NCAA Football News

Christian Wilkins to Clemson: Tigers Land 4-Star DT Prospect

Clemson's defense just got a whole lot bigger.  

Christian Wilkins, a 4-star defensive tackle prospect who has starred at Suffield Academy in Connecticut, announced his decision to attend Clemson on Monday, adding the latest coup to the Tigers' 2015 class.

Wilkins chose Clemson over a group that included Penn State and Ohio State. Well more than 20 schools in all expressed interest during this process, a majority of which coming from the ACC-Big Ten region—where high school coaches got pretty familiar with Wilkins' brand of dominance.

A 6'4", 290-pound defensive tackle, Wilkins is considered the No. 56 prospect in the nation and eighth-best player at his position by 247Sports' composite rankings. He's also the top-ranked prospect in the state of Connecticut.

Given Connecticut's overall shakiness as a hotbed of Division I talent, Wilkins has consistently been at a size and skill advantage throughout his high school career. His ability to overpower opposing offensive linemen at the line of scrimmage made him impossible to block without double- and triple-teams.

A starter since his freshman season, Wilkins recorded 57 total tackles and seven sacks as a junior, according to MaxPreps, despite coaches scheming to mitigate his effectiveness.

More impressive is Wilkins' overall versatility for a kid his size. He also lined up occasionally at tight end in the Suffield offense, going for 209 yards through the air as a sophomore. It's highly unlikely that he'll get any time on the offensive side of the ball in college—outside of some possible jumbo sets—but his ability to step in speaks well for his athletic profile.

"He has great athleticism for his size," Suffield Academy coach Drew Gamere told ESPN's Jared Shanker (h/t ESPNBoston.com's Brendan Hall). "I forget he's 300 pounds all the time." 

In mid-May, 247Sports' crystal ball said he was a 91 percent certainty to attend Ohio State, with Notre Dame coming in at a 9 percent chance. Now in early January, the crystal ball changed dramatically, as Penn State was favored at 81 percent, followed by Ohio State at 16 percent and Notre Dame at 3 percent.

Thus, Wilkins' decision may come as a surprise to many considering those were more well-informed guesses than anything. Wilkins did a great job of keeping his options open. He is going to have an adjustment period to deal with the uptick in competition, which the Tigers should be able to afford him. It would be surprising if he played all that much as a freshman.

Wilkins is a tantalizing talent and bolts off the snap for someone his size. He's just not equipped with the necessary moves and counters needed to deal with actually going against players his size. What's more, Wilkins will also be making the adjustment from defensive end to defensive tackle—similar positions, but ones with entirely different responsibilities.

For someone so physically gifted and already equipped with a college body, Wilkins is a bit of a project. There's no reason to think he won't develop with Clemson's infrastructure in place. We're just more likely to hear about Wilkins' ascent as a junior and senior rather than an instant domination.

Considering Wilkins was looking at schools in direct competition with the Tigers, it's safe to say they'll be more than happy to express a little patience.

 

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Will Ohio State Stop Marcus Mariota and Oregon's Stellar RB Crew?

The Oregon Ducks have one of the most explosive offenses this season. The Ohio State Buckeyes defense continues to improve with every single game. 

Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Michael Felder and Adam Kramer debate who has the edge in this national championship match. 

Who has the upper hand: the Oregon offense or the Ohio State defense?

Watch the video and let us know!

 

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2015 Early Enrollees Who Will Make Biggest Impact

A new trend in recruiting is the wave of top prospects who forgo their final semester of high school in order to enroll early at the school of their choice.

Last year, Cameron Robinson (Alabama) and Dalvin Cook (Florida State) were among the notable first-year players who took advantage of getting a jump on their college careers.

The 2015 class has a handful of elite talents who are arriving on campuses sometime this month.

Which early enrollees have a chance to be impact players this fall?

 

Note: Players listed in alphabetical order.

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Everett Golson Transfer Rumors: Latest Buzz and Speculation Surrounding Star QB

Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Everett Golson is considering leaving South Bend to play out the final year of his NCAA eligibility. Sources tell NOLA.com's Jim Kleinpeter that Golson is interested in joining the LSU Tigers.  

Here are the details of Golson's reported interest in taking his talents to Baton Rouge, as the signal-caller's academic background is creating some complications:

LSU is exploring the possibility but would have to obtain a waiver from the conference office since Golson was declared academically ineligible for the 2013 season. The SEC rule allows graduate student transfers without waivers if the student maintained eligibility, had no significant disciplinary issues at the old school and earned all possible [Academic Progress Rate] points.

