NCAA Football

Ohio State in Prime Position to End Alabama's Lengthy Recruiting Reign

Ohio State climbed to No. 2 in national composite recruiting rankings Thursday afternoon when the team landed its latest commitment from a coveted prospect.

Michael Jordan, a 6'6", 285-pound junior at Plymouth High School in Canton, Michigan, joined a 2016 Buckeyes class that continues to pack in premier players. The 4-star offensive tackle is the 15th member of a class that includes athletes from eight states.

"I feel like we have the best class so far, and since these guys are going to Ohio State, you know they're competitors," defensive end Terrell Hall told Bleacher Report in April. "Hopefully we can all help make this a legendary class."

Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer has already earned individual "legendary" status with national championships at two universities. The only other coach to accomplish this feat is Nick Saban, who is currently on a dynastic recruiting run.

Alabama claimed the top-rated recruiting class on each of the past five national signing days. It's an unprecedented stretch that replenishes the Crimson Tide roster for perennial postseason contention.

That streak seems to be in jeopardy as the 2016 recruiting cycle moves toward summer. Alabama's class currently sits at 15th nationally—a rather pedestrian placement considering past success.

Yes, it's still early in the game. The ink won't dry on letters of intent for another nine months.

However, the Buckeyes' momentum suggests this may be the year someone else claims the recruiting crown in early February.

As Alabama well knows, it helps to have that shiny, new national championship ring to show off while pitching the program to prospects. Ahmir Mitchell, a 4-star New Jersey athlete and coveted Ohio State target, made that clear during his visit this spring:

Ohio State is a campus still reveling in the glory of a commanding victory over Oregon. It's an atmosphere that resonates with recruits.

"Columbus is buzzing right now," 4-star wide receiver Austin Mack, another potential Buckeyes pledge, told Bleacher Report.

Judging by the return of several high-profile players—namely 2014 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Joey Bosa and overnight quarterback/Twitter sensation Cardale Jones—many anticipate another playoff run for the Buckeyes next season.

Much like Saban at Alabama, Meyer has built a program equipped to reload rather than rebuild.

“It’s outstanding to see Ohio State recruiting guys who can replace the talent they have now," Mitchell said. "It shows the dedication they have to bringing in players who can compete for more national championships in the future.”

This 2016 haul is the latest example of that process. As currently assembled, the class includes a nation-best 12 pledges who warrant recruiting ratings of four stars or better.

Most remarkably, it's a group that features three of the country's top five running back recruits—Kareem WalkerGeorge Hill and Demario McCall. Former Texas Tech quarterback commit Tristen Wallace gives Meyer yet another dangerous dual-threat talent to mentor.

Jordan, the newest addition to this class, is one of three impressive offensive linemen on board. Things also look promising in the trenches on defense, with a trio of 4-star linemen in the mix, and that's arguably the spot this class still stands to improve most.

Dominant Florida defensive end Nick Bosa, the younger brother of Buckeyes fan favorite Joey, is widely viewed as a lock to land in Columbus. Fellow 5-star defensive lineman Rashan Gary, rated the No. 1 overall prospect in this 2016 cycle, is also strongly considering an Ohio State career.

Florida State is presently the lone program presiding over Meyer's squad in national recruiting rankings. The Seminoles, who hold 14 total commitments, may ultimately end up tussling with Ohio State to see who finally dethrones Saban and Alabama on signing day.

Ohio State has secured recruiting classes rated fifth, second, third and seventh since Meyer arrived. Saban sat on top each year.

The Buckeyes beat Alabama en route to a national title in January. Next winter, Meyer may be primed to celebrate a different kind of victory over his most decorated contemporary and end a half-decade of recruiting dominance in Tuscaloosa.

 

All quotes obtained firsthand by Bleacher Report National Recruiting Analyst Tyler Donohue.

Recruit ratings courtesy of 247Sports.

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College Football Teams with the Toughest Nonconference Schedule

Look, cupcakes are delicious. Don't ever let anyone shame you into not eating one or 10 in a single sitting. But cupcakes in college football? Those are flat-out offensive.

(Okay, not really, but it's the offseason and we need fire for sports takes.) 

However, not every team is stuffing its nonconference schedule full of FCS and lower-tier "Group of Five" opponents. There are a handful that have upped the scheduling ante and have one, maybe two, marquee nonconference games. 

In the following slides are teams that have beefed up out-of-conference games in 2015. For simplicity, we're going with Power Five schools—some of those mid-major nonconference schedules are easy choices—and omitting Independents since they basically play a full season of nonconference games. 

 

Begin Slideshow

Which Team Has the Best WR Corps in College Football?

There are tons of talented wide receivers in the college football ranks. In order to be a true contender, you must be able to stretch the field through the air. Having multiple deep threats on your offense is a luxury.

Which team has the best assembly of wideouts?

Bleacher Report's College Football Analysts Michael Felder, Barrett Sallee and Adam Kramer debate which team has the best wide receiver corps in the video above.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Everett Golson Didn't Become a Notre Dame Legend but Can Still Become a Great QB

Notre Dame football loves its legends and lore. Whether the stories are real, glorified or Hollywood fictions, the program and its fans define themselves by the likes of the Four Horsemen, the Gipper and Rudy.

Well, Everett Golson, who a few years ago looked like he was destined for his own folktale after leading the Irish to the national title game as a kid quarterback, obviously isn't going to fit in with Notre Dame's legends, after all.

His story is too real.     

Golson announced Thursday that he's leaving Notre Dame rather than playing his final year there. Soon, he'll figure out where he's going to play this fall, if he hasn't decided already.

It's going to be hard for people to figure out where he fits into Irish lore. Probably he's remembered as a guy who didn't live up to his potential, who cheated on a test, who left with his tail between his legs rather than fight for the starting job again.

But the narrative should be different. His best days as a quarterback are ahead of him. And there's nothing wrong with the story of a kid who flubbed up and then did what he could to make amends and make the most of himself. Think of this: He was kicked out of Notre Dame for academic cheating, and after he was re-admitted, he went on to earn his degree. At least, he's scheduled to earn it at the end of this semester.

It hasn't worked out for him yet, but it still could. He just didn't fit at Notre Dame anymore. He might not have been the starter, and he had just one year of eligibility left.

If I were Golson, I'd be begging Charlie Strong to take me in at Texas. Strong is a tough disciplinarian who believes in second chances for people who have earned them. He also oversaw Teddy Bridgewater's college quarterbacking days at Louisville, and Golson would fit the scheme.

Golson is going to be written off as a failure, but that isn't right. He didn't get caught with drugs. He didn't hit a girlfriend or attack a woman. He cheated on a test, then paid a stiff but fair penalty. This isn't to excuse cheating, but it's to say that he did a dumb thing as a kid. That's what kids do: dumb things. They just don't usually happen to be the most visible player on the most visible team in America.

When Notre Dame kicked him out, he apologized and did what he had to do to get back. He could have gone somewhere else right then. He camped out with a cousin in Chicago, began working out and then went to work with quarterback guru George Whitfield to improve his game.

It is only the legends that demand perfection. Golson has been a real kid in a world of fictionalized perfection.

Good for Notre Dame for taking cheating seriously, even with its quarterback. And good for Notre Dame for recognizing what he'd done to make it right and allowing him to come back after a season away. Golson looked like a Heisman candidate for the first half of this past season, and then everything fell apart on the field. He couldn't take care of the ball.

But he took care of his grades. That's a good academic ending for a kid who messed up. And now his game is messed up and he can make the football end right, too.

Smooth stories aren't necessarily more admirable than ones with screwups. And at Notre Dame, no one's story is really as smooth as it's told. For example, no Irish team ever saw its players place jerseys one-by-one on their coach's desk in protest to make sure Rudy would play—I've always thought at least half of Rudy was fiction.

"Try 90 percent," Robin Weber, one of Rudy's former teammates told me a few days before Notre Dame's loss to Alabama in the championship game behind Golson. Years earlier, Weber, a backup tight end, had made a big catch in another Notre Dame-Alabama title game that also goes down in the lore.

"Good guy with true blue-gold blood," Weber said. "Several of us used to call him the leprechaun in pads because of his dwarf-like stature and enthusiasm in congratulating you on a great hit when you would nail him, which was every play.

"Surprised he never got hurt, but he was real good at hiding by the defensive tackle's (rear) in his position as a fourth-string cannon-fodder linebacker."

There is no way of knowing exactly what is in Golson's head right now. It's surely a painful decision to leave a place he fought so hard to get back to. How did he go from such a courageous player in the first half of last year to one who had confidence whatsoever?

He lost his starting job to Malik Zaire at the Motor City Bowl. Maybe he would have gotten it back. But sometimes, you just need a change.

We judge character too easily and too quickly and base it on not enough information. They made a movie out of Rudy's character, and he ended up years later paying hundreds of thousands of dollars after cutting a deal with the Securities and Exchange Commission on a fraud charge.

Golson's story isn't finished yet. His best is still ahead of him.

 

Greg Couch covers college football for Bleacher Report.

