NCAA Football

Notre Dame Football: Final Camp Stock Report

SOUTH BEND, Indiana — Notre Dame football begins its regular season eight days from now, when the Irish host Rice on Aug. 30.

It feels as if preseason camp has flown by. After Friday’s afternoon practice to finish out the week, the Irish will turn their attention to the Owls and the upcoming season.

Notre Dame held media day Tuesday on campus, prompting a flood of activity. Notre Dame’s home, road and Shamrock Series uniforms were released, and Irish head coach Brian Kelly provided an in-depth season preview in his press conference.

Let’s get to the highlights.

 

Team Moves on Amid Academic Investigation

Friday marks the one-week checkpoint after news broke last Friday of the academic investigation that has resulted in four players—wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, cornerback KeiVarae Russell, defensive end Ishaq Williams and linebacker Kendall Moore—being held out of practice and competition.

And in the one week since the initial frenzy, not much has changed.

No surprise, but DaVaris Daniels, Kendall Moore, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams weren't at #NotreDame practice today.

— JJ Stankevitz (@JJStankevitz) August 19, 2014

Kelly did say he has spoken to the four players, but he did not have any “clarity” to provide on a timetable.

So Notre Dame remains in limbo for the time being, and Kelly has maintained he doesn’t expect to have the quartet against Rice. So how will Notre Dame respond?

“Sometimes, I think the coaches get more worked up about it than the players,” Kelly said of being without the foursome. “Players have such resolve. They're young guys. They get over it. They move on.”

It doesn’t feel like the indefinite loss of the four teammates will affect the mentality of the remaining squad. The biggest effect, of course, is the loss of on-field production.

At cornerback, graduate student Cody Riggs will assume the top role, and sophomores Cole Luke and Devin Butler follow on the depth chart. Kelly said Riggs has been “more than advertised for us,” and the Irish will certainly need that to continue to lessen the impact of losing Russell.

Kelly says Cody Riggs has been a leader and “accountable” for #NotreDame this camp. “He’s a darn good corner for us."

— Blue and Gold News (@BGInews) August 19, 2014

With Daniels out of the mix for the time being, junior Chris Brown and sophomores Corey Robinson and Will Fuller will likely get the most work on the outside. There’s vast potential in the receiving corps to go along with the inexperience. Expect at least one of the unproven options to have a much-improved season.

#NotreDame DE Sheldon Day on Isaac Rochell: “When he goes in the weight room, whatever you put on the rack, he’s throwing it up."

— Rachel Terlep (@eTruth_Irish) August 19, 2014

Sophomore Isaac Rochell has filled in for Williams as the strong-side defensive end. Players and coaches alike have raved about Rochell’s strength—junior Sheldon Day compared Rochell to former Irish defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt in that sense. The sophomore, however, will need to develop into a consistent option, especially with a true freshman, Andrew Trumbetti, starting opposite him. The defensive line is one of the biggest question marks of the Irish roster.

 

Starting Units Coming into Focus

Kelly has not announced a full depth chart, but the head coach did discuss some specific position battles and roles.

The offensive line has remained in flux throughout fall camp, but Kelly was ready to name the rotation, although he did say it remains subject to change. For now, the line features, from left to right, junior Ronnie Stanley, senior Matt Hegarty, senior Nick Martin, graduate student Christian Lombard and sophomore Steve Elmer. Sophomore Mike McGlinchey (tackle) and senior Conor Hanratty (guard) will be first off the bench, per Kelly.

It’s important for Notre Dame to finalize the starters along the line, as comfort and chemistry are key at the position. The line still figures to have some growing pains with new starters at new positions, but the ranks feature talent and versatility. It would be surprising if the offensive line was a major issue in 2014.

What is surprising is the rapid ascension of sophomore James Onwualu. As a true freshman wide receiver, he tallied two receptions for 34 yards while making an impact on special teams. The Saint Paul, Minnesota, native then switched to safety in the spring and quickly started working as the “Sam” outside linebacker in defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s scheme.

Now, Onwualu has been spotted with the first-team defense in each of Notre Dame’s last two practices open to the media, and Kelly confirmed he has risen up the depth chart.

“He cares so much,” Kelly said of Onwualu. “I mean, he's got so much pride that he spends hours just mastering his craft. He will not take a minute off if he doesn't know what to do. So that's what makes that kid a special player.”

It’s natural to be skeptical of Onwualu’s ability on game day, but Kelly pointed out Onwualu has begun with a strong knowledge base thanks to his brief time at safety. As an outside linebacker, if Onwualu can focus on just reading and reacting, he could perform well in the new role.

 

Youth and Tempo

So much is new and different when it comes to the 2014 Irish. From two new coordinators to new styles of play on both sides of the ball to loads of new faces, the Irish will be different this season.

Kelly made that clear even all the way back in January when he introduced VanGorder and discussed the offense with coordinator Mike Denbrock. Now, the unveiling is almost here.

“We have a lot of inexperienced players playing for us this year, and they'll get that opportunity playing the toughest schedule in the country,” Kelly said. “We will grow up quickly.

“We'll play faster on offense, we'll play faster on defense, and we'll all together be excited to watch this football team play and grow as the season progresses.”

It will be an exciting team to watch. The offense wants to push the tempo. The defense wants to be aggressive and dictate how the opposing offense plays. Young, athletic players are eager to make contributions.

But with these changes comes a heaping portion of uncertainty. How quickly will the young players develop? Will the defense be continually burned by its attacking mentality? And, of course, how will the academic investigation end up? When will there be a decision?

There are a lot of big-picture questions surrounding the Irish, making it difficult to pin down expectations for the season. We’ll stick to our most recent predictions for the Irish and peg them as an 8-4 team. Of course, a few breaks in the team's favor—players cleared to return or some growing pains bypassed—and Notre Dame might make a push for nine or 10 wins. For now, however, this looks like an entertaining, young and inexperienced team.

Start the countdown. Football is right around the corner.

 

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco on Twitter.

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Realistic Expectations for Oklahoma and Trevor Knight in 2014

Soon enough, the media circus will slow down, and actual football will begin for Oklahoma. Perhaps no Top 10 program has had more uncertainty since July. 

Here's the list of what's going on: Running back Joe Mixon, generally regarded as an impact freshman, has been suspended for the season after being charged with misdemeanor assault. Linebacker Frank Shannon may not play either because of a Title IX investigation into a sexual assault allegation (Oklahoma is trying to suspend him for a year). Ex-Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham is awaiting the results for a waiver that would allow him to play right away, as is backup quarterback Baker Mayfield

Even quarterback-turned-tight end Blake Bell is getting snaps at his old position. Guerin Emig of the Tulsa World relayed the scene from Thursday's practice on Twitter: 

Despite all that's happening in Norman, Oklahoma remains the favorite to win the Big 12, and quarterback Trevor Knight is easily the most intriguing player in the conference—besides Green-Beckham, that is. 

So, what can we realistically expect from Knight and the Sooners?

To put numbers to it, it's beyond reasonable that Knight could throw for 2,000 yards and rush for another 750. In eight games last season—not to be confused with eight full games—Knight ran for 445 yards. As a developing passer, he threw for 819 yards. 

Knight would have to account for 230 yards by himself to make that happen. He's more than capable of doing that. But he would also have to stay healthy, which remains his biggest concern and why his realistic number projections are on the conservative side. 

Even though running Knight will remain part of the offense, expect co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel to try to keep his quarterback upright. Oklahoma's skill players beyond receiver Sterling Shepard are largely inexperienced, so the fewer direct hits Knight can take, the better.

Yes, there will be times Knight has to make a play on his own to keep a drive, a game and maybe a season alive. But the more the rock can be distributed early, the better off this team will be later. 

Beyond the stat sheet, Knight has to show he's improved in his accuracy and decision-making in the passing game. The Sugar Bowl (348 passing yards and four touchdowns) provided a glimpse that he's capable of doing that, but can he keep it up? His performance in the spring game (5-of-14 with an interception) wasn't his best. 

More than anything, though, Knight has to become the leader of the offense. That, per Ryan Aber of The Oklahoman, "has helped him keep an even keel through the struggles of last regular season and in the aftermath of his Sugar Bowl coming-out party."

It's probably unfair to say Oklahoma will go as Knight goes, but the redshirt sophomore is an important piece of the team's playoff hopes. Stopping a legitimate dual-threat quarterback puts an added stress on defenses. If Knight takes that next step as a passer, he would become one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the Big 12. 

"We've known Trevor was going to be a great quarterback," Sooners offensive tackle Tyrus Thompson told Jake Trotter of ESPN.com. "It was just a matter of him showing everybody else that."

The good news is that Oklahoma isn't all Knight. The Sooners have as good a front seven as anyone in its conference, even without Shannon. Considering that three of the Sooners' five toughest games on paper—Texas in the Cotton Bowl, Kansas State, Baylor, at Texas Tech and Oklahoma State—are at home, the schedule is favorable as well. 

Barring injuries, anything less than 10 wins would be a disappointment. In Oklahoma's eyes, though, it's playoff or bust. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. 

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Florida Football: Depth Chart Analysis, Complete 2014 Preview and Predictions

The Gators are grateful to see the dawn of a new season. They can finally wipe away the mess that was 2013. Florida heads into the season with some new coaches, new starters and a schedule that would be tough for any team in the country. Let’s see how the team looks with the opener a week away.

 

Coaches

Florida has four new coaches on the staff and none is as important as offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. After leading Duke to an average of 32.8 points per game last season, Florida is hoping he can improve an offense that ranked 114th in the country in points scored. Roper will speed things up, spread the field and preach getting the ball out quickly. How much Florida improves from last season will be determined on the success of Roper’s offense.

Chris Leak is the new wide receivers coach after Joker Phillips resigned. Leak threw for more than 11,000 yards and 88 touchdowns in four seasons as Florida’s quarterback. Although Leak has no prior coaching experience, he's young enough where he can relate to the players. He also has a feel for what wide receivers should be doing and understands the relationship they should have with their quarterback. 

The other big coaching change was getting former USC offensive line coach Mike Summers. Summers has more than 30 years of experience and has had success at schools such as Kentucky and Louisville.

There’s a lot of pressure on this staff to succeed this season. Will Muschamp enters the year on the hot seat after a mediocre 22-16 record in his first three seasons. Florida has a veteran group of coaches and the new hires on offense have the potential to pay off in a big way.

 

What to Watch for on Offense 

With Roper now calling the shots, Florida will be a faster offense and likely a lot more productive. It will no longer be a slow-paced and predictable offense. The Gators will run the no-huddle, take far less time between snaps and simply try to wear down their opponent. Roper wants quarterback Jeff Driskel to get the ball out of his hands quicker and use his athleticism more than he’s done in past seasons.  

Florida will be a quick-tempo offense that spreads teams out and forces defenders to make tackles in space.

Jeff Driskel, QB—Driskel is the key to making this offense work. With 10 career interceptions, he’ll have to make better decisions and manage the game. This offense is perfect for somebody such as Driskel because it will allow him to make plays with his feet and take advantage of the short passes. If Driskel has a good grasp of this offense, Florida will be improved offensively.

Chaz Green, OL—Green is one of the better offensive linemen in the SEC when healthy. The problem is he missed all of last season with an injury. Green is great in pass protection, but he’s also athletic enough to be a key part in a successful rushing attack. With shaky quarterback play at times, Florida needs a reliable offensive line. Green provides stability on the right side.

 

What to Watch for on Defense

Last season, Florida finished with the eighth-best defense in college football. With seven starters returning, another top-10 defense certainly isn’t out of the question. The Gators strength will be their defensive line and pass rush, as 19 sacks last season just scratched the surface of this team’s potential. Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin is sure to get more aggressive with his play-calling and take a few more risks.

Defense wasn’t an issue for Florida. With the players returning, the Gators' D could be one of the best in college football.

Vernon Hargreaves III, CB—Hargreaves is one of the more irreplaceable football players in the country, as he’s probably the best cornerback. Last season, Hargreaves had 11 pass deflections and intercepted three balls. Those numbers would have been even better if quarterbacks dared to throw his way more often. The second-year corner can go toe-to-toe with any receiver in the country.

Dante Fowler, DL—Fowler is another key player on Florida’s defense who will lead the charge in pressuring the quarterback. Fowler finished last season with 3.5 sacks and 50 tackles, but he’s capable of so much more. His athleticism and quickness off the ball is scary. Don’t be surprised if Fowler has the best season of any defender in the SEC.

 

Injury News 

There were points last season when the injury report was lengthier than a Stephen King novel. For the most part, Florida has shaken the injury bug and heads into the season opener as healthy as a team can hope.

The biggest injury comes to Thomas Holley, who needed hip surgery after suffering a torn labrum. While you never want to see anybody get hurt, Holley is a true freshman and he’s a defensive lineman, an area where the Gators are already loaded with depth. Florida will be fine.

Hargreaves should also be ready to go for the season opener considering he participated in practice despite suffering a bone bruise early in camp.  

 

X-Factor

Florida’s X-factor will be wide receiver Andre Debose.

Debose has had a tough career at Florida, as he’s never fully fulfilled expectations as a top recruit, and he’s now coming off a torn ACL that kept him out last season. Entering his sixth year with the program, Debose has just 29 catches for 543 yards and four touchdowns.

Those numbers could change drastically in Roper’s offense. When healthy, Debose is one of the fastest players in the country and has that elite top-end speed that can stretch the field. Florida is desperate for playmakers at wide receiver and having a guy on the outside who can take the top off a defense would give the Gators a weapon they haven’t had in years.

Debose has the skill set to really thrive in this new offense. Unfortunately for Florida fans, they’ve been hearing that for over half a decade.

 

2014 Schedule

 

Make-or-Break Games

At Alabama—With three cupcake games to begin the season, this will be Florida’s measuring stick. The Alabama Crimson Tide will continue to be what they’ve been under head coach Nick Saban. Playing in Tuscaloosa just makes things that much more difficult. If the Gators can pull off the upset, a run at an SEC title wouldn't seem that far-fetched. 

Vs. Georgia—There’s a chance that the winner of this game makes it out of the SEC East. Florida has lost three straight meetings against the Bulldogs, and the last two were due to sloppy play at crucial points in the game. The Gators must regain control of this rivalry to make a strong statement to the rest of the teams in this conference. A victory over a talented Georgia team would get the job done.

At Florida State—The Seminoles have beaten the Gators in three of the last four meetings and have done so quite easily. If Florida is truly going to turn things around and make a run for the SEC title, this year’s rivalry could be the biggest it’s been in decades. Florida State is on a collision course for a playoff spot to defend its national championship. This may be the biggest make-or-break game for Florida this season if things go its way.  

 

Prediction

The Gators will finish the season with a 7-1 conference record and 10-2 record overall. Florida will have one of the top defenses in the country, which means the Gators just have to average anywhere from 21 to 24 points per game to really have a shot at pulling this off. Florida has a lot of favorable home games and seems to have adopted that Auburn-like mentality where it's the team against the world. That’s dangerous for its opponents.

