NCAA Football

The 1 Recruit Each Top 25 Class Wishes It Had Signed for 2015

Wednesday afternoon, the 2015 college football recruiting cycle wrapped up as programs across the nation received new recruits' national letters of intent, announced their classes and discussed them with reporters. Coach after coach extolled their class’s virtues, saying they were the greatest class ever assembled at their program and met all of their program’s needs. It’s what coaches do.

But every program, from Alabama to Washington, had a tinge of regret. There was a player who picked another offer over their offer, one who would’ve made their class that much better. He’s the one who got away, and every program has one. Here’s a look at that player for every top 25 recruiting class.

Players for this feature were selected on the basis of their involvement with the schools in the rankings.

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Sprint Cup 2015: Young Stars Who Will Flourish During Upcoming Season

Heading into the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, several drivers are hoping to improve on the previous season. For two sophomores and an experienced rookie, this year has the potential to be one where they emerge as true contenders.

Those three drivers striving for greatness are all from different teams, but each has equally large expectations. Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon and Trevor Bayne are all hoping to become the next Kyle Busch or Joey Logano, but gaining ground this season will be crucial.

Even in a loaded field that includes some of the brightest stars the sport has ever seen, these three young guns have a shot to make serious noise. All three are now locked in with competitive teams and have a wealth of experience at the premier level.

Before the season fires up with the Daytona 500, here's a look at all three and why they will enjoy success this season.

 

Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing

It seems nothing could go wrong for Larson in the last several months. The 22-year-old driver just got finished helping win the Rolex 24 at Daytona with teammate Jamie McMurray. Prior to that win in January, Larson's girlfriend, Katelyn Sweet, gave birth to his first baby boy, Owen, on Dec. 22.

For an encore, Larson guaranteed success this upcoming season.

"We are capable of definitely being a top-10 car each week, winning at least two races, making the Chase and going for the championship," Larson told reporters in late January, via Jeff Owens of Sporting News. "Those are pretty realistic goals. … I would have guaranteed that we would have made it last year, but things just didn’t work out. I would guarantee it, too."

Mike Hembree of USA Today believes he has a bright future ahead of him:

His name is bandied about in the grandstands and garage areas as if he might be the next coming of Foyt or Andretti, Petty or Earnhardt.

And he might be.

Kyle Larson is in the birthing years of what many think will be one of the most successful careers in auto racing history. A winner in sprint-car racing at 14 and on an accelerated curve since, Larson carries the unofficial title of Racing's Next Big Thing.

Larson's strong finish to the 2014 season came when all the pressure was off during the Chase. If he can mirror his six finishes of seventh or better during the final 10 races, Larson will surprise the Sprint Cup field in 2015. Expect just that from Larson.

 

Austin Dillon, Richard Childress Racing

Unlike Larson, Dillon didn't exactly excel down the stretch. However, he did put together several strong performances to start out the season, with his performances at Daytona being the most prominent.

During his opening race in the No. 3 machine, Dillon took the pole and drove to a ninth-place finish in the Daytona 500. Of course, that got overlooked with Dale Earnhardt Jr. taking the win, but no one can overlook his top-five result from July at the same famed track.

Dillon recently spoke about how he plans to improve this season, via Jared Turner of Fox Sports:

I think I need to challenge myself more on restarts. I need to take advantage of the opportunities. I've got that yellow (rookie) stripe off my back, and I need to let people know that it's not there. At some point, at some time you've got to be aggressive, and that's what this Sprint Cup racing's about. They really pushed me a lot last year to be that way.

It's hard, though, coming into the sport as a rookie with all the things that we brought into it, and making those leaps. But there's a certain point you've got to, and hopefully we make that leap this year and start pushing ourselves more on these restarts and making stuff happen.

Aggression can be good and bad for a driver. Take the original driver of the No. 3 car, for example. Dale Earnhardt was never a favorite for drivers when he was on their tails, earning him the moniker "The Intimidator" for his driving style. That led him to seven titles over his entire career.

That's not to say Dillon will ever be Earnhardt, but it might be the right move for carrying on the legacy. With a strong start to this season with slightly improved results, Dillon might just be joining Larson in the Chase in 2015.

 

Trevor Bayne, Roush Fenway Racing

Since shocking the NASCAR world by winning the 2011 Daytona 500, Bayne has somewhat slipped out of the spotlight. Following his departure from the Wood Brothers to join Roush Fenway Racing, he won't be able to hide much longer.

At the time of his first Cup win, Bayne was viewed as a budding star. Only 20 years old and one day after his birthday, it appeared he might be able to resurrect the Wood Brothers. That didn't quite work out as planned, with Bayne leading just five laps the remainder of the 2011 season.

Here's a little breaking news: Bayne is still only 23 years old. On Feb. 19, he'll turn 24 and be the same age as Dillon. Needless to say, he's got a lot of time ahead of him to recapture that success.