Shea Dixon of 247Sports.com reported what he was hearing regarding Golson and the Tigers:

Golson himself commented on the rumors via his Twitter account:

Golson threw for 3,445 yards and 29 touchdowns to 14 interceptions in 2014, but he slumped somewhat down the stretch as the Irish lost their final four regular-season games.

The senior did help Notre Dame to a 31-28 victory over LSU in the Music City Bowl, albeit in a timeshare situation with Malik Zaire. Losing grip on the starting job had to give Golson incentive to prove something greater if he has any hope at a football future.

LSU doesn't have the greatest quarterback situation, so Golson can capitalize on a situation with little competition. Dual-threat QBs Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris haven't established themselves as the clear-cut answer under center.

Running a pro-style offense coordinated by former NFL coach Cam Cameron also offers Golson a chance to bolster his professional prospects. Stepping up to SEC competition should be an indicator of what Golson is truly made of as a quarterback as well.

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8 Burning Questions Heading into the Boise State Broncos Offseason

It's safe to say no one expected Boise State to bounce back this fast.

After losing their head coach late last year, along with the majority of the coaching staff and a few recruits, it seemed as though the Broncos were destined for regression.

Athletic director Mark Coyle and university president Bob Kustra had other ideas though, and on December 11, they inked a deal for former offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin to return to take over as head coach. 

During his press conference, Harsin made several references to the past, and in the following weeks he began to fill out his coaching staff with former Broncos, each of whom had gone on to find success elsewhere.

He brought Mike Sanford, who was coaching quarterbacks and wide receivers at Stanford while coordinating the Cardinal recruiting effort, in to run the offense and call plays, and lured Marcel Yates, who had been co-defensive coordinator at Texas A&M, back to run the defense.

Boise State became the only program in the nation who had alumni running the offense, defense and calling the shots as the head coach.

After a few weeks the motto for the 2014 season emerged: "Attack the Future."

And attack they did. After getting steamrolled in the season opener against Ole Miss, the Broncos rebounded to win 12 of the next 13 games, including eight in a row to finish the season.

They played hard, set numerous school records and sprinkled in just enough trick plays to remind everyone that this was Boise State back to its roots. They clinched an at-large berth in the Fiesta Bowl and held on to win a nail-biter against 10th-ranked Arizona, clinching the school's eighth 12-win season since 2002.

So what does Harsin have up his sleeve for an encore?

Believe it or not, the outlook for next year is even brighter, despite the fact that the Broncos will have to replace record-setting players at quarterback, running back and wide receiver.

Without further ado, let's take a look at the questions that Harsin and Co. will need to find answers for before kickoff of the 2015 season.

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UCLA Football: The Biggest Offseason Storylines for the Bruins

The storylines for UCLA football’s 2015 season might look quite a bit different than a year ago at this time.

UCLA embarked on 2014 with lofty expectations—both internally and externally.

Outside expectations included contention for a berth in the College Football Playoff. Head coach Jim Mora repeatedly downplayed the praise of pundits who tabbed the Bruins for the national title, but emphasized that a Pac-12 Championship was the team’s primary focus.

Both goals eluded UCLA.

After falling short of both outside and internal expectations, the Bruins must remedy what went wrong to navigate to a title in 2015.

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Toledo Player Knocks Teammate Down with Celebratory Head-Butt

During the third quarter of Sunday's GoDaddy Bowl between Toledo and Arkansas State, MACtion got a little bit crazy.

After making a tackle on a kickoff, Rockets defensive end John Stepec was pretty fired up and in the mood for celebratory head-butts. Two of his teammates were able to absorb the blow, but defensive tackle Treyvon Hester was not as lucky.

The 6'3", 245-pound Stepec knocked the 6'4", 300-pound Hester to the turf with a strong head-butt.

Luckily, these players will be able to laugh about the moment because it came during a 63-44 victory.

[YouTube, h/t The Big Lead]

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Oregon vs. Ohio State: TV Info and Odds for College Football Championship 2015

Jameis Winston, Amari Cooper and others potentially head to the 2015 NFL draft, while those left behind have something to say about the inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship. 

Marcus Mariota's Oregon Ducks and Cardale Jones' Ohio State Buckeyes tout plenty of talent set to move on to the next level, but for now, January 12 in Arlington, Texas is all that matters.

There, a team with a supposed third-string quarterback that somehow took down Alabama's dynasty clashes with a team that has yet to hiccup or be too small, slow or shocked in the face of the best of the best.

On such an important stage, a few key names will decide the outcome.

