NCAA Football

Big Ten Football Q&A: Who's the B1G's Dark-Horse National Title Contender?

Michigan's spring game has come and gone, Northwestern and Minnesota will each play their annual exhibitions this weekend and before you know it, we'll officially be in the longest—and least eventful—portion of the college football offseason: summer conditioning.

So while college football is still in the news—at least as much as it can be during spring practice—let's enjoy it with another edition of Big Ten Q&A. This week we'll tackle the conference's national championship dark horse, the best Big Ten sleeper pick in the upcoming NFL draft, the league's most overrated and underrated teams and whether one Big Ten team was more talented than a certain NFL roster was a year ago?

As always, you can send your questions to me each week on Twitter @BenAxelrod.

Let's get started.

 

Outside of the Buckeyes and Wolverines, I actually do think there is one other Big Ten team capable of making a national title run in 2016.

But after the way Iowa closed its 2015 campaign, the reality is that I have no idea what to make of the Hawkeyes' prospects in the coming year.

Starting with the negative, Iowa's 45-16 loss to Stanford in January's Rose Bowl left plenty of doubt about the program being on the same level as college football's elite while simultaneously lending credence to the theory that the Hawkeyes' 12-0 regular-season record was more of a matter of happenstance than sustainable progress in the program.

If Iowa looked so overmatched on the national stage, how could it be counted on in a playoff scenario where it would not only be forced to face a team as talented as Stanford, but also one as dominant as Alabama or Clemson?

At the same time, however, the Hawkeyes have a lot working in their favor in 2016.

Most notably, Iowa will return 72 percent of its production on both offense and defense from 2015, according to SBNation's Bill Connelly. That's good for the third-most returning production in all the Big Ten in 2016 and the most of any team in the league to possess a winning record a year ago.

Quarterback C.J. Beathard will be back in Iowa City, as will Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Desmond King. Perhaps most importantly, Wisconsin, arguably Iowa's biggest threat in the Big Ten West, faces a schedule so tough in the coming year that it's tough to imagine the Badgers being in the hunt for the division crown by year's end.

Conversely, the Hawkeyes' schedule is much more manageable, with matchups with Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska all coming inside the friendly confines of Kinnick Stadium. If Iowa can survive that and pull off what would likely be an upset in the conference title game over the representative from the superior Big Ten East, the Hawkeyes could find themselves in the College Football Playoff after missing out on football's final four by just one game a year ago.

From there, anything could happen. But after last season's Rose Bowl, I'm not necessarily holding my breath on an Iowa national title run in 2016.

 

Here are a few mid-late-round Big Ten prospects to keep an eye on:

 

Carl Nassib, Penn State

It's rare that a Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year with 15.5 sacks in his senior season would fly under the radar. But given his status as a former walk-on and questions as to whether or not he was even the best defensive lineman on the Nittany Lions roster last season, that's exactly where Carl Nassib finds himself at the moment.

While he's currently projected by CBSSports.com as a second- or third-rounder, you can't teach 6'7", 277 pounds. You also don't tally 15.5 sacks by accident—so don't be surprised if Nassib makes an instant impact in his college career.

 

Aaron Burbridge, Michigan State

After a largely inconsistent career in East Lansing, Aaron Burbridge saved his best for last, catching 85 balls for 1,258 yards and seven touchdowns in his senior season. Still, questions about his lack of consistency and injury history haunt him, as he's currently projected as a third-fourth round pick by CBSSports.com.

A former 4-star prospect, Burbridge has the talent and, as last season showed, is more than capable of making an impact when he's on the field. If he can manage to continue to do just that, an NFL team could find itself with a first-round talent in one of the middle rounds.

 

Nick Vannett, Ohio State

Ohio State's use of its tight ends—or lack thereof—has been a long-running joke in Columbus, and Nick Vannett's production over the course of his college career shows why. Despite his apparent talent, the 6'6", 260-pounder only caught 55 balls for 535 yards and six touchdowns over the course of his four seasons with the Buckeyes.

As a result of his lack of production, Vannett's draft stock has slid, with CBSSports.com currently projecting him to be a third-round pick. But according to Bleacher Report's Matt Miller, he's comparable to at least one former first-rounder, which could make him another potential steal in the upcoming draft.

 

Starting with the overrated, I'm going to go with Wisconsin, although as a whole I really like the Badgers roster and the direction of their program. Despite his disappointing junior campaign, I believe Corey Clement will achieve star status in 2015 and that Bart Houston should fill in seamlessly for Joe Stave at quarterback.

That schedule, however, is too much to ignore.

Even aside from a season opener against LSU, I can't imagine a Big Ten team ever having a tougher start to conference play than Wisconsin has in 2016. Not only are the Badgers' three cross-divisional games this season against the three best teams in the Big Ten East (Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State) but Wisconsin starts its Big Ten slate with those three games, in order.

After that, it doesn't get much easier, with a trip to Iowa City to face the defending Big Ten West champion, Iowa, on October 22. As talented as Wisconsin is, a 2-6 start to the season isn't out of the realm of possibility.

As far as underrated goes, I've already made the case for Nebraska as the potential Big Ten West champ, so let me give you another team from the division to keep an eye on: Minnesota.

Despite last season's 5-7 regular season record, I still like the direction the Golden Gophers are heading, as last year's disappointing results can largely be blamed on the mess that came with former head coach Jerry Kill being forced to step down due to health reasons midseason. As Kill's former defensive coordinator, new Minnesota head coach Tracy Claeys can allow the Gophers to maintain continuity while still putting his own updated stamp on the program.

