NCF Nation: Chandler Jones

Big East: D-E-F-E-N-S-E

May, 4, 2012
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Anybody who has watched the Big East in recent years realizes this a much more defensive league, than offensive league.

Last season, seven of the eight teams ranked in the top half of the nation in total defense. The "worst" defense, Syracuse, ranked No. 64 -- just outside the top half. In 2010, six of eight teams ranked in the top half of the nation in the same category. The "worst" two defenses -- Cincinnati and Rutgers -- were ranked No. 61 and 63, respectively. In 2009, the worst defense, Cincinnati, ranked No. 67 in the nation.

I went back and looked at recent draft history to see how this translated to the next level.

[+] EnlargeChandler Jones
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireSyracuse defensive end Chandler Jones was drafted in the first round by New England last month.
Sure enough, defensive players were selected more than offensive players, and in higher rounds to boot.

In the past two drafts, 21 of the 34 players selected came from the defense. In the recently concluded NFL draft, eight of the 12 Big East players came from the defense. More pronounced, five of the seven players drafted in the first three rounds were defensive, and all played defensive line (Bruce Irvin, Chandler Jones, Derek Wolfe, Kendall Reyes and John Hughes).

Going back to the 2010 draft, 12 of the 16 players taken in the first three rounds were on defense.

We can continue looking a bit deeper to see defensive line has been an incredible strength, not just in the draft this year. In the past four drafts, the Big East has had at least one defensive lineman drafted in the first three rounds. Last year, two of the first four Big East picks were linemen. In 2010, Jason Pierre-Paul of USF went in the first round.

Coaches like Charlie Strong, Greg Schiano, Randy Edsall, Dave Wannstedt, Paul Pasqualoni and Jim Leavitt all have had a hand in the transformation, given their defensive backgrounds.

So will the trend hold for the 2013 draft?

In the super early mock drafts for next season, there are no Big East players listed in the first round. But CBS Sports already has a listing of the top draft prospects, by position. Eleven defensive players are listed among the Top 25 players at their respective positions, compared to five on offense.

However, there are more offensive players ranked among the Top 5 at their positions. Justin Pugh of Syracuse is listed as the No. 4 offensive tackle; Ray Graham of Pitt is listed as the No. 5 running back; and Ryan Griffin of UConn is listed as the No. 5 tight end.

The top-ranked defensive player is Khaseem Greene, at No. 6 among outside linebackers. Sio Moore of UConn also makes that list, at No. 9.

There is obviously an entire season of football to be played, and all these projections will change. But the way the Big East's defensive players have emerged is a trend worth noting.
You saw him beat up on Big East quarterbacks the last two years, so you know what West Virginia defensive end Bruce Irvin can do when he is playing at his best.

And yet, Irvin turned out to be the biggest draft-day surprise Thursday, when Seattle took him with the No. 15 overall pick, eliciting a chorus of "Who?" among the uninitiated. Most experts had pegged another Big East player -- Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones -- to go to the Seahawks.

[+] EnlargeBruce Irvin
Randy Litzinger/Icon SMIFormer West Virginia defensive end Bruce Irvin was only one of two players with Big East ties selected in Thursday's first round of the NFL draft.
Jones did eventually go in the first round, at No. 21 to the New England Patriots. They were the only two players with Big East ties selected on the first day of the draft, which turns out to be more than most everybody expected. A few months ago, most wondered whether the Big East would even have one player taken in the first round.

A few months ago, most had Irvin pegged as a second or third-round pick. Scratch that. A mere 24 hours ago, most had Irvin pegged as a second or third-round pick. His measurables are undeniable. He can run like a cheetah, as he proved at the NFL combine with his blazing 4.41 in the 40-yard dash. He can take down quarterbacks like a possessed man-child, as evidence by his 23 sacks in two years with the Mountaineers.

The Seahawks called him the best pure pass-rusher available in the draft, which is why they made him the first defensive end selected Thursday night. So why all the shock? The doubters? The haters?

For one, Irvin is a raw talent, having only played two years on the highest level in college football. He played in a defensive formation that nobody uses in the NFL. He struggled on non-passing downs, so much so that West Virginia took him out of the starting lineup after five games so he could return to his duties as a pass-rush specialist.

Listen to him when he says, "I've heard I'm a one-trick pony. But the crazy thing is I got 23 sacks in two years and I've never been coached. If I get a little coaching, just imagine what I can do."

He has a background that no doubt scared some teams off, when in fact, they probably should have taken a much harder look to see how the adversity he overcame built his character and gave him an unparalleled work ethic. Irvin could very well be homeless in Atlanta today, had he not accepted help and made the conscious decision to change his life. There are many others who have failed given the same opportunities.

Granted, Irvin did not help his situation when he was arrested last month and charged with destruction of property and disorderly conduct. Those charges have since been dropped. Was it a reminder to some teams to throw up a red flag?

That hardly matters now. Seattle coach Pete Carroll is fully aware of what Irvin has gone through, having recruited him out of Mt. San Antonio Junior College while still coaching USC. Most of all, he is fully aware of the incredible potential Irvin has to fill a need that the Seahawks sorely need.

Coaches often say players succeed or fail in the NFL based on the organization that drafts them, and whether or not they have NFL coaches who believe in them. Drafting Irvin so high is a huge risk. But every team takes a risk of some kind in the NFL draft, so that should not make this pick any more shocking than Miami drafting a quarterback who went 7-6 last year at perennial underachiever Texas A&M.

Drafting is all about projecting, same as in recruiting. There is no complete player in the draft. Every pick is a guess. Seattle is guessing Irvin will be worth the risk.

The spotlight is firmly on Irvin and the Seahawks now. He has the potential to be great. Now in addition to learning a new system and accepting the coaching, he will have to deal with expectations that come with being a first-round pick. Folks will want him to live up to some preconceived notion of what first-round picks should do. If Irvin is as ferocious rushing the passer in the NFL as he was in college, I believe he will not only meet those expectations.

