NCAA Football News

Michigan Football: What to Expect from Wolverines Defense in 2015

The 2015 Michigan Wolverines defense has the experience to improve upon its impressive finish last season, and coordinator D.J. Durkin's coaching history provides a clear outlook on what to expect from the unit this year.

In addition to eight returning starters, the unit will include two clear-cut replacements in the trenches, a three-year starting linebacker who missed last season due to injury, a transfer and a super sophomore.

Under Greg Mattison, who is now the defensive line coach, the Wolverines finished the 2014 campaign ranked No. 7 in the country, holding opponents to 311.3 yards per outing.

Michigan possesses the talent to excel defensively, and with Durkin calling the shots, a less efficient season—not necessarily worsened raw numbers—than 2014 would be a failure.

 

Versatility

Durkin will utilize both the 4-3 (one-gap) and 3-4 (two-gap) defenses, and he's been moving pieces around throughout the offseason to find where the athletes are best suited to play.

According to Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press, Durkin said:

It's really a matter of who haven't we moved. We like to play multiple packages on defense and we're trying to find out who can do what right now. This is the time you find it. You go through a season and get a guy banged up and you don't know if a guy playing corner can play safety or vice versa. We bounce them all around, shuffling and getting closer to who is playing where.

One of the biggest changes to Michigan's defense is the insertion of the "Buck" position, a hybrid role that Dante Fowler Jr., the third overall pick of the 2015 NFL draft, occupied for Durkin at Florida.

The Wolverines don't have a lineman of Fowler's caliber, but Mario Ojemudia is penciled in for the important position. He'll be tasked with helping the defense shift from a 3-4 to a 4-3—sometimes in the middle of drives—by changing roles on the fly.

Taco Charlton and Chris Wormley can both contribute on the opposite side, while Willie Henry and Maurice Hurst can shuffle between tackle and end if necessary. Now that Bryan Mone is sidelined for 2015, the trio will likely see action all over the line next to Ryan Glasgow.

Additionally, when Durkin sends in the nickel defense, Jabrill Peppers will shift down from free safety to "Star," and Delano Hill is the probable replacement for Peppers.

Michigan will have lots of moving pieces, and although the early portion of the season will include trial and error, there's assuredly a method behind Durkin's possible madness.

 

Reliance on 3- and 4-Man Pressure

From the typical straightforward blitzes to long sticks and stunts coupled with linebacker pressure, Durkin employs a variety of ways to get after the quarterback.

However, the Wolverines will rely on the defensive line's pure talent and technique to disrupt the backfield instead of regularly bringing linebackers. Durkin often avoids selling out on blitzes that leave the secondary at risk.

Durkin relies on two-deep man coverage, though he certainly mixes in Cover 1 and Cover 3. Nevertheless, when linebackers are intended to track an eligible receiver, it limits what the defense can actually send at the quarterback anyway.

Consequently, "bend but don't break" is a description that's bound to be heard when discussing the Michigan defense. Opponents who don't force big plays will earn a couple of hard-fought first downs.

But when the Wolverines stand tall without sending extra pressure, it makes sustaining drives much more difficult.

 

Stout Run Defense

It wasn't easy to run on Michigan in 2014, and there's no reason to suggest that will change this season.

Yes, Jake Ryan is gone, but Desmond Morgan—who only appeared in one game last year before a hand injury sidelined him—returns to a tremendously experienced position. Between Morgan, Joe Bolden and James Ross, the linebackers boast 569 tackles, 112 games played and 65 starts.

The similarity between Durkin's defense at Florida last season and Michigan's is striking. The Wolverines tallied 82 tackles for loss and ceded just 3.2 yards per carry last season, while Florida recorded 87 and 3.2, respectively. It can hardly get more even than that.

What Michigan hopes changes because of Durkin, though, is the potential for turnovers. Florida forced 17 fumbles, but the Wolverines managed just five. Improving their takeaway numbers would greatly benefit an offense that needs plenty of help.

But no matter if Michigan is pouncing on loose footballs, it's safe to expect a strong presence in the trenches that affects an opponent's running game.

 

All recruiting information via 247Sports. Stats courtesy of cfbstats.com. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Bleacher Report's Ultimate College Football Tailgate Guide for 2015

No one needs to remind you how to tailgate, so please don’t take this as such.

You are more than capable of handling these matters accordingly: to build a proper parking-lot fortress, stock it with the proper food and beverage and spend a lovely Saturday celebrating the greatest sport on the planet with the people you like most.

You know these things.

In the end, that’s what this is all about. Yes, there is football—sweet, succulent, never-leave-us-again football. But the preparation for the actual in-stadium happenings carries a significance that is hard to put into words.

Tailgating, in many ways, is an art form. There is no single way to maximize a game-day experience. A good tailgate is in the eye of the beholder, which is why college campuses around the nation will be studded with noble attempts to create these masterpieces in the not-too-distant future.

In honor of college football’s glorious return, I have put together an essential guide to this splendiferous pastime, highlighting developing trends, magnificent locations and even a bold power ranking of gastronomic delights to partake of in 2015.

Congratulations. You made it through another offseason. Let’s eat something awesome.

 

Positive Tailgating Trend: Coffin Coolers 

Death is cold and cavernous, which is precisely what you’re looking for in a tailgating apparatus that holds bottles and cans filled with ritualistically imbibed beverages. 

A normal-sized cooler will no longer suffice. And while you could bring multiple coolers, that sounds like a heck of a lot of work for a weekend. What many are doing instead involves bringing coffins in which to chill their beverages.

That is not code for some sort of newer cooler; people are schlepping actual mortuary coffins to the party. It is both terrifying and brilliant. 

Nobody tailgates quite like LSU. http://t.co/AY2EVxBUy9pic.twitter.com/GppRLbQPXT

— Fancred (@Fancred) September 20, 2014

Don’t think about the dark part of this movement and what these containers are normally used for. Instead, think about all the ice and drinks that could fit in this team-centric monstrosity and how much easier life just became.

The next time you’re surveying a tailgate and come across a coffin, don’t run to the nearest authorities. Run toward the contraption and you’ll likely be greeted with frosted excellence.

 

Negative Tailgating Trend: Spray-Painting Your Dog

With a nod to the animal kingdom, we now dive into one of tailgating’s most curious recent developments.

People have started using their animals as props on game day. Instead of proudly planting flags on cars, they are turning family members into sixth-grade art projects.

This pup was just minding his business one Saturday morning when his favorite people on the planet approached him with an idea. (Well, it wasn’t really much of an idea because our furry friend here didn’t have much of a say.)

The end result is this: a mortified pooch that kinda-sorta resembles a…tiger?

This is great... At Clemson @ClemsonFBpic.twitter.com/SnwJleKPRe

— Gerry Hamilton (@HamiltonESPN) May 16, 2014

I love the passion at work here. This took time. It took multiple people. It took careful planning and probably in-depth Internet research. Perhaps that’s also what’s troubling about it.

Moving forward, let’s use our precious tailgating time more wisely. Let’s put an enormous amount of pork in a Big Green Egg and share the end result with man’s best friend instead of making him look like a mutant Beanie Baby.

 

Positive Tailgating Trend: Incorporating Televisions

Technology is a handsome beast. Sure, you have a cellphone that is capable of checking scores, but this little devil will be out of battery by noon, and then you’ll end up stranded in a Family Video parking lot hours after the game ends.

No one wants that.

It is this realization that has made televisions far more regular at tailgates. Well, that and the fact that they have gotten far easier to move and cheaper to purchase.

Once a relic, more people are incorporating this critical piece into their setups. This is a positive advancement, because the only thing better than eating, drinking and talking about football is eating, drinking, talking about football and watching football.

The best place to watch football on television. #tailgate#kentucky#whynotpic.twitter.com/CJhaYO9Zuc

— Scott Anderson (@SAndersonNOB) September 6, 2014

Pro tip: Don’t be the dedicated soul tasked to lug around the flat screen. Find a good friend up to such tall task and bribe him with delicious baked goods.

 

Negative Tailgating Trend: Body-Tape Artwork

Let’s skip right to the image before attempting to determine what exactly is going on here and if you should ever try it. The fact that this gentleman has yet to run for president of the United States—at least to my knowledge—is a dear shame.

This game is attracting all types of fans. This guy put tape on and then went to the beach. 90 minutes later: voila pic.twitter.com/9av2AfI7h2

— Dan Duggan (@DDuggan21) September 13, 2014

Now, the man gets high marks in a few categories. The overall craftsmanship and presentation are exceptional. There’s also still something remarkable about a Rutgers fan showing his love for the Big Ten—his new conference—which still doesn’t feel real. He’s done that with his mortal flesh.

But this is not something I can officially recommend you attempt to emulate. The likelihood of pulling this off is minimal, while the likelihood of ending up dehydrated and sunburned with illegible letters on your person is high. Use your immense talents elsewhere.

 

Greatest Tailgating Tradition: Midnight Yell

Not all tailgating has to take place shortly before or after the sun cracks the horizon. In fact, the nation’s most passionate pregame addition—a ritual that showcases passion in ways that are unparalleled—is Texas A&M’s Midnight Yell.

Since the 1930s, A&M fans have carried the torch. They are the tailgating’s finest alarm clock—a sign of great things to come. Now that the Aggies have increased the size of their lovely football digs, this moment will only continue to grow.

It is a sight to be seen—a dedicated mass of humanity that fills full sides of stadiums at unreasonable hours all in the name of team and one another. The end result is something that makes every college football bone in your body start to shake like a washing machine in need of leveling.

 

Food Power Rankings

The only thing that can enrage fans more than meaningless preseason polls is some stranger on the Internet telling them what they should eat.

Chosen for taste, presentation, tailgate accessibility and personal preference—here are my first Tailgate Food Power Rankings. Allow me to apologize in advance.

10. The Homemade Chocolate Chip Cookie: One of the most underrated foods at the tailgate is the one that can be made the night before. Cookies are a wonderful palate cleanser, great on the move and a solid change of pace.

9. Burgers and Hot Dogs: These classic standbys are fine, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Easy, predictable and filling, this is the vanilla ice cream of tailgate food, which makes it a popular selection.

8. Elaborate Dip(s): The best dip usually has a friend. In fact, offering up multiple chip companions at a tailgate is a good way to make friends. It's not the centerpiece but a quality filler as you overthrow your football and hit that dude’s Camry.

Tailgate prep. Because one nacho dip is never enough. @UVABaseball@HoovilleUVApic.twitter.com/1qOzPIQhd8

— homerHoo (@homerHoo) October 18, 2014

7. Wings: So much variety to be had here, which makes them such a versatile option. And if you bring your deep fryer to the tailgate, you should be given an award for effort and excellence.

6. Chili: This will depend greatly on the calendar along with your geographic location, but a hearty chili served outside of a Big Ten stadium in November makes for a lovely treat.