With quarterback Mitch Leidner back for his third season as a starter, Minnesota should have a shot at contending for the division crown this season. In total, the Big Ten West should be a lot better than most people think—even with the Badgers' brutal schedule.

 

This question was written in jest—I think—and in reference to how often Cleveland Browns fans clamor for their favorite team to pick players from nearby Ohio State.

But given that the Buckeyes could have as many as seven players picked in the first round later this month, there's actually something to explore here.

As early as the Browns preseason last summer, it struck me just how little talent their roster possessed compared to the defending national champion (Ohio State) I was in the midst of covering. It seems that every year it gets asked whether or not a college team could beat an NFL team and each time the answer is a resounding "no."

But as far as whose roster I'd rather have moving forward, I could certainly make a compelling case for the Buckeyes.

Just look at it from a position-by-position breakdown as far as Ohio State's draft-eligible players are concerned:

Would you rather have Robert Griffin III or Cardale Jones? I could argue that's a wash.

Isaiah Crowell or Ezekiel Elliott? I'm definitely taking Elliott.

Brian Hartline, Andrew Hawkins and Taylor Gabriel or Mike Thomas, Braxton Miller and Jalin Marshall? Give me the Buckeyes.

Gary Barnidge or Nick Vannett? I'd stick with Barnidge.

Joe Thomas or Taylor Decker? Given age and Decker's status as a likely first-round pick, I'd take him.

Barkevious Mingo, Paul Kruger and Danny Shelton or Joey Bosa, Adolphus Washington and Darron Lee? I'd take the Ohio State players.

Joe Haden, Tramon Williams and Justin Gilbert or Eli Apple, Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell? I'd give the Browns the edge, but it's closer than you'd think.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that if the Browns were to flip rosters with the Buckeyes, they actually might be in better shape moving forward than they are now.

Now I guess the real question is whether that says more about the rosters in Cleveland or Columbus at the moment.

 

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

10 Starting Quarterbacks Most Likely to Lose Their Jobs Before End of 2016

Spring football is a time for competition. Fifteen practices and no games to prepare for give college football coaches a chance to push players who they aren’t happy with or give younger players an opportunity to win a starting role. The quarterback position is not immune from this phenomenon.

Each spring, programs across America hold quarterback competitions for a variety of reasons—a former starter returning from injury, an ineffective starter, the graduation of the previous starter o the separation of two similar players. This spring is no different.

A number of intriguing, high-profile competitions are taking place, and some are certain to shuffle the starting quarterback ranks while ruffling some feathers. Here’s a look at 10 starting quarterbacks who are most likely to lose their jobs by the end of the 2016 season, if not well before.

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Early 2016 Win-Loss Record Projections for Every SEC Football Team

It's never too early to make predictions, and you'd better believe around water coolers and chat rooms across the Southeast that folks are talking about how their favorite SEC football teams are going to fare once September rolls around.

So, why can't we go ahead and make our way-too-early predictions?

Everybody wants to know whether Alabama can repeat as the national champion. Which Florida will show up in '16—the one that started so hot or the one that couldn't muster any points as the season progressed?

What will Georgia look like without Mark Richt on the sideline during the Kirby Smart regime? Can Barry Odom return Missouri to its SEC East-leading form of 2013 and '14 after Gary Pinkel's final season in Columbia was disastrous?

The other Columbia didn't fare too well either in Steve Spurrier's finale. Is Will Muschamp the answer?

Tennessee (again) has tons of hype surrounding it, and Ole Miss looks like a full-fledged yearly contender under coach Hugh Freeze, but the Rebels still need to get to Atlanta for the first time in order for us to take them seriously.

With a top-tier nonconference slate, the league will try to prove its dominance once again after a strong bowl showing in 2015. There is a ton of quarterback and coaching turnover, but the SEC appears primed to flex its talent superiority again.

Let's take a look at what could be in store for every program once spring practice, summer workouts and fall camp give way to real football.

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Ohio State Football: Can Mike Weber Emerge as the Buckeyes' Featured RB?

Ohio State has fielded one of the most devastatingly productive rushing attacks in the country since 2012—the year Urban Meyer took over as head coach—and much of that success is tied directly to the Buckeyes' featured running back.

From 2012-13, that role belonged to Carlos Hyde, who rumbled his way to 2,689 total yards and 35 touchdowns.

Over the last two seasons, it was Ezekiel Elliott who led the charge, and he put together historically great numbers with 4,125 total yards and 41 touchdowns from 2014-15.

With Elliott making an early jump to the NFL, Meyer and the Buckeyes have a lot of questions in their backfield.

Mike Weber is trying to emerge as the answer.

The 5'10", 215-pound bulldozer was rated as a high 4-star prospect for the class of 2015, and he became one of the crown jewels of last year's Ohio State recruiting haul when he chose Meyer over Jim Harbaugh and the home-state Michigan Wolverines.

It didn't take Weber long to show his talent.

In fall camp last year, Weber shot up the depth chart despite being part of the program for a couple of months. He flexed his muscle in one of Ohio State's fall scrimmages, saying he ran the ball 15 times for nearly 200 yards with "a few touchdowns," according to Dave Biddle of 247Sports.

Everything was lining up for him to become Elliott's primary backup and get some playing time in his first season in Columbus.