If Florida can average three or more touchdowns per game, 10 wins won’t be a problem.

Fowler has a real shot to win the Chuck Bednarik Award. This is the season Fowler really takes his game to another level and sniffs double-digit sacks. Add those numbers to Florida’s surprising success and the award is his. Hargreaves may make a strong case for an award as well, but he's at a disadvantage with quarterbacks likely avoiding him at all costs. 

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Joshua McMillon to Alabama: Crimson Tide Land 4-Star LB Prospect

One of the top defensive recruits in the nation is officially off the market as linebacker Joshua McMillon has committed to Alabama, according to Riley Blevins of the Jackson Clarion Ledger:

The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Memphis native committed to Alabama Friday morning live on ESPN's Recruiting Nation. He's the No. 5 inside linebacker in the country, according to ESPN.

The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Memphis native committed to Alabama Friday morning live on ESPN's Recruiting Nation. He's the No. 5 inside linebacker in the country, according to ESPN.

McMillon is a four-star prospect from Memphis, Tennessee, per 247Sports. The site rates him as the No. 15 outside linebacker in the class of 2015, as well as the No. 216 overall player.

At 6'3" and 239 pounds with supreme athleticism, McMillon has been highly recruited for quite some time. He had his pick of the litter in terms of elite programs, particularly within the SEC, according to Yancy Porter of Scout.com:

Rather than making a rash decision, though, McMillon explored all his options. Per Tim Sullivan of the Detroit Free Press, McMillon was impressed with the situation that Alabama laid out for him in terms of immediate playing time and a scheme fit.

Coach Kirby Smart sat me down and went through the things they like about middle linebackers. My parents were in there with us. They have three positions I can play. They don't have much depth. They need help at the Mike and Will (positions). I could also play the Sam. They are recruiting 6-foot-2 and taller linebackers. They want guys who are 230 pounds and heavier who can move sideline to sideline.

As much as McMillon liked Alabama, he was also extremely complimentary of Ole Miss. Much like Bama, McMillon was under the impression that he had an opportunity to step in and play right away for the Rebels, according to Porter.

They think I have a chance to play as a freshman too. Their returning starter at middle linebacker is graduating and the guy behind him is a junior so I have a chance to get into the rotation as a freshman. They are trying to recruit a middle linebacker in this class that fits the mold they are looking for in the future. Whoever they sign at middle linebacker this year will be the guy in the future for that position. That's a big plus.

McMillon's strong feelings for multiple schools likely mean that he was somewhat torn. Now that he has finally settled on his next team, though, the focus shifts toward making the transition to the collegiate game.

Luckily, McMillon still has one more year of high school football to make further strides before moving on to college. He has been a dominant force in high school, but this final year will be extremely beneficial, particularly in terms of him getting his body college ready.

Based on a recent tweet, McMillon already has the positive attitude necessary to succeed in major college football:

That should go a long way toward making him a success. With that said, McMillon shouldn't set unattainable goals as a freshman.

He was spoken often about wanting to play right away, which is great, but he could also be setting himself up for disappointment. McMillon has to have the mindset of doing whatever is asked of him as a freshman even if it involves being a reserve player.

As long as McMillon comes in humble and ready to learn, he has all the tools necessary to be a great player. He also seems to be a good fit for the system he chose, so it is now up to him to live up to his immense potential.

 

Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter

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Auburn Football: Depth Chart Analysis, Complete 2014 Preview and Predictions

You know how the old saying goes: "Sometimes, it's better to be lucky than good."

There's no denying that luck was on Auburn's side on more than one occasion in 2013.

"The Miracle at Jordan-Hare" against Georgia was perhaps the luckiest Hail Mary play in college football history.

The Tigers were also lucky Alabama straight up missed a couple of early field goals and opened the door for Chris Davis to take another miss 109 yards for the most improbable ending in college football, no, sports history.

However, that worn-out adage doesn't apply to the Auburn Tigers, who are coming off the definition of a storybook season.

As they showed last season, it's better to be lucky and good.

The same team that won on back-to-back miracle finishes snapped a lengthy conference losing streak on a last-minute touchdown drive against Mississippi State, outscored Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M on the road and broke several school records set by legendary rushing attacks.

First-year head coach Gus Malzahn's return to the Plains marked a return to lightning-fast, high-scoring offense and an aggressive defense that usually found a way to make stops when it mattered the most. 

The two combined with an experienced special teams unit to grab an SEC Championship and a berth in the final BCS National Championship Game, where the Tigers were 13 seconds from the biggest prize. Auburn wasn't the best team in college football, but it became a really good one in the span of a few months.

So while it's hard to imagine two legendary strokes of good fortune happening again this season, this team shouldn't need them to get back into the SEC and national title picture.

There are definitely question marks surrounding Malzahn's program. NFL draft picks Tre Mason, Greg Robinson, Dee Ford and Jay Prosch are no longer on campus. Auburn's brutal schedule has the Tigers playing more preseason Top-25 teams than any other ranked squad, and only time will tell how much offseason issues and injuries affected the returning talent that has to play those tough matchups.

On the more positive side, Auburn returns a majority of its starters, including quarterback Nick Marshall and leading tackler Cassanova McKinzy. Both units had an entire offseason with the second-year coaching staff to fine-tune their skills, get a better grasp of their respective systems and welcome new playmakers who can make an immediate difference.

So while the lucky and good Auburn team from 2013 gave its fans a dream season, it wants more.

The Tigers are hoping to show this season that, ultimately, it's better to be better—13 seconds better.

 

Coaches

Malzahn might have lost a few behind-the-scenes faces from his support staff this offseason, but his entire on-field coaching staff is back for its second year on the Plains.

Keeping the 2013 coaching staff intact was important for Auburn this offseason on and off the field. The staff continued to develop current talent without a hitch and brought in new talent with another top-10 recruiting class.

The second-year head coach has a wealth of experience and talent around him, from 33-year collegiate coaching veteran Ellis Johnson to 31-year-old offensive protege Rhett Lashlee. Malzahn also has Rodney Garner, J.B. Grimes, Charlie Harbison and Melvin Smith, who each have over a decade of experience coaching at power-conference programs.

The younger coaches on Malzahn's staff also bring top-level recruiting prowess to the Tigers. Dameyune Craig, former Auburn quarterback and Florida State position coach, spent some time in the summer of 2013 on top of 247Sports' recruiter rankings, per AL.com's Joel A. Erickson. Lashlee and Tim Horton have joined Craig with a big offseason on the recruiting trail.

While other top schools in the SEC are implementing new coordinators and coaches this season, Auburn will have the advantage of having the exact same group that led the team to a conference championship.

 

What to Watch For on Offense

- The Feature Back vs. The Committee: Auburn lost a school record-breaking Heisman finalist in running back Tre Mason, but the nation's No. 1 rushing offense from a year ago still has a pair of senior backs with a good amount of experience. Both Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant have worked on developing their respective "smash and dash" role into more all-around styles this offseason.

The Tigers started the 2013 season with a running back-by-committee style before Mason took over—will one of the seniors step up and command a bulk of the carries after the first few games of the 2014 season?

- It's All About Balance: The Tigers ran the ball 72 percent of the time last season, and Malzahn talked about his desire to throw the ball more in 2014 before the 2013 season even ended.

Nick Marshall and Auburn had a limited playbook for most of 2013 but still found ways to beat up on opposing defenses. This season, with an entire year to work on Marshall's throwing mechanics and develop more chemistry with a receivers unit that did not lose a single player, look for the Tigers to still be run-first but also move those play-calling percentages toward an even split.

- The Youth Revolution: Although Auburn returns plenty of offensive starters this season, the coaching staff has made it clear this fall there will be several opportunities for new players to own major roles.

Outside of JUCO transfer D'haquille Williams—more on him later—the Tigers can choose from 5-star running back Roc Thomas, speedy slot receiver Stanton Truitt and massive offensive lineman Braden "Drago / The Hulk / The Terminator" Smith. Expect all three of these true freshmen to play this season for Auburn and start their path to becoming big-time players for the program. 

 

What to Watch For on Defense

- Somebody, Get to the Quarterback: The blow of Dee Ford's departure to the NFL was supposed to be eased by standout sophomore Carl Lawson, who earned major minutes as a true freshman on Auburn's defensive line.

But with Lawson out for an extended amount of time with an ACL injury and surgery from the spring, Garner is on the hunt for someone to become the main third-down pass-rusher this fall. Names mentioned to take over that role include sophomore Elijah Daniel, true freshman Raashed Kennion and, surprisingly enough, middle linebacker Cassanova McKinzy.

- Slowing Down the Passing Attack: It has been the constant thorn in Auburn's side for several years running: pass defense. Auburn lost two starters from a secondary that finished 102nd nationally in passing yards allowed per game.

Even with those departures, Auburn still has veteran leadership in Jonathon Mincy, Jermaine Whitehead and Robenson Therezie—if and when the latter is cleared to play from his ongoing "eligibility issues." Reinforcements have arrived in JUCO star Derrick Moncrief and several 4-star true freshmen, and the Tigers will hope they will help bring change to a secondary that must improve in 2014.

- Can Carlson Really Do It All?: This note affects both the offense and the defense because it's about Auburn's all-important and completely rebuilt special teams unit.

The Tigers will try to replace experienced starters Cody Parkey and Steven Clark with one redshirt freshman, Daniel Carlson, who won the kicker, punter and kickoff specialist job during the offseason. One of these positions contains plenty of pressure for a new starter, and now all eyes will be on the talented Carlson to take over three positions that have been important to Auburn's success in recent seasons.

 

Injury News

Carl Lawson's injury sent shockwaves throughout a defensive line that prides itself on heavy rotation. Lawson made an incredible impression on the SEC last season with some breakout performances, and the Tigers will now have to rely on someone else to step up in place of Lawson and the departed Ford.

Lawson and his coaches are aiming for a comeback toward the end of the season, but Auburn cannot rely on him to carve out a major role again this season.

But the Lawson injury leaves some hope for fans as he might return before the end of the season. That's not the case for another talented sophomore, left guard Alex Kozan.

He was such a vital part of Auburn's success along the offensive line last season, but an offseason back injury and surgery forced the Tigers to shift the starters a bit—right guard Chad Slade to left guard, right tackle Avery Young to right guard and former starter Patrick Miller back to right tackle.

Senior Brandon Fulse had Jay Prosch's job locked down at H-back, but the depth behind him took a massive hit with a pair of undisclosed injuries to Fulse's backups. Batten's injury will especially hurt as he was Prosch's backup all last season, which gave him a great amount of practice at the position.

Auburn will look to build depth with newcomers Chris Laye and Jakell Mitchell, so they should be fine if Fulse can avoid a long-term injury.

 

X-Factor

Dameyune Craig called new wide receiver D'haquille "Duke" Williams "our Jameis Winston" and "a once-in-a-lifetime player" weeks before he stepped on the field for his first practice at Auburn.

For an offense that is intent on throwing the ball more, there is no doubt the former No. 1 junior college player is the Tigers' X-factor this season.

Last season, most of Auburn's pass plays were either screens or deep balls to Sammie Coates, who seemed like the only target at times for quarterback Nick Marshall. This season, Marshall gets an all-around receiver in Williams who can torment defenses inside or outside.

"Duke’s role is get him the ball," Lashlee said earlier this month. "He’s a guy who needs the ball and plays well with the ball, but the thing I have been most impressed about with Duke is we really ask a lot of our receivers outside of catching footballs...he’s been exceptional like the other guys in that area."

Williams' arrival gives Marshall, who spent the offseason working on his accuracy issues, a new intermediate threat that he did not have last season. Another weapon for Marshall is ultimately another weapon for Malzahn and an offense that looked unstoppable at times with just one dimension.

 

2014 Schedule

 

Make or Break Games

- Kansas State: Auburn will reach unfamiliar territory in the schedule several times this season, including a rare SEC game to open the season and the program's first all-road "Amen Corner" of Georgia and Alabama games.

A trip to power-conference team Kansas State on a Thursday night in September will also be out of the ordinary for the Tigers, who will face their first test against a preseason-ranked opponent when they head to Manhattan. Bill Snyder's disciplined team will test Auburn's defense through the air with dangerous receiver Tyler Lockett, and a road collapse here would be such a huge early blow to the Tigers' playoff race.

- LSU: There's no way around it: LSU has won seven of the last nine Tiger Bowls, and no wins have come easy in this series for Auburn since 2002's 31-7 victory in Jordan-Hare Stadium. 

Auburn will be looking for revenge of 2013's lone regular-season loss and a crucial divisional victory against a Les Miles squad that might not be getting the proper credit it deserves. Sure, the Bayou Bengals have to replace several key offensive playmakers, but a veteran offensive line and defensive backfield should make this another hard-fought matchup between the two sets of big cats.

- Alabama: If Auburn drops one of the cross-divisional games to South Carolina or Georgia, the Tigers still have a good chance of getting back to Atlanta if they get back on the right track. However, it will be nearly impossible to win the conference championship again without a road victory at powerhouse rival Alabama.

The Crimson Tide have several question marks across its depth chart, but a strong base of players from No. 1 recruiting classes puts Alabama in a perfect position to reload once again. Auburn matched Alabama punch for punch last year—something that doesn't happen often to Nick Saban's team—and delivered a knockout blow no one saw coming. Nothing will top 2013's ending, but the stakes should be just as high for 2014's rematch in Tuscaloosa. 

 

Prediction

B/R's Michael Felder, Adam Kramer and Barrett Sallee all predicted Auburn to go 11-1 this year in the above video, and all three predicted completely different postseason fates for the Tigers.

I am continuing to stick with my original 11-1 prediction from May. With the returning talent and incredible potential on offense and the fire of an underappreciated and underrated defense, Auburn will be one of the best teams in college football this season.

However, I don't think any team in the country could survive a schedule as brutal as Auburn's without dropping at least one game. I see Georgia getting the best of Auburn again in Athens, but Malzahn's offense will stay one step ahead of Saban's defense at Bryant-Denny Stadium for the SEC West crown and a rematch with the Bulldogs in Atlanta.

I predict Nick Marshall will get an invite to New York City this year for the Heisman Trophy presentation—he won't win the award, but he will finish in the top three of voting. Reese Dismukes will get his hands on the Rimington Award as the nation's best center, while Cassanova McKinzy will be Auburn's best chance at a defensive award since Nick Fairley in 2010.

In Malzahn's second year as the head man, this Auburn team will show great improvement on both sides of the ball, shatter a few more school records and find a way into the inaugural College Football Playoff. 

And don't be surprised when luck has little to do with it.

 

Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAUAll quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.

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Tennessee Football: Depth Chart Analysis, Complete 2014 Preview and Predictions

Despite his preaching patience and all the youth and questions surrounding his team, Tennessee Volunteers head coach Butch Jones still expects to go bowling.