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Michigan Football: Realistic Expectations for Wolverines' RB Depth in 2015

Promise and potential can only go so far. Sooner or later, Michigan Wolverines running backs will either prove that they can advance their collective ground game or further demonstrate their need for more in the backfield.

The 2015 season will be a test in that regard, and the results will be solely based on the performances of Derrick Green, De’Veon Smith and Ty Isaac, along with those from running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley’s mixture of fullbacks and halfbacks.

Known for power-oriented offenses, head coach Jim Harbaugh seems intent on quickly developing a ground-and-pound technique rarely seen lately in Ann Arbor.

Everyone speaks of the changing landscape in college football, which is fine. Even teams like Michigan are being forced into adapting to new styles of play. But all of the streamlined “option this” and “spread that” and other modern twists won’t ever completely replace tried and true techniques, such as the ones successfully used for years by Harbaugh and his staff. 

It’s been said over and over, but it couldn’t be truer right now: Getting back to the basics is the only way that the Wolverines will get back on track, and starting with the running backs is a good place to begin. There may not be a Heisman candidate or Big Ten Player of the Year-esque athlete in the stable, but the Wolverines do have a quartet capable of making up for lost ground.

 

Take the Lead

Note: The above video was posted a year ago, but the same theory applies to Green this season. He should end up becoming the No. 1 back in Wheatley's system. 

A team doesn’t necessarily need a 1,000-yard rusher to be wildly successful; just look at the 1997 national co-champion Wolverines—they were led by Chris Howard’s 868 yards and seven touchdowns. The year prior, he rushed for 698 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Why does a player from nearly 20 years ago matter today? Because Harbaugh’s philosophy, paired with the methods of offensive coordinator Tim Drevno and Wheatley, then in turn combined with the current personnel, makes for an ideal environment in which to produce a Howard-esque lead running back this season.

Howard’s stats weren’t mind-blowing. They were respectable.

He was a reliable runner who worked well within his system.

Expecting something along similar lines this fall for Green and Smith would be sensible. If fully healthy, Green could approach 868 yards and seven touchdowns while serving as a steady No. 1 option. If not for a season-ending injury this past fall, a broken clavicle versus Rutgers, he may have gone on to eclipse those marks in 2014—he finished his six-game sophomore year with 488 yards and three touchdowns.

On the upside, Green could creep into Fitz Toussaint territory, which would be barely more than 1,000 yards. That would be the best-case scenario, one that would require a much more physically and mentally improved O-line. Missed blocks and penalties last season accounted for several blown late-down situations and red-zone opportunities. 

Intent on becoming a more focused hole-hitter, Smith, who has taken the time to analyze a considerable amount of 2014 film during the offseason, could scamper his way for roughly 700 yards and 10 touchdowns, just as Howard had done as a junior.

As a sophomore, Smith rushed for 536 yards and six touchdowns but was constantly hampered by poor decisions. During spring availability, he mentioned that going with his initial instincts may be the best approach moving forward.

The pair of bulldozing backs possesses tactical advantages: At roughly 5’11” and 230 pounds, they each have lower centers of gravity, they share the ability to absorb contact and move along and they’re each capable of gaining the tough yards, just like Howard, who was just about the same size in college.

As for Isaac, he’s an altogether different story.

Wheatley and Drevno should have fun while finding ways to implement the 6’3”, 240-pound redshirt sophomore into their schemes. Size is the first thing that catches your attention: Isaac is a big guy. Fullback/linebacker size. He could become the hammer of the running game, which perfectly suits his style.

Isaac likes to go straight ahead. Dancing isn’t his thing, but he’s nimble enough to make one or two moves prior to shooting through a gap or around a linebacker or safety in the open field. Ideally, he should be able to contribute 400 yards and a handful of touchdowns. Goal-line situations and short-yardage opportunities will probably be the USC transfer’s calling cards while at Michigan.

In 2013, the Wolverines averaged just a shade more than 125 rushing yards per game. In 2014, that average shot up to 162.8 per game, leading to 1,954 net yards, per MGoBlue, the team’s official site.

With that being said, there is a reason to believe that Michigan could cross the 2,000-yard mark on the legs of Green, Smith and Isaac. Harbaugh’s past with running backs at Stanford and in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers certainly provides optimism. The added motivation of having a program legend as the running backs coach probably does something, too.  

 

Their Helpers

In late 2014, Drake Johnson showed off exemplary speed and vision that led to 368 yards and four touchdowns in what seemed like a couple of weekends.

Unfortunately, another ACL injury, this time against Ohio State, all but removed him from the perceived top tier at Michigan. That’s not to say that the 6’0”, 207-pounder won’t factor into the rotation this fall, but it is to say that fans shouldn’t expect a lot from him. He was just given the green light to resume running in late March. 

During the spring, he served as more of a coach and motivator, even a scout from time to time, for Wheatley, who constantly praised Johnson’s demeanor and work ethic. That strong desire to compete should get him on the field this year, but it will most likely be in a limited capacity. It all depends on the strength of his knee.

Johnson is once again a fan-favorite underdog entering the summer.

Karan Higdon, a 3-star freshman, will probably redshirt this year. Unless the 5’10”, 190-pounder dazzles beyond compare in fall camp, expect to see him sitting out and learning a few things from the coaching staff and upperclassmen this fall.

 

Get Full

Given the recruitment of Kingston Davis, a 3-star 2016 commit, Michigan is quickly looking to reimplement the use of power backs and fullbacks into its offense. Prior to his firing, former coach Brady Hoke courted Isaac, who is essentially a fullback—things were going that way regardless of the coach.

Harbaugh, Drevno and Wheatley, like Hoke, enjoy smashmouth football. A suitable, full-time fullback is needed in order to properly execute that style, opening the window for Joe Kerridge, a fifth-year senior, and Sione Houma, another senior who's seen little playing time during his career. 

At 6’0” and 249 pounds, Kerridge will likely serve as a lane clearer for Smith, Green and, on occasion, Isaac and Johnson. He could also catch a pass or two, just as he did during the spring game. Bailout options are always nice to have. Following the spring game, junior quarterback Shane Morris said that Kerridge had the best hands of any ball-carrier on the team.

Nearly the same size as Kerridge, Houma, who is 6’0” and 243 pounds, will also be another blocking option. He may get a carry every now and then, but don’t expect him to be a primary ball-handler. Together, Houma and Kerridge could gain 200 yards and score four touchdowns as reserves for Isaac—offensively speaking, that would be the ceiling.

However, blocks and lanes opened aren’t always calculated and, given the proper coaching, they could become the unsung heroes this fall, which features a run-unfriendly schedule loaded with returning top-40 rush defenses from Utah, BYU, Michigan State and Ohio State.

 

Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81.

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and references were obtained firsthand by the writer via press conference, press release or other media availability. Recruiting information via 247Sports.

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4-Star WR Austin Mack High on Ohio State: 'Columbus Is Buzzing Right Now'

Indiana wide receiver Austin Mack is just a month away from announcing his collegiate intentions, entering the final stretch of a frenzied recruitment that involves more than 30 programs.

The 4-star Bishop Luers High School standout will reveal his choice June 7 at the Redefining Athletic Standards Football Camp in Fort Wayne. Mack maintains he's still unsure about the decision and is weighing several options as the days dwindle.

"I'm evaluating each school based on a lot of different aspects," Mack said. "It's not just about emotions or about the football program, but more about how attending the university will impact the rest of my life. In this last month, I plan on talking with all the coaches, and hopefully, I'll make a decision before my announcement day comes."

Mack is among the most coveted offensive commodities in the 2016 recruiting cycle. He's seen his scholarship offer total double since the end of last season.

This outpouring of interest has resulted in an incredibly busy spring.

"I've been on the road just about every weekend these past couple months," he said. "It's been tiring at times, and I've missed out on some stuff back home, but it's what I needed to do."

The 6'2", 205-pound playmaker has spent time at many of the country's premier college campuses in recent weeks. This loaded itinerary included trips to Ohio State and Michigan.

Fellow Indiana prospect Brandon Peters, a 4-star quarterback who became the first 2016 prospect to personally commit to new Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh, has helped Michigan gain momentum. 

"Brandon is actually one of my boys, and he's not too far from me here in our home state," Mack said. "We talk all the time, and now, he's really trying to recruit me."

His experiences in Ann Arbor proved fortuitous, as he built a rapport with Harbaugh and assistants.

"Jim Harbaugh, as a person, is great. He's all about what Michigan stands for as far as character," Mack said. "His staff is very impressive, and they're all NFL-caliber guys. The thing that's special with them is I love the coaches."

His last trip to the university included dinner out with Harbaugh. The head coach called a timeout during the meal to have Mack show off his three-point stance at the restaurant. 

"I don't think I'd ever done a three-point stance in my life," Mack said, while laughing. "Harbaugh told me it was pretty awful."

Like many recruits who've landed on the radar for this Wolverines regime, Mack is compelled by the possibility of future success under new leadership.

