NCF Nation: Phillip Thomas

Fresno State season preview

August, 20, 2013
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Today we're looking at Fresno State, which earned a share of Mountain West Conference crown in its first year in the league.

Fresno State Bulldogs

Coach: Tim DeRuyter (10-4 overall, 9-4 at Fresno State)

2012 record: 9-4 (7-1 MWC)

Key losses: RB Robbie Rouse, LG Matt Hunt, RG/C Richard Helepiko, LB Travis Brown, LB Tristan Okpalaugo, LB Shawn Plummer, S Phillip Thomas

[+] EnlargeDerek Carr
Marco Garcia/USA TODAY SportsDerek Carr returns to head up a potent Mountain West Conference offense.
Key returnees: QB Derek Carr, WR Davante Adams, WR Isaiah Burse, LT Austin Wentworth, NG Tyeler Davison, FS Derron Smith

Newcomer to watch: QB Zack Greenlee. OK, so you might not get to see much of him this season with Carr running the show. But Greenlee is an elite pick-up at the position, as he was an ESPN300 prospect and the nation's No. 10 overall signal-caller. He threw for 1,953 yards with 22 touchdowns and two picks as a senior at Lincoln (Calif.) High, and he earned MVP honors at the Las Vegas Elite 11 Regionals. Greenlee is also an Under Armour All-American.

Biggest games in 2013: Aug. 29 versus Rutgers, Sept. 14 at Colorado, Sept. 20 versus Boise State, Oct. 26 at San Diego State, Nov. 2 versus Nevada, Nov. 29 at San Jose State

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Fresno State needs to keep Carr upright and give him time to lock in with what is an outstanding group of receivers. The Bulldogs lose two starters from their offensive line and have some work to do in the ground game to make up for losing Robbie Rouse. Still, this is an offense that returns many of its key pieces from a 2012 team that led the MWC in scoring. The defense returns even more pieces after finishing second in the league in scoring, even if it must replace all-time great Phillip Thomas.

Forecast: Tim DeRuyter was a huge success in his first year at Fresno State, going 9-4 and building plenty of belief inside the program throughout its inaugural season in the Mountain West Conference. Now he's hoping to build off that success, as the Bulldogs take aim at league powerhouse Boise State and perhaps even at a BCS bowl game.

The Bulldogs bring back 15 starters from last season, led by quarterback Carr. The younger brother of former No. 1 overall pick David Carr, he enters his redshirt senior season needing 3,048 yards to break the school record for career passing yards. The MWC's offensive player of the year in 2012 completed better than 67 percent of his passes last season for 4,104 yards with 37 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. Fresno State brings back the league's best receiving corps and three starters up front, so a repeat campaign in 2013 could be in the cards for Carr.

While the defense says goodbye to All-American Thomas on defense, the unit still returns eight starters and has plenty of depth among its front-seven.

The Bulldogs didn't like the way last season ended, as they were upset by SMU fairly handily in a 43-10 Hawaii Bowl loss. The defeat should add some fuel to a team that did most everything else right in its first year under DeRuyter. And the squad will get a great early test in a Week 1 Thursday night opener against visiting Rutgers.

With Carr back for one more season with plenty of weapons at his disposal, it is no stretch to think that Boise State should continue to make some room atop the conference, so long as Fresno State continues progressing in Year 2 under DeRuyter.

Pregame: Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl

December, 24, 2012
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SMU (6-6, 5-3 Conference USA) vs. Fresno State (9-3, 5-1 Mountain West)

Who to watch: Fresno State's Phillip Thomas was the school's first-ever unanimous All-American following a nation-best eight-pick season, which set the Mountain West Conference single-season record. Thomas returned three of those picks for scores (a school record), and he led the Bulldogs with 82 total tackles and 12 tackles for loss, while tying for the team lead with four forced fumbles, adding four sacks and one fumble recovery. The fifth-year senior from Bakersfield, Calif., has recovered from a leg injury that forced him to redshirt last season and now has more interceptions than 29 teams. Simply put, Thomas is a ball hawk whom SMU must be aware of at all times.

What to watch: Both defenses. While both offenses are capable of big chunk plays -- Fresno State boasts the nation's No. 12 scoring offense -- the other side of the ball has put each team in great scoring position throughout the season. You already know about Thomas, but his nine takeaways account for barely a quarter of the Bulldogs' 33 forced turnovers this season. SMU? The same number, though the Mustangs have lost it 21 times this season, five more than Fresno State. The Bulldogs are No. 5 in turnover margin; the Mustangs are No. 12. Whichever defense makes more big plays is the one most likely to walk away with the victory, as SMU is minus-10 in the turnover category in its six losses this season.

