens and Petersen.

And that’s when it strikes him, when he’s thinking about Petersen and his previous stop, Boise State.

“Getting hit -- that’s not something I like, especially getting hit when you’re not looking,” Mickens said. “My freshman year against Boise State I got my head knocked off. That was a ‘Welcome!’ to college football and I was very much so welcomed. I did not appreciate it that day.”

So getting hit then? That’s not fun?

“Maybe," Mickens paused. "Maybe."
I used to oppose the idea of the Big Ten increasing its schedule from eight league games to nine.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Dave MartinNick Saban is an ally to the Big Ten in the conference schedule debate, as he endorses the idea of a nine-game league schedule for the SEC.
Although I understood the benefits for fans (in theory, more quality games), players (the chance to play league members more often) and athletic directors (fewer games to schedule), the move seemed to hurt the Big Ten's chances to reach the national title game -- the only metric that matters when judging major conferences. Strength of schedule meant next to nothing in the BCS era, so if the Big Ten had an easier path to play for the crystal football, why deviate?

The College Football Playoff, with its promised emphasis on schedule strength, changed the game. So did an expanded Big Ten. Although I don't agree with everything commissioner Jim Delany has said about expansion, he's right that it's better for league members to play one another more, not less. So I've come around on the nine-game league schedule, which the Big Ten will adopt beginning with the 2016 season.

The Pac-12 has used a nine-game league slate for years, and the Big 12 moved to a nine-game round-robin schedule after reducing to 10 members before the 2011 season. The SEC and ACC each remain at eight league games, although both leagues are considering a move to nine.

The Big Ten already has obstacles to reach the playoff after failing to win a national title since 2002. The league needs the major conferences to align at nine. Go ahead, start the campaign: #alignat9.

SEC commissioner Mike Slive says a resolution on future conference schedules should come early next month, before the league's spring meetings in Destin, Fla. The league has presented its members with several schedule options.

Alabama coach Nick Saban long has supported a move to nine league games, but he appears to be in the minority.
"I think there's a little bit more support for staying with an eight-game schedule and everybody playing a ninth opponent that's in the five major conferences. My thing is I'm for playing nine conference games and still playing another team in the major conferences, so you play 10 games because of fan interest, people coming to games looking forward to seeing more good games."

Whether you love or loathe Saban, I'm guessing most of you agree wholeheartedly with him. I certainly do. College football fans are among the most dedicated in any sport. They deserve a better overall product, and they would get it from more league games, combined with upgraded nonleague schedules.

Most ACC coaches seem to agree with their SEC colleagues, preferring to keep an eight-game schedule. The ACC approved a nine-game schedule in May 2012 but went back to eight after forming a scheduling alliance with Notre Dame. The big difference with the ACC is that there's strong support for nine-game schedules among athletic directors, who hold more power on this issue. Two ACC coaches, Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer and Miami's Al Golden, both have stated their preference for nine league games.

The ACC could vote on the schedule at its spring meetings next month in Florida.

The Big Ten should monitor both leagues closely in the coming weeks. If both the SEC and ACC stay at eight games, the Big Ten, along with the Pac-12 and Big 12, could be at a significant disadvantage with making the playoff. Even if the playoff selection committee places a premium on schedule strength, it will have a hard time keeping out any undefeated team from a major conference. Playing eight league games in the ACC -- with or without Notre Dame -- enhances a team's chances of running the table.

Big Ten teams, meanwhile, will have to navigate nine-game league schedules plus, in the case of many, upgraded nonleague schedules. Both elements are good for fans, who are sick of seeing their teams play overmatched opponents from smaller FBS conferences or the FCS. But they could make the path to the playoff even steeper.

The ultimate goal for the Big Ten is to get its top one-loss teams into the playoff. An undefeated Big Ten team will make the field of four almost every year. But it's hard to run the table, and it will become even less likely with the improved schedules.

The playoff is designed to create more opportunities and a true national field for the national championship. If every league plays nine conference games and challenging out-of-conference games, the result should be a group of one-loss playoff candidates in most years. But if leagues are playing different types of schedules, the field will tilt.

It's why the Big Ten needs the other major conferences to align at nine.

TCU DE Fields healthy, hungry again

April, 24, 2014
Apr 24
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FORT WORTH, Texas -- The highs of 2012 were as good as it gets. The lows of 2013 were a frustrating test. And now, finally, Devonte Fields is back.

TCU coaches aren't ready to say the former Big 12 AP Defensive Player of the Year is playing his best football just yet, but there's little rust on a pass rusher who conquered the conference as a freshman in 2012.

[+] EnlargeDevonte Fields
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsNow healthy, Devonte Fields is working to returning to his All-Big 12 form of 2012.
"We’re cautiously optimistic about him,” TCU defensive coordinator Dick Bumpas said Tuesday on the Big 12 teleconference.

After racking up 10 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss in his debut season, Fields' follow-up was no doubt frustrating. He was suspended for the opener against LSU and was held out for most of the following game. He suffered a foot injury in the third game against Texas Tech, tried to give it a go against Oklahoma State, and then he was done.

He'll receive a medical redshirt for the time missed in 2013 after electing to have foot surgery, but what can Fields make of his second chance as a sophomore season?

"We’ll have to see. He had a good spring, really came on at the end of spring," TCU coach Gary Patterson said to ESPN.com this month. "School-wise and everything, he’s just understanding when much is given, much is asked. Now he needs to finish the semester and needs to have a great summer."

What Bumpas finds encouraging is the fact that TCU's strength and conditioning coach says Fields is indeed stronger today than before the injury.

"He's not only back to where he was, he's past where he was," Bumpas said. "He's getting his strength back, his foot feels good and he's starting to show up and make plays again."

Patterson is excited about pairing Fields with junior Terrell Lathan and redshirt sophomore Josh Carraway, giving the Frogs an experienced trio at end to go along with one of the league's best defensive tackle combos of Chucky Hunter and Davion Pierson.

Following up what he did as a freshman put serious pressure on Fields, and Patterson could see that in his play.

"Last year I think he was trying to do too much," Patterson said. "For him, staying below the water with nothing going on, going to school and also becoming a pass rusher, all that stuff will come together. But he needs to do the things that are important."

Right now, that's staying healthy, taking care of his business off the field and, in time, getting even better than the lineman who tore up the Big 12 two years ago.
The next 24 hours are pivotal and historic in college sports. Right now, the NCAA's Division I Board of Directors are meeting in Indianapolis, where they're expected to approve a proposal granting autonomy to the major revenue-generating conferences. This would allow the big leagues to provide significant benefits for athletes.

Then, on Friday morning, up to 76 Northwestern players will vote whether to form a union after being deemed employees of the school by the Chicago regional director of the National Labor Relations Board.