"I'm very interested to see what Michigan does this year because if they have a strong season, their recruiting will be back to what it was in the past and a lot of great players will go there," he said.

Mack is among a collection of prospects who finds himself caught in the middle of a tug of war between the Wolverines and Big Ten Conference rival Ohio State Buckeyes. He's visited the Buckeyes various times and admits the environment is rather unique these days.

"Columbus is buzzing right now, and there's a lot of energy in that town after the championship," Mack said. "There's nothing like Buckeyes fans. They are absolutely crazy. It's a great place to be."

He was actually in the stadium earlier this year when Ohio State celebrated its national title game victory.

Urban Meyer made Mack a top priority much earlier than many top suitors. That initial diligence could pay off June 7 if the Buckeyes land their man.

"The Ohio State coaching staff has definitely been recruiting me hardest," Mack said. "They were actually the first really big school to offer me, and they've been hitting me up almost daily since before last signing day when a lot of teams were focused on 2015 guys. That made a big impact."

Like Harbaugh, Meyer has won Mack over when it comes to establishing a meaningful relationship.

"Coach Meyer is a heck of a guy," Mack said. "He takes care of his players and knows exactly what it takes to compete for titles in college football."

Nick Saban is the only current FBS coach who can measure up to Meyer in terms of championship clout. Mack felt a bit starstruck during a late March visit to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he received an offer.

"Sitting down with Saban and talking about your future with him is crazy," he said. "It's almost like being a little kid and meeting your favorite football player. I've grown up watching him coach on TV, and he's very respected throughout the country. It was really awesome to hear from Saban that I earned a scholarship to play for him."

Though the offer arrived later than most, Mack immediately put the Alabama Crimson Tide into consideration as a potential landing spot.

"Alabama is Alabama. There's nothing else quite like it," he said. "Surprisingly, even though they have a lot of talent on the team, there's actually an opportunity to compete early at wide receiver. The culture is great down there, and the players are respectful because of how Saban runs that team."

His recent journeys also took him to Notre Dame, where Mack gained a greater understanding of how the Fighting Irish operate.

"The tradition there is crazy, and its atmosphere is totally different than any other campus," Mack said. "They're all about being prestigious with both football and academics. That's huge for a person like me who really cares about education."

Mack, who plans to pursue a career in pediatrics, is adamant about finding an ideal blend of academic and athletic resources in college.

He has one more campus visit to check off his list before reaching a decision: Tennessee.

Mack will head to Knoxville on May 16 for the final assessment in a series of collegiate explorations.

"It's a huge visit for me. Tennessee is actually one of my dream schools," he said. "It seems like a wonderful place, so I want to experience that, meet [wide receivers] coach [Zach] Azzanni in person and get a feel for how things are run down there."

Volunteers quarterback commit Jarrett Guarantano has done his best to hype up Tennessee during discussions with Mack. The two became close on the camp circuit and could potentially team up for years to come.

"Jarrett has been on me a lot about Tennessee, and I promised him I'd go visit before I commit," Mack said. "I want to see what Jarrett saw at Tennessee that he didn't see at Ohio State or some of the other schools he was looking closely at. That's part of what has me really interested."

If it seems like Mack is juggling an abundance of options with just weeks remaining in his recruitment, it's because that's the reality. Unlike most recruits, he's opted not to unveil a list of favorites in advance of his announcement.

"I don't believe in having a list because I don't think it makes much sense to shut teams out," Mack said. "I try to take the most respectful route by giving every school that offered me a chance. I'm leaving things open until that day I commit."

Mack is projected to sign with Ohio State by 85 percent of expert predictions in 247Sports' Crystal Ball. Notre Dame and Michigan round things out with 10 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

He aims to enroll early in college, but that outcome isn't a certainty at this stage. This fall, Mack will look to build off a junior campaign that included 69 receptions for 1,062 yards and 15 touchdowns.

"I'm an all-around wide receiver who commits to the little things," he said. "I'm smart enough to memorize playbooks quickly and execute my assignments, whether I'm blocking downfield or running crisp routes. For a high school player, I'm polished. You can put me anywhere on offense, and I can contribute on special teams. I believe I'm ready to compete in college."

 

All quotes obtained firsthand by Bleacher Report National Recruiting Analyst Tyler Donohue.

Recruit ratings courtesy of 247Sports.

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B/R 5th Down: Cardale Jones Taking over Social Media, the Biggest Hit Ever

Editor's Note: The Fifth Down captures the top social college football stories of the week. Because the long, grueling offseason is underway, we'll focus on things that make us laugh, think or maybe cry, but mostly laugh.

 

1. Cardale Jones vs. Joakim Noah: Who Ya Got?

If you had to pick between Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones and Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah in a boxing match, who would you go with? Why, you ask? Oh, no reason, it's just that Jones is apparently ready to throw down. 

Here's the backstory, courtesy of Tom Ley at Deadspin

During a break in last night’s playoff game between the Cavs and Bulls, Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones and other players from the national champion Buckeyes were introduced and cheered on the court. Of course, this harmless event led to Jones getting into a beef with Bulls center Joakim Noah, because if there’s one thing Noah loves, it’s beefing with athletes from Ohio.

That reportedly led to Noah doing the most SEC thing possible besides actually chanting "S-E-C!":  

That, in turn, inspired Jones to tell Noah on Twitter to watch himself: 

For what it's worth, Noah has denied saying anything to Jones. Or knowing that he exists:

Still, we here at B/R love a good Photoshop, so here are Jones' and Noah's measurables for a boxing match that will surely never happen: 

Come to think of it, more athletes should solve Twitter beefs in the ring. Sure, there's the whole injury thing, but that's a cash cow waiting to happen.  

Anyway, we're taking bets* on who'd win: Jones or Noah? 

(*No we're not. Don't bet. Ever.)

 

2. R.I.P. This High School Running Back 

As if you needed any more evidence that Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher can recruit, we present to you Panama City defensive end Janarius Robinson. A 4-star prospect according to 247Sports, Robinson is verbally committed to the Seminoles' Class of 2016. 

And he is a bad, bad man (in a terrifyingly good kind of way). 

Here's a video of Robinson absolutely destroying some poor running back and my goodness is a teenager's life not sacred anymore?  

Sometimes, life and genetics just aren't fair.  

(h/t Tomahawk Nation’s Bud Elliott)

 

3. Former Auburn Tight End Rides a Horse (SPOILER: It Ends Poorly) 

Horses are majestic creatures. They're also frightened easily and will kick you. For these reasons, horses should not be trusted, but that's a conversation for another day. 

Auburn's equestrian horses are probably fine, but they require skilled riders. That's definitely not former Tiger and current Cincinnati Bengal tight end C.J. Uzomah. In the fourth installment of "Auburn Sports Collide," Uzomah gives horse riding the ol' college try. It doesn't end well: 

If there's a lesson to be learned here, it's that football players aren't warriors. Seriously, warriors used to ride horses, and they didn't fall off. 

 

4) Ezekiel Elliott Throws Out First Pitch at Cardinals Game (SPOILER: It Ends Well) 

The defending national champion Ohio State Buckeyes are having quite the offseason (see: pretty much everything written above. And the week before. And the week before. And the—).

As part of that, Buckeyes running back and St. Louis native Ezekiel Elliott threw out the first pitch during a Cardinals baseball game. He throws a nice strike, as you can see in the video below:

Not to be outdone, Cardale Jones used Elliott's first pitch to leverage the Cleveland Indians into doing the same for him: 

However, here's the pertinent question: What's a guy gotta do 'round here to get that job running in circles around Elliott holding a camera? Also, who is that guy? Because that's some impressive footwork. And he's actually kind of fast, too. Seriously, watch him. He doesn't lose balance or anything. In fact, if you were to view him from above, here's guessing he was running in a perfect circle. Wonder what the circumference was of that circle. Is that the one that measures from one end of the circle to the other, or is that diameter? Wait...what's radius, then? Man, I should have paid attention in geometry and stopped playing on my TI-83 so much.

Oh well, the Pythagorean theorem was crap. 

 

5. [EVENT]: W H _ _ L   _ F    F _ _  T _ N _    _ T    W _ S H _ N _ T _ N   F _ _ T _ _ L L 

If you guessed "Wheel of Fortunate at Washington Football," congratulations: You've won a one-week trip to the Bahamas and a new ironing board.* 

(*Not redeemable with B/R, or anyone.) 

"Wheel of Fortune" host and sidekick Pat Sajak and Vanna White stopped by Husky Stadium this week while filming the upcoming season of the popular game show. 

So, you know, if you're a fan and in the area, try to get on it. Or something. 

 

6. Check Out Pharaoh Brown's Recovery Video

The Pac-12 released an awesome video this week profiling Oregon tight end Pharaoh Brown, who is recovering from one of the nastiest, most awful leg injuries we've seen in a good, long while. The internal damage was so bad, apparently, that amputation was a possibility.  

