Pac-12 leads leagues in QB starts

April, 23, 2014
Apr 23
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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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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer is always trying to find new ways to motivate his players.

Last spring, he had a banner put up in the Ohio State field house reading “The Chase …” in reference to the Buckeyes’ championship pursuits. Meyer said he thought about changing the display for the 2014 offseason. In the end, though, he stuck with the same one.

“We didn’t accomplish it,” Meyer told ESPN.com. “We chased it but didn’t catch it. So the chase is still on.”

Ohio State, of course, nearly made it to its desired finish line. After going 12-0 for the second straight season under Meyer, the Buckeyes just needed to beat Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game to clinch a date with Florida State for the BCS national title. Instead, they fell 34-24 to the Spartans and closed the year on a two-game losing streak with a 40-35 setback against Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteUrban Meyer says Ohio State is still trying to finish "The Chase."
So the chase continues, albeit with a much different-looking team in the 2014 starting gate. Gone is four-fifths of the offensive line that formed the backbone of the Big Ten’s top-scoring offense the past two seasons. Also gone are reigning Big Ten running back of the year Carlos Hyde and top receiver Corey “Philly” Brown, as well as the two biggest stars on defense -- linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby -- who opted to enter the NFL draft.

Experience is lacking in many key areas, but Meyer is ready to let some talented youngsters loose, including true freshmen. In retrospect, he wishes he had done so last year, when defensive end Joey Bosa and receiver Dontre Wilson were the only first-year players to make a big impact until safety Vonn Bell started in the Orange Bowl.

“We redshirted too many last year, and that was our fault,” he said. “There was a misunderstanding, and we just didn’t do a good job, especially on defense. When they show up on campus, we need to get them ready to play.”

This spring, early enrollees Raekwon McMillan (linebacker), Curtis Samuel (tailback) and Johnnie Dixon (receiver) were all heavily involved and have secured roles in the fall. Redshirt freshman are also at or near the top of the depth chart at strongside linebacker (Darron Lee and Chris Worley) and cornerback (Gareon Conley and Eli Apple), while true sophomores like safety Cam Burrows and tailback Ezekiel Elliott could force their way into the starting lineup.

“When you talk about inexperience, that’s a good thing right now,” said Chris Ash, who was hired from Arkansas as co-defensive coordinator to help fix Ohio State’s pass defense. “There aren’t a lot of habits that we have to change to fit what we’re trying to do. We don’t have older guys that are comfortable with where they’re at in their careers.”

An already young offense became even greener this spring because of injuries to three senior leaders: tight end Jeff Heuerman, receiver Evan Spencer and quarterback Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes will no doubt look a lot different when Miller returns from shoulder surgery. During the 15 spring practices, the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year often stood behind the offense and wore a camera on his head so coaches could go over what he was seeing on the field.

“We're exhausting every avenue and even inventing different avenues to make sure he's engaged and getting mental reps,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “We're doing the best we can with a bad situation. He has embraced it and is working his tail off, making sure he’s getting the most out of it.”

Herman says the Buckeyes should be more explosive on the perimeter this season, with guys like Wilson, Dixon, junior college transfer Corey Smith, sophomore Michael Thomas and freshman Jalin Marshall at receiver and a stable of athletic tailbacks. The safeties are longer and quicker than they have been in the past, and the defensive line -- which could be one of the nation’s best -- will have four starters who all used to be defensive ends.

The objective is clear: more speed. To that end, Meyer has hammered a new mantra in the players' heads: “4 to 6, A to B.” That means play hard for four to six seconds and get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. It's hard to interview an Ohio State player these days without hearing the phrase.

“That’s all he’s been preaching this spring.” defensive tackle Adolphus Washington said. “He said he’s not really worried about technique and all that stuff. It’s just about playing hard, because if you play hard, effort makes up for mistakes.”

Washington said the defense was greatly simplified this spring, with only about four or five different calls to learn. Aggressiveness trumped scheme.

“The culture of Ohio State is to go hard, not trick you,” Meyer said. “I just felt like there was too much stuff last year, instead of just going hard.”

By moving faster and playing harder, the Buckeyes hope to overcome their youth and track down what they've been hunting. They have been tantalizingly close.

“We’re still on a chase,” Washington said. “We’ve just got to finish it.”
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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.

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