The spring football season is coming to a close, as a bulk of college football teams wrapped up their offseason workouts Saturday. All told, 26 of the 128 FBS schools held some form of game or scrimmage Saturday for fans to see what's in store for the 2016 season.
These games are generally devoid of much in terms of major developments, as they're meant to serve as both a wrap-up for spring practice and a preview of the real version that comes this fall. But some players, position groups and teams stood out, for good or bad, based on how they looked in front of crowds of varying sizes.
We've picked out the most notable happenings from Saturday's spring action. Check it out but make sure to take anything that happened this far before the regular season begins with a grain of salt.
The UCLA Bruins continued their preparations for the 2016 season Saturday with the Spring Showcase at Elvin Drake Stadium on the UCLA campus in Los Angeles.
Rather than staging a traditional spring game like many schools, head coach Jim Mora instead held a beefed-up practice featuring 11-on-11 and seven-on-seven drills and very little contact so as to preserve the health of his players.
As expected, much of the focus was on sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen on the heels of his impressive freshman campaign in 2015.
The Manhattan Beach, California, native threw for 3,670 yards and 23 touchdowns in his debut season, and he set no shortage of school records in the process, as seen in this graphic courtesy of Pac-12 Network:
While Rosen may be in for a spectacular sophomore year, the Spring Showcase represented a mixed bag for him, as he made some big throws but also had some issues turning the ball over.
As seen in this video, Rosen displayed fantastic arm strength and accuracy at times, which could be a sign of things to come in 2016:
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Rosen's day was the fact that he showed he could make throws at all levels and under many different circumstances.
Matt Joye of the Daily Bruin highlighted Rosen's ability to get the ball down the field on this scoring strike to fullback Nate Iese during 11-on-11 drills:
While Rosen isn't regarded as an overly mobile signal-caller, his athleticism was on full display in the Spring Showcase when he completed an against-the-grain play-action pass while rolling out to his weak side, via UCLA Football:
Rosen struggled a bit in seven-on-seven drills, though, as he was intercepted by senior cornerback Charles Dawson and freshman linebacker Mique Juarez over the course of just four plays, according to Joye.
He was also picked off earlier by Dawson, which suggests the veteran leader of the secondary is ready to spearhead the Bruins' defensive attack in 2016.
One factor that should aid Rosen during the upcoming season is the continued development of his offensive weapons.
That includes senior wide receiver Ishmael Adams, who is converting to the offensive side of the ball after 34 games over the past three years as a defensive back.
Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports captured one of the many electric plays Adams made at wideout during the Spring Showcase:
Another new target for Rosen to potentially utilize is Cordell Broadus, who returned to UCLA after sitting out the 2015 season.
The son of rapper Snoop Dogg made some impressive plays Saturday, including this touchdown grab:
Rosen had great things to say about Broadus leading up to the Spring Showcase, and he believes the wideout can be similar to Jordan Payton, who was UCLA's leading receiver last year as a senior, according to Thuc Nhi Nguyen of the Los Angeles Daily News: "He's awesome, he's been killing it. He's picking up the offense quickly. He's a big receiver, physical. He reminds me a lot of JP, but he's going to evolve, just like all of us."
If Broadus develops into the type of player Mora thought he was getting prior to his hiatus, then the Bruins offense has a chance to be the best in the Pac-12.
UCLA finished third in the Pac-12 South last season at 5-4 and 8-5 overall, but it was just one game out of representing the division in the Pac-12 title game against Stanford.
That means even the slightest improvement could allow the Bruins to vie for a spot in the Rose Bowl, which they haven't played in since 1998.
There is no question the team still has a lot of developing to do with regard to its young players between now and the start of the season, but plenty of bright spots emerged Saturday and offered hope for a fantastic 2016 campaign.
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The first step of Michigan State football's reloading year concluded Saturday, and a few players exited spring practice destined for meaningful roles in 2016.
Others, however, have an uphill battle toward earning a significant place on the depth chart. One positional unit took a notable hit, too.
Although the spring offers a far-from-definitive look at potential breakout candidates, new or inexperienced talents often receive praise during the workouts.
While each "winner" of the session must continue impressing throughout the summer and fall camp, few are locked into starting roles. There's still plenty of time to recover from a tough spring.
UCLA wrapped up spring practice on Saturday with exactly that—practice—which in today's era of college football is unique.
Considering the injury problems that plagued the Bruins, however, it was the prudent choice for head coach Jim Mora and Co.
Much of UCLA's efforts this spring were focused on implementing new philosophies on both sides of the football. Additionally, the Bruins started the process of replacing NFL-bound talents like Paul Perkins, Jordan Payton and Thomas Duarte.
A few promising players emerged, but a couple of storylines weren't quite as wonderful—particularly for the fans. All things considered, though, it's a negative the program will accept.