However, Brown's recovery has been nothing short of a miracle. He's ahead of schedule in his rehab and is on track to return to the field. Watch the video below and be absolutely inspired:

Here's hoping Brown can get back on the field sooner rather than later. But more than anything, we're amazed Brown's recovery has gone so well. 

 

7. Finally, Your LOLWUT??? Quote of the Week

College football would be far less interesting if Washington State head coach Mike Leach wasn't in it. Thankfully he's blessed us with his X's and O's acumen, because he can be gold behind a microphone. 

Here's Leach on the recovery of former Cougars quarterback Connor Halliday, who sustained a brutal season-ending leg injury in 2014:

Never change, Leach.

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. He's currently beefing with Cardale Jones on Twitter @BenKercheval.

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Insider Buzz: 8th-Grade Two-Sport Stud Turning Heads on Recruiting Trail

Eighth-grader Blake Hinson, a two-sport phenom from Daytona Beach, Florida, is already turning heads on the field and recruiting trails. With Division I offers on the table to play both football and basketball, Hinson has some tough decisions ahead. 

Bleacher Report National Recruiting Analyst Damon Sayles joins Stephen Nelson as they discuss all the info on Hinson and what sport he may choose to play at the next level. 

What is Hinson's upside? Check out the video above and let us know!

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Alabama Football: 3 Things Standing in the Way of an SEC Championship

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It's not a stretch to say that Alabama's 2014 SEC Championship was a surprise.

Between the talent it was replacing on both sides of the ball and breaking in a new quarterback, few saw Atlanta as a likely early-December destination for the Crimson Tide, let alone their bringing home the hardware they did.

But Alabama rode Blake Sims and Amari Cooper all the way there, ultimately earning a spot in the College Football Playoff.

A return trip won't be so easy, either. Here are three things standing in Alabama's way right now.

 

Quarterback play

At the end of the day, Alabama isn’t going to get much done with average or below-average quarterback play.

There was a time where the Crimson Tide could put up a brick wall on defense and grind teams to a fine dust in the run game on offense and go undefeated, but that time is no more.

Alabama showed last year that you need to score points to win in the present-day SEC, and to score points, you need high-level quarterback play.

By now, the quarterback rundown is pretty well-known: Jake Coker is still the favorite, while David Cornwell separated himself during spring practice.

A big-name JUCO transfer like Braxton Miller (or now, Everett Golson) would be welcome, as head coach Nick Saban himself has said, but that would only be icing on the cake.

The next couple of months will be critical for quarterback development. The players can’t go through any sort of organized on-field work with coaches but can continue to study the playbook and learn the offense inside and out so they can hit the ground running in fall camp.

There won’t be much in the way of tangible updates as far as the quarterbacks are concerned this offseason. Any sort of improvement won’t be evident until fall camp kicks off in August.

 

Secondary cohesion

Alabama’s Achilles' heel down the stretch of last season was its pass defense, or lack thereof.

In the Crimson Tide’s last four games against Power 5 teams, it gave up an average of 318.5 passing yards per game, including 456 in the Iron Bowl.

The good news is that even with the departure of Landon Collins, Alabama appears to have the makings of a strong secondary.

Cyrus Jones developed into one of the better corners in the SEC last year, while Tony Brown will be better opposite him after his true freshman season.

Eddie Jackson’s move to safety gave that group more consistency and experience. He and Geno Smith could form a formidable duo on the back end. Safety Hootie Jones will also be better in Year 2, while true freshman Ronnie Harrison drew rave reviews during spring practice. Maurice Smith is also a versatile defender who can play in a lot of spots in the secondary.

Among those seven, Saban and new defensive backs coach Mel Tucker have plenty of talented options around which to mold their secondary. Even against wide-open passing teams like Texas A&M, Alabama will have the firepower necessary to counter.

Now, it’s a matter of getting that group to work as a unit to cut down on the big plays Alabama gave up last year.

 

Attitude

Alabama is always going to be the most talented team in the country. That’s not exactly a state secret. The Crimson Tide’s five straight No. 1 recruiting classes have stockpiled the cupboards for Saban and his staff.

But what determines Alabama’s success is what that talent does with the knowledge that it’s the best. It can become easy to feel entitled, a word Saban likes to use when talking about handling success.

He’s already been lamenting about it this offseason.

“I think we’ve got too many people worried about winning and losing and not enough about what we need to do to play our best and be our best all the time, be physical and aggressive,” Saban told reporters in Dothan, Alabama, last week, according to Ken Rogers of the Dothan Eagle. “That’s what we need to get back to. That’s what I’d like for our expectation to be.”

The difference between Alabama’s national championship teams and those of the last two years has been a lack of killer instinct. The teams with BCS rings played almost with a chip on their shoulder.

Less than half of Alabama’s current roster knows what it’s like to taste that kind of success. The Crimson Tide need to get their edge back.

 

Marc Torrence is the Alabama lead writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes and reporting were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Follow on Twitter @marctorrence.

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Is Cardale Jones Taking Harbaugh's Title as College Football's King of Twitter?

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The merits of Jim Harbaugh's attention-grabbing first four months as Michigan's head coach depends on who you talk to.

Fans of the Wolverines see a coach creating a buzz around a program in desperate need of just that. Rivals seem to see nothing more than an empty threat coming in the form of guest appearances at spring training and courtside pizza at basketball games.

But while the value of Harbaugh's celebrity-like offseason is up for debate, this much is not: The former San Francisco 49ers head coach has owned college football Twitter for the past four months.

Or at least he did.

And perhaps fittingly, the biggest threat to Harbaugh's 140-characters-or-less crown comes from his renewed archrival.

Cardale Jones might not be Ohio State's starting quarterback when Harbaugh gets his first shot at the Buckeyes since taking the field as the Wolverines signal-caller in the 1986 edition of "The Game," as Jones still has to beat out J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller this summer in order to retain his starting status. But that hasn't stopped Jones from basking in the limelight of the Buckeyes' run to the national championship last season, with much of his celebrating playing out right in front of his 173,000-plus followers.

Formerly best known for one of his ill-advised tweets, Jones has become a Twitter superstar since leading his team to three consecutive postseason wins at the end of the 2014 season, specifically within the last week. It started last Friday when Jones, currently entrenched in an unprecedented quarterback competition, sent shockwaves through the Twittersphere when he "announced" that he would be transferring to Akron:

Jones followed up his announcement—which came complete with an avatar change to the Zips logo—with two more pro-Akron tweets as the college football world held its collective breath.

Eight minutes later, the 6'5", 250-pound quarterback let the rest of the world in on his joke:

Whether Jones' faux transfer was received as well by Urban Meyer as it was his fans remains unclear, but this was the national champion quarterback at his best. Uncaring of what anybody thought, Jones realized the power he has at his fingertips and played with it, as fans and reporters alike hung onto his every tweet.

Jones' big week didn't stop there, however, as he spent the weekend tweeting about the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight, his former teammates who were drafted and one of his favorite subjects—Chipotle: 

After showing off a sweet customized phone case, Jones then took his Twitter game to the next level, engaging in a public feud with Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah. Whether the Jones-Noah beef is actually a two-sided affair remains unclear, but here are the details.

As Jones and his OSU teammates were honored on the court during a timeout in Wednesday night's Eastern Conference semifinals matchup between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Noah's Bulls, Jones took to the microphone to encourage his hometown Cavs to "bring another championship to Ohio." An alum of Florida, Noah took issue with the Buckeyes' presence, according to 92.3 The Fan's Anthony Lima:

While Noah denied saying anything about the Ohio State quarterback, Jones took notice. And never one to back down, he responded—via Twitter:

Already in the good graces of Cavs fans after taking on one of their most hated rivals, the Rock and Roll City native then turned his attention to baseball. After Buckeyes running back Ezekiel Elliott threw out the first pitch for his hometown St. Louis Cardinals on Tuesday, Jones let the Cleveland Indians know that he wouldn't mind being honored in a similar fashion:

The Indians, to their credit, noticed and responded, perhaps sensing an opportunity to fill Progressive Field:

In fairness to Harbaugh, he isn't exactly riding quietly into the night, posting a selfie with first lady Michelle Obama and pop star Ciara, before bemoaning ESPN College GameDay's recent personnel moves with some rather choice words in the last week alone:

But while Harbaugh's Twitter remains a must-follow, it's paled in comparison as of late to the account of his rival's quarterback. Especially in a sport that can so often be devoid of personality, Jones' willingness to embrace his sudden celebrity has provided some much-needed entertainment in the dog days of this offseason.

Like Harbaugh, the merits of Jones' personality are still unclear, as it remains to be seen whether or not having public opinion on his side will aid him in this summer's quarterback competition. The Buckeye faithful will undoubtedly be satisfied with any of the three signal-caller options Meyer settles on for the upcoming season, but neither Barrett nor Miller have connected with their fanbase in a fashion similar to Jones.

For now, however, Ohio State fans—like their Michigan counterparts—should just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Jones and Harbaugh each seem to be.

 

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of CFBStats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.

