NCAA Football

Tennessee Football: Realistic Goals for Quarterback Joshua Dobbs in 2016

Analysts around the nation are picking the Tennessee football team to be a lock for a big 2016, and quarterback Joshua Dobbs holds the key.

The senior-to-be signal-caller will be the unequivocal starter in his final season on Rocky Top, but how far the player nicknamed Rocket rises will determine how high the Volunteers can go in the rankings.

A step forward in 2015 was noticeable when Dobbs passed for 2,291 yards and 15 touchdowns against just five interceptions to go along with 671 rushing yards and another 11 scores. At times, he displayed the necessary leadership to carry the team through pivotal moments of big games.

In others, however, he was inconsistent. The 6'3", 207-pound Alpharetta, Georgia, native averaged 176 passing yards per game and completed 59.6 percent of his passes, sputtering to post passing numbers strong enough for a balanced attack against Oklahoma and Florida.

Those stats were solid, but the Vols struggled to maintain any consistent downfield attack throughout the year. Their ability to manufacture first downs with the run game was due largely to the pressure Dobbs' legs put on defenses. 

But his arm rarely kept opponents honest.

Many are enamored with Dobbs' seemingly limitless physical capabilities and mental makeup that could make him the face of the SEC. But all that must materialize in the ability to stretch the Vols' passing threat window and ultimately produce chunk gains. He hasn't been able to do that yet.

UT finished ninth in the SEC in passing plays of more than 30 yards.

Every single player in the country needs to improve various aspects of their play, so regardless of what kind of polarizing figure Dobbs is as a nontraditional quarterback, one thing is certain: Tennessee is fortunate to have him.

That's something most will agree on, including GoVols247 reporter Wes Rucker, who reminded fans not to lose sight of what kind of special talent the Vols have at quarterback:

Dobbs will be a seasoned, supertalented star in 2016. But where should the measuring sticks show major gains in Dobbs' game next year? Let's take a look at some realistic goals for the UT signal-caller.

 

Goal 1: 3,800 total yards

You may think expecting a quarterback to increase his total yardage by nearly 800 yards in a single season is a bit outlandish, but Dobbs has that kind of untapped potential.

In 2015, he finished with 3,020 total yards (if you count the 58-yard reception he had against Florida). Considering that the Vols are going to retailor their receiving corps to utilize more yards-after-catch guys, speedy targets who can turn short passes into big gains, that could benefit Dobbs.

He won't have to be elite throwing 20-yard passes if he has more receivers who can turn five-yard swings and slants into big gains. That should be the case with Josh Smith, Vincent Perry, Marquez Callaway, Latrell Williams and Corey Henderson now battling for reps.

"I think anytime you look at the elite of the elite in college football, they're usually the fastest teams that are left standing at the end," UT passing game coordinator Zach Azzanni told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan. "We really tried to address our speed on the perimeter, and we're going to keep doing that."

Having those blazers in the rotation should help Dobbs, but how much?

This may wind up being the most far-fetched goal of the group through no fault of Dobbs. When you have Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara in the backfield, you simply must hand the ball off—a lot. And that will diminish Dobbs' personal touches.

But if he tunes up his passing game, this number isn't out of reach. 

If Dobbs gets to 800 rushing yards (and he should), he'd have to average just over 230 passing yards per game to reach the 3,800-yard mark. That number would have put him fourth in the league this past year. There's also the possibility that the Vols could play one (or more) games than they did in 2015 (more on that later).

 

Goal 2: 35 total touchdowns

For all the heat first-year offensive coordinator Mike DeBord took for his conservative play-calling, the Vols offense was rather prolific. 

Tennessee finished third in the SEC with an average of 35.2 points per game, trailing only Ole Miss and Arkansas. Dobbs was a huge reason for that, finishing with a combined 26 touchdowns.

With the ground-tilling triumvirate back in 2016 along with an O-line that lost only left tackle Kyler Kerbyson, those numbers should get even better. Dobbs' rushing scores shouldn't go down if the Vols are in the red zone as often as they should be.

So, if the passing game improves the way it should with a better grasp of DeBord's scheme in Year 2, finishing with nine more touchdowns shouldn't be out of the question for the signal-caller.

If Dobbs is a part of UT crossing the goal line 35 times, it's going to be a season to remember on Rocky Top. How well had he begun to grasp the concepts toward the end of the year? Check out this highlight-reel run against Northwestern in the Outback Bowl, as shared by Fox Sports Knoxville:

That was one of the best plays of the entire bowl season.

Some people want to toss around comparisons for Dobbs and use former Mississippi State star Dak Prescott as a gauge for him, but that's not fair. Dobbs won't put up the kind of numbers the former Bulldog did during his final two seasons in Starkville, nor will he be asked to.

Dobbs has tons of offensive weaponry around him. He just needs to be the one who knows which triggers to pull at what time.

 

Goal 3: SEC Offensive Player of the Year

The last quarterback to win the league's Player of the Year award was Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel back in 2012. Dobbs may just break that streak this coming year.

If he does, he'll have to beat out a bunch of good players, but the league isn't as stacked with top-shelf stars as usual.

Athlon.com's Steven Lassan recently rated all of the projected starting quarterbacks in the country, and Dobbs ranked 12th on his list, trailing only Ole Miss' Chad Kelly in the SEC:

Dobbs is a better all-around offensive player than Kelly, though the Rebels star holds the upper hand in passing ability. If Dobbs can approach his ceiling in the passing game, he could overtake Kelly.

Then there's the tall task of overcoming the SEC's stable of star runners, led by LSU's Leonard Fournette, Georgia's Nick Chubb and Hurd. 

Beyond that, though, there are few guaranteed stat hounds. Sure, several will emerge—they always do—but Dobbs is in the top group of playmakers. If he has a big year and, more importantly, the Vols are successful, he could carry home the hardware.