Miami (Fla.) Hurricanes running back Mark Walton was suspended by the team Saturday following an early-morning arrest in Miami, according to NBC6 in South Florida.
Liane Morejon of WPLG Local 10 in Miami reported Walton was charged for DUI and driving with a suspended license.
Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press also reported that a source said Walton is being investigated for impersonating a police officer; however, police have yet to confirm.
Will Manso of WPLG Local 10 in Miami tweeted out a statement from Miami athletic director Blake James regarding Walton's punishment:
Walton rushed for 461 yards and averaged 3.55 yards per carry as a freshman in 2015. He also caught 22 passes for 293 yards to go along with 10 total touchdowns.
Walton was penciled in to share the backfield workload with junior Joseph Yearby, who rushed for 1,002 yards last season, but his status is now up in the air.
While the university did not reveal a potential timetable for Walton's return from suspension, the sophomore's absence leaves Miami's offense in a state of flux.
The Hurricanes looked to be a team on the rise after going 8-5 last season, especially if quarterback Brad Kaaya continues to develop. A strong running game would go a long way toward making that happen, and Walton was tabbed to be a big part of that.
It is unclear if James and head coach Mark Richt will allow the suspension to carry into the season, but if it does, then Yearby figures to have an even bigger role with Trayone Gray perhaps being asked to fill the backup void as well.
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Turnover around key positions will define the UCLA Bruins' 2016 spring game Saturday at Drake Stadium.
It's a new venue for what coach Jim Mora dubs the "spring showcase." Once again, the event won't be an official game but an enhanced practice sans full contact or a scoreboard keeping track of the action.
“We’re going to try to make it eventful, fun and interesting,” Mora said, according to Matthew Joye of the Daily Bruin. “It will not be a full-contact scrimmage. I just don’t think it’s in the best interest of our players to do so.”
With Josh Rosen back under center directing a new offense and the defense boasting strong upside, fans can expect Mora's first reveal of the 2016 Bruins to be interesting, full contact or not.
2016 UCLA Spring Game
When: Saturday, April 23rd, at 2:30 p.m. ET
Where: Drake Stadium
TV: Pac-12 Network
Live Stream: Pac-12.com
The aforementioned Rosen now has a year of experience under his belt, which might be the biggest thing the offense has going for it given the turnover on the offense.
Where to start? The Bruins have to plug holes at three spots in the offensive trenches. Darren Andrews is the only wideout returning who ranked among the top five last year. Leading rusher Paul Perkins is also gone.
Alas, Mora and the program expect a jump from Rosen, who completed 60 percent of his passes last year with 23 touchdowns to 11 picks. It's not hard to see why everything sounds encouraging around the sophomore given the records he broke last year, as captured by Pac-12 Network:
Rosen will have to bring along the offensive line this year and squeeze the most out of a new-look wideout corps led by Ishmael Adams, a former defender.
Adams seems to get the most hype because he's one of the nation's most dangerous players with the ball in his hands. Mora echoed these sentiments during spring practices while chatting with ESPN.com's Kyle Bonagura:
He seems excited about it. We see good things. We see a guy that can catch the ball in the flat or, like we talked about the other day, that short-area quickness to make people miss and get vertical in a hurry. And he’s competitive and he’s tough, and those are traits you like to see offensively.
In the backfield, things aren't as dire as they seem after losing a leading rusher considering Soso Jamabo rushed for 403 yards and four touchdowns last season on a 6.1 yards-per-carry average.
The offense absorbs most of the attention going into Saturday because there isn't much changing on the defensive side of things. An experienced group returns nine of 11 starters from last year, allowing it to sprinkle in some 4-3 elements to keep things fresh.
With Matt Dickerson and Takkarist McKinley manning the edges, the unit that struggled last year flashed all spring with new faces in new places and the looks confusing an offense also making a few changes from a schematic standpoint.
Don't forget seeing high-profile recruits such as Mique Juarez, either.
For Mora, practices thus far have seemed rather even, which he cites as a good thing, according to Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times.
"It's kind of been back and forth every day, which to me is a good thing. Both sides have had good days. It's been very competitive, and when it's competitive like that, you see progress."
While Saturday won't provide a traditional contest, fans can expect more of that back-and-forth between the two growing units.
The checklist for the event is extensive. It's time to see how new recruits fit into things, if Rosen can spur a new offense and new contributors, and if a veteran defense making a change can live up to the hype.
Saturday will provide a solid indicator as to where Mora has the program heading into the summer.
Stats and info courtesy of ESPN.com unless otherwise specified.
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For most, the concept of a broken elevator can conjure up images of panic, claustrophobia, boredom or even intimacy.
Writing hip-hop lyrics, however, isn't a typical response.
But dropping bars to a wall-panel-created beat is precisely how Zach Banner and the other University of Southern California offensive linemen passed the time in their hapless, suspended state, and thus, "The Elevator Rap" was born.