Never mind that the program hasn't reached the postseason since 2010. Even with 32 newcomers including many who will play significant roles, there are always high expectations at UT.

Jones has them, too.

He watched his first full crop of freshmen develop over the past few weeks. Perhaps the particularly surly mood he displayed can be translated into the belief that if the Vols play to their abilities, they could surprise.

Why else would he have told the Rotary Club of Knoxville on Tuesday: "When we go to a bowl game this year, we will have 14 college graduates on this year's team performing. That will be the most in the country."

Not if. When.

 

Coaches

This is the second full season for UT's entire coaching staff, and just the simple fact that there is some continuity for a change is huge.

For instance, this is the first time in any of the offensive linemen's careers that they've had the same position coach for consecutive seasons. From teaching methods to strength-and-conditioning aspects, that familiarity can't be oversold.

What else the Vols' unproven staff brings to the program is still yet to be determined. They've been through the rugged conference wars of one season but were outmanned.

Now that Jones has a full class in tow for his second season, UT fans will really begin to see the glimmers of how his schemes and concepts translate into the nation's toughest league.

Jones has re-energized the fanbase with his elite recruiting and program-pumping propaganda, but it remains to be seen whether he can win in the SEC. While boosting the talent will have a direct, immediate effect, winning the way the Vols want to win will take time.

Jancek and Bajakian—and much of the staff, for that matter—have not yet proven they've got the coaching chops for the SEC. A 5-7 season a year ago isn't a fair barometer due to the roster in shambles they inherited, but it's the only measuring stick thus far.

This staff won at Central Michigan in time. It won at Cincinnati. If they stay together, the continuity and work they're doing on the recruiting trail could pay huge dividends.

 

What to Watch For on Offense

A season ago, the Vols struggled to implement Bajakian's "power-spread" offense with the personnel already on the roster. From a heavy offensive line used to running man-blocking concepts instead of zone to a lack of speed at skill positions, it was a scheme mismatch.

Now the Vols have taken steps toward addressing their dearth of playmakers with some electrifying newcomers. Featuring a revamped line, UT should be more athletic (though inexperienced) in the trenches as well.

It's a work in progress, but there is no reason the Vols shouldn't improve on a unit ranked 12th in total offense a season ago. If the line gives quarterback Justin Worley time to get the ball to his talented targets, UT could enjoy an offensive resurgence.

Worley is the key to everything.

He struggled in 2013, completing 55.6 percent of his passes for 1,239 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions in eight games. Even during his two best performances (versus Georgia and South Carolina) he had mediocre numbers.

That isn't going to cut it this year. If the 6'4", 230-pound South Carolina native is able to stay in the pocket, he has to take command of the offense, as task which has eluded him thus far in his career.

Worley was sharp in the spring finale and after a sluggish start to camp has impressed many during the past two weeks. GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required) said of Worley: "He also looks much better than he ever has from a physical standpoint, and he’s carrying himself like an SEC quarterback in every other way imaginable."

Considering neither Nathan Peterman nor Joshua Dobbs pressured Worley in the quarterback race this fall, his health is essential to the team's success. If he goes down, there will be much more uncertainty surrounding the position.

If his timing and tempo are improved, Worley can be the game manager UT needs, and for the Vols' sake, the more downfield plays he can produce, the better.

Many of those throws are going to target sophomore receiver Marquez North. A season ago, the 6'4", 221-pound receiver was UT's only downfield threat. Though he battled through injuries and was thrust into action from day one, he still finished with 38 catches for a team-best 496 yards and one touchdown.

This year, the Vols need North to take the next step toward stardom. He's the most talented in a stable full of elite (albeit unproven) potential playmakers. Worley and the Vols need a go-to player in crucial moments, which has to be North's role.

Finally, none of the weaponry matters if Worley has minimal time to throw the football.

Everybody who has read anything about UT this offseason knows the Vols return zero starters on the offensive line, but that doesn't mean they're going to be terrible. The group has shown some promise this fall, even if it's a unit thrown together with baling wire and twine.

A prime example of that is fifth-year senior and former walk-on Jacob Gilliam. After a career on the scout team, Gilliam emerged this spring as he surged ahead of JUCO transfer Dontavius Blair at the all-important left tackle position.

Rather than just lighting a fire under Blair, this fall proved Gilliam was legit. After earning a scholarship this May, the hometown feel-good story has held that job with a strong camp.

He'll be the Game 1 starter and has been one of UT's most consistent linemen. If that makes you nervous that UT is starting a walk-on, it's understandable. But Gilliam deserves the opportunity on his own merits, per GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required).

Strong left tackle play is the key to any good offensive line, so the microscope is firmly placed on Gilliam.

 

What to Watch For on Defense

Coming up with a depth chart for Tennessee's defense is as easy as quantum physics.

The Vols are going to be so versatile and multiple, there is no certainty what personnel will make up its formations from a down-to-down basis, much less game-to-game.

That's good news for Jancek. While UT is going to take plenty of lumps with a freshman-laden unit that is still at least one more recruiting class away from being strong, the Vols defense is so much faster than a season ago.

There is also better depth at all positions, even if it's unproven depth.

For instance, outside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin has enjoyed a great fall and is in line to start. But in pass-rushing situations, Chris Weatherd may be on the field. In nickel sets that are definite passing downs, the coverage skills of freshman duo Dillon Bates and Elliott Berry could be utilized.

Jancek has options—something that didn't exist a year ago.

While the line remains a major concern, the Vols have enough talented players to be much more versatile at important positions such as defensive end and nickelback.

The Vols will go as Curt Maggitt goes. He may be the most important player on the entire team. 

UT is a much better defense with the 6'3", 251-pound redshirt junior defensive end on the field. Though he hasn't played a live snap since November 2012, Maggitt is the unequivocal team leader, and the Vols desperately need him.

When he's healthy, he's a game-changer. The problem is he hasn't been able to stay on the field. An ankle injury has sidelined Maggitt for much of camp, and UT is being extra cautious with him. If he can't stay healthy, a worrisome defensive line situation gets much bleaker.

With the Vols playing much more nickel this season, they've called on senior cornerback Justin Coleman to fortify a position that was brutal a season ago: nickelback.

The 5'10", 188-pound defensive back has never really performed up to expectations at boundary corner, but after a full offseason of learning nickel, Coleman's physicality and tackling ability should benefit his move closer to the center of the field.

That spot is incredibly important to UT's defense, and Coleman has shone this fall. Considering nickelback was a revolving door that led to countless big plays in 2013, Coleman has the chance to end his Tennessee career as a key player.

So many new names checker the depth chart for the Vols, but one steady, constant force in the center of that defense is senior middle linebacker A.J. Johnson.

The 6'2", 245-pound star bypassed the NFL to return to Knoxville for his senior season and is the anchor around which the entire unit will be built. His 324 career tackles is evidence that he has a nose for the football, even if he hasn't made as many splash plays as he would like.

With more talent and speed around him than at any time in his college career, the stage is set for Johnson to excel.

If he can show he is improved in his lateral game and coverage skills, he'll surge up NFL draft boards, and UT's defense will be vastly improved.

 

Injury News

The Vols have stayed relatively healthy for the most part since the start of camp.

Neither Cody Blanc nor Charles Mosley were going to factor that much into the 2014 team, so the impact of their losses is minimal.

The other players on the list are a little more pressing, especially Maggitt and Saulsberry. Both defensive linemen have a history of injuries, but both are being relied on in a big way this season.

Unlike last year, the Vols have depth to soften the blow, but a loss of Maggitt's elite playmaking potential could be especially catastrophic to the defense. He returned to the field Thursday after missing a week of practice, which is huge news for UT.

Saulsberry has been slow to shake off the rust from missing most of last year and all of spring drills, but he has the size and athleticism to eventually start at UT's thinnest position of defensive tackle. He needs to return soon not only for depth purposes but because his ceiling is as high as any DT on the Vols' roster.

 

X-Factor

Freshman running back Jalen Hurd is the missing link to Tennessee's offensive turnaround.

The 6'3", 227-pound heavily recruited running back from Hendersonville, Tennessee proved early as a midterm enrollee that he commanded immediate playing time. He did the same throughout fall camp.

Blessed with superior size and dynamic speed, Hurd has the potential to be the game-breaking talent UT hasn't had in the offensive backfield since Travis Stephens. Hurd is a physical freak who is a threat to score every time he touches the football.

He has heard the questions about his height, and a voice from the Southern Cal War Room on national signing day was overheard saying Hurd was "soft", per KnoxBlogs.com. Hurd is different, but "different" also describes the next-level potential he has.

Running backs coach Robert Gillespie told The Tennessean's David Climer: "He's a focused kid. He's not a guy that feels like he has to fit in the crowd. He's not a follower. He has a different bounce to him, which is good. I think anybody that wants to be great isn't afraid to be different."

Even though he has the open-field wheels to run away from defenders, he has every-down potential to secure the tough yards, too.

Senior Marlin Lane is in line to start, but in an era where multiple running backs are a necessity, Hurd will receive plenty of touches. With proper blocking, he'll show quickly that the Vols simply can't afford to keep him on the sideline.

 

Make-or-Break Games

Tennessee's schedule is so difficult this season; very few games are certainties. But four in particular are pivotal.

 

Utah State 

Dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Chuckie Keeton is enough to make most teams shudder, especially one like UT that has struggled against dual-threat quarterbacks recently.

Throw in the fact that the Aggies led the Mountain West Conference in total defense last year, and that looks like a tall, early test for UT's youngsters.

Athlete-for-athlete, USU shouldn't be able to hang with the Vols, but Keeton could be a great equalizer. It's essential Tennessee takes care of business early to have a successful season. If UT slips it, it'll be a long season.

 

Florida 

Tennessee hasn't beaten the Gators since Ron Zook roamed the sideline all the way back in 2004. That's nine years of frustrating futility.

Even during their poor 2013 season, the Gators handled the Vols by two touchdowns. This year, UF comes to Knoxville with its coach Will Muschamp on the hot seat and tons of offensive question marks.

It's tough to predict a UT win when it hasn't happened in so long, but if the Vols get this one, it would give them a ton of momentum heading into a grueling midseason stretch. It also would go a long way in making them bowl-eligible, considering that's a game few pundits are picking UT to win.

 

Missouri 

A season ago, Maty Mauk and the Tigers' able stable of star offensive skill players demoralized UT 31-3 in Columbia. That night, the programs looked extremely far apart.

But Mizzou has lost most of its playmakers on both sides of the football, and the Vols have upgraded their team speed considerably—the team's greatest weakness from a season ago.

The game will be much closer than it was in 2013, but can the Vols break through for a win? If they don't get this one or Florida, making a bowl is going to be an uphill battle.

 

Vanderbilt 

The Commodores' winning streak over UT has reached two games, which is difficult for every Vols fan to stomach.

But James Franklin is gone. Derek Mason is the new coach in Nashville, and while he has some talent left over from his predecessor's regime, there are numerous holes (like quarterback) and question marks (such as transitioning to a 3-4 defensive base). 

Last season, VU knocked Tennessee out of a bowl game with a controversial win in Knoxville that featured a late overturned ball spot. This year, that game could have the same meaning.

 

Prediction: 6-6, 3-5 SEC

When everything is said and done, Tennessee will do enough to make a bowl game. There's too much talent on the roster, even if it's young.

Even though they'll go into the final three games winless in the conference, the Vols will beat Mizzou, Kentucky and Vanderbilt to close the season and secure a lower-tier bowl berth. A bowl victory will give Jones his first winning season on Rocky Top and be a major catalyst for the future.

Johnson will be an All-SEC linebacker, but he won't be a first-team All-American. North also will receive all-conference honors, as will Cameron Sutton.

Hurd, tight end Ethan Wolf, guard Jashon Robertson and defensive end Derek Barnett are all going to garner freshman All-SEC awards, and a firm foundation will be built for Jones' program.

 

All recruiting rankings and statistics courtesy of 247Sports composite rankings. All statistics gathered from CFBStats.com. All observations were gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter here:

 

@Brad_Shepard

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Ohio State Football: 3 Players Who Must Step Up After Braxton Miller's Injury

In the wake of Braxton Miller's season-ending shoulder injury, Urban Meyer and the Ohio State football team are hoping to regroup quickly to gear up for another Big Ten and national title run.

For that to happen, though, a number of Buckeyes must step up to fill the void created by Miller's absence. 

Speaking on ESPN's Mike and Mike radio show (h/t/ The Columbus Dispatch), Meyer said that Miller generated 100 yards of offense on his own—production that Ohio State needs from other players.

That will be easier as the Buckeyes reshape their offense. Meyer wants new quarterback J.T. Barrett to be more of a distributor, a la former backup Kenny Guiton, to take advantage of Ohio State's many offensive weapons.

"I thought Kenny Guiton was one of the best I've been around as far as getting the ball out quickly and distributing to playmakers and letting them run with the ball, let them make plays," Meyer said, according to Ari Wasserman of The Plain Dealer. "That's what my initial evaluation of J.T. is, he's very good at that."

Who must step up to help J.T. Barrett in Miller's absence? 

 

Jeff Heuerman

Tight end Jeff Heuerman had an impressive 2013 season, registering 26 receptions, 466 receiving yards and four touchdowns. He emerged as an indispensable part of Ohio State's passing attack down the stretch, piling up 327 receiving yards and three touchdowns in the Buckeyes' final six games. 

Ohio State needs Heuerman to maintain that momentum.

The 6'5", 255-pound pass-catcher thrived just as the Buckeyes' passing attack began to falter last year. Heuerman became a valuable safety valve, and Meyer anticipates a big year for the senior.

"He’s a real weapon, and three years ago he wasn’t," Meyer said of Heuerman, according to Tim May of The Columbus Dispatch. “He’s really a good player now, and we’ve got to take advantage of that.”

If Heuerman can be a consistent threat in the middle of the field, it would open things up for Ohio State's speed on the perimeter.

Speaking of...

 

Dontre Wilson

With the departure of leading receiver Corey Brown, Meyer and the coaching staff challenged Dontre Wilson to take charge this spring and become the playmaker they need on offense.

Wilson responded in a big way, securing the starting H-Back spot last March.

Commonly referred to as the "Percy Harvin position," Wilson will line up all over the field as the Buckeyes try to attack the weakness of a defense. Meyer apparently wants to expand Wilson's role this year, and with Miller out, he'll be relying on him heavily for the big plays.

"I’m starting at the H, which is the most prolific position in our offense besides running back and quarterback," Wilson said, according to Kyle Rowland of Eleven Warriors. "I’m getting a lot more touches and more involved in the game.”

Wilson can take a lot of pressure off of Barrett—and the offense as a whole—if he thrives is his new position. 

 

Ezekiel Elliott

With Miller and running back Carlos Hyde in the backfield, Ohio State had one of the most lethal rushing attacks in the country last year.

