NCAA Football

Alabama Football: Breaking Down Crimson Tide's 2015 Senior Bowl Participants

As college football coaches hit the road for last recruiting, and the week before Super Bowl week progresses, the football world’s eyes are on Mobile, Alabama, this week for the 2015 Senior Bowl.

The annual college All-Star Game for players who graduated from college draws a hoard of NFL coaches and scouts to get a look at players who could have previously been overlooked by teams.

It’s an important step in the NFL draft process, and one that can be a jumping-off point for some lesser-known prospects’ NFL careers.

Alabama has four now-former players going through the process this week. Let’s take a closer look at each, some initial impressions out of Mobile and what their pro prospects look like right now.

 

Jalston Fowler

Fowler’s done just about everything at Alabama—blocking, running the ball, catching passes out of the backfield. That kind of well-rounded skill set could be good news at the next level, per NFL.com’s Chase Goodbread:

In 2014, Fowler played mostly fullback in Lane Kiffin’s offense and shone doing a lot of those things, eventually being named a team captain. He is playing running back at the Senior Bowl and is already impressing with his technique.

Bleacher Report’s Sanjay Kirpalani has already seen some of that in Mobile:

While fullback is becoming sort of a dying breed in the NFL, with the general philosophical shift to a wide-open passing attack, Fowler could carve out a nice, long career if he can continue to succeed in pass protection.

CBSSports.com has Fowler as the top fullback in this year’s draft with a fourth- to fifth-round projection. If Fowler keeps impressing this week, that number could start to rise.

 

Austin Shepherd

Shepherd has been a right tackle just about his whole career at Alabama. He was a two-year starter on that side of the line to finish his career and was one of the Crimson Tide’s most consistent linemen.

That could be changing a little bit for Shepherd at the next level.

BamaOnline.com’s Charlie Potter reports that Shepherd has been playing a different spot on the line:

Shepherd hasn’t played guard since his sophomore year of high school, he told AL.com’s Michael Casagrande.

"When you're a tackle, you're by yourself," Shepherd said, per Casagrande. "You're in a wide open space and you kinda control yourself. When you're at guard, you're in a little box. You pretty much have bumpers on each side of you."

Maybe this is just an experiment. CBSSports.com and NFL.com both list Shepherd as a tackle, with CBSSports ranking him No. 13 at the position. But things could change for Shepherd this week.

 

Arie Kouandjio

Kouandjio will undoubtedly be compared to his brother, Cyrus, which is understandable. But they are two different players.

Cyrus was more of a pass-protecting tackle, whereas Arie is a more powerful run-blocker. His measurements on the first day were a little surprising, but in a positive way:

Bleacher Report’s Jeff Risdon actually thinks Arie looks a little better than his brother at this point in the process:

The comparisons between the Kouandjios make sense. But Arie will try to avoid one fate his brother suffered, with a late slide down the draft board that saw him not taken until the second round.

CBSSports.com has tabbed Arie as the No. 3 guard in this class with a second-round grade.

 

Blake Sims

Sims wants to play quarterback, even though he played running back his first two years in Tuscaloosa. But he showed in his one season as a starter that he has what it takes to lead an offense through the SEC.

Still, questions about his size, specifically his height, will follow him. And some of those fears were confirmed at the Senior Bowl’s weigh-in:

But Sims will do what he can to show that he can follow in the footsteps of quarterbacks like Russell Wilson and Drew Brees, shorter quarterbacks who have succeeded in the NFL.

Per the Charlotte Observer’s Jonathan Jones, Sims is on his way to doing that right now:

He still has a long way to go, though. CBSSports currently ranks him the No. 8 quarterback, with a sixth- or seventh-round projection.

 

Marc Torrence is the Alabama Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Follow on Twitter @marctorrence.

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Projecting 2015 College Football Freshman All-American Team

Projecting the 2015 Freshman All-America Team is a difficult assignment, and not just because it's January. That statement would hold true at any place on the calendar.

Last year's team, for example, featured nine former 5-star recruits: Leonard Fournette, Myles Garrett, Cam Robinson, Quin Blanding, Adoree' Jackson, KD Cannon, Malik McDowell, Mackensie Alexander and Nick Chubb. But it also featured Ja'Von Rolland-Jones of Arkansas State, who in high school ranked outside the Top 2,800.

Obviously, these predictions can't all be correct. They can't account for all of those out-of-nowhere seasons, those overlooked recruits at smaller schools. They can't account for injuries, either.

What they can do is nail as many of the usual suspects as possible. To do that, we've considered not just the skill of next year's freshmen, but the opportunity each prospect has for playing time.

Christian Kirk, for example, is my favorite wide receiver in the class. I love the way he plays, and I don't think he has a steep learning curve. He is good enough to make this team, but he's playing at Texas A&M next season, which means he's fighting for targets against Speedy Noil, Josh Reynolds, Edward Pope and Ricky Seals-Jones.

He didn't make the team for that reason.

Sound off below and let us know where you agree/disagree.

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Braxton Miller's Best Bet Is a Position Change at Ohio State

COLUMBUS, Ohio — For all of the speculation surrounding the future of Braxton Miller, the Ohio State quarterback's best move may not be one to Oregon.

Or LSU.

Or Florida State.

Or Oklahoma.

Or Duke.

Dating back to November, there's been no shortage of rumblings of a potential move by Miller. As a two-time Big Ten MVP, Miller would seemingly have his pick of suitors should he decide to exercise his ability as a graduate transfer to leave the Buckeyes' complicated quarterback situation and gain immediate eligibility elsewhere.

Miller hasn't done much to quiet the noise either, telling ESPN.com's Brett McMurphy that "I've got to get my shoulder right" when asked if he'd return to Ohio State next season. But Miller's best move might be to not make one at all, unless it's a move to a different position.

The idea of Miller playing anything other than quarterback seemed like nothing more than fan fiction a mere three months ago, when the emergence of his replacement, freshman J.T. Barrett, first put Miller's future at Ohio State in doubt. Since then, Cardale Jones has led the Buckeyes to a national championship and announced he'll be returning to Columbus in 2015, only muddying Miller's path to reclaim his starting status.

"He didn't guarantee me anything. He didn't guarantee anyone else a starting spot," Jones said of Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer on ESPN's Mike & Mike radio show. "He just told us that the hardest working player will get the spot.”

But a potential position switch for Miller would have more to do with himself than it would the two quarterbacks he'd be competing for the Buckeyes' starting spot with.

If Miller is hellbent on playing the quarterback position, he could surely find a place to do so. Just about every program in the nation would be happy to have a player of his caliber as its starting signal-caller—he just happens to currently play at one that also possesses a third-team AP All-American in Barrett and the reigning national champion in Jones.

But what's gone underreported or not taken into consideration enough when it comes to discussions of Miller's future is the severity of his injury. Tearing the labrum in his throwing shoulder last August, the two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year underwent his second shoulder surgery in an eight-month span and was diagnosed with a nine- to 12-month recovery period.

Forget learning a new playbook in a shortened time period, Miller's shoulder may simply never be healthy enough for him to quarterback again. Famed surgeon Dr. James Andrews performed the surgery on Miller's torn labrum, which is the same injury he treated NFL quarterback Drew Brees for in 2006.

Dr. Andrews referred to Brees' recovery as "the most remarkable comeback I've ever treated."