Although the flow may have taken their minds off their predicament, is spitting fire potentially dangerous in such a cramped space?
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Expectations vary among college football recruits, with the vast majority viewed by coaching staffs as long-term investments who could impact a squad following a few years of seasoning on practice fields. Others arrive on campus counted on to make an immediate impact just months after graduating from high school.
True freshmen such as UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, Texas A&M wide receiver Christian Kirk and Alabama cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick were among former 5-star prospects who made their presence known on college campuses last season. The stage is again set for newly enrolled athletes to seize a spotlight this fall, and excitement is already swirling around several members of the 2017 recruiting class.
Still looking ahead to highly anticipated senior campaigns, these recruits have the skill set and physical makeup to quickly move up college depth charts next year. Here's a glimpse at 10 high school standouts who could emerge as collegiate starters as freshmen.
The University of California is joining the Under Armour movement, as the two parties have reached a long-term shoe and apparel deal.
After the reports came out, Under Armour made the move official by welcoming California into the family:
Under Armour continues to make waves in the sports world, both at the college and professional levels. The apparel giant is still young compared to competitors like Adidas and Nike, which previously had a deal with the Golden Bears, being founded just 20 years ago.
Rovell also pointed out the difference in total annual money Cal will receive from Under Armour compared to its previous deal with Nike:
In 2014, Notre Dame left Adidas to sign a 10-year deal worth nearly $90 million with Under Armour. California doesn't have the history Notre Dame does, particularly in football, but the two deals are so close in value that it's clear how valuable getting the Under Armour logo on a jersey instead of the Nike swoosh is.
Of course, Under Armour can afford to pay these huge deals thanks to Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry. Per Matt Egan of CNN Money, the reigning league MVP has propelled the Baltimore-based company to huge sales gains in 2016:
Footwear sales at Under Armour surged 64% in the first three months of 2016 as sports fans gobbled up the Curry signature basketball line. Under Armour said Thursday that overall sales jumped by an impressive 30%, led by strong growth overseas.
Here's a stat even Curry, the 2015 NBA MVP, would be wowed by: Under Armour has now generated sales growth above 20% for each of the past 24 quarters.
Nike has been the top sports footwear and apparel company in the United States for decades. The Jordan brand being part of the family will always help keep it going strong.
Under Armour's rise, though, opens things up for schools that are looking to increase their merchandise revenue stream. California knew its deal was coming up, found a company it wanted to work with and negotiated a great contract for itself.
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AUBURN, Ala. — Jamel Dean thought his college football career was over before it even started.
Dean was on track to play at Ohio State, where he would be part of a team looking to defend a national title. But a pair of knee injuries late in his high school career jeopardized his future. The 4-star cornerback was then told he wasn't healthy enough to play for the Buckeyes.
However, a year after fearing the worst, Dean is back on the football field and taking full advantage of his second chance at Auburn.
"It felt real great to be out there [in spring practices] and experience it knowing my knee is still holding up," Dean said. "I feel like it’s going to be a great season for me. ... It just seems like I've been waiting a long time for this."
In his junior season of high school in Cocoa, Florida, Dean committed to play for Urban Meyer and Ohio State. That same year, the athletic 6'2" cornerback tore his ACL and meniscus. A year later, in the final game of his high school career, Dean re-tore the meniscus in the same knee.
But Dean still arrived at Ohio State in January 2015 to enroll early. A few months later, Eleven Warriors reported the Buckeyes medical staff didn't clear him to play. He was then offered a medical hardship, which would allow him to stay in school with an academic scholarship.
Dean's high school coach, John Wilkinson, told Doug Lesmerises of Cleveland.com he believed the Buckeyes were forcing the young corner out because they oversigned in their 2015 class.
Dean sought a second opinion from Dr. James Andrews, the world-renowned sports surgeon. According to Lesmerises, Andrews told Dean he would be able to resume full football activities by the summer of 2015.
With Andrews' second opinion in hand, Dean looked for a way out of Columbus. A month later, Dean announced he was transferring to Auburn, joining then-defensive coordinator Will Muschamp and then-defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson, who once recruited him to play at Florida.
At first, things didn't go according to plan for Dean at Auburn. He sat out the 2015 season with a redshirt due to the NCAA's transfer rules, so he never got a chance to play in a game for the coaches who recruited him.
Despite Muschamp's and Robinson's departures to South Carolina in December, Dean still turned heads as Auburn prepared for the Birmingham Bowl against Memphis. When practices resumed this March, Dean picked up right where he left off with the Tigers.
"He has a lot of talent," Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. "He can run. He's a physical guy. He really caught our attention in bowl practice when we did some scrimmaging, and he's carried it over into spring."
In the year since his situation with the Buckeyes came to light, Dean's outlook has changed.