Everybody is enamored with a dual-threat quarterback on top of his game. Dobbs won't have to put together a Deshaun Watson-type season to win the award, but he has a skill set that is similar to the Clemson star's abilities. He just hasn't put everything together.

 

Goal 4: National champion quarterback

Finally, Dobbs' biggest goal is the ultimate team goal, but a selfless player would want it that way.

In the end, the Vols can't attain their wildest expectations without a dynamite finale by Dobbs. Make no mistake, this team is talented enough to win it all, as crazy as that may sound to some.

The biggest goal for Dobbs should be playing better against top-tier competition. Though he improved considerably in that regard in 2015, he's still never beaten Florida or Alabama. He'll have to go on the road to play Georgia, Texas A&M and South Carolina next year, too.

An early-season tilt at the Battle at Bristol against Virginia Tech will be a litmus test as well.

If Dobbs shows out in those games, the Vols will be in the SEC Championship Game. If they get there and win, the College Football Playoff could be close behind.

It's a leap to think a team can go from 9-4 to contending for a national title, but the Vols aren't that far away. They lost four games by a combined 17 points in '15, and Dobbs was mediocre in three of those contests. They held fourth-quarter leads in all but one game.

Elevating his play will lead to big wins in important games. 

Dobbs has to get better against the best. If he does, Tennessee will find itself among the best at season's end.

 

All quotes and information gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information gathered from 247Sports unless otherwise noted. All individual stats gathered from UTSports.com and conference stats gathered from cfbstats.com unless otherwise noted.

Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.

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Ole Miss Football Reportedly Cited for Multiple Violations by NCAA

The NCAA charged Ole Miss with a slew of rules violations on Jan. 29, per Yahoo Sports' Pat Forde, and a new report from the Associated Press' David Brandt on Tuesday shed light on the distribution and severity of the infractions. 

Citing an anonymous source, Brandt reported 13 of the 28 violations were committed by the football team, with nine of them coming since the Rebels hired head coach Hugh Freeze prior to the 2012 season. 

Those numbers appear to deviate from a previous report from ESPN.com's Chris Low that indicated a majority of the violations occurred under former head football coach Houston Nutt. 

Prized Ole Miss recruit and highly touted NFL draft prospect Laremy Tunsil had reportedly been a focal point of the NCAA's investigation after the left tackle was suspended seven games for taking improper benefits, including three separate loaner vehicles without pay. 

The Associated Press report also noted Ole Miss has self-reported violations involving the football team between 2011-14, as "a 'representative of athletics interests' provided transportation for potential recruits on six different occasions."

Ole Miss' infractions also reportedly involve the track and field and women's basketball teams.

According to Brandt, the school previously imposed a one-year postseason ban on its women's basketball team after discovering former head coach Adrian Wiggins and two of his assistants were involved in recruiting and academic misconduct. 

Ole Miss reportedly has 90 days to respond to the new allegations.   

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Javin Webb Dismissed from Houston: Latest Details, Comments and Reaction

The Houston Cougars football program is coming off a 13-1 season that saw them win the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl and the American Athletic Conference, but they received some unfortunate news Tuesday.

According to Mark Berman of Fox 26 in Houston, citing a spokesman from the Cougars athletic department, running back Javin Webb was "dismissed for violating undisclosed team rules.”   

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2016 NFL Draft: Robert Nkemdiche's Upside Outweighs Bust Potential

The 2016 NFL draft is now the full focus of teams and fans alike. Evaluating players for their on-field prowess and traits is one of the most important facets of an organization. Successfully acquiring and utilizing talent is what Super Bowl champions do best.

There is an off-field aspect to talent evaluation as well. Football character matters as teams decide who to invest in. The NFL will only deal with so much off-field drama before it decides enough is enough and cuts the cord.

Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche is the latest high-profile prospect that will go through the draft process with intense scrutiny. He has both on-field and off-field concerns that he will have to face and address. We'll dig into the red flags that hint he has significant bust potential.

But Nkemdiche is a supremely talented human being on the football field to counter the concerns. After breaking down his film from 2014 and 2015, he is a player worth the risk to draft because of his considerable upside to be a great NFL defensive tackle or end.

Without intimate knowledge of who Nkemdiche is as a person, we can only look at what has been reported and what we see on the field. His character concerns stem from his alleged use of synthetic marijuana and a subsequent fall from a hotel room window, according to Clay Travis of Fox Sports. His brother, Denzel Nkemdiche, has also reportedly struggled with drug use recently.

Who Robert Nkemdiche is surrounded by is a massive question mark at this time. To stick in the NFL, Nkemdiche must be focused on his craft and stay away from temptations. We've seen players like Johnny Manziel, Joseph Randle, Josh Gordon, Ray Rice and Greg Hardy affected by their off-field issues just in the last few years.

Character matters, and the NFL is surely going to dig deep into his past and motivation to achieve greatness. Fringe players that do not exhibit high-end potential end up being washed out of the league quickly.

Nkemdiche has the upside worth investing into if his background checks out with teams.

The former No. 1 overall recruit led a terrific 2013 recruiting class with a perfect 1.00 rating from 247Sports for a reason. His blend of elite athleticism and disruption ability gives him rare value. Pass-rushing interior defensive linemen that can play in a 3-4 or 4-3 front come along once every few years.

At 6'4" and 296 pounds, Nkemdiche has shown dedication in the weight room to get bigger for the NFL. As a sophomore, he was listed at 275 pounds. That raised concerns about his long-term position fit since he was playing much lighter than he'd need to be in the NFL. Adding 21 pounds in one offseason quelled that concern and was highly encouraging.

