NCAA Football News

Senior Bowl 2015: Full Team Rosters and Predictions for Top Draft Prospects

Many of the nation's best prospects are in Mobile, Alabama for the 2015 Senior Bowl, and they'll put their talents on display in Saturday's game after a week of working with NFL coaches and in front of scouts.

The early impressions have now been made for these players, with so much access to their week of practicing and countless groundwork prior to that. But prospects can separate themselves from others by showing up when the lights come on.

Prospects have already made their impressions on Bleacher Report's Matt Miller and Matt Bowen, who were on hand to share what they learned on Day 2 of practice:

With a handful of players at each position and everyone guaranteed to see the field, you won't see any eye-popping statistical numbers in the Senior Bowl. But every yard gained by those below will be big in proving that they can make it in the NFL.

The Senior Bowl is finally here, so let's get to know the complete team rosters and look at how some of the most notable players will perform.

Note: Team rosters courtesy of the Senior Bowl official site.

 

Predictions for Top Prospects

Nick Marshall, QB/CB, Auburn (South)

Former Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall isn't high on the list of top NFL prospects in Mobile this weekend but a lot can change in the pre-draft season. And it's already begun changing for Marshall.

The last switch Marshall made, however, may take some getting used to. He was invited to the Senior Bowl as a quarterback after refusing to take an automatic invite as a defensive back. But that has now changed, per SEC Network:

Marshall's ability to play quarterback at the college level was never in question, at least at Auburn, where he led the Tigers to the brink of a national championship with his innate dual-threat capabilities. But despite progressing as a passer in his senior season, he made the switch to give himself the best chance to get drafted and thrive in the NFL.

His performances at corner haven't been perfect in practice, but he had no trouble showcasing his speed and impressive coverage skills, as ESPN's Todd McShay credited him for:

He might get a series or two at quarterback simply because he's one of three on the roster and was invited as such, but these games are draft showcases. And that means Marshall will get plenty of run on the outside, which will come against some of the nation's most prominent wide receivers.

Even in limited play, Marshall will be tested simply due to his inexperience at the position. He may give up one or two plays, but he will make up for them with a couple of batted balls. But simply playing on both sides of the ball will make Marshall's Senior Bowl performance an historic one.

Marshall's predicted stats: 30 passing yards, 35 rushing yards, 2 pass break-ups, 2 tackles

 

David Cobb, RB, Minnesota (North)

The emergence of Minnesota running back David Cobb is the perfect example of the Senior Bowl booming a player's stock.

When the running backs were named for the Senior Bowl, the names that jumped off the page on the North side were Ameer Abdullah and Jeremy Langford. But the third Big Ten back to join them is running away with the storylines.

Mike Loyko of NEPatriotsDraft.com had no problem crowning Cobb as his best back in Mobile after what he's put on display:

The former Golden Gopher checks most of the boxes for an NFL running back. He possesses the speed to get to the edge or out-run defensive backs, a low pad level to absorb contact and can push the pile with impressive strength and durability.

It's tough for skill position players to emerge in games like this, when they're not only sharing the ball with a number of other similarly talented players but going up against a fresh and star-studded defense every time. But Cobb has been getting it done in practice in Mobile, and he will have no trouble translating that to the field to put a bow on a memorable week.

Cobb's predicted stats: 9 rushes, 45 yards, TD

 

Nate Orchard, DE, Utah (North)

Most of the top pass-rushing prospects in the 2015 class aren't in Mobile, but Utah defensive end Nate Orchard continues to make up for it.

After an incredible 2014 season left Orchard claiming the Ted Hendricks Award given to the top college football defensive end, his stock is peaking entering the draft season. It's not due to the whopping 18.5 sacks he accumulated in 2014 but rather his impressive skill set and versatility.

At 6'4" and 252 pounds, Orchard might struggle to line up with his hand on the ground off the bat, but he should be able to thrive as an edge-rusher—perhaps in a 3-4 outside-linebacker spot. Even if he is undersized, B/R's Miller sees enough strength for him to get by:

Destined for an early-round draft pick, Orchard won't have any problems showcasing his skills even against the top offensive tackles he'll face Saturday. His ability to switch from a physical rusher to a nimble one from one play to the next will have opponents reeling and unable to stop him.

Expect Orchard to take over a couple of plays as he leaves his fingerprints on the Senior Bowl.

Orchard's predicted stats: 3 tackles, sack, tackle for loss

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Notre Dame Football Recruiting: Names to Watch Until National Signing Day

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — With less than two weeks until national signing day, Notre Dame football is looking to close out its class of 2015 with a few more additions.

The Irish currently have 22 commitments, including four early enrollees already in South Bend. The signs still point toward Notre Dame aiming to add another wide receiver, running back and safety to its current crop.

Here are the names to know heading toward national signing day. Naturally, anything can change in the recruiting game, even late in the process, but this is the short list of Irish targets based on reported mutual interest.

 

Equanimeous St. Brown

The No. 20 wide receiver in the country, Equanimeous St. Brown, is a top remaining target for the Irish.

Tabbed as the No. 160 overall player, per 247Sports’ composite rankings, St. Brown has hosted Irish coaches in recent weeks in Anaheim, California, according to Irish247’s Tom Loy. According to Loy, the Under Armour All-American also said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly will head out west for an in-home visit next week.

Notre Dame has not been linked recently to other class of 2015 wide receivers. St. Brown is scheduled to announce his decision on national signing day.

 

Dexter Williams

Running back Dexter Williams took an official visit to South Bend last weekend and told 247Sports’ Ryan Bartow the Irish are “high on my list” afterward.

Williams drew attention a few days later when former Notre Dame players Louis Nix and Cierre Wood tweeted at Williams welcoming the running back to the Notre Dame family. Williams, though, told Loy he hasn’t committed anywhere yet. According to Loy, Williams will announce his commitment on national signing day and is deciding between Notre Dame, Miami and Louisville.

Notre Dame has been searching all over in recent months for a second running back to pair with class of 2015 commitment Josh Adams. Running back target Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who also took an official visit to campus last weekend, recently announced his final three, which did not include Notre Dame.

 

Justin Reid

Louisiana native and 3-star safety Justin Reid is taking an official visit to Notre Dame this weekend after stopping by Stanford last week.

Notre Dame’s quest for a safety has been well documented, an ongoing search even before class of 2015 safety Prentice McKinney decommitted from Notre Dame on Wednesday.