Here's what you need to know about the vote:

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has voiced his strong opposition to players unionizing.
Where: The N Club room inside McGaw Hall, just north of Ryan Field.

When: There are two voting windows, 6 a.m.-7:30 a.m. CT and 10 a.m.-noon CT

Who: Scholarship football players who are enrolled and participating in team activities. Walk-ons or incoming scholarship players who have yet to enroll are not part of the vote. Players are not required to vote.

Voting procedure: A simple majority is required to form the union. The NLRB will monitor the vote. Officials from both Northwestern and the College Athletes Players Association, which would represent players in a union, can observe the vote.

Possible outcomes: Although Friday's vote is important, its outcome is tied to a pending appeal by Northwestern of the regional director's ruling. If the NLRB's national office chooses to consider the appeal, it could overturn the original decision, effectively killing the union push. If so, the results of Friday's vote would never come to light. If the NLRB national office denies the appeal, the vote would be revealed. If a majority of players vote for the union, it would be formed and the players could attempt to collectively bargain with Northwestern. CAPA, led by president Ramogi Huma, would represent the players in negotiations with the school. If Northwestern chooses not to collectively bargain, the case would go to federal court. If the players vote down the union and the NLRB denies the appeal, confirming players as Northwestern employees, there could be another union vote in 12 months.

Lobbying: Both CAPA and Northwestern have briefed players about the implications of unionizing in recent weeks. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald outlined his anti-union position in an extensive Q&A with players and their families. Fitzgerald is allowed to state his views and provide information, but he cannot make promises or threats about the vote, nor can he solicit players about how they will vote. CAPA and former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who launched the union push in January, also have been in contact with players about the vote. Neither side can meet with players in the 24 hours before the vote.

The buzz: Several senior leaders on the team, including quarterback Trevor Siemian and running back Venric Mark, have voiced their opposition to the union. Linebacker Collin Ellis told ESPN.com that players entered the campaign with the hope of getting change at the national level, not to cast Northwestern in a negative light. There's undoubtedly a pro-union group on the team who have been quieter leading up to the vote. Many others have weighed in, from former Northwestern players to other college coaches and players. Former Northwestern president Henry Bienen questioned whether Northwestern could continue with big-time athletics if it had a union. Several politicians, including U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, have voiced their support for CAPA and the union push. So have union leaders both inside and outside the sports world. No one has suggested the status quo remains, but many question whether unionizing is the right mechanism for players to improve their situation.

A few more thoughts:

  • The timing of the vote is fascinating, on the heels of the Division I Board of Directors meeting. An approval could signal to players that new benefits are on the horizon, such as enhanced athletic scholarships, continuing education and long-term medical coverage. Would a union be worth it at that point? Remember, neither side can meet with the players today, so they would have to track the Division I meeting on their own.
  • Check out more coverage of the union vote and its implications here and here and here and here.
  • Media are not permitted in the voting room or on campus near McGaw Hall, so coverage of Friday's vote could be limited. Northwestern is allowing players to talk to the media if they so choose, but Fitzgerald, athletic director Jim Phillips and other officials aren't expected to speak.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Mike Hull was once a coin flip away from transferring to Pitt, but that all seems like a lifetime ago for the Penn State linebacker.

[+] EnlargeHull
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsLB Mike Hull, who has seen a lot of changes at Penn State, expects 2014 to be his breakout season.
The redshirt senior is going into his fifth season at Penn State, and he's already endured many changes and ups-and-downs. He watched his team adjust to three head coaches -- five, including the interims -- and four defensive coordinators during his career. And he bided his time as a redshirt sophomore, playing behind two All-Big Ten talents, before standing on the sideline as a starter for parts of four games last season due to injury.

But now, in his final season, and with his final college coach, Hull believes it's finally his time to break out.

"It's something I've been waiting for for a long time," Hull told ESPN.com. "It's my time to step up and lead the team and lead a good defensive unit to where we can win a Big Ten championship."

Hull isn't the loudest player on the field. He's not one to grab a mic during a pep rally and spearhead some impromptu speech like cornerback Jordan Lucas. But he's become the anchor of this defense, not unlike middle linebacker Glenn Carson last season, and he's wasted no time in making an impact on a staff that's only known him for three short months.

"The guy who has stood out the most to me at this point is Hull," James Franklin said toward the end of spring practice. "He's done a nice job. He's smart, he's got great instincts -- he's not the biggest linebacker -- but he's quick, and he's powerful, and he's freakishly strong. I've been very pleased with him."

Hull stands at just 6-foot, 227 pounds. But he's also played well enough to stand out to every coordinator who coached him -- and, seemingly, all for different reasons. Tom Bradley watched Hull zoom past would-be blockers as a freshman, clocked his 40-yard dash at 4.6 seconds and briefly tried him at safety. Ted Roof watched him out-lift every one of his teammates as a sophomore, when he benched 405-pounds to best offensive linemen who outweighed him by nearly triple digits.

John Butler praised him last season as an "all-around outstanding football player." And, now, current coordinator Bob Shoop sees a sense of maturity and leadership in Hull that he's rarely found elsewhere, in part because he's learned from so many tutors.

"Mike's very mature," Shoop said. "He's football smart. He's very distinctive. ... There's not a player I trust more than him. He's a really special guy, and he's the undisputed quarterback of the defense."

At this time last season, Hull was the favorite from experts and fans alike when it came to naming the Nittany Lions' next breakout star. But, as Hull acknowledged, that title never quite materialized. With a nagging leg injury, one that didn't see him return to 100 percent until late October, he didn't live up to expectations until the final five games of the season. And, during that stretch, Hull unsurprisingly led Penn State in tackles (44). The No. 2 tackler, Carson, had 35 in that same stretch.

With a defense lacking in depth, even more will be expected of Hull this season. There are a few things working against him -- namely new schemes and a new coordinator -- but he's been in this position before. Twice.

"It's been easier to learn just because of the way [Shoop] packages everything together," Hull added. "It seems hard, but it's simple once you get used to it."

The last era of Penn State players who competed under three different head coaches were underclassmen in 1948, so Hull's position is a unique one. Still, the soft-spoken linebacker has tried to take it in stride.

Hull has taken on extra responsibility at middle linebacker, after playing outside last season. And Shoop has been pleased with how he's adjusted to an aggressive scheme that places extra emphasis on sacks and tackles-for-loss.

Hull, a Pennsylvania native could've had a different future if that proverbial coin landed on Pitt instead of Penn State. He could've had a more stable career. But he's not looking back now; he's finally looking forward to being "the guy" at Linebacker U.

"I don't want to compare something that never happened," Hull said. "I'm thankful for my time at Penn State. It's been one of the wildest times."
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ATHENS, Ga. – Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason sits in a faintly lit meeting room deep inside Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall, the Bulldogs' athletic facility/sports museum, reflecting on the past and focusing on the future.