 

College Football Playoff National Championship Odds and Schedule

 

Early X-Factors to Watch

Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State 

Faced with compensating for a third-string quarterback under center, Ohio State sophomore back Ezekiel Elliott erupted against an elite and still-sixth-ranked Alabama defense to carry the Buckeyes to a 42-35 win.

Of course, Elliott is no stranger to pressure or big games. He torched a strong Michigan State defense for 154 yards and two scores in a 49-37 win. He ran for a minimum of 121 yards and two scores against Michigan to close the season and against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game.

Somehow, that all pales in comparison to what he accomplished against the Crimson Tide, though. Backs are lucky to hit around 70 rushing yards against the unit—he ran wild for 230 and two scores.

ESPN Stats & Info puts things into perspective:

Elliott needs one more repeat performance if the Buckeyes are to win the title.

His ability to control the pace of the game on the ground opens things up for Jones through the air. It also means less time on the field for this year's Heisman winner.

The door is open, too—Oregon allowed Florida State back Dalvin Cook to rush for 103 yards and the Seminoles as a whole to gain 180 and a score on a 4.6 per-carry average.

 

Darren Carrington, WR, Oregon

Oregon freshman wideout Darren Carrington is a hero in the eyes of fans. 

The Ducks lost top wideout Devon Allen against the Seminoles. All Carrington did to fill the void? A gaudy seven receptions for 165 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Not bad for a player who only hit seven catches or surpassed the 100-yard mark just one other time all season.

As NFL.com's Bryan Fischer captures, Carrington is now assuming a bit of a leadership role for the offense:

Carrington remains Mariota's top deep threat, hence his average of 19 yards per catch. He proved against Florida State that he can be much more than that, though, which is a requirement for his Ducks to move past a stingy Ohio State defense.

The title game figures to be a shootout considering both teams average more than 45 points per game. Carrington will need to lead the way for the aerial attack.

 

Joey Bosa, LB, Ohio State

Ohio State needs Joey Bosa at his best to stand a chance against the Ducks. 

Make no mistake, Bosa is an elite player—he is a sophomore, but he already generates NFL buzz. The Fort Lauderdale, Florida native owns 14 sacks this season but will need his best performance to date in order to fluster Mariota.

Look at it this way. Mariota is the best passer under pressure in the collegiate game. Despite the loss of key linemen such as Tyler Johnstone, he threw just two interceptions all season long.

Thanks to designed rollouts and his sheer running ability—he has 731 yards and 15 rushing scores this year—Mariota is deadly enough to evade Bosa and hurt the Buckeyes deep down the field.

Bosa and Ohio State flustered Alabama's Blake Sims into a trio of interceptions to go with two scores, another 29 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Mariota is more experienced and will hurt a questionable Ohio State secondary in a big way if Bosa does not hit home in a consistent manner.

Betting information courtesy of Odds Shark. Statistics and info courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified.

 

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What QB Will Have a Dak Prescott-Style Breakout Season in 2015?

Dak Prescott was the breakout star of the 2014 season, going from under the radar to in the national spotlight in what seemed like moments. Which quarterbacks have the chance to break out next season?

Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Michael Felder, Barrett Sallee and Adam Kramer debate who will be the 2015 edition of Prescott.

Who will be the breakout star of the next college football season?

Watch the video and let us know! 

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Ohio State Linebacker Darron Lee Is College Football's Best-Kept Secret

COLUMBUS, Ohio — In the moments following Ohio State's 42-35 Sugar Bowl win over Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinals, Urban Meyer found himself flanked by the game's pair of MVPs on the postgame podium.

To Meyer's right was running back Ezekiel Elliott, who had just rushed for 230 yards and two touchdowns against the vaunted Crimson Tide defense. A former 4-star prospect, this was the type of effort that the Buckeyes' staff expected from Elliott when it fought tooth and nail to pry him from his home state of Missouri two years ago.

That also happened to be the same year that Meyer "recruited" the Sugar Bowl's defensive MVP on his other side, a high school quarterback from nearby New Albany. And while Lee's path to Ohio State couldn't have been any dissimilar from Elliott's, he's proven to be equally important to a fourth-seeded Buckeyes team that will take on No. 2 Oregon in next Monday's College Football Playoff National Championship Game.

"I still believe that this is all about the checkers," Meyer said. "Checkers are valuable things, man. And I got two very talented checkers right next to me."

Only Lee wasn't supposed to be this valuable of a piece for Meyer to play with—at least not yet. And yet here he was, the Sugar Bowl defensive MVP, having racked up seven tackles, three tackles for a loss and two sacks against the nation's top-ranked team.

