NCAA Football

Army All-American Bowl 2016: Top Recruits Announcing Commitments at Game

With bowl season nearly in the books and recruiting about to awaken from the sanctioned dead period next week, this weekend’s U.S. Army All-American Bowl should steal some warranted attention among the college football landscape. 

The game itself at the Alamodome in San Antonio has provided an early glimpse at some of the nation’s premier talent since its inception in 2000. 

According to Patrick Maks of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, 299 NFL draft picks have played in this game, including 106 Pro Bowlers, 73 first-rounders and a first-overall pick in Andrew Luck. 

At least 30 of the 100 participants remain uncommitted, per Robert Judin of Campus Insiders, but five are expected to make their announcements this weekend. 

Here is a look at some of the top talent who should reveal their landing spot. 

 

Isaac Nauta – 5-Star, No. 1 TE, No. 9 Overall

The nation’s No.1 tight end has already made his decision on where he plans to enroll, per Bleacher Report’s Tyler Donohue, but Isaac Nauta just hasn’t let everyone else know.

He’s narrowed his list down to Alabama, Georgia and Michigan. 

“I’m excited to get it off my chest,” Nauta said, per Donohue. “I’m ready to head to school and get this next chapter of my life started.”

The Bulldogs are favored to land Nauta, though his primary recruiter, tight ends coach John Lilly, will not be a part of new head coach Kirby Smart’s staff. 

However, Nauta indicated last month that coaching isn’t necessarily the most paramount factor in his decision, per Jeff Sentell of DawgNation.com. 

“…With me it has always just been you have to look at the program and the university itself and its location and not just the coaches,” said Nauta, who hails from Buford, Georgia, just 50 miles from the Bulldogs’ campus in Athens. "The coaching staff is just the cherry on top. As far as Georgia goes, they will definitely stay among my top schools.”

Despite no announcement yet, Nauta plans to enroll this semester at the school he selects, per Sentell. That could be trouble for Michigan, as it began classes on Wednesday

Georgia opens the spring semester on Monday and Alabama on Wednesday, meaning Nauta will be quite busy traveling in the coming week if his hopes to enroll early come to fruition.

 

Javon McKinley – 4-Star, No. 18 WR, No. 107 Overall

Four-star wide receiver Javon McKinley is expected to announce this weekend he will leave his home state of California. 

McKinley’s three finalists include Notre Dame, Oregon and Washington, and he discussed each just days ahead of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, courtesy of 247Sports' Tom Loy:

At 6’2’” and 200 pounds, McKinley has the ideal physical frame that should give him advantages against most secondaries. He’s tall enough to snag balls out of the air at their high points and strong enough to break away from single tacklers in open space. 

Given his three finalists are offensive-minded programs, he should thrive and develop over the next three years into an NFL prospect, which he indicated is one of his highest premiums, per Loy. 

 

Ross Blacklock — 4-Star, No. 28 DT, No. 271 Overall

Lone star product Ross Blacklock is one of the few top defensive players expected to announce this weekend. And by all indications, he will not be going far from home. 

Blacklock is expected to choose between Texas A&M, TCU and Houston, according to Howard Chen of CSN Houston, with the Horned Frogs the favorites to secure his signature, per 247Sports

He has the size and strength to barrel through the line of scrimmage, as Brian Perroni of 247Sports showed during U.S. Army All-American Bowl practice:

Blacklock is the son of Jimmy Blacklock, a former Harlem Globetrotter, and as such, was quite the basketball player as a youth. However, his 6’4”, 314-pound frame lends itself more to the trenches of the gridiron rather than the backcourt. 

As Perroni's video showed, Ross Blacklock could certainly harness his lateral range at the line, but most of his deficiencies are fixable with good coaching. He’ll be a great sign for any of the Texas schools that land him. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

College Football Championship 2016: Players to Watch for Alabama vs. Clemson

The Alabama Crimson Tide and Clemson Tigers are the best teams in college football this season, and one of the two will leave Monday night's matchup as the national champions. While both squads have complete rosters full of top talent, a few key players have stood out this season.