Tasked with replacing those two dynamic playmakers, Meyer needs running back Ezekiel Elliott to build off a promising freshman campaign.

Playing in just half of Ohio State's 14 games, Elliott rushed for 262 yards and two touchdowns on just 30 carries, averaging 8.7 yards per rush. He showcased the blend of strength and speed that made Hyde such a devastatingly productive ball-carrier in Meyer's spread offense.

He just needs to stay healthy. 

Elliott fractured his wrist during the Buckeyes' first week of fall camp, but after minor surgery, he has been cleared to return to practice. The former 4-star standout is expected to start alongside Barrett in the backfield, and if he's good to go for the season opener against Navy next Saturday, Ohio State's offense will be much more dangerous.

 

All recruiting information via 247Sports. All stats via NCAA.com.

David Regimbal covers Ohio State football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412.

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USC Football: Depth Chart Analysis, Complete 2014 Preview and Predictions

To recapture the glory of its teams of the 2000s, USC turns to a coach who helped make the last decade a success: Steve Sarkisian.

The Trojans' new head coach was USC's quarterbacks coach from 2001 through 2006 with a one-year hiatus in 2004. He then doubled as offensive coordinator in 2007 and 2008. 

"After being here as an assistant coach for seven years with some tremendous experiences, to now be back as a head coach, it's humbling," Sarkisian said at last month's Pac-12 media days. "When you start thinking about John McKay and John Robinson and Pete Carroll, and to think that you're in that position now...I'm humbled by it, but also [a job] that I'm proud [to have]."

In his return to Heritage Hall, Sarkisian aims to restore the standard set by the Trojans teams he assisted. The conference landscape is much different now than when Sarksian left for the head coaching position at Washington, however. 

Oregon and Stanford moved to the head of the Pac-12 after USC lost former head coach Pete Carroll to the NFL and the NCAA levied substantial sanctions on the Trojans. The conference also added a bevy of new head coaches to help make it arguably the most top-to-bottom competitive league in the nation. 

To keep up, Sarkisian is tweaking the Trojans' offensive scheme. He's also introducing an array of first-year contributors from USC's highly ranked 2014 recruiting class, ready to make an immediate impact in the program's pursuit of its first championship since Sarkisian's last season there. 

 

Coaches

Sarkisian brings a largely new staff to USC in his first year. Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Clay Helton and wide receivers coach Tee Martin are the lone holdovers from the core group.

Justin Wilcox established himself as one of the conference's premier defensive coordinators in two seasons at Washington, transforming a porous defense into one of the Pac-12's best.

New assistant head coach and running backs coach Johnny Nansen was with Sarkisian all five seasons at Washington. In 2013, Nansen worked with running back Bishop Sankey in his 1,870-yard, 20-touchdown campaign.

A completely new addition is offensive line coach Tim Drevno. As an assistant to Jim Harbaugh, Drevno helped the San Francisco 49ers to NFL playoff appearances in each of the last three seasons and a Super Bowl appearance in 2013.

 

What to Watch for on Offense 

Sarkisian's introduction of a hurry-up, no-huddle scheme dominated offseason chatter. The new system marks a dramatic departure for USC, which has long been associated with a particular brand of pro-style football.

Of course, the hurry-up was a departure for Sarkisian at one point too. Last September, he reminisced on current Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin visiting Washington while Sumlin held the same position at Houston.

"At the time, I didn’t think we were ready from a depth standpoint," he added. "I held onto some of [Sumlin's] thoughts and reason." 

Despite his influence, don't anticipate USC's hurry-up offense to look much like Sumlin's at Texas A&M. The power-football principles that long defined the Trojans will remain in place, beginning with a potent run game.  

A three-man running back corps of Javorius "Buck" Allen, Justin Davis and Tre Madden gives USC one of the most talented and versatile backfields in the nation.  

Allen and Madden were the No. 1 back at different points in 2013, each going for more than 700 yards. Allen filled the primary ball-carrying role midway through the season after Madden sustained a hamstring injury, and he capitalized with 14 rushing touchdowns on the campaign.

Don't overlook the speedy and explosive Davis, however. The sophomore is fast establishing himself as a potential No. 1 option with an impressive fall camp.

The Trojans' multifaceted run game will help set the table for quarterback Cody Kessler, entering his second season as the starter.

After a shaky start to 2013, in which he initially shared snaps with the since-transferred Max Wittek, Kessler flourished late in the season. Aiding in his late-season development was his connection with wide receiver Nelson Agholor, which produced more than 900 yards and six touchdowns.

Agholor enters the 2014 season as one of the most celebrated wideouts in the Pac-12. His breakaway speed and electrifying moves power the USC passing attack.

 

What to Watch for on Defense

Wilcox inherited a defense at Washington that was among the nation's worst. In the Huskies' final game before Wilcox's arrival, the 2011 Alamo Bowl, they surrendered 67 points to Baylor. 

However, in just one season, Washington shaved 11.7 points per game off its average. By year two, the Huskies were another 1.4 points per game better. Thanks to Wilcox's efforts, the defense he leaves behind is one of the stingiest in the Pac-12.

At USC, Wilcox inherits one of the premier defenses in the Pac-12, if not the nation. Behind preseason All-American defensive lineman Leonard Williams, the Trojans start with a talented and aggressive front seven.

Wilcox is implementing a 3-4 base scheme, a slight adjustment from his predecessor, Clancy Pendergast, and the 52 formation. 

Expect aggressive pursuit of the quarterback from Wilcox's defense.

Last season under his direction, Washington recorded 41 sacks. USC could see similar production with Williams and Antwaun Woods commanding attention at the line and linebackers J.R. Tavai and Scott Felix blitzing off the edge.

The Trojans secondary is coming together, as well. Sarkisian lavished praised on the group last month at Pac-12 media days, in particular redshirt freshman Chris Hawkins.

Hawkins is living up to the billing with an impressive camp.

Meanwhile, one hallmark of Wilcox's scheme in his time at Washington was experimenting with players at different positions. He moved safety Shaq Thompson to linebacker, and Thompson flourished.

Wilcox is testing a similar move with sophomore Su'a Cravens. Cravens is too valuable at safety to play linebacker full time, but he could see time at both positions this season.

"I'm cool with doing whatever the team needs me to do," Cravens told Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times 

 

Injury News 

USC went into fall camp without defensive lineman Kenny Bigelow, who tore his ACL in July. The Trojans also lost linebacker Jabari Ruffin for the year to a knee injury.

Ruffin was competing for a spot in the starting rotation.

With just 67 scholarship players at the start of camp, any loss is a tremendous negative. However, USC is built to weather injuries in its defensive front seven more than at other spots on the roster. Of course, that's contingent on keeping the rest of the position healthy.

Williams and Woods have both missed time in fall camp, though both are expected back for Week 1.  

 

X- factor

An influx of new talent is going to be critical to USC's success in 2014. Of the new additions, none were more hyped than the 5-star duo of Adoree' Jackson and John "JuJu" Smith.

Smith will provide depth and a playmaking presence in the Trojans wide receiving corps.

Smith's transition into the lineup is likely not a surprise. However, fellow newcomer Ajene Harris has turned heads with his showing in preparation for the start of the season.

Just a 2-star prospect out of Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, Harris' fall camp is a revelation.

He told Lindsey Thiry of the Los Angeles Times that Agholor has been key in his progression.

"He helped with all my routes and just catching and the playbook. Learning from him is big," Harris said.

The biggest potential impact from the Trojans' 2014 signing class might come from offensive lineman Toa Lobendahn. The 4-star prospect worked his way into a prominent role during spring practices, and his fall camp could solidify him as an invaluable part of the offensive line.

USC will need every bit of offensive line support it can muster. Depth along the front five vexed USC at times last season, and it was evident in the Trojans' 34 surrendered sacks.  

 

2014 Schedule 

 

Make-or-Break Games

The tone for Sarkisian's first season is set early when, in Week 2, the Trojans travel to Stanford to face the two-time defending Pac-12 champion. 

Last season's 20-17 upset of Stanford was perhaps the definitive game in USC's 7-2 finish. The win also snapped a four-game losing skid to the Cardinal. 

Consecutive weekends in early October also promise to test the Trojans' Pac-12 title credentials. On Oct. 4, Arizona State visits the Coliseum.

The Sun Devils have not won there since 1999. However, the reigning Pac-12 South champions scored 62 points, tied for the most ever allowed by a USC defense, when the Trojans visited Tempe, Arizona, last September.

The following Saturday, USC heads to Tucson to face Arizona. Both the Sun Devils and Wildcats run uptempo offenses with a zone-read emphasis. Such systems have given the Trojans defense problems in recent years.

Should USC emerge from the first eight games in its challenging conference slate relatively unscathed, the annual rivalry showdown with UCLA could be for a place in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

The Bruins have taken the last two in the series, and they enter this season favorites to win the Pac-12 South. The rivalry could take on added significance in 2014.  

 

New Uniforms

USC's look is among the iconic in college football, and little about that will change in 2014. Images of a slightly shinier, chrome helmet with a red facemask surfaced in July.

Scott Wolf of the Los Angeles Daily News reported the new helmets might not debut until Sept. 27.   

Nevertheless, the program has had some fun teasing the idea in the offseason. Sarkisian joked about glow-in-the-dark uniforms at Pac-12 media days. 

USC had some more fun with uniforms at Pac-12 media days. Photos of an all-white helmet with a silver logo emblazoned on the side surfaced on social media, causing a minor uproar. 

Of course, the Trojans are not wearing this helmet in 2014, or any other season. The Pac-12 lined the walkway into the theater at Paramount Studios with an all-white helmet for each of the conference's members. 

 

Prediction: 9-3 overall, 6-3 Pac-12

Sarkisian's first season is a challenging one. The impact of the NCAA sanctions still lingers over the program, as the Trojans enter the season with fewer than 70 scholarship players among their ranks. 

USC plays a typically demanding nonconference schedule, and this season's Pac-12 may be the deepest in history. The Trojans boast one of the conference's best starting lineups on both sides of the ball. Williams is a contender for the Bronko Nagurski Award, given to the nation's premier defensive player.

Should the Trojans get the right breaks and compete for the conference championship, Agholor and Allen are potential Heisman Trophy candidates.

But USC will spend much of the season just one injury away from drastically altering its finish. Because of the team's depth issues, a key injury means the difference between competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff and falling short.

The Trojans are probably a year away from returning to the peak of the Pac-12.

 

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics compiled via CFBstats.com. Recruiting rankings and information culled from 247Sports.com composite scores. 

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USC Football: Depth Chart Analysis, Complete 2014 Preview and Predictions

To recapture the glory of its teams of the 2000s, USC turns to a coach who helped make the last decade a success: Steve Sarkisian . The Trojans' new head coach was USC's quarterbacks coach from 2001 through 2006 with a one-year hiatus in 2004...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

College Football 2014: Who Is the Most Explosive Player Heading into the Season?

Jadeveon Clowney, Sammy Watkins, Johnny Manziel and other polarizing athletes may have already advanced from the collegiate level to the NFL, but fans are now ready to track the next crop of superstars.

Watch as B/R highlights athletes who will command the nation's attention this season.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Georgia Locking Down Top Homegrown Talent in 2015 Recruiting Class

Georgia’s commitment spree last week did more than just add to the Bulldogs' already-loaded 2015 class. 

By landing homegrown standouts in 5-star defensive tackle Trent Thompson, 4-star receiver Jayson Stanley and 4-star defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter in a five-day span, Mark Richt struck a blow against rivals aiming to poach top talent from the Peach State.

With 10 of the ‘Dawgs 20 commitments being in-state products—including five of the state’s Top 15 players—the movement to keep top prospects in-state is starting to gain traction among the elite talents in the state of Georgia. 

Last week’s additions are a prime example as Thompson, Stanley and Ledbetter are all ranked in 247Sports' national Top 247.

One of the biggest reasons for the ‘Dawgs resurgence in their home turf is the new coaches Richt added to his staff in the offseason.  

Octavia Jones, who coaches Thompson at Albany’s Westover High School, said new defensive assistants Jeremy Pruitt and Tracy Rocker made a strong first impression on him. In particular, Pruitt—who began his coaching career at Hoover (Ala.) High School—used his background in the high school ranks to click with coaches across the state.

“When I first met them (new defensive coaches), we had some brief conversations about keeping the talent in-state,” Jones said. “They wanted him (Thompson) to come there and help build something special with the other in-state guys they are recruiting.”

The Bulldogs staff has been as aggressive as they have been creative.

For example, as Michael Carvell of the AJC described, Thompson was one of a handful of in-state recruits to receive special hand-drawn portraits of themselves with jerseys bearing half of their high school uniforms on one side and the other half bearing the Bulldogs' game-day threads. 

Their pitch has even become a hit on social media, with assistants such as ace recruiter and running backs coach Bryan McClendon leading the charge and making hashtags such as #CommitToTheG and #fam15.

According to Jones, part of the allure of staying home for Thompson was to continue the relationships he had built with fellow in-state stars and Georgia commits such as Natrez Patrick and Chauncey Rivers. In joining forces and heading to Athens, the group’s motivation is simple: help Georgia get over the hump in the SEC and bring home the school’s first national title since 1980.

In past years, schools such as Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, South Carolina and Tennessee have made a habit of coming into the state and swiping stud recruits.

With Richt adding assistants such as Pruitt and Rocker who are proven recruiters with championship pedigree, he’s already taken the first step toward preventing key in-state targets from leaving the state.

“I think he’s (Richt) got the key ingredients to win a championship because he’s built a championship staff,” Jones said. “That starts with bringing in great recruiters. That’s what these guys have done by focusing on bringing in the top guys in-state.”

  

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

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What to Expect from Jameis Winston in Week 1 Against Oklahoma State

With a Heisman Trophy on his bookshelf, 14 wins under his belt and a crystal football in the athletic complex, it's safe to say Jameis Winston's first year as the starting quarterback for the Florida State Seminoles went pretty well.

Heading into the 2014 season, the question facing Winston now becomes, what will he do for an encore?

The 'Noles head to Arlington, Texas, on opening weekend to take on Oklahoma State in the Cowboys Classic in Jerry World, with all eyes on Winston and his quest to repeat as the champ and the Heisman Trophy winner.

So what should you expect from Winston against the 'Pokes?

 

Different Verse, Same as the First

Winston had no problems picking apart opposing defenses last year, throwing for 4,057 yards and 40 touchdowns as a freshman while, more times than not, taking a seat on the bench or putting it in cruise control late in games in which the 'Noles were up big.

It won't be as easy this year, but he'll make it look easy in the opener.

Oklahoma State returns just one starter in its secondary—junior Kevin Peterson—who takes over as the leader of that secondary after the departure of Justin Gilbert and his 12 career interceptions. Ashton Lampkin will join him in a more prominent role

Two new starters will also be present at safety, with Larry Stephens, Jordan Sterns, Deric Robertson and Tre Flowers providing options for head coach Mike Gundy.