At 6'0", 193 pounds, Reid checks in as the No. 22 safety and No. 369 overall player in the country. According to 247Sports’ Steve Wiltfong, Reid is expected to visit LSU next weekend. Reid’s brother, Eric, was an All-American safety at LSU and played in the 2014 Pro Bowl after a strong rookie season with the San Francisco 49ers.

 

Frank Buncom IV

Defensive back Frank Buncom IV is pegged as the No. 120 overall player in the nation and took an official visit to Notre Dame in early October.

The San Diego native told Bartow he will announce his college decision Wednesday and said his four finalists are Stanford, Notre Dame, Vanderbilt and California.

Among the defensive back targets mentioned herein, Buncom is ranked the highest.

 

Arrington Farrar

Safety Arrington Farrar was once a Stanford commitment, but his recruitment recently reopened, as noted by Loy.

A 4-star prospect and the No. 15 safety in the class of 2015, Farrar is taking an official visit to Wisconsin this weekend following a trip to North Carolina last weekend. According to Loy, Notre Dame and Penn State are also possibilities for an official visit from the Atlanta product.

 

Nathan Meadors

San Bernardino, California, native Nathan Meadors, a 3-star athlete, took an official visit to Notre Dame last weekend.

Meadors told Loy that “Notre Dame really made up some ground with UCLA and the other schools” after his visit. The safety prospect is also considering Boise State and Oregon, according to Loy.

 

Chris Williamson

Notre Dame is still casting a fairly wide net in its search for another defensive back, and 3-star athlete Chris Williamson is another name to keep in mind.

Ranked as the No. 430 player in his class, Williamson visited North Carolina last weekend. According to Loy, Williamson has been considering Notre Dame, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Virginia Tech, Cal and North Carolina this month.

Williamson is visiting Michigan this weekend.

Additional less-likely names to watch include 5-star cornerback Iman Marshall, 5-star running back Soso Jamabo, 4-star athlete Jordan Cronkrite and 3-star athlete Gary Jennings.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all recruiting stats and information courtesy of 247Sports.com and all quotes obtained firsthand. Star ratings reflect 247Sports composite rankings.

 

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

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Odds Auburn Lands 5-Star Terry Beckner Jr. over Missouri, Ohio State, FSU

It is very scary to watch a defensive tackle run the 40-yard dash in 4.8 seconds.

Terry Beckner Jr. is a 5-star DT for a reason. For a guy who stands at 6'4" and weighs 293 pounds, it's almost poetic watching him run like a linebacker—or, in some cases, like a safety. His combination of size, speed, athleticism and explosiveness off the line has made him a wanted man for quite some time.

So, where is the East St. Louis, Illinois, star leaning? 

After a productive visit to Auburn, you have to think the Tigers have moved into a position of being considered strong contenders in the Beckner sweepstakes. Florida State, Missouri and Ohio State are three other major players as we inch closer to national signing day.

If you're an Auburn fan, you have to like your odds—more so now than a couple of weeks ago. In fact, why not have some fun and throw out some percentages for the four teams thought to be in the lead?

 

Odds for Auburn: 3-1

Steve Wiltfong of 247Sports chatted with East St. Louis assistant coach Harith Mitchom following Beckner's visit to Auburn. The visit was a game-changer in Beckner's process.

"If you would've asked me last week, I would've said Mizzou strong and FSU edging in, but after coming back from this Auburn visit, he was more excited than I ever saw after a visit," Mitchom told Wiltfong. "Whatever they did down there really, really caught his eye."

Great news for Auburn, but there are still two official visits left for Beckner. He visits Ohio State this weekend and Missouri next weekend.

 

Odds for Ohio State: 4-1

Earlier in the process, many thought Ohio State was a legitimate leader for Beckner. For whatever reason, the flame fizzled, and the Buckeyes were considered but not necessarily a lock, according to those following his recruiting.

Let's be honest: Championships talk—and they are loud when they talk. The Buckeyes are the first College Football Playoff champion, and there is room for Beckner on that defensive unit.

Don't forget about Urban Meyer. Beckner is in Columbus for an official visit this weekend—and Meyer is one of the best closers in 11th-hour recruiting. See Dontre Wilson and Ezekiel Elliott as examples.

 

Odds for Missouri: 5-1

Missouri is less than two hours away from East St. Louis, so proximity advantages go to the Tigers. And we must give credit where credit is due: Missouri has been a key player in the SEC East. The Tigers definitely would welcome a player of Beckner's caliber, as he could help put Missouri in national conversations.

Here's another big advantage for Missouri: The program has Beckner's last scheduled official visit. Those who know recruiting know that oftentimes, the last visit is the most memorable, and the most memorable visit could be the visit that puts a program over the top.

Missouri once was considered a front-runner. As January continues, other programs have caught the Tigers. But that doesn't mean they can't win in the end.

 

Odds for Florida State: 6-1

Florida State is a team that's been a program to keep an eye on. Beckner visited the campus back in November, and he's always considered the Seminoles a contender.

You've got to give credit to Florida State assistant coach Tim Brewster, who has done an outstanding job recruiting Beckner. The main disadvantage with Florida State is that, from an official visit standpoint, they won't be fresh in Beckner's mind. A positive, however, is that every visit after Florida State will have to be compared to the experience in Tallahassee.

Beckner said during the Under Armour All-America Game that Florida State was still high on his list. Seminoles fans will be paying attention from now until his decision.

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Where Extremely Versatile 2015 DE Jashon Cornell Fits in Ohio State's Defense

The Ohio State Buckeyes keep winning. They won the national championship, and now they're winning on the recruiting trail as well. 

Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder discusses how Jashon Cornell, a 4-star strong side defensive end, as per 247Sports composite rankings, will fit in on this strong defense. 

What kind of impact can Cornell have next season?

Watch the video and let us know!

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UCLA, Jim Mora Pick Up Much Needed Recruiting Win in 4-Star Ryan Newsome

Ryan Newsome has had a fascination with both Texas and UCLA for quite some time. Friday afternoon, the 4-star wide receiver from Aledo, Texas, announced he's taking his talents out West, rather than remaining in the state.

In a bit of a surprise, Newsome became UCLA's 16th overall commit during a ceremony at Aledo High School. He also became UCLA's second receiver pledge, joining California 4-star L.J. Reed.

Perhaps more importantly for those following on the West Coast, UCLA was able to win a key battle for a Texas high school standout with an in-state program. Newsome said the decision wasn't easy during a Thursday chat.