The 21-year-old still has room to continue to mature as his body changes. As NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein noted, his physique is a major positive moving forward. "Exceptional build. Carries no bad weight and has outstanding thickness and power through his rear, thighs and calves." If Nkemdiche shows up to the NFL combine in this type of shape, he will be one of the big winners of the event.

His size is important because of his film. Nkemdiche is one of the biggest flashers in the country when it comes to burst and closing ability. He explodes off the line and quickly puts his blocker into a compromising position.

His ability to convert speed into power forces tackles and guards alike to be technically sound and A-plus athletes. He doesn't have a go-to counter move right now, but he can sell inside moves effectively because he has the speed to work the outside shoulder as well. Here is an example of Nkemdiche winning on an inside move, and later he sold a strong inside step to go outside shoulder on the same tackle.

Sequences like that show football intelligence and awareness on top of excellent athleticism. Few NFL linemen meet these criteria regularly, which have contributed to the rising value of disruptive defensive tackles.

Nkemdiche's ability to be a great penetrator showed against top competition. While he may have not had consistent effort against lesser teams, his dominant effort against Alabama, Mississippi State and Auburn in 2015 showed what he can be when the lights are on.

Coaches that think they can maximize effort will pay special attention to these performances because they mattered more than games against Tennessee-Martin, for example.

Of course we cannot forget about Nkemdiche's natural power. He plays low and shows excellent leg drive when he aligns as a 3-technique in a 4-3 front. He gets inside of guards so quickly they cannot properly anchor and are forced to reset their feet almost instantly.

NFL guards are more equipped to handle bull rushes than collegiate guards, but the mix of power and threat of Nkemdiche's outside speed will be challenging to withstand. Even against the run Nkemdiche shows a powerful base, strong hands and the ability to shed blockers. This was an area of massive improvement from 2014 to 2015.

There are noticeable weaknesses in Nkemdiche's game that haven't changed since he walked onto Ole Miss' campus. His brilliant athleticism allows him to produce despite the lack of nuance to his game in college, but it will hinder him more in the NFL. He must learn how to use his hands to make him a more complete player.

The importance of hand activity and placement is significant. Defenders that have powerful mitts can disrupt the balance of their blocker to create advantageous angles to attack. Angles are extremely important to those who create and have the athleticism to capitalize on them.

There are too many examples of Nkemdiche playing nonchalantly and forgetting his hands exist. While he was clearly more engaged against better teams, he can't afford to take games off in the NFL. Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Nick Fairley flashed similar talent at Auburn, but his engine runs cold too often, and he hasn't worked to improve his game like he needed to.

Another cause for concern was Nkemdiche's lack of statistical production. While he immediately jumps off the screen when watching Ole Miss because of his ability to disrupt offenses, he doesn't finish plays especially well. He finished his career with just six sacks and 16 tackles for loss in 29 games played.

@DinkDumpDish@NFLFilmStudy Very few. pic.twitter.com/gVRsCxtDCU

— Jim Cobern (@Jmcobern1) January 30, 2016

While statistics don't necessarily predict NFL success, they are a helpful barometer with historical precedence. Jim Cobern of Draft Cobern compared Nkemdiche's market share solo tackles, sacks and tackles for loss against NFL standout tackles. Nkemdiche's production pales in the side-by-side graphic above.

Ole Miss didn't always have Nkemdiche in a good position to produce. Far too often it would ask him to stunt, which is a mistake for two reasons. The first is that Nkemdiche is more linear of an athlete than he is lateral. His explosive first step is taken away on stunts.

The other is Ole Miss didn't have a proper gap eater to leave Nkemdiche one-on-one. Neither Woodrow Hamilton nor Breeland Speaks demanded the center's attention on stunts, so opponents would swallow the two attackers with three blockers. These snaps were wasted and took Nkemdiche out of his best element to be disruptive, which is counterintuitive for your best defensive player.

The effort angle is certainly more disturbing than schematic misuse or his lack of technical nuance. A crafty veteran and good position coach can help Nkemdiche with his hand usage if he's willing to learn. But taking plays off for large stretches may be a warning that he wasn't just coasting until he entered the draft.

That being said, he was playing for "free," was a No. 1 recruit and was by far the most athletic player on the field every Saturday except for his teammate Laremy Tunsil. There are explanations for why he'd coast in non-prime-time games. Interviews will help teams determine whether Nkemdiche is the next Mario Edwards Jr. or Fairley.

Strictly based off what Nkemdiche has put on film, I'd be comfortable using a first-round pick on his talent. Situations with a standout veteran tackle that he can learn from and work next to are even more attractive destinations. Teams like the Miami Dolphins, Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills, Houston Texans and Washington Redskins are solid fits.

Some may argue that Nkemdiche is the type of player that will get a staff fired. That's a cliche line that really doesn't exist for any position besides quarterback. Even the best general managers miss on first-round picks because the draft is an investment into a human first and foremost. Humans are unpredictable, and it's very difficult to project how they'll react to certain situations.

If Nkemdiche knocks his interviews out of the park at the combine and his pro day, expect his name to rise as teams feel more confident that he will be committed to football. The risk-reward complex with Nkemdiche is as high as anyone's in the 2016 class. But if he is ready to put in the work to deliver on his upside, he can be an All-Pro talent.

 

All stats used are from sports-reference.com.

Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.

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Replacements for Every Projected 1st-Round Pick in B/R's 2016 Mock NFL Draft

The good news is your college football team managed to produce a projected first-round NFL draft pick, maybe more. The bad news is it has to replace those future pros.

It's part of the annual life cycle in the sport—saying goodbye to great ones and hoping those who take their place can be nearly as good. It's an unfair expectation placed on these replacements but one we've become used to making, especially during the long period between the end of one season and the start of the next.