"All expectations were that he had a career-ending shoulder injury. But he had such a good work ethic...he was an unbelievable comeback," Andrews told Vox.com in an exclusive interview last June. "Usually, the only results I remember are the bad ones. I just think on the players who don't have that kind of comeback."

Given that unlike Brees, Miller's injury occurred while recovering from another shoulder injury, it's very possible—if not likely—he'll fall into that category. At the very least, the odds appear to be stacked against Miller making a full recovery from a passing standpoint.

Those have been the rumblings around Columbus lately, with Meyer stating on multiple occasions he expects Miller to return to Ohio State next season alongside Barrett and Jones. Tim May of The Columbus Dispatch confirmed on Tuesday that Miller is currently enrolled in classes for OSU's spring semester, although Miller could drop out at any time and take his talents elsewhere this summer.

But should Miller still be a Buckeye next fall as anticipated, it's hard to imagine he, Barrett or Jones being relegated to the role of third-string quarterback. And given the severity of his injury, Miller may ultimately be the odd man out, although that's not to say he couldn't find another way to help Ohio State's quest for a second consecutive national championship.

In the first three years of his college career, Miller proved to be one of the nation's most dynamic playmakers with his feet, totaling 3,054 rushing yards and 32 rushing touchdowns from 2011-13. The Huber Heights, Ohio, native was believed to be the Buckeyes' fastest player in 2012, with a purported 40-yard dash time of 4.32 seconds.

Given his size (listed at 6'2", 215 pounds) Miller could play either running back, wide receiver or the hybrid H-Back position in Meyer's spread offense. Like quarterback, Ohio State is equally loaded at all of those spots as well, but they are positions more capable of rotating players and splitting playing time.

With the Buckeyes having lost arguably the best deep threat receiver in the nation in Devin Smith to graduation, one intriguing option would be for Miller to move to wideout and perfect the "nine-route" that made Smith so dangerous. That would also reduce the wear and tear on Miller's body, although his most recent injury came from throwing the ball in a non-contact drill.

"I know some people would say, ‘Why would you take a guy who’s so small and injury prone and make him play running back instead of quarterback?’ But a shoulder injury to a running back is not as devastating as it is to a quarterback," Bleacher Report NFL Draft lead analyst Matt Miller told me. "I could definitely see him following that Denard Robinson role."

After spending four years as a quarterback at Michigan, Robinson moved to "offensive weapon" in the NFL, splitting time at wide receiver and running back after being drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the fifth round of the 2013 draft. This past season, the 6'0", 215-pounder rushed for 582 yards and four touchdowns on 135 carries for the Jaguars.

With a year to prepare for a similar role in college, Miller could potentially be viewed as rich man's version of his former rival in the 2016 draft. Of course, this is would all be dependent on Miller being willing to make the move to a new position, a proposition that may be easier presented than accepted.

Having started at quarterback since his freshman year of high school, Miller has always seen himself as The Man, the alpha dog on every football team he's played on. While 2014 was certainly humbling for him, it may be tough for him to accept that when it comes to a future in football, his best bet might be playing a different position.

That's why Miller is still keeping his options open, which could mean transferring to somewhere else should he prove healthy enough to continue his quarterback career. But if he can't—and the chances of that may be greater than you believe—then there are certainly worse ways for Miller to showcase his skills than as a playmaker in Meyer's offense.

 

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Ohio State Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com, and recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

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Is 2015 Finally the Year Texas Football Turns It Around?

Head coach Charlie Strong was hired to fix Texas football. What he probably didn't know was that he'd be given a screwdriver to put together an entire engine. Oh, and it was a Phillips-head when he needed a flat-head. 

The results of Strong's first season were understandably mixed, thanks to a combination of injuries, dismissals, suspensions and a lack of talent and experience. The Longhorns finished 6-7 with more brutal losses than quality wins. Perhaps, in hindsight, squeezing six wins out of that team was an accomplishment. 

Is 2015 the year when Strong finally gets things turned around, though? Better hold off on that prediction. 

Few people know the ins and outs of a program better than former players and coaches. In the words ex-Longhorns quarterback and current Bleacher Report analyst Chris Simms, Strong inherited a program in far worse shape than his predecessor, Mack Brown, did in 1998.

"I love Mack, I played for him," said Simms in a previous interview with B/R. "But when Mack arrived in 1998, he had Ricky Williams, Shaun Rogers and Casey Hampton." 

The best players Strong did inherit—defensive tackle Malcom Brown, cornerback Quandre Diggs, running back Malcolm Brown and defensive end Cedric Reed, among others—are headed to the NFL draft. To put that into context, that's the team's best defensive player, best corner, leading rusher and second-best pass-rusher. 

The question marks on offense, namely at quarterback, remain for now. The Longhorns had the worst passing offense and second-worst scoring offense in the Big 12 in 2014. That's not a combination that tends to produce better results the following year. 

The silver lining is that 2015 is the year Strong can put his stamp on the program. The upcoming class, currently ranked 12th nationally according to 247Sports, is made up of players he and his staff have recruited. In 2014, Strong was trying to hold together a class assembled by the previous regime. 

Among those to commit for next season is linebacker and early enrollee Malik Jefferson, the No. 1 player in Texas. Given the number of departures on defense combined with the need for open competition, Jefferson should have an opportunity to compete for playing time as a freshman. In addition, his potential as a program-changing recruit is high. 

That's the theme for Strong. The first year is in the past, now the real building can begin. Don't be surprised if several members of the 2015 class find their way onto the field in at least a rotational capacity. If Texas is going to get back to a Big 12 championship, let alone a national championship, the players who will make it happen just joined the roster or are yet to join. 

In fact, don't be surprised if Texas dips by a win or two next season. The Longhorns got to six wins because of their defense, which went from a laughable group under Brown to one of the best in the Big 12 under Strong. If the offense struggles to move the chains again, a new-look defense is going to be thrown into a lot of unenviable situations. 

One new hire who could help the offense is former Oklahoma co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach Jay Norvell, who was brought on as the Longhorns' wide receivers coach. Norvell has a reputation as a well-liked assistant and great recruiter—something Texas still needs help with—but the knock on him is that he has failed to develop his players

"He brings a lot to our staff, is very familiar with the Big 12 and has experience recruiting in Texas," Strong said of Norvell in a statement (via ESPN.com). "We're really excited he's joining us."

As it stands now, though, Texas is not a team that passes the ball 50 times a game with four- and five-wide sets. That doesn't mean Norvell isn't an important hire, but his responsibilities are far more concentrated under Strong. 

On the field and on the sidelines, there are going to be plenty of new faces for Texas in 2015. Eventually, that may be a good thing as the program moves on from the final leftovers of the Brown era. 

The Big 12 is wide open enough that Texas might be able to surprise with a key win or two next season, but this projects as a team that will have to grow up by taking some lumps. Will Texas be back next season? Likely not. Its journey will only be starting. 

There's going to have to be some patience associated with that. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com. All recruiting information courtesy of 247sports.com. 

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Pro Comparisons for College Football's Next Class of Star Quarterbacks

The 2015 recruiting class features a stockpile of impressive passers who appear ready to make an early impact in college. Though these quarterbacks remain largely unpolished, it's always important to project the potential of a possible offensive leader.

We examined the top 10 players at the position in this class and aimed to match their skill sets to current NFL quarterbacks. Here's a review of each comparison, though each prospect has plenty to prove before joining the pros.