Three fresh faces in the secondary going up against Winston, who still has his favorite receiver, Rashad Greene, from last year's squad?

Simply put, Oklahoma State's secondary resembles a hanging curveball to a Major League Baseball slugger. It's right there for the taking for Winston. Expect him to knock it out of the park.

 

Dual Threat? Not So Much

Winston has dual-threat capabilities, but he's much more of a pro-style passer than he is a true threat on the ground. He's fast in a straight line but isn't quick like Johnny Manziel, and it takes a little while for him to get going at full speed.

Those attributes won't be on display in the opener.

Florida State needs to develop some wide receivers behind Greene and needs to establish Karlos Williams as an every-down back now that James Wilder and Devonta Freeman are gone, which means Winston's chances on the ground will be limited to scrambles and nothing more.

Will he rush for more than the 219 yards he had a year ago? Probably, but that will come later in the season after the new pieces of the offensive puzzle are in place and in a groove.

 

Control and Poise

The last time we saw Winston in game action, he was leading Florida State downfield in the closing seconds of the 2014 BCS National Championship Game to cap off the comeback win over Auburn.

Prior to that point, though, Winston was clearly rattled by an average-at-best Auburn defense and perhaps the big stage. Oklahoma State probably can't even boast an average-at-best defense, but the stage at Jerry World can be replicated.

It won't be an issue for Winston.

Another offseason in the offense means more control for the redshirt sophomore and more knowledge of what's coming his way. 

Winston's head didn't spin much as a redshirt freshman, but he still had to learn the ropes. That experience will benefit him in 2014, when the pressure of repeating will be an added challenge to Winston's new role as a veteran on the FSU roster.

 

Stat Projection

Considering the unfair bar that's set for reigning Heisman Trophy winners and the quarterback power elsewhere in college football, Winston will probably have to throw for 10,000 yards to earn another Heisman. He will, however, set a nice tone for his campaign in the opener with a big win over the Cowboys.

Final stat projection: a completion percentage of 68 percent, 310 passing yards, four passing touchdowns, zero interceptions, 10.1 yards per attempt and 10 rushing yards.

Not a bad encore.

 

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.

 


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Is Jake Coker the Big Arm Alabama's Been Missing Under Saban?

MOBILE, Ala. — How many times has the question been asked, “What would Alabama do with a Sam Bradford or Andrew Luck or Teddy Bridgewater or some other first-round talent at quarterback?”

The Crimson Tide under Nick Saban have had first-round picks at nearly every position but not the most important one. What if 'Bama joined the modern age of the game and could really throw the ball for a change?

We are about to find out if Jake Coker is the guy who is going to enable the Tide to do that.

Alabama plays the essence of complementary football, with the offense, defense and special teams working hand in hand. But what if Coker can elevate Alabama's passing game and make it as formidable as Bobby Petrino’s at Louisville or Jimbo Fisher’s at Florida State?

Judging from a pass-heavy Aug. 16 scrimmage, Coker, the transfer from Florida State, is not there yet. He was not Bradford, Luck or Bridgewater. He was just a new quarterback trying to learn a playbook in three weeks and find his way with a new set of receivers nine months after undergoing serious knee surgery (meniscus).

It is a daunting task, and Coker scuffled, according to various people who witnessed the closed scrimmage.

In the scrimmage, Blake Sims, a fifth-year senior, completed more passes than Coker and looked more comfortable in the competition for the starting job. Coker threw a superb deep ball early in the scrimmage for a touchdown to Kenyan Drake, but he struggled mightily after that or looked like he was struggling because of dropped balls and some defensive pressure.

After a string of strong practices in the week leading up to the scrimmage where he appeared to seize the job, Coker fell back into a tie.

The scrimmage aside, those who have seen Coker’s skill set are convinced he is going to be the transcendent Alabama quarterback, the big arm the Tide have won big without for seven years under Saban.

“I will not be surprised if Coke-boy is in the middle of the Heisman thing before the season is over. He’s my guy, will talk about Coke-boy all day,” said former Florida State running back Devonta Freeman. “If Jameis Winston is a first-round pick of the NFL, then Jake is a first-round pick. If they came out next year, they would be the top two quarterbacks. I tell you no lie.”

 

Could Share Starting Job

Coker, for now, is not the obvious starter for the Tide’s Aug. 30 opener in the Georgia Dome against West Virginia. He got frustrated in the scripted, pass-heavy scrimmage on Aug. 16, and that is a no-no in the Saban structure.

In a practice a few days later, throwing with the other quarterbacks across the field during an open media period, Coker looked mechanical and did not display what scouts call “quick twitch” or burst in his motion. On a simple out route in a drill against air, Coker threw the ball two feet behind the receiver.

Is he the guy, or isn’t he?

Saban said Tuesday in a post-practice press conference that "somebody has got to take the job," which is a telling comment. Coker has not stepped up as expected.

There were no statistics kept in the Aug. 16 scrimmage, but Coker, who is not being made available to speak to the media, appeared to have completed just 30 percent of his passes and threw three interceptions. Alabama abhors the idea of a quarterback giving the other team field position with interceptions.

So, when the season begins, the storyline at quarterback might be Blake and Jake, a dual system, because the duel was not settled in August. This isn’t usually the way Saban operates, but it could be a two-man job-share for the first three games—WVU, Florida Atlantic and Southern Miss—with a starter to be declared by the time Alabama plays Florida in the fourth game of the season.

The scrimmage aside, no one is jumping off the Coker bandwagon.

“There is a competition going on at Alabama for quarterback, I respect that,” David Morris, Coker’s Mobile-based quarterback coach, said in mid-August. “But I will say this. I roomed in college and competed for four years with the first pick in the NFL draft [Eli Manning], and Jake, physically, is as talented as anybody I have ever been around.

"What made and makes Eli so good is his consistency, poise, toughness, intelligence, humility and work ethic. Jake has a lot of that too.”

”I loved his demeanor,” said Mark Stoops, the Kentucky coach and former FSU defensive coordinator. “You could see this guy coming. He has what it takes and can do it all. Coach Fisher would put pressure on him in practice, and he handled it. There is no question he can be a quality quarterback in the SEC.”

 

Physical Skills Galore

The people who know Coker can’t help but raise hosannas and declare him as the ascendant starter. He has mouthwatering skills. Look at the football above his ear, not down behind his ear, and the vertical, quick release. He has nimble hand-wrist action, the ability to shoot free throws with a football, which every quarterback needs and the rest of us call “touch.”

There is arm strength galore. Alabama wide receiver Chris Black said the ball is “humming” when it is on the way. The rule for receivers is hands up around Coker, or the ball is going to smack you in the facemask.

There is a video featured on QBCountry.com that Morris and Coker made in the spring of 2010. Just watch.

Morris had already applied some polish to Coker’s mechanics, but this is still Coker before the end of his junior year of high school when he was 16. Look at the ball coming out with that burst in motion. Watch the receivers stay in stride as they grab his throws.

Coker has had Morris coaching him the last four years, along with the quarterback-minded Fisher and one of the best quarterbacks coaches in the country, FSU assistant Randy Sanders. Alabama assistant coach Lane Kiffin might have struggled as a head coach, but Kiffin is a fine quarterbacks coach and has been working with Coker, too.

A lot more polish has been added in four years.

In this era of the quarterback, where the ball is spit out to receivers covering the field and defenses are constantly in backpedal, does 'Bama finally have a monster instead of a manager? Judging by this preseason, we’re not sure.

Fisher is sure.

"Including what they've had, he's much more talented than anything they've had," he told D.C. Reeves of TideSports.com. "I don't mean to discredit the previous guys. They were all great. But this guy is extremely talented. Arm and mind."

 

A Close Second to Jameis Winston

Coker is 6'5.5", 240 pounds, which is 10 pounds more muscle than his listed weight. Coker was “beaten out” for the starting quarterback job at FSU in 2013 by redshirt freshman Winston, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy and lead FSU to the national championship.

The competition between the two in the spring and August 2013 stirred debate on the Seminoles. Is Winston really better?

It was that close. Fisher has even told NFL scouts it was down to the wire. He said there was legitimate debate in his mind throughout camp about who was better. Freeman saw it up close. “Coke-boy made Jameis better, Jameis made Coke-boy better,” he said.

After Winston won the job, Coker was able to transfer from FSU to Alabama and play right away because he earned an undergraduate degree in May. At Alabama, Coker, like Winston at FSU, was expected to be the obvious choice as the starter, but Sims is pushing Coker the same way Coker pushed Winston.

 

From an Athletic Family

So, who is this guy?

Growing up, Coker's heroes were not football players, but soldiers. His grandfather, Al, his father Bryant’s father, was on a PT boat in World War II in the Philippines. Jake’s half-brother, Patrick, flies A-10s for the U.S. Air Force.

Coker got some of his toughness from both, as well as his dad, a Mobile fireman. At 11 years of age, Jake was playing pickup football with Patrick when Jake dove for a pass on the sideline. The out-of-bounds was the street next to the field. Jake caught the pass and bounced off the pavement but held on to the ball.

He was still holding the ball when Patrick rushed over, not to commend him for the catch and toughness but to shout, “Incomplete, your foot was out of bounds when you caught it.”

Coker’s athleticism is a product of work ethic as much as it is genetics. Patrick played football for the Air Force Academy his freshman year. Coker’s half-sister, Shelley Spires, is starting her freshman year at the Air Force Academy on the volleyball team. His mother, Michelle Spires, is considered one of the best tennis players in the state. His father is a sturdy 6'1" and works out regularly at 66 years of age. He was a college baseball player.

Coker did not go to football camps and enter the recruiting grinder until the summer before his senior season. He was having too much fun playing summer basketball, in addition to being a superb pitcher.

 

A Multisport Star in High School

You should be intrigued by that athleticism. Coker was first-team All-State 5A in Alabama in basketball. He was the Player of the Year in Mobile, which has plenty of basketball talent. Coker had point-guard skills but played inside because his team lacked height.

Jimmy Perry, Coker's high school coach at St. Paul's Episcopal in Mobile, said Coker was 6'2", 200 pounds his junior year. His senior year, Coker grew to 6'3", 215 pounds. “His sophomore year in high school, he was probably a better basketball player than football player,” Perry said.

Coker not only adored football and basketball (and could pitch), but he also won the 5A state competition in the javelin—not to mention he’s a terrific shot out in the woods, with rifle or bow.

“I was with him when he killed his first deer with a bow. I filmed it,” said Ethan Stokley, one of Coker's best friends and a receiver for St. Paul's. “Jake loves hunting more than anything. Any chance he gets, he is up there in the woods. ”

Coker fishes, too, and several times this summer, he met some former FSU teammates and current Alabama teammates for a fishing excursion.

“When you meet this kid, you fall in love with him because he is so genuine and humble,” said Perry, a former assistant coach at Auburn under Tommy Tuberville and now the coach at St. James School in Montgomery.

In 2011, Coker graduated from St. Paul’s Episcopal, the same school that produced former Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron. In his junior year at St. Paul’s, when most elite quarterbacks are getting offers from colleges, Coker ran a wing-T misdirection offense. The Saints did not have enough offensive-line size for a pro-style offense, so Coker did not compile a lot of passing tape to show recruiters.

In his senior season, with another year of weight training for his line, Perry installed a more pass-oriented offense, and Coker thrived. He was able to pass, but Coker was still a playmaker with his feet.

Perry remembers when the Saints were trying to hold off powerhouse Vigor and faced 3rd-and-4 from the 50. Vigor sold out to stop a sweep, but Perry had Coker keep on a naked bootleg. He ran down the middle of the field untouched for the clinching score.

“We did something like that against Spanish Fort, too, misdirection, only the play wasn’t in the playbook. We kinda just put it in on the spot,” said Stokley. “They had a lot of good players; Jake outran them all for the touchdown.”

 

In Demand as a Recruit

Coker finally went to some football camps in June 2010, before his senior season at St. Paul’s. He visited Tennessee, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Duke and Florida State. He did not attend a camp at Alabama. By the time the schedule opened for the Alabama camp, Coker was worn out and could not muster the energy.

His first collegiate football offer came from Arkansas State, whose assistant coach was Tyler Siskey, a former coach at St. Paul’s and now the director of player personnel at Alabama. Hugh Freeze was the head coach at Arkansas State when it offered Coker a scholarship.

When it news broke that Coker was going to transfer from Florida State, Freeze, now at Ole Miss, inquired about Coker, but with the Rebels faithfully behind Bo Wallace in 2014, Coker was looking at bench time again and starting in 2015.

Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, who groomed Peyton and Eli Manning for the NFL and is a confidante and mentor to Morris, pulled Morris aside in Durham and said, “David, this kid is going to be special,” and put an offer on the table.

Dameyune Craig, then the Florida State quarterbacks coach and recruiting coordinator, convinced Coker to come to Tallahassee for the June camp in 2010. Fisher watched Coker throw and then marched him and his father into the head coach’s office and offered Coker a scholarship on the spot.

“You’re going to be a first-round pick in the NFL,” Fisher told them. That Jimbo and Jake were devoted hunters made it a bond.

 

Not Lacking Physical and Mental Toughness

But what about intangibles? The leadership and poise against the blitz?

Freeman remembers a series in practice when the FSU starters were sagging on offense. Coke-boy had the reins. “No more of this s--t,” he barked. “Let’s go, get this going.” The offense snapped to attention, Freeman said.

In the Wake Forest game in 2013, Coker suffered a knee injury in the second half (a torn meniscus). It was wrapped on the sideline, and he went back in the game for several series. He finally limped off. Later, Coker was asked why he didn’t take himself out of the game, and he said an anonymous FSU lineman was grimacing in pain from his own injury, and Coker wasn’t about to beg off.

The intangibles showed up bigger when Winston beat out Coker for the starting job. “He was disappointed and upset that he was not the starter, but not bitter,” Stokley said. “He always said to me ‘I’m not doing anything to mess with this team or separate them just because I’m not the starter.’”

 

Strong But Injury-Prone

Quarterbacks are not supposed to be put together the way Coker is put together. Morris put some pictures up on a screen in his office of Winston and Coker standing next to each other with broad smiles.

ACC defensive linemen talked about how difficult it was to get the 6'4" Winston to the ground, but just look at Coker. He is an inch and a half taller and 10 pounds heavier. His shoulders are wider than Winston’s. Coker benched 375 in the summer weight room at Alabama.

But Alabama should shudder at the thought of Coker trampling defenders because bad things can happen when quarterbacks run, and they have. The red flag for this new Red Elephant is that Coker has suffered three injuries—broken foot, shoulder, torn meniscus in his knee—and he has never even been a starter.

That should give some pause to Alabama fans and make them understand that Sims must be ready when called upon.

Here is the other thing to consider about Coker: He better be good, for the sake of the Southeastern Conference.