Using Bleacher Report NFL draft expert Matt Miller's latest 2016 mock draft as a guide, we have identified the most likely successor to every projected first-round pick. Some may be existing starters who are moving to a new position, while others are reserves whose experience this past season should help them take on a greater role. And a few are newcomers who will be thrown right into the fire.

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Nick Saban Still Dominating in-State Recruiting While Adding National Prospects

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Shawn Jennings is a bit of an aberration on the University of Alabama football team, and it’s not because he doesn’t really have a position yet.

Jennings has an older brother on the roster, Anfernee, a defensive end who redshirted last season. Just like they used to play together at Dadeville High School they’ll now do the same for the Crimson Tide.

"It's something you dream about since playing in the yard when you were kids,” he said “To grow up to play college ball together is just a dream come true."

Nevertheless, among Alabama’s eight early enrollees from the recruiting class of 2016, Jennings and wide receiver T.J. Simmons are the only in-state products. The rest hail from California, Georgia, New York and Texas.

Having such a diverse group geographically is something that head coach Nick Saban has had to sort of balance as the Crimson Tide became a national power again. Alabama will recruit anyone who might help the team regardless of where he might be from (like Australian defensive lineman Jesse Williams a few years ago) but has also managed to land nearly every top in-state prospect as well.

Overall, Alabama considers anything within a five-hour drive of Tuscaloosa to be in its prime recruiting territory, which basically means Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and the panhandle of Florida.

As a result, last year’s national championship team could have been divided pretty equally into three groups based on where everyone was from: in-state, the five-hour radius and everyone else.

"We weren't worried about perspective,” Saban said. “We like getting good players who can go out on the field and play good. Perception doesn't win any games for us around here, but good players do.”

Saban made that comment when talking about linebackers Ben Davis and Lyndell Wilson, both 5-star products, according to the 247Sports composite rankings, who had the added bonus of being from in-state.

“We thought they were outstanding players,” he added.

With them in tow, the makeup of this latest signing class follows suit. The 25 total players hailed from 12 different states and Washington, D.C. Seven were from Alabama. Another six were from the five-hour radius, including three from Mississippi where Saban hadn’t been having much luck recently. 

“Because of the quality of programs that they have in their own state, it’s been a little more difficult lately to get guys to leave their own state,” Saban said after signing cornerback Nigel Knott, defensive tackle Raekwon Davis and tackle Scott Lashley, all considered 4-star prospects.

“Bo Davis did a really good job recruiting them,” he added about the Crimson Tide’s defensive line coach, who has Mississippi as part of his recruiting territory.

Meanwhile, Alabama has managed to keep its vice grip on its own state, which has to remain at the heart of its recruiting efforts.

Since 2008, there have been 19 players in the state of Alabama listed as a 5-star recruit by 247Sports. Of them, Saban signed 15. Of the 72 4-star players, 38 landed with the Crimson Tide.

In comparison, rival Auburn successfully recruited two of the 5-star players and 20 of the 4-star talents (and the discrepancy is even greater with 247’s own evaluations that contributed to the composite rankings that average ratings from numerous recruiting sites). During that time span, it’s had two head coaching changes, but also won a national championship.

Here’s a quick year-by-year look at the in-state recruiting:

2008: Saban’s first full recruiting class included 15 of the state’s top 21 prospects, including the top three of Julio Jones, Tyler Love and B.J. Scott, who were all considered 5-star prospects (Jones became a star, Love never started and Scott transferred). It also landed Tuscaloosa-area products John Michael Boswell and Brad Smelley.

The top two in-state players that Alabama didn’t get were No. 5 and 6, safety Dee Finley (from Auburn High School) and defensive lineman William Green, who both signed with Florida.

2009: Alabama signed the top eight in-state prospects including 5-star players Dre Kirkpatrick, Nico Johnson and D.J. Fluker. The top-rated player to leave the state was No. 13, linebacker D.T. Shackelford to Ole Miss.

2010: Alabama signed the state's only 5-star player, cornerback Dee Milliner, and the next two top prospects, linebacker C.J. Mosley and safety Jarrick Williams. Auburn was able to snare defensive end LaDarius Owens, while the top prospect to bolt from the state was Mobile-area wide receiver Solomon Patton to Florida.

2011: It was considered down year for in-state talent, and Alabama focused more on players from beyond the state border. It still signed No. 1 Marvin Shinn, No. 3 Brent Calloway and No. 6 Danny Woodson, but none of them made much of a mark at the Capstone. One player who did was No. 10 Christion Jones.

2012: The biggest in-state departure during the Saban era was quarterback Jameis Winston, who instead went to Florida State and won both a Heisman Trophy and national championship. Going with him was the second-highest rated prospect, wide receiver Chris Casher.

Alabama did pretty well, though, landing four of the next five in-state prospects including T.J. Yeldon, Reggie Ragland and Ryan Anderson.

2013: Alabama had a clean sweep of the top five prospects including 5-star talents Reuben Foster and O.J. Howard.

Only one player rated in the top 10 left the state, No. 6 Austin Golson to Ole Miss. Auburn’s top in-state prospect was quarterback Jeremy Johnson, ranked seventh.

2014: The state had four 5-star prospects with Alabama getting the first two, cornerback Marlon Humphrey (a legacy) and linebacker Rashaan Evans, who like Foster attended Auburn High School.

The Auburn Tigers landed running back Roc Thomas and linebacker Tre’ Williams. 

2015: Alabama signed the lone 5-star recruit, defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne, and four of the top six players.

Outside of the top 10 players, Louisville and Mississippi State hit the state hard and signed six of the next eight prospects.

2016: Alabama added four of the top six players including the only two 5-star players, Davis and Wilson. Auburn’s top get was defensive end Marlon Davidson out of the Montgomery area. His brother Ken Carter is on the Auburn staff and Gus Malzahn said the coaches considered him the top recruit in the state.

