NCAA Football

Tennessee Football Recruiting: Looking Ahead to 2016 Class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drayton himself acknowledged the difficulty of Weber’s circumstances.

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

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

Weber was understandably upset and took to Twitter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Follow @PCallihan

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

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

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

And they got them.

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

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

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

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Ohio State Football Recruiting: Looking Ahead to 2016 Class

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

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

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

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

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

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Michigan Football Recruiting: Looking Ahead to 2016 Class

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Top Offensive Candidates        

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Top Defensive Candidates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

All recruiting information—2016 commitmentstargets and offerscomes via 247Sports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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LSU Football Recruiting: Looking Ahead to 2016 Class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Explosiveness to Blow Up Plays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

More Than Just a Pass-Rusher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Still a Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Where Will Fowler Be Drafted?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Balance Over Power

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

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

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

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

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

 

Vision and Burst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Durability

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

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

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

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

 

Future Projection

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

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

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

 

All stats used are from sports-reference.com.

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

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Big Ten Football: Every Team's Most Important 2015 Recruit

The Big Ten signed 31 players from the national Top 250, but the best players aren't always the most important.

Certain lower-ranked recruits are more vital to their signing class—at least in the immediate future—because they fill a position of need. Over time, it's important that the blue-chip players develop. But for now, it's more important to plug every hole on the depth chart.

The list that follows includes the most important 2015 player from each Big Ten team's new class. It's a projection of whom each team needs the most production from next season. In other words, it's the player each team can least afford to bring along slowly.

Sound off below and let us know what you think.

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SEC Football: Every Team's Most Important 2015 Recruit

The SEC once again cleaned up in the recruiting aisle, landing more than half of the nation's 5-star prospects and placing five teams in the top 10 of 247Sports' composite team rankings. Alabama grabbed the top spot once again, while Auburn, Georgia, LSU and Tennessee also pulled in top-tier classes.

Stacking up the conference's future stars against those from other leagues is an easy comparison, but when looking internally to find which signee matters most to each team, there's more room for debate. Is it a player who can step in and contribute right away, someone who is looked at as the future of the program or simply a prospect who provides great depth and intriguing options?

Take a look at our picks for each SEC team's most important 2015 recruit, along with what to expect from them (if anything) as true freshmen this fall.

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Motekiai Langi Is Smart Recruiting Gamble for BYU Football

Despite not being a high-profile recruit, Motekiai Langi is one of the most intriguing prospects to watch from the 2015 class. He's also exactly the kind of player a school like BYU needs to be taking a chance on. 

Langi drew headlines on national signing day after committing to the Cougars, mainly because of his massive size, via BYU's official Twitter:

It's not unusual to see large athletes playing football, but a 6'7", 410-pound lineman is a rarity. For comparison, New England Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork is a mountain of a man who "only" checks in at 6'2" and 325 pounds.

What makes Langi so unique is his lack of football experience. BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall said with a tongue in cheek at a press conference, via Tony Manfred of Business Insider, what his plan for the new lineman will be.

"Maybe we'll just have him lay sideways right off the snap and just block the whole thing out," Mendenhall said. "There's got to be someway he can do something."

Mendenhall's recruitment of Langi was unique, as Kevin Draper of Deadspin noted the BYU coach made a scholarship offer after an assistant saw him play basketball.

"But there was a good reason [no one knew anything about Langi]: apparently his own future head coach has only spent 15 minutes with him, and he was recruited because a BYU assistant coach thought he was light on his feet during a game of pickup basketball two years ago," Draper wrote. 

Saying that Langi was off the radar this recruiting season is an understatement. On 247Sports, he's listed as the 247th offensive tackle and ranked 2,563 overall. There are no photos, and a scouting report is impossible because he didn't play organized football in high school.

Mendenhall told Jay Drew of The Salt Lake Tribune what he knows about Langi and why he wanted to take a chance on the young man.

"It is not a fat 410 [pounds]," Mendenhall said. "Lean isn't the right word. He is a solid-looking, healthy, giant man. I shook his hand, and his hand went almost up to my elbow. … I have never done anything like this before. … I just felt, why not?"

Drew also mentions that Langi won't enroll at BYU until 2017 because he "will serve an LDS Church mission in Arizona" first. 

The last question is critical to understanding why this is such a notable move for BYU. The Cougars aren't the kind of program that's going to attract the top-tier recruits. They ended signing day ranked 59th overall by 247Sports with 23 total commitments and 16 3-star recruits. 