Now behind the wheel for RFR, he has a legacy to uphold. Not only does he have to pick up the slack after Carl Edwards departed for Joe Gibbs Racing, but he's also driving the historic No. 6 car formerly driven by Mark Martin. The NASCAR legend won 35 races behind the wheel of the No. 6 machine, something that might come in time for Bayne.

He might not be at the same level of experience or competitiveness as the other two drivers on this list, but Bayne will still show promise this season. After all, he's essentially a lock for Rookie of the Year as one of only two first-year drivers running a full-time schedule.

 

Follow @RCorySmith on Twitter.

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Georgia Football: 2015 Signees Who Likely Won't See Field Until Junior Season

Now that the 2015 signing class is set, Georgia Bulldogs head coach Mark Richt and his coaching staff can focus on the 2015 season, and it starts with spring ball, which will begin next month.

But when fall camp rolls around, the signees will be expected to go to work right away, because if the Bulldogs want to win the national title, some of the young players will have to grow up in a hurry.

Most fans will expect players like Trent Thompson, Terry Godwin and Rico McGraw to contribute right away, because they were impact players in high school and they are expected to do the same thing in Athens.

But there are a few players who will not be called on this season, for various reasons. But they will still need to continue to work, because they will be expected to contribute soon enough.

Here are the 2015 signees who likely won’t see the field until their junior season.

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Tennessee Football Recruiting: Looking Ahead to 2016 Class

With this year's recruiting class all sewn up besides the last-second flip of offensive tackle Drew Richmond, Tennessee football coach Butch Jones spent much of the week before national signing day with an eye toward 2016.

It's just the latest illustration that the full-time job of recruiting hardly sleeps.

Even so, UT director of player personnel Bob Welton told VolQuest.com's Paul Fortenberry that he stole a 45-minute nap on Wednesday, something he hardly ever gets to do. Call it the calm before the year-round storm.

With the nation's fourth-ranked class in the books for '15, Jones, Welton and the Vols have wrapped up back-to-back top-10 hauls. They're already well on their way to another one next year with seven players in a class currently ranked eighth.

After classes that numbered 34 and 29 players the past two years, UT should sign a bit smaller class in '16, perhaps 20-22.

The way Jones has worked his wizardry with scholarship numbers the past two cycles, it wouldn't be a surprise to see UT get to 25 again. As Welton told Fortenberry, UT is now at a point with two big classes in its pocket where it can be more selective whom it chooses to be Vols.

Let's take a look at the biggest positional needs and the prospects already prepared to wear the orange and white for 2016.

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How Mike Weber Saga Will Shape Future of Michigan-Ohio State Recruiting Rivalry

Instate 4-star recruit Mike Weber’s decision to sign with Ohio State was always going to be controversial for Michigan fans. Weber added to insult to injury by decommitting during the fourth quarter of Michigan’s loss to Maryland last November and then switched his allegiance to archrival Ohio State after Brady Hoke’s dismissal.

But Ohio State’s subterfuge about the future of running backs coach Stan Drayton has caused outrage that threatens to undermine its future recruiting efforts in the state of Michigan.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh offered a cryptic tweet about the incident that serves as an opening salvo in what is sure to be an ongoing conflict with Urban Meyer.

Drayton helped prevent Michigan Coach Harbaugh from flipping the recruit on signing day.

Toledo newspaper The Blade reported Meyer and Drayton were working to secure Weber until past midnight before signing day.

"I plug my phone in, and you hear that darn thing going and going,” Meyer said. “I looked at my clock one time, it's 12:10, and I'm still talking to [running backs coach] Stan Drayton about Mike.”

Drayton himself acknowledged the difficulty of Weber’s circumstances.

"You're talking about a 17-year old kid who goes to an inner-city Detroit high school where every teacher in the building is a Team Up North fan,” Drayton said. “Every day, every day, he's fighting those battles, and no one is really supporting his decision."

But less than a day after convincing Weber to attend Ohio State, Drayton himself left.

Weber was understandably upset and took to Twitter:

Coaches leave programs all the time, but the timing of this departure casts a pall over Ohio State recruiting efforts in Michigan. Weber was a high-profile recruit, and this incident won’t be forgotten by area high school coaches.

Meyer did nothing dispel the notion that he put his desire to beat Harbaugh for the prized recruit above everything else, as Tim May of The Columbus Dispatch wrote:

But [Weber] picked Ohio State. So chalk it up, Ohio State and Meyer 1, Michigan and Harbaugh 0.

“Absolutely, you keep score that way,” Meyer said.

Sporting News reported that Weber’s coach, Thomas Wilcher, talked on local radio about the situation.

"He's got to come to school," Wilcher said. "He has to face everybody at school. He has to walk out that door and face all these people in the state of Michigan who's all going to be pointing their fingers in his face and saying, 'What. I told you so.'”