Time will tell if he’s correct, but in the meantime the versatile Jennings is getting used to Tuscaloosa and will likely take his initial snaps at safety this spring.

Although he wasn’t rated as a top prospect, 19th in the state and No. 599 nationally, he’s been surprised at how close everyone is on the team and Jennings is eager to show that he belongs.  

"I don't care where I play. I just want to play," he said.

  

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting ratings are from 247Sports.

Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.

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Auburn Football Recruiting: Looking Ahead to 2017 Class

Recruiting never stops, especially at a powerhouse program such as Auburn.

In order to get a streak of top-10 classes like the one Gus Malzahn and his staff has, coaches must get started early on recruiting the stars of tomorrow far in advance.

Case in point: In the first few minutes of his signing day press conference last Wednesday—a day when the entire college football world was focused solely on the class of 2016—Malzahn mentioned he had talked to dozens of 2017 recruits that day.

"Today was a really good day," Malzahn said. "They got me on the phone with close to 50 guys coming up and I think that’s a great thing. I'm excited to recruit those guys, and I know our coaches are, too."

Now that everyone's focus has started to shift toward the 2017 cycle, let's take a look at who Auburn currently has committed and who its biggest blue-chip targets are for the next several months. 

 

The current commitments

Compared to the likes of Ohio State, Alabama and Miami, Auburn is off to a slow start in the 2017 cycle with just three commitments so far.

But the Tigers didn't have a huge number of commitments for most of the 2016 cycle, and they still finished with yet another top-10 class. Gus Malzahn and his staff aren't new at this.

Auburn's trio of 2017 pledges are high quality, though, beginning with 5-star offensive tackle Calvin Ashley. The Orlando, Florida, native is the nation's No. 4 overall recruit and the No. 2 offensive tackle, making him one of the biggest early pledges Auburn has had in quite some time.

Ashley committed to Auburn all the way back in May of last year during "Big Cat Weekend," and he's made a pair of additional unofficial visits to the Plains since then—including last November's Iron Bowl.

In-state schools Florida and Florida State are still chasing after Ashley, who participated in The Opening last summer, but he remains "100 percent committed" to the Tigers.

"I’m 100 percent," Ashley said last month, per Hank South of 247Sports. "(Auburn) has really nice coaches; it’s a nice place to be, nice facilities … I love it. They’ll have a pretty good season next year. I mean this year there were just ups and downs, but next year it’ll be a pretty good season."

Auburn picked up a pair of offensive tackles in the 2016 class to help replace the losses of Shon Coleman and Avery Young to the NFL. The Tigers have great depth at the position for the future, but Ashley looks like he could play early and often at Auburn.

Four-star athlete Alaric Williams is Auburn's other blue-chip commitment for the 2017 class at this moment. The in-state product committed to the Tigers last July and is still receiving plenty of attention from Notre Dame, Alabama and Georgia.

Auburn is recruiting Williams to play running back, a position the Tigers will need reinforcements at starting with the 2017 season. Jovon Robinson's eligibility expires after 2016, and Auburn will have Roc Thomas, Kerryon Johnson and Malik Miller left on campus.

Williams looks like the ideal fit to join the other Alabama running backs at Auburn, but he also has the ability to play wide receiver or defensive back down the road. According to Keith Niebuhr of 247Sports, Williams could be an early enrollee in 2017.

Three-star Georgia safety Carlito Gonzalez rounds out the current commitment crop, as he pledged to the Tigers last August.

While Gonzalez remains committed to the Tigers, South Carolina is a team to watch in his recruitment. Gonzalez was recruited by Will Muschamp and Travaris Robinson at Auburn—and both of them moved onto better positions with the Gamecocks.

The Tigers would love to keep Gonzalez, as both Rudy Ford and Josh Holsey are both entering their final seasons at Auburn.

 

Staying in-state

In Malzahn's first two full recruiting cycles, Auburn did a great job of not letting the bulk of the high school talent in Alabama sign with the Crimson Tide. The Tigers were able to snag a few Mr. Football award-winners and close the gap between the number of state blue-chippers heading to Tuscaloosa and Auburn.

Auburn didn't have as much success in-state in 2016 as it did in 2014 and 2015, but it managed to land two consensus 4-stars in defensive end Marlon Davidson and cornerback John Broussard.

The 2017 class currently has twice as many blue-chip recruits from the state of Alabama as the 2016 class did, with 14 players boasting 4-star ratings. The Tigers have already gotten off to a good start for several of them, setting up some big-time rivalry battles over the next few months.

Four-star outside linebacker Markail Benton is the state's No. 1 player, and Auburn has a number of factors working well in its recruitment of him.

Linebacker is a position of great need for 2017, and Benton hails from Central High School in Phenix City—which is 30 miles away from Auburn's campus. Benton, who has visited Auburn three times since last summer, was teammates in high school with Broussard.

All 12 of the Crystal Ball Predictions on 247Sports for Benton have him signing with the Tigers in this cycle, but Alabama will always be a contender for a top prospect such as this one.

Other top targets from the state of Alabama include Austin Troxell, a 4-star offensive tackle from Madison Academy in North Alabama. The successful program has produced recent Auburn backs Kerryon Johnson and Malik Miller, so the Tigers could pick up Troxell as well for their uptempo offense.

Troxell has visited Alabama more often than Auburn, but the Tigers were the first ones to offer him a scholarship. According to his 247Sports profile of interests, this one looks like it will be a classic Auburn-Alabama matchup on the recruiting trail.

Auburn might have a better chance for 4-star defensive end Ryan Johnson. As Niebuhr noted earlier this month, Johnson grew up an Auburn fan, and he's located right in Auburn assistant Dameyune Craig's recruiting wheelhouse of Mobile.