Even if you haven't watched a single college football game all year, it will take only a few minutes to recognize the top talent for each team on both sides of the ball. The upcoming battle will feature game-changing offensive players who can make a huge impact with the ball in their hands as well as defensive stoppers who are seemingly all over the field.

While dozens of players could affect the game, here is a look at the top ones to watch for each team.

 

Top Players to Watch

Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama

When listing the top players in the College Football Playoff title game, you have to start with Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry. The Alabama star leads the nation with 2,061 rushing yards and 25 rushing touchdowns, consistently putting up incredible production against just about any defense.

The team didn't need him much in its blowout win over Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl, but in the two previous games, Henry finished with 90 carries for 460 rushing yards, which would be a good season for a lot of players.

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney noted the entire Alabama rushing attack is a challenge to stop, per Aaron Brenner of the Post and Courier:

While Kenyan Drake can make some plays and quarterback Jake Coker has shown the ability to spread the ball around the field, Henry is the key to the Tide offense. He is responsible for half of the team's 50 offensive touchdowns this year and consistently makes big plays whenever the team needs one.

Henry doesn't have elite speed or agility, but at 6'3", 242 pounds, he is almost impossible to bring down. By the end of long games, Henry wears down opposing defenses, and the same could happen to Clemson.

 

Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson

While Henry has been the best running back in college football this season, Clemson can counter with the top quarterback. Deshaun Watson was a Heisman finalist and the winner of the Davey O'Brien Award as the best quarterback in the country after an outstanding sophomore year.

Watson is a dual threat with the ability to pick up yards with both his arm and his legs. He enters the final game of the year with 3,699 passing yards and 1,032 rushing yards, becoming only the third person in FBS history to top 3,500 and 1,000 in a single season, per ESPN Stats & Info.

In addition to posting the big numbers, he also remained efficient while ranking fourth in the country in Total QBR, per ESPN.com.

Alabama head coach Nick Saban had high praise for the opposing passer, per TideSports.com:

Clemson has plenty of offensive weapons in Wayne Gallman, Jordan Leggett and others, but Watson will be the key for the Tigers on Monday.

 

Reggie Ragland, LB, Alabama

The strength of Alabama's defense is its defensive line, with future NFL stars such as A'Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed clogging up the middle and leaving no room for opposing teams to run. This makes things easier for the linebackers, although Reggie Ragland deserves a lot of credit for his own play this season.

The senior patiently waited for his chance to shine and took over as a leader on defense last season before turning into a star this year. He led the Crimson Tide with 97 tackles, and the Associated Press named him a first-team All-American.

Ragland has a wide skill set, but his most impressive attribute might be his ability to lock down runners and keep them from getting away. Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Network captured an impressive stop from earlier in the year:

Watson and Gallman create a dynamic rushing attack for Clemson, but Ragland could be a big part of keeping them in check.

 

Shaq Lawson, DE, Clemson

One of the big question marks for Clemson heading into the national title game is the health of defensive end Shaq Lawson. The All-American missed much of the Orange Bowl after suffering a knee injury and was questionable during the week, although he will likely play Monday, according to Ralph D. Russo of the Associated Press.

This is big for the Tigers as they hope to slow down Alabama's offense. While this is a challenge regardless of who is on the roster, it would be tougher without one of the nation's top defensive players.

Lawson leads the team with 10.5 sacks as well as an incredible 23.5 tackles for loss. His 56 tackles are also impressive for a lineman, showcasing his ability to cover tons of ground.

Even when the junior doesn't make the tackle, he is often disruptive enough by getting into the backfield and ruining an opposing offense's game plan. As long as he is healthy, the Tigers have a chance to keep Alabama out of the end zone.

 

Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for year-round sports analysis. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Army All-American Bowl 2016: Commit Tracker and Recruit Highlights

The 2016 U.S. Army All-American Bowl kicks off Saturday at 1 p.m. ET, placing dozens of premier college football prospects on the same field. The action is expected to be scintillating in San Antonio, where eventual NFL stars such as Andrew Luck, Odell Beckham Jr. and Adrian Peterson once competed.