After losing a slew of juniors the last couple of seasons to the NFL draft and all the NFL-style quarterback talent from 2013, the SEC may not boast a great team in 2014. Alabama might be a great team, but it depends on the mystery man at quarterback or whether Sims is enough of a playmaker.

Perry and all the others overcrowding the Coker bandwagon cherish their well-rounded QB. And they do not fear for 'Bama or the SEC.

“Do they want a playmaker or somebody to run the football team? With him, they have both,” Perry said, “They have a decision-maker back there who knows where to go with the ball, and they have a guy that, when things go bad, is athlete enough to get the offense out of trouble.

“Jacob has been in some doggone good competition with EJ Manuel and Jameis Winston. He’s had to bring his A-game to practice every day. When you are in second place, you have to pedal faster.”

Coker has been pedaling in place as a career backup. He has not lost his ambition, but can Coker find his sharpness finally as a starter?

A lot is riding on the shoulders of Coke-boy.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Texas Football: Final Game-by-Game Schedule Predictions

How much difference can a year make? Looking at a schedule that could have as many as seven losses, Texas Longhorn fans are hoping it's a significant one.

Charlie Strong's goal in his first season as head coach at Texas is to take chronic underachievers and get them performing like the talented players they are. Achieving that alone should yield a much better product on the field, especially from a defense led by Cedric Reed, Quandre Diggs and Malcom Brown.

And with fall camp winding down, Strong seems to have done that. David Ash has had an "unbelievable camp," per the Austin American-Statesman's Cedric Golden, Johnathan Gray is tearing it up and there is even some surprising depth emerging in the secondary.

Texans assistant Tommie Robinson noted Gray's effort, via HornsDigest.com's Chip Brown (and Strong):

Charlie Strong said #Texas RB coach Tommie Robinson said today, "Why can't all our players practice like Johnathan Gray?"

@ChipBrownHD, 14 Aug 2014

So much of Texas' success this season will depend on Ash's health, but this entire team has been put through the meat grinder since Strong was hired. It will compete in every single game, putting a 9-3 record well within reach.

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Ohio State Football: Depth Chart Analysis, Complete 2014 Preview and Predictions

What a difference one play can make.

From the moment that Braxton Miller announced he was returning to Ohio State for his senior season on Jan. 9, 2014 at 7:37 p.m., the Buckeyes were considered national title contenders for the 2014 season.

For more than seven months, fans in Columbus prepared to rewrite the Ohio State record book with Miller's name in it. Seven months of measuring the Buckeyes up against reigning Big Ten champion Michigan State. Seven months of preparing for the first-ever College Football Playoff.

Those seven months came to a screeching halt and proved to be null and void on Aug. 18, when a seven-yard pass attempt in Ohio State's afternoon practice ended with the Heisman-hopeful signal-caller tearing the labrum in his throwing shoulder—an injury that will cost Miller the entirety of the 2014 season.

While Miller's pursuit of virtually every OSU offensive record has been put on hold—he says he intends to return to the Buckeyes as a fifth-year senior in 2015—Ohio State's 2014 season appears to have lost a lot of its luster.

No longer do all roads lead to a Nov. 8 date in East Lansing, Michigan—which was supposed to host a de facto Big Ten East championship game between the Buckeyes and Spartans—and gone are realistic expectations for Ohio State to be playing in a national semifinal game on New Year's Day.

But what the Buckeyes' 2014 campaign lost in optimism, it now makes up for in intrigue. While a Big Ten title and potential selection to the inaugural playoff may no longer be likely, Urban Meyer provides just enough hope to make each appear possible in what will be his third—and most interesting—season in Columbus.

 

Coaches

After managing to keep his entire staff intact following the Buckeyes' undefeated season in 2012, Meyer had to deal with making the first coaching replacements of his Ohio State tenure this past offseason when two defensive assistants opted to take their careers elsewhere. And given the struggles of the Buckeyes defense in 2013, that may be for the better in Columbus.

Gone is co-defensive coordinator/safeties coach Everett Withers, who left Ohio State to become the head coach at James Madison University. In search of a new voice to overhaul his team's defensive philosophy, Meyer landed on Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash, who held the same title at Wisconsin when the Buckeyes beat the Badgers in 2012.

The early returns on Ash have been positive, with the Ohio State players praising the "one unified voice" that they hear on their defense. Also tasked with total control of the Buckeyes secondary, Ash has installed a quarters coverage system that places an emphasis on press coverage.

"College football has always been run the ball, stop the run. And when you're facing some really good throwing teams or you [face] a Sammy Watkins, you have to be able to get more than one hand on him. We have the ability to do that now," Meyer said. "So far, it's exactly how I wanted to see it look."

The other new face on the Ohio State staff is defensive line coach Larry Johnson, who replaces now-Houston Texans assistant Mike Vrabel. An 18-year assistant at Penn State, Johnson has spent his entire college coaching career recruiting against the Buckeyes, who are now benefiting from his abilities.

"We lost a home run. I love Mike Vrabel,'' Meyer said. "We replaced Mike with a top-shelf coach. A guy that has great respect, very good recruiter, a very good coach, the players love him already."

Rounding out the rest of the Buckeyes defensive staff, Luke Fickell returns for his 13th season as a coach in Columbus, hoping to shore up a linebacker corps that is now without first-round NFL draft pick Ryan Shazier. With Ash in charge of coverage, Kerry Coombs now has more time to spend teaching technique to his cornerbacks while also focusing on his role as OSU's special teams coordinator.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Buckeyes return their entire staff for a second consecutive season, which should help ease some of the growing pains that will come along with a unit replacing seven starters from a season ago.

Offensive coordinator Tom Herman's primary objective will be to get J.T. Barrett ready to fill the enormous shoes that Miller leaves at the quarterback position, while Ed Warinner will be tasked with replacing four multiyear starters on what's been one of the top offensive lines in the country over the past two seasons.

Wide receivers coach Zach Smith, running backs coach Stan Drayton and tight ends coach Tim Hinton have each done an admirable job developing their respective units, as Meyer believes that the Buckeyes now possess the best set of skill players that they've had since he took over the Ohio State program in 2012.

 

What to Watch For on Offense

When Ohio State's quarterback for 2014 changed, so did its offense, as Barrett is hardly the dynamic runner that Miller's been through the first three seasons of his college career. The redshirt freshman doesn't have quite the arm strength that Miller possesses either, although the Buckeyes coaching staff is confident that he can more of a "distributor" behind center, a la former OSU backup Kenny Guiton.

"Kenny Guiton was one of the best I've been around as far as getting the ball out quickly and distributing to playmakers and letting them run with the ball, let them make plays," Meyer said. "That's what my initial evaluation of J.T. is—he's very good at that."

With less being asked of Ohio State's signal-caller this season, more pressure will be placed on a plethora of highly touted playmakers on the Buckeyes roster, many of whom have yet to live up to the hype that accompanied them to Columbus.

That includes H-back Dontre Wilson, who came to Ohio State expected to fill the "Percy Harvin" role in Meyer's spread offense. After being used as little more than a decoy in his freshman campaign, it's been clear that the DeSoto, Texas, product has become one of the focal points of the Buckeyes offense this offseason, and his usage rate should only increase in Miller's absence.

Another sophomore who could find himself shouldering a significant load of the OSU offense this season is running back Ezekiel Elliott. While Big Ten Running Back of the Year Carlos Hyde left a gaping hole in the Buckeyes backfield, Elliott has already shown flashes of a blend of size (6'0", 225 pounds) and speed that make for an intriguing fit in Meyer's spread offense.

While fifth-year senior Rod Smith and redshirt sophomore Bri'onte Dunn will serve as Elliott's immediate backup at running back, don't count out the impact that true freshman Curtis Samuel could make in his debut season.

A 4-star prospect by way of Brooklyn, New York, Samuel initially projected as a wide receiver at the college level but has already managed to make his mark at running back, stealing the heart of his new head coach in the process.

"I've got to be careful, because I do this, but I love that kid and man, oh man, does he go hard," Meyer said. "He's talented and he will play this year."

At the wide receiver position, a number of high-risk, higher-reward players line the Buckeyes roster.

Devin Smith has always been one of college football's top deep-threat wideouts, but he no longer has the benefit of Miller's big arm being able to find him down the field. 

Senior Evan Spencer has been steady but unspectacular and could soon find himself passed in the OSU pecking order by fourth-year junior Corey Smith and/or third-year sophomore Michael Thomas, each of whom took redshirts a season ago to preserve extra seasons of eligibility.

Also, don't count out freshman Johnnie Dixon, who has already drawn rave reviews from the Buckeyes coaches since arriving as an early enrollee in January.

While OSU's offensive line rebuilds under the eye of Warinner, the unit should benefit from the help of senior tight end Jeff Heuerman, whom Meyer has described as one of the best point-of-attack blockers in all of college football. And as a redshirt freshman quarterback searches for a security blanket, look for Heuerman to only continue to emerge as one of the top prospects at his position in next year's NFL draft.

Even without Miller, it's clear that the Ohio State offense has potential, but until the Buckeyes take the field, it's nothing more than just that. Without the safety valve of Miller's legs in Herman's back pocket, Barrett will need to prove that he's capable of being every bit the distributor that Meyer thinks he can be for the Buckeyes to have a successful season on the offensive side of the ball.

 

What to Watch For on Defense

Ash's new quarters coverage system may place an emphasis on the Buckeyes' back end, but Ohio State's defense will start up front this season with one of the best defensive lines in the country. Defensive tackles Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington team with ends Noah Spence and Joey Bosa to create a more than formidable foursome that should apply constant pressure to opposing backfields.

Bosa may be the youngest of the bunch, but he's also probably the most talented, as his 13.5 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks in 2013 were nothing short of remarkable for a freshman. The 6'5", 278-pounder was named a Sporting News Freshman All-American a season ago, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him earn that same title—sans "freshman"—in the coming year.

Despite losing Shazier, who was selected 15th overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers in last May's NFL draft, the Buckeyes like what they have in their linebacking corps, which is headlined by senior middle linebacker Curtis Grant, junior Joshua Perry and redshirt freshman Darron Lee.

It's a now-or-never year for Grant, who has failed to live up to 5-star expectations since arriving in Columbus three years ago. He beat out 5-star freshman Raekwon McMillan to earn the right to start for Ohio State for a second consecutive season, but how long he stays with the Buckeyes first team will be dependent on how he performs.

A starter a season ago, Perry slides over to fill the void left at weak-side linebacker by Shazier, where he'll attempt to replicate stats similar to the 144 tackles and seven sacks that the now-Steeler accumulated a season ago. Lee moves into the lineup at the strong-side linebacker role, which will require him to also cover receivers in the slot.

In the secondary, Meyer likes what he has in senior cornerback Doran Grant, who is arguably the most athletically gifted Ohio State player on the defensive side of the ball. Meyer said that he has All-Big Ten expectations for the Akron, Ohio, native this season, as he appears to be a perfect fit in Ash's system.

As for who will be starting opposite Grant at corner when the Buckeyes take the field against Navy in Baltimore for the season opener, that remains up in the air.

Junior Armani Reeves is currently penciled in as Ohio State's nickelback this season, leaving redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple to battle with true freshman Marshon Lattimore for the open starting spot. With Ash's plan to rotate corners, all three could see significant playing time this season.

Whereas Ohio State's safeties were a weakness for the Buckeyes a season ago, they suddenly appear to be a strength, thanks to a trio of talented sophomores.

Vonn Bell came to Columbus a year ago as a 5-star prospect but didn't get the first start of his college career until the Orange Bowl. It was there that he managed to show just why he was so highly touted, recording a diving interception on a pass thrown by Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd.

Joining Bell in the Buckeyes defensive backfield will be Tyvis Powell, a redshirt sophomore who spent 2013 as Ohio State's starting nickelback. Now playing a new position at strong safety, Powell believes that he'll be capable of consistently making more big plays, like his two-point conversion interception that sealed the Buckeyes' win over Michigan last season.

Sophomore Cam Burrows will likely serve as the top backup to both and also possesses the ability to play the dime position in the OSU defense. Hard-hitting freshman Erick Smith has also emerged as another toy for Ash to play with and should find his way onto the field in his freshman season.

Like its offensive counterpart, the Buckeyes defense has talent but obvious questions about its new scheme. How quickly the players pick up on what Ash is trying to teach them will go a long way toward determining whether or not the Silver Bullets make a return to Columbus in 2014. 

 

Injury News 

The impact of Miller's injury goes without saying; the Buckeyes' odds of winning the national championship shifted from 12-1 to 50-1 as soon as it was confirmed that the star quarterback would be out for the entirety of the season, per Bovada (via CBSSports.com's Chip Patterson).

Ohio State went from national title contenders to a team that will be lucky to compete for a conference championship, as uncertainty swirls around its quarterback position.

As for the freshmen who have been lost for the season, Berger had been singled out as a player whom Meyer expected to contribute immediately, before the 4-star linebacker re-tore the same ACL that cost him his senior season at Cleveland St. Ignatius.

Thompson, a 3-star defensive lineman from Montini Catholic in Lombard, Illinois, was a likely redshirt candidate heading into his freshman season, but his fractured kneecap remains a setback in his development nonetheless.

 

X-Factor

With Miller out of the Ohio State lineup, it's hard to think of a bigger X-factor on the Buckeyes roster than Barrett, who now holds the fate of OSU's season in his hands.

In a best-case scenario for the Buckeyes, Barrett would prove to be a more physically talented version of Guiton, who got by on mental reps while sitting behind Miller in practice. The first quarterback prospect that Meyer personally recruited to Columbus, Barrett has already been lauded by the Ohio State coaching staff for both his preparation and leadership skills.

"This kid is kind of Guitonish," Meyer said of Barrett. "Very calm, cool and collected."

If Barrett can make good on his coach's kind words and the Buckeyes' skill players can live up to their hype, Ohio State's schedule could lead it right back into the national title picture. Barrett is no Miller—make no mistake about it—but every college star's story has to have a start, and this could be Barrett's.

Should Barrett not pan out, the Buckeyes will turn to third-year sophomore Cardale Jones, who entered fall camp as Ohio State's No. 2 quarterback. At 6'5" and 250 pounds, Jones isn't nearly as mobile as either Miller or Barrett, but the Cleveland-Glenville product does possess perhaps the strongest arm on the OSU roster.

Ohio State's worst-case scenario would be for neither Barrett nor Jones to prove effective, with all of Buckeye fans' worst fears about Miller's absence being realized. That's why it's important for Barrett to grab hold of the reins and prevent the OSU season from ever coming to that, as he'll get the first—and most important—crack at controlling the Buckeyes offense.

 

2014 Schedule

 

Make-or-Break Games

Prior to Miller's injury, Ohio State appeared to be on a collision course with Michigan State for Nov. 8. The rematch of last season's Big Ten Championship Game between the Buckeyes and Spartans was so highly anticipated heading into the 2014 season, that it was already moved to a prime-time television slot.