Johnson is listed as a 6'4", 240-pound strong-side defensive end, but he has room to grow into a future force at the defensive tackle position. While he's keeping his options open, Auburn should be a top contender for Johnson.

"I talked to Coach (Kevin Steele), Coach (Dameyune Craig) and Coach (Rodney Garner)," Johnson said, per Niebuhr. "They’re definitely showing a lot of interest in me. They definitely want us to come up here and compete."

Other in-state names to watch include 4-star quarterback Jake Bentley, who is right down the road from Auburn at Opelika. Bentley had an incredible junior season quarterbacking the Bulldogs, and he's the son of former Auburn assistant Bobby Bentley—who is also now at South Carolina.

Bentley has good mobility, but he's still a pro-style quarterback. It will be interesting to see if the Tigers continue to pursue him in this cycle after signing two dual-threats in 2016. 

Four-star wide receiver Nico Collins and four-star offensive tackle Kendall Randolph are both widely expected to sign with Alabama, but the Tigers will still track them in this cycle.

 

To the battleground states and beyond

Auburn went into its traditional pipeline of Georgia in the 2016 cycle and came out a big winner, netting three of the state's top 10 recruits.

Georgia will continue to be a high priority for Auburn in this upcoming class, with many of the Tigers' top targets hailing from the Peach State.

Five-star cornerback Deangelo Gibbs is the biggest one of those, as he's ranked as the nation's No. 9 overall recruit and No. 2 cornerback. Gibbs is from Grayson High School in Loganville, Georgia—the same school that produced Ole Miss star and former No. 1 overall recruit Robert Nkemdiche.

As Bleacher Report's Sanjay Kirpalani detailed last year, Gibbs has been one of the class of 2017's can't-miss recruits for quite some time. He won the defensive back MVP award at a Nike camp in Atlanta when he was a high school sophomore, beating out a number of eventual 5-stars from the 2015 and 2016 cycles.

Gibbs is a freakish athlete with incredibly polished skills as a defensive back, and he's picked up 33 scholarship offers so far. Georgia and Tennessee are said to be the early leaders for him, but he visited Auburn last November and is one of the Tigers' biggest priorities on defense.

Auburn is widely expected so sign 4-star athlete Tray Bishop from Dawson, Georgia. The high school quarterback will most likely play either receiver or safety at the next level, and he's visited Auburn three times in the past year.

The Tigers could snag 4-star defensive tackle Aubrey Solomon like they did with Derrick Brown and several other highly rated linemen from Georgia. The nation's No. 6 defensive tackle has garnered plenty of attention from Auburn as well as Georgia, Ohio State, Florida and Florida State.

Auburn continued to flex its newfound muscles in the state of Florida by signing several natives in the last cycle and picking up a commitment from Ashley. 

Four-star inside linebacker Will Ignont could technically be classified as an Alabama recruit, but he transferred from Buckhorn High School to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Ignont is expected to become a Tiger, and Auburn would love to pick up a blue-chip from IMG for future recruiting purposes.

Other 4-star targets from Florida include running backs Colin Wilson and Devan Barrett. Auburn will have to battle the in-state Gators for these prized rushers, who could add to the great depth the Tigers love to have in the backfield.

Perhaps the biggest recruit to watch outside of the pipeline states of Alabama, Florida and Georgia has to be 4-star dual-threat quarterback Lowell Narcisse—a Louisiana native who was formerly committed to Auburn.

Narcisse committed to Auburn last July but opened his recruitment back up in January, telling Shea Dixon of 247Sports that he "rushed" his decision.

"I still plan to communicate and nurture a relationship with [Auburn]," Narcisse told Dixon. "But at this time I will open my recruitment back up. My main goal now is to continue to get my health better and be a leader and role model to my team."

Narcisse came in at No. 7 for quarterbacks in Bleacher Report's Future 100 for the class of 2017, and it's easy to see why Auburn is still pushing for him after his decommitment. He's the ideal Malzahn quarterback:

He's easily the smoothest runner on this list, which makes him an ideal fit to land in a collegiate offensive scheme that emphasizes designed rushing attempts from its quarterback, His agility is often utilized on roll-out plays that take him beyond the pocket, and he displays solid touch (17/20) that creates space for receivers to extend. Elongated passing mechanics (12/15) can be polished to add even more precision and power to passes.

Auburn doesn't have a gaping hole at quarterback for 2017, but it will lose Jeremy Johnson after this season. If the Tigers want to have strong depth there for the future, Narcisse is the way to go.

 

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

Justin Ferguson is a college football writer at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.

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2016 Early Enrollees Expected to Make a Splash in Spring Practice

For some incoming freshmen, college football season starts now.

Those who enrolled early have already (in most cases) joined the program and are undergoing winter workouts. Workouts will turn to spring practice in March and April, giving fresh-out-of-high school players a chance to compete for starting jobs.

Some of those players will make stronger cases than others. That's what this list hopes to target. It's not just the highest-ranked early enrollees such as Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson; it's the highest-ranked early enrollees expected to compete to start immediately.

That, after all, is the splash most of these teams are hoping for.

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SEC Reportedly Looks to Block Michigan from Holding Spring Practice in Florida

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said Tuesday the conference has petitioned the NCAA to block Michigan from holding spring practices in Florida.  

“Our primary reaction [is] that, in the face of the time-demand conversations, we've got one program taking what has been 'free time' away,” Sankey said, per Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com. “Let's draw a line and say, ‘That's not appropriate.'"

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh announced last week he plans for the Wolverines to practice at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, from Feb. 27 to March 6. 

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Who Are the Most Valuable Offensive Coordinators in College Football?