Despite the outcry, Urban Meyer is showing no signs of releasing Weber from his commitment, per Steve Helwagen of 247Sports. “There was a talk,” Meyer said. “I had a long conversation with him and so did Stan. We’ve got to move forward.”

Weber wasn't the only top recruit who had a coach leave after recruiting him. Roquan Smith, a 4- star linebacker, has held off officially signing with UCLA since its defensive coordinator has left for the NFL. He was fortunate enough to learn about the departure before turning in his paperwork. But Weber is bound by his national letter of intent to attend Ohio State.

Urban Meyer may have won the recruiting battle, but the Mike Weber saga is just beginning. The turmoil surrounding his commitment ensures that he will continue to face extra scrutiny as he begins his collegiate career. Weber has become the symbol of the system that allows coaches to freely pursue opportunities while the players face strict limitations—even when coaches lie or withhold the truth about their intentions.

Under the current system, coach Stan Drayton didn’t break any rules while recruiting Mike Weber, but the Ohio State brand has taken a hit among Michigan high school football players. Urban Meyer may not be quite as welcome the next time he takes recruiting visits up north.



Phil Callihan is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations obtained firsthand

Follow @PCallihan

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Texas Football: 2015 Signees Who Likely Won't See Field Until Junior Season

Texas needed instant-impact potential from its 2015 recruiting class, and head coach Charlie Strong delivered it.

The Longhorns lose 10 starters from last season's squad and recruited as if they will need a freshman to man many of the positions that are seeing departures. They had to bring in at least two linebackers, two defensive backs, a defensive end and a whole lot of skill players.

And they got them.

Led by linebacker Malik Jefferson, eight of Texas' 28 signees have the potential to earn starting snaps as freshmen. He and all of cornerbacks Holton Hill and Kris Boyd, bookend Quincy Vasser, power back Chris Warren, linemen Patrick Vahe and Brandon Hodges, receiver John Burt and tight end Devonaire Clarington will get a serious look this offseason.

Then there's the unexpected, as we saw last season when 3-star safety Jason Hall became an every-down player when healthy. When you look at guys like Breckyn Hager and PJ Locke, even the most unheralded members of this class deserve our respect.

With that said, not many of these guys will have to wait until they are juniors to see the field. Even the few who are likeliest to do so have a chance to make a late impact.

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Ohio State Football Recruiting: Looking Ahead to 2016 Class

Urban Meyer and Ohio State are only a week separated from signing their 27-member class for 2015, but that doesn't mean the Buckeyes aren't hard at work preparing for the 2016 recruiting cycle. 

In fact, Meyer has already secured commitments from six blue-chip prospects, a group that currently ranks third nationally.

According to Ohio State's official website, the Buckeyes will only have 12 seniors on scholarship this year. Of course, Joey Bosa and Ezekiel Elliott are nearly locks to enter the draft after their junior seasons—and players such as Cardale Jones, Michael Thomas and Vonn Bell (among others) will have NFL decisions to make.

With the graduating seniors, early departures to the NFL and annual and inevitable attrition, the Buckeyes should have room for about 20 freshmen in their 2016 class. 

Here's a look at what's in store for Ohio State on the recruiting front this year.

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Michigan Football Recruiting: Looking Ahead to 2016 Class

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh just wrapped up his first national signing day in Ann Arbor this past week, so naturally, it’s time for him to shift attention to the 2016 class of Wolverines.

Thus far, 4-star offensive tackle Erik Swenson and 3-star inside linebacker Dele Harding, Freddy Canteen’s former prep teammate, are the only two on board. Messiah deWeaver, a 4-star quarterback, recently decommitted from the class and looks to be headed for Michigan State, according to 247Sports, which reports his “warm” interest in the Spartans.

Swenson, a 6’7”, 285-pounder out of Downers Grove South (Illinois), pledged to Michigan on November 25, 2013. He’s the No. 12-ranked offensive tackle of his class and No. 122 overall. Harding, a 6’1”, 232-pounder out of Elkton Eastern Christian (Maryland), gave his word on Oct. 31, 2014. He’s the No. 13-ranked inside linebacker of 2016 but isn’t considered among the nation’s top recruits.

At this stage of the game, it’s imperative that Harbaugh pick up the momentum of former coach Brady Hoke, who set the wheels in motion by snagging a pair of rock-solid prospects. Hoke also extended most of the 98 existing offers—Harbaugh just has to beat the bushes and “call to talk about Michigan”—which seems to be the core of his straightforward approach.

According to Matt Pargoff of Maize and Blue News, the Wolverines could have as few as 15 or as many as 20 or more scholarships for the next cycle. Keep in mind that Michigan signed 14 players on NSD 2015 but had 16 spots available, which could factor into next year’s count.

It’s far too early to piece together the entire upcoming class, but it’s not too early to take a peek at a few notable prospects who could bolster Harbaugh’s true first crop of recruits in Ann Arbor.