5. Jambalaya: When done right, this dish can easily move near the very top of this hit list. The hard part is finding the perfect recipe. When you can do that, the sky is the limit.

Tailgate jambalaya got mived indoors today due to 5" of snow @THEKID_@madchamp#BrewersOpenerpic.twitter.com/s0bwGENIoe

— Mike Laird (@BigMcLovin) April 6, 2015

4. Meat-Filled Breakfast Sandwich: Cooking this might require some finesse, but it’s time and effort well spent. If you’re going to start early—and you should—make this at least one course.

3. Ribs: They are not clean or easy to eat; they require expert preparation, and you need a lot of them to satisfy a large group. Outside of that, there is no fault in this food when prepared properly.

2. Pulled Pork: Preparation may vary, as will the results. But it’s hard to think of a food more destined for Saturdays than this.

1. Whole Hog: It’s a power move that is also delicious. When you show up at a tailgate with an entire hog, you (a) can feed a large sum of people and (b) up the ante for everyone else.

Always enjoy homecoming tailgate food - especially when my fraternity smokes a whole hog. pic.twitter.com/tFqFGcQm2j

— Paul Smith (@ptsmith109) November 2, 2014

Bonus Food Item: Fire. The wheel. The lever. The light bulb. The Internet. And now this. History's great innovation has led us to a point where we can put a turkey inside an alligator, cover that alligator with bacon and then throw it on the grill. 

Stop cooking right now. You won't top what's going on at the LSU-A&M tailgate right now (via @TexSRadio @wpbray) pic.twitter.com/ChWrLW2zDj

— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) November 27, 2014

 

Tailgates You Need to Visit at Some Point in Your Life

If you’re serious about tailgating, you owe it to yourself to make a pilgrimage to these singular shrines.

(It’s worth noting that there were roughly 50 other tailgates I wanted to include; I simply ran out of time. I’m sure your school does it wonderfully right, too.)

Ole Miss (Oxford, Mississippi): A combination of bowties, boat shoes and chaotic elegance, The Grove is unique from any other tailgate experience in the nation. A sea of red, white and blue tents scatter the grounds, housing resplendent cuisine options. It is a magnificent operation that is slightly short of assigned seating. This place is for professionals.

Bucket List: Tailgate at the Grove pic.twitter.com/Utr34wlEO2

— Football Down South (@Football_South) December 23, 2014

LSU (Baton Rouge, Louisiana): There is a level of intensity—a spiced ball of united energy—that resonates from an LSU tailgate as the sounds and smells overtake you. Your palette deserves the best treatment possible, and it will get it here. The jambalaya and gumbo options are endlessly delicious, and that doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of consumable options.

They have a dang HEARSE. RT @Fancred Nobody tailgates quite like LSU. http://t.co/cF64Lc52J8pic.twitter.com/QJEpQjgUITpic.twitter.com/KYf5sI5s6A

— Flint Foster (@FlintFoster) September 20, 2014

Wisconsin (Madison, Wisconsin): The people of the great state of Wisconsin move at a pace different than yours, and I mean this as a tremendous compliment. They are a lovely, caring bunch who will hand you a Solo cup with a hamburger and a bratwurst sticking out of it before you can even ask. Somehow, on this beautiful campus, it will all make magical sense.

Burgers, Badgers, Band & Bucky. #BadgerBash has it all! Come over to Union South today for gameday's best tailgate! pic.twitter.com/Oex635OHKM

— Wisconsin Union (@WisconsinUnion) November 15, 2014

Georgia (Athens, Georgia): I spent nearly one week in Athens and instantly realized that (a) I made a huge mistake not booking this trip sooner and (b) I probably wouldn’t have lasted much longer. There’s a buzz to this town that is hard to put into words, a place of great culture that reaches new decibels on Saturday mornings.

RT @jaybusbee: God bless Athens. RT @MsPotts_ESPN: #Tailgate#UGA#Prioritiespic.twitter.com/ofAHJ3Hl4x ~ *shudder*

— Terri (@DarlingtonChick) September 28, 2013

Ohio State (Columbus, Ohio): If you fancy grilled meat of all kinds, Columbus, Ohio—one of the more robust tailgating options around—is a must. Look, 100,000 fans tailgated for the team’s spring game, which felt more like a playoff game than it did an organized scrimmage. Sure, it gets cold, but there are plenty of things that help deal with that, and this city has perfected those things.

@christiehamm@nakedkarategirl Here's them at the Ohio State tailgate party today pic.twitter.com/zMmHEwu5bu

— Bobby Boulders (@BobbyBoulders7) November 29, 2014

 

One Last Thing...

I am blessed to write about the sport I love, which is not something I take for granted.

What drew me to this job in the first place wasn't seeing physically gifted human beings collide into one another repeatedly. No, this whole thing began in large part because of the game-day atmosphere—the sights, smells and feels that come with a Saturday morning outside a stadium.

If I could bottle this sensation and sell it, I would be very rich, and our winters would be far more enjoyable. For the time being, please maximize the season's return and enjoy this euphoria for yourselves.

Happy football.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Georgia Football: Depth Chart Analysis, Complete 2015 Preview and Predictions

When it comes to the Georgia Bulldogs and the 2015 season, the goal is the same as it is every year: Win the SEC East, and everything else will fall into place.

UGA has a chance to do it, as it was picked as the favorite to win the SEC East by media members during SEC media days. The Bulldogs have an experienced offensive line, a talented running back, two of the best linebackers in the country and an improving secondary.

However, the one position that is in question is quarterback as the coaching staff is still trying to figure out who will be the starter on opening weekend. Whoever wins it will have a ton of pressure to deal with because he will be the leader of one the more talented teams in the country.

In this piece, we will break down everything you need to know about the 2015 Bulldogs in this season preview.

 

Coaches

The coaching staff for the Bulldogs will look different from what it has been in the past, especially on the offensive side of the football.

The most noticeable new hire on the coaching staff is Brian Schottenheimer. He’s the new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and he has the task of maintaining what Richt and Mike Bobo have built the last few years.

Another new coach on offense is former UGA running back Thomas Brown. He will coach the running back this season, and he previously coached at Wisconsin, where he helped Melvin Gordon have a career season.

Jeremy Pruitt returns as the defensive coordinator for his second season. The defense improved with Pruitt last year, but he knows it can be better. He will have his entire staff from last season back, so that should help the defense take another step in its progression.

Head coach Mark Richt is entering his 15th season at Georgia. He has accomplished a lot during that time, but the quest for a national title is something he wants to get to before he calls it a career.

 

What to watch for on offense

Last year, the Bulldogs had the No. 1 scoring offense in the SEC, scoring 41 points per game. This was with offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, who is now the head coach at Colorado State.

With Schottenheimer taking over as offensive coordinator, the offense shouldn’t change too much. And the reason is Nick Chubb, who rushed for 1,547 yards and 14 rushing touchdowns as a true freshman last season.

Chubb has the size (5' 10", 220 lbs), speed and balance a coach would want in a running back. He was the team’s most valuable player last season, and he will be this season if he stays healthy. Sony Michel and Keith Marshall are strong backups for Chubb, but they have had health issues, especially Marshall, who suffered an ACL injury in 2013 and has never been the same since.

Nick Chubb! #GATA#GoDawgspic.twitter.com/HHsSvJInR6

— SicEmDawgs.com (@SicEmDawgscom) August 26, 2015

The receiver position is a question mark because of health as well. Malcolm Mitchell suffered a torn ACL at the start of the 2013 season and had a not-so-stellar 2014 season because of it. Mitchell is healthy now and is poised to have a great 2015 season. Isaiah McKenzie has the inside track at starting at the other receiver position. He was dangerous on special teams with three touchdowns. He looks to be the same threat on offense. Jay Rome, Jeb Blazevich and Jackson Harris make up the tight ends. All three can block, and all three have solid hands.

The offensive line could be the best in the SEC. Greg Pyke, Kolton Houston, John Theus, Brandon Kublanow and Isaiah Wynn make up the starting five. Kublanow started at guard last season, but he’s making the transition to center. Wynn was a center during spring ball, but he is now back at guard, which is his natural position.

The area of concern on offense is the most important position: quarterback. Brice Ramsey, Faton Bauta and Greyson Lambert have been battling all fall camp. It might come down to Ramsey and Lambert.  Ramsey has the makeup of a SEC quarterback, while Lambert has the experience. This battle will likely be decided after the first game of the season.

 

What to watch for on defense

Under Pruitt, the defense improved, but it still wasn’t where it wanted to be. The defense was sixth in the SEC in rushing yards allowed, and the reason the Bulldogs lost three games last season was because they could not stop the run.

It starts with the defensive line. Sterling Bailey, John Atkins and James DeLoach have plenty of experience, but they are not game-changers. That’s why the Bulldogs are hoping highly recruited Trent Thompson can be the impact player they’ve been looking for. Jonathan Ledbetter is another young defensive lineman to watch. He enrolled early to join the team during spring practice.

The linebackers are the strength of the defense. They are led by outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd, who are both great at rushing the passer and making plays from sideline to sideline. Tim Kimbrough and Reggie Carter are the inside linebackers. They played a good amount last season, and they can be just as consistent as the previous inside linebackers, Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson. Lorenzo Carter is another linebacker to watch. He made a name for himself last season with 4.5 sacks as a true freshman. He can play either inside or outside.

Two #UGA players make the Coaches' preseason all-#SEC team. OLBs Leonard Floyd & Lorenzo Carter. pic.twitter.com/437AD8qquo

— UGA Football Live (@UGAfootballLive) August 25, 2015

The defensive backs improved last season because it was more stable. Quincy Mauger is the leader of the group, while Dominick Sanders has strong ball-hawking skills. Both players had a combined seven interceptions. Aaron Davis is a cornerback that started slow last season, but he got better as the season went on and ended the year with one pick and five pass breakups. Malkom Parrish will likely start at the other corner, but he is being pushed by Tramel Terry, who was recruited as a receiver.

 

Injury news

The Bulldogs come into the start of the season relatively healthy. The one major injury they have had was to Justin Scott-Wesley, who suffered a knee injury during practice, and his career could be over, according to Marc Weiszer of the Athens Banner-Herald. Scott-Wesley was looking to start at receiver this season, but three knee injuries the last two years have kept him from seeing significant action.

The other two injuries of note are fullback Christian Payne and defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter. Payne has a leg injury, and Ledbetter’s injury is unknown, according to Seth Emerson of DawgNation.com.

 

X-factor

On offense, Isaiah McKenzie could be the deep threat the Bulldogs have been looking for the last two years.

McKenzie only had six catches for 67 yards last season, but he made an impact on special teams with two kick returns for touchdowns and a punt return for a touchdown.

According to Jake Rowe of 247Sports, McKenzie has great hands, which is good for him because he’s fast and explosive. If he can stretch the field, the offense will be more dangerous than it was last season.