"I think it's whatever the best place for me. It's best place that God will lead me to," he said. "At the end of the day, a lot of people probably won't understand that, but to me, that's what it'll come down to."

The Bruins were in need of a marquee wide-receiver commit, and Newsome can be that type of player. Though he's not the biggest player at 5'8" and 170 pounds, Newsome uses breakaway speed, quickness and elusiveness to be a reliable slot receiver. Newsome's value, however, may be even greater for UCLA's special teams. He was an outstanding punt returner and kickoff returner for Aledo.

Newsome said he was "still torn" between Texas and UCLA Thursday afternoon, but added that he would make a decision Thursday night. The idea of playing close to home and playing for a group of coaches with high expectations for one of the state's most storied programs aided in making his decision.

Although Newsome was a big fan of the Texas coaching staff, he said UCLA offered him a chance to not only see playing time early, but also experience a new environment. Newsome said he was recruited by receivers coach Eric Yarber, but his primary recruiting contact was head coach Jim Mora. That was important to Newsome, as well.

"They said I'd have a chance to come in and play early," Newsome said. "They said they would utilize me all over the place, but mainly in the slot, and that I would get a chance to compete right away for a spot. I'll have opportunities to play as a freshman and make an immediate impact.

"That was big in my process. I knew wherever I went, I was coming to play and not to sit. Now I've just got to make sure to do the right things on my part."

Newsome said choosing against Texas was tough, particularly with several of his peers suggesting he play in Austin. But in the end, he said he's confident in his decision, and the Bruins are happy to have him.

"It's a weight lifted off my shoulders, man," Newsome said. "The whole recruiting process, I've seen a lot. I've seen crazy coaching carousels, and I've had a lot of coaches come to my house. To go to [Texas], I know it's going to be best for my future."

 

Damon Sayles is a national recruiting analyst with Bleacher Report. All quotes were retrieved firsthand. You can find Damon on Twitter: @DamonSayles

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Tristan Payton Decommits from USC: What It Means for Trojans, 4-Star WR

Wide receiver Tristan Payton has opted to reopen his recruitment for the second time in six months:

The 6'0", 182-pound Jacksonville prospect ends a commitment to USC that began in August. He joined the Trojans 2015 class just two weeks after backing off his verbal pledge to Florida. 

Payton, a 4-star recruit, is considering several options. He will spend an official visit at Central Florida this weekend, per Amy Campbell of Scout.com, and traveled to Louisville last month.

A possible return to Gainesville could also be in the cards. Payton's previous commitment to the Gators was given to Will Mushchamp's staff, so an opportunity to compete for Jim McElwain may alter his perception of the program. 

Payton, rated 30th nationally among wide receiver prospects in 247Sports' composite rankings, served as a top target for Florida State quarterback commit De'Andre Johnson at First Coast High School. He caught 97 passes for 1,700 yards and 15 touchdowns as an upperclassman, per MaxPreps.

His talents shined in the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl. Payton earned MVP honors after racking up 101 receiving yards and two touchdowns.

His decommitment leaves USC with a pair of wide receivers in its 2015 class. Top junior college talents De'Quan Hampton and Isaac Whitney will join the Trojans this year. 

Though Steve Sarkisian loses a quality offensive playmaker, Payton's departure gives USC four open spots in this class, per Hank Shaw of ReignOfTroy.com.

That total lines up perfectly to accommodate the program's ideal final push toward national signing day.

USC landed 5-star linebacker Osa Masina earlier Friday and is primed to chase a few more elite talents en route to Feb. 4. The Trojans are focused on 5-star cornerback Iman Marshall, 5-star defensive tackle Rasheem Green, 4-star linebacker John Houston and 4-star linebacker/defensive end Porter Gustin.

Teams are constantly fighting to keep and gain recruits at this time of the year and today's developments at USC serve as a prime example.

 

Recruit ratings courtesy of 247Sports.

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Ryan Newsome to UCLA: Bruins Land 4-Star WR Prospect

Wide receiver Ryan Newsome, one of the most electrifying prospects in the 2015 class, has decided to attend UCLA.

Jack Wang of the Los Angeles Daily News passed along the news:

Newsome, who had offers from around the nation but ultimately narrowed his decision down to Texas, UCLA and Tennessee, is ranked as the 28th-best wide receiver and No. 32 prospect coming out of the state of Texas, per 247Sports' composite rankings

At 5'8" and 170 pounds, the Aledo High School star doesn't figure to spend much time on the outside, but he can contribute in almost any other way offensively. 

His versatility is evident in his astounding statistical output. Leading Aledo to a state title during his senior year, he tallied 57 rushes for 470 yards and seven touchdowns, as well as 54 receptions for 1,073 yards and 12 more scores. He also tied a national prep record with seven punt returns for touchdowns as a junior, according to 247Sports, and finished with nine total in his career. 

He talked about receiving support from a guy who knows a thing or two about returning kicks, via the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Travis L. Brown:

Deion Sanders said I was the best player in the state. That meant a lot to me, because I was having some trouble with my confidence earlier in the season. My dad talked to him a little bit, and he’s definitely been a great guy to meet throughout my life.

Newsome, who also set a school record in the 100-meter dash, is an unbelievable athlete. He's fast, elusive and among the most dangerous prospects in the class when he is put into any kind of space. 

Jim Mora's job is simple: Get the ball into Newsome's hands. Whether he's creating separation out of the slot, working in the screen game, getting handoffs or returning kicks, he has the playmaking skills to make an immediate impact at the next level. 

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What to Expect from Florida State in the Post-Jameis Winston Era

One of the last images of quarterback Jameis Winston's career at Florida State was an unfortunate, albeit pretty funny, fumble in the Rose Bowl against Oregon.

That shouldn't, and won't, detract from what was an incredible two-year run for Winston. The redshirt sophomore, who declared for the NFL draft earlier this month and could be the No. 1 overall pick—Bleacher Report's Matt Miller projects him as the top selection—won the Heisman Trophy in 2013 and helped lead the Seminoles to 27 straight victories.

To expect Florida State to take a step back, at least in the short term, post-Winston is reasonable. Winston was an exceptional player at the right position who made the great look mundane.

Sean Maguire, Winston's backup, has limited experience and was hit-or-miss in his one start against a top-flight Clemson defense in September.

But Florida State is also losing so much more than just Winston. Here's a "short" list of this year's departures:

That's a lot to replace. To be sure, the Seminoles have some key guys coming back—running back Dalvin Cook, receiver Travis Rudolph and safety Jalen Ramsey—but the 2015 edition will look like a brand new team.