 

Top Offensive Candidates        

Ideally, Harbaugh will find a true No. 1 starting quarterback this season. However, regardless of circumstance, there’s no harm in stocking up on big arms—and 4-star pro-styler KJ Costello is definitely worthy of pursuit.

The 6’4”, 213-pounder out of Santa Margarita Catholic (California) received an offer from Michigan on May 28, 2014; he followed with an unofficial visit on June 15. Since then, Florida, Alabama, Notre Dame, Stanford and Tennessee, along with Florida State, USC and Texas A&M, have shown interest.

For the time being, Costello appears to be Stanford-bound—that’s according to 247Sports’ Crystal Ball, which gives the Cardinal a 53 percent chance of landing the No. 4-ranked pro-style QB (No. 39 overall) of 2016. As of now, the Wolverines have a seven percent shot at getting him.

But recruiting is recruiting, and today’s hot school can easily become tomorrow’s afterthought. Pay close attention to Harbaugh’s quest for the next-next quarterback—that quarterback could very well be Costello.

Another California prep superstar, wide receiver Dylan Crawford is a little different than what Michigan’s pursued during the past couple of years—at least when it comes to high-level targets, which have been taller and bigger athletes than the 6’1”, 175-pounder out of Saint Francis' La Canada Flintridge.

In short, he’s not a Devin Funchess-sized guy, nor is he identical to Jehu Chesson, Jaron Dukes, Drake Harris or Maurice Ways, who are all 6’3” or better. But he’s the No. 5-ranked receiver (No. 41 overall) of 2016 for a reason and would be an exemplary addition to any roster.

The 4-star’s agility, ability to run nearly every type of rout and knack for turning nothing into something also helps. So expect for Harbaugh’s staff, especially passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch, to be on Crawford’s trail until the very end.

Crawford reportedly has “warm” interest in Michigan, USC, Arizona State and UCLA, which recently snagged a blue-chip straight from Harbaugh’s hands.

Despite missing 4-star tight end Chris Clark this year, the Wolverines could end up with Luke Farrell next year. The 6’6”, 240-pounder out of Perry High School (Ohio) carries a 4-star ranking and is tabbed as the No. 7-ranked athlete at his position.

He’s also just outside the top 200, coming in at No. 203. And as usual, a high-end Ohioan has Ohio State and Michigan among his top choices—he’s “warm” for both at the moment.

 

Top Defensive Candidates

Football goes in cycles, and right now, dominant defensive linemen are at a premium.

As the gem of the 2016 class, Rashan Gary would be a phenomenal get for Michigan, which has recently missed on high-caliber talents such as Da’Shawn Hand (Alabama, 2014) and Malik McDowell of Detroit (Michigan State, 2014).

At 6’4” and 285 pounds, Gary is undeniably ready, at least physically, for college football. Michigan’s D-line is stocked with powers such as Willie Henry, Taco Charlton, Bryan Mone, Ondre Pipkins and Chris Wormley, but there’s always room for more.

And really, Gary could challenge for at least a second-string gig today, which is probably why Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Penn State all want him. The Nittany Lions offered first, but Michigan followed on Aug. 1, 2013. It has a slight advantage over the rest, as Chris Partridge, Gary’s former coach at Paramus Catholic (New Jersey), is now the Wolverines’ recruiting coordinator.

How’s that for an ace up the sleeve? If that doesn’t make Michigan the favorite, nothing does.

Well, there is more to the story: D.J. Durkin, the defensive coordinator, is a nationally ranked recruiter. He was voted the best in 2012. Greg Mattison won the honor in 2013; the former DC is now the D-line coach. Between Durkin, Mattison and Partridge, Michigan should have a clear edge when it comes to securing the best defensive talent.

Superior athletic and agile D-linemen have their place in the game, but so do the mountainous, never-going-to-move types such as Dexter Lawrence, the No. 3-ranked defensive tackle (No. 14 overall) in the country. The 6’5”, 310-pounder out of Wake Forest-Rolesville (North Carolina) is reportedly “warmer” for Florida and “warm” for Arkansas, Clemson, Florida State and North Carolina State.

At the moment, Michigan, which offered on Nov. 1, doesn’t appear to be a blip on Lawrence’s radar. There hasn’t been much talk about him, if any, for a few months. But now that Harbaugh’s in town, going big will certainly be the norm, as was the case for Hoke. So expecting to land the elites is no longer just a novel idea—it’s perfectly within the scope of reason.

Michigan is reportedly hot for Rahshaun Smith—and right now, he has “warm” interest in the Wolverines. The 6’3”, 223-pounder out of IMG Academy (Maryland) is one of Durkin’s first must-gets and comes in as the No. 4-ranked strong-side defensive end in the nation (No. 48 overall).

He just received an offer from Auburn and is said to have "warmer" interest in Penn State and Oklahoma. But Florida's also in the mix, and Durkin used to be the Gators' DC before heading north. That could come into play on or before NSD 2016 for both Lawrence and Smith. 