On defense, Trent Thompson could be the defensive lineman that could make an impact right away. Rowe said Thompson has impressed his teammates with his work ethic and not taking plays off. Thompson will be part of the defensive line rotation this year, and he could be a starter as the season rolls on.

Trent Thompson says he's not at #UGA to 'stand out. I’m just putting in the effort' http://t.co/DUdk03doT5pic.twitter.com/xGwZz5HTO2

— ABH Sports (@abhsports) August 13, 2015

 

2015 schedule

 

Make-or-break games

The first test for Georgia will be a home game against South Carolina on September 19. The Gamecocks have beaten the Bulldogs two of the last three years, and Steve Spurrier will likely have some tricks up his sleeve for the contest.

Two weeks later, the Bulldogs host Alabama for the first time since 2008. The Crimson Tide have beaten Georgia the last two meetings, and this could be an early preview of the SEC title game.

Tennessee is the following week, and this will be the Bulldogs' toughest road contest of the year. The Bulldogs will have to play their best football to beat a Vols team that is on the rise.

The Florida game is on Halloween, which is not a good thing for the Bulldogs. Despite winning three of the last four against the Gators, this game will have some twist and turns nobody would expect.

The Bulldogs travel to Auburn on November 14 for the Bulldogs' final road and SEC game of the year. The Bulldogs blasted the Tigers last year, but the Tigers are projected to win the SEC this year. This could also possibly be another preview of this year’s SEC title game.

 

Prediction

In a previous article, I predicted the Bulldogs would lose only one game. They are by far the most talented team in the SEC East, and they should not have any issues taking care of their opponents in their division.

Alabama and Auburn will be tough matchups, but the Bulldogs will face the Crimson Tide at Sanford Stadium. And despite the love for Auburn, the Bulldogs should have more firepower to steal one in the Plains.

The quarterback issue will be something to watch this season, but because of the experience at the other positions on offense, whoever is starting at quarterback just needs to not make mistakes.

This team has the tools to make a run to the College Football Playoff. If they play consistent football, the Bulldogs could have a magical season.

Overall Record: 11-1

Conference Record: 7-1

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Auburn QB Jeremy Johnson: The Next Cam Newton?

AUBURN, Ala. — "He was born to be a quarterback."

Former Carver (Montgomery) High School wide receiver Landy Capetillo could see the Jeremy Johnson hype coming from a mile away.

"I knew it way before high school," he told Bleacher Report. "I have known Jeremy and played football with him since we were both six years old. I knew Jeremy was going to be somebody great then."

But just how great will Johnson be?

As great as, say, former Auburn quarterback, national champion and 2010 Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton?

It sounds lofty, but the comparison is unavoidable.

Massive stature? Check.

Big arm? Check.

Ability to make an impact on the ground? Check.

A system led by Gus Malzahn that leads quarterbacks to insta-stardom? Check.

Johnson himself hasn't exactly done much to put those comparisons to bed. According to James Crepea of AL.com, Johnson gave himself a goal this year that even Newton didn't achieve while on the Plains:

Johnson has had plenty of time to get to know Newton over the last two seasons, as Newton finished up his Auburn degree during the spring.

"Jeremy spent time with Cam when Cam was here in the spring, and I know they talked numerous times," Malzahn said in May. "[Johnson] is his own person, and he knows that. He’s just trying to take as much wisdom from Cam as he can have."

When asked specifically at media days to compare himself to Newton and what kind of influence the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner has had on his career over the last couple of seasons, Johnson did his best Newton impression by side-stepping the question.

"My main focus right now is just to get better each and every game and take whatever individual accolades that come with that," he said.

That didn't stop Malzahn from comparing the two prior to his Tiger Trek stop in Atlanta in May.

"They're both great leaders and lead by example with their work ethic," he said. "They're both extremely coachable. They allow you to coach them hard."

The rising junior signal-caller even followed the same path as Newton in terms of when he earned the starting nod from Malzahn. Johnson was tabbed as the Tigers' starter shortly after spring practice, which is when the Newton comparisons kicked into high gear.

For good reason.

Johnson is much more polished as a passer than Newton was when he arrived at Auburn. He lit up Arkansas to the tune of 243 yards and two touchdowns in the first half of the season opener versus Arkansas last year and showed off the timing, arm strength and comfort in the offense of a veteran. 

"I've been in this system for three years now," Johnson said at SEC media days. "Even when I wasn't playing, I've always been competing as a starter. My time is here now, and I'm blessed. I've been preparing for a start since I got to Auburn, so I felt like a starter but I wasn't playing, and now that my time is here, I can release everything that I had inside me while I was sitting out those two years."

That last sentence should terrify people because "releasing everything" likely means much more on the ground than the 40 total rushing yards and one rushing touchdown Johnson had in the last two seasons.

"When I watched him last year, he seemed to be more of a threat with his arm and was more of a physical runner when he did run," ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. "[Cam] used to weave around defenses, outrun them, run over top of them. He was a special athlete. I have not seen enough of Jeremy Johnson to speculate that he is going to become that guy."

His high school coach has, though. Technically, Johnson was a pro-style prospect in the class of 2013, but that didn't stop him from lighting up opposing defenses on the ground as well as through the air.

"He has the size and the speed," said Billy Gresham, Johnson's high school coach at Carver High School in Montgomery, Alabama. "A lot of people see his size and think he can't run, but he's a very athletic kid. In high school, his senior year, he rushed for close to 700 yards. A lot of those were on called quarterback runs."

One look at Johnson's high school tape, and you'll see "Cam Newton" written all over his ground game (specifically at the 1:10 and 2:05 marks of the video above).

"Jeremy has the speed of a receiver and maybe even a running back," Capetillo said. "He is big, and he is strong. And he can get away from a defender very quickly. Just when they think they have gotten him. Jeremy can quickly break away from them and take out up the field."

That's not only something that can be gleaned from his high school tape but also something his head coach has pointed out.

"He can make every throw that you ask him to do, but he's a better runner than people think," Malzahn said. "We didn't ask him to run the past couple of years, but he's a big, athletic guy. He probably runs a 4.6. So he will allow us to call all of our offense."

Add that running ability to his pro-style arm and Malzahn's play-calling acumen, and Auburn has a recipe for success.

"This offense has an opportunity with him leading it to be pretty dynamic," Herbstreit said. "When it comes to Gus' offense, whether it's [former starter] Nick Marshall—who's quick and get to the perimeter with his feet and can run and do so many things creating—obviously he can have success. Or if it's a guy who's more comfortable throwing the football, he tends to adjust to the skill set of his quarterback as well as anybody in the country."

The comparisons to Newton exist for a good reason, but Johnson is much more likely to write his own legacy than follow in Cam's footsteps.

After all, he already has.

Johnson came to Auburn as a high school legend out of Carver High School in Montgomery, Alabama. The former "Mr. Football" in the state of Alabama also led his team to a state basketball title in 2012 and "Super 5" hoops honors by the Alabama Sports Writers in 2013, narrowly missing out on the "Mr. Basketball" award won by De'Runnya Wilson—who just so happens to be a star wide receiver at Mississippi State.

In fact, that hoops pedigree might help him when he's called upon to lower his shoulder on the football field this fall.

"He was a top-level basketball player in high school," Gresham said. "He played the 2 and the 3 in basketball, so he moves very well."

That athleticism Johnson displayed on the hard court will help him on the gridiron this fall.

"One thing I think he brings to the basketball court that he doesn't get to do a lot in football is his physicality," Gresham told AL.com's Matt Scalici in February 2013. "He's usually trying to avoid contact in football, but in basketball, he's not afraid of contact at all. He really shows a lot of toughness out there."

Like Newton, Johnson is a special athlete. He's gifted as a passer and a runner and is in the perfect system under Malzahn for those attributes to come to the forefront in 2015.

The Cam comparisons are there and will be there as long as Johnson is the quarterback on the Plains. That hype, which has exploded to the point that Johnson is now listed as a primary contender for the Heisman Trophy, won't get into Johnson's head.

"For him, it's just doing whatever he needs to do to have his team be successful and be the best player he can be," Gresham told Bleacher Report. "He's always been the kind of player who never got caught up in the news and the outside world. He just controlled what he could control. As for him being a quarterback, that includes the locker room and his ability to lead a team on and off the field. 

"I don't think the hype will get to him. Naturally, he hears it, and he sees it, but I don't think it's a huge factor. I think Auburn has done a great job trying to keep him level."

Instead of trying to replicate the past, though, Johnson could be recognized for what he is and what he will be to the Auburn football program and college football.

The first Jeremy Johnson.

"Jeremy is 'Heisman Trophy winner' good," Capetillo said. "He is just that good."

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports. Statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com. Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on Sirius 93 XM 208.

Follow Barrett on Twitter: @BarrettSallee.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

True Freshman Josh Rosen Is UCLA's Next Big-Time Quarterback

Josh Rosen is not your typical teenager. He is of a different breed, a star-studded prospect who's received an immense amount of hype. 

Nicknamed by some as the “Chosen Rosen”, the 6'4" true freshman will get his chance to prove his worth this season as UCLA’s new starting quarterback.

His accolades as a high school star were incredibly impressive. Named the No. 1 Pro-Style QB in the 247Sports Composite rankings, Rosen was the recipient of the 2014 Glenn Davis Award as the Los Angeles Times' high school football player of the year.

Now his sights are on becoming the next great freshman quarterback to top the headlines in the college football world, and many believe he has all the tools to be the next big thing.

“He’s probably one of the best football players that I’ve ever coached,” St. John Bosco head football coach Jason Negro told Bleacher Report. “He was the entire package. Not only was he gifted in so many different areas athletically, but the mental approach to the game was far superior than any kid that I’ve ever worked with.”

Rosen’s gridiron talents transfer off the field as well.

“He’s a really good kid, scholar student and he was a leader on and off campus,” St. John Bosco athletic director Monty McDermott told Bleacher Report.

McDermott is used to stellar talent walking through the hallways on campus. St. John Bosco historically has had a good football program. The Southern California high school has produced 21 Division I football players over the last three years, eight alone coming from the 2014 recruiting class. Four of their football lettermen started in the Pac-12 during the 2014 season, according to McDermott. 

However, it’s Rosen who has garnered the most notoriety.

Fresno State was the first to offer him a scholarship when he was just a freshman in high school, and several more offers ensued as he continued to improve. By the time he was a junior, Rosen’s top choices were Michigan, Cal and UCLA.

When the quarterback announced his decision, he laid three hats on the table and all of them dawned the UCLA logo.

It was an emphatic commitment to the Bruins, one that sent shockwaves throughout college football. UCLA’s future would be set, for Rosen was labeled as the next great quarterback.

In fact, Rosen is one of the most heralded UCLA football recruits ever. The Bruins lead all Division I programs with 112 team national championships, but football is one of their least triumphant sports, having only produced one national championship when they split the title with Ohio State in 1954.