 

*Prospects listed in order of appearance in 247Sports' composite rankings.

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Best Names of the 2015 College Football Recruiting Class

Along with a ton of incredible athletes, the 2015 recruiting class is full of some fantastic names. 

Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Barrett Sallee and Adam Kramer debate who has the best name of incoming recruits. 

What is your favorite 2015 recruit name?

Watch the video and let us know!

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

National Signing Day 2015: Top Players to Watch in Recruiting Spectacle

National signing day remains one of the more ridiculous yet beloved traditions in all of sports. For a day, the top high school recruits in the country—some of whom aren't even old enough to vote, mind you—hold press conferences to announce which college they will attend before giving interviews on television outlets to talk about that choice.

It's all sort of absurd. And, of course, we can't seem to get enough of it. We're a weird country. 

So, who should you be paying close attention to as the annual spectacle approaches? Let's find out.

 

Martez Ivey, OT

The top offensive lineman in this year's class and the No. 2 player overall in the country, via 247Sports, has an interesting choice to make. It seemed for the longest time that he was going to choose Florida, but several factors—most notably that the man who recruited him, Will Muschamp, is now the defensive coordinator at Auburn—might be swaying him toward War Eagle. 

It doesn't hurt that his teammate and best friend, Chandler Cox, is also going to Auburn.

Chris Hays of the Orlando Sentinel has more on Ivey's pending decision:

"I'll probably be at Florida on an unofficial this weekend and after that I'll see where my mind is at with both of these schools and think about it," said Ivey, who will announce his choice Feb. 4 at the Apopka High auditorium.

He said he second-guesses himself ... a lot.

"All the time ... I'll be one way one day and another way the next day," Ivey said. "It's back and forth. I've been doing that for a while."

Losing Ivey would be a huge blow for a Florida program trying to build its way back to prominence but an enormous get for Auburn after its "down year" in 2014 if he indeed changes his mind. The fact that he hasn't declared for Florida by this point, long believed to be the front-runner, isn't a great sign for the Gators. 

But until Feb. 4, we'll all just be guessing. 

 

Byron Cowart, DE

Another prospect Florida is keen on—to be fair, everyone in the country is keen on 5-star prospect Byron Cowart—could be leaning toward Auburn as well. In fact, Florida could be losing the chance to sign three top prospects, as Cowart has said he's a package deal with CeCe Jefferson and Jeffery Holland.

Talk about a recruiting boon if that happens. Cowart is worth watching not only as the top defensive end prospect in the country, but now because he could be bringing two excellent players along for the ride. Jefferson is a 5-star defensive end prospect, while Holland is a 4-star linebacker, so they would potentially instantly upgrade the defense they choose. 

That makes Cowart arguably the most important recruit in the nation over the next two weeks.

 

Iman Marshall, CB

Cornerback is the most difficult skill position to play in football outside of quarterback. It requires elite levels of balance, agility, speed and leaping ability, fast reaction times and a very, very short memory. It takes a very special athlete to succeed at the position, and Iman Marshall certainly has the look of such an athlete. 

So coveted is Marshall that Michigan freshman corner Jabrill Peppers has said he would move to safety if Marshall chose the Wolverines. 

"It's entirely possible, of course, that Peppers told Marshall this to help with the official visit," Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com wrote in response to Peppers' possible move to safety. "But it's also possible he'd like to play safety, a spot the former coaching staff believed he'd be able to excel at."

Whatever the case may be, a ton of schools would love for Marshall to commit to their program. USC remains the front-runner, while Oregon is an interesting dark horse to watch. But at least one player on the Wolverines apparently would have little issue accommodating Marshall should he choose Michigan.

 

All rankings via 247Sports.

 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

SEC Extra Points with Barrett Sallee: Alabama Built to Withstand Coaching Losses

Coaching Carousel Spinning Some More?

Alabama is the latest program to get hit with changes in its staff, as outside linebackers coach Kevin Steele took a step up to become LSU's new defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach Lance Thompson moved across the state to coach linebackers at Auburn.

A bigger and higher-profile coach may be considering a jump as well.

ESPN reported over the weekend that offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is the front-runner for the same role with the NFL's San Francisco 49ers. Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban addressed the report on Tuesday at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, according to Michael Casagrande of AL.com.

"I can't say that right now because I know Lane is committed to us right now and he's doing the best he can to help recruit and do the things we need to do to have a better team next year," Saban said. "We're hopeful that will continue."

To "right nows" and one "hopeful that will continue" certainly suggests that, at the very least, Kiffin is contemplating the jump. As B/R Alabama lead writer Marc Torrence wrote over the weekend, Kiffin leaving would hurt the 2015 Crimson Tide.

Kiffin's offense finished third in the SEC in total offense 2014 (484.5 yards per game), fourth in yards per play (6.66), second in scoring offense (36.9 points per game) and produced a Heisman Trophy finalist in wide receiver Amari Cooper.

The timing of the move would hurt the most. For the most part, coaches who were on the market this offseason have found new homes in 2015. Alabama, though, is built to withstand poorly timed coaching turnover.

Wide receivers coach Billy Napier was Clemson's offensive coordinator in 2009 and 2010, and offensive line coach Mario Cristobal has an offensive pedigree and was FIU's head coach from 2007-2012. If Saban wanted, either could be elevated to offensive coordinator without much change in Alabama's overall approach.

That's the benefit of having coaches with plenty of experience taking "lesser" jobs on staff. If Kiffin gets plucked by the NFL, Saban wouldn't have to scramble like many other coaches. Sure, he could swing for the fences and see if a more preferable target or two would consider a move late in the coaching silly season, but he doesn't have to.

That's a tremendous luxury for Saban to have.

 

Arkansas' Florida Pipeline

When you think of schools that depend on the state of Florida for its success, Arkansas probably isn't at the top of that list.

Maybe it should be.

In Arkansas' game notes every week, there's a picture of the states of Texas and Florida with the note that the Hogs have the second-most players in the SEC from the two recruiting hotbeds (29), excluding SEC schools located in those states. Running back Alex Collins and offensive tackle Denver Kirkland are just two of the stars from the sunshine state.

When linebackers coach Randy Shannon left, it was vital for head coach Bret Bielema to keep that pipeline intact. He did it when he hired Vernon Hargreaves to replace Shannon. Hargreaves was the linebackers coach at Miami from 1998-2005 and has also worked as the defensive ends coach at South Florida in 2010 and 2011.

"Bringing in somebody of that experience is huge," Bielema told B/R. "He has ties to South Florida and he's done a great job recruiting in Texas. Shoot, he's from Connecticut, and not a lot of people realize that. But he's got the ability to really recruit anywhere."

Plus, he's got the right attitude for Arkansas—a program that, while talented, still relies on coaches getting the most out of players to contend in the rough-and-tumble SEC West.

"If they don't do anything else, they're going to play hard," Hargreaves said on a conference call on Tuesday. "It doesn't take a lot of talent to play hard. If you couple that with playing with great technique, then you have a chance to be really successful."

Hargreaves is a tremendous hire for Bielema.

 

Offensive Help for Florida

New head coach Jim McElwain was brought in to Gainesville to revitalize an offense that had bottomed out under former head coach Will Muschamp. McElwain got good news on Tuesday, when he learned that one of his offensive weapons will return in 2015.

Tight end Jake McGee, who broke his tibia and fibula in the season opener vs. Eastern Michigan and missed the rest of the season, will return after the NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility, according to GatorCountry.com.