Being an independent program has its benefits, as the school doesn't have to share revenue with other programs, but it's also limiting unless you're a prestige program like Notre Dame. 

Mendenhall has been able to build a consistent program over the last three years, winning 26 games and going 2-1 in bowl games. He's not going to lose anything by offering someone the coaching staff clearly sees a lot of potential in. 

If Langi turns out to be such a good athlete that he can handle himself against FBS competition, BYU will have gained more than it risked in this case. 

There's also something to be said about the publicity Langi's signing brought BYU. More national exposure can only help entice future recruits who may not have had the school high on their lists. Everything in sports is an opportunity. Mendenhall took full advantage of an opening he saw to upgrade his program. 

The jury is still out on whether Langi will work out, yet there's little doubt his journey when arriving at school in 2017 will be worth watching. 

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Bret Bielema, Arkansas Agree to New Contract: Latest Details and Reaction

Arkansas has reached an agreement with head football coach Bret Bielema on an additional two-year contract extension to keep him with the program through 2020.

Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports passed along word of the deal and provided updated dollar figures:

The school's official athletics site confirmed the extension and included comments from director of athletics Jeff Long about the decision:

Coach Bret Bielema is not only one of the best college football coaches in the nation, he is an outstanding leader. What Coach Bielema and his coaching staff have done for our young men, on and off the field, is something that has dramatically changed the course of our program and most importantly positively impacted the lives of our football student-athletes. He is building a championship program in a way that all Arkansans can be proud of. We look forward to his continued leadership of our football program and the many successes yet to come.

Bielema spent seven seasons at Wisconsin before leaving to join the SEC school. After going 68-24 with the Badgers, he posted a 3-9 record during his first season at Arkansas in 2013.

The Razorbacks showed signs of progress this past season, though. They went 7-6, including a blowout win over Texas in the Texas Bowl to cap off the season. They did it despite playing a very difficult schedule that featured eight games against ranked teams.

Arkansas clearly believed the program made enough positive strides to warrant adding onto Bielema's contract. In an era where the coaching carousel seemingly never stops spinning, these types of extensions are mostly a measure of good faith.

Bielema still has a lot of work to do in order to get the program into a position where it's consistently competitive in the deep, talented SEC. Arkansas made some movement in the right direction over his first two years.

It will be interesting to see if that trend continues next fall.

 

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Tyler Lockett Could Be the 2015 NFL Draft's Antonio Brown

An NFL team that is not planning to use its first-round pick in the 2015 NFL draft on a wide receiver, but is still hoping to land the next Antonio Brown or Odell Beckham Jr., should look no further than Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett.

Scouts, coaches and analysts who prioritize size for pass-catchers won’t rank Lockett highly on their draft boards. Lockett measured in at just 5’10” and 181 pounds at the Senior Bowl this January.

This past NFL season, however, was proof that bigger is not always better, at least for receivers.

Brown, who is just 5’10” and 186 pounds, led the NFL with 129 receptions for 1,698 yards as he led the Pittsburgh Steelers to a playoff berth. Beckham Jr., who is just 5’11” and 198 pounds, led the NFL with 108.8 yards per game as the New York Giants first-round pick posted one of the greatest rookie seasons ever.

In total, six of the NFL’s top 11 in receiving yards for the 2014 season measure in at less than six feet and less than 200 pounds.

Lockett’s not quite as explosive as Beckham Jr., and he won’t follow in Beckham Jr.’s footsteps of being a top-10 pick. But he could follow the lead of Brown, a 2010 sixth-round pick who has similar measurables and skills, and end up being one of the biggest draft steals of 2015.

 

Winning With Routes, Quickness and Body Control

It’s reasonable to question Lockett’s projection to the NFL because of his size, but it sure didn’t stop him from being great in college. Over the course of his four-year career at Kansas State, Lockett caught 249 passes for 3,710 yards and 29 touchdowns.

Perhaps the biggest reason for Lockett’s collegiate success was his route-running ability, an area in which he is arguably better than any other wide receiver in the 2015 draft class.

Explosive off the line of scrimmage and sharp in his breaks, Lockett is consistently able to get separation from defensive backs. He is especially dangerous at the intermediate level, as his quick turns on curl and comeback routes often create large gaps of space away from opponents.

Lockett’s not a burner who will simply run by defensive backs, but his ability to deke out defenders with his moves—like he did on the play below against Iowa State—enables him to win deep nonetheless.

His route-running prowess also played a big part in Lockett scoring 11 touchdowns in each of his past two seasons, despite not having the prototypical size of a red-zone target.