His eyes show purpose as he discusses the season ahead while mentally gearing up for a late spring practice a couple of hours away.

While the present means more reps, and more rhythm inside offensive coordinator Mike Bobo’s offense, Mason can’t help but push his brain full throttle toward the fall.

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsAfter waiting his turn for four years, Hutson Mason is ready to be the leader of Georgia's offense.
For the fifth-year senior who had the pleasure -- and sometimes displeasure -- of sitting behind one of the SEC’s all-time greats in Aaron Murray for four years, Mason has to be both here and 10 steps ahead if he’s going to cast his own shadow.

“When you get one shot, you get one opportunity, you want to make sure that you do everything right,” Mason told ESPN.com in early April. “You want to make sure that you don’t have any regrets because I don’t get four years. I don’t have time to get my feet wet. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I wanted to be remembered as a champion.”

Mason wasn’t near the star Murray was coming out of high school and he won’t sniff his college career. He's fully aware, but that didn’t deter him from having a strong spring or setting high 2014 goals.

"I know I have a year left, but it’s hard to realize that, 'Man, you’re the starting quarterback at UGA,'" said Mason, who has 1,324 passing yards and eight touchdowns in his career.

“You gotta grab the bull by the horns, you gotta figure out the problems, you gotta figure out what we’re good at and you gotta win.”

An easily missed, self-described “weak, frail” prospect from Lassiter High in Marietta, Ga., Mason said he had only one scholarship offer (Georgia Southern) heading into his senior year after Iowa pulled its offer.

When Mason started winning (12-1) and finished the season with a Georgia state record 4,560 passing yards and 54 touchdowns and Lassiter’s first-ever region championship, Mississippi State and Virginia offered, but he wanted UGA.

Mason’s "real quick release" from his weaker arm only intrigued Bobo the spring before his senior year, but his summer improvements at one of Georgia’s camps ramped up interest, Bobo said. Still, Georgia wasn’t planning on signing a quarterback in its 2010 class.

That changed after Mason’s senior season -- which showed Bobo the moxie, instincts and composure he once saw in former Georgia quarterback David Greene -- earned him a scholarship.

Mason then dealt with a "roller coaster of emotions" while he sat behind Murray. He prepared like the starter, talked like a starter, but wasn’t seeing enough field action. It would have been easier if Mason felt he wasn’t SEC material, but he believed he was more than capable of leading the Dawgs.

He approached coach Mark Richt twice about transferring, once after the 2011 season and a year later, after Murray decided to return for a fifth year.

“I was putting in just as much work that Aaron was, and there was really no reward for it,” Mason said. “That was the hardest part to swallow. You were doing everything, but weren’t really getting to go out there and do what you have fun doing.”

After some soul searching, Mason had one overwhelming feeling, as his heart battled his pride: He was a Georgia boy playing for the state's best football program. He wanted a real UGA legacy.

“My heart was always stuck at UGA, and a lot of times I wanted to get past that and I wanted to tell myself to move on,” he said.

“I honestly believe that was God’s plan. My path was just a little different and funky. ... Everything I’ve been waiting for, every opportunity is here.”

It’s there if Mason can leave spring and evolve. He’s always been considered a leader, but leading summer workouts and getting players to show up was always Murray’s deal. This offense and this team are in his hands.

“It’s on him now, so this summer is going to be very huge for our offensive football team getting ready for next year because we [had] a lot of pieces missing [this spring] and Hutson’s got to be a big part of that,” Bobo said.

The good news for Mason is that he’s never shied away from leadership. Naturally outspoken, Mason was very vocal with teammates this spring. He called guys out, raised his voice. There was no switch to flip, he was just himself.

And who he is ain't bad. Mason isn’t as crisp a passer as Murray, but Bobo said he knows how to beat defenses better at times when it comes to extending plays. His imperfections sometimes give him an advantage when things break down.

We saw glimpses of that when he replaced Murray (ACL injury) late last season, throwing for 808 yards and four touchdowns with two interceptions in three games, and during a fine spring game performance (241 yards, one touchdown).

He’ll also have a slew of offensive weapons returning this fall to help, starting with Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley and veteran receivers.

“I don’t have to be a Heisman Trophy winner, I just have to figure out how to get these guys the ball and they’ll do the rest,” Mason said.

Getting here has been long, draining, and worth it for Mason. There’s no reason for him to let up now.

“He’s progressed beautifully,” receiver Chris Conley said.

“Once he becomes consistent at realizing that he is the guy and that everyone is behind him, then he’s going to blow some people’s minds because he can make all those throws.”
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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Already a Hall of Fame lock when he returned to the college coaching ranks nearly a decade ago, Steve Spurrier has found his second wind at South Carolina.

He’s also found a home.

The Head Ball Coach will always be a Florida Gator, and he’ll proudly tell you as much in his familiar, high-pitched twang. But South Carolina has grown on him in more ways than one.

So much so that he and his wife, Jerri, plan on staying in the Columbia area even when he’s done coaching.

“People always ask where I’m going to live when my coaching days are over,” said Spurrier, who owns a vacation home in Crescent Beach, Fla. “Usually, your last stop is where you end up, if your last stop is successful. Bobby Stoops wants to be in Norman.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier
AP Photo/John RaouxIt's been mostly thumbs-up for Steve Spurrier at South Carolina, as "The Old Ball Coach" has led the Gamecocks to three straight top-10 finishes.
“Our plan is to live here, at least between here and Crescent Beach. Every time I go through Gainesville, I don’t know anybody anymore. I’ve got a few pals there, but not that many. This is a good place to live. It really is.”

And for the record, Spurrier plans on resigning and not retiring. In his mind, there’s a big difference.

“I like resign a lot better,” Spurrier said. “Retiring sounds too much like you’re going to sit around and not do a whole lot. I’m not a sit-around kind of guy.”

Now, for those South Carolina fans who get sweaty palms when Spurrier even broaches the subject of his retirement (oops, his resignation), relax.

He’s having way too much fun -- and success -- to even think about walking away right now, and he feels and looks a lot closer to 49 than his actual age of 69. He misses a day of working out about as often as he concedes a 3-foot putt, which is never.

A devout family guy, Spurrier’s two sons, Steve Jr., and Scott, are both working under him on the South Carolina coaching staff, and the Gamecocks are enjoying the kind of unprecedented run that few others in college football have been able to rival the past three years.

But even with three straight top-10 finishes, three straight 11-win seasons, five straight wins over rival Clemson and the longest current home winning streak in the country, don’t tell Spurrier he’s exceeded expectations.

“No, we’ll exceed them when we win the SEC,” Spurrier said. “That’s still the goal, to push for that. We’ve made some really good progress, on the field and financially. When I got here, we’d had one person to give a million dollars to athletics, and her name is on the stadium, Mrs. [Martha] Williams-Brice, and that was in 1972.