A new era of playmakers is prepared to take their talents to universities across America later this year, and some are set to finalize collegiate plans during the All-American Bowl. We'll find out that fate for five recruits Saturday, including four coveted wide receivers. 

Michigan, Notre Dame, Oregon, Georgia and Alabama are among programs aiming to add quality pieces to impressive recruiting classes less than a month shy of national signing day on Feb. 3. We've got you covered with updated commitment breakdowns, prospect analysis and video highlights right here.

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2016 NFL Draft: Buyer Beware on Memphis Quarterback Paxton Lynch

The NFL playoffs are underway for 12 of the finest organizations, but that leaves 20 other teams with an eye turned toward 2016.

Some franchises must rebuild from the ground up, and others are trying to upgrade specific positions so they can make a playoff push next year. One of the top needs for several of these teams is a quarterback.

A franchise quarterback can be defined many ways, including as being among the most elite of the NFL. This would be the top six or seven guys such as Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and players of that ilk.

My definition is a top-15 quarterback who can reasonably become a playmaker at the position to help win playoff games—and eventually a Super Bowl.

Since the elite quarterbacks are so difficult—and random—to develop, NFL teams must project collegiate talent and decide if there is someone they can build a winner around. Or will this quarterback be good enough to help take our team to the next level?

We’ve already broken down the game of California Golden Bears quarterback Jared Goff, and now it is time to look at Memphis Tigers quarterback Paxton Lynch.

I studied Memphis' offense in all but three games to get a good feel for Lynch as a player and prospect. (The three games I didn’t chart were those against Missouri State, Kansas and SMU.) After tracking his progression from even late 2014 to the end of his 2015 season, I concluded that franchises with a high draft pick should beware of Lynch.

We’re going to look at Lynch’s strengths, weaknesses and how he projects into the NFL. Let’s start with a broad view and then narrow down his specific traits.

 

Who is Paxton Lynch?

Lynch is listed at 6’7”, 245 pounds and was a three-year starter for the Memphis Tigers. He was a 2-star recruit out of Trinity Christian Academy in Deltona, Florida. Although he drew some attention from the University of Florida, Charlie Weis’ departure from the program in late 2011, when Lynch was a high school senior, led Lynch to sign with (former head coach) Justin Fuente and Memphis. 

With his height and thick, natural frame, the first obvious positive for Lynch is his size. He will face zero questions about his durability, as his build is similar to that of Cam Newton and Joe Flacco. Physically, he’s NFL-ready.

Player agent Leigh Steinberg recently tweeted: "#THE AGENT Interesting @PAXTONLYNCH fact-his hands are 11 1/2 inches, longest ever for QB, extra gripping capacity on a rainy day."

Lynch was relatively unknown among many draft outlets until this season. I ranked Lynch as my third-best draft-eligible quarterback prior to the season, with the hope that he would take another giant leap in development.

He did so and now ranks as a top-10 prospect overall, according to ESPN draft experts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay.

Not only has Lynch improved his tape and how he’s getting the job done, but his production has taken leaps as well. His 8.5 average yards per attempt is very impressive and has dramatically risen each season. He’s mastered the Tigers’ spread offense to the point where he is a very efficient player while still creating opportunities.

 

Downfield Accuracy

Memphis uses a spread offense based on concepts from Art Briles’ Baylor attack and Brigham Young’s 1970's West Coast offense. Fuente was part of the Texas Christian University offensive staff from 2007 until 2011 when TCU was turned into a powerhouse. He also saw firsthand what a spread attack can do for a quarterback, as Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was a product of the system.

The West Coast principles that co-offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey employ play a major role in Lynch’s success as well. Memphis likes to dink and dunk before spraying downfield on occasion. The Tigers rely on Lynch’s strong arm and quick eyes to get the ball out to the open man. When the defense starts creeping up, the offense will manufacture space by attacking downfield.

I charted Lynch’s passes to determine what percentage of his throws were reasonably catchable. This is subjective and does not align with traditional statistics because I’m looking to add context to those numbers. But it also helps us see where Lynch excels and where he struggles.

I developed an accuracy chart for 2015.  