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SEC Football: Realistic Expectations for Every Team in 2015

Pads have been sent back to the equipment rooms, practice jerseys have been washed and depth charts have started to sort themselves out.

Spring practice is over around the country, which means that the eternal optimism for every fanbase is at an all-time high. Unfortunately, though, all of your teams can't go undefeated in 2015.

We've already handed out our post-spring power rankings for the SEC, but let's get a little more specific. Our realistic expectations for every SEC team in 2015, based on talent, coaching and schedule, are in this slideshow.

Begin Slideshow

Source Confirms South Carolina Interested in Home-State Hero Everett Golson

What seemed like an inevitability for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish became a reality Thursday.

Senior quarterback Everett Golson, the same man who led Notre Dame to an undefeated 2012 regular season and a berth in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game, announced that he will transfer from the program, per Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports. As a graduate transfer, Golson is eligible to play immediately at the FBS level.

With that, the winds of the free-agent quarterback market began howling.

The South Carolina Gamecocks are hoping those winds drive Golson, a native of Myrtle Beach, back to his home state.

A source inside the South Carolina program told Bleacher Report that the school is interested in Golson and that the quarterback's camp has known of its interest since December.

[Update] On Friday, 247Sports' Clint Brewster reported that Golson plans visits to South Carolina and Georgia next week, However, any scheduled visit would come as a surprise to the source and South Carolina had not been in touch with Golson since he officially announced that he is leaving Notre Dame.

The move would make sense for South Carolina and Golson.

Head coach Steve Spurrier has a three-headed quarterback battle on his hands that involves junior Perry Orth, sophomore Connor Mitch and freshman Michael Scarnecchia. Mitch, the likely leader exiting spring practice, is the most experienced of the trio with just six career passing attempts.

South Carolina's campus in Columbia is 152 miles from Golson's home in Myrtle Beach, where he threw for 11,663 yards and 151 touchdowns at Myrtle Beach High School. 

Golson, a former 4-star prospect in the class of 2011, wanted to leave home during his high school recruitment. That could still be the case as the 6'0", 200-pounder looks for a new home this offseason, according to the source.

South Carolina has already lost 11 scholarship players to transfer or dismissal this offseason and, as The State's Josh Kendall pointed out in February, will enter the 2015 campaign incredibly inexperienced:

Despite that roster attrition, it might be a challenge for South Carolina to find room for Golson if there's mutual interest.

There's certainly interest from South Carolina's players. As CollegeSpun.com pointed out, linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams sent a tweet Thursday in an attempt to lure Golson to Columbia. He has since deleted the tweet.

Golson's season-long suspension for academic misconduct could be a massive roadblock for Golson if he intends to transfer to South Carolina or any SEC school.

As Bleacher Report first reported in January when the Golson rumors first kicked up, the new SEC graduate transfer bylaw, which the conference enacted on May 30, 2014, has a specific statute that prevents one-year graduate transfers who have been subject to official discipline by their previous school from transferring in.

Bylaw 14.1.15.1 (d), which the SEC office sent to Bleacher Report in January, states: "The student-athlete has not been subject to official university or athletics department disciplinary action at any time during enrollment at any previous collegiate institution (excluding limited discipline applied by a sports team)."

As is the case with all SEC bylaws, there is a waiver process in place. 

Could Golson get a waiver?

The answer is a soft "maybe." 

It didn't work for basketball player Eric McKnight last summer.

The former Florida Gulf Coast graduate transfer wanted to head to Tennessee last summer, but according to Ben Frederickson of KnoxNews.com, he was not allowed to enroll—potentially due to "limited discipline issues." He later transferred to Long Beach State.

Every case is different, and Golson's comeback and eventual graduation from Notre Dame could certainly mitigate any problems that arise from his season-long absence in 2013.

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports' composite rankings.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on Sirius 93, XM 208.

Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

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Which Auburn Players Will Step Up to Replace Talent Lost to NFL?

The Auburn Tigers had an up-and-down 2014 season, ultimately resulting in a 34-31 loss to Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl. In addition to their loss on the field, they lost a ton of top talent to the NFL draft. How will they replace them? 

Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder joined Stephen Nelson as they discussed the outgoing players and who could step up for the Tigers in 2015. 

How will Auburn fare in 2015? Check out the video and let us know! 

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Who Is Tougher to Replace: Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota?

Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota will forever be linked during their football careers. In addition to being the top two picks in the 2015 NFL draft, they also leave giant voids at their universities.

Looking back, which quarterback will be tougher to replace?

Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder joined Stephen Nelson to answer the tough question while assessing the two quarterbacks' legacies.

Who will be tougher to replace? Check out the video and let us know!

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Who Will Be LSU's Offensive MVP for the 2015 Season?

The LSU Tigers had an up-and-down 2014 season, culminating in a bowl loss to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

But the season wasn't a total loss, due in large part to some outstanding individual performances. Who will take those performances into 2015 and be the team's MVP on offense? 

Bleacher Report college football analyst Michael Felder joined Stephen Nelson to discuss which LSU star will break out and become the team's most valuable player in 2015.

Who will be LSU's MVP? Check out the video and let us know!

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Who Will Have More Success in His First Season: Jim McElwain or Jim Harbaugh?

The 2015 college football coaching carousel was a bit less frenetic than normal but didn't lack for intrigue at its highest levels.

Last fall, the powers that be at a pair of important, tradition-rich programs finally decided that they’d seen enough from their underperforming head coaches. Florida fired Will Muschamp and Michigan fired Brady Hoke, one year after both hired new offensive coordinators in an unsuccessful last-ditch effort to save their jobs.

Both programs made hires that were fascinating in their own unique ways. Michigan made the biggest splash of the winter by luring native son and alum Jim Harbaugh back home after he parted ways with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers.

Florida and athletic director Jeremy Foley took a slightly different tact in hiring Jim McElwain, a career coordinator who turned around a downtrodden Colorado State program in just three seasons.

USA Today's Dan Wolken says McElwain is built for the business of winning games at Florida, a job he couldn't turn down.

"There's only a handful of these jobs," McElwain said, via Wolken. "When you just poll the United States and say, "Give me the top five football programs in the country," there's a pretty good chance University of Florida is going to be in there. That opportunity doesn't come around very often."​

Judging which program made the better hire is foolish on the surface. It will take years to figure out if Harbaugh or McElwain was the better, more successful fit, with many variables like coaching staffs, facilities and recruiting in play. This isn’t the time or place for that, not yet.

However, we can take a look at which program’s fans will be happier with their new hire this fall, given the players each coach has inherited and recruited. So let’s do that instead.

Here’s a look at whether Jim Harbaugh or Jim McElwain will be more successful in his new home in 2015, examining key factors for each program.

 

Florida

Let’s start with the positives.

Muschamp was known for his defensive prowess and left McElwain a very good defense to work with. Last fall, the Gator defense kept Florida in games, allowing 21.1 points per game (No. 20 nationally in scoring defense) and 329.8 yards per game (No. 15 nationally in total defense).

And despite losing edge-rusher Dante Fowler Jr., the third overall pick in the NFL draft, that unit should be just fine this season.

Florida will return eight defensive starters, including its entire secondary. The back end will be anchored by All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, a lockdown corner capable of taking on virtually any receiver in the country. Linebacker Antonio Morrison, who led the team with 101 tackles last fall, also returns.

While Fowler will be tough to replace, McElwain’s staff closed strong in recruiting by nabbing 5-star defensive end CeCe Jefferson, who was rated as the nation’s No. 7 overall player by 247Sports. So at the very least, Florida won’t have much to worry about on the defensive side of the ball.

That’s a good thing, because there’s plenty on the offensive side that’ll keep McElwain and his staff up nights.

Florida was far from an offensive powerhouse in 2014. The Gators averaged 30.3 points per game, which ranks No. 53 nationally, and 367.6 yards per game, which ranked No. 93 nationally. Quarterback Jeff Driskel never developed as expected, and freshman dual-threat Treon Harris finished the season.

Florida’s passing offense scared no one, piling up 179.9 yards per game, No. 104 nationally.

And consider this: Florida returns just one offensive line starter from a year ago: guard Trip Thurman. The Gators actually had six offensive players picked in the NFL draft, including four offensive linemen (led by No. 24 overall selection D.J. Humphries). Leading rusher Matt Jones also left, although junior Kelvin Taylor (565 yards, six scores) is ready to step into that role.

But who will block for him?

Tackle Rod Johnson (who was expected to flip from the right side to the left) was forced to give up football after being diagnosed with spinal stenosis (the narrowing of the spinal canal), and Florida finished spring with just six healthy scholarship offensive linemen. Top offensive tackle recruit Martez Ivey will almost certainly be thrown into the fire as a true freshman starter.

Demarcus Robinson (53 receptions, 810 yards, seven scores in 2014) is an emerging star, but who’ll throw to him?

Harris and redshirt freshman Will Grier will carry their battle for the starting quarterback role into August. Harris threw for nine touchdowns against four interceptions and added three rushing touchdowns last fall, but he completed just 49.5 percent of his passes. Grier has good mobility and is also a better passer. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him win the job.