Peyton Manning’s (likely) final rodeo and ride off into the sunset during Super Bowl 50 received most of the attention on Sunday following the Denver Broncos' 24-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers, but there was one storyline that proved to be key to the final outcome of the game: that of victorious defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.

The longtime coach capped off a weekend in which he was named NFL Assistant of the Year by putting together one of the most impressive defensive performances of any Super Bowl and was finally able to savor the sweet, sweet moment of holding up the Lombardi Trophy.

While players like Von Miller and T.J. Ward were the ones who made the plays when they counted against the Panthers, it was Phillips’ game plan that might have been the most impressive effort of Denver’s run to a title.

That got us to thinking: With Phillips playing such a key role for a Super Bowl winner, who in college football might be considered the most valuable defensive coordinator? Likewise, who takes the honors on the offensive side of the ball?

With most hires already in the books and offseasons getting ready to take the next step with spring football, it seems like the perfect time to scan the landscape and see who has a Phillips-like impact on their teams as quality coordinators. You can find the defensive list here, while the most valuable offensive coordinators are discussed below.

 

Lane Kiffin, Alabama

Is Kiffin the most polarizing offensive coordinator in the country? Absolutely, there’s little doubt about that.

Still, there are few better when it comes serving as a coordinator, and it speaks volumes that Nick Saban entrusts that side of the ball to the still-young coach.

Kiffin’s reputation may have been initially built off the backs of Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, but some of his best work has been done lately in the SEC. At Alabama, he’s developed two different first-time starting quarterbacks into quality players and churned out a Heisman Trophy winner at running back, Derrick Henry.

Just as impressive has been his overall ability to bring the Tide into the modern game with his installation of uptempo spread-offense concepts.

The persona Kiffin developed at Tennessee has colored much of how he’s viewed in the college football world, but when you look past that, you see a top-notch OC who has proved to be an equally good recruiter.

 

Bill Legg, Marshall

Legg doesn’t receive the attention that some of his other Power Five peers do but nevertheless has produced some of the most prolific offenses in the country during his time at Marshall, and even before that.

His best work was done in bringing along quarterback Rakeem Cato and wideout Tommy Shuler a few seasons ago and turning the two into one of the most productive duos in NCAA history.

Legg has led the Thundering Herd to top marks in a number of top offensive categories, both nationally and in Conference USA, during his tenure. Before that, he was co-coordinator on several successful Purdue squads that were some of the best teams in Boilermakers history this side of Drew Brees.

The West Virginia native (and former Mountaineer) has spent the bulk of his career in his home state and along the Eastern Seaboard but has been mentioned for bigger jobs over the years thanks to a quality resume.

 

Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie, TCU

There may be no hotter names for athletic directors or other head coaches in need of a new offensive coordinator than the dynamic duo in charge of Gary Patterson’s offense. Each has been mentioned quite a bit this offseason for other jobs, but both have chosen to stay in Fort Worth to try to bring a Big 12 title to TCU.

The elder of the two, Meacham has found success at just about every stop. He’s served as an OC or co-coordinator at six schools and was part of several other record-setting offenses at Oklahoma State (where he was also a player). A veteran receiving coach when not calling plays, he’s tutored a number of standouts from Brandon Pettigrew to Josh Doctson.

As a former Texas Tech quarterback, few know the Air Raid offense as well as Cumbie does, considering he led the nation in passing and total offense when he was the signal-caller for the Red Raiders and has carried that over into an impressive coaching career in just a short time frame. He also has experience coaching receivers but has really stood out with his work turning Trevone Boykin into a star quarterback.

 

Ivin Jasper, Navy

Most college football fans may not have heard Jasper’s name until this past offseason, when rumors surfaced that he could take over for Ken Niumatalolo at Navy, but the former Hawaii player has been a big part of the Midshipmen’s success over the past few years.

Amazingly, he’s going on his 16th year at the Naval Academy and is getting close to a decade as the steady hand and offensive coordinator behind the team’s triple-option attack.

Unlike other coaches on this list, Jasper has to deal with a number of restrictions on the players he can recruit and how much time he can spend with them. Still, that hasn’t hampered Navy’s productivity, as just recently quarterback Keenan Reynolds set numerous NCAA records as the trigger of the offense and the team surged to a national ranking in the polls.

In 2015, the Midshipmen also topped the nine-win plateau for the fourth time in the eight seasons Jasper has been running the offense.

 

Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma

Riley capped off a remarkable 2015 season by becoming the youngest ever to win the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant. Just 32, he was tapped by Bob Stoops to turn around the Oklahoma offense and did just that in leading the team to the College Football Playoff and making quarterback Baker Mayfield a household name.

As part of their run to the Big 12 title, the Sooners averaged 45 points a game on the season and were borderline unstoppable following a loss to Texas early in the season.

While he’s known for installing the Mike Leach blend of the Air Raid attack in Norman, Riley also showed how well he could adapt to his personnel by making OU much more of a power run team behind Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. In addition, Mayfield became one of the best quarterbacks in the country, and wide receiver Sterling Shepard closed out his record-setting career as a borderline unstoppable player late in the season.

Also highly regarded as a quality recruiter with a keen eye for talent, Riley is a longtime veteran coach in the Big 12, despite his age, and drew plenty of recognition for his work as East Carolina’s offensive coordinator.

 

Mike Sanford, Notre Dame

Brian Kelly has his hands all over the Notre Dame offense, given his background, but few are doubting how big of a role Sanford plays in developing the team’s quarterbacks and preparing the team’s game plans.

The son of a coach, Sanford has found success at just about every stop and has the distinction of coaching in five straight BCS/CFP bowls in the past five seasons as part of the staff at Stanford, Boise State and Notre Dame.