Most notable in the chart is how well Lynch attacks downfield. Memphis averaged just four passing attempts in the 11 games I noted, but he was very effective in throwing a catchable ball. His receivers had a 48.8 percent chance to reel in his 45 deep throws, which ranks second among the top four draft-eligible quarterbacks I charted this year.

The importance of the catchable-throws aspect is those throws give the receiver a chance without asking him to make a one-handed, circus-style catch. There are some incomplete passes that are accurate, just like there are some inaccurate passes that end up being caught because of luck or by an otherworldly receiver making an exceptional catch. Here’s an example.

Lynch maximizes the leverage his receivers create on deep passes. On the play below, watch as Lynch perfectly places his pass to the outside shoulder of his target. The cornerback does a good enough job working the receiver to the sideline, but the pass was indefensible. The catch wasn’t easy to make, but the excellent pass made it possible, even with great coverage:

Despite his size, Lynch does not have an overly powerful arm. We’ll touch on that more later.

But he has a good enough arm to hit any throw as long as he’s in rhythm. When he plants and drives the ball, he can put serious torque on his passes.

Some of this, as noted earlier, stems from his massive hands. With an incredible 11.5-inch hand length, Lynch can control the football as you or I could a Nerf minifootball. When everything goes reasonably well mechanically, Lynch is capable of hitting tight windows, like he did in the throw below, with proper timing and placement.

Hitting deep out routes is a massive positive for Lynch and the offense he’ll join. Memphis rarely tried these, which is probably more due to his receivers lacking the skill set needed to execute this play. Lynch’s above-average accuracy on intermediate and deep routes complement his excellent underneath throwing talent.

 

Comfort in and out of the Pocket

What separates Lynch from big, stiff signal-callers such as Flacco and Ryan Mallett is his athleticism. It’s rare to find men of Lynch’s stature playing quarterback in football and not forward in basketball. His ability in the pocket or to extend plays outside of the pocket will cause evaluators and coaches to drool over his potential.

Similar to Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger, Lynch can thrive in an offense that begs defenses to bring pressure. Since Lynch can brush off rushers, he buys time for receivers to spring free. He’s not a run-first player when the pocket breaks down, but he’s absolutely capable of gaining chunk yardage when he escapes the tackle box.

But just because Lynch can run doesn’t make him a running quarterback. As seen above, Lynch has a natural feel for the chaos around him. He doesn’t panic often and will rarely force bad passes. The above clip helps show his patience and eye level as he tries to give his receivers the chance to come free.

Even when facing better competition, Lynch’s athleticism sticks out. For example, he was masterful on the move against Ole Miss. This helps on third-down scramble drills that inevitably he will face in the NFL.

Offensive coordinators who are looking for a moldable talent to challenge how a defense prepares will also enjoy his red-zone capabilities. Lynch is a decent pocket passer in the red zone but really excels on the move. Changing his launch point is smart because he draws the linebackers toward him as soon as his legs start churning.

Mechanics on rollouts and speedouts is an area where Lynch showed improvement from the start to the end of the season. He began the year taking a flat, almost horizontal, line to the weak side of the field. This was an issue, as Lynch doesn’t have a strong enough arm to execute without his lower body helping to create torque.

As we can see against Auburn in the December 30, 2015 Birmingham Bowl (among other examples late in the season), Lynch bows out more and works upfield when he’s preparing to throw. The result of his pass is a more accurate and timely throw, but he also had the chance to run if he wanted to. The dual-threat aspect adds layers to defenders’ decision-making process.

 

System Transition

While Lynch has highly intriguing strengths, his weaknesses emerged as the season progressed. As defenses adjusted to Memphis’ offensive attack, Lynch was unable to adapt and his performance dipped. That's evident, per Lynch’s accuracy chart from before and after Week 11.

You’ll notice an excellent overall number of a 79 percent catchable-passes rate prior to Week 11. He had just one interception and three other interceptable passes. His efficiency and ability to protect the ball is a critical part of his projection into a more complex NFL system.