He was the second true freshman to lose his black stripe, joining offensive tackle Isaiah Prince as an official member of the team, and he factored in as a nice change-of-pace back to the lightning-fast Elliott.

But Weber suffered a torn meniscus that required surgery before the start of the season, an injury that was expected to cost him three to four weeks, per Eleven Warriors' Eric Seger. But that, paired with Elliott's ability to carry the load, led to a redshirt and a season on the sideline for the talented running back.

That setback gave Weber the opportunity to sit back and learn from one of the most productive running backs in school history, and after Ohio State's 44-28 thrashing of Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, he talked about his lost year and expectations for 2016, according to Ari Wasserman of Cleveland.com:

I started off really good. I kind of caught on to the college speed of the game really quick and was basically running the ball really good. The injury slowed me down a little bit. It kind of set me back this whole year and maybe pushed me toward a redshirt.

But if I had to do it again, I'd be a redshirt because I learned from Zeke and the guys in front of me. I just sat back and watched those guys. I am just going to let it all loose next year.

Now that he's fully healthy, he's vying to become the next great running back under Meyer at Ohio State. But he's in the thick of a heated position battle with senior Bri'onte Dunn, a career backup who's not taking what is likely his last opportunity for a starting position lightly.

With spring practice winding down, neither Weber nor Dunn have surged ahead to become the clear starter, and questions about whether Ohio State should implement a two-headed running back attack have surfaced.

"Will we get to that point? I don't know," Ohio State running backs coach Tony Alford said, according to Seger. "I guess the question you're asking is if we'll do it by committee? I don't have that answer right now."

Alford expanded more on what each running back brings to the offense.

"Mike’s probably a little more of a slasher," Alford said, via Tony Gerdeman of The Ozone. "He slides off of things a little better than Bri’onte. Bri’onte is more of a downhill, just a plugger. They both can do the jobs that we need them to do in this offense."

If Weber proves to be more of a home run hitter, he'd be the better fit for a featured role in an offense that's replacing eight starters from last year's team.

And if recent history is any indication, Weber could be in for some huge numbers in 2016 and beyond.

 

All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports

David Regimbal is the lead Ohio State football writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Biggest Recruiting Visits Planned for Spring Football Games

Spring games present an opportunity for college football coaching staffs to gauge roster strengths and weaknesses well in advance of the season. These events are also key in recruiting efforts, as prospects across the country join fans in the bleachers for an early look at 2016 squads. 

Several premier high school playmakers will be on the move during upcoming weekends, and their on-campus experiences could prove pivotal when decisions are finalized on national signing day. Here's a look at 10 coveted recruits expected to attend spring games.

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Best Neutral-Site Games for 2016 College Football Season

Whether you view them as a necessary evil or a fun growing tradition in college football, neutral-site games are bigger than ever before.

More and more powerhouses across the country are meeting up at NFL stadiums or other monstrous venues to square off in early-season showdowns that command plenty of eyeballs and revenue. 

But the concept of a neutral-site game isn't new by any stretch. Some historic rivalry games between bitter foes have been contested at off-campus sites for years now, and they always seem to provide atmospheres unlike any other.

In 2016, college football's jam-packed opening weekend will nearly reach double digits in neutral-site games, returning to familiar sites such as AT&T Stadium and the Georgia Dome. Other games will start new trends elsewhere, including a historic NFL stadium and, a week later, a NASCAR race track.

Here are the 10 best neutral-site games coming our way in the 2016 season, listed in order by date. Tell us which ones you're looking forward to the most in the comments below. 

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College Football Rivalry Games That Won't Even Be Close in 2016

Rivalry games in college football tend to transcend records, throwing those aside to put center stage the passion between (and hatred toward) schools who share a long playing history. Regardless of how the rest of the year goes, winning a rivalry game makes for a memorable season.

Too bad some of these games are apt to be quite one-sided in 2016.

For every rivalry game that goes down to the wire, there will be some that aren't even close. This is because one of the principles is much better than the other, and though anything can happen in these games, right now they have the potential of being lopsided.

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4-Star WR Tarik Black Breaks Down Top 5, Upcoming Visit Plans

Scholarship offers piled up for prized Connecticut prospect Tarik Black during the past two years. The 4-star wide receiver, facing a rapidly intensifying recruitment, opted to simplify things last weekend.

"This recruiting process has become pretty overwhelming, so I decided it was time to narrow it down and take some stress off myself," he told Bleacher Report.

Black, a 6'4", 208-pound junior at Cheshire Academy, elected to announce five favorites on Twitter:

The list features, alphabetically, Alabama, Michigan, Notre Dame, Stanford and UCLA. At this stage, no member of the group has gained significant separation.

"All these schools are high on academics, have great football programs with excellent coaches who can help develop me into the receiver that I want to be and get me into the league," he said. "It makes it tough for me because all these schools pretty much have what I'm looking for."

Black has visited each top option at least once, with multiple trips to Michigan. Though this collection of schools is currently under his concentrated focus, he mentioned Georgia, Nebraska, Michigan State and Miami as teams that could make an impact if he's able to spend time on campus down the line. 

Though no dates are locked in at this stage, Black plans to be busy later this spring and into the summer. He hopes to develop a travel itinerary that takes him back to every favorite, aiming to attend as many camps as possible in order to develop a stronger feel for each respective coaching staff.

Black doesn't have a decision timeline in place and ultimately expects to use all five of his official visits.

"You only have one chance to go through this process, so it's important to make the most out of it and really understand your options," he said. 