Despite UCLA’s recent football success, the school is still looking for its first conference championship since 1998.

The Bruin faithful are hoping Rosen is the one to change all of that, and it begins with the 2015 season.

“I just think it speaks volumes to the expectations Josh has upon him going to UCLA,” Negro explained. “I think that anytime you have that much notoriety coming out of high school going into college. UCLA has a lot of big expectations for him. I think he’s the right guy to try to deliver on some of those promises.”

The 18-year-old is wise beyond his years and his decision to enroll early in January is evident of that. However, it only intensified the hype for Rosen, and upon enrollment he was even greeted with a congratulatory tweet from fellow Bruin and NFL Hall of Famer Troy Aikman.

Enrolling early was a key factor in Rosen earning the starting job. Learning the ropes in spring practice gave him the chance to improve his game well before the season would start, but adjusting to college life wasn’t easy.

While most high school seniors were getting ready for prom, grad night and senior trips, Rosen was heading down Bruin Walk trying to find his next class. He admitted that it took him about two weeks to get acclimated to college life.

“You get back to your room at 6 (p.m.) at night and you gotta figure out something to do and you realize that you’re not with all your friends in your neighborhood,” Rosen said. “You gotta fill time and kind of time manage. That’s basically the main thing I learned here is time management."

"To homework, to film, to meetings, to everything, you have to make your own schedule. You gotta be on your schedule. You’re not sort of trapped at school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. You gotta find your way to classes, you gotta find times to eat and get out on the field,” Rosen said.

Those time management skills will be tested even further this fall, as Rosen handles the role that comes with being the starting quarterback at a high-level program.

And following in the footsteps of Brett Hundley won’t make things any easier.

Hundley, a 2015 fifth-round pick by the Green Bay Packers, raised the bar for UCLA quarterbacks. The positions went through a spell of mediocrity between Aikman’s days in Westwood in the late 80’s until Hundley’s stint.

He didn’t miss a start in three seasons for the Bruins, throwing for 9,966 yards, rushing for 1,747 yards and setting a school-record with 75 touchdowns. Perhaps most important to L.A. football fans, he left UCLA with three straight victories over cross-town rival USC.

And Rosen is smart enough to realize how much of an asset Hundley can be.

“It’s a complete open line of communication,” Rosen said on Hundley. “He’s been an incredible help to me. He has no obligation to come back and to give us any of his knowledge or show any kind of thing to UCLA. He has no obligation to, he just wants to. Because he’s an incredible guy. He’s helped me out a ton. And I can only hope to follow in his footsteps.”

Rosen’s expectations at UCLA far exceed what Hundley went through, but the mature freshman doesn’t let all the hype fill his head.

“Coach (Jim) Mora is phenomenal, and has ingrained in us to tune out the noise and everything that goes on about UCLA football. The only thing that we really care about is what actually happens within UCLA football,” he said about managing expectations.

The buzz surrounding Rosen suggests, however, that he’s the real deal. Which is why Mora had to temper that hype in a recent practice, calling out the young quarterback to the media.

Rosen was struggling, and Mora let him know. According to Chris Foster of the Los Angeles Times, Mora shouted, “Go back to Bosco and beat some more [bad] teams. You can’t hit an open receiver down field with no defense.”

He then turned to the media members present at practice and said, “Tell your readers that is why he has not been named the starter.”

It was tough love, and perhaps just the spark Rosen needed to push him to be better. After all, here we are a week later and Mora has named him the starter.

Earlier this summer, Mora said he wouldn’t name a starter until the team faces Virginia at the Rose Bowl on September 5, but Rosen’s fall camp performance put him in firm position to win the job.

Mora admitted that he has never started a true freshman during his head coaching career. Despite that, the Bruins head coach is impressed with what he sees from his young quarterback.

“Josh is very intelligent. He’s one of those kids where the games comes to him more easily than some. He understands concepts, he can conceptualize. Certain performers go out on the field and things kind of slow down for them and they see things better or more quickly than others. And I think he’s one of those guys,” Mora said on Rosen.

UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone is equally impressed by Rosen’s quarterback skills thus far.

“I’m excited about him. The one thing you want to see from that position is if the kid can see the big picture. Can a kid have wide vision? And then know where to narrow his vision to. And that’s probably the thing, you know besides the physical attributes,” Mazzone explained.

“You know a lot of those guys can throw footballs. But that to me separates from the quarterback position. He gets the big picture. ‘Alright this is what I got. This is what I need to do. This is where I need to go.’”

Yet, Mazzone admitted that he’s never started a true freshman quarterback, either.

It will be a new experience for all, but Rosen has all the potential to deliver on the hype.  

That said, the freshman knows that his play on the field will determine if he’ll be the starter for the entire season or not.

“The one thing I learned in life that every coach, mentor has told me is control what you can control. I gotta come out here and try to complete every pass, and make the right read every single time, and lift as much weight that I possibly can in the weight room, get in good physical shape, get as good grades as I possibly can and try to present myself in a positive way to everyone,” Rosen said.

A mature response for a teenager, and just another reason why the “Chosen Rosen” name fits so well.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

B/R CFB 250: Top 31 Wide Receivers

Bleacher Report's CFB 250 is an annual ranking of the best players in college football, regardless of NFL potential. Through interviews with B/R experts Matt MillerMichael FelderBarrett Sallee and Adam Kramer, authors Brian Leigh and Brian Pedersen have studied, ranked and graded the top athletes in the country, narrowed that list to 250 and sorted by position. Today, we present the Top Wide Receivers.

 

Other CFB 250 Positions

 

Quarterback play remains an integral part of any effective offense in college football, but without some capable guys to make catches, there's not much that can be done through the air.

We have another strong crop of wide receivers for 2015, even after seeing six taken in the first round of the 2015 NFL draft. All told, nine of the top 11 from our last ranking of the nation's top wideouts have moved on, but in their wake is a crop of pass-catchers who are just as good, if not better.

The following ratings are based primarily on players' skills as college players rather than how they'd fare in the NFL. Though they may be using this time to develop their games for the pro level, they should be focused on helping their teams succeed first and foremost.

The rankings consist of a tabulation of six different categories (hands, route running, blocking, release, speed and run after catch). They also consider evaluations made by our writers in conjunction with Bleacher Report football experts.

 

Note: Any ties in overall grade were broken based on which player would give a hypothetical college all-star team the best chance to win.

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Alabama Football: Nick Saban Right to Keep Starting QB a Mystery

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Like all of his teammates, University of Alabama senior running back Kenyan Drake has been getting the question from just about everyone imaginable: family, friends and even total strangers. 

They all want to know “Who’s going to be the Crimson Tide’s quarterback?” and Drake has been giving them all the same answer. When the time comes, head coach Nick Saban will make the decision and he’ll be “all for it.”

“I like catching passes from any quarterback,” Drake said diplomatically.

With the Crimson Tide closing training camp and beginning to turn its attention to Wisconsin, which it’ll see Sept. 5 in Arlington, Texas, (8 p.m. ET, ABC), the time has arrived for Alabama to start zeroing in on who will have what responsibilities this season.

That’s not just at quarterback, but all positions, only don’t expect Saban to disclose much. He was so coy during his press conference Thursday evening that he wouldn’t even name a frontrunner to start at the cornerback spot opposite Cyrus Jones.

“I think you can name a guy, but if we named a guy and then that guy wasn't the best performer and we had to un-name him, what good does that do?” Saban said. “So sometimes you run the risk of naming a guy before he's really won the team or won the job. So then you have to un-name him. Does that do the player any good?”

Saban’s been through this before, of course, most recently last season with Blake Sims and Jake Coker and in 2011 with AJ McCarron and Phillip Sims (no relation to Blake). Last year he waited until two days before the opener against Virginia Tech before letting it out that Blake Sims would start, and in 2011 it wasn’t until after Alabama beat Kent State that McCarron knew he would be the starting quarterback.

This time Saban may want to keep everyone guessing until Sept. 19 when Alabama opens Southeastern Conference play against Ole Miss, which could be an absolutely huge game. Don’t be surprised if the Rebels haven't established a quarterback by then, either.

Normally the advantages of naming a starting quarterback during training camp are obvious, including continuity and establishing the offensive identity. The more reps players take together, the more in-tune everyone can execute.

Yes, Alabama would have preferred to go that route, but this year in particular a lot of prominent programs have not. Reigning national champion Ohio State hasn’t named a starting quarterback and neither has Georgia, Oregon, Ole Miss, Florida State …

Most of them are deciding between two quarterbacks, while Saban is still taking about having multiple options.

“Multiple would be two to me, which is what you usually do for any team in any game, and then you have a third that you try to get ready on a limited basis,” he said. “That's what we plan to do. That's really kind of how we've practiced this week, and that's how we'll continue to practice. Who those guys are exactly and what order they're in exactly, that hasn't been decided quite yet. But I have been pleased with the way all three of the guys played this week.”

The three are Coker, junior Alec Morris and sophomore Cooper Bateman. Also getting reps, but not as many, are redshirt freshman David Cornwell and true freshman Blake Barnett.

After weeks of not saying a word about Cornwell, who after the spring appeared to be Coker’s primary competition, Saban said he “struggled a little bit early on in camp. He's certainly getting better all the time, and we have a lot of confidence that he'll be a good player in the future.”

He also explained why Bateman is still in the running:

“I meet with guys after spring practice, and I told him, 'Look, you've done everything we've asked you to do for the team. You've very athletic. You went out and tried to play receiver when we needed you to do that. But if you're going to be a quarterback, we want you to improve your accuracy as a passer, your ability to take care of the ball. You're very athletic. You're the kind of quarterback we'd like to have here.’

“Lo and behold, he did that. He did that in May, he did that over the summer. His completion percentage has been very, very good relative to the other guys, and he is very athletic, and he can run.”

Saban then dropped a statement that will make things tougher on Alabama’s early–season opponents:

“How those guys develop and who we think can improve and develop the most during the season is also going to have something to do with this decision that we make. I would not rule out. I'm not saying we're going to do this or that we even want to do this, but if that doesn't happen we may play more than one guy in the first game.”

And with that, Alabama’s quarterback competition essentially became a shell game. All Wisconsin knows is that it’s probably going to see more than one quarterback, and Middle Tennessee State probably will as well, if not three.

Anything that might confuse the opposition might be considered at this point—like back in 2009 when Greg McElroy was expected to take his first snap as the starting quarterback and Alabama came out in a wildcat formation.

“I asked one of our players on the offensive line—everybody thinks you've got to have all this continuity—and I asked our offensive lineman, I said, 'Which one of the quarterbacks do you like the best?' He said, 'Well, since we don't huddle, we don't even know who's in there.'”

Wait, no huddle?

  

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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

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Tennessee's 2017 Recruiting Class Has Potential to Be Best of Butch Jones Era

For all of those Tennessee football fans who may be concerned that 2016's recruiting class is ranked 15th following head coach Butch Jones bringing in two top-10 classes, fear not.