But like with all things Ohio State, Miller's injury throws a monkey wrench into the schedule, as it's now harder to look ahead to November and the ninth game of the season without wondering what will happen before then.

That's what makes the Buckeyes' Sept. 6 date with Virginia Tech so intriguing, as Ohio State will face its biggest pre-Michigan State test in just the second week of the season. Should the Buckeyes manage to down the Hokies, they'll likely find themselves favored in every game before their showdown with the Spartans.

An Oct. 25 trip to Happy Valley to face Penn State on the road is a tall task for any first-year quarterback, but if the Buckeyes can get past that, then their meeting with Michigan State should live up to the hype.

It will take two to tango, as the Spartans will also have a say in the magnitude of their Nov. 8 date, but it's not out of the realm of possibility that the one game that stood out on Ohio State's schedule prior to the start of the season maintains its meaning.

 

Prediction

Even before Miller went down, it was hard to get a finger on the pulse of this year's Ohio State season.

Now, it's nearly impossible to do so, as Barrett is yet to take a single snap in his college career. To me, it all comes down to that Virginia Tech game and whether or not Barrett and the Buckeyes can gain enough steam on their way to East Lansing.

I believe that they will, but once again, it will be Michigan State that brings an end to Ohio State's national title dreams. After that, I see another letdown on the schedule—perhaps a week later against the Golden Gophers in Minnesota. But all things considered, a 10-2 season would be far from the worst-case scenario for the Buckeyes this year.

Overall Record: 10-2

Conference Record: 6-2

 

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

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Miami Football: Depth Chart Analysis, Complete 2014 Preview and Predictions

Game preparations will soon return for the Miami Hurricanes, signaling the beginning of the long-awaited college football regular season.

While those final days slowly pass, it's time for a complete preview of the 2014 'Canes.

From offensive and defensive depth charts to spotlighting a potential X-factor and new uniforms, everything you need to know about Miami is included.

And, of course, a preview wouldn't be finished without a careful look through the schedule capped by a season prediction.

 

Coaches

Head coach Al Golden is entering his fourth season at the school, sporting a 22-15 overall record with one shared division title.

Defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio and defensive line coach Jethro Franklin, who Golden brought from Temple, are under the most scrutiny following lackluster performances up front in recent years. 

Upon arrival at "The U," Golden rehired longtime Miami assistant Art Kehoe to join wide receivers coach Brennan Carroll and defensive backs coach Paul Williams. Kehoe is a fireball, Carroll has proved himself as an excellent recruiter and Williams has been the defense's best coach.

Linebackers coach Hurlie Brown spent 2013 teaching the running backs but recently switched to linebackers to cover for Micheal Barrow's sudden resignation. Tim "Ice" Harris, best known for three state championships at nearby Booker T. Washington High School, stepped in for Brown.

Tight ends coach Larry Scott was snagged from South Florida last season, rounding out the coaching staff.

 

What to Watch For on Offense

Note: Depth chart will be updated when a new one is released prior to season opener.

 

The 'Canes run a fast-paced, run-first attack, which offensive coordinator James Coley calls "tempro."

Miami is loaded at its skill positions, so the quarterbacks must distribute the ball effectively and efficiently. Granted, that's often easier said than done.

Nevertheless, the Hurricanes passing game must have a renewed focus on using the middle of the field—a place two-year starter Stephen Morris essentially avoided last year. Initially, either graduate transfer Jake Heaps or true freshman Brad Kaaya will be under center.

Once-anticipated starter Ryan Williams is set to return from an ACL injury sometime in September, likely meaning the senior either takes over for Heaps or becomes Kaaya's backup.

If All-ACC running back Duke Johnson avoids injury, he is one of the best in college football. Complemented by promising freshman Joe Yearby and powerful sophomore Gus Edwards, Miami's backfield is in good shape.

Led by sophomore and rising national star Stacy Coley, the 'Canes have solid wide receivers. Though not All-American-caliber this season, upperclassmen Phillip Dorsett, Rashawn Scott and Herb Waters are joined by youngsters Malcolm Lewis and Braxton Berrios.

Since Golden took over, Miami has been searching for more production from its tight ends. Senior and returning starter Clive Walford was impactful in 2013, but bigger things are expected from pass-catcher Beau Sandland and run-blocker Standish Dobard.

Up front, left tackle Ereck Flowers, left guard Jon Feliciano and center Shane McDermott are each superb. The right side of the O-line and overall depth of the unit are topics worth monitoring because the offense is extremely reliant on winning battles in the trenches.

Kicker Matt Goudis returns for his junior season after setting a Miami single-season record for most consecutive extra points made (57). He also converted on 13 field-goal attempts, knocking home a long of 49 yards.

Notable True Freshmen: QB Brad Kaaya, RB Joe Yearby, WR Braxton Berrios, OL Kc McDermott, OL Trevor Darling

 

What to Watch For on Defense

Note: Depth chart will be updated when a new one is released prior to season opener.

 

Depending on the situation, the Hurricanes employ both the 4-3 and 3-4 as well as the nickel defense.

Last season, Miami allowed a particularly awful 211 offensive plays of 10-plus yards—the ninth-worst mark in the nation. And that doesn't happen without a good number of missed tackles, which has consistently plagued the 'Canes.

Anthony Chickillo and Al-Quadin Muhammad are expected to earn the starting defensive end positions, while Tyriq McCord and Chad Thomas are key third-down edge-rushers. Olsen Pierre, Calvin Heurtelou, Ufomba Kamalu, Earl Moore and Michael Wyche are important pieces at tackle.

Behind senior and top NFL prospect Denzel Perryman, the linebacking corps is well-off depth-wise. Thurston Armbrister is the most game-ready player because of his 10 career starts, followed by Raphael Kirby, Jermaine Grace and Darrion Owens.

Cornerbacks Tracy Howard, Ladarius Gunter, Artie Burns, Antonio Crawford and Corn Elder will see plenty of action, especially as the utilization of three-receiver formations continues trending upward.

"It's a demanding position," Golden said, per Matt Porter of the Palm Beach Post. "We play a lot [of cornerbacks]. They're fighting for the starting job, but all those guys are going to play a lot, no question."

Overall, though the safeties are relatively inexperienced, the unit is deep enough to handle the loss of starter Rayshawn Jenkins to injury. Deon Bush, Jamal Carter and Dallas Crawford are the top three at the position and will contribute the most.

The team must replace punter and sixth-round draft pick Pat O'Donnell, who demolished a school record amassing 47.1 yards per punt. Transfer Justin Vogel and senior Ricky Carroll are competing for that spot, which took an indisputable hit.

Notable True Freshmen: DE Chad Thomas, DE Trent Harris, LB Darrion Owens, S Marques Gayot

 

Injury News

Ryan Williams left the 'Canes in Kevin Olsen's hands at quarterback before Heaps and Kaaya outperformed the redshirt freshman in fall camp. The senior's health is the underlying storyline for the first month of the year, because his return plays a major factor in who will lead Miami through its conference slate.

Rashawn Scott, who hurt his shoulder making a diving catch in the 2013 season opener, suffered an "exotic injury" to his collarbone that will sideline him for a few weeks. The Hurricanes' strongest overall unit is at wide receiver, so Miami is eager for Scott's return but need not rush him back.

Considering Rayshawn Jenkins accounted for 46 tackles, five pass breakups and three interceptions last year, the safety is an unfortunate loss for the defense. In addition to Dallas Crawford and Marques Gayot stepping up at the position, Deon Bush and Jamal Carter must help carry the burden in Jenkins' absence.

 

X-Factor

Malcolm Lewis made his presence felt in his collegiate debut in 2012, catching four passes for 42 yards and a touchdown. Since then, he has suffered a terrible ankle injury and underwent groin surgery.

But now, the redshirt sophomore is finally healthy and ready to shine.

Defenses must lock onto Johnson and Coley while keeping another eye on the speedy Dorsett, so the 'Canes need someone else to step up every week.

Via screens, drags, quick hitches or other short routes, Lewis can destroy teams with yards after the catch. Additionally, he complements Dorsett's straight-line speed and Coley's reliability in the intermediate range.

Lewis is a crucial factor in keeping the Miami quarterbacks focused on being distributors, not playmakers.

Runners-Up: DT Calvin Heurtelou, DT Michael Wyche

 

2014 Schedule

 

Make-or-Break Games

Since the Coastal Division is simply a scattered mess, five conference victories is the lowest realistic mark for Miami to contend for a berth in the ACC Championship Game.

The Hurricanes' meeting with Louisville sets the tone for 2014, and an early-season conference loss would be immensely difficult to overcome.

Overall, Miami has four swing games—Louisville, Duke, North Carolina and Virginia Tech—and three must-win contests in Georgia Tech, Virginia and Pittsburgh.

Florida State is a likely loss, so the 'Canes need at least two of their swing games and each victory against the lower-tier teams.

 

New Uniforms

Miami revealed new Nike uniforms in April, showcasing four jerseys, four sets of pants and three helmets. The uniforms are called Stormtrooper, Surge, Juice and Smoke.

On the shoulder of each jersey is an ibis—the school's current mascot and secondary logo about 10 years ago.

Additionally, the 'Canes will be lacing up black cleats on top of black socks—a classic look Miami fans loved to see return.

 

Prediction

Duke Johnson, Ereck Flowers and Denzel Perryman are selected to the All-ACC First Team, with Joe Feliciano and Tracy Howard on the following tier as second-teamers. Coley, the elder McDermott, Wyatt Chickillo and Deon Bush earn third-team distinction, while a few others are named honorable mentions.

Looking at the schedule, a 10-2 record during the regular season accompanied by a 7-1 mark in the ACC is the absolute best-case scenario for Miami.

But sorry, folks, that ain't happenin'. Above-average talent fills this team, but it's a matter of everything meshing together properly—something that has eluded the 'Canes for 10 years.

On paper, the offense should average around 400 yards and 27 points per game, and that would have tallied seven wins last season.

Assisted by an improved defense, closing the year 8-4 overall and 5-3 in conference play is the most realistic result for the 2014 Hurricanes. With that being said, five ACC wins is not a death sentence because the Coastal Division is so weak.

Ultimately, I won't back down from the recent game-by-game predictions: Miami finishes 9-3 (6-2) and shares the division crown.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com.

Follow Bleacher Report college football writer David Kenyon on Twitter: @Kenyon19_BR.

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Oklahoma Football: Depth Chart Analysis, Complete 2014 Preview and Predictions

The Oklahoma Sooners enter the 2014 college football season with some lofty expectations.

Following a successful 2013 campaign—one that was capped off by a dominating Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama—the sky is the limit for these Sooners. There’s no doubt that the Big 12 title goes through Norman this season.

But just how good can Oklahoma be?

For the answer, let’s take a closer look at the squad. 


Coaches

If it isn’t broken, why fix it, right?

The Sooners return their entire coaching staff from a year ago. Entering his 16th season in charge, Bob Stoops has all the pieces to try to bring the school its first national title since 2000—his second year with the program.

Line coaches Bill Bedenbaugh (offensive) and Jerry Montgomery (defensive) will look to build on brilliant inaugural seasons. Meanwhile, second-year tight ends coach Jay Boulware will be called upon, as Oklahoma looks to finally get some production from the position again this season.


What to Watch for on Offense

The Sooners return seven of 11 starters on offense from a year ago. It doesn’t get any better than on the offensive line, where the team returns four starters, including three seniors.

Just how good the Oklahoma offense will be depends on what kind of quarterback it will get out of Trevor Knight. Will he be the hesitant youngster who crashed and burned his way out of a starting job before even completing two full games? Or will he be the confident playmaker that shocked an entire nation to the tune of 348 yards and four touchdowns in helping the Sooners throttle Alabama in the Sugar Bowl?

Sports Illustrated seems to expect the latter, as the publication posted the rising sophomore’s face on the cover of its college football preview issue:

At running back, Oklahoma will have to cope with the loss of each of their top three running backs. It doesn’t help matters that incoming freshman and 5-star running back Joe Mixon was recently suspended for the season, per ESPN.

Still, Keith Ford was formerly a 5-star recruit himself. Not to mention, Alex Ross is another one to keep an eye on.

Although the Sooners lost some talent at receiver, Sterling Shepard and incoming freshman Michiah Quick will really provide Knight with some options. Not to mention, if Dorial Green-Beckham is ruled eligible to play—which Oklahoma believes he will be, via The Oklahoman’s Jason Kersey—then Oklahoma will bet set.


What to Watch for on Defense

Once again, the defense will be a strength for the Sooners, with eight of 11 starters returning.

First-team All-Big 12 selection Charles Tapper and second-teamer Eric Striker return to give the unit one of the most formidable front sevens in the nation. Let’s not forget Geneo Grissom and Dominique Alexander, who should both have excellent years as well.

The departures of Aaron Colvin and Gabe Lynn definitely leave a whole in the secondary. However, Zack Sanchez and Julian Wilson look ready to step up. Incoming freshman Steven Parker is another name to watch.

All in all, Mike Stoops should have this unit ready to roll come opening kickoff.


Injury and Suspension News

It hasn’t been all good news for Oklahoma this offseason.

After a stellar freshman season, linebacker Frank Shannon found himself in the middle of an assault investigation. Although the victim finally decided not to press charges, per the Tulsa World’s Guerin Emig, Shannon was still suspended by the team.

Losing him is a huge blow to the Sooners. Shannon finished 2013 with 92 tackles (7.0 for loss), 2.0 sacks and an interception.

As noted above, Mixon also found himself in some trouble as he is currently being charged with a misdemeanor after an altercation with a female at a bar on his birthday. Oklahoma still has depth at running back. However, Mixon was expected to grow into a playmaker this season.


X-factor

The Fresno, California, native has the potential to take it to the house every time he touches the ball.

Other than at receiver, expect Michiah Quick to make some noise in the return game as well. It wouldn’t be surprising at all to see the coaching staff try to draw it up to get him some carries also.

A 4-star recruit, Quick has the skill set to be successful at the collegiate level. There may be a learning curve at the start, but by season’s end, look for Quick to be one of the players you hear the announcers calling out often.

2014 Schedule


Make-or-Break Games

There are three games that could make or break Oklahoma’s season.

1. Tennessee (Sept. 13)

The Sooners are fortunate that this game is at home and early in the season.

Head coach Butch Jones has done a tremendous job with the Vols since taking over. The team showed signs last season of the talent it possesses, and bringing in a handful of talented recruits over the offseason will help.

Given that Oklahoma will also have several highly touted recruits in-house, this game is a must-win in more ways than one.

2. Texas (Oct. 11)

Regardless of either team’s talent or record coming into the matchup, the game typically lives up to the hype.

The Longhorns will be breaking in a new system in head coach Charlie Strong’s first year, but don’t expect that to provide any sort of edge for Oklahoma. After all, Texas looked like a fish out of water last year before upsetting the Sooners.

Revenge will surely be on the mind.