Before transferring to Florida and after the season, McGee led Virginia in receiving in 2013 with 43 catches, 395 yards and two touchdowns. He was supposed to be the safety valve that quarterback Jeff Driskel could rely on last year in Kurt Roper's offense.

Instead, he'll try to do it one more time in McElwain's system with either quarterback Treon Harris or redshirt freshman Will Grier. The 6'6", 245-pounder has big hands, can present matchup problems to opposing linebackers and safeties and will help stabilize a Gators offense that's in desperate need of stability.

 

"Defensive Back U"

LSU has become synonymous with fantastic defensive play over the last few seasons, after producing studs such as Patrick Peterson, Mo Claiborne, Tyrann Mathieu and others who have moved on to the next level. Jalen Collins is trying to do that after his career in Baton Rouge, and Tre'Davious White and Jalen Mills won't be far behind him.

Who's next in line?

Stud recruit Kevin Toliver has already enrolled, and head coach Les Miles got good news on Wednesday when 5-star athlete Donte Jackson committed to the Tigers. 

Toliver congratulated his soon-to-be teammate on Twitter.

New defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has big shoes to fill stepping in for John Chavis, but he did convince Ed Orgeron to come with him to Baton Rouge to head up the Tigers defensive line. Orgeron should be able to work wonders up front, which will help Toliver and Jackson in the back end for years to come.

"Defensive back U?" Yep, LSU can stake a claim to that.

 

Quick Outs

  • Auburn and Georgia Tech are batting around the idea of renewing their rivalry, according to Ken Sugiura of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The former SEC foes and border rivals last met in 2005, and Auburn holds a 47-41-4 series lead over the Yellow Jackets. For the sake of college football, make this happen.
  • Speaking of Auburn, it lost some linebacker depth on Wednesday, when Khari Harding announced that he is transferring to Tulsa for family reasons after two seasons as a reserve at Auburn, according to AL.com. The former 3-star prospect had trouble cracking the lineup at Auburn, but will force new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp to look elsewhere to find much-needed depth in the middle of the Tigers defense.
  • Florida announced plans for a $15 million indoor practice facility on Wednesday, which should be ready by September. Considering it's Florida and it rains a lot, yeah, and indoor practice facility is necessary. Also, that general contractor has some "SEC speed" if that building is going to be ready for the start of the season.

 

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and video analyst for Bleacher Report, as well as a co-host of the CFB Hangover on Bleacher Report Radio (Sundays, 9-11 a.m. ET) on Sirius 93, XM 208.

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of cfbstats.com, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

CeCe Jefferson Trims College Choices: Where Will 5-Star Make Immediate Impact?

There's no doubt that most who follow the recruiting process of Florida 5-star defensive end CeCe Jefferson agree he will be a game-changer in college football sooner than later. Jefferson has the combination of size, strength, explosiveness and aggressiveness that any college program would want.

Will he be doing that close to home, or will he leave his home state?

Jefferson recently spoke with ESPN Insider Derek Tyson after an official visit to Auburn and said he has narrowed his list of schools. While Florida State made the cut, Jefferson's list was SEC dominant, with Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss, Florida and LSU considered the top five contenders.

This from Jefferson, via Tyson:

FSU is still in there, too, but Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss, Florida and LSU are primarily my top schools right now. They are all great schools. I have a good opportunity to go in and make an impact early at those schools and get a great education, be around good people and win football games and that's really what matters to me and I know I'll get that from all of those schools.

Florida may be the best spot for Jefferson for a variety of reasons. Jefferson can come in and be the face of a defense with new faces among the coaching staff. The Gators are looking to improve from a season that saw their defense allow more than 21 points and nearly 330 yards per contest.

While senior Antonio Morrison had 101 tackles for the year, he was the only defensive player with more than 70 tackles. Dante Fowler, arguably the team's best defensive lineman, has declared for the NFL draft.

This could be the perfect opportunity for Jefferson to come to Gainesville and establish himself as "The Man."

Wherever Jefferson ends up, he is expected to be an immediate leader. The biggest question may involve where Jefferson himself feels he can make an impact the quickest. Jefferson plays the recruiting game quite well, so there will be no tipping of his hand, but he's grown up rooting for Florida, and Gainesville is less than a one-hour drive from his hometown of Glen St. Mary.

If family plays as an X-factor in this decision, look for Florida to be the easy winner. If playing time is the X-factor, the race becomes more complex, as he is talented and driven enough to take a job from an upperclassman.

Looking at the Florida roster, the defensive line features a ton of young talent hungry to earn a starting spot. A school like Ole Miss, which is considered a major front-runner, also has a squad of young, talented players making up the defensive line. While Jefferson keeps a poker face, many feel the race ultimately is between Florida and Ole Miss.

Two months ago, a commitment prediction to Florida may have been a slam dunk. However, the Gators let coach Will Muschamp go in November, and former Colorado State coach Jim McElwain took over head coaching duties the following month. Jefferson told Tyson that he was planning an unofficial visit to Florida to build a relationship with McElwain and the coaching staff.

Relationship.

That's the key word with Jefferson and the process overall. In addition to playing time and getting a good education, Jefferson has said on multiple occasions that building relationships with coaches, current players and recruiting commits and targets is a huge part of the process. An upcoming unofficial visit to Florida will be huge.

The final days before national signing day are crucial for all of the programs still in the hunt. Jefferson is scheduled to take his last official visit to LSU on Jan. 30. Key in-home visits from LSU, Ole Miss, Auburn and Alabama are scheduled for this week as well.

This race may be Florida's to lose. Every form of communication from now until Feb. 4 is bigger than big.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

UCLA Targeting Texas to Finish Recruiting Season Strong

No state is as synonymous with the Friday night lights of high school football as Texas, and UCLA head coach Jim Mora's staff knows it. 

Texas has been good to the Bruins. They won almost as many games in the Lone Star State this past season (two) as at the Rose Bowl (three).

Texas is also an increasingly important recruiting pipeline for UCLA, having produced such current Bruins standouts as linebacker Deon Hollins (Fort Bend High School in Missouri City), wide receiver Eldridge Massington (West Mesquite High School in Mesquite) and offensive linemen Caleb Benenoch (Seven Lakes High School in Katy) and Jake Brendel (East High School in Plano). 

This year, Texas holds the key to UCLA finishing with a flourish on the way to national signing day next month. 

Of the Bruins' top, uncommitted targets, some of the most highly rated—and most promising to sign—hail from Texas. 

UCLA will find out soon about one such prospect, 4-star wide receiver Ryan Newsome. Newsome announced via Twitter that he is down to two choices: UCLA or Texas. He will make his declaration Friday. 

Newsome's speed and shiftiness fit offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's scheme nicely, presenting a threat in space along the perimeter. 

Having an explosive option such as Newsome working in tandem with a rangy target capable of going over the top of opposing cornerbacks can pack a potent punch. UCLA could get just that if it lands 6'5" Carlos Strickland, a 4-star wide receiver from Skyline High School in Dallas.  

Strickland decommitted from Texas Tech earlier this month, and 247Sports' Crystal Ball panel favors UCLA as his new destination. 

The highest-rated and perhaps most crucial to sign of UCLA's remaining targets is running back Soso Jamabo. Bruins fans would love to see the 5-star recruit from Plano West High School in blue and gold—so much so, that some are already envisioning it. 