 

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. 

All recruiting information—2016 commitmentstargets and offerscomes via 247Sports

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Ex-Penn State DB Adam Taliaferro Running for N.J. Office After Paralyzing Injury

Former Penn State defensive back Adam Taliaferro has made a remarkable recovery from a paralyzing spinal cord injury he suffered 15 years ago on the gridiron.     

After relearning to walk, running a political campaign for full-term public office in November is a challenge Taliaferro seems fully capable of tackling.

The Associated Press' Michael Catalini reported on Sunday that Taliaferro, 33, has those aspirations after he was sworn in to the New Jersey Legislature last week.

New Jersey's Fifth Legislative District tweeted its support for Taliaferro when he joined:

Celeste Riley was the assembly member who stepped down and created the opportunity for Taliaferro to take temporary office. Riley cited Taliaferro's remarkable life story in suggesting he'd indeed earn a full term.

"I think he'll do it. He's a hard worker and people like to have an example of what it means to work hard and face adversity," said Riley, per Catalini.

Taliaferro, who grew up in Voorhees, New Jersey, established the Adam Taliaferro Foundation after he'd recovered from his severe injury, which transpired in a game against Ohio State in September 2000.

The donations given to Taliaferro to help cover his own healthcare costs were what he used to fund the foundation. It is also what led to his branching out into politics.

Taliaferro told Catalini about how the injury caused him to reassess his goals.

"It 100 percent changed me," he said. "Before my injury what was important to me was my family but also football—it was my dream to play in the NFL. It really teaches you to appreciate everything."

Momentum appears to be accumulating for Taliaferro, and based on what he's overcome, his chances of being a full-term politician during election season seem quite favorable.

Having just been elected as a county freeholder in Gloucester County in 2011, the rise for Taliaferro in the political realm has been rapid. New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney had recommended Taliaferro to run after noticing the work he'd done with his foundation.

In light of his ambitions to push his political dreams further, it seems only a matter of time before Taliaferro's inspirational story and positive influence reaches even more people than it already has.

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Texas A&M Recruiting: Looking Ahead to the 2016 Class

The Texas A&M football coaches have put the finishing touches on the 2015 recruiting class. Now the focus turns to 2016 and filling some of the projected gaps on the roster. 

College football recruiting is a never-ending process. College coaches are continuously working to add more talent to their program in order to increase the likelihood of wins on fall Saturdays. 

The Texas A&M coaching staff already has four recruits committed in the 2016 class. It has started to address the team's future needs. 

The Aggies need to recruit at a high level to win games in the SEC. Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin and his staff have done a good job establishing a foundation for this class. 

This is a position-by-position look at some recruits who the Aggies are going to try to sign in the 2016 recruiting class. 

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LSU Football Recruiting: Looking Ahead to 2016 Class

LSU lives by the old college football adage that "recruiting never stops."

The Tigers hosted their fifth annual "Boys from the Boot" junior camp on Saturday, per Shea Dixon of Geaux247. James Smith of The Times-Picayune has the full list of attendees. 

Head coach Les Miles hopes Boys from the Boot leads off a great recruiting cycle for the Tigers. Miles and his staff were pleased with their 2015 class, but there is still plenty of work to be done by the next national signing day in 2016. 

The Tigers' five commitments in 2016 so far rank ninth nationally in the 247Sports Composite Team Rankings. Though it is still early in the process, LSU should feel like it's gotten off to a great start. 

This will be the first full year of recruiting for new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and defensive line coach Ed Orgeron. Steele and Orgeron have both won awards for their recruiting prowess, so expect more elite players to be heading to Baton Rouge.  

Here is a preview of LSU's 2016 recruiting trail. 

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Why Florida's Dante Fowler Is the 2015 NFL Draft's Best Pass-Rushing Prospect

Playing a position that is annually valued at a premium in the NFL draft, there are at least five edge pass-rushers who are in the conversation about potential top-10 picks in 2015.

Nebraska’s Randy Gregory has been projected as the top 4-3 defensive end/3-4 outside linebacker prospect by many draft analysts, while Missouri’s Shane Ray, Clemson’s Vic Beasley and Kentucky’s Alvin Dupree have also been included as top-10 picks in many media mock drafts. All four of those players, however, look as though they could be limited to situational roles until they make necessary developments in their game.

The most complete edge defender prospect in the 2015 draft—both in terms of his ability to rush the passer and to project as an every-down, scheme-versatile player—is Florida’s Dante Fowler (Leonard Williams is the top defensive prospect in this year’s draft and played some on the edge at USC, but he projects best to the NFL as an interior defensive lineman).

Fowler, like the others, still has areas of his game he must develop to reach his potential. That said, he has all the tools to be a star if he is drafted by a team that will coach him effectively and play him where he wins.