Why to watch: Derek Carr, brother of former NFL No. 1 draft pick David Carr, has been phenomenal under center all season for Fresno State, completing better than 68 percent of his passes for 3,742 yards with 36 touchdowns and just five interceptions. Casual fans will also recognize the man under center for SMU as Garrett Gilbert, who is best known for his relief act of Colt McCoy in the 2010 BCS National Championship, and has 21 total touchdowns while netting nearly 3,000 yards of offense.

Prediction: Fresno State 35, SMU 24. The Bulldogs enter this game riding a five-game winning streak. The Mustangs had to win their regular-season finale over Tulsa just to extend their season. Fresno State does a better job of protecting the ball and has the more productive quarterback.

Video: Fresno State CB Phillip Thomas

December, 24, 2012
12/24/12
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ESPN.com blogger Andrea Adelson talks with Fresno State CB Phillip Thomas about returning from missing all of 2011 due to injury to lead the nation in interceptions in 2012, as well as the Bulldogs’ matchup against SMU in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl.

AT&T ESPN All-America Team

December, 8, 2012
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With the regular season in the books, it’s time to hand out some All-America accolades. Heisman candidate Johnny Manziel leads the team as the SEC placed nine players on the squad. Watch The AT&T ESPN All-America Team Show on Saturday at 3 p.m. ET on ABC.

QB: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
RB: Kenjon Barner, Oregon
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin
WR: Marqise Lee, USC
WR: Terrance Williams, Baylor
TE: Zach Ertz, Stanford
OT: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
G: Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina
C: Barrett Jones, Alabama
G: Chance Warmack, Alabama
OT: Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M

DE: Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
DL: Damontre Moore, Texas A&M
DE: Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame
LB: Jarvis Jones, Georgia
LB: Manti Te'o, Notre Dame
LB: Khaseem Greene, Rutgers
LB: Michael Mauti, Penn State
CB: Dee Milliner, Alabama
CB: Bradley Roby, Ohio State
S: Phillip Thomas, Fresno State
S: Eric Reid, LSU

P: Ryan Allen, Louisiana Tech
K: Dustin Hopkins, Florida State
KR: Reggie Dunn, Utah
All-purpose: Dri Archer, Kent State

Coach: Bill O'Brien, Penn State

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.

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.

Syracuse suspends Phillip Thomas

November, 18, 2011
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Syracuse starting free safety Phillip Thomas has been suspended for one year for an undisclosed violation of athletics department rules, the school announced late Friday.

His Orange career is likely over.

Thomas, a junior, has been the best player on the defense this season, leading the team with 82 tackles and the Big East with six interceptions. Jeremi Wilkes is the likely replacement in the starting lineup. Syracuse is off this week before playing Cincinnati next Saturday.

Weekend Rewind: Big East

November, 7, 2011
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Let us take one final look back at Week 10 before moving on to Week 11.

[+] EnlargeZach Perkins
AP Photo/Jeff GentnerZach Perkins and Louisville had plenty to celebrate after beating West Virginia on Saturday afternoon.
The good: Cincinnati moved to 3-0, but this is a team living on the edge right now. The Bearcats have faced second-half deficits of nine against Louisville, 10 against USF and 10 against Pitt in their three Big East games, but have been able to come back to win all three. I am sure coach Butch Jones would like to not have to sweat a game out, but the Bearcats are going to be in for another huge test Saturday when they play West Virginia. Both teams have high-powered offenses to be sure, but against Pitt, Cincinnati did not have a passing touchdown for the first time this season. ... Meanwhile, Louisville is on a roll, having won three straight league games for the first time since 2006. The Cardinals have been bolstered with excellent first quarters, outscoring their past five opponents 41-7 in that period. The win was particularly stunning because West Virginia has owned the series. It was the first win for Louisville since a 44-34 win at home in 2006. Teddy Bridgewater continued his improvement, throwing for a career-high 246 yards. He has completed more than 70 percent of his passes in back-to-back wins against Syracuse and West Virginia. ... UConn got a much-needed win against Syracuse, and relied on its ground game to get it. The Huskies had a season-high 198 yards on the ground against an FBS opponent. Lyle McCombs had a career-high 152 yards rushing and UConn got three rushing touchdowns after getting just one in its first seven games against FBS teams. ... Rutgers is bowl eligible for the sixth time in seven seasons after a comeback win against USF. It was the second time this season the Scarlet Knights erased a double-digit fourth-quarter deficit. They won both those games in overtime. Receiver Mohamed Sanu has 81 receptions for 844 yards on the season, and needs 12 catches to break Larry Fitzgerald's single-season league record of 92. ... Syracuse safety Phillip Thomas leads the Big East with six interceptions after getting two against UConn. It was his second multi-interception game of the season.