Black, rated No. 15 among receivers and No. 95 overall in 247Sports' composite rankings, burst onto the scene as an underclassman. He tallied 97 total receptions as a freshman and sophomore, per MaxPreps, including 21 touchdown catches.

We documented his impressive skill set during film studies earlier this year as part of Bleacher Report's CFB Future 100 breakdown:

This level of hip fluidity is typically reserved for receivers of a smaller stature, setting him apart from several contemporaries who stand in the 6'4" range. His route running is legitimately polished, and Black effectively incorporates savvy shoulder shimmies that throw defenders off his beat for brief moments, often providing him with a stride or two of cushion as the quarterback targets him downfield.

Black broke down each team in his top five during a discussion with B/R, providing a glimpse of what stands out about each program.

 

Alabama

The Crimson Tide extended a scholarship offer before the end of his sophomore year, creating major buzz for Black on a national stage. Wisconsin, West Virginia and Virginia Tech each offered within a week of Alabama.

"They came in really early in my recruiting process," he said. "When a big school does that you appreciate it a lot. It was the offer that made me kind of blow up in recruiting."

Black pointed to the program's recent prolific pass-catchers as proof of what's possible in Tuscaloosa.

"That coaching staff can make me the best receiver I can be," he said. "Julio Jones, Amari Cooper and Calvin Ridley made a ton of plays down the field there. If you play there, you can win a title and get into the league, so that's very intriguing."

 

Michigan

The Wolverines land on yet another top prospect's list of favorites, serving further evidence of the momentum Michigan has built following a 10-win season and a top-five 2016 recruiting class. Black admits he was impressed by the swift rebound enjoyed in Ann Arbor last fall.

"Looking back at Michigan before [head coach Jim] Harbaugh got there, they've progressed so much," he said. "That has a lot to do with the coaching staff he put together. They have NFL experience. Michigan is on the rise and I can definitely see them being a national title contender within the next two years or so."

Though he's yet to establish substantial communication with 5-star Wolverines quarterback commit Dylan McCaffrey, Black is looking for a situation much like what Michigan is developing on its depth chart.

"I definitely want to play with a pro-style QB. That's just my preference," he said. 

McCaffrey is rated No. 1 overall among pro-style passers in the 2017 composite rankings. Brandon Peters, a Wolverines freshman who enrolled early, was No. 6 at the position in 2016's composite rankings and earned recognition as a U.S. Army All-American Player of the Year finalist.

 

Notre Dame

Black is searching for well-rounded universities and believes it's difficult to contend with Notre Dame in that department. He pointed to the school's blend of education, career development and football tradition as main motivating factors to feature it as a favorite.

"Their academics are great and the networking is global," he said. "From a football aspect, they're always top 10 in the country, they pass the ball a lot and the coaching staff does a great job."

His interest also arises from the Fighting Irish's unique scheduling situation. Black knows a career at Notre Dame would include a widespread slate of opponents, along with the national spotlight. 

"I like that they're independent because you get to play teams from the ACC, Pac-12 and all over the place," he said. "That's definitely a plus."

 

Stanford

In his search for an academic fit, Black acknowledges Stanford has few peers on the recruiting trail.

"It's like the Harvard of the West Coast," he said.

He journeyed to Palo Alto in late February for a junior-day event, gaining a positive sense of the school's community.

"When I was out there, I really enjoyed the atmosphere," Black said. "They were very welcoming and I can definitely tell that I'm a priority for them. They haven't offered many receivers. I like their pro-style offense and think that could be a good fit for me."

Stanford signed No. 3 pro-style passer KJ Costello in February and, last month landed a commitment from coveted Georgia quarterback Davis Mills. Rated No. 4 among pro-style prospects in the 2017 rankings, Mills developed a connection with Black early in high school.

They teamed up as freshmen competitors in a youth All-American game, maintaining contact since. Mills and Black attended Stanford's junior day together and their rapport could play a big role in this recruitment.

"I have a great relationship with Davis and he's definitely on me right now to go to Stanford," Black said.

 

UCLA

The Bruins present another legitimate landing spot on the West Coast. Along with pleasant weather and Pac-12 competition, Black pointed directly at UCLA's starting quarterback as motivation to explore the program further.

Josh Rosen, rated the No. 1 overall quarterback recruit in 2015, largely lived up to immense hype as a true freshman in Los Angeles. He completed 60 percent of pass attempts for 3,670 yards and 23 touchdowns.

Viewed long term as a potential top-tier NFL draft pick, Rosen may ultimately be tempted to depart college early in 2018. Regardless of how that dynamic plays out, Black is compelled by the possibility of running routes for one of the country's premier young passers. 

"They throw the ball a lot with Josh Rosen, so any receiver should be interested," he said. "If I was to go there, I could get at least a year in with him."

 

Quotes obtained firsthand by Bleacher Report National Recruiting Analyst Tyler Donohue. All player ratings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings. Follow Tyler via Twitter: @TDsTake. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

What Clemson Needs to Show in Tigers' 2016 Spring Game

In some ways, Dabo Swinney's Clemson Tigers are in a familiar spot heading into Saturday's spring finale at Memorial Stadium.

They have several returning stars at offensive skill positions—including Heisman finalist Deshaun Watson—but the defensive depth chart needs to be almost completely rebuilt. Last year, Clemson was able to combine that offensive firepower and new defensive talent into an ACC champion and a national runner-up.