But things changed down the stretch of the season. The quality of opponents improved on a weekly basis, and the Tigers’ simplified offense bogged down and became more run-centric. Memphis’ playmakers weren’t getting wide open anymore, and Lynch struggled to adjust.

Remember, this accuracy chart has nothing to do with actual completions, but rather, it isolates the performance of just the quarterback. If the pass is accurate, it is tallied so, regardless of how the receiver plays the ball. There is no doubt that Lynch did not respond well when defenses took away the easy reads he previously had.

The big issue with Memphis’ and Baylor’s offense is how they are based around presnap reads. This exposes Lynch to some bad habits and poor decision-making. New York Jets’ and former Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty talked about his struggles adjusting to the NFL. Lynch will likely struggle with this as well.

Putting too much stock into one play isn’t fair, but one play can tell a story. In Lynch’s case, he repeatedly struggled with making the right decision in packaged plays such as the one above.

Let’s dig into this story.

We see the offense aligned with trips receivers on the top of the screen, another split on the far hash and one on the outside numbers. The numbers don’t make sense presnap to go to the trips screen, so Lynch rules out his first read without looking there postsnap. But he forces the throw to his slot receiver, who was smothered by the time the ball was released.

Since Lynch didn’t bother to read the defender’s first steps, he nearly throws an interception. This was avoidable since the far outside receiver is open with about six yards of cushion on a curl route. That was the correct read.

We have another example of getting stuck on his presnap read, this time against Auburn. Above we see a should-be interception, which could have been the third against Auburn, including dropped interceptions. This short-side throw is late, but it was always well-covered, as we can see below:

The screenshot taken is to highlight what Lynch should have seen before he starts his throwing motion. The red circle shows the cornerback in Cover 2, and he is clearly following the outside receiver upfield. With the safety roaming over the top, there is no reason Lynch should throw this pass. Factor in that he had a wide-open slot receiver who could have been off to the races with an accurate target.

 

Lack of Nuance

While the successful quarterback position doesn’t have to have perfect mechanics or a tight spiral on every throw, there is a certain level of nuance needed on a consistent basis. Aspects such as stepping into throws, reading leverage and working through progressions are incredibly important. Lynch struggles with his lower body quite often despite his experience.

As mentioned earlier, Lynch has a good but not great arm. He is unable to compensate for poor footwork, which can be said for all but a small handful of NFL quarterbacks. The margin for error rises when the ball flutters to the far side of the field.

This is a constant issue for Lynch. He is an effortless passer that can push the ball downfield, but when the windows shrink, he needs to put extra mustard on his throws to give his receiver time to create after the catch. If he steps into his throws and leads with his pivot foot, his accuracy will increase.

Watch Lynch’s pivot foot on the video above. He whips his front hip open to the sideline, and the ball comes out wobbly. This will be a pick-six in the NFL, as the defender was given way too much time to react. The ball was unpredictable as it left his hand because his lower body was not aligned to his target.

His horizontal step to the sideline with his leading foot is a habit that must end immediately. His throws cannot be late and to the wrong shoulder in the NFL with any regularity. Every quarterback makes mistakes, but poor ball placement and below-average velocity are two things that can't constantly show up at the next level.

 

Where He Can Improve

Lynch’s footwork must be the first area of improvement at the next level. While he is clearly a natural at the position, there are many missed opportunities that can push Lynch to franchise quarterback if he can convert them. Hitting wide open receivers in stride on intermediate routes is, at times, an issue for Lynch, and it has everything to do with his lower body.

Shoring up his footwork will also aid his arm. Lynch’s hands can be a good thing, but also a negative at times. He has an over-the-top delivery with his hand almost palming the football when he throws. This creates extra spin on the ball when Lynch is trying to throw too hard without his base aligned.

A new system may also bring challenges for Lynch. He did show a functional knowledge and understanding for leverage and positioning of his receivers and the defenders. But there is room for improvement with situational football. An example can be found on the third down below.