He will exceed them.
Chandler Jones made the decision to leave Syracuse after the NFL draft advisory board told him he would be a third-round pick.

Jones
Four months later, third round seems way too low. Jones has seen his stock rise perhaps more than any other prospect, with ESPN expert Mel Kiper pegging Jones to go No. 12 overall to the Seattle Seahawks as the NFL draft begins tonight.

So how has Jones balanced preparations for the next level, along with growing expectations among many that he has found a place in the first round?

"My mom always gets mad at me when I say this, but I'm going into the draft with the impression that I'm going in the third round," Jones said in a recent phone interview. "Whenever I do get picked, it's going to be shocking to me. I just want to play football again and be an impact player, but as far as going in the first round it would be a dream come true."

Jones is well aware of the way his stock has risen. He believes there are two factors that have helped him. First, he had a terrific performance at the combine, where he ranked in the Top 10 among defensive linemen in the vertical jump (35 inches) and broad jump (10 feet).

Then came his interviews.

"I stay humble through it all, but I feel like what raised my stock was the way I interviewed," he said. "I met with 14 different teams, talked to the head coach, general managers, talked to coordinators and position coaches. I felt like I carried myself very well. I came to every single interview like it was a job interview. I sat down with a coach, told him what I know, and all the coaches were impressed with how much I know, and were very intrigued with me. We watched film, and I explained what went on. They were impressed with my football knowledge."

None of that should come as a surprise. Jones has a gregarious personality, enough to leave a big impression about his character. He also has an older brother, Arthur, who plays for the Baltimore Ravens and has been a mentor in the sport. Another brother, Jon "Bones" Jones, is the UFC light heavyweight champion -- adding to the family's sporting bloodlines.

Jones played defensive end at Syracuse, but he may play more as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme in the NFL, depending on where he gets drafted.

"Teams love that I'm versatile," Jones said. "Throughout my college career, I played nose tackle, I played defensive tackle and I played defensive end. With the body frame I have, 6-5, 265 pounds, I can play the 5 technique or stay where I am and play outside linebacker. I have not played in a 3-4 scheme, but there were different looks at Syracuse University where we would shift into a 3-4, and I felt comfortable. I can come off the edge real fast, so I do not think it would be too foreign. Dropping into coverage is something I will have to get used to, and it's a challenge I'm ready to tackle."

Jones also has bulked up in the time he left Syracuse, putting on 13 pounds during his time at API Performance in Pensacola, Fla. That obviously helps as well. Jones will watch the draft from the media room at the new home his brother, Jon, bought in Ithaca, N.Y.

But, it hardly matters when his name will be called.

Big East position rankings: DL

February, 21, 2012
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As we move along in our final position rankings for the 2011 season, we come to the defense. First up: defensive line. To me, this was the strongest, deepest position in the Big East; thus the toughest to rank. Trust me when I say I would not call any of these defensive fronts bad, although they each had their moments to forget. Six of the eight teams in the league in 2011 gave up more than 200 yards rushing at least once. Read on to find out the two that did not.

For these rankings, I am taking into account both rush defense, sacks, tackles for loss, personnel and my own impressions from what I saw this season.

[+] EnlargeCincinnati defensive tackle Derek Wolfe in action during a college football game against Akron, Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011 in Cincinnati.
AP Photo/Al BehrmanDefensive tackle Derek Wolfe and Cincinnati led the nation in tackles for loss this past season.
1. Cincinnati. Not only were the Bearcats the most improved group this season, they were the best up front -- No. 2 in the Big East in rush defense; No. 2 in the nation in sacks; No. 1 in the nation tackles for loss. Tackle Derek Wolfe won Co-Big East Defensive Player of the year. Twice, opponents were held to negative yards rushing. Yes, there was one bad game late in the season against Rutgers. But otherwise, this unit was aggressive and tenacious and the best of the bunch. Preseason rank: 7 (Yikes!)

2. Pitt. This is a group that got better as the season went on, and collectively had some pretty solid performances. Among the top eight players in sacks in the Big East -- three belong to the Panthers (Aaron Donald, Chas Alecxih and Brandon Lindsey). Their ability to get after the quarterback is a big reason why I have them here. They might have ranked No. 5 in the league in rushing defense, but they were No. 21 in the nation. Donald and Alecxih also earned spots on the Big East second team. Preseason rank: 2.

3. USF. The Bulls were vastly better at the end of the season than they were at the beginning, yet I still can't get that performance against Pitt out of my head (gave up more than 300 yards on the ground), probably because I was in the stadium and have not seen a worse display of run defense in a long time. Still, I give these guys credit for bouncing back. After that game, the highest run total USF yielded was 132 to Louisville. The Bulls ranked No. 2 in the nation in tackles for loss, No. 3 in the Big East for sacks and were able to develop some solid players up front. Preseason rank: 4.

4. UConn. The difficulty in ranking the Huskies is the fact that most teams just decided to throw on them, which probably skews the No. 1 run defense ranking a little. There were only 385 rushing attempts against them this past season -- the only Big East school with fewer than 400. Still, UConn did not allow 200 yards on the ground this season, a rare feat in the league. Trevardo Williams led the league in sacks with 12.5, and Kendall Reyes contributed 13.5 tackles for loss and has the potential to be a first-round NFL pick. Reyes was a first-team Big East selection; Williams made the second team. Preseason rank: 1.

5. Rutgers. Yes, the run defense was tough to watch at times (three straight games allowing more than 200 yards rushing), but the Scarlet Knights were able to get back to what they do best -- pressuring the quarterback and taking players down in the backfield. Last season, Rutgers had 17 total sacks. This past season, the Scarlet Knights ranked No. 4 in the league with 36. Justin Francis led the way with 6.5, and Scott Vallone made improvements as well. Preseason rank: 8.