Prior to coming to South Bend, the former Broncos quarterback helped his alma mater place in the top 25 of most major offensive categories, as the team earned the first Group of Five bid to a major College Football Playoff bowl.

In addition to tutoring Grant Hedrick to a career year, Sanford also directed tailback Jay Ajayi to numerous school and conference records back in 2014. Prior to that, he helped turn Stepfan Taylor into one of the best backs in Stanford history and was chiefly responsible for bringing along Kevin Hogan as Andrew Luck’s replacement in 2013.

Sanford’s greatest work may have been this past year with the Irish, however, as he helped the team manage and maneuver around some major injuries but still wind up within sniffing distance of a spot in the final four. He was a big reason why quarterback Malik Zaire was drawing national praise prior to his injury and a big part of backup DeShone Kizer's turning into a budding superstar.

As a result, it probably won’t be too long before Sanford gets tapped to be a head coach somewhere, just like his father.

 

Dana Dimel, Kansas State

The Kansas State graduate has been a big part of the offensive success Bill Snyder has had in Manhattan, as evidenced by the fact that Dimel is on his third stint with the team as a coach.

Year after year, the Wildcats have one of the most diverse offenses in the Big 12 despite a lack of top-end recruits, and every season the team has found a way to be competitive against just about everybody. Under Dimel just recently, K-State has set a number of school records and won the Big 12 title, while quarterback Collin Klein was a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2012.

Dimel had a solid record as head coach at Wyoming (and a disastrous one at Houston) but has proved to be a top-flight coordinator thanks to his work with the Wildcats. Few are able to do more with less, and the respect he has from his peers in the conference and nationally runs very high.

 

Tee Martin, USC

Martin was only recently promoted to become USC’s offensive coordinator, but he’s had a hand in just about everything the Trojans have done offensively since arriving on the West Coast in 2012.

A former national championship-winning quarterback at Tennessee, he has tutored several wide receivers to national prominence, including Randall Cobb, Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor.

Martin’s work as a recruiter is probably the biggest reason why he earns a place on this list, however. He’s been named National or Pac-12 Recruiter of the Year by all four major recruiting services at some point and topped 247Sports’ recruiter rankings in 2016 for his work in USC’s strong close on national signing day.

In addition to helping land several top players in the Trojans’ backyard, Martin also has been responsible for some of the program’s biggest wins on the national recruiting trail as well.

When you consider how much turmoil has gone on at USC since Martin arrived, it’s pretty notable to see that he’s one of the calm, steady hands that has kept the school relevant year after year on the national stage. That’s saying quite a bit.

 

Bryan Fischer is a national college football columnist at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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Kyle Allen Comments on Johnny Manziel, Culture at Texas A&M

Kyle Allen opened up Tuesday regarding his transfer from Texas A&M to Houston in an interview with CBSSports.com's Dennis Dodd.  

Allen argued the atmosphere around the program isn't conducive to success, citing Johnny Manziel's rise to prominence as creating systemic issues:

I think the culture was a big part of it, and I think that stems from Johnny's era there—the way that they let Johnny and [others] act there. They [could] do that and still win games because they had Johnny … and five offensive linemen playing in the NFL right now.

A lot of people were riding off that, "I can do whatever the hell I want and win on Saturday."

On paper, Allen should've thrived in College Station. He was the No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the 2014 recruiting class, per 247Sports' composite rankings. Aggies head coach Kevin Sumlin was also successful in developing both Manziel and former Cougars quarterback Case Keenum in his first head-coaching job.

Instead, Allen struggled somewhat, throwing for 3,532 yards, 33 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in his two years at A&M. The Aggies also posted an 8-5 record in each of those seasons.

He doesn't specifically criticize Sumlin, but he paints the picture of a head coach unable to get the most out of his players.

"Everyone wasn't in a straight line. Everyone was going this way, this way, this way," Allen said. "We had a ton of talent there. I think that, once you get all the right coaches there and get the vision right, you can do a lot of things."

Joe Buettner of the Dallas Morning News posited the arrival of graduate transfer Trevor Knight might help in part solve the problem:

Sumlin has seemingly attracted the requisite recruits necessary to turn A&M into a perennial SEC contender. According to 247Sports' team composite ranking, his recruiting classes finished No. 11 nationally in 2015, No. 5 in 2014, No. 9 in 2013 and No. 16 in 2012.

The last two years have put Sumlin under the microscope, though, after the Aggies failed to build on the success of the Manziel era. The departure of offensive coordinator Jake Spavital will only put more pressure on Sumlin, too, since he'll have one less person on whom to deflect blame should things go wrong.

Whether serious issues exist behind the scenes or not, the head coach heads into the 2016 season on the hot seat, and Allen's comments will do little to help matters. If Texas A&M finishes with eight or nine wins next year, it's possible Sumlin could be out of a job.

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CFB Players Who Could Be Beaten Out by Freshmen for Starting Jobs in 2016

For every star football recruit who is able to crack the starting lineup in his first collegiate season, there are usually older players who weren't able to stay in front.

Sometimes a true freshman starter immediately steps into a situation where there is a hole on the depth chart thanks to a departed player. These recruits know when they sign they could fill a role left by a graduate or NFL-bound playmaker.

However, some new freshmen are able to beat out players who held starting jobs in previous seasons. Because of the nature of constant competition that a lot of coaches like to bring to spring and fall practices, blue-chip recruits have been able to snag playing time over established veterans.

Here are several returning starters in college football who could—that's a key word, considering these are early projections—lose their coveted jobs to true freshmen in 2016. Whether it's because of a change in coaching staff or scheme, or the outstanding potential of the newcomer, these players will face big-time position battles this offseason.

Tell us who else you think could be on their way out of a starting job in 2016 thanks to an incoming recruit in the comments below.

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