Jamabo could jump into the UCLA offense rather quickly. At 6'2.5", 210 pounds, he is a powerful ball-carrier who could complement the smaller, shifty Paul Perkins. 

Notre Dame is one of the top suitors of Jamabo, and the Fighting Irish already bested the Bruins in one recruiting battle earlier this month.

Shortly after decommitting from UCLA, 4-star tight end Aliz'e Jones pledged to Notre Dame

UCLA is still pursuing another one-time verbal pledge who since decommitted: Bryce English, a 3-star defensive tackle from DeSoto High School. Re-adding English to the 2015 signing class would plant another flag in territory key to Mora's overall recruiting strategy. 

 

Recruiting rankings and information via 247Sports.com

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UCLA Targeting Texas to Finish Recruiting Season Strong

No state is as synonymous with the Friday night lights of high school football as Texas, and UCLA head coach Jim Mora's staff knows it. Texas has been good to the Bruins...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

Senior Bowl 2015: 4 Players With the Most on the Line in Mobile

The 2015 Senior Bowl on January 24th will be a proving ground for college players across the country. It's a chance for many players who need an extra opportunity to show NFL scouts that they are worth the money and improve their draft stock. This is especially true for a player like Lorenzo Mauldin. A performance in Mobile can make Mauldin and others draft stock soar.

Lorenzo Mauldin, OLB, Louisville

Mauldin has a lot to gain from a solid performance in Mobile for the South's team. Mauldin has been a leader for Louisville over the past two seasons, but his 2014 season did not match up with his incredible 2013.

Coming into the 2014 season, Mauldin was possibly a first-round pick, but a shaky season has created some doubt, with CBS Sports now predicting a third or fourth round selection.

However, Mauldin's staggering athleticism may make up for a lackluster 2014 season.

 

Lorenzo Mauldin, OLB from Louisville, is impressive. Two years in a row OLB's from Louisville anyone?!? pic.twitter.com/wzRyCxllUM

— Eliot Shorr-Parks (@EliotShorrParks) January 20, 2015

 

Mauldin checked in at Mobile at a towering 6'3" and 256 pounds. If Mauldin can show that he is still a legitimate force in the backfield in Mobile, it's hard to argue against his athletic stature, and it will solidify his first-round status.

Nick Marshall, DC, Auburn

 

You read that header right. In case you hadn't already heard, Nick Marshall plans to be a defensive back in the NFL. This makes his senior bowl mean so much more due to his lack of play in college.

Marshall had an excellent college career as a quarterback. But as a corner, he's not just unproven, his value is almost non existent.

Almost no other player is in Marshall's position, in which he has no college experience at the position he will try and play.

 

'Sky is the limit' for Nick Marshall at cornerback, says Kansas State's Tyler Lockett http://t.co/htQHKJ3nG2pic.twitter.com/jUeTelGF2S

— Sportz Blitz (@sportzblitz) January 21, 2015

 

Many players change position to try and improve their ability to play in the NFL, and on occasion, it works out for the better, like the Jacksonville Jaguars' Denard Robinson, who played QB in college, and switched to running back coming into the NFL.

If Marshall can prove that he can play corner against some of the top receivers in the country in Kansas State's Tyler Lockett and Eastern Carolina's Justin Hardy, he may be able to prove he's worth a draft pick.

Hau'oli Kikaha, DE, Washington

 

Unlike Mauldin, Kikaha came back for his senior year and improved on his junior year numbers. The most impressive being his sack numbers, going from 12 sacks in 2013 to 19 in 2014. 

Kikaha (6'3', 245 lbs) was also one of the most consistent pass rushers in the country in 2014, only having one game(Arizona) where he didn't record at least half of a sack. 

 

Practice starting to wind down. Good day for both #Hawkeyes (Carl Davis, Louis Trinca-Pasat) and #Huskies (Hau'oli Kikaha, Danny Shelton).

— Dan Hope (@Dan_Hope) January 21, 2015

 

Kikaha seems to be flying under the radar to the common public, but a huge performance at the Senior Bowl could officially put his name on the map. Kikaha has a huge opportunity, and it's not just because of the Senior Bowl itself.

He gets to matchup with top SEC tackles La'el Collins and Austin Shepard, from LSU and Alabama respectively. Neither will be an easy battle, and a good performance against them could be set him apart from other top defensive ends. 

This is not to mention his "karate moves", which have been stellar in practice this week.

 

Kikaha busting out karate moves. The LT couldn't keep a hand on him. https://t.co/2RX9KcR2EJ

— Joe G (@JoeGoodberry) January 21, 2015

 

Quandre Diggs, DC, Texas

 

At 5'8" and 196 pounds, Diggs is definitely not going to tower over most receiver in the NFL. However, Diggs has made a name for himself as being a touch matchup for Big 12 receivers. 

While Diggs is respected as a tough matchup for almost any receiver, his numbers aren't stellar. He's only recorded one interception and has only been credited with 14 passes defended over the past two years.

 

Quandre Diggs checks in under 5'9 at 5086 and 196. Sub 30" arms = length concerns evaluators already had. Good nickel skill set tho

— Alex Brown (@OS_AlexBrown) January 20, 2015

 

 

As mentioned by Alex Brown above, even with concerns about his size, there is a place for Diggs on a defense. He has the technical ability to keep up with larger and more athletic receivers.

Diggs has a chance to make up for the initial impression of his stats and stature. If Diggs were able to prove his worth against a star like Auburn's Sammie Coates, then Diggs could be respected as a pick in the third round, rather than a pick on the third day, according to NFL.com.

Of the four players above, Diggs and Marshall have the most to prove and gain. Neither has any specific reason to be picked higher than somewhere on the third day. Will they exceed expectations?

The Senior Bowl can be the aspect that separates these four players from the rest of the potential draft picks. This is the small reward that players receive for staying in college for four years and also performing in that senior year. A good performance in Mobile will pay off that investment and prove that their experience and ability is worth a draft pick.

All stats were found at ESPN.com unless otherwise stated.

Evan Reier is a first-year journalism major at the University of Alabama and a member of Bleacher Report's APSM program. Follow Evan on Twitter at @evanreier.

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10 Super Bowl Stars You Never Heard of While They Were in College

One of the best things about the Super Bowl—besides the endless pizza and nachos—is following the journey of the players who make it there. 

Not everyone was a first-round pick, an All-American or award winner in college or a 5-star recruit coming out of high school. As noted by Ty Duffy of The Big Lead, the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos, who played in last year's Super Bowl, had more former 2-star recruits on their rosters than 4- and 5-star recruits. 

Many of the guys playing in a little under two weeks from now weren't household names in college, so it's time to give them some love. Here are 10 Super Bowl stars who weren't well known in college. These are players who attended smaller programs, didn't start many games, went undrafted or simply went under the radar when it came to national awards and All-American lists. 

Begin Slideshow

Donte Jackson Commits to LSU: 4-Star Will Help Make Tigers' Secondary Dominant

LSU landed top in-state target Donte Jackson on Wednesday morning when he announced a commitment to the Tigers over fellow finalist and SEC foe Georgia, according to NOLA.com producer Julie Boudwin:

The Riverdale High School senior represents another pivotal New Orleans pledge for head coach Les Miles. Earlier this month, LSU added 5-star receiver Tyron Johnson, who vowed to put in work toward recruiting his friend.

"I'm going for Donte Jackson," he told Amos Morale III of NOLA.com.