The 2017 class is setting up to be the best of Jones' short era at the helm of the Vols.

This week's back-to-back commitments from 5-star No. 1-ranked quarterback Hunter Johnson and the state's top-ranked player in receiver Tee Higgins, the nation's No. 43-ranked prospect overall, is just the beginning of what is lining up to be a special group.

That's the kind of start programs need to go after recruiting championships.

Sure, the Vols need to keep showing tangible improvement on the field for prospects to keep flocking to Knoxville, but this staff is showing no signs of letting up. When you recruit the way Jones has, winning almost always follows.

It's going to be difficult for the Vols to sneak into the upper echelon of those rankings this year. After signing two loaded classes that included 62 players, this year's haul was always going to be smaller. Next year will be back to a standard-sized class.

And it could be loaded with orange and white.

Let's take a look at some of the reasons why the '17 class may be the one that ensures Jones' run of ridiculous recruiting isn't just a flash in the pan.

 

Volunteer State volume

Though the state of Tennessee hasn't historically produced the level of talent needed to supply a marquee SEC program with in-state players, they've been bountiful in the past two classes.

Jones came along at the ideal time to cherry-pick that talent, and he has seized control for the most part, plucking prospects from all over the state.

While Van Jefferson went to Ole Miss, Rico McGraw chose Georgia and Alex Bars followed in his father's footsteps to Notre Dame, those in-state defections are anomalies.

Over the past two cycles, 12 of the top 20 in-state players ranked by 247Sports went to UT. Three of the players who didn't weren't offered scholarships by the Vols.

It may not be prudent to say "Butch gets who Butch wants," but he has done a good enough job that he deserves the benefit of the doubt, and that certainly bodes well for 2017.

There's a little lull in talent this cycle, but next year's crop of in-state prospects may be the best ever.

There are eight Volunteer State prospects ranked in the top 250 players in next year's class. Higgins is among those, and he already has pledged for Tennessee. There isn't a single player on that list who UT can't land.

Besides Higgins, who is an elite force wanted by virtually everybody in the nation, there are plenty of potential stars within close proximity to UT starting with LaVergne athlete Maleik Gray, the nation's No. 49 player who is a 6'1 ½", 195-pound athlete.

Gray, who likely projects as a linebacker on the next level, recently visited Tennessee and told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan that of UT, Florida State and USC, "I would say I like them all equally right about now."

Next on the list is the country's fifth-ranked athlete, JaCoby Stevens. Though he seems to think highly of the Vols, LSU has made a recent push for him. In fact, Geaux247's Sonny Shipp wrote this week that the Tigers feel good about landing him.

Considering the luck UT has experienced in the Midstate area—especially Murfreesboro recently—nobody should count out the Vols.

Star offensive linemen Trey Smith (who likes Tennessee and Alabama) and Isaiah Stokes (younger brother of former UT standout basketball player Jarnell Stokes) are among the in-state stars, as are elite running backs Ty Chandler, Cordarrian Richardson and athlete Amari Rodgers.

Though Rodgers is currently committed to play for his dad—former Tennessee national championship quarterback Tee Martin—at Southern Cal, he lives in Knoxville and attends Knox Catholic High School where many of UT's coaches' sons attended.

The Vols will be very much in that battle to flip him, and it's not out of the question that it could happen.

So much talent dots the map of Tennessee for next year's class, and while Jones won't land them all, he'll certainly get his share. Having a star such as Higgins quickly jump on board can do nothing but help facilitate the peer recruiting, and that's huge for UT in such a banner year.

The 6'4" wide receiver from Oak Ridge told Volquest.com's Austin Price he already has begun recruiting for the Vols:

They have the No. 1 quarterback in my class. I think we can have a great bond. I love the offense they run and we can start things off from there. He DM'd me on twitter and he said he and I can get this 2017 class started and I think we are doing that.

When you throw in an athlete who is a legacy in Chase Hayden (son of former Vol running back Aaron Hayden), receiver Princeton Fant and others who'll emerge within state borders over the course of the next year-plus, it appears there's promising potential for the Vols to build a firm class base close to home.

 

Hunter begins the hunt

The second key reason why next year's class could be a star-studded parade toward Knoxville is who the Vols have out in the forefront.

It helps a recruiting class get kicked off and surge upward when you've got a marquee quarterback in the saddle, and Johnson definitely qualifies.

The 6'3", 197-pound pro-style passer has elite potential and was coveted by many of the top teams in the nation, eventually choosing the Vols over Notre Dame and Penn State.

On the football field, the signal-caller is the de facto team leader whom everybody looks to for guidance and vocal authority. If you don't have a quarterback who is a leader, you don't have a quarterback.

It's much the same in recruiting.

A major reason why many quarterbacks commit to schools early is so they can begin beating the bushes for top-tier talent to join them. But when you've got a signal-caller committed nearly 18 months in advance, your class can really take off.

Just ask Georgia.

The Dawgs received a pledge from 2016 5-star quarterback Jacob Eason in July, and though they're currently ranked eighth nationally, they've got relationships with enough star players that it's not out of the realm of possibility UGA could finish with the top-rated class.

Ole Miss also has built a solid seventh-rated class behind the commitment of 5-star signal-caller Shea Patterson. Though the Rebels' ranking ceiling isn't as high as Georgia's, it's still going to be strong.

The Vols are hoping for the same returns.

Higgins represents the start to that potential surge, pledging a day after Johnson and citing the quarterback's commitment as one of the reasons why he went ahead and pulled the trigger.

Johnson mentioned Higgins to Volquest.com's John Brice on the day he committed, and the following tweet proved prophetic:

Since Johnson's pledge, UT already has picked up a couple of Crystal Ball projections for 3-star tight end Matt Dotson, who was thought to favor Ohio State. That's just a small example of what the headlines of landing Johnson can do for the Vols.

When the quarterback is in place, players gravitate in that direction. Linemen want to block for him, and skill position players realize they've got somebody dependable and highly regarded who can get them the ball.

Considering UT's current quarterback situation with Joshua Dobbs, Quinten Dormady, Sheriron Jones and commitments Jarrett Guarantano (2016 class) and Johnson ('17 class), why wouldn't an elite offensive player head to Knoxville?

It doesn't sound like Johnson has any intentions on changing his mind between now and national signing day 2017, either.

With the bevy of in-state prospects and considering Johnson is already in the fold, 2017 is setting up to be one of those years that can help Tennessee build the depth to again compete for SEC and national championships.

UT is off to a good start with other '17 prospects such as 5-star athlete DeAngelo Gibbs (the nephew of Vols great Dale Carter), North Carolina linebacker Justin Foster and Georgia linebacker Breon Dixon. That's why there's reason for optimism on Rocky Top.

Will the Vols land all of those guys? Of course not. But when you cast a wide net of quality players, it increases the odds that you'll wind up reeling in some big fish.

A couple of those were hauled into the Big Orange boat this week in Johnson and Higgins, and they're the kind of catalysts who can ensure more stars will follow.

 

All recruiting information obtained from 247Sports unless otherwise noted. All stats gathered from UTSports.com unless otherwise noted. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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

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Brice Ramsey vs. Greyson Lambert: Updates on Georgia's QB Battle

The University of Georgia has yet to name a starting quarterback for its 2015 season opener against Louisiana-Monroe, and it doesn't appear as though head coach Mark Richt is ready to make a decision between signal-callers Brice Ramsey and Greyson Lambert just yet. 

Although the Bulldogs held their final preseason scrimmage Thursday, Richt didn't commit to either player. Instead, he opened the door for both to play on Sept. 5. 

"I don’t think we’re set to say 100 percent we’re going to name a starter after this thing," Richt said, according to DawgNation.com's Chip Towers. "…My gut is we’ll keep going in some way, shape or form. It may keep roll into the game. There may be more than one guy playing. If it was today, my feeling would be we’d play more than one guy."

Faton Bauta took snaps with the second-team offense during practice, per Towers. On Aug. 25, Dawg Nation's Seth Emerson reported Bauta had dropped below Ramsey and Lambert on the depth chart. 

Lambert is a junior transfer who played the last two seasons with the Virginia Cavaliers, whereas Ramsey is a rising sophomore who saw minimal opportunities as a freshman in Athens. 

"Lambert's biggest asset is the experience he gained while serving as the starting quarterback in Charlottesville," Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee wrote. "No, the stat line isn't exactly Heisman-worthy."

Lambert would be the safer pick based on his more expansive track record, but Ramsey offers more upside after grading out as the sixth-ranked pro-style quarterback in his recruiting class, according to 247Sports.

Although Georgia still needs to deliberate, it would be comforting to know who the starting quarterback is before the team opens its SEC schedule on Sept. 12 at Vanderbilt. 

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Jake Coker vs. Alec Morris vs. Cooper Bateman: Updates on Alabama QB Battle

With just more than a week until the season opener against Wisconsin, the defending SEC champion Alabama Crimson Tide are reportedly yet to decide on a starting quarterback. 

ESPN’s Brett McMurphy noted Thursday that coach Nick Saban wants two quarterbacks ready and a third on standby for the game against the Badgers among Jake Coker, Alec Morris and Cooper Bateman. Saban even said he may play more than one signal-caller during the contest.

The Crimson Tide have national championship aspirations once again this season after falling short in the initial College Football Playoff, and the eventual decision could put them on the path to that title. The quarterback battle takes on extra magnitude before the first game because Wisconsin is a challenging opponent right out of the gate.

The Badgers reached the Big Ten Championship Game last year and beat Alabama’s archrival Auburn in the Outback Bowl. They can challenge mighty Alabama if the quarterback is not ready to play.

A Sports Illustrated report noted Coker “has been set back as he deals with a toe injury. Coker missed three practices this week, but threw 26 passes in the team’s final fall scrimmage on Saturday.” The report also mentioned Bateman threw a team-high 27 passes in that same scrimmage.

Matt Zenitz of AL.com recently said Morris “may be the most likely of the Tide’s quarterbacks to start against Wisconsin” and pointed to a comment from Saban himself as potential evidence:

Alec has done a nice job all [preseason]. I think he does a really good job of understanding the offense. He helps the other players play better. And I think that he has probably shown command at the position, which I think is important. We've just got to continue to work on touch, accuracy, efficiency. But I've been really pleased with what Alec has done in this camp.

Coker was largely seen as the favorite to win the job entering spring practice, but he has not seized the position during preseason practices. The injury problems likely haven't helped either, and Morris apparently did enough to catch the head coach’s eye.

Elsewhere, John Talty of AL.com called Bateman the wild card to win the competition, especially since he split time at wide receiver in spring practice and hasn’t seen the field in any capacity except kick holder in his Alabama career. It is a testament to Bateman's abilities that he is still in the race given his inexperience at the position at the collegiate level.