 

Explosiveness to Blow Up Plays

While there are other edge prospects in this year’s draft who are more technically refined and had better collegiate production than Fowler, such as Washington’s Hau’oli Kikaha and Utah’s Nate Orchard, the pass-rushers selected at the top of the draft are typically those who have outstanding physical traits, which Kikaha and Orchard do not have.

Fowler, on the other hand, is as explosive as any player in this year’s class. Given any path to the quarterback, Fowler has the burst to close in a hurry, while he has also good size for his position at 6’3” and 260 pounds.

In addition to his elite first-step quickness and a rare ability to accelerate for a player of his size, Fowler also has great lateral agility. That combination is demonstrated in the clip below from earlier this year, when Fowler (No. 6) made a cutting inside move to blow by Kentucky right tackle Jordan Swindle and lay a hit on quarterback Patrick Towles that forced an incomplete pass.

What makes Fowler especially dangerous is his ability to bring the heat from a wide variety of spots on the field. While he frequently creates disruption from the defensive-end spot, he can be moved all around the formation and generate pressure from anywhere because of his speed.

The following clip shows Fowler hitting Towles to force a fumble on a play he blitzed from the middle linebacker position. Below that, you can see Fowler cover almost 15 yards of ground for a sack against East Carolina on a play in which he initially dropped into coverage from outside linebacker.

Fowler’s athleticism also presents a serious threat to ball-carriers, as he is a tough player for running backs to evade. On the following play, also from this past season’s game against Kentucky, Fowler put his motor on display as he tracked Braylon Heard all the way down to the sideline despite starting the play in contain on the edge.

In total, Fowler recorded 15 tackles for loss, including 8.5 sacks, and 17 quarterback hurries, according to CFBStats.com. Add in the occasions that Fowler drew holding penalties from blockers and the frequent occasions on which he was double- or triple-teamed by opposing offenses, and Fowler computes as being one of college football’s most disruptive players during the 2014 season.

For most productive collegiate playmakers, the question is whether their skill sets will translate when playing against bigger and more athletic NFL opponents. Those questions need not be as significant for Fowler, however, because he will continue to be a top-tier athlete for his position—even at the next level.

 

More Than Just a Pass-Rusher

Fowler’s ability to get after the quarterback gets the emphasis here because that’s what NFL teams prioritize on draft day. Being a great run-stopper does not always make one an early-round selection at an edge position, but being a great pass-rusher usually does.

That said, Fowler has shown himself to be more than capable of holding his own as a run defender, which could be what pushes him ahead of some of his counterparts in the draft order.

Fowler exhibits the strength to maintain his ground against bigger blockers at the line of scrimmage, while he has enough block-shedding ability to take advantage of his lateral agility and slide his way into running lanes.

Between those attributes, his seemingly always running motor and aforementioned ability to chase down plays with his speed, Fowler has the potential to make an immediate difference against the run on an NFL defense.

It’s likely that Fowler still might have to bulk up by five or 10 pounds if he is drafted to play as a 4-3 defensive end. But he already stronger and more well built than Gregory (who is listed at 6’6” and 240 pounds), Ray (6’3”, 245 lbs) and Beasley (6’3”, 235 lbs), who each need to get bigger and stronger to play in four-man fronts.

Of all Fowler’s strengths, the most exciting might be his versatility. As you can see in the following screenshots, Fowler saw playing time at defensive tackle, defensive end and linebacker this past season at Florida and was even split out into coverage at times.

In his NFL career, you probably won’t see Fowler lined up over the opposing center or opposite a receiver on the numbers very often. The team that drafts Fowler, however, should have a plan for how it can take advantage of his versatility. His physical gifts enable him to play a wide variety of roles; moving him around a formation could be an asset for keeping opposing offenses guessing.

 

Still a Project

While there is much to like about Fowler, especially the fact he is oozing with physical potential, he is far from being a finished product at this point. As such, there are legitimate reasons why some evaluators will be less confident in Fowler’s chances of becoming a star.

One such analyst is Bleacher Report’s Ryan Riddle, a former NFL defensive end, who only considers Fowler to be the eighth-best edge defender in this year’s draft class.

“He could be the best athlete at the position in this draft but lacks instincts and functional strength,” Riddle wrote. “He also misses too many tackles, is often out of position and doesn't have many pass-rush moves.”

Fowler might not be able to hang his hat on being strong, but as previously mentioned, he still stacks up relatively well in that capacity to many of the players he is competing for draft position with.

Instinct, as Riddle noted, might be Fowler’s biggest question mark. The following example from this past season’s contest against LSU was just one of many plays on which Fowler traveled away from the ball due to his own misread.

Nonetheless, that play ended the way many others did in 2014: Fowler using his speed to get himself back into the play and catch the ball-carrier. He won’t be able to get away with recognition mistakes as easily at the next level, but his athletic range does enable him to recover in situations many other edge defenders cannot.

Tackling is another area in which Fowler must improve, and it’s one of the reasons why Fowler had twice as many hurries in 2014 as he did sacks.