Less than three weeks later, they're both destined for collegiate careers in Baton Rouge. 

Jackson, rated third nationally among "athletes" in 247Sports' composite rankings, offers intrigue on both sides of the ball.

“They tell me I can come in and compete for the starting corner job right away and I’ll look to play some offense too,” he told Barton Simmons of 247Sports.

Jackson tallied more than 1,000 total offensive yards and scored 18 touchdowns. However, he earned his 2015 U.S. Army All-American Player of the Year nomination as a defensive back.

Strong play and an elite skill set warranted an array of scholarship offers from several big programs, including Ole Miss, Oregon, USC and Florida State.

He drew rave reviews from Bleacher Report recruiting analyst Sanjay Kirpalani.

Regardless of where he lines up at, Jackson is simply a blur on film due to his speed and agility. As a corner, he’s naturally loose with his hips, and he has the closing speed to cover for most of his mistakes. He’s a missile in pursuit, and he plays bigger than his size. He’s separated himself as one of most talented prospects in the 2015 class regardless of position.

The 5'11", 165-pound prospect is projected to play cornerback at the next level. He joins a Tigers class that already includes plenty of promise in the defensive secondary.

Coveted Jacksonville product Kevin Toliver II committed to LSU as a sophomore and cemented his place among America's premier defenders during stellar upperclassman campaigns. Rated second nationally among cornerbacks, he arrived on campus this month as an early enrollee.

The 5-star Sunshine State standout earned First-Team All-USA honors from USA Today after leading Trinity Christian Academy to a second straight state title. Toliver stands 6'2", 185 pounds, delivering an elite level of physicality at the position.

Though he owns a size advantage over Jackson, both players are consummate competitors. Toliver has a stronger shot at securing early playing time in Baton Rouge, but it appears LSU has found a dynamic duo for the future. 

However, Jackson and Toliver won't be alone as quality additions to the Tigers' revitalized defensive backfield. A much-needed infusion of talent could quickly change the secondary's complexion.

In-state defensive back Xavier Lewis will look to make noise once he joins the program. Considered the country's No. 22 overall cornerback, he may be best suited for a role inside. 

Jeremy Cutrer, rated a top-25 junior college prospect, signed with the Tigers in December. He ranks second among safeties who are set to move up from the 2015 JUCO class. 

Despite losing defensive coordinator John Chavis to Texas A&M at an inopportune time late in this recruiting cycle, LSU has managed to hold things together and strengthen the unit.

The Tigers now hold 17 commitments in a class that currently ranks 10th nationally in 247Sports' composite rankings.

 

Recruit ratings courtesy of 247Sports.

“They tell me I can come in and compete for the starting corner job right away and I’ll look to play some offense too,” he said. “I talked to coach Cam about that already. He wants me to pull up some packages for me to play offense. They want to utilize some big play skills and try to get a national championship.“

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Notre Dame's Brian Kelly Learns from Mistakes by Re-Recruiting Top Juniors

For Brian Kelly, the first step was learning to recruit with the big boys. The second? Learning how to hold on to the blue-chippers once they got on campus. 

From the minute Kelly arrived at Notre Dame, he didn't struggle fighting for top players with the elite coaches in college football. But the Irish head coach saw his last few football teams fall short of expectations when the potential cornerstones of his roster left South Bend.

After losing Troy Niklas and Stephon Tuitt after three seasons last offseason, Kelly made certain he didn't fall victim to the same fate this January. With his team home on winter break and a recruiting dead period on hand, Kelly went to work keeping left tackle Ronnie Stanley and defensive tackle Sheldon Day on campus for their senior seasons. 

As Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports reports, that included a full-court press on both prospects. 

"I've had great success keeping Michael Floyd here, keeping Tyler Eifert here, keeping Manti Te'o here and then last year, I was disappointed about one of our players not staying," Kelly told Fox Sports. "I was not going to leave it up to fate anymore that somebody would understand from my perspective that you should stay for these reasons. I was gonna get on the road and make sure we did this."

That meant a recruiting pitch to both players befitting of a "6-star" recruit. (For those new to that ranking, it's the grade Kelly bestowed to Floyd, Eifert and Te'o when they decided to return for a final season in South Bend.) 

So in early January, Kelly boarded a plane to Las Vegas that included an academic adviser, offensive line coach Harry Hiestand and athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and Irish brass essentially re-recruited Stanley to Notre Dame, making sure the benefits of staying in school were being properly weighed against the immediate riches that came with leaving for the NFL. 

Here's more from the Irish head coach on some of the things discussed, via Feldman.

They hear, 'Well, the NFL will pay for it,' but that's one part of it because there's really only so many things you can do off campus. You have to physically come on campus for X amount of hours left in your degree. There are some specifics there that the academic adviser can talk about and there's a plan that we talked about. If you take these hours this semester, you take this in the summer and you take this in the fall, you have your degree.

And then there's some little things in addition to [that]. You're able to get into OTAs because you'd already have your degree. You don't have to be in school. You can get a jump-start on some other players that can't be part of an OTA practice in April and May. We can lay out an academic plan to have their degree before they start working out and getting ready for the combine.

While Day's draft grade made the same recommendation as his head coach, Kelly took a similar tactic when approaching his defensive captain about staying for his senior season.

As Irish fans have waited see an undersized but powerful wrecking ball like former Pitt star Aaron Donald, Kelly had defensive line coach Mike Elston and strength coach Paul Longo detail exactly how they would get Day to resemble him. He discussed this plan with Feldman:

Our strength coach was with us on that one because we wanted to look at some numbers from the combine that we wanted to make him aware of. We felt like we wanted to get him into (former Pitt All-American) Aaron Donald's numbers. It was, 'Right now let's say four teams really like you. If you start hitting these physical numbers, we think 20 teams are gonna really like you, and that's the net benefit for you.'

Another big part of the equation was the ability to backstop the fear of injury. Notre Dame pledged to cover the cost of a loss-of-value insurance policy for both Stanley and Day, taking away any fears that the decision to return to school could haunt them in the future.

When Kelly and his coaching staff recruit prospective student-athletes to Notre Dame, they do so pushing a "40-year decision," promoting the value of the degree.

So while the inevitable attrition of some prospects like Aaron Lynch or Eddie Vanderdoes will always happen, it's critical for Kelly to be able to showcase success stories like Eifert, Floyd and Te'o—top collegiate players who helped their cause by staying in school.

That trio certainly did that. And while we can wonder what this season would've looked like had Tuitt and Niklas (and even Louis Nix, who graduated with a fifth year of eligibility remaining) returned, Stanley and Day sticking around shows that Kelly understands that it's not just landing big-time recruits that matters—it's keeping them on campus for four years.

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Donte Jackson to LSU: Tigers Land 4-Star ATH Prospect

No one can quite figure out just yet what position Donte Jackson will play at the next level. After Wednesday, at least we know where he'll do it.

The 4-star athlete announced his intention to attend LSU, choosing the Tigers over Georgia, Oregon and a bevy of other high-profile programs, as Bleacher Report's Tyler Donohue shared:

“I like all the coaches,” Jackson told Scout.com of LSU. “Every coach is cool. Every coach acts as if they’re my lead recruiter every time I go up there. Every coach is real genuine. Even the offensive line coach knows the stress and need of playmakers, so they don’t shy away from getting me in their office.”