6. Louisville. Injuries on the front really hurt the Cardinals this past season. They did rank No. 3 in the league in rushing defense, but there was never a real sense that they could produce a consistent pass rush from their linemen. Louisville ranked No. 6 in tackles for loss and No. 6 in sacks. The team leader in sacks, Marcus Smith, had 5.5. Only Syracuse ranks lower in that category. There is great potential here as the young players who got experience showed definite flashes. Preseason rank: 5.

7. West Virginia. As much as I think Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller are terrific players, this group as a whole I thought was disappointing in 2011. There were definite strides at the end of the season, but for most of the season we all wondered what was wrong with the potent pass rush? Through nine weeks, West Virginia had 10 sacks. That improved in a big way once Irvin was used in more situational downs, but the Mountaineers ranked No. 7 in the Big East in sacks (31) and No. 8 in tackles for loss, along with No. 8 in run defense. Though they never gave up 200 yards on the ground, they did give up more than 180 four times. Preseason rank: 3.

8. Syracuse. The Orange never really got much going along the front, and a big reason why is because they missed Chandler Jones so much while he was gone. The fact that he made the Big East first team in only seven games should prove how badly he was needed. Syracuse ranked No. 7 in the league in tackles for loss; No. 8 in sacks (28), and No. 6 in rushing defense. Those TFL and sack stats are pretty good nationally, but these guys are being judged against the rest of the Big East, and most games, they just fell short. Preseason rank: 6.
With one day to go before signing day, it is worth taking a look back at how the players on the Big East first-team fared when they were coming out of high school.

You will see, once again, that recruiting rankings generally have nothing to do with the way a player will do in college. So anybody freaking out about what your school does or does not have in the way of commitments for 2012, just take a deep breath. And look at how some of the most unheralded players out of high school become some of the best in the Big East.

I used ESPN recruiting rankings. Note only one player honored on the first team was ranked as an ESPNU150 player. Many on defense came in as either athletes, receivers or quarterbacks.

Offense

[+] EnlargeCincinnati defensive tackle Derek Wolfe in action during a college football game against Akron, Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011 in Cincinnati.
AP Photo/Al BehrmanCincinnati defensive tackle Derek Wolfe -- the 2011 co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year -- was unranked coming out of high school.
WR Mohamed Sanu, Rutgers. Sanu was ranked the No. 18 safety in the nation coming out of high school in 2009, with a scout grade of 80.

WR/RS Tavon Austin, West Virginia. Austin was rated the No. 41 running back in the nation coming out of high school in 2009 -- three spots behind De'Antwan Williams (Rutgers) and one spot behind Jason Douglas (Pitt). Know who else was ranked ahead -- Victor Marc and Bradley Battles of USF.

OT Justin Pugh, Syracuse. Unranked at his position for the class of 2009, Pugh got a scout grade of 40. Talk about making the most of somebody who was "undervalued."

OT Don Barclay, West Virginia. Ranked No. 65 at his position in the class of 2007. One other West Virginia player was ranked athead of him, at No. 55 -- Gino Gradkowski, who transferred to Delaware.

OG Randy Martinez, Cincinnati. Rated the No. 161 defensive end in the class of 2007.

OG Art Forst, Rutgers. Forst was ranked the No. 25 offensive tackle in the class of 2008 -- the second-highest Big East player on the list behind Lucas Nix of Pitt.

OG Andrew Tiller, Syracuse. Tiller was unranked and did not even get a scouts grade when he was being evaluated in 2009 out of Nassau Community College.

C Moe Petrus, Connecticut. The best center in the Big East was unranked and had no scouts grade when he signed with UConn in 2007.

TE Nick Provo, Syracuse. Provo was ranked No. 86 at his position in the class of 2007

QB Geno Smith, West Virginia. Smith has lived up to his billing -- ranking No. 97 on the ESPNU150 in the class of 2009. He was the No. 8 player at his position and No. 15 in the state of Florida.

RB Isaiah Pead, Cincinnati. The No. 152 ranked running back in the class of 2008, Pead got a scout grade of 71. He just won MVP Honors on the Senior Bowl.

RB Ray Graham, Pittsburgh. Rated the No. 66 running back in the class of 2009, Graham was rated behind West Virginia's Daquan Hargrett (left program) and USF's Adaris Bellamy (academics).

RB Antwon Bailey, Syracuse. Ranked the No. 128 running back in the class of 2008 -- well behind fellow signee Averin Collier (No. 42). Collier was considered the gem of the class, but academics derailed his career.

K Dave Teggart, Connecticut. Teggart was ranked the No. 25 kicker in the class of 2007.

Defense

DL Derek Wolfe, Cincinnati. Wolfe was unranked at his position in the class of 2008 and got a scout grade of 40. Four years later, he was the co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year.

DL Kendall Reyes, Connecticut. Reyes also was unranked in his position in the class of 2007 with a scout grade of 40. Believe it or not, he came into UConn at 220 pounds (he's now around 300) and now has a shot to be a mid-round draft pick.

DL Chandler Jones, Syracuse. Jones came to Syracuse as a 230-pound tight end, unranked and giving a scout grade of 40. Now he is headed to the NFL draft as a projected second-to-third round pick.

DL Bruce Irvin, West Virginia. Irvin took an incredible journey to West Virginia through Mt. SAC junior college after dropping out of high school.

LB JK Schaffer, Cincinnati. Schaffer was ranked the No. 93 outside linebacker in the class of 2008, behind such players as Tyler Urban, Marvin Booker (Rutgers), Quavon Taylor (USF) and Marcus Witherspoon (Rutgers).

LB Khaseem Greene, Rutgers. No ranking or scout grade for Greene, who went to prep school before arriving at Rutgers.

LB Najee Goode, West Virginia. Goode was a quarterback and linebacker in high school who was not ranked.

CB Adrian Bushell, Louisville. Bushell was ranked the No. 21 cornerback in the class of 2008 and originally signed with Florida. After playing at junior college, he made an immediate impact with the Cardinals.