“Since then, we’ve found 10 or 11 wealthy people who’ve given over a million dollars. We were way behind financially to most of the schools in the SEC and are still trying to catch up. But we’ve been able to get the facilities upgraded, and once we did that, we were able to sign our top in-state kids. That’s been huge.”

Spurrier’s renowned feel for calling a game and exploiting opposing defenses’ weaknesses ranks up there with any coach who’s ever roamed the sideline in the SEC, or any conference, for that matter.

But it’s his unwavering confidence and presence that have permeated the South Carolina program and been the difference in a ton of close wins over the years. The Gamecocks are 11-3 the past three seasons in games decided by a touchdown or less.

“People are always going to love him here because he’s changed the culture, but he’s not satisfied,” South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson said. “That says something about him and where this program is right now.

“We’re always pushing to take it to new heights.”

In some ways, Spurrier is about as old-fashioned as it gets. Both his wife and longtime football operations director, Jamie Speronis, aren’t sure that Spurrier has ever turned on a computer. If he wants to read something on the Internet, Speronis is generally the one who prints it out for him.

In the corner of Spurrier’s office, he has a stack of old play-by-play sheets from games going back who knows how many years, and he can get to the one he wants in a matter of seconds.

Even though he owns an iPhone, nobody is really sure if he knows how to use it. He’s still rocking the old flip phone.

So while technology might not be Spurrier’s thing, don’t think for a minute that he has any trouble relating to today’s athlete. His wit is as sharp as ever, and nobody is spared.

“As an offensive lineman, you probably don’t want him saying much of anything to you,” senior guard A.J. Cann quipped. “I try to stay on his good side. He might be pushing 70, but he’s still coaching as hard as he ever has, and man, does he know how to push your buttons.”

Thompson added: “I love playing for him. He has his way of doing it and isn’t going to stop until you do it that way. When you get there, he’ll be happy. But until then, he’s going to keep grinding on you.”

And doing so in vintage Spurrier fashion.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier, Connor Shaw
Jeff Blake/USA TODAY SportsDespite being 69 years old, Steve Spurrier is still coaching as hard as ever.
Toward the end of spring practice this year, sophomore receiver Pharoh Cooper looked back too early on a pass route, prompting Spurrier, the son of a Presbyterian minister, to pipe up, ‘Pharoh, you know what happens when you look back?’ ”

In the Book of Genesis in the Bible, Lot’s wife looked back on Sodom and became a pillar of salt.

“He does a really good job of relating to whoever you are,” Thompson said. “I’m a Christian, and any time he can relate a Bible story to something we’re doing, he’ll do it. He’ll call Kane Whitehurst ‘Abel’ sometimes, off-the-wall stuff, and you think he’s crazy.

“But you always listen.”

For some SEC purists, it’s hard to fathom that Spurrier is just three seasons away from equaling the 12 seasons he spent as Florida’s head coach.

He’s not sure he’s ever had more fun coaching than he has these past few years, especially given the fact that South Carolina has accomplished so many firsts on his watch. As part of his new contract, Spurrier has the option to stay on as a special adviser to the president and athletic director when he does hang up his coaching visor for good.

But as Spurrier himself says, he can’t imagine not coaching football.

“What else are you going to do?” he said. “Every time I go to the beach now, after about three days, I say, ‘Jerri, let’s go.’ I’m not going to play golf every day. I’ve got my enthusiasm up, too. I got two epidural shots in my back [recently] and am feeling pretty good. I still have some arthritis, but it doesn’t hurt to work out.

“We’ve got a lot to look forward to here and a lot more we want to do.”

Plus, it’s home.

3-point stance: Pac-12 QB talent

April, 24, 2014
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1. According to ESPN Insider and Reese’s Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage, it’s a thin year for veteran quarterbacks everywhere but the Pac-12. Listing the top pro prospects for the 2015 NFL draft, Savage, speaking with me on the ESPNU College Football Podcast on Wednesday, started with Marcus Mariota of Oregon and Brett Hundley of UCLA, then tossed in Sean Mannion of Oregon State. Not to mention the league has Kevin Hogan of Stanford, Taylor Kelly of Arizona State and Cody Kessler of USC.

2. Dabo Swinney is a good man and a stand-up guy. He is proud of his Christianity and believes it can help others as much as it has helped him. As the coach of Clemson, a public university in a religious state, he is preaching to the choir. I’d bet it never occurred to Swinney that he stepped over the line between church and state, perhaps because the line is blurrier in South Carolina than in Madison, Wis., where the Freedom From Religion Foundation is based. If the foundation’s complaint makes Swinney realize again that everyone is not Christian, then the foundation’s complaint is a success.

3. The town of State College is crowdsourcing a statue to honor the late Joe Paterno, and it’s wonderful that the planned site is not far from Old Main, the home of the Penn State administration that removed the original Paterno statue from outside of Beaver Stadium in July 2012. What are the university administrators thinking? Do they understand they never should have made the removal of the statue permanent? Do they understand how much they rushed to judgment to vilify Paterno? When will they do their part to restore Paterno’s place of honor in Penn State history? The locals are doing their part.

Pac-12 leads leagues in QB starts

April, 23, 2014
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Keeping with our theme of Pac-12 quarterbacks -- and numbers donated to the Pac-12 blog by the Arizona State sports information department -- Jeremy Hawkes and Jordan Parry compiled a list of returning starts behind center by conference. Not surprisingly the Pac-12, with 10 returning starting QBs, is tied with the Big Ten for the most returning starters, and the Pac-12 leads the nation in total starts.

[+] EnlargeSean Mannion
Russ Isabella/USA TODAY SportsOregon State quarterback Sean Mannion is one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the country.
Hawkes wrote: "The logic we used was based around the quarterback who would be considered the 'primary' quarterback by season's end last season. Quarterbacks who were injured early in the season when they were considered the primary quarterback and return this year are also counted on the list (like David Ash at Texas)."

The Pac-12 not only welcomes back 10 starting QBs, it welcomes back 198 total starts, topped by 31 from Oregon State's Sean Mannion. Seven of the returning Pac-12 QBs have more than one season's worth of starting experience, too.

The Big Ten features 10 returning QBs and a cumulative 139 starts. The 14-team SEC only welcomes back five starting QBs with a combined 68 starts. Ohio State's Braxton Miller has the most career starts among returning quarterbacks with 32.

Further, notes Hawkes, "Also notable is that aside from Rutgers' Gary Nova (28 starts), Mannion (31), Taylor Kelly (27), Brett Hundley (27) and Marcus Mariota (26) are the four most seasoned QBs among all BCS teams (along with Bo Wallace at 26 starts at Ole Miss)."

Here's the list.