However, Bateman threw the most passes in the recent scrimmage, and Talty praised the way he operated in the huddle during the two-minute drill. As someone with enough speed to split time at receiver, Bateman can make plays if the pocket breaks down and keep drives alive with his legs, which gives him an advantage in the versatility department.

While the winner of the quarterback battle will be thrown into the bright spotlight that accompanies Alabama football, he also will not have to win the opener against Wisconsin (or the subsequent games) by himself.

Running back Derrick Henry is a potential Heisman Trophy candidate and an absolute bulldozer in the hole. Between Henry and the strong offensive line, the Crimson Tide should control the clock and pick up chunks of yardage all season simply by relying on the rushing attack.

What’s more, the defense finished fourth in the nation in points allowed per game in 2014 and should be strong once again this season.

Alabama’s quarterback (or quarterbacks if Saban truly does play two) doesn’t necessarily have to be the star against Wisconsin. As long as he keeps the Crimson Tide within striking distance, the rest of the loaded squad can take care of the rest.

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Ishaq Williams' Appeal Petition Denied by NCAA: Latest Details and Reaction

It has been a difficult offseason for the Notre Dame defensive line, and it took another blow Thursday.

Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune reported “coach Brian Kelly said Ishaq Williams' petition to the NCAA has been denied and will not compete for the Irish this year.”

BlueandGold.com provided more context by noting Williams is not allowed to practice, but Kelly said the defensive end has a locker and can work out.

According to Hansen, Williams and four others were suspended as part of Notre Dame’s academic dishonesty investigation that began last July. Williams re-enrolled at the school in search of his degree following his obligatory withdrawal last October, even though it was far from a guarantee that he would be allowed to play football again.

Kelly did not seem overly optimistic at the time, per Hansen:

I’ve looked at the data. I’ve looked at the hurdles he has. I will submit the paperwork to the NCAA. We’re hopeful, but we’ve seen others who have not been as effective.

I’ll go from pessimistic to cautiously optimistic, but I think we’re all on the same page, that he has some hurdles that he has to get over relative to being cleared for (football) eligibility.

Williams, who boasts 45 career tackles and a sack in 35 games for the Fighting Irish, apparently did not clear those hurdles in the eyes of the NCAA. It is just another setback for a defensive line that will not be particularly deep this year. 

Defensive end Kolin Hill transferred and did not report to fall camp. Defensive end Jhonny Williams also transferred, and recruit Bo Wallace elected to attend Arizona State instead of Notre Dame.

Mike Vorel of ND Insider pointed out the concern, and that was before the Williams news broke Wednesday:

The Fighting Irish still have their eyes on a College Football Playoff berth, especially since they checked in at No. 11 in the initial Amway Coaches Poll. However, the defense faltered down the stretch in 2014 and allowed at least 43 points in games against Northwestern, USC and Arizona State.

Notre Dame faces another difficult schedule in 2015 with showdowns against Texas, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Stanford and USC on the slate, and it will need the defense to perform at a higher level to reach the playoffs this season.

That task became more difficult Wednesday.

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Every Top 25 College Football Team's Toughest Game in 2015

The offseason is nearly over. The time for predictions basically is as well. In the not-too-distant future, everyone is just going to have to go out and play. 

The beauty of the college football season is that it provides unexpected surprises. Games that didn't look like they would be good at all end up being classics. But on paper, not all games are created equal. While looking at the preseason AP Top 25, we lay out the single toughest game for each ranked team. 

We made selections on past trends, potential matchup problems among positions and any national (i.e. playoff) ramifications. Some selections were easy; some weren't. With that, check them out in the following slides. 

Begin Slideshow

Ahmir Mitchell Commits to Michigan: 4-Star Athlete Provides Promise at WR and DB

Another New Jersey standout is headed to Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Ahmir Mitchell, a two-way playmaker at Cedar Creek High School near Atlantic City, committed to Michigan on Thursday afternoon. The 4-star athlete announced his decision via a Bleacher Report video, choosing the Wolverines over conference rival Ohio State:

Mitchell, a 6'3", 206-pound wide receiver and safety, is the third New Jersey product to join head coach Jim Harbaugh's 2016 recruiting haul. He follows defensive end Ron Johnson and wide receiver Brad Hawkins, 4-star teammates at Camden High School.

Mitchell, who also claims scholarship offers from Florida State, Rutgers, Ole Miss and Notre Dame, is the third-ranked player in his state. The young man who leads that list—top overall defensive tackle prospect Rashan Gary of Paramus Catholic High School—is also considering Michigan. 

The Wolverines now hold 23 commitments in a class rated seventh nationally. Mitchell provides Michigan with a player who carries significant promise on both sides of the football.

He emerged as a go-to target for Cedar Creek quarterback and older brother Damon Mitchell during his freshman season, helping the team reach a state sectional title game in just its second year of varsity competition.

"Ahmir is going to be big-time," Damon, now an Arkansas wide receiver, said during that 11-win campaign.

He was right.

The younger Mitchell tallied 821 rushing and receiving yards as a sophomore, per NJ.com, scoring 13 offensive touchdowns and taking three kicks back to the house on special teams.

Mitchell elevated his game last fall, collecting a career-best 47 receptions for 872 yards and 12 scores. He totaled 1,419 all-purpose and 20 touchdowns in 2014, per MaxPreps, adding 37 tackles and an interception.

"Ahmir is a very special talent. He steps up in a lot of roles for us," Cedar Creek head coach Tim Watson said.

Rated seventh nationally among athletes and 90th overall in 2016 composite rankings, Mitchell's ultimate collegiate potential remains a mystery. Michigan recruited him primarily at wide receiver, but it's easy to see his promise at safety.

He played both positions while attending a regional Nike Camp this April at the New York Jets' facilities. Despite more offensive accomplishments in high school, Mitchell remains a compelling prospect at defense and looks comfortable patrolling the secondary.

"I feel as though I'm an all-around athlete, so I really don't mind playing any position on the field," he said last year.

For now, he looks like a lock to start his college career at receiver. Michigan holds pledges from four top-tier offensive linemen, Elite 11 quarterback Brandon Peters, a pair of 4-star running backs and Hawkins, a fellow 4-star New Jersey pass target, creating a formidable future attack.

Mitchell would join a positional group that includes a quality corps of young talent. Redshirt freshman Drake Harris was a top in-state recruit during the 2014 recruiting cycle, while Maurice Ways, Brian Cole and Grant Perry are possible first-year contributors.

Michigan offensive coordinator Tim Drevno will spend this season figuring out exactly what he has at receiver.

Juniors Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh are team veterans who should factor into the equation as potential breakout candidates, but they would both be down to one remaining year of eligibility when Mitchell enrolls.

Mitchell projects as a "Z" receiver, tasked with lining up both inside and outside as a versatile weapon. He has the size and strength to feast on defenders with intermediate routes that take him across the field or down the seam.

His skill set could also shine at safety, where he flashes the aggressiveness and range to halt opponents' rushing and passing efforts. Mitchell can lay the lumber, providing an intimidating presence at the back end of a defense, and he's a threat to produce momentum-altering returns after interceptions.

Expectations are high this season for a collection of Wolverines safeties that features 5-star 2014 recruit Jabrill Peppers, another New Jersey native, and senior Jarrod Wilson. 

Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin may not immediately work with Mitchell in Ann Arbor, but don't be surprised if he gets his hands on him a few years from now.

Mitchell visited Michigan multiple times during his recruitment, coming away with a strong impression of Harbaugh.

“He’s a great recruiter," Mitchell said following a spring trip to campus. "He’s very hands-on and doesn’t like other people doing things for him. It's very exciting to see how everyone feels about him at Michigan.”

Despite a 5-7 record last season, the Wolverines carry a ton of recruiting momentum into Harbaugh's first fall back at his alma mater. This latest 4-star commitment—his seventh since June—provides another positive jolt toward national signing day.

 

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

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Keith Gavin Decommits from Florida State: What's Next for 4-Star WR, Seminoles?

Florida State’s 2016 recruiting class took a major blow on Wednesday when 4-star receiver and longtime commit Keith Gavin announced he was reopening his recruitment.

His announcement came after being committed to the Seminoles for exactly 13 months. 

The 6’3”, 211-pounder, who rates as the No. 24 wide receiver and the No. 143 player overall in the 2016 class, originally picked the ‘Noles over offers from Alabama, Clemson, Florida and Miami, among others.

So which teams are schools to watch moving forward with Gavin, and how does this development affect Florida State and its pursuit of other receivers?

As detailed by Josh Newberg of Noles247, Alabama continued to aggressively recruit Gavin after his initial pledge.

Gavin has also been to Tuscaloosa multiple times in the offseason, and he’s developed a comfort level with Tide head coach Nick Saban, receivers coach Billy Napier and the rest of the Tide staff. 

“It just seems a lot like home,” Gavin told Chris Nee of Noles247. “All of the coaches are real cool. I keep in touch with a lot of players there. I keep in touch with Coach Napier a lot,” Gavin said. “It just feels like home, a lot.”

Gavin admitted to Nee that the Tide were the only other program he was considering while he was committed to the ‘Noles.

Although he did make a visit to Georgia last month, Alabama appears to be the prime contender to FSU when Gavin makes a final decision.

Despite the loss of Gavin, the ‘Noles still have a grip on the No. 3 class in the 247Sports team rankings. However, their recruiting at the receiver position goes back to square one.

While it’s important to note that Fisher and his staff have recruited the position well in recent years, Gavin represented the lone commitment for Seminoles head coach Jimbo Fisher at that spot in the current cycle.

To make matters worse, the ‘Noles lost a commitment from 5-star tight end Isaac Nauta last month, and they appear to be slipping for 5-star receiver Nate Craig-Myers.

As Newberg detailed, a few receivers who could pop up on the radar of Fisher and his staff include a trio of 4-stars in Tre Nixon, Freddie Swain and Stephen Sullivan.

Additionally, they could land another key piece next week when 4-star tight end Nasier Upshur will choose between FSU and Michigan.

Newberg also noted that because of the wealth of young receiver talent already on hand, Fisher and his staff are only looking for top-flight options and would skip taking a player simply to fill an open spot.

Still, few programs have been able to recruit at the level of Fisher and the Seminoles in recent years. With that in mind, it wouldn’t be a total surprise to see the ‘Noles emerge for an elite receiver prospect later in the cycle.

 

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

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Martez Ivey Injury: Updates on Florida OT's Knee and Return

University of Florida offensive tackle Martez Ivey is battling a knee injury. 

Continue below for updates.

Martez to Miss Time Thursday, August 27

Gators head coach Jim McElwain announced that Ivey has been experiencing knee problems, according to GatorZone.com's Chris Harry:

One can tell by Harry's reaction that his absence is going to be felt by Florida's offensive line.

The freshman committed to the Gators in February of 2015 and was the top-ranked offensive tackle both in the state of Florida and nationally, according to 247Sports

He looked set to start as a true freshman at right tackle, working with the first-team offense as recently as Tuesday, August 25, just nine days before the start of the college football season, according to the Orlando Sentinel's Edgar Thompson.