CB Keith Tandy, West Virginia. Tandy was ranked the No. 207 quarterback in the nation in the class of 2007. The same group that featured Jimmy Clausen and Ryan Mallett.

S Drew Frey, Cincinnati. Frey was a receiver coming out of high school and unranked, with a scout grade of 40.

S Hakeem Smith, Louisville. Smith was ranked the No. 93 receiver in the class of 2009, but his athleticism allowed him to switch to defense and emerge as one of the best safeties in the league.

S Jarred Holley, Pittsburgh. Also a receiver in the class of 2008, Holley was ranked No. 230 at that position with a scout grade of 65.

S Duron Harmon, Rutgers. The No. 49 athlete in the class of 2009, he was ranked below teammate Jamal Merrell, Todd Thomas of Pitt and Kayvon Webster of USF.

P Pat O'Donnell, Cincinnati. O'Donnell was unranked with a scout grade of 40, but he has emerged as one of the most impressive iron men in the league.

Big East recruiting needs

January, 23, 2012
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National signing day is inching ever closer, so it is time to take a look at the biggest recruiting needs for every team in the Big East.

Cincinnati

Defensive line. Cincinnati loses a host of seniors from this position, including Co-Defensive Player of the Year Derek Wolfe, John Hughes, Monte Taylor, and Rob Trigg. Factor in the key contributors for 2012 will be seniors in Dan Giordano, Brandon Mills and Walter Stewart and it is time to reload at this position.

Receiver. There is some promising young talent on the roster, but several guys are going to be leaving in the next few years. The Bearcats really need a guy who can stretch the field and make some big plays to join Anthony McClung and Alex Chisum.

Secondary. The Bearcats are going to take a hit at this position after 2012, losing a ton of seniors-to-be, including Cam Cheatham, Drew Frey, Dominique Battle and Reuben Johnson. Senior safety Wesley Richardson is already gone. The lone four-star commitment the Bearcats have is from a safety, Marcus Foster.

UConn

Quarterback. This need has been addressed in this recruiting cycle, with junior college transfer Chandler Whitmer and Casey Cochran already enrolled in school.

Tight end. With the impending departure of Ryan Griffin and John Delahunt, the Huskies could use another young player to be groomed to take over. Tight end is a critical part of the UConn offense.

Offensive line. UConn is losing its two best linemen in Moe Petrus and Mike Ryan. Of the 16 linemen currently listed on the roster, seven are juniors or seniors. Linemen generally take a redshirt season, so it never hurts to sign more to be able to restock.

Louisville

Linebacker. The Cardinals are losing Dexter Heyman and have a lot of juniors and seniors on their roster at this position. It is no surprise, then, that three of the top players coming in are linebackers -- Keith Brown and James Burgess are already enrolled; four-star recruit Nick Dawson has given a commitment.

Offensive line. Louisville has young players here, but not much depth, as evidenced this season when several true freshmen were forced to play much earlier than anticipated. It never hurts to build depth here, and the Cardinals have gotten a huge commit from four-star guard Abraham Garcia out of Miami.

Running back. This was an area the Cardinals struggled in this season, having to move quarterback Dominique Brown to the position. Victor Anderson is gone, and this team could really used another back to carry the load.

Pitt

Quarterback. This one is pretty self explanatory if you watched Tino Sunseri play. Mark Myers and Trey Anderson are also on the roster, but the Panthers are in definite need here -- which is why so many fans are looking forward to commit Chad Voytik coming to town.

Linebacker. This has been an area of inconsistency for the Panthers, who lose their best player in Max Gruder. There are some young players with talent in Todd Thomas and Ejuan Price, but this position could definitely use an upgrade.

Receiver. The play of the offense was disappointing this season, and that includes the receivers. Pitt could use some players to stretch the field. Ronald Jones was a start this season. But when you consider that Cameron Saddler, Mike Shanahan and Devin Street will all be upperclassmen in 2012, this is a definite area of need.

Rutgers

Receiver. Mohamed Sanu is gone, and Mark Harrison is a senior to be. There is plenty of young talent, but there is a reason Rutgers has commitments from four athletes. This gives the Scarlet Knights the flexibility to try them at receiver or running back, another area of need.

Running back. Once Savon Huggins got hurt this year, Rutgers had Jawan Jamison and Jeremy Deering at running back and that was about it. Depth has to be developed here.

Offensive line. Strides have absolutely been made at this position, but coach Greg Schiano likes to reiterate that the Scarlet Knights aren't going to pull themselves out of the hole they were in overnight. They need another solid draft class at this position to keep building.

USF

Secondary. Injuries and inconsistent play this season showed the Bulls really lacked some depth and need some immediate help in this area, which is why they signed junior college cornerbacks Fidel Montgomery and Josh Brown. One of their top four-star commitments is cornerback Chris Bivins.

Quarterback. Beyond B.J. Daniels, a senior in 2012, the Bulls have Bobby Eveld and Matt Floyd as the two heirs to take over. Eveld has been less than impressive, and we don't know much about Floyd. The Bulls would be served to get another quarterback in as they prepare for the future.

Running back. Darrell Scott is gone, and the Bulls are really in need of a game breaker at this position. Demetris Murray is going to be a senior, and nobody else really has stepped up at the position. Depth has to be built here, because USF goes into spring practice with four running backs on the roster.

Syracuse

Defensive line. The Orange are losing Chandler Jones and Mikhail Marinovich and could really used some difference-makers up front who can help get after the quarterback. Depth is an issue here. One of their big commitments so far has been defensive end Josh Manley out of Georgia.

Secondary. This was one of the weakest parts of the team and now the Orange lose Phillip Thomas and Kevyn Scott, and there was a lack of depth when injuries hit this position in 2011. Brooklyn prep safety Wayne Morgan would be a huge get to add to this unit.