3. Baylor (Nov. 8)

Speaking of revenge, the Sooners will certainly want to gain some retribution after the beating they took in Waco last season.

With quarterback Bryce Petty returning for his senior season, expect head coach Art Briles to once again have his Bears competing for the Big 12 title and more. Expect the winner to have the inside track to the conference title.


New Uniforms

 

Prediction

Optimism hasn’t been this high around Norman since former quarterback Sam Bradford announced he was coming back for his junior season in 2009.

But don’t be mistaken, all of this hype is certainly deserved. There’s a good chance Oklahoma will be brought up as one of the four entrants in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Getting another 11 wins or more, along with the Big 12 title, is not too much to ask given how this year’s Sooners squad is shaping up. It certainly helps that almost all of their tough opponents will be at home.

However, once again, just how far the team will go depends on the play of Trevor Knight.

 

All stats, recruiting information and rankings used in this article are courtesy of CFBStats.com and 247Sports.

For complete coverage and everything Oklahoma football, you can reach Sebastian on Twitter and via email at Sebastian.LenaBR@gmail.com.

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College Football Predictions 2014: Dark-Horse National Championship Contenders

It’s easy to pick Florida State, Alabama or Oregon when discussing potential national championship contenders as we approach the 2014 college football season.

When does college football ever go according to plan, though?

With that in mind, let’s take a look at three teams fans should not overlook when it comes to the national title race.

 

Wisconsin

The Big Ten may not be the SEC, but it is better than it gets credit for on a national level. However, don’t look at Wisconsin’s strength of schedule if you want to make a convincing case for the conference’s strength.

The Badgers miss Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan on this year’s slate and get Nebraska at home. The winner of that contest will have an inside track for the West Division crown.

Wisconsin could very well be favored in every single game it plays except the opener, which means plenty of wins. That opener comes against LSU, but don’t automatically assume the Tigers will walk away with a win.

The Badgers will rely heavily on their superstar running back in Melvin Gordon. Gordon ran for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns a year ago, and he could see even more carries now that James White is no longer on campus.

One of Wisconsin’s concerns heading into the season could also turn into a strength. The Badgers lost the majority of their front seven on defense, including Chris Borland, but this is a unit that finished fifth in the country against the run and sixth in scoring defense a year ago. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is one of the best in the country and will have his unit among the nation's best yet again. 

If that defense and Gordon find a way to get past LSU, it will be time to start buying stock in the Badgers.

 

South Carolina

Much like Wisconsin, South Carolina is partially on this list because it has a favorable schedule to go along with talent.

The Gamecocks avoid Alabama, LSU and what could be a dangerous Mississippi team but still have to play Clemson, Auburn and Georgia. It’s not like that is a walk-in-the-park schedule, but it is easier to navigate than others in the SEC.

South Carolina finished in the top 10 the last three years and was the only squad in the country to beat three teams that finished in the AP Top 10 last year. It has consistently finished among the nation’s best under Steve Spurrier but simply needs to take the one final step to win the SEC championship if it hopes to reach the College Football Playoff. 

The contest with Georgia will go a long way toward determining who wins the conference’s East division, and this year’s matchup is in South Carolina, where the Gamecocks have won 18 in a row at home.

If they can extend that streak and reach the SEC title game, they would be one game away from reaching the CFP because the SEC champion is definitely going to receive the benefit of the doubt from the selection committee.

Chris Low of ESPN.com thinks South Carolina will get to the conference title game:

The Head Ball Coach has a veteran offensive line, marquee running back and depth in the defensive line and at linebacker. While we're not ready to pick the Gamecocks to win the SEC championship game, we are picking them to get there and win 10 or more games for the fourth straight season. 

A healthy Mike Davis is a Heisman candidate at running back, especially behind this offensive line. If he can propel his team to a couple of critical victories this season (Georgia, the SEC title game and Clemson), a national title is not out of the question.

 

Ohio State

You would be forgiven if you left Ohio State for dead after Braxton Miller hurt his shoulder. After all, we are talking about a Heisman candidate and the two-time defending Big Ten Player of the Year who makes defenders look absolutely silly in the open field.

However, Urban Meyer has accumulated plenty of talent as he enters his third year in Columbus, and it will be up to redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett to find those playmakers in Miller’s absence.

The one positive about Miller’s injury is that he missed spring practice and most of fall training, so Barrett has taken plenty of first-team snaps. Familiarity with the offense will be critical because the Buckeyes plan on unleashing a high-octane attack, as offensive coordinator Tom Herman told Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated:

“If used properly and effectively, tempo should help our cause from the standpoint of not needing the ridiculous dynamism that Braxton Miller provided.”

Barrett earned the nickname “the distributor” because of his ability to simply get the ball out to the offensive weapons and get out of the way. That’s exactly why the Buckeyes are still a threat in the national picture. They have so much speed and athleticism on the field that defenses won’t be able to lock in on just one or two guys.

Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith and Bri’onte Dunn give Meyer a three-headed attack at running back, but freshman Curtis Samuel and sophomore Dontre Wilson will see plenty of action from the slot and backfield. Samuel and Wilson are the speedsters who will give opposing defensive coordinators fits all year.

Throw in a receiving corps that features veterans Evan Spencer and Devin Smith, youngsters Jalin Marshall and Corey Smith, and Barrett's underrated rushing ability, and Ohio State’s offense will still be dynamic without Miller.

Bleacher Report’s Adam Kramer certainly thinks so:

Perhaps the most encouraging thing about Ohio State’s 2014 prospects is the fact that the defense should be improved under new coordinator Chris Ash. The Buckeyes will utilize more of a 4-3 base that presses up on wide receivers, which will ideally eliminate the gaping holes that Sammy Watkins exploited in the Orange Bowl. 

With a stronger defense and weapons all over the field, count the Buckeyes out at your own peril.

 

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Georgia Football: Depth Chart Analysis, Complete 2014 Preview and Predictions

The 2013 campaign did not go as Georgia fans, players or coaches expected.  Injuries on offense and stunted development on defense derailed the Bulldogs despite a strong early start.  Now, with (mostly) regained health and a new regime leading the defensive side of the ball, optimism lives anew.  

As is often the case with Georgia, this team is talented enough to reach great heights—even levels not previously achieved during the Mark Richt era.  The offense is loaded equally with weapons and leadership. The defense is jam-packed with potential stars eager for refinement.

Combine those elements with a schedule that is relatively favorable and a staff of hungry and diligent coaches, and this should be a memorable year for Bulldog fans.

 

Coaches

Two things stand out about the Bulldogs' coaching staff.  First and foremost is the stability brought by Richt, whose 14-year tenure is as long as any current SEC coach at a single school.  For a coach who is often underappreciated, Richt sure has demonstrated some staying power.

Conversely, the plethora of first-year assistants offers an equally intriguing element to the coaching staff.  The departure of former defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is well-documented and referenced often.  Less obvious is the fact that none of his assistants remain with the program.  When Jeremy Pruitt arrived from Florida State, he made quick work of finding talented assistants and filling his staff.

Already this coaching staff and its mix of old and new has cooperated on a number of fronts.  The group closed the 2014 signing class with a fantastic sprint to the finish line.  Collectively, this unit increased the intensity of practices by adding reps.  And the staff has not wavered from its traditionally high standard of conduct for players both on and off the field.

Now, the most daunting task lies ahead.  The 2014 season will be about players stepping up, but these coaches—and not just the new ones—must prove themselves as well.

 

What to Watch For on Offense

Hopefully, the theme for this year is "more of the same" from offensive coordinator Mike Bobo.  Star quarterback Aaron Murray may be gone, but fifth-year senior Hutson Mason seems more than ready to take over one of the most prolific offenses in the SEC.

At running back, a five-headed monster will be captained by Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley.  The junior running back has accounted for 2,932 yards of offense and 33 total touchdowns on just 440 touches.  If he stays healthy and gets enough carries, Gurley will run all the way to New York for the Heisman ceremony.

Interestingly enough, his own teammates may keep him from getting the statistics needed to compete for the nation's most prestigious award.  He'll be joined in the backfield by:

  • Keith Marshall: 1,207 yards of offense, 11 TDs over two years.
  • Brendan Douglas: 517 yards of offense and four TDs as a true freshman last year.
  • Nick Chubb: The nation's sixth-best running back in the class of 2014 per 247Sports.
  • Sony Michel: The nation's third-best running back in the class of 2014 per 247Sports.

Mason will have plenty of weapons in the passing game as well. Michael Bennett and Chris Conley are two of the more consistent receiving threats of the Mark Richt era.  Both players have been major contributors over the past three seasons.  

Meanwhile, Justin Scott-Wesley and Malcolm Mitchell, arguably Georgia's two best big-play threats in the passing game, should be back from knee injuries at some point.  

Mitchell suffered a minor setback during fall camp, but Scott-Wesley is making strides, which Mark Richt pointed out to Seth Emerson of the Ledger-Enquirer, saying, "He gets work.  We just don't have him in a contact situation right now.  He's getting better.  We're just not ready to get him in a full-speed situation right now."

Assuming the offensive line can stay healthy, this should once again be an explosive offense.  The run/pass balance may move slightly toward the ground game, but Bobo will strive to keep defenses on their toes.  

 

What to Watch For on Defense

The new defense is still very much a work in progress under Pruitt. Coming into fall camp, the front seven was expected to be the cornerstone of this unit.  As Chip Towers of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution observed earlier this week, even the front half of the defense is chaotic:

The defensive line situation was kind of hard to figure. I hardly ever saw the Bulldogs line up in a traditional three- or four-man front, with a nose, tackle and end. Sometimes [Jordan] Jenkins was in a stance at an end position and often an end like Sterling Bailey or Josh Dawson was lineup inside as a 3-technique tackle. The one consistency I saw was senior Mike Thornton was almost always the nose with the No. 1 defense and looked very quick and effective in that role. Big John Atkins also stood out and even came up with an interception off a batted pass at one point. This is going to be a very interesting group to watch under Tracy Rocker’s tutelage.

It should come as no surprise that it took some time for the secondary to settle in as well.  After three defensive backs with starting experience (Josh Harvey-Clemons, Shaq Wiggins, Tray Matthews) left the program and another (Brendan Langley) moved to offense, this unit was in need of a makeover.  It certainly got one thanks to three newcomers—Shattle Fenteng, Dominick Sanders and Aaron Davis—who are slated to be atop the depth chart in the secondary.

Ultimately, Pruitt will move a lot of pieces in a lot of different places to show a lot of different looks.  That's what made his attacking defense so successful at Florida State last year.  Accordingly, it's conceivable that every player on the three-deep depth chart could become a factor in any given situation.  Watching that develop should be a unique experience for Georgia fans, especially if it yields on-field results.

 

Injury News

A number of players, led by Marshall, are back from season-ending 2013 injuries, but a few remain sidelined.  Keep an eye on the health of the following players:

The most permanent injury news relates to Merritt Hall, who was medically disqualified last week.  He will be missed as a fierce lead blocker from his fullback position.

As for the other three offensive stars, outlooks are relatively optimistic. While it's unlikely that all three are on the field against Clemson, that possibility has not been completely ruled out.  Rome seems the closest to seeing the field, followed by Scott-Wesley, who has at least been on the field running routes.

Ideally and realistically, getting two of these three Dawgs back in time for the trip to South Carolina on September 13 would be a huge bonus for Georgia.

 

X-Factor

While it would be easy to identify Mason as the team's X-factor in his first full season as the starter under center, fans for the most part know what to expect out of him—poise and sound decision-making.

To the contrary, two Bulldogs who recently changed positions could add tremendous but unmeasured value to the team in 2014.

Last year, J.J. Green racked up nearly 500 yards of offense as a running back, spelling Gurley and Marshall as they battled injuries. This year, he's a defensive back.  

The move, which was initiated by Green, could tremendously help a defensive secondary desperately in need of athleticism and playmaking ability.  He showed both of those attributes last year, and he's already put himself in a position to play in Pruitt's secondary.

On the offensive side of the ball, look for Hicks to add another wrinkle to Bobo's ever-evolving offense.  As a tight end, H-back or even his familiar fullback spot, look for Hicks to be used more often than he was in 2013.  Hicks showed flashes of stardom early in the season last year, but prolonged struggles in pass protection kept him off the field.  This year, he should be in position to succeed.

 

2014 Schedule

 

Make-or-Break Games

Most experts believe that either Georgia or South Carolina will win the SEC East.  With the programs at Florida and Tennessee struggling to regain momentum and Missouri needing to restock a host of weapons, that assumption is not entirely unfounded.  

Accordingly, Georgia's battle with the Gamecocks is greatly important.  South Carolina has a more difficult overall schedule, so a loss to Steve Spurrier and Co. won't necessarily doom the Dawgs' chances of winning the division, but an early-season win sure would be nice. 

Additionally, a win against Florida is always nice.  Georgia has won three consecutive matchups with the Gators for the first time since 1987-1989, but a fourth win would be especially sweet.  This is always an unpredictable game.  Even last year, when Florida floundered to a 4-8 record, Georgia barely managed to survive.  A loss to the Gators in 2014 could break the Bulldogs' season.

And of course, Georgia would love to exact revenge for a heartbreaking 2013 loss at Auburn.  By most accounts, big things are expected out of the Tigers in 2014, but Georgia almost ruined their dream season last year.  Payback would be especially sweet within the cozy confines of Sanford Stadium.

 

Prediction

The accuracy of two specific assumptions will define the 2014 season for the Georgia Bulldogs.  

First and foremost, the offense must continue to perform at the level fans have grown accustomed to.  Murray may be gone and the ground game may get more carries this year, but the Dawgs need to continue to march down field on long, methodical drives.

Secondly, the Georgia defense must take steps forward under Jeremy Pruitt.  Most expect the unit to improve, and many hope it already has. But these dreams need to come to fruition for the team to maximize its potential.

Neither of those assumptions is a given, but it's not unreasonable to presume satisfaction in both areas either.

Without question, the most daunting game on the schedule is the trip to South Carolina.  Outside of that outing, Georgia may be favored in every game on the schedule.  An accommodating schedule also gives Georgia a relatively easy seven-game stretch from September 20 through November 8.

Continued offensive prowess, an improving defense and a favorable schedule will yield an 11-1 regular-season record (7-1 in SEC play) with a lone loss coming to South Carolina.  Despite the loss to a division rival, this should be enough to get the Dawgs back to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.

Todd Gurley won't win the Heisman Trophy, as he won't have the numbers to captivate voters in an increasingly stat-driven contest.  He will, however, win the Doak Walker Award as the best running back in the nation.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Meet Nebraska's New Starters for 2014

Just like the changing of the leaves, every year Nebraska fans can count on seeing new starters shine. So as the new season is less than two weeks (!!) away, it’s time to look and see which new players will be getting the nod to start for Nebraska.

Of course, without an official depth chart, some of these are guesses (or as we call them in the business, “informed analytical speculation”). Areas of the team that are unlisted have all returning starters.

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