On 3rd-and-4, Lynch happily took the covered slot receiver for three yards, even though he was the most covered man in his progression. The zone-based defense had hoped for this, and the two underneath linebackers quickly smothered the receiver. See below for how the play unfolded:

Had Lynch recognized the zone coverage, the correct read was his streaking receiver, highlighted with an orange outline. The cornerback has overcommitted to his zone and turned his back to the receiver. With just one safety single high over the top, Lynch easily could have completed this for chunk yardage and a first down.

It’s a play like this that should cause concern for just how far Lynch is from becoming a viable starter in the NFL.

 

Projection

Lynch has the size that scouts dream of, and his breakout 2015 campaign was very encouraging for his outlook. He shows a natural comfort in the pocket that most quarterbacks could only fantasize about. His best plays strike up images of a young Roethlisberger.

Lynch's upside is significant, and it's why he’s been projected as a top-10 pick. But we cannot overlook the obvious weaknesses to his game right either. He’ll need at least a year to refine his footwork further and then adjust to an NFL playbook. The jump from the AAC to the NFL is steep.

Finding the best fit for Lynch is relatively easy, but he has a major buyer-beware sticker on his projection. Taking Lynch in the top half of the first round sets a high expectation that he will be a franchise quarterback at some point in his rookie contract. While he may get there, don’t expect that climb to come until the latter part of a five-year deal.

Comparing Lynch to recent prospects, he falls between Ryan Tannehill and Brock Osweiler. Tannehill and Lynch both excel on short and intermediate passes, and they use their mobility. But Tannehill improved quickly despite limited experience in college, and he seems to be, at worst, an average NFL quarterback. Osweiler has struggled when he’s played, but he needs more time to prove whether or not he can develop.

The top-10 hype on Lynch is simply too much. Dallas, with the No. 4 pick, is the only team drafting that high that should even consider him. The Cowboys offer a rare situation in which Lynch can develop. But it might be wiser to draft Goff, who is clearly the better quarterback prospect.

Lynch has franchise quarterback potential, but it’ll take a few years. If he’s afforded the time, he can greatly reward an organization. But the growing pains he will have may resemble those from his collegiate experience, which quickly peaked once things started clicking.

 

All stats used are from sports-reference.com.

Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. 

 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

USC Responds to Steve Sarkisian's Wrongful-Termination Lawsuit

The USC Trojans filed a response to former head football coach Steve Sarkisian's wrongful-termination lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court on Jan. 6, according to ESPN.com's Kyle Bonagura

Sarkisian is reportedly seeking $30 million after USC fired him despite having prior knowledge of his alcoholism, but the school's official response characterized the former head coach's claims as "half-truths and, in many cases, outright falsehoods," per Bonagura.

The response proceeds as follows, based on documents that ESPN.com obtained: 

It is absolutely false that Sarkisian ever admitted to having a drinking problem, to being an alcoholic or to needing to seek treatment. The truth is he denied ever having a drinking problem, but blamed his inability to perform the essential functions of his job on marital stress, lack of sleep and anxiety for which he was taking medication.

Sarkisian was fired in mid-October after the school asked him to take an indefinite leave of absence. At the time, athletic director Pat Haden told reporters it was "clear to me that he was not healthy," per ESPN.com

Shortly before the school fired Sarkisian, an unnamed USC player told ESPN.com that Sarkisian "showed up lit to meetings again today," while another source said the coach "appeared not normal" when he arrived for a practice. 

While Sarkisian—who is now sober, according to the lawsuit—is seeking a hefty sum, Bonagura reported the school is disputing the $30 million figure since the two sides agreed to settle terminations through an arbitration process when he signed his contract in 2013. 

Although the two sides are engaged in a legal battle, Sarkisian appears focused on making a return to the sidelines. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Sarkisian has done some exploratory work regarding possible employment as a quarterbacks coach or offensive coordinator in the NFL. 

With a resume that includes a stint as the Oakland Raiders' quarterbacks coach, Sarkisian is a compelling—and risky—candidate for teams that are piecing together fresh staffs for the 2016 season. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

USC Responds to Steve Sarkisian's Wrongful-Termination Lawsuit

The USC Trojans filed a response to former head football coach Steve Sarkisian 's wrongful-termination lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court on Jan. 6, according to ESPN.com's Kyle Bonagura ...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

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