Pac-12 (10)
Sean Mannion, Oregon State: 31
Taylor Kelly, Arizona State: 27
Brett Hundley, UCLA: 27
Marcus Mariota, Oregon: 26
Kevin Hogan, Stanford: 19
Connor Halliday, Washington State: 19
Travis Wilson, Utah: 16
Cody Kessler, USC: 14
Jared Goff, Cal: 12
Sefo Liufau, Colorado: 7
Total: 198 starts

Big Ten (10)
Braxton Miller, Ohio State: 32
Gary Nova, Rutgers: 28
Devin Gardner, Michigan: 21
Joel Stave, Wisconsin: 19
Connor Cook, Michigan State: 13
Jake Rudock, Iowa: 13
Christian Hackenberg, Penn State: 12
Nate Sudfeld, Indiana: 8
Danny Etling, Purdue: 8
Mitch Leidner, Minnesota: 4
Total: 139 starts

Big 12 (8)
David Ash, Texas: 21
Bryce Petty, Baylor: 13
Jake Waters, Kansas State: 13
Jake Heaps, Kansas: 9
Sam Richardson, Iowa State: 8
Clint Trickett, West Virginia: 7
Davis Webb, Texas Tech: 6
Trevor Knight, Oklahoma: 5
Total: 82 starts

American Athletic (5)
Paxton Lynch, Memphis: 12
John O'Korn, Houston: 11
P.J. Walker, Temple: 7
Mike White, South Florida: 5
Casey Cochran, Connecticut: 4
Total: 39 starts

ACC (5)
Anthony Boone, Duke: 15
Jameis Winston, Florida State: 14
David Watford, Virginia: 12
Terrel Hunt, Syracuse: 10
Total: 54 starts

SEC (5)
Bo Wallace, Ole Miss: 26
Nick Marshall, Auburn: 14
Brandon Allen, Arkansas: 12
Justin Worley, Tennessee: 10
Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: 6
Total: 68 starts
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State officials ordered Joe Paterno's statue to be taken down nearly two years ago, but fans here haven't forgotten. They never will.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
Ned Dishman/Getty ImagesPenn State fans won't easily forget Joe Paterno's legacy at the school, despite how his career ended.
So while controversy might swirl in other parts of the country with the news today that two alumni are seeking to install a $300,000 statue downtown, the overwhelming sentiment around here is, "About time."

You can argue about whether such a statue is appropriate, or what type of role Paterno played in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, but common ground in that argument is about as elusive as a national title. So let's just deal with the facts here.

Fans here aren't going to forget about Paterno in another two years, 20 years or 200 years. It's about as difficult to separate Paterno from Penn State as it is to separate Penn State from Pennsylvania. Ignoring Paterno’s legacy doesn't freeze the controversy; it just builds up.

There's a growing divide between fans and university officials on this -- and no matter what your feelings are on the issue, the university owes fans an explanation. The new statue has stirred up old questions and renewed others: Will Penn State ever honor Paterno? When? Why or why not? Transparency isn't a negative in this case; the university would do well to fill in fans on its intentions.

Officials ordered the original statue to be torn down, and they've never so much as disclosed the current location. Then-president Rodney Erickson's statement read, "I now believe that, contrary to its original intention, Coach Paterno's statue has become a source of division and an obstacle to healing our university and beyond."

The ironic part is that the university's silence on the issue has also become a source of division. In the weeks and months following the statue's removal, it was easier to understand that silence. Fans may not have agreed with the decision, but they understood it. The nation was watching, and many -- rightly or wrongly -- looked at Paterno as more of a criminal than a legend. Like with anything, that extremism eventually gave way to more of a middle ground.

I reached out to a Penn State spokesman in an effort to shed some light on what the university's plans are regarding Paterno. What's the concern with putting Paterno's statue back up? Would there be national outrage? How does the university view him? Those questions remain unanswered because, unsurprisingly, the message was not immediately returned.

If officials are truly concerned about "divisions" and "obstacles," then they should open a dialogue instead of ignoring questions that most of the fan base have asked at one time or another. Maybe the university just wants to focus on a program that has real enthusiasm behind it, one that's somehow thrived under the sanctions. But staying quiet doesn't seem to be working.

Silence might bury a lot of things, but for better or worse, it's not going to bury Paterno's legacy. So no matter where you stand on the issue, one aspect should be evident: Penn State owes its fans and alumni an explanation.
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We have heard one complaint about Dabo Swinney and the way religion is “entangled” with the football program.

One singular complaint. Not from a current player or a former player. Not from a current coach or a former coach.

[+] EnlargeAaron Kelly
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesAaron Kelly, a Jehovah's Witness, says his coach's religious beliefs were not forced on him during his record-setting career at Clemson.
Just one, which came from a separation of church and state watchdog group based in Wisconsin, some 880 miles from Clemson. The Freedom From Religion Foundation leveled charges against Swinney based not on eyewitness accounts of “unconstitutional behavior” but on public records requests that detailed Bible days, Fellowship of Christian Athletes breakfasts, team devotionals and the hiring of the team chaplain.

Had any of these religious activities been mandatory, had any player lost his scholarship because he failed to attend them, then Swinney would be guilty of unconstitutional behavior at a public university -- where separation of church and state is guaranteed in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

But nobody -- not even the FFRF -- has claimed that Swinney penalized a player based on his religious beliefs. So what is Swinney guilty of, then? Being a little overzealous in bringing his religious beliefs into the program? Does it say anything about the situation that not one player has lodged a complaint?

According to public records, Swinney is the highest-paid employee at Clemson, a public institution. That means there is a finer line between being a man of faith and being a man who preaches his faith. Swinney cannot deny who he is, nor can he deny how he became who he is. He tells all prospective recruits exactly what they will get when they play for him.

There is a flip side to that. Swinney might not be actively proselyting, but when you take the lead in organizing bus trips to churches, or ask players to attend FCA breakfasts, there could very well be unintentional pressure to conform.

The FFRF has its concerns, accusing Swinney of alienating those players who do not believe as he does. But we have not heard any player complain he felt discriminated against or alienated while playing for Swinney. Aaron Kelly, a Jehovah’s Witness who played for Swinney from 2005 to 2008, came closest -- telling the Chronicle of Higher Education he felt “a little left out” as he watched teammates do their own religious activities.

But he also said he had no problem playing for Swinney despite their religious differences. Kelly left Clemson as the ACC’s all-time leading receiver. At the time, Swinney was his position coach and Tommy Bowden was the head coach, operating the program with a similar religious foundation.

“It was never forced on me or anything like that,” Kelly told Tigernet.com. “If I was uncomfortable with anything, I just explained myself and they were okay with it.”

In defending himself Wednesday, Swinney also used Kelly as an example.