The schedule isn’t easy, either. Florida draws Ole Miss and traditional crossover foe LSU from the SEC West and must travel to Baton Rouge. The Gators also must travel to Missouri and South Carolina, have their traditional neutral-site showdown with Georgia in Jacksonville and host archrival Florida State.

Unless the offense kicks into gear, wins might be hard to pile up.

 

Michigan

The only thing worse than losing is losing in boring fashion, which Michigan fans found out last fall.

Brady Hoke kicked off his Wolverine tenure with a rousing 11-2 record but got consistently worse with each passing season, slipping to 8-5 and 7-6 in 2013.

Hiring offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier and installing a run-based offense wasn’t the answer, either. Michigan averaged 162.8 rushing yards per game (No. 62 nationally) and 170.2 passing yards per game (No. 110).

The Wolverines averaged only 333 yards per game (No. 112), and scored just 20.9 points per game (No. 109). It was no surprise that Hoke was canned following a 5-7 season.

Michigan needed excitement and hit a home run by luring Harbaugh back to his alma mater. However, Harbaugh said that he isn't interested in being the program's "savior," via Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman.

 "I can't even think of professions where you don't have the pressure to perform and do a good job," he said. "Man, if there was that profession, I wouldn't want to do it."

Harbaugh’s fiery ways tend to wear on people. He hasn’t spent more than four seasons at any of his three stops (San Diego, Stanford and the San Francisco 49ers), but that isn’t as big a concern in his inaugural season.

He has made an immediate difference at all three previous stops. He led San Diego to a 7-4 record in his first season, improved Stanford from 1-11 to 4-8 in his first season on The Farm and turned the 49ers from a 6-10 team into a 13-3 team with an NFC title game visit in his first season.

To do so at Michigan, he must lean on a salty defense while whipping the offense into shape.

The Wolverines suffered key losses in linebacker Jake Ryan and defensive ends Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer but return eight starters from a unit that allowed 311.3 yards per game (No. 7 nationally) and 22.4 points per game (No. 27). Michigan needs to develop pass-rushers and find an impact player in the secondary.

Redshirt freshman Jabrill Peppers should fulfill the latter requirement. He was one of Michigan’s most highly anticipated recruits in recent memory but was forced to redshirt following multiple leg injuries.

Bigger questions exist on offense. Michigan returns all five offensive line starters, but that unit simply wasn’t very good in 2014, often failing to protect quarterback Devin Gardner, who threw 10 touchdowns against 15 interceptions.

That line must open holes for tailback Derrick Green, who was emerging as a star before suffering a season-ending broken collarbone at midseason. He had 471 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 5.7 yards per carry.

Leading receiver Devin Funchess is off to the NFL, but senior Amara Darboh (36 receptions, 473 yards, two touchdowns) showed signs in spring of being a functional No. 1 receiver.

The biggest question is the same one Florida faces: Who’ll start at quarterback?

Shane Morris was given chances to unseat Gardner last season but never took advantage of them. He completed 14 of 40 passes for 128 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions on the season and battled sophomore Wilton Speight and freshman Alex Malzone in spring practice.

The wild card could be senior Jake Rudock, a graduate transfer from Iowa who left the Hawkeyes after it became apparent that C.J. Beathard would be the starter this fall. Rudock started 11 games for Iowa in 2014, completing 61.7 percent of his passes for 2,436 yards with 16 touchdowns and five interceptions.

Rudock has a little mobility and a solid arm but is also experienced as a “game manager” who doesn’t take a ton of chances.

If Michigan’s defense and run game are as good as expected, he could be a perfect one-year fit for Harbaugh.

Michigan’s 2015 schedule is reasonable. The Wolverines have tough non-conference games in the opening month at Utah and home against Oregon State and BYU, but they do get rivals Michigan State and Ohio State at home and avoid Nebraska and Wisconsin out of the Big Ten West.

There’s reason to expect that Harbaugh’s trend of first-year improvement will continue.

 

The Verdict

While Michigan made the flashier hire, both the Wolverines and Gators made moves that will push their programs forward in coming years, particularly with Florida's investment in long-overdue facility upgrades.

Both teams will have solid defenses, but McElwain faces a difficult task in energizing Florida’s offense this fall with a thin offensive line and unsettled quarterback situation.

Harbaugh has a better line and a better quarterback scenario, which should help the Wolverines enjoy a bit more success than Florida in 2015.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

5-Star WR Nate Craig Reveals Plans After Decommitting from Auburn

Nate Craig-Myers sent shock waves throughout the recruiting world earlier this week when he announced that he was decommitting from Auburn, according to Josh Newberg of Noles247.

The 6’2”, 205-pound Tampa native, who is a 5-star prospect rated as the nation’s No. 1 wide receiver by 247Sports, said that his decision to back off of a pledge that stood for nearly 10 months was because he rushed into his initial choice.

“I just wanted to make sure that I make the right decision,” Craig-Myers told Bleacher Report. “I wanted to open things up. Since I committed so early, I want to give every school a shot at recruiting me.”

Craig-Myers has more than 40 offers to his credit, and while he’s ready to open things up, he admits that he has some homework to do in terms of compiling a new list of schools that he’s interested in.

As his Crystal Ball page indicates, Craig-Myers has been linked to home-state power Florida State. He notes that he's already been in contact with one of the Seminoles’ graduate assistants since his announcement.

However, he’s in no rush to name the Seminoles or any other school as his favorite.

In fact, the nation’s No. 23 overall prospect in the 2016 class said that a trio of out-of-state schools are a priority for him to visit in the coming months.

“A few schools I’d like to see are Baylor, Ohio State and USC,” Craig-Myers said.

As far as factors that will come into play with his final decision, Craig-Myers—who plans to major in business management in college—is looking beyond his fit on the gridiron.

“I just want to find the right fit for me and a school that can prepare me for life after football, because football isn’t always going to be there,” Craig-Myers said. “I want to find the best situation from an academic standpoint.”

Another aspect that could influence his decision is the recruitment of his brother—2016 3-star corner Jayvaughn Myers.

Jayvaughn has 10 offers, with his most recent one coming from Florida. The Gators are one of a handful of schools, including Kentucky and Rutgers, that have offered both brothers.

While Craig-Myers said he would love to play with his sibling in college, he admits that a package deal will only come into play if it’s the right fit for each of them.

“We will probably visit a few schools together and a few by ourselves,” Craig-Myers said. “I think we both want to find schools that fit us individually first. We don’t want to go together if it isn’t the right fit for one of us. Then, one of us would be happy and the other one wouldn’t be.”

The next event on his calendar will be the Unsigned Preps Bus Tour next month.

Still, a long list of anxious suitors are awaiting their shot at the No. 4 prospect out of Florida.

Craig-Myers said that he doesn’t have a timeline in mind and notes that a decision will only come when he and his family are 100 percent comfortable with his choice. 

“It’s about making the right decision for me and my family,” Craig-Myers said. “I want to go to a place I can thrive on and off the field and a place that has that ‘home away from home’ feel.”

 

Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand and all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

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Surviving the Sanctions: Inside the Tumultuous Journey of Penn State's Seniors

Sam Ficken drilled home the game-winner, only to flee the scene.

Penn State's kicker outran his euphoric teammates to the opposite end of Yankee Stadium's makeshift field before allowing himself to be swarmed at the 15-yard line. The celebration would soon make its way to the top of the first-base dugout, where players embraced each other, family, fans—anyone within reach.

It was not the climax of a national championship or a Rose Bowl; this was the scene following a mere chip shot to win the Pinstripe Bowl, a minor, late-December matchup.

But for a tight-knit group of players who just 29 months earlier were slammed with sanctions rendering their football program bowl-ineligible through the 2015 season and scholarship-handicapped even longer, Ficken's extra point to defeat Boston College represented much more.

The victory offered an improbable bookend to a four-year stretch for the Nittany Lions' departing senior class that was arguably more turbulent than any other in modern college football history.

Despite post-sanction player transfers, two coaching staff overhauls and increasingly apparent effects of scholarship reductions—the Lions had just 47 recruited scholarship players available in Yankee Stadium—the 2014 seniors helped sustain a program once considered on its death bed.

"We played for each other," said linebacker Mike Hull, who recently signed as an undrafted free agent with the Miami Dolphins following the 2015 NFL draft. "Played for Penn State. We played because we love the game. And nothing was going to stop us from being successful."

This story is about that class, a group of seniors whose years at Penn State will formally come to a close with the university’s spring commencement the second weekend in May.

 

"It all came crashing down"

Few players even knew who Jerry Sandusky was.

So, after news broke on Nov. 4, 2011, that the former Penn State assistant coach had been indicted for child sex abuse, they didn't understand just how crushing the scandal would be.

"At that time we were in shock because this had been one of the most stable programs, if not the most stable, for the last 40 years up to that point," Hull said.

"And then it all came crashing down."

First, the players heard a man who last coached at Penn State when they were in middle school was facing criminal charges.