Thus, it's hard to predict how Florida State will fare next season. The difficulty of new-look teams is that there isn't always an easy feel to them. They could pick up where the previous group left off just as easily as they could fall short of expectations.

In any case, there will be plenty of players learning how to be full-time starters.

That starts with the offensive line, which will be given the task of coming together with a mostly new starting five. Rick Trickett has established himself as one of the best O-line coaches in the country, but last year's veteran line came out of the gate slowly, as did Williams in the running game.

As a result, there was a lot of pressure on Winston to make more plays—and he did, for the most part. That's the kind of player he was.

How will Florida State's offense look with a new quarterback if the same issues persist? Guys like Rudolph and Cook have to grow up quickly and become leaders.

It's largely the same story on defense. Last year's group was put in some tough situations because of turnovers, but it lacked the fire and leadership that former players like cornerback Lamarcus Joyner provided, as Powell Latimer of Warchant.com explained in 2013:

Joyner started affecting FSU's program even before he arrived on campus. He was the first big-time recruit to commit to Jimbo Fisher after Fisher took over as head coach and helped spur Fisher's first recruiting class. Once on campus, Joyner steadily took on a larger role each year in the secondary and increased his production. As a senior, he leads the team in sacks with 5 and has as many tackles (51) as he did all of 2012.

He also spurned the NFL draft as a junior and came back for his senior season, in part because he felt like Florida State had the pieces to compete for a national title - and he's not the only one. Christian Jones came back as well for a senior season. Those kinds of sacrifices gave FSU an extra level of leadership and depth. They also resonated with Fisher, who got emotional when speaking about the class of 2012 on the week before their home finale.

Florida State needs that kind of presence within the program. Going forward, Ramsey is a candidate to assume that type of role.

However, head coach Jimbo Fisher has recruited well enough that the Seminoles will be in a position to compete for conference and national championships for years to come.

"[It] doesn't hurt that a guy like Jimbo Fisher is a relentless recruiter and will go after anybody in the country," ESPN recruiting analyst Derek Tyson told Safid Deen of the Tallahassee Democrat. "At the end of the day, it's about winning. If you're able to win on the field, kids want to go there and kids want to play at these nationally known programs."

As of Friday, Jan. 23, Florida State has the No. 2 class nationally behind only Alabama, according to 247Sports' composite rankings. Five of the early enrollees in that class, including defensive end Josh Sweat, rank among the top 100 recruits for 2015. Another four verbal commits hold that same ranking.

There will be no shortage of athletes on Florida State's rosters for the foreseeable future. Even with an 85-scholarship limit, the adage of "the rich get richer" tends to hold true in recruiting. Every player signs with a school with the intention of being the next big star for that program.

No Winston? That won't hurt Florida State's status as a college football blue blood.

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football.

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Tennessee Early Enrollees Kyle Phillips and Shy Tuttle Set to Dominate SEC

The Tennessee defensive line is stockpiling talent for the 2015 season. Several top lineman recruits are already at Tennessee, with a few more on the way to join the Volunteers.

Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder breaks down the impact that these freshmen can have next season.

How good can the Tennessee defense be next season?

Watch the video and let us know!

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8 Bold Predictions for College Football's Offseason

We have to wait how long until the next college football season begins?

The first games of 2015 are more than seven months away, leaving us with a lengthy offseason that can't go by quick enough. National signing day is coming up, followed by spring football, but those are only finger foods compared to the 12-course meal that the regular season represents.

Bits and pieces of news will pop up during the hiatus, and some of it will be surprising and provide an opportunity to discuss, debate and reminisce...and then return to anticipating. But maybe the offseason will be more exciting this year, with some completely unexpected developments, ones so sudden that no one could have predicted they would happen.

Unless they were trying to make some bold predictions about the college football offseason, as we've gone ahead and done.

Take a look at some potentially unbelievable college football news that could happen over the next few months, then check back when the 2015 season begins to see if we happened to hit the nail on the head once or twice.

Begin Slideshow

Will Jim Harbaugh Turn Around Michigan Recruiting?

The Michigan Wolverines, with head coach Jim Harbaugh in tow, are now shifting their focus to the recruiting trail as they try to get back to where they once were as a national powerhouse. 

Bleacher Report's Stephen Nelson was joined by 247 Sports' Steve Lorenz to discuss the status of Michigan's 2015 recruiting class.

Who does Michigan need to land to get the team back to respectability? Check out the video and let us know!

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Ohio State's Devin Smith Could Be the Steal of the NFL Draft

COLUMBUS, Ohio — According to Ohio State's final pregame depth chart of the 2014 season, one of the biggest risers in the 2015 NFL draft wasn't even a starter in his senior season.

That would be Devin Smith, the Buckeyes' big-play wideout who somehow was listed as a second-stringer throughout Ohio State's run to a national championship. Smith's backup status, however, was in title only, as he led the Buckeyes with team highs of 931 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns.

The Massillon, Ohio, native enjoyed a particularly strong stretch to finish his senior season, hauling in a combined seven passes for 269 yards and four touchdowns in Ohio State's three postseason games.

That momentum has carried over to this week's Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, where Smith has continued to make his case for being one of the draft's hottest prospects.

At 6'1" and 199 pounds, size and speed have never been issues for the former member of the Buckeyes' track team. That was apparent from the moment he set foot on Ohio State's campus, catching 14 balls for 294 yards and four touchdowns as a true freshman despite dealing with shaky quarterback play.

Smith's average of 21 yards per catch as a freshman seemed promising, but over time it became the stat that seemed to define his career.

Just once did the Ohio State speedster lead the Buckeyes in receptions—his 14 in 2011 tied two other players for the team lead—but he twice led OSU in receiving yards. In 2014, he tallied 21 fewer catches than team leader Michael Thomas.

To some, Smith was nothing more than a deep threat during his time at Ohio State, a sentiment the numbers seem to back up.

That's not to say the Buckeyes didn't benefit from his ability to make the timely play, with Smith hauling in five second-half, game-winning touchdowns throughout his college career.

In the 22 games during which Smith caught a touchdown, Ohio State was undefeated.

But questions still persisted about Smith's consistency, as he'd go on long droughts without making a play or drop a routine catch moments after making a spectacular one. In Mobile, Smith admitted he was aware of his reputation, although he also claimed to just be playing his role in Columbus.