“I’ve never had a problem ever in coaching him,” Swinney said. “He was never a guy who went to church with us, he didn’t pray with the team if the team ever prayed together. It was never a problem. The all-time leading receiver at Clemson and the ACC. ... It’s not about who the best Christian is, it’s about who the best player is. Always has been, always will be.”

Clemson is not the only school to have a highly devout Christian as its head coach. Georgia coach Mark Richt, for example, has been outspoken about his faith. Many teams across the country have team chaplains and player-organized FCA meetings. But there are lines that can be crossed at public schools, and Swinney should understand that.

Organizing bus trips to churches is not such a great idea. Baptisms on campus should be stopped. Swinney is adamant that he will not change how he runs the program, saying, “We do things the right way and always have. We’ll continue to run the program the way we always have.”

Until a player starts complaining, all we can do is take his word for it.
CLEMSON, S.C. -- By just about any standard, it has been a defining run for Dabo Swinney and Clemson.

The Tigers have won 32 games over the last three seasons, winning an ACC championship and a BCS bowl game and recording a pair of top-10 finishes in the polls along the way.

Not since 1990 had Clemson won 10 games in a season, but the Tigers have reached that plateau each of the last three seasons, including 11 wins each of the last two. With nine wins in 2014, this senior class could become the winningest class in school history.

[+] EnlargeSammy Watkins and Tajh Boyd
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesDabo Swinney and Clemson have had a lot to smile about in recent seasons.
The Tigers have also collected eight wins over nationally ranked foes during the last three seasons. For perspective, Florida State and Ohio State each have seven, Georgia six and Texas three during that span.

So when you start talking about some of the most resurgent programs in college football, make sure Clemson is near the top of that list.

Now, to suggest that Death Valley was ever truly dead would be a stretch. But what isn’t a stretch is that Swinney has pumped the kind of life and energy back into Clemson football that has the people in these parts dreaming big again.

“We have higher expectations every year,” said Clemson All-American defensive end Vic Beasley, who is part of what should be one of the deepest defensive lines in college football. “There’s still another step, and everybody knows what that step is -- winning a national championship.”

Of course, before the Tigers can think national championship, they need to figure out a way to win their state championship.

That’s really been the only rub under Swinney, who is entering his sixth full season as Clemson’s coach.

He has lost his last five games to South Carolina, Clemson’s longest losing streak in series history, and it hasn’t helped that the guy on the other end of those beatings, coach Steve Spurrier, has reveled in twisting the proverbial knife.

Anybody who really knows Spurrier knows it’s not personal. That’s just the way the Head Ball Coach rolls. Always has and always will.

Swinney, to his credit, doesn’t take it personally, but that hasn’t made these last five losses to the Gamecocks any less nauseating, especially when Clemson has pretty much owned every other SEC team it has faced.

“He is who he is. Coach Spurrier has been that way forever. It’s not like it’s just me he gets after, so at least he’s consistent,” said Swinney, whose six wins over SEC teams since becoming Clemson’s head coach in the middle of the 2008 season are the most in the nation among non-SEC coaches. “He’s been that way his entire career whether you like him or don’t like him. Sometimes you wish he’d just let the focus stay on the players and the game and maybe not keep it stirred up.

“But the best thing we can do is start beating them.”

Swinney’s lone win over South Carolina came after taking over for Tommy Bowden midway through the 2008 season, but nobody on the current Clemson roster has ever beaten the Gamecocks.

And not that anybody needs to be reminded, but there are clocks strategically placed in the Clemson football complex counting down the minutes to Nov. 29 when South Carolina pays a visit to Death Valley.

“It’s really frustrating for us, especially for me and a lot of the guys who were raised in South Carolina,” Clemson senior receiver Adam Humphries said. “We know what it means to our fans and what it means to our football team. If we want to get to that main goal of a national championship, we’ve got to win that game. It’s so vital to where we stand at the end of the season.

“You can’t get away from it in this state. Each year, we feel like we have the better team, but we just slip up with turnovers and a few plays here and there that cost you ballgames.”

A year ago, Clemson turned it over six times in a 31-17 loss to South Carolina yet still went into the fourth quarter with a chance to win.

“I go back and look at that game and examine how did we physically play, and to be honest with you, if you just graded it out, we won in every phase of the game,” Swinney said. “We lost on the scoreboard. We outrushed them, outpassed them, outdefended them. We did everything. But you can’t win when you have that many turnovers.”

It was a similar story against Florida State last season. The Tigers turned it over four times against the Seminoles and never had a chance in a 51-14 blowout loss at home.

In their two losses a year ago, the Tigers were on the wrong side of a 10-1 turnover margin.

Senior defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said it gets down to playing their best in their biggest games.

“We’re 22-0 against everybody else except Florida State and South Carolina the last two years,” Jarrett said. “For us to get where we want to be, we’ve got to beat Florida State and South Carolina. When you’re playing against top-five teams, you’ve got to play your best game. That’s what everybody walking on that field needs to understand, that it’s going to take our best game.”

[+] EnlargeDabo Swinney, Steve Spurrier
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesLosing rivalry games has been the one negative during Swinney's tenure at Clemson.
Swinney doesn’t buy into the notion that it’s become mental with South Carolina. To his point, Clemson more than held its own in the line of scrimmage last season.

Spurrier even told Swinney when they bumped into each other on the recruiting trail this offseason that the only thing the Gamecocks could muster against the Clemson front was Connor Shaw running the quarterback draw.

“I think you have to give them some dadgum credit,” Swinney said. “Everybody wants to just say that you’re losing to your rival all the time. But how about the fact that, ‘Yeah, we’ve been a top-10 team, but so have they.’ We finished seventh, and they finished fourth. They have been a great football team the last few years. Coach Spurrier and his staff have done an unbelievable job. I hate it, but I’ve got to look beyond the rivalry and evaluate everything.

“You’re not only talking about a rival game, but you’re trying to beat a top-five team in the country along the way. When you play top-five teams, those games are hard to win. But we feel like we are a top-10 team here at Clemson, and we’ve got to become that top-five team. That’s kind of the next step for us. So you evaluate everything you’re doing, what you’re doing and how you prepare, and you’ve got to give them credit. They had a quarterback down there [Shaw] who was special and was a great winner. A couple of years they were just better than us. There’s no question about that. But I don’t think they were better than us the last couple of years. They just won that day. They earned it and performed better on that day.”

The dynamic of the Clemson-South Carolina rivalry has also changed and raised the stakes.

“Used to be, outside of this state, nobody really paid much attention to Clemson-South Carolina because Clemson pretty much dominated,” Swinney said. “South Carolina was never really a factor from a national standpoint. Clemson was here and there and had some good runs, especially in the '80s when they won the championship. Now, this rivalry has become much more of a national game because it has national implications of BCS bowls, top-10 rankings, and that has never been the case in this rivalry.