He told David Jones of Florida Today last summer Ohio State's coaches "really didn't care" whether he stayed in Columbus or not and that he would have "a lot of anger built up" if Auburn ever played Ohio State.
That wasn't the case this spring.
"I don't hold any grudges," Dean said. "I wanted to try something new, and I wanted to be back in the South. I thought [Auburn] was the best fit for me just because of the defense they run."
Dean is focused more on his future with the Tigers, which looks bright. He adjusted to a new defensive coaching staff—which runs a system similar to the one he signed up for with Muschamp—and battled with Javaris Davis for a starting cornerback spot opposite 2015 breakout star Carlton Davis.
By the end of spring camp, Dean was lining up with the first team almost exclusively and drawing the praises of coaches and teammates alike.
"The guy I'm really excited about is Jamel Dean," new Auburn defensive backs coach Wesley McGriff said. "What a big corner that's explosive with speed. We have some tools on the outside that's going to give us a chance to line up, be able to play man, play zone and be able to keep the football in front of us."
Standing at 6'2" and 205 pounds, Dean's size and physical nature make him a perfect match for All-SEC freshman Carlton Davis, who is 6'1" and 190 pounds.
"We're both about the same," Dean said. "Both of us can cover. Both of us have length, and both of us are strong."
The two represent a gradual change in philosophy at Auburn, which has recruited bigger defensive backs in recent classes to combat the larger receivers who dominate the SEC.
"It gives the receiver a hard time at the line of scrimmage," Dean said. "Throws off the offense's rhythm."
While the battle between Dean and Javaris Davis is expected to continue into fall camp, the redshirt freshman appears to have the early advantage. But even if Javaris Davis commands a top spot on the depth chart by the season opener, new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele still projects Dean as a key player.
"In this league, to sustain it through the long haul, you're going to have to have 18-plus guys that are really starters," Steele said. "If you've got less than that, it's going to be hard sometimes. We tell them not to worry about that, and when your name is called, just go play, and they've done a nice job with that."
With his physical gifts and hunger to play again, Dean has the opportunity to be a game-changing defensive back in the Auburn secondary for years to come.
Although it was thrown into doubt this time last year, Dean's football career is far from over. It's just getting started.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Recruiting rankings are courtesy of 247Sports.
Justin Ferguson is a National College Football Analyst at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.
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Exotic offenses and creative play-callers have infiltrated the SEC over the last half-decade, but one cliche has remained true in the process: The game is won and lost in the trenches.
In order to contend for the SEC title (and perhaps more), the big men up front have to be fast, physical and on the same page in order to create holes for running backs and protect quarterbacks.
Which offensive lines are the best in the SEC heading into 2016?
Our picks based on production and returning talent are in this slideshow.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The slogan is catchy, and on this gorgeous, sun-drenched spring day, it is ubiquitous. It's propped up on billboards, posters and schedules, displayed in all caps, plastered on the back of vibrant orange T-shirts. It's impossible to miss.
Although the relationship between the University of Illinois football program and the city it resides in is somewhat fractured after a stretch of mediocrity, it doesn't feel that way two hours before fans will see head coach Lovie Smith's creation for the first time.
The energy is palpable, and it does not come across as manufactured. It feels genuine. And there are those words again, this time on the back of a DJ's shirt, positioned a few hundred feet from the stadium.
"We Will Win."
This adopted slogan came from the mouth of Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman at his introductory press conference two months ago. It looks good across the back of one's shoulders and slips right off the tongue—we will win—like an infectious formality.
What this slogan fails to nail down, however, are the most significant parts of any rebuild: how, when and, perhaps most important of all, how much?
In previous attempts to right the ship, this is where the plan and its tangible results peeled off in different directions. Since 2003, Illinois has won just 25 conference games—an average of fewer than two per season in the Big Ten.
It crashed a Rose Bowl in 2007—which serves more as an outlier than anything else—and has delivered a handful of 7-6 seasons. Outside of a few radar blips, success has been difficult to bottle and store.
Football talent in the state has flocked elsewhere; eyeballs have followed.
With increased competition within the conference, with Ohio State inching closer to global domination and with Jim Harbaugh mania seemingly around every corner, Illinois must do something it has failed to do time and time again.
And here's the kicker: It must do this with a head coach who hasn't worked on a college campus in more than two decades. It sounds impossible, yes? It sounds like fabricated optimism that has been delivered before.
But somehow, strangely, a blueprint is in place that leads one to believe this might actually work.
The architect of this renovation looks entirely out of place. With sunglasses perched on top of his head, Whitman watches practice, greeting some of his former teammates who are in for the weekend.
Although he has traded in his shoulder pads for a suit and tie, Whitman still looks more like a tight end than anything else—the position he played at Illinois and in the NFL before he graduated to his new life.
Needing a new voice, the university hired Whitman in February from Division III Washington University in St. Louis to bring positive light during a difficult stretch. Coming off a year in which abuse was alleged in U of I's football and women's basketball programs, Whitman symbolized a fresh start.