And those defending designations are what makes this year's Orange & White Game somewhat different, despite the old storylines of defensive question marks and exciting offensive talent. 

Instead of the consistent 10-win program still looking to get over the hump, Clemson pushed Alabama to the brink in the national title game. The Tigers will either be No. 1 or No. 2 in almost every preseason poll for 2016. "Clemsoning" is lying cold in its grave.

When the Tigers return to Death Valley on Saturday afternoon for their annual spring scrimmage, observers in the stadium and all across the country will want to see some answers.

Here are three major things Clemson needs to show in Saturday's spring game as the hype train continues to build for last year's ACC champion. 

 

Tighter play in a new-look secondary

As Clemson rebuilds two main areas of its defense heading into the 2016 season, one of its biggest focal points will be limiting opponents' big plays.

For a defense that finished 17th nationally in yards allowed per play last year, the Tigers were vulnerable to some explosive gains. They ranked 102nd in allowing plays of 20-plus yards and 90th in plays of more than 30 yards. Of the 71 plays of 20 or more yards, 48 of them were passes.

While Clemson played one game more than any other team in college football except for Alabama last season, those high numbers will still be unacceptable for the coaching staff. According to David M. Hale of ESPN.com, more than half of the total yardage Clemson allowed last year came on just 71 of 968 snaps faced.

"Alabama didn't have any busts," Swinney said earlier this spring, per Hale. "We didn't have guys running free. We earned every yard we got. But that's one of the regrets we have is that we could’ve done a better job in certain areas [on defense], and that's accountability for all of us."

So as Clemson looks to replace three starters from last year's secondary—cornerback Cordrea Tankersley is the only one to return—the Tigers are looking at the situation as a clean slate on miscommunication issues.

With Adrian Baker, who started a few games at corner last year, sidelined with an ACL injury, Clemson has had to develop some new blood in a question-filled back four.

One of the leading candidates to replace shutdown cornerback Mackensie Alexander is sophomore Mark Fields, who won the "fastest man" title at Nike's The Opening in 2014. His physical gifts aren't in question, but Fields needs to show at the spring game that he's ready to take on plenty of responsibility in coverage.

As Ryan Carter and Marcus Edmond continue to push for playing time with Tankersley and Fields at cornerback, the safety positions are currently led by Van Smith and Jadar Johnson. Smith had a couple of bright performances against Miami and UNC last year, while Johnson is an experienced backup who came down with two picks in 2015.

On Saturday, whoever lines up in the secondary will be consistently tested by one of the deepest and most talented offenses in the entire country for 2016. While the defensive backs won't be expected to shut their teammates down, Clemson will want to see better communication and fewer busted plays.

"If it's guys making great plays, that's ball," Swinney said, per Hale. "You tip your hat. But when it's guys not doing what they're supposed to do, not lining up the right way, eyes on the wrong thing—those are things we have to evaluate as a staff."

 

New stars on the edge

Talented defensive ends come and go on nearly every team, but none have bigger shoes to fill than the ones left at Clemson.

Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, now headed to the NFL, were respectively No. 1 and No. 2 nationally in tackles for loss a season ago. Average it out to TFLs per game, and both are firmly in the top five.

Only one other team, Arizona State, had two players in the top 10. The Sun Devils will return one of those players in Salamo Fiso, but the Tigers will not. The top defensive end in tackles for loss heading into 2016 is Austin Bryant, who recorded two last season.

Simply put, Clemson has to prove it can continue to pump out surefire stars on the edges, which has been one of its hallmarks over its streak of double-digit-win seasons.

Bryant is the easiest call as a potential starter because of the experience he gained last season as a freshman. When the Tigers needed him to replace an injured Lawson at the Orange Bowl, he did the job well, looking strong against the run and finding ways to get after Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield.

But the player who should command the most attention at defensive end in Saturday's spring game is Christian Wilkins. Although he's a tackle by trade, Wilkins is freakishly athletic for a 6'4", 315-pound underclassman—remember, he had a 31-yard reception on a fake punt in the Orange Bowl and can do a little kicking:

With the depth the Tigers have on the interior and the emergence of early enrollee Dexter Lawrence as a potential Day 1 player, Wilkins has been able to practice some at end. The results have been encouraging for the staff, who watched him come up with two tackles for loss at end in a recent scrimmage.

"He's done well," defensive coordinator Brent Venables said, per Scott Keepfer of the Greenville News. "He looks good there. He can bend, move his feet. He's strong."

Richard Yeargin, Clelin Ferrell and Xavier Kelly will be among those also competing for playing time there as well. For Clemson, it'll be the more the merrier at defensive end, and Saturday's spring game will be a perfect launching point for some new stars on the edges.

 

Even more offensive playmakers

Clemson's offense for the 2016 season should be beyond loaded. When it comes to returning production on a team that averaged more than 500 yards and five touchdowns per game, few in college football can compare.

That returning talent goes beyond the heavily hyped first-team offense.

Watson's two backup quarterbacks are both back, as well as two of the four running backs who were behind Wayne Gallman in 2015. At receiver and tight end, nine of the 10 players who caught double-digit passes are back, pending Deon Cain's return to the team.

And while this should be Watson's first and last spring game in Memorial Stadium, Clemson shouldn't keep the first team out there for too long Saturday. When the reserves take the field, the work will continue to develop the additional high-quality depth needed on a championship-caliber team.

Clemson proved that last year when star receiver Mike Williams, who is back for the spring in a non-contact capacity, went down with a scary, season-ending neck injury in the opener against Wofford.