A Riverdale High School product, Jackson had been connected most with Georgia and LSU throughout his recruitment. 247Sports' Crystal Ball projections had him as a favorite to land with the Tigers, with the Bulldogs and Ducks the next likely programs, respectively.

Jackson has also seen himself slowly rise up recruiting rankings for most of the summer. After ranking outside 247Sports' Top 300 after his junior season, impressive showings at The Opening and LSU camps saw him change perception. He's now No. 56 overall in the 247Sports composite rankings, third among athletes and third in the state of Louisiana.

And that's all without anyone being 100 percent on his ultimate position.   

Jackson, listed at 5'11" and 164 pounds, is one of the shiftiest athletes and most explosive playmakers in this class. He's a dynamite return man who can turn on the jets in space and, if put on the offensive side of the ball, might wind up excelling as a third-down style running back. He catches the ball well out of the backfield and can get to the second level in the blink of an eye. Sending him out as a slot receiver is also a distinct possibility, as that's his high school position. 

That said, Jackson could be truly dynamic as a cornerback if given time to develop. His size limitations at either offensive position are not as much of a problem at corner, where his lateral quickness and ability to break on the ball could make him a lockdown threat. 

Where he ultimately plays is a decision that will be left up to head coach Les Miles. The decision is not without import, as Jackson's "athlete" distinction also represents his relative rawness as a player. He uses his speed and quickness to blow by players at the prep level, a luxury he won't be afforded in the SEC.

Getting into a rhythm at one position and developing him there will be key to unlocking his full potential. History is littered with elite prospects with physical tools who never found their on-field niche. It'll be incumbent on the coaching staff and Jackson to create a plan early.

With his senior year in the rearview, though, there's still plenty of time to get it all worked out. For now, the Tigers can sit back and laud their latest high-profile signing. 

 

Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter

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UCLA Offers 2018 QB, Continues Concerning Trend of Super-Early Offers

At 6'3" and 206 pounds, Florida quarterback Joey Gatewood isn't your average freshman on the football field.

Physically, he's gifted. He's already as big as many of the nation's top-ranked QBs. On film, he shows great touch in short and long passes, acceleration out of the pocket and a fearless attitude.

There's a reason why he's already on the radars of several FBS programs. Gatewood has six offers, the latest coming from UCLA, according to 247Sports' Ryan Bartow. The UCLA offer was confirmed by his seven-on-seven coach Gerard Ross. Gatewood also has offers from Utah, Louisville, Cincinnati, South Florida and Florida Atlantic.

Gatewood himself tweeted the news on the UCLA offer:

At this rate, Gatewood is going to be one of the best QBs of the 2018 class. But this is where college football recruiting is becoming more and more divided.

Gatewood doesn't look, play or act like a freshman. But he is, indeed, a freshman.

It wasn't long ago when purists would be appalled about sophomore athletes landing scholarship offers from high-profile programs. Recently, the trend has shifted to freshmen—and, in rare cases, eighth-graders—and the concerns seem to include the same questions from those who oppose.

"What if he grows into another position player?"

"What do college coaches see out of a freshman, any freshman?"

"Why not just let the kid play?"

Mentally, the questions are valid. The major concern involves one word: when. When is it too early to offer an athlete? And an even scarier "when" may be, when will the world of college football recruiting see an elementary school athlete with a legitimate FBS offer?

The argument for early offers involves the evolution of the athlete. They're bigger, faster, stronger. They are walking specimens with and without football pads.

See LB/RB Dylan Moses and LB Anthony Hines III, two 2017s, as examples. These studs combined have more than 80 offers—and both landed big offers as freshmen.

There are few high school athletes ready to step on a varsity field at that age, let alone run the offense as quarterback. With the help of specialty camps, clinics and coaching at an early age, the trend suggests that times are changing.

A prime example: Tate Martell. Back in 2012, the Las Vegas QB shocked the world by committing to Washington—prior to entering his eighth-grade year. Martell recently decommitted from the Huskies and has offers from USC and Texas Tech.

And then there are the questions of how the young athlete would handle the media spotlight. With six offers, including two from the Pac-12, Gatewood is now a public figure.

Kevin Murray, former Texas A&M quarterback and father of Aggies commit Kyler Murray, said he was careful with the publicity his son got early as a precaution. You never know what to expect, particularly with a freshman athlete.

"Apparently, the kid is talented, but it's difficult to project the future," Kevin Murray said. "To say it's [offering] a gamble would be an understatement. I wish the kid well."

Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury played QB for the Red Raiders and holds multiple school and conference passing records. He didn't pick up his first offer until his senior year. Texas State—then known as Southwest Texas State—was offer No. 1. Texas Tech was offer No. 2.

Kingsbury, however, is one of those coaches who believes in offering a young player only if warranted. Texas Tech offered Martell in October, as Kingsbury feels he can be a game-changer.

"I think kids are developing at an earlier age with their fundamentals because of all the QB camps and private sessions, so I can definitely see kids getting offers earlier and earlier at the QB position specifically," Kingsbury said.

Gatewood has shown already that, physically, he has the talent to compete with many older quarterbacks. As good as he potentially can be, don't be surprised if he has 25 offers before entering his junior year.

Gatewood still has a long way to go, and a lot can happen before his national signing day experience in February 2018. Look for him to show the world that the early offers were warranted. And look for him to attempt to silence the critics.

Damon Sayles is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand.

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The Surprise SEC Team That Should Make a Play for Braxton Miller?

The Braxton Miller sweepstakes has calmed down a bit after it dominated headlines in the days following Ohio State's 42-20 win over Oregon in the inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship, but could this be the calm before the storm.

Miller, who injured his shoulder in August and missed the entire 2014 season, is staying in Columbus, according to Tim May of the Columbus Dispatch...at least, for now:

What does that mean? Well, for now anyway, the plan is at least for Miller to rehab his throwing shoulder with the Buckeyes.

That makes sense. After all, the training staff in Columbus knows more about him, his injury and his progress than anybody else. Former offensive coordinator Tom Herman told Matt Hayes of Sporting News at the Allstate Sugar Bowl that Miller's rehab might take some time.

"I don’t know if either (Miller or rising sophomore J.T. Barrett) will be healthy enough," Herman told Hayes. "That (competition) could be something that starts in fall camp."

If that's the case, why wouldn't Miller finish his rehab in Columbus?

Miller has been connected to countless programs, including LSU, Florida State and Oregon despite repeatedly saying he's sticking around. When I made bold predictions for the SEC offseason, I tabbed Miller to LSU.

Let's go a little less chalky, though. If we're searching for the dark-horse team that should make a play for Miller, South Carolina would be an attractive option. 

South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier made a name for himself at Florida in the 1990s, as the high-flying Gators revolutionized college football, aired it out early and often and won a national title in 1996. 

At South Carolina, though, the Head Ball Coach has taken a different approach.

Running backs Marcus Lattimore and Mike Davis ushered in a more conservative style under Spurrier, and that offense was at its best when dual-threat quarterback Connor Shaw was the one taking the snaps. Shaw played a big role in South Carolina, posting three straight 11-win seasons—the first three in program history—from 2011-2013.

He tossed for 6,075 yards and 56 touchdowns during his collegiate career, adding 1,683 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground.

Miller can be Shaw Part II.

He clearly has the legs to be a weapon on the ground. Over his first three seasons in Columbus, Miller rushed for 3,071 yards and 32 touchdowns and can play a part in keeping the ground game viable in Columbia in the post-Davis era.