Look for redshirt freshman Kavaris Harkless, who has struggled, to take over at Martez's spot while he recovers, according to Yahoo's Landon Watnick.

Florida is ranked outside the nation's top 25 but is receiving votes. If it has any shot of challenging for the national spotlight, it will need a healthy offensive line to protect quarterback Will Grier and running back Kelvin Taylor. 

 

Stats courtesy of ESPN.com.

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Dartmouth Creates Robotic Tackling Dummies for Players to Hit During Practice

The Dartmouth Big Green have found a way to use technology to change the way they practice.

According to WMUR-TV, Dartmouth engineering students have created what they call the MVP, or the Mobile Virtual Player. When you see what it does, you'll realize that it truly is the MVP of practices.

The Mobile Virtual Player is a remote-controlled tackling dummy capable of absorbing full contact. It makes practices safer for players, as it reduces the risk of injuries, specifically those to the head and neck.

This is just the next step in improving player safety. While there may be some fine-tuning needed, this invention is a real game-changer practice-changer. The less player-on-player contact during practice, the better.

Thanks to technology and the Ivy League, practices may be changed forever. 

[WMUR-TV, h/t SB Nation]

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Texas Football: Do Longhorns Have Legit Chance to Win Big 12 in 2015?

The Big 12's power balance rounded off a complete flip last season when TCU joined Baylor as the conference's controversial co-champions.

The Horned Frogs, one of the two newcomers to the Big 12, completed a 12-1 season that few saw coming, especially considering their 4-8 record in 2013. And Baylor, the league's former doormat, grabbed a piece of the title with its second straight 11-win campaign.

Meanwhile, traditional powerhouses Texas and Oklahoma struggled in the new-look Big 12. While the Sooners completely failed to live up to lofty expectations with a 8-5 season, Texas stumbled to a 6-7 record in head coach Charlie Strong's first year.

Now the Longhorns are looking up at the Horned Frogs—a team Texas has beaten 62 times with only 22 losses—and asking themselves, "Why not us?"

Texas wants to cut a path similar to TCU's and make an improbable Big 12 title run this fall. Like Gary Patterson did last season with the Horned Frogs, the Longhorns are also making the switch to a fast-paced spread attack and hoping to revitalize a dormant offense.

But does Texas have a legitimate chance at returning to conference glory this season? Let's take a close look at three important factors of TCU's dramatic turnaround and compare them to Texas in 2015.

 

Offensive renaissance

TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin went from struggling signal-caller who eventually lined up at receiver in 2013 to dual-threat devastator under new co-offensive coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meachem.

Texas will most likely stick with Tyrone Swoopes to start the season at quarterback, according to Bleacher Report's Zach Shelton. Like Boykin in 2013, Swoopes struggled as a starter, going 5-7 in a season that ended with the Longhorns only putting up 59 yards of total offense against Arkansas.

While he might not have as much athleticism as redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard, Swoopes is more comfortable in the spread offense—as are the rest of his offensive teammates from a state known for that scheme.

"I’m really excited about [the new offense]," Swoopes said, per Nick Castillo of the Dallas Morning News. "It’s pretty much what we’ve all done in high school. We’re all used to the up-tempo, no-huddle kind of the thing, so it’s just kind of getting us back to our ways."

Texas, however, didn't make any major coaching moves like TCU in order to implement a spread offense in the offseason.

Assistant head coach/quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson and offensive coordinator Joe Wickline ran a West Coast-style attack last season and will help orchestrate the switch in 2015.

According to Jeff Howe of Horns247, the "power spread" system that has been successful at Auburn and Ohio State is the intended goal for the no-huddle Horns, but the look sounds like it will be a work in progress.

"There's a lot of it that looks and would be similar, yes," Watson said, per Howe. "Some of it's different. It's really just our backgrounds coming together."

Just like TCU did in 2014, Texas has seven starters coming back from an offense that simply didn't perform in the previous season. The Longhorns have a veteran weapon at running back in Johnathan Gray, and the offensive line has experience—it just needs to develop its chemistry.

Wide receiver is an area where Texas needs new faces to step up and perform from day one. TCU's Josh Doctson led his team in receiving in 2013 and then followed it up with a 1,000-yard campaign in 2014. But Texas' leading returner out wide is No. 3 option Marcus Johnson, who only had 313 yards and one touchdown. 

Texas might not be following TCU's offensive recipe for success down to the letter, but the same basic ingredients are there. It all starts with quarterback play in the gun-slinging Big 12, and Texas coaches say establishing confidence is the first priority for Swoopes and the rest of the offense.

"Confidence is everything in sports and when players have confidence they can play at a high level," wide receivers coach Jay Norvell said, per Howe. "We've seen it in this conference; people turn around quickly, and it's because their kids get confidence. They believe in what they're doing in a short amount of time."

 

Defensive experience

This is perhaps the biggest difference between TCU heading into 2014 and Texas heading into 2015.

While the offensive turnaround stole the show in Fort Worth, the Horned Frogs were able to rely on eight returning starters on defense.

Veteran names such as Paul Dawson, Marcus Mallet and Chris Hackett were key in TCU's improvement on the defensive side of the ball. The Horned Frogs' opponents averaged fewer than 20 points and 350 yards last season.

Like Patterson, Texas head coach Charlie Strong is known for his defense—and the Longhorns had a great year there last season. Eight returning starters came together under Strong and coordinator Vance Bedford to finish No. 26 nationally in total defense.

This year, however, Texas only has five returning starters on that side of the ball.

"This season's group could end up having six or more underclassmen on the field on any one play," Max Olson of ESPN.com wrote. "They will have to replace veterans like Jordan Hicks and Quandre Diggs, who got the job done right every time.

"Texas has future stars at all three levels of its defense, but there is going to be a learning curve when you’re playing a schedule this tough."

The defense will have to grow up quickly this season or else the Longhorns could see a drop-off in production.

Players such as true freshman linebacker Malik Jefferson have blue-chip talent, but they still haven't gone through the rigors of being a full-time starter at the college level. The hill looks like it could be too big to climb this season for the youthful 'Horns.

"They know how much work they've got to get done," Strong said, per Howe. "They know. They open their eyes and they see it."

As the offense goes through its major transition this year, Texas won't be able to lean on a veteran-laden defense, although the defensive line has some established faces. It's in a similar situation as the offense—lots of promise and potential, little success so far on the field.

 

The schedule

In order for Texas to win an outright Big 12 title—no confusing shared titles this year—it will most likely have to take two out of the three games against TCU, Oklahoma and Baylor.

Unfortunately, this young team won't be able to rely on a true home-field advantage for any of those major contests. This season, Texas travels to TCU and Baylor in addition to the annual neutral-site game against Oklahoma at the Cotton Bowl.

And while the nonconference games obviously won't determine the Big 12 race, Texas won't be able to ease into the schedule and build up the confidence Norvell said the offense needed.

While TCU and fellow co-champion Baylor opened last season with a trio of nonconference games in which they were double-digit favorites, Texas starts 2015 at College Football Playoff contender Notre Dame.

After a game against Rice, Texas hosts upstart Cal—who will really test the still-sorting secondary—before opening the Big 12 campaign against Oklahoma State.

Right after those contests is the double barrel of TCU and Oklahoma.

"Not only is this team replacing 10 starters, but it also has a tough nonconference schedule before it dives straight into some unforgiving Big 12 play," Shelton wrote. "Just because this team wants to improve doesn't mean it will."

This Texas team has a new attitude after Strong's tough first season in Austin. It will fight hard to prove the doubters wrong and make a turnaround similar to the ones from TCU, Auburn and even Ohio State in recent seasons.

But the schedule looks too brutal.

A successful 2015 season for Texas would be closing the gap between the Longhorns and the new-school powers in the Big 12. With this much youth, 2016 and beyond look bright if the offense can benefit from the system change and the defense can establish playmakers.

An upset victory—one that could ruin a rival's championship dreams—looks possible for this team. A Big 12 championship just doesn't.

 

All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.

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

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Arizona Football: Depth Chart Analysis, Complete 2015 Preview and Predictions

Arizona is coming off its best season since 1998, winning 10 games and claiming its first Pac-12 division title in 2014 by emerging from the pack in the deep and dangerous South. It did so with a relatively young team, one that was expected to be a year away from competing but instead got ahead of schedule.

But two straight losses to end the year, first to Oregon in the conference title game and then to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl, put a sour end to the 2014 campaign and served as motivation to improve during the offseason.

Despite bringing back most of its skill players and the nation's most decorated defender from 2014 in linebacker Scooby Wright, the Wildcats were picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 South and opened at No. 22 in both the Associated Press and Amway Coaches preseason polls.

Read on, as we go in-depth on what Arizona has in store for 2015.

 

Coaches

Stability breeds success, and Arizona certainly has had plenty of the former. The coaching staff that Rich Rodriguez assembled when he took over the program before the 2012 season has remained almost entirely intact, with just one change after the first year and nothing else since.

Several of the coaches have worked with Rodriguez at past schools, most notably Jeff Casteel, who was Rodriguez's defensive coordinator from 2003-07 at West Virginia.

 

What to watch for on offense

Arizona started freshmen at quarterback and running back last year, while its receiving corps was mostly sophomores, yet that group managed to put up big numbers, as the spread offense operated at one of the fastest paces in the country. 

Now the Wildcats will get to see how those youngsters perform with a very successful year under their belts, particularly quarterback Anu Solomon. In 2014 he threw for 3,793 yards and 28 touchdowns but completed just 58 percent of his passes and was sacked 38 times, often when trying to extend a play rather than throw the ball away.

Solomon is the first returning starter at QB that Arizona has had under Rodriguez, so this training camp was less about teaching and more about fine-tuning.

"I think the coaches are comfortable with me, checking plays myself," Solomon told Gabe Encinas of Arizona Desert Swarm. "I think that just goes on with repetition in practice, being successful and executing the play."

Nick Wilson ran for 1,375 yards and 16 TDs as a true freshman last year, despite missing time with head and leg injuries. He's not a workhorse back who can carry it 30 times a game, but he fits perfectly in the spread because of his quickness and footwork.

The wide receiver corps is one of the deepest in the country, so much so that junior DaVonte' Neal (who caught 27 passes and had two TDs a year ago) was switched to defense. Junior Cayleb Jones is the big target, both in numbers (73 receptions, 1,019 yards, nine TDs) and size (6'3", 215 pounds), and the Wildcats also have a litany of small but speedy guys to cycle through the slot receiver positions.

Arizona's only offensive question mark comes with its offensive line, which graduated three starters and has gotten thinner in depth since then.

Redshirt freshman Jordan Poland was dismissed in July after being arrested for trafficking in stolen property, while senior Carter Wood was ruled out for the year with a chronic foot injury. Wood was expected to start at center, and without him the Wildcats have had to shuffle players around—moving Cayman Bundage from guard to center—which leaves them with very few viable backup options.