And when the aforementioned Bryant stepped in for Lawson, one of the nation's best defensive ends, the Tigers didn't miss a beat.

As the defense looks for many of its new first-teamers in the offseason, the offense can use this spring as an opportunity to establish waves of talent behind the star names.

At receiver, Brad Senkiw of the Independent Mail wrote that the reserves could eventually be as talented as the starters with the likes of Ray-Ray McCloud, Cain and Trevion Thompson. 

"You've got a lot of veteran guys out here going out and not having to think," Thompson said, per Senkiw. "A lot of people who have to come in thinking are kind of behind the 8-ball. Everybody knowing the plays, knowing the system; it's a great level of competition."

Whether it's C.J. Fuller, Adam Choice and Tyshon Dye battling it out for more reps behind Gallman or new tight end weapons to deploy with returning starter Jordan Leggett, Clemson would love to show Saturday that if something happens in the regular season, it can plug and play with the playmaking talent it has further developed this spring.

If the Tigers can do that and avoid any more injuries, then the Orange & White Game should be a success for Swinney and his championship-caliber squad.

 

Stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.

Justin Ferguson is a National College Football Analyst at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

SEC Extra Points: Satellite Camps Will Boost SEC Rivalries If Ban Is Lifted

The day of reckoning is almost upon us.

The practice of coaches guest-coaching at the camps of smaller colleges and high schools—commonly known as satellite camps—has become a hot-button issue ever since Penn State's James Franklin and Notre Dame's Brian Kelly headed south two summers ago and angered SEC nation.

Coaches in the SEC are forbidden from guest coaching in camps outside of their state borders or a 50-mile radius from campus for schools that are on state borders. 

The NCAA will vote this week and announce Friday whether the conference's push to ban the practice nationwide is successful. As Bleacher Report reported late last month, the SEC will lift its own ban on satellite camps on May 29 if the nationwide ban isn't adopted.

If it isn't, get ready for rivalries to crank up a notch or eight.

Michigan's Jim Harbaugh and Ohio State's Urban Meyer already have camps set up around the South, and several SEC head coaches including Georgia's Kirby Smart, Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin and Arkansas' Bret Bielema have already stated that they have plans in place if the ban is lifted.

That may seem like it's about to get heated with coaches and programs from other conferences, but don't be so sure of that.

The reason the SEC's rule is in place to begin with isn't to protect the fertile recruiting ground of the Southeast—it is to protect its own coaches from other coaches within the conference.

That means Sumlin could easily set up shop in Alabama head coach Nick Saban's backyard, Smart could head south to Florida where Gators' head coach Jim McElwain roams, and Malzahn could head to New Orleans where LSU head coach Les Miles routinely cleans up.

Welcome back to the days of Meyer vs. Lane Kiffin circa 2009, when coaches routinely sparred in the offseason to the point where former commissioner Mike Slive was forced to sit them all down at spring meetings and put an end to the madness.

If the conference allows satellite camps, history will repeat itself. 

Coaches will target high-profile players who are committed elsewhere and hold camps at or near their high schools. Coaches will target football factories such as IMG Academy in Brandenton, Florida, and try to lure the best of the best. Coaches will take all of it personally.

Get your popcorn ready.

 

Veterans Out Front

The four-man battle to replace Jake Coker as Alabama's starting quarterback appears to be veering more toward the veterans. 

According to Alex Byington of the Montgomery Advertiser, redshirt junior Cooper Bateman and redshirt sophomore David Cornwell have a bit of an edge on redshirt freshman Blake Barnett and true freshman Jalen Hurts thus far through spring practice.

"I think the guys with the most knowledge and experience played the best (in the most recent scrimmage)—when I say that I’m talking about Cooper Bateman, who’s been in the system the longest, and David Cornwell—they’ve probably played best," Saban said, according to Byington.

What does it mean?

Not much, especially when factoring in Saban's next sentence on the two youngsters.

"The two younger guys, even though they demonstrated they have a tremendous amount of upside in terms of the way they played, their consistency and performance, because of their confusion, lack of knowledge and experience, poise under pressure, whatever you want to talk about—which is not unusual, uncommon or surprising for young guys the first time they go out there," he said.

There's your money quote, because this year—unlike in years past when Alabama has had familiarity and experience at running back and center to help new quarterbacks—the Tide don't have the luxury of easing a veteran quarterback into the mix or letting the battle linger into the season.

The Crimson Tide open with Pac-12 South champion USC at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, host a dangerous Western Kentucky team that can put up points-a-plenty in Week 2 and visit Ole Miss—which has toppled the Tide in each of the last two seasons—in Week 3.

That offense needs to be clicking at a high level in mid-August, not the middle of the season.

Because of that, the upside the younger guys have shown needs to translate to consistency sooner rather than later. If it doesn't, Alabama could run the risk of dropping two games in September, which would put it out of the national title race. 

It doesn't have to be this spring. Barnett and Hurts could take charge during offseason workouts and take control of the job during the early stages of fall camp. But that upside has to be realized, because the specific roster holes on Alabama's offense coupled with the even more treacherous early-season gauntlet makes this quarterback race different than the previous two.

 

A Punch Line No More

Auburn's defense has been a laughingstock for the majority of head coach Gus Malzahn's tenure as the head coach on the Plains, but things changed last November. 