“It’s just a different time, and it happens to be my time to be at Clemson. But it’s going to turn back, no question. We’ll get it turned back.”
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IOWA CITY, Iowa -- No Big Ten coach takes the temperature of his team in spring practice quite like Iowa's Kirk Ferentz. No Big Ten coach has lived in as many different climates.

The dean of the league's coaches knows the sunniness that surrounds teams after redemptive seasons such as the ones the Hawkeyes had in 2001, 2008 or last fall, when Iowa improved its wins total by four. He also knows the polar vortex that exists, at least outside Iowa's football complex, after poor performances like the ones the team delivered in 2007 and 2012.

Ferentz also understands how quickly the weather changes, like it often does on spring afternoons in the Midwest.

So at a recent team meeting, Ferentz detoured from the typical spring minutia -- replacing seniors, creating depth, finding leaders, building identities -- and addressed a macro item: the preseason polls.

"He said we might be ranked," running back Jordan Canzeri told ESPN.com, "and even if we are, no one is to keep that in their head. There were several teams that were ranked and didn't get to go to a bowl game this past year. You never want to be cocky. Even if the stats show you're good, you still want to prepare as you would with any other team, so you don't get satisfied and complacent."

Iowa likely will be ranked when the preseason polls come out. The Hawkeyes appear in some way-too early versions. They return eight offensive starters, including left tackle Brandon Scherff, a preseason All-America candidate, along with three of four starting defensive linemen from a team that flipped its regular-season record in 2013.

The quarterback uncertainty that hovered over the program last spring, when no signal-caller had taken a snap in a game, is no longer there, as junior Jake Rudock has established himself. An unprecedented stretch of running back maladies has subsided as Iowa returns three veteran options (Mark Weisman, Canzeri and Damon Bullock) and two promising young players (LeShun Daniels Jr. and Barkley Hill). There's more explosiveness at wide receiver, and the defensive line, led by senior tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, looks more like the elite units Iowa produced for most of Ferentz's tenure.

[+] EnlargeCarl Davis
David Purdy/The Des Moines Register via USA TODAY SportsWith Carl Davis and others back, Iowa's defensive line should be the team's strongest unit.
"We are a more experienced unit, probably the most experienced unit on the team," defensive line coach Reese Morgan said.

There are enough internal reasons to indicate Iowa will take another step this season, but the biggest factors in the Hawkeyes favor are external. Their new division, the Big Ten West, lacks a clear-cut favorite or a flawless team. And their schedule is undoubtedly the most favorable in the league.

Not only does Iowa miss Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State from the East Division, but it hosts both Wisconsin and Nebraska. The Hawkeyes' toughest league road game should be a Nov. 8 visit to Minnesota.

"It's a pretty favorable schedule for us," wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley said, "but every week is going to be a challenge. Nothing that happened last year really matters."

Davis looks forward to visiting Big Ten newcomer Maryland, but he had hoped to play more of the league's traditional powers. The only way Iowa sees Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan is in the Big Ten championship game.

"When the Big Ten started, those are the teams that dominated," Davis said. "You want to be able to play those teams and beat those teams. I really look forward to it.

"I definitely feel we're in contention for a Big Ten championship. Every team says it, but we're hungry."

Ferentz has seen Iowa go from good to great in 2002 and again in 2009. He also has seen the program fall short of expectations, as it did in 2006 and 2010.

The first step to building upon success, Ferentz said, is not taking it for granted. Take Iowa's group of linebackers, which loses three multiyear starters from last year's squad: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens.

"If we're waiting for Morris, Kirksey and Hitchens to give us 300 tackles, that ain't gonna happen," Ferentz said. "Two years ago, we had a disappointing season. Last year was a new year and this year was the flip record-wise, but it's a new year again. This team has to form its own identity, and it starts with our experienced players. We're going to need them to play their absolute best, which is what those seniors did last year."

Iowa's linebacker reset has been a top spring storyline. Quinton Alston has stepped into the lead role, earning high marks from teammates and coaches. Travis Perry and Reggie Spearman, who played as a 17-year-old freshman last fall and doesn't turn 18 until August, are likely starters alongside Alston.

The biggest challenge could be replacing Kirksey, a converted safety who brought defensive back speed to outside linebacker.

"Chris had a different skill set than the guys we have out there now," defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. "It's been a long time since we had a guy who could run that fast and still have the power and explosion to play in the box, too, or at least on the tight end. We have three or four guys we're trying to look at with that position."

Other uncertainties include the cornerback spot opposite dynamic sophomore Desmond King, free safety and the second-string offensive line, which coordinator Greg Davis lists as the unit's biggest concern.

Iowa players understand that their margin for error remains slim.

"The determining factor is going to be winning those close games," Martin-Manley said.

Iowa won several such contests in 2009, its last truly special season. The 2014 team also could reach rarefied air, but Hawkeyes won't get caught with their heads in the clouds.

"That's what we do here; we work hard," Davis said. "That's something you get used to the longer you're in this program. The grind becomes normal, and I feel like all our hard work will be able to pay off."
AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn’s spring came and went without a No. 1 running back establishing himself. Is it because Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant performed so well that deciding between the two proved too difficult for the Auburn coaches?

It’s a possibility. Artis-Payne paced the offense with 12 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown in the spring game, while Grant provided a spark with five carries for 128 yards and a touchdown of his own.

[+] EnlargeRacean Thomas
Tom Hauck for Student SportsRacean "Roc" Thomas, the No. 5 tailback in the 2014 class, was an Alabama fan before committing to play for Auburn.
A-Day capped off what had been an impressive month for both backs, though it did little to close the gap between the two.

But there might be more to it. What if the staff was waiting on a certain ESPN 300 prospect to arrive on campus before making a final decision?

It would seem crazy for a freshman to come in and take the job away from two seniors, but if you don’t think it’s possible then you haven’t seen Racean "Roc" Thomas play. As a senior at Oxford (Ala.) High School, he rushed for 2,211 yards and 32 touchdowns. He says he’s been told by Auburn coaches that he’ll have every chance to start when he gets on campus.

“They’re just ready for me to get up there and really get me in the offense and see what I can do,” Thomas told ESPN.com.

Growing up, Thomas was an Alabama fan. He went to games at Bryant-Denny Stadium and attended camps on the UA campus. When he received an offer from Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide, it was expected that he would take his talents to Tuscaloosa. At one point, he was all set to commit there -- until the staff told him to hold on.

“I was like, ‘Well, no I’m not going to hold on. If y’all want my commitment, then y’all will let me commit right now,'" Thomas said.

Alabama didn’t take his commitment, so Thomas started taking visits to Auburn where first-year coach Gus Malzahn made him a top priority. A new bond was formed, and before Malzahn ever coached his first game, Thomas committed to Auburn in what he called a “business” decision.