The bad: The Bulls have lost their past four games with every breakdown imaginable. The defense faltered in losses to Pitt and Cincinnati; the offense faltered in a loss at UConn; special teams hurt bigtime in a loss to Rutgers. They have now lost four straight games for the first time in program history. Incredibly, USF has scored first in all eight of its games this season. The Bulls just cannot hang onto wins. They have had second-half leads in their past three games, but have lost all three. ... Meanwhile, West Virginia has dropped two conference games for the sixth straight season after a disappointing loss to Louisville. The Mountaineers have not finished better than 5-2 in league play since going 7-0 in 2005. It was just the third time they lost a game when scoring at least 30 points since 2000. They are now 73-3 since 2000 when scoring 30 or more points. They had a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown, the first such score against West Virginia since Virginia Tech did it in 2004. ... Syracuse forced a season-high five turnovers against Connecticut, which should be good. Except the Orange failed to turn any of them into points and lost their second straight game. It actually is the second time this season a Big East team forced five turnovers and lost (Rutgers against North Carolina). ... Pitt has had tough luck in close games, but the Panthers have themselves to blame. In four of their losses this season, they have held second-half leads. Against Iowa, Notre Dame and Cincinnati, those leads were lost in the third or fourth quarters.

Notable

Stedman Bailey, WR, West Virginia, had a career-high eight receptions for 118 yards, his sixth 100-yard game of the season.

Justin Francis, DT, Rutgers, had a career-high 11 tackles with four tackles for loss and two sacks against USF.

Khaseem Greene, LB, Rutgers, had a career-high 17 tackles against USF.

Kevin Harper, K, Pitt, made a career-long 52-yard field goal against Cincinnati, marking the longest field goal by a collegiate player in Heinz Field history.

DeDe Lattimore, LB, USF, had a career-high 2.5 sacks against Rutgers.

Alec Lemon, WR, Syracuse, had a career-high 157 yards receiving on nine catches against UConn, becoming the ninth player in school history with 100 career receptions.

Nick Provo, TE, Syracuse, has 39 receptions this season, setting a single-season record for a Syracuse tight end.

Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia, threw for 410 yards and moved into second place on the school's career passing chart with 6,197 yards. He had his third 400-yard game of the season.

Devin Street, WR, Pitt, had a career-high eight receptions for 118 yards against Cincinnati.

Week 11

USF at Syracuse, 8 p.m., Friday, ESPN2

Pitt at Louisville, noon, Saturday, Big East Network

West Virginia at Cincinnati, noon, Saturday, ABC

Rutgers at Army, 3:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network

Big East superlative tracker

October, 26, 2011
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After what happened last weekend, the race for offensive and defensive player of the year and coach of the year is really wide open in the Big East. Here are some of my early candidates.

Offensive Player of the Year

1. Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia. Smith had a rough outing against Syracuse on Saturday. Although he did throw for more than 300 yards, he had two critical interceptions and was constantly under siege. He still ranks in the top 10 in the nation in passing, but the mark of a true champion is how you respond to adversity. So let's see how Smith responds.

2. Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers. Sanu had his fourth double-digit reception game last week in a loss to Louisville. He ranks No. 4 in the nation in receptions per game (9.29) and already has 65 catches for 683 yards and six touchdowns.

3. Ryan Nassib, QB, Syracuse. How about a little love for Nassib, who is having his best season yet? Nassib threw four touchdown passes and no interceptions last week against West Virginia. Aside from his poor performance against Rutgers (three interceptions), he has been solid all season. His 15 touchdown passes rank second in the league.

4. Isaiah Pead, RB, Cincinnati. He and Zach Collaros have been good for the Bearcats, though Pead probably has been more consistent. His 6.2-yard average ranks No. 1 in the Big East and he has scored eight rushing touchdowns.

Defensive Player of the Year

1. Khaseem Greene, LB, Rutgers. Greene leads the league in tackles with 66 and has been a big reason why the Scarlet Knights are much improved on defense.