Toward the end of an eventual 5-7 season, Cubit was given a two-year contract before Whitman arrived. Instead of taking time to evaluate the program as he settled in, however, Whitman relieved the former interim head coach of his duties the first day on the job.
This is where the rebuild begins—right at the moment the C-4 is placed in the rickety foundation and the whole thing is blown to smithereens. In order for a program to truly find itself, it has to lose itself first.
"We have shown we can do it," Whitman told Bleacher Report. "We've been to the Sugar Bowl. We've been to the Rose Bowl. Our challenge has been consistency and developing a championship model that allows us to sustain that level of success. I feel really good about our ceiling. I don't think there really is one."
To help determine if such a ceiling exists, Whitman needed to parlay a bold, unforeseen firing with a hire that was even bolder. To do so, he turned to a man who seemed destined to spend the rest of his life in the NFL.
After the Tampa Bay Buccaneers unexpectedly let him go, Lovie Smith was poised to wait a year or two for his next NFL stop. But then he heard a pitch he never expected to hear—and it was an enticing one.
"We didn't view it as a short-term project. This is a long-term commitment from us, and I think he was attracted by it," Whitman said on hiring Smith. "You don't take on a challenge like this for one reason. There are lots of things that I thought would be appealing to him, and I thought with his pedigree and background that a change of pace might be appealing to him at this point in his life."
Empires are not built at press conferences, but Smith's hire has roused a slumbering football program. Credibility, even before Smith introduced himself to the media, was restored. Tickets were gobbled up in mass. Bricks were being laid slowly with care.
As critical as Smith was to this process, the next domino was just as important. Illinois has allocated $4 million for the assistant coaching pool, nearly double what it planned to allocate to Cubit, according to Jeremy Werner of Scout.com.
This allowed Smith to lure offensive coordinator Garrick McGee away from Louisville. It also provided him an opportunity to assemble a staff at one of the most unusual and difficult times of the year—a time when the coaching carousel has reached a standstill and families have already been uprooted.
The truth is, in order to sustain success in an increasingly competitive climate, one must spend to win. One must commit to being good instead of simply saying it out loud. Illinois decided it was time.
At the same time, the state of Illinois is in a budget crisis that's resulted in deep cuts to higher education. University of Illinois President Tim Killeen told the News-Gazette that university officials considered possible negative public reaction to this steep new investment in football.
But, he told the newspaper, the money comes from athletic sources such as Big Ten television revenue and ticket sales, not from state coffers or tuition funds.
"These funds are not intermingled with the support for the academic programs and the operational programs," he told the paper.
To make money, one must spend money. And with the Big Ten reportedly on the verge of a lucrative new media rights agreement with Fox, according to the Sports Business Journal, Illinois will have financial flexibility to commit to its programs for the foreseeable future.
Standing behind the north end zone of Memorial Stadium, a former No. 1 NFL draft pick is watching his son put on a show. Although they may not realize it, those in attendance have just seen a glimpse into the future.
During his junior season at Illinois back in 1989, quarterback Jeff George threw for 22 touchdowns and led Illinois to 10 wins—a threshold it has hit only once since. Now, wearing a backward hat, long-sleeve shirt and sweat pants, George is there to support his son, Jeff George Jr.
"I'm proud as a former player, but I think I'm more proud as a parent to know that my son is in good hands," George said. "We're relevant. Whenever you've talked about Big Ten football, I'm not sure Illinois has been anywhere near the top of the list. And now they're starting to say Illinois."
Smith once coached George for the 2004 Chicago Bears. Now, he's coaching George's son and also leading a program that George still cares deeply for.
Because of the timing of the hire, Illinois decided not to hold an official spring game this year. Instead, it opened up the stadium doors and gave fans a glimpse of the progress being made.
Individual drills eventually gave way to a condensed, full-contact scrimmage as music blasted through the stadium speakers. Given the crash course the players were required to consume, the two hours glided along smoothly.
This was not Alabama's defense or Clemson's offense reincarnated; this was the first public step of a long process.
George Jr. was unquestionably the star of the show. The redshirt freshman, hoping to be the backup to starter Wes Lunt in 2016 and the starter in 2017, connected on a handful of deep throws, including a long touchdown pass that drew a fist pump from his father and a roar from the stands.
His head coach didn't have the same emotional response. In fact, Smith spent the day observing and learning—rarely showing any emotion at all.
"It's definitely different," George Jr. said following the game. "He's laid back and relaxed, but everyone respects him. When he walks into a room, he has a tremendous presence."
Although men with large voices often teach collegiate athletics, with larger personalities and a large assortment of vivid hand gestures and facial expressions, Smith is not cut from this cloth.
He does his work through presence and observation. This philosophy is precisely what the program needs in its current status.