Brandon Wilds and David Williams will return at running back. If joined by Miller, that would create a dynamic backfield. Add in superstar wide receiver Pharoh Cooper—who can be a deep threat, a weapon in possession situations, a force on the ground and potentially a changeup at quarterback—and suddenly, South Carolina's offense would be a force.

As of now, the quarterback position is a major question for Spurrier heading into the 2015 season. Connor Mitch is the most experienced player on the roster, but he only threw six passes as a redshirt freshman last year. Perry Orth, a walk-on who transferred to the program in January 2013, only attempted two passes last year.

Miller would provide instant stability to a position that, as it stands right now, is decidedly unstable.

Would Miller improve his draft stock as a quarterback under Spurrier?

Shaw made some waves at the next level in 2014. While Spurrier's track record of developing quarterbacks hasn't been stellar, he has at least given players such as Rex Grossman, Danny Wuerffel and Doug Johnson a chance at the next level, which is about all he can do.

Miller is at Ohio State, for now anyway. While higher-profile programs will undoubtedly be high on his list if that changes, keep an eye on South Carolina. It could be a perfect fit for both.

 

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and video analyst for Bleacher Report, as well as a co-host of the CFB Hangover on Bleacher Report Radio (Sundays, 9-11 a.m. ET) on Sirius 93, XM 208.

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of cfbstats.com, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

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Changes to the College Football Playoff We All Want to See

The College Football Playoff that will be served next season will taste and smell a lot like the College Playoff we’re still digesting. This is a good thing; no one should pass up dry-aged, bone-in rib-eye for mystery meat. It’s un-American. It’s also not smart.

But as much as we have praised the first-ever playoff—savoring every bite, and for good reason—there is room for growth. There are areas that can (and should) be improved upon, which will likely serve as one of the offseason’s many missions.

By the end of the month, the first-ever College Football Playoff selection committee will jump on a conference call. In April, it will meet and discuss potential changes to the College Football Playoff.

Those suggestions will be sent to the board of managers—a group represented by all 10 conferences along with Notre Dame—and the proposed changes will get a second look from new sets of important eyes. If they are well received, the next step will be approval.

“I don’t think you’re going to see wholesale changes,” committee chairman Jeff Long told Bleacher Report. “By and large, we feel things went very well. But there may be some tweaks we make to it.”

Adding four more teams into the mix is no “tweak.” It’s also not a realistic option, at least not right now. Changes of this magnitude aren’t necessary. There are, however, ways the playoff—this gorgeous cut of former cow—can be improved. And it begins with the earliest phases of the process.

 

Push the Process Back

In a perfect world, the final Top 25 released by the selection committee would be the only one released. The reality, however, is that there is programming slots to fill, gobs of money to be made and a business side that is impossible to ignore.

I don’t necessarily agree with it, but I’m willing to concede. And, as was evident in its first year, the weekly shows created some magnificent entertainment and debate. Even with these factors considered, there has to be a middle ground.

For starters, this first release should be pushed back three weeks. The committee’s first ranking was posted on October 28 last season, which was entirely too early. The ranking you see around Halloween does nothing to reflect a playoff situation. Debuting these rankings in the middle or later part of November—cutting the total number of releases from eight to five—could allow for debate, which is good, but also create a more realistic picture of the teams involved.

What would be lost in programing would be won back in credibility. If the only ranking that truly matters is the final one, why spend eight weeks parading with something that won’t resemble the final, impactful installment?

The answer, of course, is money. But there has to be a balance. One release would be best, but that’s not the balance that will please networks. Three or four times will do.

 

Be More Transparent with the Rankings

Each week, Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long was given just a few minutes of airtime to justify two days of work. His final appearance on ESPN in December was more involved, although the explanation of these rankings was kept to a minimum. As a result, these appearances sometimes did more harm than good.

This is not in any shape or form a knock on Long. I’m an enormous fan of his and I couldn’t envision anyone more equipped for an impossible job. He has minimal time to prepare, is forced to keep his answers brief and did an excellent job as playoff mouthpiece in the first year.

It’s the system in place that should be modified, not the messenger.

The information will always be polarizing. Some fan bases will be thrilled, and others will be outraged. This will happen each and every week for as long as some postseason is in place. It doesn’t matter how well his reasoning is on national television; the nature of this beast will always be controversy.

But in order to make these weekly cash grabs—I mean “reveals”—meaningful, they must carry more substance. Instead of filling air space for 23 minutes and forcing Long on and off the stage, why not sit down for 10 minutes or so and talk out the work being shown? Or what about providing some downloadable notes on the College Football Playoff website that explained sticking points in the rankings, notable discussions and other justifications?

On that note, I would love to see a ranking of the five best non-Power Five teams included. Since one of these teams is going to play in a marquee bowl game, why not appeal to more fanbases still hoping to see their team crash the party? Plus, it helps highlight programs in other conferences that won’t always see their names in the lights. It’s functional and beneficial for all.

 

Keep All Semifinal Games on New Year’s Day

My wife hates this. I hate this. A sport that crescendos on January 1 with a spectacular eruption should absolutely loathe the idea of not having games on New Year’s Day.

Over the next two years, however, college football’s semifinal games will not take place on January 1. That’s at least the protocol as it stands today.

The Orange Bowl and Cotton Bowl—the two semifinal tie-ins for next season—will take place on New Year’s Eve. The following year, the Peach Bowl and Fiesta Bowl—the next two spotlighted bowls in the lineup—will offer up the same end-of-year itinerary. Adjust your New Year’s plans accordingly.

The contracts and allocated timeslots for these games, despite a drastic overhaul to the system, are still intact. As a result, the timing for the semifinals will shift based on which bowls will be tabbed playoff worthy for that year.

Did I mention that I hate this?

This is one the College Football Playoff would love to do over after seeing how successful the New Year’s Day doubleheader was in Year 1.

It’s not about keeping New Year’s Eve plans in order. You can keep those. I’m a family man, content to celebrate the start of a new year with my couch and without total strangers. That’s not an issue, although it certainly will be for others with bigger plans in mind.

This is more about combining the rich traditions of January 1—a special day in all of our football-deranged hearts—and building on these memories with something more. That happened only a few short weeks ago, when Oregon, Florida State, Alabama and Ohio State provided a show with the whole world watching.

The ratings for these games stacked up with national championships from previous seasons. Interest was colossal. Storied tradition meshed seamlessly with a brand-new system—like it had been there all along—elevating the overall quality of the product.

Will New Year’s Eve kill all of this momentum? Of course not. But it could impact the success of the playoff moving forward. More importantly to those pulling these strings, the ratings could suffer as a result.

This one is far more complicated than a gathering of selection committee members, although the potential impact on the bottom line could ultimately prompt a conversation for change and consistency. We can only hope.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Ranking the Cities That Produce the Best 5-Star College Football Recruits

California, Florida and Texas are among the hotbeds that produce a bevy of stud college football recruits on an annual basis. 

When it comes to individual cities that have turned out a number of 5-star prospects, those states are represented by cities such as Los Angeles, Miami and Dallas.

However, in addition to those talent-laden territories, three other cities have produced at least 10 5-star recruits over the last decade.

Which cities stand out as having produced the most 5-star recruits in recent years? 

*All ranking data courtesy of 247Sports. City data includes suburb cities within 50-mile radius.

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