2. JK Schaffer, LB, Cincinnati. Schaffer has 54 tackles on the season, along with three interceptions and seven passes defended.

3. Kendall Reyes, DT, UConn. Reyes leads the league with 11 tackles for loss, including four sacks, as the Huskies have been strong up front this season.

4. Phillip Thomas, S, Syracuse. You could make a case for Thomas, who has been the stabilizing force on an up-and-down defense this season. He has 53 tackles, four interceptions and seven passes defended.

Coach of the Year

1. Butch Jones, Cincinnati. Going from 4-8 to 6-1 atop the Big East is worthy of consideration.

2. Greg Schiano, Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights also are in the midst of a turnaround season.

3. Doug Marrone, Syracuse. If the Orange can build off their win over West Virginia, watch out.

Big East superlative tracker

October, 5, 2011
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With conference play just beginning, we are going to start our weekly look at league races for offensive, defensive and coach of the year. The defense category is not as clear-cut as the others right now, with no one real standout in the league so far. I am looking forward to seeing how this race shakes out.

Offensive Player of the Year

1. Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia. Smith has been as good as we thought he could be in Dana Holgorsen's offense, ranking No. 1 in the league and No. 5 in the nation in passing yards per game (341.8) and No. 3 in total passing yards, with 1,709. He also leads the Big East in total offense. We will see whether he can keep it up with conference play on tap.

2. Ray Graham, RB, Pitt. Graham has two 200-yard games this season and leads the league in rushing, averaging 146.8 yards a game. That is good enough to get him to No. 3 in the nation in rushing as well. Graham already has 126 carries and is being used extensively in the pass game as well. We will see how he handles the heavy workload.

3. Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers. It is safe to say that Sanu has been one of the biggest surprises in the Big East so far this season, leading the Big East in receiving yards a game (107) and receptions per game (10.8). Syracuse doubled him last week and he was held to seven catches for 65 yards, breaking a string of two games with double-digit receptions.

Defensive Player of the Year

1. JK Schaffer, LB, Cincinnati. Schaffer is a big reason why the Bearcats have had a turnaround performance on defense. He leads his team with 35 tackles, which is not unexpected. But as a linebacker -- he also ranks No. 3 in the league in passes defended and is tied for the league lead in interceptions (three). Also watch for defensive tackle Derek Wolfe, who has four sacks and seven tackles for loss, along with two forced fumbles.

2. Kendall Reyes, DT, UConn. Reyes has once again dominated inside. He leads the league with 9.5 tackles for loss -- tied for No. 2 in the nation -- and is tied for the league lead with four sacks. He is a big reason why UConn has had success stopping the run, ranking No. 2 in the league in rush defense. But we should also watch for teammate Sio Moore, who is also having a solid season.

Others to keep an eye on: Rutgers linebacker Khaseem Greene, West Virginia cornerback Keith Tandy, Pitt defensive end Brandon Lindsey, Syracuse safety Phillip Thomas.

Coach of the Year

1. Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia. Holgorsen has the only ranked Big East team in his first year as a head coach. Now he has to keep it there.

2. Butch Jones, Cincinnati. The Bearcats have already matched last year's win total (four). It wasn't so long ago that some fans wondered whether he was the right man for the job. So far, he has answered his critics.

Big East news and notes

August, 29, 2011
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The Big East football coaches' call wrapped up a little bit ago. UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni was the only coach unable to make it because of disruptions from Hurricane Irene. Here are some news and notes from each coach:

Cincinnati
  • Coach Butch Jones confirmed that he has hired former West Virginia offensive line coach Dave Johnson as an assistant.
  • He also said Deven Drane is going to start at cornerback, with Dominique Battle right behind him. Jones also anticipates playing eight true freshmen.
  • On the makeup of the team this season: “I like the mentality of our football team. We’ve improved our toughness and mental state of mind.”
Louisville
  • Coach Charlie Strong confirmed former Florida cornerback Adrian Bushell has enrolled in school. Bushell played at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College last season and has only been on campus for two days, so it will take time for him to get up to speed before he can contribute.
  • Strong also said center Mario Benavides, defensive end B.J. Butler and freshman running back Corvin Lamb are out with injuries.
  • The Cardinals also plan on playing all three quarterbacks against Murray State on Thursday. Will Stein will start, but Teddy Bridgewater and Dominique Brown will get in as well.
Pitt
  • The only player out for the game is linebacker Dan Mason.
  • What is Todd Graham most eager to see about this team? “How we handle adversity. I’m anxious to see them get on the field and execute what we’re doing. I feel good about where we’re at. We’ve got an awful lot taught. I'm anxious to see how they respond and get them on the field in game day. I've told them I expect them to be better on game day than they were in the spring and summer.”
  • At his news conference in Pittsburgh, Graham said walk-on freshman Trey Anderson would be the backup at quarterback and Shane Gordon would start at strongside linebacker.
Rutgers
  • Greg Schiano on playing N.C. Central: “I’m not worried about our team overlooking anybody. If you know about the type of season we had last year, we underachieved. We didn’t meet expectations and our entire program can’t wait to play a football game.”
  • Schiano says running back Jeremy Deering should be able to play after missing practice time with a head injury. As for his running back rotation between Savon Huggins, DeAntwan Williams and Jawan Jamison, Schiano said, “Savon is definitely going to play. Depending on what we run the first play of the game, will it be Savon, DeAntwan Williams or Jawan Jamison? I don’t know how it’s going to go. Savon has done a good job in training camp. He’s shown why he is the player that he is. He’s a talented guy, very mature and worked hard to get ready.”
Syracuse
  • Coach Doug Marrone said Phillip Thomas and Shamarko Thomas, and cornerback Keon Lyn are back at practice and would be able to play against Wake Forest on Thursday night.
  • Marrone threw out some stats in his opening remarks. Syracuse is 1-12 against ACC teams since 1996, including 0-8 at home.
  • He also addressed some of the problems with winning home games. Syracuse has not had a winning home record since 2004. The main thing is eliminating the distractions that come with playing at home.
USF
  • Skip Holtz talked a lot about the excitement of playing Notre Dame for his players, and the campus as well. Holtz spoke at a pep rally on campus and felt a buzz around the students, too. “There is a lot of excitement,” he said. “It's fed by not only the way we finished the season last year, but the excitement to play Notre Dame on national television. These are big games for us.”
  • Holtz also said he didn’t expect any players to sit out with injuries.
West Virginia
  • Dana Holgorsen still has not decided on a running back rotation, but said all three freshmen -- Vernard Roberts, Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison will play Sunday against Marshall.
  • On why he doesn’t use a playbook: “The thought process is we don't want people staring at a piece of paper. We want them to understand it based on film, seeing how it's done right, how it's done wrong and doing it trial and error on your own. We put together a few mini-playbook stuff that's video related. It makes more sense to us."
  • Holgorsen also said Pat Eger is leading the race to start at right tackle. Quinton Spain is the backup to both tackles. He also expects Julian Miller to be cleared for Marshall.
  • On Bruce Irvin being an every-down player: “Whether he can be every down as good as he is on specific pass-rush things, I don't know. Time will tell. He set the bar pretty high being a third-down pass-rusher.”
Taking a look around the league for a few early practice reports Tuesday:

Cincinnati: The kickers have gotten a lot of early work during Cincinnati practices so far. Senior transfer Shane Popham from Wake Forest, redshirt freshman Tony Miliano and true freshman A.J. Fleak are competing to replace Jacob Rogers. A starter might not be named until the week of the Austin Peay game.

Louisville: The Cardinals practiced in full pads for the first time Tuesday, and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater resumed throwing Tuesday after leaving practice early Saturday with a sore shoulder.

Pitt: Coach Todd Graham singled out various players who have impressed him so far, including Juan Price, the true freshman who came in after getting his release from Ohio State. He also talked about the status of linebacker Dan Mason, still recovering from a devastating knee injury.

“For Dan Mason it is just a day-to-day deal," Graham said. "Dan has faith and belief that he can make it back but we’ll have to see. He’s still a while from where he can compete right now.”

Syracuse: Safety Phillip Thomas broke his jaw and will be out of non-contact drills for a few days.

USF: Quarterback B.J. Daniels tweaked his hamstring and will be limited the next few days.
Syracuse starting free safety Phillip Thomas broke his jaw during practice over the weekend and has had surgery, the school announced Tuesday.

Thomas is not expected to miss much time, and will return to non-contact drills over the next few days. Thomas has played in 24 games for the Orange, including 16 starts. While he has been out of practice, true freshman safety Durell Eskridge has filled in nicely.