While getting to the ball is often no problem for Fowler, finishing plays has been, like it was on the following near sack against Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston.

Fowler’s NFL coaching staff will also need to work with the defensive end on developing his hand skills. Although he has shown the ability to incorporate a number of pass-rushing moves to beat blockers over the course of his career, he has often been more reliant upon his physical ability than he can afford to be when he starts going up against professionals.

The good news for Fowler is that all of his issues are in areas in which he can progress with proper development. He can legitimately become stronger, improve his tackling form and advance his pass-rushing technique, and his physical gifts give him upside that few others have.

 

Where Will Fowler Be Drafted?

Ultimately, Fowler’s draft position will be determined by the preferences of the teams that decide to target pass-rushers early in the draft.

The good news for Fowler, as well as his counterparts, is that a majority of the teams who hold top-10 picks this year are likely to consider the edge defenders among the options for their selections.

It would come as a surprise if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went in any other direction than a quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick, but Fowler could presumably be in play as early as the Tennessee Titans at No. 2.

The next seven teams in the draft—the Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders, Washington Redskins, New York Jets, Chicago Bears, Atlanta Falcons and New York Giants—are also teams that could target Fowler and would be smart to do so.

Some teams might favor Gregory because of his length and growth potential. Others might have favor Ray or Beasley, as each is a more refined pass-rusher who had higher collegiate production than Fowler.

Dupree could also be a favorite for some teams, as he is a better run defender than Fowler, Gregory, Ray and Beasley, but he is also a weaker pass-rusher than the other four at this point in his development.

All five players have great strengths and legitimate weaknesses, which make all of them projects and none of them sure things. But Fowler’s physical attributes, ability to play the run and capacity to play myriad positions makes him the best bet for a team looking to make a big investment in its pass-rush this April.

 

 

All GIFs and screenshots were made using videos from Draft Breakdown, YouTube and Dailymotion. All GIFs were made at Gfycat.com; all screenshots were illustrated by the author.

Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.

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Is Georgia RB Todd Gurley the NFL's Next Steven Jackson?

At the head of a deep and talented running back class in the 2015 NFL draft sits former Georgia Bulldog Todd Gurley. Three seasons of dominant play in the Southeastern Conference earned Gurley respect, hype and lofty comparisons to NFL greats.

When Gurley was able to stay on the field, he knifed through defenses on a weekly basis. Various injuries, including a torn ACL in Week 10 of his junior season, and a four-game suspension for an NCAA violation, kept him from participating in every contest throughout his career.

It's his special talent that has led to many comparing Gurley to future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson. A simple Google search brings up pages of scouting reports or comments that trace the two together. In college, the comparison isn’t far off. Both missed numerous games due to injuries, but when on the field, they were revered by opposing fanbases.

But, looking deeper than that, the similarities between the two are more of a reach than some might expect. Linking Gurley and Peterson is a convenient argument because Peterson has been so extraordinary throughout his career, and aesthetically, Gurley is the closest thing since “All Day” hit the NFL.

Coming out of Oklahoma, Peterson was an athletic freak. At 6’2”, 217 pounds, his 40-yard dash, vertical and broad jump were each in the 90th percentile. That type of size and athleticism is impressive enough, but it translated perfectly on the field as well. He’s a transcendent talent that creates no matter the limitations of his surrounding cast.

Looking at Gurley’s most productive collegiate games, there’s no question he’s a very talented athlete. But, he doesn’t play like Peterson. The best comparison for Gurley is former St. Louis Rams star and current Atlanta Falcons back Steven Jackson. Although Gurley cannot participate at the NFL combine drills, his numbers would likely be similar to Jackson’s.

Jackson was a highly touted playmaker out of Oregon State taken with the 24th overall pick in 2004. Despite playing on some terrible teams, Jackson produced eight consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, and he has averaged 333 receiving yards a season.

He may end up as a Hall of Fame player as well. His argument will be a strong one based off his accomplishments on the gridiron.

The difference between Jackson and Peterson is more about style and level dominance, so the comparison for Gurley to Jackson is not a slight, at all. Let’s take a look into Gurley’s games to see where he wins, and what makes him more like Jackson.

 

Balance Over Power

Determining the difference between a broken tackle that stems from power or balance requires an understanding of normal pad level for a player, as well as consistency in similar situations. Both Gurley and Jackson are listed at 6’1”, so their pad levels are naturally high, but neither particularly excels at bulldozing through opponents.

Being able to take a hit on one side of the body and stay on two feet is a great example of balance. On the screenshot above, Jackson takes a hit from a defender on his left side, but he’s strong and balanced enough to absorb the hit and shed the tackle. If he'd been using pure power, his pad level would be as low as his attacker.

Relying on balance helps shed arm tackles and hits from the side, whereas a low pad level and power will lead to more head-on tackles being broken. Peterson really has exquisite power, balance and athleticism. He shows the ability to run through defenders at any level. It’s what makes him that special.