"You don't want to disappoint him," former Chicago Bears All-Pro linebacker Brian Urlacher told Bleacher Report. "He's like your father. That's the kind of respect he demanded. He was such a good guy and such a good coach, you just did everything you could to please him."
The current Illinois roster clearly wanted to do just that. First impressions are important, and the effort during the two-hour scrimmage was evident.
The play wasn't necessarily crisp, but this is a group that has been together for fewer than 10 practices. It will still take some time for the playbook to be fully implemented.
This is still the honeymoon phase. Smith is still trying to learn his roster—what he has and what he doesn't. He's hoping the pieces he has now, the ones that were gifted to him, are enough to carry the momentum he's bottled a little while longer.
"We're making progress each time we're on the football field," Smith said once the day had concluded. "We are able to see a few more things from our guys. We tried to get everybody on video today, so we'll have good video to evaluate. It was as game-like as you can get with where we are at this stage. Nine practices. We don't have all situations in yet."
This is, without question, the most trying aspect of program construction. The future will do you no good here. It's taking a plastic bag, a toothbrush, one unlit match and a spare handkerchief and somehow turning it into a cellphone.
Mike Dudek, one of the nation's most gifted young wideouts, tore his ACL for the second consecutive year not long after practice began. Running back Dre Brown, who was expected to be second string after tearing his right ACL last year, just did the exact same to his other knee. With depth and talent already a concern, Smith has endured two tremendous blows.
Half the battle of starting over is being allowed the freedom to see it all the way through.
The past, future and present have converged on this Saturday. As the open scrimmage continues, a collection of recruits in for the weekend—some from more than a thousand miles away—gauge the progress for themselves.
Different generations, the stars of Illinois from years past, are doing the exact same thing. More than 100 former players have made the trip to Champaign to see Smith's debut. As some of the current players walk off the field, they greet the former players and talk about the road ahead.
Martin O'Donnell, an All-American lineman for Illinois in 2007, now does the color analysis on the radio for all Illini games. He experienced the euphoria of a program breakthrough on that Rose Bowl team.
He has watched it slog through quicksand since then. Now, he hopes to narrate something different.
"It's been a while since Illinois football had an identity. We've gone different ways at different times, and I really believe that in order to recruit the right guys, you have to know who you are and who you're looking for," O'Donnell said. "The football program has shown it can get up there in terms of height. It's just the lack of sustained success that becomes so frustrating. We're aching for consistency."
The reality of college football, with the exception of an outlier here or there, is that talent can lift a program out of the grave and give it life.
This is not an exact science, of course. Supremely gifted football teams stumble into losing seasons all the time. Less talented teams scrap their way to successful runs. But in general, sustaining success over an extended period of time in this sport boils down to the coaching staff, resources and recruiting.
The first two checkboxes have been filled. Now comes the part that won't be answered for quite some time. The wine will be bottled and stored, and we will wait.
To help expedite the fermentation, Lovie Smith, a 57-year-old thrown back into the college game for the first time since 1995, is now using Twitter. He FaceTimes. He is exhausting all the necessary outlets that come with recruiting and appealing to a different generation.
"Each day brings new experiences, and the response has been very positive. While you guys are sleeping," Smith says, cracking a smile, "we are hard at work."
The plan is to start with Chicago, St. Louis and Indianapolis. Then there's Texas, a state Smith knows well. And Florida. And Georgia. These are the places Illinois will compete in, although it will start by learning the surrounding areas that have eluded it for far too long.
It's all a part of a plan that cannot and will not be shaped during a scrimmage in late April.
Illinois does not have to out-recruit Ohio State. Or Michigan. Or even Penn State. Not yet. Before it can take on such lofty goals, it must take on itself and alter the perception of the program.
This part has already begun. Now, in order to put all those tremendous resources to good use, it must take it a step further.
"My son is 10 now," Urlacher said when asked how his former coach would recruit. "If he's still there and he recruits my son, guess what he's doing? He's going to Illinois."
The scrimmage has concluded. Although Illinois has a few more spring practices remaining—critical hours it hopes to maximize—at the moment it can't locate its head coach.
Engulfed by a sea of people hoping to land his signature, Smith is barely seen. For 30 minutes, the crowd doesn't dissipate. People keep exiting the pile with smiles—many with "We Will Win" plastered across their chest—but the holes keep filling in.
No one is quite sure what this excitement will amount to, but the fans know it's real right now. This particular moment, the afterglow from a scrimmage that means little in the grand scheme, feels like something more.
"We need to see the big picture," Smith says as the day nears an end.
In time, that picture will come together. A depth chart will take shape. Recruiting will become the norm rather than a process.
The honeymoon will give way to expectations. Those who have patiently waited for Illinois to win again will demand it start doing so, and soon. It is a daunting, uphill climb, even with all of the pieces in place.
In time, Smith will be asked to do something those before him have failed at. He will have to win.