Shortly after Lane Kiffin was hired as Alabama’s offensive coordinator, the Crimson Tide made one last push to sign Thomas, but it proved too little too late. Thomas stayed true to his word and signed with the Tigers in February.

“I think a lot of people were surprised,” Thomas said. “And [at the same time], I think a lot of them really kind of knew that’s where I was going to go. I guess it’s just stuff that happened over time.”

With the recruiting saga behind fully him, Thomas appears more confident and at ease than he ever did in the months leading up to signing day. There are no more phone calls from coaches or media. No more criticism from Alabama fans who were upset he signed with their bitter rival. He’s just living his life.

“[It’s] just working out, track, keeping in touch with the coaches,” Thomas said. “We’re probably going to start soon where they’ll start showing me some plays and trying to get me in the mix of how they do things up there play-wise.

“I’m just really trying to keep a solid schedule -- working out, eating right and just really trying to stay healthy.”

The plan is for Thomas to arrive at Auburn this summer and immediately begin working out with the team. The coaches have high expectations for the Mr. Football Award winner. When Thomas said he’ll be given every chance to start his first season, he wasn’t lying.

Even though Artis-Payne and Grant battled dutifully for the starting job this spring, it’s possible that Auburn’s No. 1 running back is still on his way.

“We're going to play the best player at every position,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said this spring. “I don't care if you're a senior, I don't care if you're a true freshman. Those guys are going to get opportunities.”

Lashlee was careful to peel back the layers on the pending competition, however.

“The difference for them, these guys (on campus now) are light years ahead,” he said. “Obviously Cam and Corey have played, Peyton [Barber] has had a year plus the spring, so it's just going to matter with Roc and Kam [Kamryn Pettway] in that situation, how quick do they pick things up, how fast can they grasp everything and have the game slow down for them.

“We've had it both ways. We've had guys like Peyton Barber who either because we had guys in front of him or he just needed a redshirt year -- we still think Peyton's going to be a great player. And then we've had other guys in the past that as a true freshman were ready, and we kind of eased them into it. Sometimes earlier in the year they got more or as the year went on they got more or their workload increased.

“We'll have to see how that goes when those two get here and see how they respond, but we're counting on them to come in and compete, want to play and want to play now.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Four touchdowns versus 14.

Three hundred and eighty-two yards versus 1,235.

Thirty-five carries versus 207.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsAlabama tailback T.J. Yeldon wants to improve his acceleration this offseason.
Two 100-yard games versus six.

If it weren’t Derrick Henry, we wouldn’t be making the comparison. His freshman season was promising with 382 rushing yards and four total touchdowns. But if he weren’t Derrick Henry and this wasn’t Alabama, how important would he really be?

It’s not Henry’s fault. He didn’t fuel the hype of his arrival in Tuscaloosa. He never once compared himself to T.J. Yeldon. The fans and the media did that for him.

Thanks to his potential and one breakout game -- not two or three or four to create, you know, a trend -- he went from a project at running back into a contender not only to beat out Yeldon for the starting job, but someone to watch in the Heisman Trophy race. Or so that’s how the story goes. Bovada, a sports gambling website, bought in, giving Henry 28-to-1 odds to hoist the bronze award.

Talk about a runaway hype train. Check your sense of reality at the gate.

Well, consider this your derailment. Or, on a slightly more positive note, consider this an appreciation of all that T.J. Yeldon is as a running back.

Those numbers listed earlier -- 1,235 yards, 14 touchdowns, 207 carries -- they were all Yeldon’s in 2013. In what has become a symptom of the greater Alabama fan, overlooking established starters for the next big thing, Yeldon’s accomplishments were lost in the shuffle. Never mind that he was named first-team All-SEC by the league’s coaches. Never mind that he followed up the best season of a freshman running back in school history by improving his production in every important category. Never mind that he’s only now a junior and could very well make the leap to the NFL after this coming season.

Henry will be around for a while longer. His turn will come. Yeldon’s time is now.

Yeldon’s sophomore campaign was viewed as underwhelming by some ridiculous accounts, even though his 102.9 yards per game trailed only Tre Mason and Jeremy Hill in the SEC. Yeldon was said to be not enough of an explosive tailback, even though his 34 rushes for 10 or more yards ranked 30th nationally, ahead of the likes of Todd Gurley, Devonta Freeman and Duke Johnson.

You think Yeldon didn’t hear all the chatter? He certainly played like he did on Saturday, doing his part to remind fans how only three other running backs in the country will enter the 2014 season with more career rushing yards than his 2,343.

For the second A-Day in his career, Yeldon won the Dixie Howell Award for the game’s most valuable player. In a scrimmage in which he touched the ball just 12 times, he totaled 104 all-purpose yards. He had one touchdown and the longest run of the day -- 36 yards. Meanwhile, Henry accounted for 22 yards rushing on eight carries and -2 yards on one reception. The 73,000-plus fans who came to Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday to see Henry cash in on the hype instead saw Yeldon show once again why he’s the starting tailback at Alabama.

“You’ve seen T.J. get the MVP, so you can’t overlook him,” linebacker Reggie Ragland said after the game. “He’s going to do what he needs to do on the field and make plays.”

Yeldon, meanwhile, was his usual understated self. Shy when it comes to speaking with the media, it was his first turn in front of the cameras all spring. And in typical Yeldon fashion, he’d rather let his play do the talking.

When asked whether it was a big deal to win the A-Day MVP, he said, “Not really,” adding that he believed a defensive player would take home the award. When asked about the competition among the running backs, he said it fueled him.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlabama's Derrick Henry had a breakout game in the Allstate Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma with 161 yards and two touchdowns on just nine touches.
“It’s really competitive,” he said. “We’ve got Altee [Tenpenny], Tyren [Jones]. We can all play. We’re all helping each other get better, I think.”

Entering the spring, Yeldon said his mindset was “like trying to take over a game” and despite the incessant talk of his backups, he did just that.

Now, as spring gives way to the offseason, Yeldon’s focus is on getting himself better. He said he wants to get stronger and faster, spending more time in the weight room. One specific area he said he’d like to improve is his acceleration.

A bigger, quicker Yeldon might be the last thing SEC defenses are hoping for. And with Henry coming up the rear, Alabama could have a formidable one-two punch.

But make no mistake who’s first in that scenario.

Henry is surely coming into his own. After simply taking the handoff and running in high school, he’s learning how to do the little things, like pass protection and pass catching.

Just remember that Yeldon already knows how to do all those things and more. Under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, he could become even more dangerous catching the ball out of the backfield.

Henry will be special in time, but Yeldon is special right now. He might not have the following or the hype of Henry, but he has the thing that matters most of all: production. And until the numbers change, it’s Yeldon first and Henry second.

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