Receiver. Alec Lemon is a senior, Van Chew is gone and who knows what happens with Marcus Sales. The bottom line is the Orange are in major need of a game-changer to turn 15-yard passes into 40-yard receptions.

West Virginia

Quarterback. Geno Smith is a rising senior and after him it is crickets in the form of one player behind him in Paul Millard. So consider this need majorly filled with Ford Childress, ranked No. 139 on the ESPNU 150.

Offensive line. The most inconsistent part of the team in 2011, West Virginia has a major need here. The Mountaineers struggled so badly here they started converted defensive lineman Curtis Feigt late in the season. Don Barclay is gone, and Joe Madsen, Jeff Braun and Josh Jenkins are all upperclassmen.

Defensive line. Julian Miller, Josh Taylor and Bruce Irvin are gone, and there are depth concerns here. West Virginia has four commitments from defensive linemen already.

Top 10 Big East moments from 2011

January, 12, 2012
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Now it is time to relive the top moments in the Big East for 2011 -- both the good, and the bad.

1. Eric LeGrand returns. Not only was this the top moment in the Big East, it was one of the top moments in all of sports in 2011. Seeing the injured LeGrand lead his Rutgers teammates onto the field in his wheelchair before the start of the West Virginia game Oct. 29 in middle of a snowstorm had to soften the hearts of even the most jaded. What LeGrand has been able to do is truly inspiring in the year since he was paralyzed making a hit against Army in 2010. He has gone further than anybody ever anticipated -- he has started rehab work on a treadmill and gotten twitches and sensations throughout his entire body. And he has begun to do radio and television work for Rutgers, as well.

[+] EnlargeEric LeGrand
Noah K. Murray/The Star-Ledger via US PresswireEric LeGrand, injured in 2010, led his Rutgers teammates onto the field Oct. 29.
2. Expansion. This is the storyline that eclipsed most everything else for the entire season. First it was Pitt and Syracuse leaving, seemingly catching commissioner John Marinatto off guard. Then TCU jumped ship. Then West Virginia. When everything was tidied up in December, the Big East had gone Big Country, adding Boise State, San Diego State, SMU, UCF and Houston. West Virginia's fate remains tied up in pending lawsuits. However that saga plays out, the Big East is prepared to launch Version 3.0 in 2013.

3. West Virginia goes BOOM! You could make the case that the way the Mountaineers dismantled Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl should be ranked higher. In any other season, it would be No. 1. But when folks look back on the 2011 season, I think the first two stories are more likely to come to mind because of the way they transcended sports, and signaled the dawning of a new era. If we are going with purely on-the-field stories, then this one is the hands-down choice. West Virginia scored a bowl-record 70 points on the Tigers. For perspective, not even the worst teams in the nation -- New Mexico, FAU, Indiana and Akron -- had 70 scored on them this year. The ACC champ did. Unforgettable moment: Darwin Cook returning a fumble 99 yards to swing momentum, then taking down Obie the Orange Bowl mascot.

4. Down goes Collaros. One play changed the entire complexion of the Big East race. Too simple to say? Nope. Cincinnati had a two-game lead on everybody else on Nov. 12 when West Virginia came to town. In the second quarter, Bruce Irvin sacked Zach Collaros, who fumbled on the play. Julian Miller recovered in the end zone for a touchdown but the damage was done for the Bearcats. Collaros broke his ankle, and Cincinnati dropped two straight. West Virginia won out and finished in a three-way tie with Cincinnati and Louisville. The Mountaineers clinched the BCS berth -- leading to the eventual walloping of Clemson -- because they finished as the highest-ranked team in the final BCS standings.

5. Todd Graham bolts. In one of the most stunning turns of events this season, Todd Graham decided he had enough of Pittsburgh after 11 months on the job and a 6-6 record. He bolted for Arizona State without saying good-bye to his players, gleefully spewing the same speech he gave to the Panthers when he was hired for his "dream job." His coaching move drew universal scorn, and outrage from his players, as well. They took to Twitter to lambaste their former coach for his lies and unseemly departure.

6. Four clutch plays. West Virginia faced a must-win against USF in the regular-season finale Dec. 1. With the game tied at 27 and 5 minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Bulls embarked on a drive that took them down to the West Virginia 28. That's when clutch play No. 1 happened. Najee Goode forced B.J. Daniels to fumble and the Mountaineers recovered. Geno Smith took over with 3:02 left. Clutch play No. 2: Stedman Bailey makes an unbelievable catch on fourth-and-10 for 26 yards, down at the USF 16. Clutch play No. 3: Shawne Alston drags Bailey back to the line of scrimmage after the catch so the Mountaineers can get the snap off without a penalty. Clutch play No. 4: Tyler Bitancurt hits a 28-yard field goal to win the game 30-27 and a share of the Big East title.

7. Ray Graham gets hurt. Pitt running back Ray Graham ranked second nationally and led the Big East in rushing yards per game (134.1) headed into Week 9 against UConn. But early on against the Huskies, Graham crumpled to the ground while making a cut, clutching his right knee. He had torn his ACL, and his season was over. You could almost say the same for the Panthers, who struggled to do anything on offense without their best player.

8. Charlie Strong, surfer. You know how momentous Louisville's 38-35 victory over West Virginia was this season? So momentous it sent coach Charlie Strong bodysurfing over his players in a jubilant locker room afterward. He had Adrian Bushell and Andrew Johnson to thank. On the first play of the fourth quarter, West Virginia lined up for a 23-yard field goal to tie the game. Bushell blocked the kick; Johnson returned it 82 yards for a touchdown and the momentum went to the Cardinals. It was their first win in Morgantown since 1990, and third win ever in the series.

9. Syracuse does what? Surely Syracuse's win over West Virginia in Morgantown in 2010 was a fluke. Surely the Mountaineers would gain revenge in the Dome. Yeah. About that. The Orange schooled West Virginia and reintroduced the Mountaineers to the tight end, pulling the biggest upset of the season 49-23. Syracuse had not scored that many points in the series since 1960. The game also marked the triumphant return of Chandler Jones -- who had two sacks and six tackles in his first game back from a knee injury.