It's reasonable to have doubts. After all, history tells a tremendous tale. But there's also enough here—a blend of optimism and tactical approach—to believe that things can change.
In time, we will know what this was all building toward. But right now, there are still many autographs to sign.
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Sometimes words get in the way of the message that needs to be delivered.
Tyler Shelvin doesn't need to say much to get the point across about being a leader, especially on the football field. In earning a dozen reported offers, according to Rivals.com, and committing to LSU as a sophomore in March 2015, Shelvin simply let his actions do all the talking.
In short, he describes his nonverbal, on-field objectives in eight words.
"Quiet off the field, a beast on it," said Shelvin, a 6'2", 329-pound brick wall from Lafayette, Louisiana, built to play either defensive tackle or nose guard in the right system.
With a Jekyll-and-Hyde approach to the game, Shelvin is ranked as the nation's No. 12 overall recruit and No. 2 at defensive tackle. Additionally, he's the top-ranked player out of the state of Louisiana and was a catalyst for Northside High School. He recently transferred to Notre Dame High School.
He's got the build of a classic 1-technique but also the deceptive quickness of a powerful 3-technique. And when Shelvin gets rolling, he becomes a problem for offensive linemen—and, ultimately, skill-position players with the ball.
"Tyler is a perfect fit as a 3-4 nose guard right now," said Todd Huber, director of football for Student Sports, which is at The Opening. "We've been lucky enough to see him two years in a row in New Orleans, and he's a big-time athlete for his size. That's what shines through on his tape."
Need proof that Shelvin is a true team player? You'll have to take note of everything he did on the football field for Northside. Picture Shelvin—all 300-plus pounds of him—as the team's kicker. In fact, on October 2, he booted a 32-yard field goal for the only points of a game between Northside and Westgate High School out of New Iberia, Louisiana.
The 3-0 victory gave Northside its first win of the year. Prior to that game, Northside was 0-4.
"Nothing makes me happier then seeing a No. 72 lining up for a field goal," said Huber, a former offensive lineman at Cal.
It's doubtful that he will handle similar duties at Notre Dame next season, but simply stepping up to accept kicking duties defines Shelvin's lead-by-example mentality. Don't expect him to be the consummate vocal leader, but look for him to physically do whatever it takes to help his team excel.
It's that attitude, along with his massive frame and high motor, that made LSU instantly attracted to Shelvin. He's built a great relationship with LSU defensive line coach Ed Orgeron as well as head coach Les Miles and is a big fan of the on-campus culture.
"I've been visiting there since my sophomore year," Shelvin said. "I love the atmosphere and the coaches. Since Coach O. got there, it's really been awesome. I know I can learn a lot between him and Coach Miles."
This is where things get tricky for LSU. Shelvin's been committed for more than a year, and as it gets closer to national signing day, the idea of taking official visits becomes more of a reality. He said he's still committed to LSU but admits that there are other schools he has an interest in.
Schools like Alabama, Nebraska, TCU, Texas A&M and USC are among the many that could get an official visit sometime in the fall or winter. Shelvin said he's looking not only for a great football program but also an institution with a reputable business school. He's looking to obtain a business degree.
"When they offered, at the time, LSU was the only school," Shelvin said. "They've shown me a lot of love since then. I just want to make sure I'm making the right decision."
Wherever he ends up, Shelvin wants to be pushed on the field. Part of the spring camp experience for him is the chance to compete against some of the best offensive linemen. At The Opening New Orleans regional, he lined up against athletes like 4-star Alabama offensive tackle pledge Alex Leatherwood and 4-star offensive guard Nick Brahms, who holds 34 reported offers. Both offensive linemen earned invitations to The Opening.
The camp circuit also is a time to see his good friend Marvin Wilson, the nation's top-ranked defensive tackle. Shelvin said he and Wilson are close, but they also are alpha dogs. Neither wants to finish in second place at anything.
"Every top camp we went to, we saw each other," Shelvin said of Wilson. "The first time we met was [The Opening New Orleans] last year, and we've been cool ever since. We're both out there to dominate.
"We both like to have fun, but when the time comes, I want to win, and he wants to win. But we're like brothers. It doesn't matter to me where we end up, as long as we both make it. It's cool being around him."
The idea of being college teammates with Wilson—who is uncommitted but has LSU interest—has crossed Shelvin's mind, but he understands that Wilson will make up his own mind when that time comes. As for Shelvin, whichever school lands him will get a run-stopper and a space-eater.
"He has the potential to develop into a monster," Huber said. "Give him a few years, and his athleticism will allow him to not just eat up space but also make big-time plays in the middle of a defense."
And while he's making a name for himself, look for Shelvin to do so with a low profile.
"I try to keep everything inside. That way, I can mostly stay focused," he said. "I want to dominate, but I'm going to stay humble."