Smith discussed this with Scout.com's Jamie Newberg:

I know I have a lot to prove. I want to establish myself as a route-runner and that I can do all the things they ask and that I can block. I did all those things on the practice fields at Ohio State. I ran all the routes at Ohio State. But when it came to the games they wanted me to stretch the field. In the games that’s how they used me.

According to Bleacher Report Lead Draft Analyst Matt Miller, the early returns on Smith's week in Mobile—with the game still to be played on Saturday— have been positive, although Miller noted that it's been hard to evaluate the receivers at the Senior Bowl based on the underwhelming play of the game's quarterbacks.

What may bode even better for the first-round hopeful is his performance over the final three games of his college career, as he was able to showcase his ability in a more NFL-like offense.

That was when Cardale Jones was first inserted into the OSU lineup, after Smith spent the majority of his college career playing with Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett at quarterback.

While talented, neither Miller nor Barrett possess an arm like Jones', who was thought to be a potential early pick before deciding to return to Ohio State for the 2015 season.

It didn't take long for Smith to click with Jones, hauling in a 39-yard touchdown pass on the Buckeyes' opening drive of the Big Ten Championship Game. Smith would go on to catch additional touchdowns of 44 and 42 yards in what was ultimately a 59-0 walloping of Wisconsin.

"I feel like we’re way more effective when we throw deep now," Smith said at the time. "[Jones] can just put it on the money."

Jones would find Smith twice for 87 yards and a score in the Sugar Bowl/College Football Playoff semifinal against Alabama, with Smith's 47-yard third-quarter touchdown giving the Buckeyes a 27-21 lead. He would catch just one ball in the national title game against Oregon, although true to form, it came for a gain of 45 yards.

Smith's yards-per-catch average of 28.2 led the nation in 2014 and was a whole four yards higher than that of Miami's Phillip Dorsett, who finished second.

That's been enough to land him on the radar of almost every NFL team, as there's always a place in the league for a deep-play threat of Smith's caliber.

With the "silly season," as one scout put it to me, still ahead and the scouting combine and workouts still remaining, Smith already projects as a player whose floor appears to be a second-round pick.

Miller currently places him at 39th on his big board, while ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. projects that Smith will be selected with the final pick of the draft's first round.

And that's not to mention that with strong showings in the next three months, Smith could very well continue to climb.

Not bad for a "backup."

 

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

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Osa Masina Commits to USC: 5-Star Will Be Major Playmaker

Osa Masina is headed to USC, kicking off what could be an incredible closing stretch toward national signing day for the Trojans:

The 5-star linebacker announced his commitment Friday during a ceremony at Brighton High School near Salt Lake City, Utah. He selected USC over fellow finalists UCLA and Arizona State, schools which instantly become rivals in the Pac-12 Conference.

Masina, a versatile 6'3.5", 230-pound defender, spent an official visit with the Trojans in late November. The U.S. Army All-American appeared to be a USC lean as his decision date approached.

"My experience with USC and its coaching staff has definitely been positive," he told Bleacher Report after an All-American Bowl practice.

His offers sheet features more than 20 programs, including Notre Dame, Stanford and Oregon. Still, the Trojans secured 58 percent of expert predictions in 247Sports' Crystal Ball.

USC coaches traveled to Utah for a late check-in earlier this week, sealing the deal during their visit:

Masina, rated third nationally among outside linebackers in 247Sports' composite rankings, is a pivotal pickup for the Trojans. He is the first uncommitted player on USC's wish list to announce his decision, giving the program its first of what could be considered a "Final Five."

Steve Sarkisian and company are primarily focused on securing four more top-flight pledges by national signing day. The targeted group also includes 5-star cornerback Iman Marshall, 5-star defensive tackle Rasheem Green, 4-star linebacker John Houston and 4-star linebacker/defensive end Porter Gustin.

With Masina officially on board, it's fair for Trojans fans to fantasize about a possible star-studded flurry of commitments.

"The most important thing I took from my official visit to USC was how I felt around the players, recruits and coaching staff," he told Scott Schrader of 247Sports. "I also will have an opportunity for some early playing time, and that is something else that was important to me."

A USC roster once ravaged by scholarship restrictions is beginning to again fill up with elite playmakers.

Put Masina in the mix as an edge defender who could contribute immediately in pass-rush settings and has enough size to patrol the perimeter with authority.

Bleacher Report recruiting analyst Sanjay Kirpalani broke down his skill set during B/R's CFB Recruiting 200 series.

Masina flashes great instincts and the ability to diagnose run plays. He also has some pass-rushing skills as an edge-rusher and he’s adept at blitzing from a variety of angles. He’s got the versatility to play either inside or outside. If he can prove to be effective in coverage, he will likely end up playing on the outside.

Masina compiled career highs in 2014 with 97 tackles and 10 sacks, per MaxPreps. His athleticism shined on both sides of the ball at Brighton, where he rushed for 2,239 yards and 33 touchdowns as an upperclassman.

There's still a lot more work in store for USC to realize its dream scenario on signing day, but a commitment from Masina signifies a strong start toward the ultimate goal.

 

Recruit ratings courtesy of 247Sports.

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Realistic Expectations for Jim Harbaugh in First Season at Michigan

Jim Harbaugh has been a miracle worker at just about every stop as a head coach. The accomplishments on his resume have been well-documented. He took a lowly Stanford program that won just one game the season before his arrival and molded the Cardinal into a Pac-12 powerhouse. 

With the San Francisco 49ers, he took a team that went 6-10 in 2010 and led them to three straight NFC championship games, including a Super Bowl appearance in 2013. 

So it's natural to think Harbaugh will reach into the pockets of his khakis, pull out some magical football fairy dust, and like that, the Wolverines will be relevant again. As great a coach as Harbaugh is, things aren't always that convenient. 

Microwave results, like the ones experienced by former Michigan coach Brady Hoke, can be dangerous anyway. Hoke won 11 games in his first season (2011) with Rich Rodriguez's players, leading the Wolverine nation to believe their long national nightmare was over. In reality, it was only getting worse. Michigan won fewer games each season until Hoke was fired after going 5-7 in 2014. 

Suffice to say, the state of Michigan football is in, well, less-than-ideal shape. Hoke recruited well in his four years in Ann Arbor, finishing with top-10 classes in 2012 and '13, per 247Sports.com composite rankings. However, development of those players has been practically non-existent. Wide receiver Devin Funchess, a member of Hoke's 2012 class, is the lone exception. 