Over the final month of the season and the Birmingham Bowl win over the high-octane Memphis offense, Auburn gave up just 339 yards per game and 4.66 yards per play. The return of defensive end Carl Lawson from a hip injury played a big part of that success, and he returns with a deep group of defensive linemen including tackle Montravius Adams, tackle Dontavius Russell, upstart freshman Marlon Davidson and sophomore Byron Cowart.

"Besides my freshman year (2013), yes, this is the deepest we’ve ever been," Adams said, according to Brandon Marcello of SECCountry.com. "And this ain’t even everybody. We’ve still got three or four more guys coming in at tackle and end."

That should terrify fans of other teams, because Auburn proved in 2010 (when it finished with the best rush defense in the country and had tackle Nick Fairley living in the backfield) and 2013 (when it won the SEC and played for the national title) that a deep, talented and versatile defensive line is the perfect complement to the tempo-based offense that Malzahn employs.

The pieces are in place for Auburn to have the same kind of success in the trenches on defense. If Malzahn can just make the right call at quarterback and fix his predictable play-calling, this Auburn team can contend for the division title.

 

Godwin for the Win

Georgia desperately needs a wide receiver to emerge this offseason and become a deep threat in order to take pressure off the running game led by juniors Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, as well as whoever wins the starting quarterback job.

With a little more than a week to go in spring practice, sophomore Terry Godwin appears up for the challenge.

According to Seth Emerson of Dawg Nation, the 5'11", 174-pounder from Hogansville, Georgia, is being used in a variety of different ways by first-year offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.

Consider this a continuation from his last couple of outings.

Godwin caught eight passes for 78 yards in Georgia's win over Georgia Tech and followed it up with four catches, 34 receiving yards, one receiving touchdown and a 34-yard touchdown pass in the win over Penn State in the TaxSlayer Bowl.

Chaney is well-versed on creating mismatches for his wide receivers before the snap, including in 2012 at Tennessee when Cordarrelle Patterson caught 46 passes and carried the ball 26 times for the Volunteers. 

Godwin doesn't have the 6'3", 205-pound frame that Patterson had in his only year with Chaney on Rocky Top, but he could have the same impact.

 

Costly Experiment

LSU cornerback/special teams speedster Donte Jackson has been a busy man this spring, balancing spring football with track. Unfortunately for him and both of his teams, things have changed.

Ross Dellenger of the Advocate reported this week that Jackson, a 5'11", 167-pound sophomore who found his way into the rotation at defensive back last year and returned eight kickoffs for 164 yards, let his academics slip and is ineligible for the rest of the spring semester. According to Dellenger, Jackson should get back on track this summer and be ready for fall camp.

How concerned should LSU fans be?

Slightly.

After all, Jackson does have work to do in order to get back in good standing, and that's always an uphill battle. But he participated in most of spring practice before LSU discovered the issue with his grades, so a little bit of extra rest could actually help him get ready for his expanded role in 2016.

One of the fastest players in college football, Jackson will be a major contributor for an LSU defense that routinely uses three cornerbacks; he can also chip in on special teams and as a change-of-pace option for offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.

 

Quick Outs

  • Smart offered 18 players from IMG Academy at one time, according to Jeff Sentell of Dawg Nation. No, that's not a case of Smart following in the footsteps of Tennessee head coach Butch Jones, who did something similar in February. It's just a case of Smart making a big impression with recruits—which is his job.
  • Speaking of Tennessee, here's legendary Vol quarterback Peyton Manning singing "Rocky Top" at a bar with Lee Brice. 
  • Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen has replaced Miami head coach Mark Richt as the only coach on the NCAA's football oversight committee, ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg reports. The committee, which was created last year, is responsible for the enhancement of the educational and athletic experience of student-athletes.

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Statistics are courtesy of CFBStats.com, unless otherwise noted, and recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report, as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

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How Jim Harbaugh Brought the NFL to the Big Ten

When Tyrone Wheatley jumped Kentucky's Vince Marrow in 247Sports' rankings of the nation's top recruiting assistant coaches on Wednesday, it didn't come as much of a shock.

After all, the Michigan running backs coach has helped secure pledges from seven of the Wolverines' 11 commitments in what ranks as the nation's fifth-ranked class in the 2017 recruiting cycle.

What may be a surprise, however, is the realization this is only Wheatley's fifth full cycle on the recruiting trail—his second at Michigan following previous brief stints at Eastern Michigan and Syracuse, which were sandwiched between a stop as the Buffalo Bills running backs coach.

His experience is dwarfed by college counterparts and fellow ace recruiters such as Ohio State's Tony Alford, Oklahoma's Kerry Cooks and Florida State's Odell Haggins, each of whom possesses more than a decade's worth of tenure in the college ranks.

But when it comes to Jim Harbaugh's staff in Ann Arbor—and as evidenced by Wheatley's success—the less experience at the college level, the better. At least that's how it seems in Harbaugh's first 15 months at his alma mater, as NFL experience has turned into the Wolverines' most reliable recruiting weapon.

And the rest of the Big Ten has taken notice, with some even following suit.

Take one look at the Michigan coaching staff's resume, and extensive experience at the college level isn't as prevalent as one might think. In fact, the only Wolverines assistant to spend his entire coaching career in the college ranks is the staff's newest member, defensive coordinator Don Brown, who was hired to replace D.J. Durkin this past offseason.

With former high school coach Chris Partridge having just been promoted to linebackers coach this offseason, eight of Michigan's 10 coaches—including Harbaugh—possess some form of NFL coaching experience.