Then, the team learned this could jeopardize the job of its revered head coach, Joe Paterno.

Next, players received texts from assistant coaches on the evening of Nov. 9 informing them the unthinkable had happened: Paterno had been fired. A public announcement by the Board of Trustees was made shortly thereafter.

As College Avenue, the main drag in bucolic State College, became flooded with protesting students, coaches mandated that players remain inside and off social media.

Ficken thought about the contrast between what he expected from Penn State and the new reality.

"You sign up to play for Joe. Joe had been here 46 years," he said. "The coaching carousel in college football at the time, where you get a new coach every two or three years...at Penn State, that's not the case. You have the same coach until you graduate."

Paterno had been Penn State's head coach since 1966. The stats that don't fully capture his place at the school: one library in his name, two national championships, five undefeated seasons and 409 wins. Plus, a "grand experiment" of challenging players to succeed both on the football field and in the classroom. His legacy, however, remains a point of contention three years after his death because of the Sandusky case.

The day after his firing, the 84-year-old coach gave one final address to the team.

"He just reminded us why we were all at Penn State, why it was a special place, and that we're always going to have a great brotherhood, always going to be family to one another," Hull said.

"'Just remember the relationships and the bonds that you're creating,' he said."

Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley stepped in as interim head coach for the 8-1 Nittany Lions, who struggled to keep the focus on football as the national media settled in on State College during the final stretch of the season.

The perception of the Penn State football program, previously known for what Paterno called "success with honor," spiraled downward as the details of the sex abuse charges against Sandusky continued to emerge. National attention moved toward who might have known about the former assistant coach's crimes and failed to speak up.

All of Penn State got dragged down by that undertow.

"A lady walks by us and says, 'Ew, Penn State? You're child rapists.' And I was like, 'Excuse me?'" said Ficken, recalling a scene during an airport layover. "And she said, 'I can't believe you'd wear that in public.' That didn't go over real well."

Meanwhile, tension within the football program began to build.

Several departed players said a heated confrontation with then-interim athletic director David Joyner took place leading up to the school's acceptance of an invitation to the TicketCity Bowl in Dallas over whether to play in the postseason at all. Further, by the time Penn State reached the bowl on Jan. 2, 2012, quarterback Matt McGloin was out of the lineup after suffering a concussion in a locker-room brawl with one of his receivers. 

The lackluster 30-14 loss to Houston was the Lions' third defeat in their final four games.

Yet following that disastrous end to the season, as bad as it was, many players believed the worst was behind them.

“We assumed all of our problems were in the rear-view. Nobody [left in the program] had anything to do with what went on,” Hull said of Sandusky’s crimes. “At that point, it never crossed anyone's mind that we'd be sanctioned or have a penalty for a child sex abuse scandal. That didn't cross our minds at all."

But a brief announcement on a mid-July morning would rock the program further.

 

"What are we doing?"

Mark Emmert's words hardly had time to echo throughout the Lasch Building, Penn State's football headquarters, before the players’ lounge cleared out. 

Suddenly, what was once a shared experience became individual—each player finding space to ponder his own future.

"Football will never again be put ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people," Emmert, the NCAA president, said as he outlined a set of unprecedented sanctions against Penn State for the Sandusky scandal.

A $60 million fine, four-year postseason ban and 40-scholarship reduction across four seasons were just the beginning.

Most pressing, players could transfer and play elsewhere immediately.

“The people they were hurting had nothing to do with what went on in our program. But I was more so worried about what was going to happen with the team, with my future,” said defensive end Deion Barnes, a redshirt freshman at the time. “I didn’t know if half the team was going to leave and I’d have to leave.”

As Emmert's words sunk in and bursts of cursing from the players subsided, a difficult decision loomed as they wandered to their respective apartments.

Ficken said he and about 10 of his classmates, then freshmen, gathered to talk through their decision processes.

"We said, 'What are we doing?'" Ficken said. "'We like this school, and this is a good place, but we want to win still.'”

For many, it was their toughest day as a Nittany Lion. 

"When we heard what the penalties were, and people started saying Penn State was going to be a I-AA program, or a Division II-type program after this, it really hurt," Hull said. "I was pretty upset. And throughout my whole journey, I think that time and the few weeks before camp leading up to the season were probably the hardest few weeks of my life."

Players were bombarded with offers to play at other programs, and the recruitment process for many essentially reopened. Bill O'Brien, set to enter his first season as a head coach at any level, faced the unique challenge of having to recruit his own team to return to a program under sanctions The Associated Press called "a slow death penalty" (via Yahoo).

Like the AP, the rest of the mainstream media frequently compared the punishment to the harsh sanctions imposed on Southern Methodist in the 1980s, when it was forced to shut down for more than a full season.

"I don't think this point is made enough about those days: We were concerned about even being able to field a team," O'Brien said in a phone interview last week. "Because everyone in that locker room could have transferred."

The outside offers for more experienced players came from top-tier programs, such as Southern California, Oklahoma and Texas (the getaways for three starting upperclassmen—running back Silas Redd, receiver Justin Brown and kicker Anthony Fera, respectively). 

However, the temptation for younger players to leave, given the escalating impact the sanctions were expected to have throughout their careers, was in many ways even greater.

"We knew that those guys were going to have the longest road. For us as seniors in 2012, we understood that it was easier for us to say, 'Let's stick it out one more year together,'" said Michael Mauti, now a linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings. "We knew these guys would have three more years where they'd have to deal with it, and live it and be around it."

O'Brien said the re-recruitment process began by retaining the 2012 class. But the next task proved more complex.

"Then it was, 'Well, what if all those juniors and sophomores transfer? What the hell are we going to do then?'" he said. "[So] we gave them a vision for our program. We were able to say, 'Look, this is not good. We're not going to sit up here and tell you this is a bowl of cherries. But we can tell you if we can stick together, this is going to be the start of something special.'"

Hull, then a redshirt sophomore behind three future NFL linebackers on the depth chart, was the epitome of the player Penn State could not afford to lose.

He strongly considered transferring to Pittsburgh, even visiting the Panthers' facility during the time frame O'Brien allowed players to weigh their options.

"I went into Coach O'Brien's office and told him that I was leaving to go to Pitt," Hull said. "And he said, 'Sleep on it.' All my roommates were back at my place and I told them I was leaving. They were like, 'You can't leave. We started this together. We got to finish it together.'"

Hull heeded O'Brien's advice and ultimately his roommates’ as well. By the time the linebacker walked into his coach's office the following morning, his heart had changed.

"At the end of the day, I just couldn't leave Penn State. I loved it too much," Hull said. "I made such great bonds and relationships with my teammates and I wanted to be loyal to my word whenever I committed there and carry on the tradition. And fortunately, most of us stayed. Only a handful left."

At least two other players were driving to visit Michigan State before they, too, had second thoughts and turned around. All told, only nine players would transfer in the wake of the sanctions. Of scholarship players with three or more years of eligibility remaining, only two left.

Having moved past the initial recovery stage and into training camp—the point when O'Brien said players had to decide whether they were going to transfer or not—the focus finally narrowed. Even, Ficken recalled, as photographers hopped fences to try to get shots of the team during practice.

"Football was a safe haven. That was where you didn't have to deal with any of that other crap,” he said. “And that was relieving, because a lot of crap was going on."

 

"That year, we had each other"

It's Sept. 8, 2012, in Virginia’s Scott Stadium, and Ficken takes the field with the game clock winding down and Penn State trailing, 17-16. He's already missed three field goals and an extra point, but before him stands an opportunity for redemption.

"There's no way I'm going to go 1-of-5," he thinks to himself as the rain begins to fall.

But indeed, following a shaky hold he shanks the ball left, ensuring that Penn State begins the first season of the post-Paterno era with an 0-2 record—something that happened only four times in Paterno’s long head coaching career.

"One of (Virginia's) D-linemen ran into me, pushed me, and he goes, 'You should just quit, p---y!'" Ficken said, recalling the moment when he picked himself off the slick turf. "That was a real slap in the face."

Ficken wasn't even supposed to see the field that year.

Fera, the second-team All-Big Ten kicker in 2011, had the starting job locked—until the sanctions reopened the door for the Houston product to transfer without penalty, a personal blessing for a son whose mother was stricken by illness. 

"[Fera] called me and said, 'Hey, I'm down in Texas. I just want you to be aware of the situation. I'm probably leaning toward leaving,'" Ficken recalled over coffee at Irving's, a cafe on College Avenue. "'So if that's the case, you're the guy. You need to be ready.'"

Ficken was expecting to redshirt his sophomore year and had therefore gotten few kicking reps in practice at that point in the summer of 2012. Nonetheless, he accepted the responsibility of being "the guy"—a role that became much more taxing following the collapse at Virginia, as an emotional fanbase began blatantly channeling its displeasure in his direction.

"Other than going to class, going to football practice, I didn't really do a whole lot other things for about two, three months,” Ficken said. “I'd get cussed out on the bus, I got death threats in the mail, I got death threats over email.”