10. USF collapse. The Bulls began the year 4-0 with a national ranking and a victory at Notre Dame. Then Big East play happened. USF lost seven of its final eight games and missed a bowl for the first time as members of the Big East. The Bulls also posted their worst record in Big East play (1-6). A team pegged as a dark horse disappointed in every possible way, losing five games by six points or fewer.

Early 2012 Big East power rankings

January, 10, 2012
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Because I love you all so much, I now present to you my early 2012 Big East power rankings. The season is one day old, so I reserve the right to change my mind based on spring practice and then fall practice. To say these are way early is to say West Virginia beat Clemson. Understatement!

1. West Virginia.* You see the asterisk there for obvious reasons. Will the Mountaineers be in this league in 2012, or will somebody else get to be called the favorite in the preseason? Should West Virginia return to this league, that performance in the Orange Bowl should frighten the rest of this conference. Now granted, there will be some major questions on this defense, but if Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey can put up half a hundred every week, the Mountaineers are going to be really tough to beat.

2. Rutgers. This was a tough call for me. The Scarlet Knights still have quarterback issues, a nonexistent running game and are losing Mohamed Sanu. But they also return 16 starters, including Co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year Khaseem Greene. Everything should be in place for this team to make a serious run. The offensive line will be better; I firmly believe the quarterback play will be better; and there is enough talent at receiver to make up for Sanu's loss.

3. Louisville. Right now, I think it is a toss up between Louisville and Rutgers. The Cardinals also return a majority of their starters, including freshman of the year Teddy Bridgewater, along with a talented receiving corps and an offensive line that solidified itself as the season went on. What I worry about most right now is maturity and leadership. Louisville seems to thrive in an underdog role, and that will not be the case in 2012.

4. Cincinnati. The Bearcats lose 21 seniors, including Offensive Player of the Year Isaiah Pead, Co-Defensive Player of the Year Derek Wolfe, defensive leader JK Schaffer and starting quarterback Zach Collaros. There is a lot of young talent on this team, but the key word is young. How will the Bearcats handle themselves without so many of their best players?

5. USF. This has got to be the year the Bulls make a serious run at the Big East. The only problem is they have no idea how to win Big East games, and that prevents me from listing them higher than middle of the road in this league. There are going to be a lot of returning starters and returning seniors on this team, and plenty of talent. But there are some holes that have to be filled on the offensive line, defensive line and in the secondary. B.J. Daniels must win this season.

6. Pitt. I truly believe Paul Chryst is the best hire Pitt could have made this time around. But does that mean he has what he needs to be able to turn this team into a serious Big East contender? There are major question marks at quarterback, offensive line, defensive line and linebacker. The defense was the strength of this team but it's losing most of its best players. How does Ray Graham come back from knee surgery? I think of all the Big East teams, the Panthers have the most questions headed into the offseason.

7. UConn. Should we talk again about quarterback issues for the Huskies? It was the same theme in the preseason last year. We are no closer today to knowing who is going to lead this team, because there will be yet another quarterback competition. Running back should be an area of strength, just like last season, and there are some good players returning on the defensive line. But offensive line and secondary are also two major questions that must be improved for this team to contend again.

8. Syracuse. The Orange lost their best players on defense in Phillip Thomas, Chandler Jones and Mikhail Marinovich, along with 1,000-yard rusher Antwon Bailey. There are also depth questions on the offensive line, defensive line and at receiver. Ryan Nassib took a good first step this season, but he's got to make bigger steps this year. First and foremost, this team must find an identity and solve all the issues that plagued them at the end of this season.

Chandler Jones prepares for NFL

January, 10, 2012
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When former Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones sat down to weigh his NFL options, two factors helped him make his decision.

The first was his brother, Arthur. Back when Arthur was playing defensive line for the Orange, he had a similar opportunity to leave school early for the NFL draft. After putting together a season that led him to first-team Big East honors, Arthur Jones decided to stay in school. It was a decision that ended up costing him in the NFL draft, because Jones hurt his pectoral muscle, and then his knee and slid all the way to the Baltimore Ravens in the fifth round.

[+] EnlargeChandler Jones
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireSyracuse defensive end Chandler Jones believes he's versatile enough to fit in a 3-4 or a 4-3 defensive scheme in the NFL.
The second was information he got from the NFL Draft Advisory Board. Chandler Jones knew if he was told he would go anywhere in the first three rounds, he would most likely leave. He was given a second- or third-round grade.

So, with all that information in front of him, Jones decided it would be best for him to forgo his senior season and enter the NFL draft. It was not an easy decision, even though he had those two critical pieces of information. Jones recalled his heart was pounding when he had to deliver the news to coach Doug Marrone. It was that phone call that put the reality of the situation in front of Jones.

He would never suit up for the Orange again.

"Being a 21-year-old making a decision to change my whole life was huge for me," Jones said in a phone interview. "I had a lot of different yeses and nos from a lot of different people. I love Syracuse University, and I can tell you this was definitely not an easy decision."

He said there was a feeling that he was letting the team down because the Orange were not as successful as he wanted them to be this past season. But he also felt it was important to embark on a new chapter in his career, and to take full advantage of a season that also saw him get first-team Big East honors despite missing five games with a knee injury.

So Jones is now set up in Pensacola, Fla., working with Athletes Performance Inc. to help him prepare for the draft. He is expecting an invitation to the NFL combine in February, but will not get official word until after the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft passes this Sunday.

Jones is working to get in the best shape possible to wow scouts and improve his draft stock. He also is set to participate in the Syracuse Pro Day in March.

"My biggest strength is speed, but I'm still working on my 40 time, my bench press. I'm decent there, but I can be better. Basically, everything I can work on, I am going to work on," he said.