Damon Sayles is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand. All player ratings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings. Follow Damon via Twitter: @DamonSayles
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The Heisman Trophy inspires conversation like no other trophy in sports. Given to the “outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity,” per the Heisman Trust’s official website, it is the most coveted individual trophy in college football and one of the most sought after in all of the sporting world.
The race for the 2016 Heisman Trophy should be fascinating. While 2015 winner Derrick Henry declared for the NFL draft and will ply his trade on Sundays this fall, five of the top seven vote-getters from 2015 return. That will make for a hotly contested race, and if history is our guide, new contenders will emerge. After all, at this time last spring, Henry was a junior entering his first full season as the main man in Alabama’s backfield.
Here’s a look at the top contender to win the Heisman Trophy from every FBS conference, selected by virtue of his finish in the 2015 race, his accumulated statistics or his potential among his league-mates and the Heisman race at large.
You'd think with all the hype surrounding the Tennessee football program, the Volunteers would be one of the hottest teams on the recruiting trail.
Though coach Butch Jones has rebuilt UT through exceptional work throughout his first four classes, the Vols haven't gotten off to the greatest start in the 2017 cycle. Tennessee is currently ranked 36th nationally and has five 3-star prospects and one lone 4-star, per 247Sports.
There's plenty of time to turn that around.
While Jones' hard work in living rooms and in building relationships hasn't manifested in commitments just yet, the Vols are right in the thick of things for a lot of coveted prospects.
Plus, at least a couple of the 3-star prospects currently committed to Tennessee are sought-after players. Cornerback Cheyenne Labruzza is a Louisiana product with an LSU offer, and Mississippi tight end Chase Rogers received a Mississippi State offer soon after he committed to UT.
Some movement will occur from the players already on Tennessee's commitment list, and with a slew of in-state players who are highly ranked and with the ability to sign a full class of 25, there's plenty of leeway remaining to shoot up the rankings.
It's still early in the recruiting process, and as Jones proved last year with his torrid final couple of days before national signing day, it isn't always how you start but how you finish.
With a whole lot of targets remaining, let's take a look at one of the top names at each position the Vols have zeroed in on who not only have expressed interest in them but are realistic possibilities.
Here are the top UT targets at every position.
Inside linebacker can serve as the quarterback of a defense, which is surely what Nebraska hopes Avery Roberts will become when he arrives on campus in 2017.
On Thursday, Roberts explained to Brian Dohn of Scout.com his reasons for choosing to become a Cornhusker:
I'm going to Nebraska. I feel like it's the best place for me to achieve everything I want to do. It's a family environment and great coaches that cares about me. They've always been there. From the day they offered me at the end of my sophomore year, they've always been there, constantly talking to me. We've probably never gone a week without some kind of communication with them.
Roberts is one of the best linebacker prospects in next year's recruiting class. He's rated as a 4-star prospect, the best player in the state of Delaware, the sixth-best inside linebacker and the 185th-best player overall, per 247Sports' composite rankings.
There is still a development curve awaiting Roberts. He's smaller than a typical inside linebacker, listed at 6'1" and 215 pounds, so it may take one year as a redshirt before Nebraska's able to use him as an every-down player on defense.
However, per ESPN.com's Recruiting Nation scouting report, Roberts is able to make up for his lack of size with tremendous strength and closing speed:
Possesses very good speed and closing burst. Has a quick first step and the lateral agility to make plays in space. Heady player who is always in sound positions and quickly recognizes blocking schemes and screens. Flashes the strength to stack and shed in run support. Drops well in coverage. Solid form tackler with good pop.
Another aspect of Roberts' game that will help his transition to college, which the scouting report mentions, is dropping into pass coverage.
Nebraska head coach Mike Riley began his career in Lincoln last year on a down note, as the Cornhuskers finished under .500 for the first time since 2007.
Landing elite recruits is one reason Nebraska's prestige has dropped in recent years. Riley's recruiting class for next season is off to a good start at No. 17, with Roberts becoming the third 4-star prospect to commit, per 247Sports' composite team rankings.
Per ESPN's Tom VanHaaren, the top of Nebraska's 2017 class is already looking strong:
Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Star Journal noted that 247Sports' updated team rankings for 2017 have the Big Ten making a big impression:
The Huskers defense was once nicknamed the Blackshirts thanks to the presence of inside linebackers like Marc Munford and Ed Stewart. Things haven't been like that in Lincoln for a long time, but the Huskers need to start forging an identity to compete in the Big Ten.
Inside linebackers have been devalued because teams don't specifically count on them to stop the run with bigger and more athletic defensive linemen, so being able to defend the pass is an essential part of the job.
Roberts has that ability and the raw talent to be a difference-maker in the middle of any defense. He's got an aggressive, physical style that will endear him to fans and teammates quickly, as well as the toughness to make any play in any situation.
Recruiting info courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.
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