Gurley consistently shows that he has excellent balance but high pad levels. He can blow through arm tackles but struggles to push through more straight-on attempts. His inability to sink his hips and lower the boom on a defender means that he will go down often on direct contact.

Using balance and efficient movements is certainly translatable to the NFL. On the gif above, watch as Gurley subtly steps to the left as he approaches the line of scrimmage. This sets up his burst downfield, and he sheds two tacklers as he makes his way downfield. The key to the play is his vision and footwork, which brings us to his next positive trait.

 

Vision and Burst

To get a feel for how Gurley produces so many 15-yard-or-more gains, I charted his three best games of 2014. The goal was to see which blocking schemes Gurley excels. Most NFL teams feature some power-blocking and zone-blocking methods but use each to varying degrees based on personnel.

Collegiate programs like Georgia often use power-blocking tactics because they have athletes on the offensive line that are dominant enough to do so. Take a look at the running lane below for Gurley in such a scheme.

There are numerous examples of these huge running lanes. Georgia deserves credit for executing so well, but these lanes are easy for any back to exploit. Huge lanes like this rarely happen in the NFL because the hash marks are wider, and the competition is consistently great.

When the running lanes were tight, Gurley really struggled to create for himself. His tight hips make it difficult for him to jump when he sees a lane developing at the last second. He’s a downhill runner that struggles having to go laterally too much, and defenders can swarm him.

When given space to work with, Gurley is very good at setting up defenders. As Gurley nears the line of scrimmage, Gurley gets close to his blockers to sell that he is close to cutting upfield. This is called pressing the linebackers because the second line of defense is likely to cheat toward the line to get to the ball-carrier quicker. Gurley has the burst to take advantage of the new angle created, and he does so very well.

Gurley accelerates quickly to eat up yards. He isn’t a burner, but like Jackson, wins when he finds cutback lanes.

Unsurprisingly, Gurley was most effective when his line worked to create the backside running lanes that the zone-blocking system aims to provide. As the line works toward one direction, the defense will follow unless a defender can penetrate the gap. This leaves the back with the decision to either follow his line or, if the defense doesn’t stay disciplined, reverse course and hit the wide-open cutback.

Gurley is tremendously good at seeing these openings as they unfold. He wastes little to no time to chop his feet and reverse course. Sometimes, the cutback will go for a moderate gain but, eventually, a chunk can turn into an opportunity for a home run play.

Of the 14 explosive plays charted, seven were considered to be translatable to the NFL. These include zone-reads and power dives that Gurley was able to gain 15 or more yards on. The rest came via pitches or read option calls.

Although the NFL has adapted and began using the read-option, it is not nearly as dangerous as it is in the collegiate game. Seattle is one of the few teams that are reliant on its effectiveness weekly, but they also possess an elite running back and mobile quarterback.

Collegiate plays that are completely reliant on being more athletic than the opponent shouldn’t be considered the same as more traditional methods of execution. The NFL doesn’t have vast talent gaps like Georgia had many games. Expecting Gurley to replicate six big gains in three games off the read-option isn’t reasonable because the read option isn’t a consistent source of production on a down-by-down basis.

 

Durability

The more hits that a running back takes, the more likely an injury can occur. Unlike Peterson, all of Gurley’s injuries were due to contact or running style. He missed six games in college due to injury, and he participated in 30. That trend cannot continue as he enters the NFL.

Longevity and durability are major factors for running back success, but it’s hard to be confident that Gurley’s track record of nicks and bruises will suddenly end. The ability to absorb or avoid contact is important for health purposes.

Yes, Peterson returned from an ACL and MCL tear with incredible speed, but he was an anomaly. Again, he’s a physical freak that is incomparable. Gurley is a great athlete but not to the level of Peterson.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Gurley is 100 percent when he returns from his ACL tear, but his risk to re-tear it is greater, and he’ll be just 21 when the regular season starts. Coming back from one ACL tear isn’t abnormal, but two is, and the odds of it happening again in the first 24 months after rises by 15 percent.

 

Future Projection

There is no doubt that Todd Gurley is a tremendously talented football player. He’s strong, quick, smart and explosive. His ability to be an impact runner and receiver for an NFL franchise shouldn’t be doubted.

To reach his potential, Gurley will need to stay healthy and have his strengths accentuated as much as possible. He may do well for a power-blocking team, but his best fit is with a team that will allow him to use his vision and burst more often in a zone-blocking system.

Some of the NFL teams that are primarily zone are Seattle, Denver, Miami, Washington and Cleveland. Most franchises utilize zone reads for at least part of their game plan, so wherever Gurley lands, he’s very likely to produce at a high level.

 

All stats used are from sports-reference.com.

Ian Wharton is a Miami Dolphins Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, contributor for Optimum Scouting, and analyst for eDraft. 

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