Yet, despite the impact of the sanctions already showing—leading to what Ficken called the "irrelevant card" being thrown around by columnists nationwide—Penn State started winning.

The Nittany Lions rifled off five straight victories, including a vengeful 35-7 dismantling of Illinois. Illini coach Tim Beckman had become notorious for attempting to poach Penn State's players on-campus following the sanctions.

After a 35-23 loss to then-No. 7 Ohio State and a controversial defeat at Nebraska, where the officials disallowed an apparent winning Lions touchdown, Penn State wound up with a 7-4 record heading into an emotional senior day against Wisconsin. 

The Lions outlasted the favored Badgers, 24-21, in an overtime victory many players still consider the best memory of their careers.

"We had no business being in that game," Hull said.  

Ficken’s 37-yard field goal, his 10th straight make to end the season, fittingly spelled the difference, sending the 2012 senior class off with a win.

While administrators and fans lent their support, players gave most of the credit for a respectable season to O’Brien—and one another.

"At the end of the day, they support you and they support you. But you're not going out to play with them," running back Bill Belton said. "You're playing with the 105 guys in the locker room. So in my opinion, we had each other. And that's all that mattered that year."

 

The one that got away

A former offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, O’Brien was clear about one thing from the day he arrived at Penn State in January 2012: I won’t be here forever.

"He sat us down and told us, face-to-face, that it's his dream to coach in the NFL," Ficken said, recalling O'Brien's first team meeting. "He said, 'Someday, I'm going to be there. Whether it's in four years, whether it's in 10 years, I don't know. But I'm going to get there. Because that's my dream.' And we respected him for telling us that." 

O’Brien, who graduated from Brown University—Paterno’s alma mater—said he doesn't remember initially giving an indication of how long he'd be at Penn State, "because I really didn't know."

But he stressed that he would be honest when players asked him individually what his future plans were.

"I would always joke about the fact that I was never going to be there 46 years, 61 years. That was the most incredible run, by Coach Paterno, ever. The guy won 409 games. That will never be done again. I promise you," O'Brien said. "It was always, 'Let's do this year, and then we'll see what happens next year.'"

Following his first season in State College, O’Brien interviewed with the Cleveland Browns. The lure of the NFL, combined with the added challenge of coaching a team with increasing scholarship reductions, had many Penn State fans anxious the well-respected leader would be one-and-done, leaving the program once again in disarray.

But O’Brien returned for a second run in Happy Valley.

“He told us he would stick with us [past] that first year, because he asked us to stick with him,” 2014 senior safety Ryan Keiser said, referring to the post-sanction period. “After that first year, he never made that promise that he would stay longer.”

In 2013, O’Brien oversaw another winning season, finishing at 7-5. A few games into that year, the NCAA began reducing Penn State’s scholarship limitations—leaving the door open for future modifications to the sanctions due to “continued progress toward ensuring athletics integrity.” 

On the field, the season was highlighted by the start of quarterback Christian Hackenberg’s highly anticipated career, an exhilarating four-overtime victory over Michigan and another season-ending upset of Wisconsin.

“I can tell you flat-out that they took offense that they were 24-point underdogs,” the typically stoic O’Brien said with a grin following the 31-24 win in Madison. “...One thing that these kids understand is it doesn’t matter, one bit, what you think relative to that football team.”

The news conference turned out to be O’Brien’s last at Penn State.

Hours before the 2014 New Year was rung in, news broke that O’Brien was, indeed, leaving to follow his dream, becoming head coach of the Houston Texans. 

For a team that had bonded tightly with its plain-speaking coach, another change was developing.

Defensive line coach Larry Johnson was named the interim head coach—becoming the fourth coach for the rising seniors, including interims, to that point—and the carousel swung around once more.

“Getting a new coach, you're like, 'All right, fresh start,'" Belton said. "Then you get one season under him, you get another season under him, and you kind of get comfortable with the way things are going. ... [Then] it was like, 'Oh, here we go again.' If I had it my way, I would have loved to play for one coach for four years.”

 

Here comes Franklin

It’s Jan. 11, 2014, and James Franklin swings open the doors to the Lasch Building meeting room to address his team for the first time.

It doesn’t take long, though, for the ex-Vanderbilt coach who was known for his success as an engaging recruiter in the SEC to sense some resistance from the crowd.

“There was no doubt a wall up from the players. They had been through so many challenges. I was the fifth head coach in 27 months,” said Franklin, who himself had made 10 previous stops in two decades of coaching. “They just invested in a program and head coach, that head coach leaves, there's hurt feelings and you're the new guy coming in.”

Franklin, who grew up in Pennsylvania, realized his high-octane personality was what he calls a “dramatic change” from that of Paterno and O’Brien.

So, for the players, it took some getting used to.

"I just remember how much energy he brought in the room. I didn't know if it was fake energy, or if he was going to be like that every day,” Hull said. “It was almost overwhelming. Just being honest, I didn't know if he was a fraud or not.”

But Hull said his perception of Franklin became much more favorable after spring ball when he saw the coach “really brings that energy every day.”

Keiser said he thought it also was clear from the start that Franklin didn’t have any plans to go elsewhere. That was reassuring.

Franklin, sitting comfortably in what’s become a well-kept office space more than a year after his arrival in State College, said the key to transitioning from outsider to respected leader was three-fold: “trust, conversation and consistency.”

In the end, the team once again rallied around its new coach, with the 2014 seniors leading the way.

“That class sticking together, just buying into whatever staff that comes in there. We all had one goal of winning,” Barnes said. “That’s what got us through everything. Whatever obstacle that came, we stuck together.”

 

"This is culture"

The frenzied Pinstripe celebration drifted toward midfield, where the Lions held aloft the victor’s trophy and donned beanies for a bowl game they weren’t even eligible for a few months before.

After Hackenberg was named the Pinstripe Bowl MVP, Franklin proudly addressed the blue-and-white faithful in chilly Yankee Stadium.

“I want to thank the seniors who stayed with this program when we needed them the most,” Franklin said, adding that they kept the Penn State family together.

“You want to talk about culture? Look around. This is culture.”

Two weeks into the 2014 season, the NCAA had lifted Penn State’s bowl ban and announced a return of all the scholarships that had been removed by the following season, citing the university’s “significant progress toward ensuring its Athletics Department functions with integrity.”

As they had when Paterno was fired, students once again took to the streets following the announcement, this time in celebration. Some students were “lifted” above the crowd on mattresses; others chowed cereal out of bowls. 

The only issue was whether a scholarship-depleted Penn State team would gain enough wins to earn a bowl invitation.

A four-game winning streak to start the season—including a season opener in Dublin, Ireland, against Central Florida that ended with a game-winning 36-yard field goal from Ficken—gave way to a four-game losing streak that would put Penn State’s bowl eligibility in question. But a 30-13 victory over Temple, the Lions’ sixth of the season, clinched the coveted extra game.

Unexpected losses to Maryland and Illinois revealed the escalating consequences of scholarship reductions, particularly along a thin and inexperienced offensive line. But Penn State also took eventual national champion Ohio State into double overtime before falling, 31-24.

“There's only a few games you can see the difference, talent and numbers-wise. For the most part, there's no difference,” Belton said. “You can go out there and play with 11 guys on offense and defense...if you go out there and play for one another, don't be surprised if that team wins."

Hull, once halfway out the door to Pitt, became the anchor of Penn State’s second-best defense in the country. He finished his senior season with 134 tackles and was named the Big Ten Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year.

Looking back, Hull maintains that the wrong people were penalized by the sanctions. Yet the decision to stay, he says, was well worth it.

"We went through so much as a team and I had created such good relationships with my teammates, especially my senior class, so to end on a winning note and springboard the program into the future, that means a lot for me,” Hull said. “And as seniors, because we love Penn State, we wanted to get it back where it should be."

Ficken finished his senior season 24-of-29 on field goals and as a second-team All-Big Ten honoree with three game-winning kicks in his career.

At the Pinstripe Bowl, Ficken enjoyed the privilege of using Derek Jeter’s locker, after ceremoniously ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange the day prior. On May 10, he’ll walk across the stage at Smeal College of Business’ graduation with a finance degree—unless an NFL team asks him to report to camp earlier, he says.

Outside this year’s Blue-White spring game in State College, Ficken was universally cheered and solicited for autographs, a far cry from the public ridicule he received following the 2012 Virginia game. Then he watched from the sideline as Franklin’s rising 2015 squad took the Beaver Stadium field for the first time.

O'Brien said with the promise of the current roster under James Franklin, "they can win the national championship next year."

"You'll always look back to those three teams, when they win a national championship, and those teams should always be honored," O'Brien said. "Because they kept our program together when we could have gone really south."

Ficken said he hopes his class’ commitment helped save Penn State football.

"I fully expect them to be top-five, top-10, in the next few years. And hopefully we had something to do with that,” Ficken said. “It's gratifying to see that it's getting back to where it was when we got here, really.”

“And luckily, I got to see it all.”

 

John Stuetz is a senior in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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