"I think it does help that there has been NFL experience in our coaches' background," Harbaugh said on national signing day in 2015. "A lot of our players, that's one of their goals, to make it to the NFL."

The level of NFL experience for each Wolverines assistant varies, with some coaches, such as Wheatley and defensive line coach Greg Mattison, having spent just a few years at the pro level. Others—including offensive coordinator/passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch—possess more prominent NFL resumes. Harbaugh is a blend of both, having spent seven combined years at San Diego and Stanford before his four years with the San Francisco 49ers that preceded his return to Ann Arbor.

As one might expect, Harbaugh hasn't hidden his staff's NFL ties. Some of the Wolverines' most prominent recruiting materials have related to their track record in the professional ranks, whether it be promoting players that the staff produced to or coached at the next level.

"We don't discourage that," Harbaugh said of prospects' desire to play in the NFL. "In fact, we try to teach it."

Thus far, the results speak for themselves.

After failing to arrive in time to save Michigan's 2015 class, Harbaugh and his staff went to work on the 2016 cycle early, ultimately securing the nation's fifth-ranked class, including the country's No. 1 overall prospect, 5-star defensive tackle Rashan Gary. As relayed to Bleacher Report's Tyler Donohue, several of the Wolverines' prized players chose Harbaugh and his staff based on their NFL acumen.

"You're going to get coached on an NFL level, and your football IQ will be high, if not the highest, coming out of college," 3-star linebacker Elysee Mbem-Bosse said.

"Coach Harbaugh and his staff set themselves apart with me by installing a pro-like system," added 4-star defensive end Ron Johnson.

With 10 months to go until the next national signing day, Michigan already appears well on its way toward putting together a 2017 class that could rival—if not surpass—its predecessor. Thanks in large part to the efforts of Wheatley, the Wolverines lay claim to commitments from three 4-star prospects, as well as the nation's top pro-style passer prospect in 5-star quarterback Dylan McCaffrey.

Perhaps it's not a coincidence that with the success Michigan has found with its pro-centric approach, other programs across the Big Ten have attempted to emulate a similar staff makeup. Illinois' hiring of Lovie Smith brought an NFL-caliber staff to Champaign, while Nebraska's Mike Riley—a former NFL coach—filled two vacancies in Lincoln this offseason with assistants with NFL experience.

Even at Ohio State, the one Big Ten school to still out-recruit the Wolverines since Harbaugh's arrival, Urban Meyer's has added professional experience to his staff's recruiting repertoire. After defensive coordinator Chris Ash took the head coaching job at Rutgers, the Buckeyes head coach brought on Greg Schiano, who last served as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach from 2012 to 2013.

"Any time you have [an NFL] guy, that's the catch name," Meyer said. "That's a big part of recruiting, that's a big part of just instantaneous respect. We're reliant, leaning on him quite a bit."

"If you're recruiting the right players, they want to play in the NFL, right?" Schiano said about what he brings to the staff. "That's the talent level that we recruit here at Ohio State. So I can hopefully give them the true picture of what it is."

The reality is that not just the players in the Big Ten are looking for that NFL experience from head coaches—the programs are searching for it too. That didn't seem to happen much until Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor with his NFL-caliber coaching staff and watched as the results on the recruiting trail followed.

Of course, accomplishing what Harbaugh has in such a short time is easier said than done. It's worth noting that few NFL coaches were as successful as he was during his time in the pros, where he helped lead the 49ers to three consecutive NFC title games and a Super Bowl appearance.

That, however, won't stop his Big Ten rivals from trying, especially as the NFL experience of coaches like Wheatley continues to pay dividends at the college level.

 

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

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Dalvin Cook Injury: Updates on FSU RB's Recovery from Shoulder Surgery

Florida State Seminoles running back Dalvin Cook is done for the remainder of spring practice thanks to a shoulder injury.

Continue for updates.

Cook Expected Back Before Fall Camp   Wednesday, April 6

Florida State can ill afford to lose superstar running back Cook for actual game action this season. Fortunately for Seminoles fans, Tim Linafelt of the school's official athletics website reported head coach Jimbo Fisher announced Cook is “expected back this summer” after shoulder surgery.

Fisher provided more details, via FSU Football:

There was plenty of hype surrounding Cook when he arrived at Florida State as a 5-star recruit, per 247Sports’ composite rankings. Thus far, he has lived up to that hype by eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark in each of his first two years on campus:

Cook carried the offense for stretches last season after quarterback Jameis Winston left for the NFL and proceeded to set a school record with 1,691 rushing yards. Cook rushed for more than 100 yards eight times and was particularly dominant against in-state schools, running for 266 yards and three scores against South Florida, 222 yards and two scores against Miami and 183 yards and two scores against Florida.

He also turned heads across the country when he compiled 194 rushing yards and a score against a Clemson Tigers squad that eventually played in the national championship game.

Cook finished seventh in Heisman Trophy voting in 2015 and has the sixth-best odds to win the award this season, per Odds Shark.

While Cook is expected back well before the season opener on Sept. 5 against Ole Miss, the Seminoles do have some depth at the running back position with Jacques Patrick and Jonathan Vickers.

Patrick found the end zone five times in his freshman season and averaged a solid five yards per carry behind Cook. Vickers is a physical backup who could pick up difficult yardage up the middle at 6’1” and 227 pounds.

Florida State has insurance policies in place, but it needs Cook back and healthy if it hopes to compete for an ACC title and a spot in the College Football Playoff.

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