 

What to watch for on defense

Arizona's 3-3-5 alignment starts and ends with the man in the middle, junior linebacker Scooby Wright. The reigning Bednarik, Lombardi and Nagurski award winner led the nation in tackles (163), tackles for loss (29) and forced fumbles (six) in 2014 and was a part of nearly every big defensive play the Wildcats made in 2014.

But Wright can't do it all, as evidenced by Arizona's overall defensive numbers last season. It allowed 451 yards and 28.2 points per game, had only nine sacks from down linemen (compared to 14 from Wright alone) and failed to stop opponents on more than 40 percent of third-down conversions.

"Coordinator Jeff Casteel has worked wonders with Wright leading his 3-3-5 scheme, but the Wildcats still need a talent upgrade on the defensive line and lack an A-list pass-rusher, other than Wright," ESPN.com's Ted Miller wrote.

The return of Reggie Gilbert—who was given a fifth year of eligibility by the NCAA this spring—will help up front, but more help must come from the linemen in terms of pressuring quarterbacks and giving what will be a relatively inexperienced secondary some much-needed support.

Senior spur safety Will Parks will anchor the back line with his hard-hitting and great vision, but Arizona's cornerbacks have a combined 12 starts between them.

 

What to watch for on special teams

The Wildcats are very solid at kicker and punter, with seniors Casey Skowron and Drew Riggleman holding down those spots. Skowron missed eight field goals last season, including one in the final moments of a home loss to USC (after making one as Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian iced him with a timeout), but he also hit a game-winner to beat Washington and had at least three field goals in four different games.

Riggleman ranked fourth in FBS with a 46.07-yard average.

Arizona's return game wasn't strong in 2014, averaging just 21.5 yards on kickoffs and 10.2 yards on punts. DaVonte' Neal muffed several punts, and the protection in front of returners rarely led to big plays.

 

Injuries

The loss of Carter Wood to a season-ending foot injury at the start of training camp was by far Arizona's most significant injury, since it caused an already thin offensive line to require shuffling. Tyrell Johnson, a track star who was expected to contribute at receiver, in the run game and on returns, has been shut down since mid-August.

 

X-factor

If Rich Rodriguez were to be part of the NCAA rules committee for college football at some point, he might advocate to ban huddling on offense. Or at least reduce the play clock to where doing so wouldn't make sense.

Arizona runs at one of the fastest paces in the country. Last year the Wildcats ran an FBS-leading 1,139 offensive plays and used just over 27 minutes of possession time each game, which was 119th out of 128 teams. That comes out to 20.08 seconds per snap.

By being able to operate at such a swift tempo, the Wildcats keep opposing defenses on their toes and prevent them from being able to sub as easily or catch their breaths. But there's a major downside to this approach: If that offense is struggling, it provides Arizona's defense with very little time to recuperate between drives, which can wear it down.

 

Schedule

Arizona drew the short end of the stick in the Pac-12 as one of two teams in the conference without a bye during the season. The other is Colorado, which because of a game played in Hawaii elected to add a 13th contest instead of take a week off.

The Wildcats technically have a bye, but it comes during the final week of the regular season, after 12 consecutive games have been played. Because of this, they could find themselves in a position where an attempt to avoid fatigue will result in sitting some players or reducing their snaps against easier opponents as the year goes on.

That could come during a three-game stretch—two home, one away—against teams that failed to make bowl games in 2014. Between Oct. 10-24 Arizona hosts Oregon State, visits Colorado and then is home for Washington State, but right before that is a tough start to the conference schedule by hosting UCLA and then playing at Stanford.

The end is even more difficult, as Arizona plays three of four on the road, including at USC and rival Arizona State.

 

Prediction

Despite its overall success in 2014, Arizona had a very up-and-down season that saw it win some big games but also look very shaky in other contests. "The Wildcats were great, lucky, mediocre and just about everything else in 2014," SB Nation's Bill Connelly wrote.

With more experience to tap into on offense, it would stand to reason that the Wildcats will be even better this time around, but only with a defense that can provide support on occasion. Scooby Wright is great, but if he's somehow taken out of a play, others have to step up.

Arizona has a big opportunity to make a splash at the outset of the Pac-12 schedule by hosting UCLA, but a loss there could also set it down a path of trying to play catch-up in the South Division. Road trips to Stanford, USC and Arizona State will all be played on grass, and since 2012 the Wildcats are 1-7 when playing on natural turf.

 

Overall record: 9-3

Conference record: 6-3

 

All stats provided by CFBStats.com. All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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Fair or Foul for College Coaches to Withhold Cost-of-Attendance Money?

Let's make one thing abundantly clear: Student-athletes—college football players, specifically, as it pertains to this discussion—are not employees. Now, whether you think they should be is a discussion for another day. But, as it stands in August 2015, they are amateurs, not professionals. 

In light of the Ed O'Bannon class-action lawsuit and Northwestern unionization push, the NCAA has dug its heels in regarding this philosophy. So why are some coaches acting like their players are employees with regards to the full cost-of-attendance stipend?

It started Wednesday when Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster made a bold statement that the coaching staff was looking into "fining" players from their cost-of-attendance money for disciplinary issues. Here's the entire Q&A exchange with Andy Bitter of the Roanoke Times

Foster's answer reads:

We're going to look at that. Instead of... you know, some people got in trouble for getting up and punishing people at 6 in the morning. And obviously you need some discipline. I think that's one way that you could potentially do that, to control that a little bit. These guys now, they haven't had access to money unless they've been Pell Grant recipients. So they'll want that when it's all said and done at the end of the day.

The outcry was about what you'd expect: brutal. However, it's a fair criticism. The concept of docking players from their full cost-of-attendance stipend, which is financial aid players are entitled to, is absurd. (Furthermore, where does the money go?)

On Thursday, a picture from the Richmond Times-Dispatch showed a list of things for which Hokies players could be fined. Whether this was enforced or not isn't known, but it does include performance-based fines such as unsportsmanlike/flagrant penalties. That could be a major problem. 

At best, that type of punishment scale is impermissible unless it's written into grant-in-aid agreements, as noted by two compliance Twitter accounts: 

At worst, it's an odd disciplinary move that shows just how in the dark some are about what cost of attendance really means. What it certainly does not mean is pay for play. 

Yet, on Thursday, ESPN's Joe Schad relayed that Cincinnati head coach Tommy Tuberville and athletic director Mike Bohn were all-in on docking players' COA money as a disciplinary measure. 

Did they not get the memo?

It's at least understandable that a head coach wouldn't know all the do's and don'ts of scholarship money, but for an athletic director to double-down on this issue is eye-opening. 

Make no mistake—this disciplinary measure is never going to happen on a widespread scale. Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock has already struck it down. Rest assured Babcock will verify that any of the Hokies coaching staff's future off-the-wall ideas will be in concert with compliance rules before they go public.  

Another part of this conversation raises the question: Why would any coach want to make this his platform? In what universe is announcing plans to take money away from players smart, especially with such disparity among cost-of-attendance numbers throughout the U.S.? That's a one-way ticket to getting crushed on the recruiting trail. 

The other thing it does is provide a cop-out to coaches. Get busted for pot? Violate team rules? It's easier to fine a player his scholarship money and put him on the field Saturday to help win a game, as Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com tweeted: 

The notion of a "fine" ultimately adds more ammo to the argument that college football players are more employees than students. Whether it's in the O'Bannon trial or unionization push, the term "amateurism" has been put on blast. 

Now, we have two coaches and an athletic director who want to discipline players as if they were paid employees—even if they state otherwise on the record. 

If coaches want to treat their players like professionals, we need to have a serious conversation about changing titles and the direction of college football. If those coaches are hellbent on calling student-athletes "amateurs," however, then the No. 1 job should be to protect them, not take away what's theirs. 

 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. 

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Ohio State Football: How Noah Brown's Injury Impacts Buckeyes Offense

Ohio State wide receiver Noah Brown wasn't a household name after a relatively quiet freshman season in 2014, but that was expected to change after the 6'2", 222-pound pass-catcher broke out during spring and fall camp. 

"Noah Brown has had probably as good of a spring as I could've wanted," receivers coach Zach Smith said last April, according to Bill Landis of Northeast Ohio Media Group. "He's dropped 25 pounds. He's at a different level than he was in the fall. He's come a long way and still has a lot to do, but he looks like a guy who's going to contribute in the fall."

Everything was lining up for Brown to make a big impact in Ohio State's explosive offense, but that fell apart on Wednesday when the promising wideout fractured his leg in practice—an injury that will sideline him for the entire 2015 season. 

It wasn't just a tough blow for the emerging sophomore, about whom coaches and teammates have consistently raved all offseason. It's also a big loss for the Buckeyes as a whole, and they'll feel that loss the moment they kick off the season on the road against Virginia Tech.

The Hokies, of course, were the only team to beat the Buckeyes during their championship run in 2014. Head coach Frank Beamer and defensive coordinator Bud Foster devised a scheme that put a ton of pressure on the Buckeyes receivers—a scheme that worked to perfection as the Hokies stymied Ohio State in a 35-21 victory. 

Collectively, the Buckeyes hauled in just nine receptions against Virginia Tech that night . And with the success the Hokies had last year in Columbus, they're expected to adapt a similar strategy when the two teams meet in prime time on Labor Day.

The Buckeyes were already working to replace Devin Smith and Evan Spencer, two receivers who graduated last year before respectively going in the second and sixth rounds of the NFL draft. Add to that the Week 1 suspensions of wideouts Corey Smith, Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall, and Ohio State was already severely shorthanded at wideout for the season opener.

But Brown's injury has left Urban Meyer in an even more desperate situation.

That's not to say there aren't talented replacements to choose from. Since taking over in the winter of 2012, Meyer has made a concerted effort to improve the perimeter talent in Columbus, so there's certainly no shortage of potential fill-ins. 

But none of those players were having the kind of fall camp that Brown was putting together.

"I would say Noah Brown is probably the most improved receiver right now," cornerback Eli Apple said the day before Brown's injury, according to Austin Ward of ESPN.com. "There was a point early in camp where nobody could cover him for a little bit. He was just so physical, really good with his hands, and he catches everything."

And his absence won't just impact the passing game—it'll also hamper the running game.

More than most teams around the country, Ohio State's rushing attack relies heavily upon downfield blocking from its receivers. That's why Spencer was such a valued asset for Ohio State and eventually named the team's MVP. He brought a physicality to the receiver position that allowed Ezekiel Elliott to hit the second level with fewer obstacles. 

Brown was going to be Ohio State's enforcer in a similar fashion. 

Now that Brown is out, the Buckeyes will need to find someone who will not only provide a spark in the passing game but in the running game as well. 

And with Virginia Tech looming, they'll need to do that in a hurry.

 

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

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