That means Harbaugh has a lot of work to do and even a mastermind like him might not be able to get everything accomplished overnight. So here's what fans should realistically expect from Harbaugh in Year 1: 

 

Recruit, Recruit Some More and Then Recruit Like Hell

Take a stab at how many verbal commits Michigan has for the 2015 class.

Give up? It's six as of Friday, Jan. 23, as per 247Sports.com. National signing day is in less than two weeks on Feb. 4. 

Of course, signing day is the start of when recruits that aren't early-enrollees can ink their letter of intent, not the end, so it's not like Harbaugh is on a hard deadline. Still, six verbal commits this late in the season is so appalling that it's almost offensive. You can thank the uncertainty swirling around the program for months on end for that. 

Harbaugh is working heavily in two areas. Some top uncommitted guys like tight end Chris Clark remain for the taking. Harbaugh is also looking to flip verbal commits like cornerback Will Lockett, who has been with UCLA since August. 

Additionally, Texas quarterback commit Zach Gentry is set to visit Michigan, according to Steve Lorenz of 247Sports.com. Quarterback is an area of need for the Wolverines as the best available option is soon-to-be junior Shane Morris, and Morris has had limited playing time in his two years. 

Whatever Michigan's 2015 class ends up looking like, it may not necessarily define Harbaugh's tenure with the Wolverines. Right now, Harbaugh needs bodies on his roster to replace the usual offseason attrition. That doesn't mean the '15 class isn't important, but by the time signing day rolls around, Harbaugh will have been on the job for a little over a month. 

It's difficult to assemble a star-studded class in that span given all the other responsibilities Harbaugh has, like putting together a coaching staff. How Harbaugh and his staff recruit beyond February will be the more accurate assessment of how they'll do going forward. 

 

Develop the Offensive Line

It's true that quarterback play is a concern for Michigan. Given that Harbaugh is a former quarterback himself and groomed guys like Andrew Luck and Colin Kaepernick, the direction that position goes will be closely watched. 

However, if whoever plays quarterback doesn't have any protection, then it doesn't really matter who's playing. 

Offensive line play has been bad over the past couple of years with Michigan finishing among the worst teams in the Big Ten in sacks allowed and total offense. However, adding to the absurdity of it all, offensive lineman Taylor Lewan was a first-round selection in 2014.  

Luck was a rare recruit for Stanford, but the Cardinal were still a heavily run-first team with him under center. In 2009 and '10, the two years in which Luck and Harbaugh played and coached together, the Cardinal averaged about 41 run attempts per game vs. about 26.5 passing attempts per game.

Good coaches adapt to their personnel, but the Wolverines' success on offense will come from developing good run-blockers. 

If there's any silver lining to Michigan's offensive line, it's that it suffered its lumps a year ago as a young unit and returns mostly intact. That chemistry is important for offensive coordinator/O-line coach Tim Drevno to help build over time.

If Michigan needs an example, look no further than Ohio State. The Buckeyes had a new-look O-line to start the season and the results were understandably terrible. By the time the College Football Playoff came and went, though, the Buckeyes were blocking for an average of 289 rushing yards against Alabama and Oregon. 

It doesn't have to start out pretty, but by the end of the '15 season, Michigan has to show noticeable improvement in the trenches. All other successes branch from that. 

 

Get to a Bowl Game

Going to a bowl game by itself won't show that Michigan's improved. The Wolverines were one win away from bowl eligibility in 2014 and one of those losses, to Rutgers, was by two points. The difference between 5-7 and 6-6 or 7-5 can be small. 

Which bowl game Michigan goes to after next season doesn't matter, either. It could be the Heart of Dallas Bowl. What matters is getting six wins and qualifying for a postseason game, because postseason games mean extra practices.

For a first-year coach installing new systems, those practices are beneficial.

"I'm calling it another spring ball," former Utah State coach Gary Andersen, now with Oregon State, told Steve Megargee of Yahoo Sports in 2011. "That's what I told our younger kids in the program." 

Those practices are more opportunities to grow together as a team. Miss out on bowl eligibility and those practices aren't happening until the spring. That's a lot of time away from the practice field. 

Michigan's 2015 schedule has its fair share of difficult games (at Utah, against Michigan State, at Penn State, against Ohio State), but getting bowl eligible isn't a long-shot by any means. Getting those extra practices would provide Harbaugh's group with a head start going into 2016. 

It could take some time for Michigan to establish its identity and become a Big Ten and national player again. Harbaugh has done well enough at other places that he should be awarded that time. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com

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Are Academics Really a Problem for Notre Dame Recruiting?

Earlier this week, new Oregon State Beavers head coach Gary Andersen went on the record to discuss his reason for leaving the Wisconsin Badgers.

Admissions. 

Anderson told CBS Sports' Dennis Dodd that a large frustration for him in Madison was the admissions standards for recruits, something he presumably won't have to worry about in Corvallis.

It's been well [documented] there were some kids I couldn't get in school. That was highly frustrating to me. I lost some guys, and I told them I wasn't going to lose them.

I think they did what they were supposed to do [academically] and they still couldn't get in. That was really hard to deal with.

If you think tears are being shed for Andersen in South Bend, think again.

As Brian Kelly and his coaching staff finalize a recruiting class that's looking like another Top 10 group, it's another opportunity to appreciate the way Kelly—and Notre Dame's athletic department at large—has found a way to turn what some coaches (like Andersen) believe to be a negative into one of the great assets the school has on the recruiting trail.

Notre Dame's stringent academic standards have been well discussed for decades: Tony Rice's journey from freshman non-qualifier to national champion quarterback, the T.J. Duckett and David Terrell academic fiascos and the polarizing role of former admissions director Dan Saracino.

And let's not even go into Urban Meyer leaving Notre Dame at the altar.

For every success story you find on the gridiron at Notre Dame, you seem to find just as many surrounding the stars who wanted to play for Notre Dame but couldn't get in.

But Kelly has found a way to make Notre Dame's academic restrictions work for him. And while every recruiting cycle has one or two stories about the one who got away (247 Sports reported that recent decommitment Prentice McKinney's flip to UNC was based on admissions), last signing day, Kelly encapsulated his sales pitch in his opening remarks:

"If they want to come here just to hang their hat to play football and go to the NFL, we passed on some pretty good players, because I don't want guys to come here and not finish their degree," Kelly said. "I want guys to come to Notre Dame, get their degree, help us win a national championship and be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. That's what I want, if that's what they want."