One might not expect a 5’10”, 181-pound receiver to win in jump-ball situations, but the above clips are just two of many examples of Lockett making contested catches in his collegiate career.

While you won’t see Lockett box out defensive backs with his small frame, he has a high vertical leap, attacks the ball in the air and demonstrates that he can possess the ball securely through contact.

Lockett exhibits impressive body control in the air to adjust to throws and come down with receptions, even when the space he has to work with is tight.

As good as Lockett is getting open and making tough catches, he can also be dangerous with the ball in his hands. Quicker than he is fast, Lockett can use his moves to shake defenders in the open field and produce yards after the catch, like he did on the following example against West Virginia.

Like Brown, Lockett is able to use his open-field running ability to also excel as a returner.

In his senior season, Lockett returned 21 punts for 402 yards, including the following two touchdowns.

Lockett also had four career kickoff-return touchdowns—two in his freshman year and two as a sophomore—and finished his four years with 77 kickoffs returned for 2,196 yards.

 

Can Lockett Overcome His Limitations to Be a Star?

That’s the question NFL teams considering using an early-round pick on Lockett will have to consider. While the skills highlighted above suggest he should be able to, there are some legitimate reasons for concern.

While many attributes can be improved, one Lockett cannot improve is his frame. He certainly could put on five to 10 pounds as he makes the jump to the next level, but his weight is likely to be less concerning to scouts than his small hands and short arms.

At the Senior Bowl, Lockett had a hand measurement of just 8.375” and an arm measurement of just 29.125”. Those numbers are much smaller than most NFL players, including Brown, who has 9” hands and 31” arms, according to NFL.com.

Lockett’s small hands have been reflected in his play. He had occasional drops throughout his collegiate career, and had to let some catches into his body.

Meanwhile, his short arms limit his catch radius and his ability to extend away from his torso to catch imprecise passes.

An area in which Lockett can improve—and in which Brown has improved since his collegiate days at Central Michigan—is his strength. It might be necessary if Lockett is going to thrive on the outside the way Brown does.

Lockett can often beat defensive backs off the line of scrimmage with his release, but when he does not, he has trouble getting off press coverage. He is also largely a non-factor in the ground game, as he has not shown much ability to make an impact as a downfield run blocker.

Those who pay more attention to physical gifts than football skills won’t be clamoring for a chance to select Lockett in this year’s draft. A team ready to utilize Lockett where he wins, on the other hand, might end up looking very smart for bringing him in.

 

Where Will Lockett Be Drafted?

The upcoming emphasis on the NFL Scouting Combine and pro days won’t help Lockett’s draft stock, as he is a player who looks far more impressive in game play than he will running a 40-yard dash in shorts.

That said, Lockett has already helped himself in one key pre-draft event, and will likely continue to stand out in other aspects of his draft evaluation.

During this year’s Senior Bowl practices in Mobile, Alabama, Lockett stood out as the smoothest receiver in attendance. While his route running was as impressive as ever, as he consistently beat his opponents in one-on-one drills, he also had no trouble catching the ball.

Another area where Lockett should win is the interview room.

A two-year captain at Kansas State, Lockett was one of five players named to the first team for this year’s Senior CLASS Award, which recognizes athletes who “have notable achievements in four areas of excellence – classroom, community, character and competition.”

It’s evident that Lockett, whose father Kevin played in the NFL for seven years, is not a player teams need to have off-field concerns about.

“You don’t have to worry about me getting in trouble or smoking or drinking ‘cause I don’t do any of that type of stuff,” Lockett said in a post-practice interview at the Senior Bowl. “I’m a kid who’s going to be able to go there, make everybody else around me better and able to be a leader in there and just create a type of atmosphere that coaches want to be able to have as a team.”

A player with a polished skill set who was productive on the field and is mature off it, Lockett has just about everything—except for the all-important measurables—that NFL teams look for.

Because his lack of size limits his upside in relation to many other prospects, especially in a draft class that is deep at the wide receiver position, Lockett is unlikely to be selected before the late second round or the third round.

He shouldn’t fall nearly as far, however, as Brown did in 2010. In his most recent Scouting Notebook, Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller reported that at least one NFL team expects Lockett to be a top-75 draft selection.

Possible landing spots for Lockett in Round 2 or 3 include the Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens, Green Bay Packers (if they lose Randall Cobb in free agency), New England Patriots, Oakland Raiders, New York Jets, Minnesota Vikings and Miami Dolphins.

 

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All GIFs were made at Gfycat.com, using videos from Draft Breakdown and Daily Motion.

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

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