Meanwhile, reserve offensive guard Nick Lepak suffered a concussion Sunday and is out indefinitely. Linebacker Zack McCarrell strained his hamstring last Friday and will be out until further notice. McCarrell made the team as a walk-on before the 2010 season.
Time to finish up the rankings before the frenzy of media days next week. I am going with the top five safeties and top five cornerbacks on this list of defensive backs. Safety is a much stronger position leaguewide than cornerback, where many teams lost their top players.

Safeties

[+] EnlargeHakeem Smith
Kim Klement/US PresswireLouisville's Hakeem Smith was a unanimous selection as Big East Rookie of the Year.
1. Hakeem Smith, Louisville. Smith had a breakout season as a freshman last year and was selected the Big East Rookie of the Year. He led the team with 88 tackles, including six for a loss, and became known for his ability to make big plays. Imagine what he can do as a sophomore.

2. Jarred Holley, Pitt. A second-team All-Big East selection in 2010, Holley enters his third year as a starter. Last year, he ranked third in the Big East with five interceptions. This year, he should anchor a unit that has the potential to be among the best in the league.

3. Phillip Thomas, Syracuse. Thomas is the top returning tackler for the Orange, having made 92 stops last season. He is a physical player and brings an incredible energy to the field, but has to make sure to keep his emotions in check.

4. Jon Lejiste, USF. The Bulls have one of the best secondaries in the conference, and Lejiste is a reason why. He especially excelled last season on the safety blitz USF liked to use -- he racked up four sacks from his safety position.

5. Terence Garvin, West Virginia. Garvin led the Mountaineers in tackles last season. In fact, he had five or more tackles in nine games last season. He brings great size to the position (6-foot-3, 222 pounds), and great leadership and experience as well.

Cornerbacks

1. Keith Tandy, West Virginia. Not only is Tandy the best cornerback in the league, he is one of the best in the country. Tandy was named to the Jim Thorpe Award watch list this season after a breakout 2010, when he ranked No. 5 in the nation in passes defended (17) and was named first-team All-Big East. He is moving to the left side this season.

2. Blidi Wreh-Wilson, UConn. Wreh-Wilson found his comfort zone last season and became a force. Of his four interceptions, he returned two for touchdowns. He should be even better this year in a secondary that returns all four starters.

3. Quenton Washington, USF. With Mistral Raymond gone, Washington should step in as the team's best cornerback. USF coaches are confident he is going to have a breakout season after an impressive spring. One area he can work on -- helping the secondary get more interceptions. He had just one last season.

4. Dwayne Gratz, UConn. The Huskies overcame a shaky start in the secondary last season and should be one of the best this year. Gratz and Wreh-Wilson team to form the best cornerback duo in the league.

5. Antwuan Reed, Pitt. Reed returns as the most experienced player in the Pitt secondary. Despite missing the spring as a precaution (concussion), Reed should be full-go for fall practice and much is expected of him in his second year as a starter.

Previous rankings:

Syracuse looking for leaders

June, 3, 2011
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Syracuse lost six starters on defense, a unit that was a big reason why the Orange made it back into a bowl game.

So it comes as little surprise that the biggest question left unanswered for coach Doug Marrone is this: Who is going to step up as a leader on D?

“Who’s going to step up and take over there?” Marrone said recently from the league’s spring meetings. ”We work on it as coaches, and the players work on that type of accountability. That’s what the concern will be.”

The Orange lost two of their best players in Doug Hogue and Derrell Smith, who combined for 209 tackles, 19.5 TFLs, three interceptions and four forced fumbles. But they were also big-time leaders, guys their teammates could rely on both on the field and off.

Syracuse also lost its starting defensive tackles and starting cornerbacks. So how is leadership developed?

“We do a lot in leadership,” Marrone said. “We take a lot of time away from X's and O's and really train the players. You can’t really pick them. We found that out last year. We opened up some development sessions for the players last year and then see which ones rise to the occasion. We give everyone the opportunity to become a leader.”

Among the candidates: senior defensive linemen Chandler Jones, who has the potential to have a breakout year, and Mikhail Marinovich. Dan Vaughn is a senior and the man in the middle of the defense, so he has a chance, too -- even if this is his first year as a starter.

Marinovich and Jones are the only two returning starters who are going to be seniors so their leadership is going to be important. Safety Phillip Thomas, quite outspoken himself, has a chance to lead as well as a junior.

“It’s like that song by Kenny Chesney, ‘The Boys of Fall,’” Marrone said, referencing the end of the music video. “When Bear Bryant’s speaking to the team and they all go to leave, he says, ‘You’re all leaders. Everyone’s a leader.' It’s just a matter of what their role is.”

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