That sales pitch has continued to work. It's the reason why Jerry Tillery believes he can go to Notre Dame instead of LSU and still accomplish everything he wants to both on and off the field. It's a big reason why linebacker Tevon Coney is also on campus now as an early-enrollee freshman, getting started on his academic and football career a semester early.

Notre Dame's national brand continues to play a huge role in getting into living rooms across the country. But so does the pitch that parents hear, who understand that it isn't merely lip service when a coach sells them on competing with the best both on and off the field.

"I just want to be clear that these are our distinctions, and you're shopping down a different aisle," Kelly said last February when talking about his recruiting pitch. "We're not better than anybody else, but this is what you're going to get if you shop down this aisle. So when we get into this at the end, I pretty much know which way you're going to go."

So with signing day less than two weeks away and Notre Dame once again putting together a universally respected recruiting class, Kelly and the Irish staff have found a way to make a stringent admissions policy work for them, not against them. 

And they didn't even need to leave for Corvallis. 

 

*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.

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Isaiah Prince Commits to Alabama: Nick Saban Stockpiling Top-Notch O-Line Talent

Alabama continues to reel in elite reinforcements for its offensive line. 

Isaiah Prince, a 4-star tackle, provided a surprise by pledging to the Crimson Tide on Friday, per Ryan Bartow of 247Sports. In turn, the 6'6", 272-pound prospect cancelled plans to make official visits to Maryland and Ohio State.

He was scheduled to visit the Buckeyes this weekend, while the Terrapins were considered a favorite to land the in-state standout. Maryland garnered 55 percent of expert predictions in 247Sports' Crystal Ball.

Prince, rated seventh nationally among offensive tackles in 247Sports' composite rankings, earned U.S. Army All-American honors after his senior season at Eleanor Roosevelt High School. He is considered the top overall prospect in Maryland. 

Alabama hosted Prince for an official visit last weekend and put in enough follow-up work to dissuade him from traveling to Columbus. It's quite a feat, considering he welcomed freshly crowned national champion Urban Meyer for an in-person visit just three days ago. 

Prince offers impressive length along the edge and already displays top-tier pass-protection prowess. He has strides to make as run-blocker and must gain substantial power before taking on SEC opponents, meaning he'll more likely to compete for playing time down the line.

Barton Simmons of 247Sports weighed in on Prince's potential.

Isaiah Prince has maybe the best long-term offensive tackle frame in this class. This is not a day-one starter. He needs to add weight, add strength and add polish but his upside based on that length and athleticism is extremely high. Put this kid on the shelf, let him age and in a couple of years he may be one of the best offensive tackles in this class.

Nick Saban has assembled another incredible recruiting class and is less than three weeks away from claiming the top-ranked haul on national signing day for a fifth consecutive year. The group is deep across the board, but is at its best in the trenches. 

Alabama now holds commitments from six offensive linemen, including five 4-star prospects. 

Early enrollees Dallas Warmack and Brandon Kennedy each rank among the nation's top 20 guards. Lester Cotton and Richie Petitbon—listed fourth and fifth, respectively, among players at the position—will join them in Tuscaloosa this summer.

Throw Prince into the mix and there is enough premier talent to sustain a strong offensive front for years to come. Remember, freshman All-American Cam Robinson is entrenched at left tackle for at least the next two seasons and already projects as an eventual first-round NFL draft pick.

It's all great news for an impressive group of offensive playmakers that includes 5-star trio Blake Barnett, Calvin Ridley and Damien Harris.

Barnett, ranked second nationally among pro-style quarterbacks, should have plenty of time to operate in the pocket. This sets the stage for downfield targets to Ridley, the country's top-ranked receiver.

And then there's Harris, the nation's No. 1 running back who figures to fight his way into the Crimson Tide rushing rotation as an underclassman. His decision to spurn fellow finalists Ohio State and Kentucky looks even better now, given the size of those who will be clearing space for him in future seasons. 

Offensive linemen are often difficult to project at the collegiate level, considering most arrive on campus in need of significant strength training and revamped technique. Saban's ability to stockpile talent at the position means potential recruiting "misses" won't hurt nearly as much at Alabama as they do at other programs. 

In Tuscaloosa, the term "next man up" often means another high school All-American is getting his shot in the pecking order. You can now add Prince to the list.

 

Recruit ratings courtesy of 247Sports.

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Osa Masina to USC: Trojans Land 5-Star LB Prospect

USC added a major playmaker on the defensive side of the ball on Friday. Five-star linebacker Osa Masina announced that he's committing to the Trojans, according to Doug Kimmel of Scout.com:

Plenty of college football fans had been anticipating Masina's decision ever since he revealed his final three schools and commitment date on Twitter:

According to 247Sports' composite rankings, Masina is the third-best outside linebacker 35th-best player overall in the 2015 recruiting class.

In terms of talent, you can't get much better than Masina. 247Sports awarded him at least an eight out of 10 in every skill category, with his "pursuit" and "instincts" each earning him a nine out of 10.

Masina took part in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, playing for the West team. Using the most of the national showcase, he led the team in tackles (6) and recovered a fumble.

Fox Sports' Greg Biggins and Scout's Brandon Huffman both praised Masina's work on the field:

"I’ve been hyped for this day ever since I got the invite last fall," he said after the game, per Amberli Nelson of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City. "When game time came, I was ready."

It's hard to find anything to dislike about Masina's game. He's got every physical tool college teams look for in a skilled outside linebacker. In terms of mental acuity, he's among the best at his position.

247Sports' Justin Hopkins was in attendance for All-American Bowl practices and captured a vine of Masina running into the backfield and stopping the ball-carrier:

Masina has the potential to blossom into one of the best outside linebackers in the country and a first-round draft pick. The sky is the limit on his ceiling.

Considering how polished he already is, Masina could also feature heavily with USC inside of two years, too.

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Will Muschamp's Nephew Robert Commits to Auburn, Will Be Walk-on

Auburn added another member to its 2015 recruiting class when 3-star linebacker Robert Muschamp committed to the Tigers, according to Justin Hokanson of AuburnUndercover.

The 6’2”, 225-pounder, who is the nephew of Tigers defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, will be a preferred walk-on at Auburn.

He will also move over to offense and play H-back, per Hokanson.

He chose the Tigers over scholarship offers from Air Force, Army, Central Arkansas and Wofford.