Because of his size (6-foot-5, 265 pounds), he could conceivably be moved to outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. Jones said there were a few packages the Syracuse defense ran that had him standing up, and he is perfectly fine with either position.

""I feel like whatever the head coach tells me to play I'm going to play," Jones said. "I feel like I'm athletic enough to play outside linebacker in a 3-4. Coach (Scott) Shafer had a few schemes where I stood up and played outside linebacker. I felt pretty good and pretty fluent at it. I feel like I have good enough hips to play the 3-4, but now have to prove myself at combine day and show I can play either the 3-4 or the 4-3."

Chandler Jones to enter NFL draft

December, 30, 2011
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Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones has decided to leave school early and enter the NFL draft.

He made the announcement via Twitter on Friday afternoon, and the school also sent out a news release on the decision. Though Jones played in only seven games this year, he was still a first-team Big East selection, with 37 tackles and 4.5 sacks.

Mel Kiper Jr. recently wrote that Jones had the potential to be a first-round pick with another year in school.

ESPN.com All-Big East team

December, 9, 2011
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Editor’s Note: Tune into the “AT&T ESPN All America Team Show” on Saturday (ABC, 1:30 p.m. ET) to see who ESPN’s writers and experts selected.

You saw what the coaches had to say when they picked the All-Big East team. Now it is my turn. I only have a few different opinions than the coaches. To start, West Virginia receiver Stedman Bailey is on my first team over Tavon Austin. Bailey finished with more yards; Austin with more receptions. But I thought Bailey was a little more consistent over the course of the entire season.

I also have West Virginia defensive lineman Julian Miller on the first team ahead of Bruce Irvin. Miller got off to a slow start, mostly because he was hobbled with an injury. But late in the season with games on the line, he was almost unstoppable. Pitt running back Ray Graham also gets a nod even though he missed the final five games of the season with a knee injury.

Without further adieu:

OFFENSE

QB: Geno Smith, West Virginia

RB: Isaiah Pead, Cincinnati

RB: Ray Graham, Pitt

OT: Don Barclay, West Virginia

OT: Justin Pugh, Syracuse

C: Joe Madsen, West Virginia

OG: Randy Martinez, Cincinnati

OG: Andrew Tiller, Syracuse

WR: Mohamed Sanu, Rutgers

WR: Stedman Bailey, West Virginia

DEFENSE

DL: Julian Miller, West Virginia

DL: Kendall Reyes, UConn

DL: Derek Wolfe, Cincinnati

DL: Chandler Jones, Syracuse

LB: JK Schaffer, Cincinnati

LB: Najee Goode, West Virginia

LB: Khaseem Greene, Rutgers

S: Hakeem Smith, Louisville

S: Duron Harmon, Rutgers

CB: Adrian Bushell, Louisville

CB: Keith Tandy, West Virginia

SPECIALISTS

PK: Dave Teggart, UConn

P: Pat O'Donnell, Cincinnati

RS: Tavon Austin, West Virginia
Was that the real Syracuse last week? The real Louisville?

Both teams were able to do what they do best. The Orange had good balance on offense and attacked on defense against West Virginia. The Cardinals pounded the ball and let their defense lead the way against Rutgers.

The result: victories for both.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Strong
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeCan the 3-4 Cardinals, under coach Charlie Strong, beat Syracuse?
Now the two meet Saturday hoping to gain a little momentum in their push for a conference championship. Louisville has won two straight in the series but is still looking for back-to-back conference wins for the first time under Charlie Strong.

Syracuse is hoping to avoid a letdown after a 49-23 win over the Mountaineers, especially with increasing chatter that the Orange could be BCS bound if they play that way each week.

"With a great performance comes great expectations," Syracuse defensive end Mikhail Marinovich said. "People are going to expect to see that every week. We're just not focusing on the game after next or what’s happening in the future. Everybody is focused on the game at hand. Since this coaching staff has been here, they haven’t beaten Louisville. We’re just looking to really focus on the stuff that got us beat last year."

Louisville ran for 160 yards on the Orange last season. Their run game has not been nearly as effective this season, but the Cardinals picked it up against Rutgers as Jeremy Wright became the first 100-yard rusher of the season. Louisville did not exactly score a bushel of points, but the Cardinals did get enough to win.

But perhaps most impressive was the play of the offensive line, which has been banged up all season. The Cardinals entered the game ranked almost near the bottom in the country in sacks, allowing 3.7 per game.

Louisville had given up four or more sacks in four of the first six games. But the Cardinals did not give up one sack for the first time all season with the lineup of center Mario Benavides, guards Jake Smith and John Miller, and tackles Ryan Kessling and Alex Kupper. Quite impressive considering Rutgers went into the game with 24 sacks.

"It definitely helps us on the offensive line in terms of confidence," Benavides said. "It helps across the board on offense because we play better. The quarterbacks have more confidence in us, the wide receivers have more confidence in us, the running backs. We’re starting to grow, but we have to keep growing and not get complacent. As a young team, you take success and you tend to get fat and happy. Our coaches are doing a good job of keeping us grounded."

Though the grind-it-out Louisville style presents a different challenge than the air-it-out West Virginia style, the Syracuse defense also got some much needed momentum from its performance last week.

It helped having defensive end Chandler Jones back. He had two of the team's four sacks to help boost a group that had not gotten as much pressure on the quarterback. That, of course, helps out the rest of the defense and Syracuse posted its largest margin of victory.

"It does give us confidence," Marinovich said. "When we’re firing on all cylinders, there’s no telling what we can do. But it also raises the bar to work harder every day and take our game to the next level."

Big East helmet stickers

October, 22, 2011
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How about a few helmet stickers for a job well done:

Zach Collaros, QB, Cincinnati. Collaros had a subpar first half against USF, throwing two interceptions. But he rebounded in a big way, with four second-half touchdowns -- including the game-winner with 12 seconds left -- to lift the Bearcats to a 37-34 win. Collaros had two touchdown runs and three touchdown passes, and threw for 389 yards for his first 300-yard game this season. He also added 21 yards on the ground. Twice, he led his team from deficits in the fourth quarter to win.

Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse. Jones made his return to the field after getting hurt in the season opener and made a huge statement in a 49-23 upset win over No. 15 West Virginia on Friday night. He finished with six tackles and a career-high two sacks to key a defensive effort that pushed around and stymied West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith.

Ryan Nassib, QB, Syracuse. Nassib was the best quarterback on the field against West Virginia, going 24-of-32 for 229 yards with four touchdown passes. He also added a touchdown run in his best game of the season.

Nick Provo, TE, Syracuse. Provo had six receptions for 61 yards in the win over the Mountaineers. Three of those receptions went for touchdowns, the most touchdown catches for any Big East player in a game this season and the second-most ever in one game by an Orange tight end (Tony Gabriel had four against Miami in 1970).

Jeremy Wright, RB, Louisville. Wright ran for 108 yards on 11 carries in a 16-14 win over Rutgers on Friday night, becoming the first Cardinals player to get over 100 yards this season. Only three Louisville players since 1987 have run for 100 yards in a game on fewer carries: Henry Miller in 2001, Eric Shelton in 2004 and George Stripling in 2005.

Syracuse 49, No. 15 West Virginia 23

October, 21, 2011
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The nightmare scenario unfolded for the Big East on Friday night.

Syracuse shredded the only ranked league team, taking down No. 15 West Virginia 49-23 with a game plan that worked to perfection. The Orange (5-2, 1-1 Big East) dominated the line of scrimmage, mercilessly harassed Geno Smith into one mistake after another and utilized their tight end the way an old-school football team would.

The result surely sapped even more respect from a league that is in desperate need of it, especially as its automatic-qualifier spot hangs in the balance. The Big East could ill afford to have its marquee team lose, let alone lose the way it did. Consider that the Mountaineers (5-2, 1-1) lost by the same margin to No. 1 LSU (47-21). Except Syracuse had won its games by an average of five points going into Friday.

Coupled with Rutgers' loss to Louisville, Cincinnati (5-1, 1-0) is the only team undefeated in league play headed into its game against USF on Saturday.

The Orange should be applauded for their performance Friday night. They completely dominated and used essentially the same game plan they executed in a stunning victory over West Virginia last season. Defensive end Chandler Jones made his return to the starting lineup and was an absolute beast, completely running roughshod over the West Virginia offensive line. Smith was sacked and completely harassed, and threw two interceptions -- including one in the end zone.

Ryan Nassib was the best quarterback on the field, going 24-of-32 for 230 yards with four touchdown passes. What really killed West Virginia was tight end Nick Provo -- three of his six receptions went for touchdowns. What was an improving West Virginia defense simply could not get off the field. The Orange went 12-of-17 on third downs.

And once again, special teams really hurt West Virginia. The Mountaineers were one of the worst teams in the nation on kickoff coverage, and allowed Dorian Graham to return a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown.

This was as complete an effort as you could ask for from Syracuse. Now everybody is left to wonder about a West Virginia team that has beaten just one team with a winning record (Norfolk State).
The question comes up every time an opponent faces West Virginia.

How do you stop Geno Smith and the offense?

[+] EnlargeShamarko Thomas
Chuck Cook/US PresswireSafety Shamarko Thomas and Syracuse face an explosive West Virginia passing attack.
That is of particular importance to Syracuse as the Orange prepare to host No. 15 West Virginia on Friday night at 8 p.m. on ESPN.

Syracuse has struggled against the pass this season, allowing four teams to go over 300 yards passing. Rutgers was three yards away from 300, so clearly this is an area of concern.

Especially when you consider West Virginia has the No. 4 passing offense and has thrown for more than 400 yards in three games this season.

What makes West Virginia different than the other opponents Syracuse has faced is its ability to stretch the field with a variety of go-to players. Against USC, for example, the Orange could focus on Robert Woods. Against Rutgers, they could focus on Mohamed Sanu.

But West Virginia has Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin and Ivan McCartney, who each rank in the Top 4 in the league in receiving yards per game and receptions per game.

"Each week, we play against great receivers and now we're playing against multiple great receivers, so we have more players out there that we have to be alert for," coach Doug Marrone said. "If you commit to try and take one of those players away, which we've tried to do against some of those other teams, and force the quarterback to throw to those other receivers, well, this quarterback has thrown to those other receivers. That's the challenge of what goes on with this team, but from a schematic standpoint, it's much more difficult to take these guys out of the game because they are all over and they are spread out across the field."

Bailey leads the team with 634 yards receiving and five touchdowns on 32 receptions. Austin leads the team with 42 receptions for 564 yards and two touchdowns. McCartney has 34 catches for 455 yards and three touchdwons.

Twelve different receivers have at least one catch, and seven of
those receivers have scored a touchdown. Seven also have double-figure receptions.

Syracuse has been banged up on defense, particularly in the secondary. Shamarko Thomas, Keon Lyn, Ri'Shard Anderson and Olando Fisher all have nursed injuries. That has left some young, inexperienced players in the back end.

But Marrone says this is the healthiest his team has been all season, and it is imperative his unit slows down Smith the way it did last season.

"Geno Smith is a good quarterback and if you allow him to sit back and pick your defense apart, that is something he will do," said Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones, who returns this week. "He has a lot of guys who complement him like Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin, guys in the open field who can make big plays. Our job is not to let Geno Smith sit in the pocket and pick us apart."

West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen worried that his team would lose rhythm during the bye, but his concerns were alleviated when he saw his team practice. The timing is there, McCartney says. Now West Virginia has to start as fast as it finishes games.

"Most of our numbers come in the second half," McCartney said. "If we were to put together a full game like we do in the second half, I believe we can put 100 points up on the board."

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