"My whole family, I've been a huge Auburn fan my whole life," Robert Muschamp told Hokanson. "I've always wanted to end up there. I think I would have went there even if he (Will Muschamp) wasn't a part of the program. It's my dream to play there."

According to Field Street Forum, Robert Muschamp—who played both tight end and linebacker at Darlington High School in Rome, Georgia—has good hands and the skill set necessary to be a good blocker at H-back.

His addition will help the Tigers—who lost their top two tight ends to graduation, and have 3-star Jalen Harris also committed—add depth to that position.

As Hokanson notes, Robert Muschamp was comfortable with the environment and position change after visiting with the Tigers coaching staff last summer.

"I've talked with Coach (Scott) Fountain,” Robert Muschamp explained to Hokanson. “I camped there last summer, I've talked to Coach (Tim) Horton, I wasn't sure what position I'd play and then I talked to Coach (Gus) Malzahn and he said the 3-back is where I'm best suited."

Playing on offense means Robert Muschamp—whose older brother Jordan is also a student at Auburn—will have to face his uncle’s defense on a daily basis.

However, he will now get the opportunity to play in the nation's toughest conference and help his dream school push forward in its quest to capture another national title.

 

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

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Grading Every Power 5 Conference's Quarterback Situation for 2015

The state of an FBS conference is anchored to the state of its quarterbacks. Teams with good quarterbacks win more often than teams with mediocre quarterbacks (duh), so leagues with better quarterbacks have an upper hand.

But grading each conference on the state of its quarterbacks is difficult—especially during the offseason. At this time last year, TCU weighed down the Big 12. Now Trevone Boykin is the best player in the league.

To account for this—or at least to attempt to account for this—we have broken each Power Five conference into four sections. Physical tools were considered, but production was the biggest factor. In cases with QB competitions, the presumed "favorite" was included.

From there we had a clearer picture of each league's QB hierarchy, at which point it was time to give grades. The grades were based on how many players fit into each of the four tiers. All of this is fluid, of course, and can change as soon as spring practice.

But for now, here's how the power conferences rank.

Begin Slideshow

Does Jake Coker Deserve to Be the Front-Runner for Alabama's Starting QB Spot?

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — As Alabama transitions from the 2014 season to looking ahead to 2015, its impending quarterback competition will undoubtedly be on everyone’s mind.

And with that comes the desire to assign a front-runner for a job. Not necessarily to declare a winner before it’s even started, but people want to know: Who’s the guy to beat?

Last year, that was Jake Coker.

The FSU transfer came in with a strong arm and high praise from anonymous scouts to his former head coach. Coker was going to make the seamless transition, master Lane Kiffin’s offense and lead Alabama to glory.

Of course, it didn’t happen that way.

Blake Sims won the job and started every game for Alabama, leading it to an SEC title and a playoff berth.

Coker wasn’t terrible, a complete bust to be written off forever. But he struggled to grasp the offense and run it smoothly during games, understandable given that he couldn’t get to campus until May, after he had graduated Florida State.

Now, Coker seems to be the man once again. He took every backup snap for Alabama in 2014 and will get a full offseason in the system. As a rising redshirt senior, it’s also his last chance to start for a college program.

Has he done enough to warrant that front-runner consideration? A closer look at his in-game action from 2014 shows that he still has a long way to go before being crowned a starter.

Coker got his only shots to really win the job in Weeks 2 and 3 against Florida Atlantic and Southern Miss. In both games, he made decent throws and missed on others, but clock and game-management issues ultimately cut down whatever shot he had at overtaking Sims in a starting role.

Sims and Coker split reps in the first half of what would be a game-shortened event against Florida Atlantic. Sims went three drives, Coker went three drives.

Coker’s talents were on full display on a third-quarter completion to ArDarius Stewart. He sat in the pocket, stepped up under pressure and delivered a 40-yard strike to Stewart as he was being hit. The throw dropped in over the cornerback and Stewart came down with the ball in the red zone.

Coker’s critical error, though, came at the end of the first half.

He had driven Alabama to the 12, then scrambled to the 4-yard line with the seconds ticking down. On third down, he couldn’t find anyone open, but rather than throw the ball away, he scrambled around and took a sack, running out the half. Alabama had been in position for an easy field goal but couldn’t attempt one because of Coker’s play.

Against hapless Florida Atlantic, the play didn’t have any impact on the outcome. But those precious possessions and points are invaluable against SEC teams. Nick Saban was livid with Coker, and rightfully so.

The next week, against Southern Miss, Alabama had the ball on the two. Again, Coker ran around too long and took a sack, pushing the offense back to the 13. Adam Griffith delivered on the field goal, but that kind of lost field position in the red zone can’t happen against an SEC team.

Those aren’t physical issues. Coker showed the tools through those first two games. But those game-management skills are what irks Saban.

Coker appeared briefly against Florida, throwing a nice fade for a touchdown, while Sims was hurt and then took over late in a massive blowout of Texas A&M. Otherwise, he was on the sideline, watching as Sims maneuvered Alabama into SEC title contention.

It was curious, though, that it was quarterback Alec Morris, not Coker, who was helping Lane Kiffin signal in plays to the in-game quarterback. It’s unclear whether that’s because of Morris’ understandings of the nuances of the offense or experience on campus. But Coker wasn’t involved with the first-team offense at all from the sideline while it was on the field.

Coker’s next opportunity to really run the offense and get into a rhythm came in Alabama’s penultimate regular-season game against Western Carolina.

He got in the game to start the second half and looked a little calmer and more comfortable running the offense.

On his first drive, he led Alabama to the red zone (and didn’t take a field-position-killing sack). On his next, he went 7-of-7 (minus a deep ball called for pass interference), including a dump-off that Michael Nysewander took 11 yards for a score.

Coker wasn’t as frazzled as he seemed early in the season. He was more in control.

"It was tough coming in trying to get to know everybody and be on that same page," Coker said at the Sugar Bowl, per Duane Rankin of the Montgomery Advertiser. "Learn the playbook and everything, but I feel like I've gotten a lot better since I've gotten here."

That was the theme of Coker’s 2014. He showed off the physical tools that made him a highly touted transfer. But he still hasn’t proven that he can run an offense effectively through an entire game.

At this time last year, Sims hadn’t really either. Like Coker, there were flashes, but it was never proven until he led Alabama to a win over West Virginia to open the 2014 season.

So while Coker should have a decent chance at winning the job, it’s hard to declare him a front-runner just yet.

 

Marc Torrence is the Alabama lead writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Follow on Twitter @marctorrence.

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