That's hardly the type of production that the Buckeyes expected from Lee in the summer of 2012, when they made the 3-star prospect earn his scholarship offer with not one, but two appearances on the summer-camp circuit. Having grown up ingrained in Ohio State culture—his mother a television anchor at the Columbus NBC affiliate—it didn't take long for Lee accept his invite to play for the Buckeyes, giving his verbal pledge to Meyer on June 26, 2012.

"I love being a Buckeye," Lee said.

At that point, Lee's acceptance at Ohio State could have been considered a victory in and of itself, the local kid earning his way onto the roster of his hometown team. But in a star-studded recruiting class, the 630th-ranked prospect in the 2013 class was an obvious afterthought, with the likes of Joey Bosa, Vonn Bell and Dontre Wilson standing at the forefront.

That manifested itself in the form of a redshirt season in 2013 for Lee, who made the move to outside linebacker upon arriving at Ohio State despite weighing just 205 pounds coming out of high school. That didn't stop the New Albany native from setting sky-high goals for himself, claiming that he'd be the player who would one day replace All-American linebacker Ryan Shazier.

“I was like, ‘Sure, buddy you are,’” said Bosa, Lee's freshman roommate. “He came in here as a safety or something and he played scout team linebacker and I just didn’t believe him.

"He was maybe 195 [pounds]."

"I was actually 215 at the time," Lee insisted.

It didn't take long for Lee to prove the doubters—Bosa included—wrong, as on the first day of spring practice in 2014, he found himself starting in the weak-side linebacker spot formerly occupied by Shazier. "All of a sudden he’s in spring and he’s killing people," Bosa said. "He got huge."

A strong spring carried over into a starting role in the fall, where Lee—now weighing 228 pounds—made an instant impact. With the Buckeyes trailing Navy in the second half of their season opener, Lee drew back on his days as a playmaking quarterback, returning a Bosa forced fumble 61 yards for a touchdown in what would be a 34-17 OSU victory.

That proved to be the first of many big plays for the redshirt freshman in his debut season, which has thus far included 50 tackles, 16.5 of which have come for a loss, 7.5 sacks, two interceptions and two touchdown returns. Those aren't Shazier-like numbers quite yet, but it's been enough for Meyer to single out Lee as one of the reasons why a young Buckeyes team finds itself unexpectedly playing for college football's national title.

"Did I think Darron Lee would perform like an All-Big Ten linebacker?" Meyer asked rhetorically after it was announced that Ohio State had made college football's first-ever playoff. "He's not there yet, but he's darn close."

And while Lee was in fact snubbed from any of the Big Ten's all-conference teams—honorable mentions included—that hasn't prevented the 20-year-old from carrying himself with the confidence of an established veteran, something that hasn't gone unnoticed by his older Buckeyes teammates.

"D-Lee, you are cocky," Lee recalls senior linebacker and captain Curtis Grant telling him.

"Would you rather it be the other way around?" Lee responded. "Would you rather me be scared?"

Grant's answer, obviously, was no, which served Ohio State well in its upset of the Crimson Tide. Whether it was pressuring quarterback Blake Sims or containing running backs Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon, it was impossible not to notice Lee in the Sugar Bowl, as he did his best to debunk the myth of "SEC speed."

“Somebody’s got to do their homework,” Lee hummed in the locker room after the game. "I was telling [OSU linebacker Joshua Perry] today, 'I don't think they've been doing their homework enough.' Everybody has that SEC bias crap or whatever. Honestly, just do your homework."

With Alabama and the SEC now in the Buckeyes' rearview mirror, Lee's attention now turns toward Oregon, against which he'll undoubtedly again play a key role. Whether it's spying Heisman Trophy-winner Marcus Mariota in the same way Arizona's Scooby Wright found success against the Ducks in their lone loss of the season or containing Oregon's explosive perimeter run game, it's hard to imagine Ohio State capturing its eighth national title in program history without a big day from college football's most underappreciated player.

"Just another day at work," Lee said, rolling his eyes when told that the Ducks are favored by seven points over the Buckeyes.

For Lee, the role of underdog is nothing new.

 

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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Miami Football: The Biggest Offseason Storylines for the Hurricanes

The Miami Hurricanes have entered what is expected to be a tense, intriguing offseason, and a few storylines loom large over the program.

Following a 6-7 campaign that contained a four-game losing streak, the pressure to make personnel changes is higher than ever. Any coaching moves could affect recruiting, though the uncertainty surrounding "The U" seems to already be disturbing the 2015 class.

However, no matter which prospects sign with the school, the 'Canes must replace 12 starters, including a few team leaders.

The school proclaims a rallying cry of "It's great, to be, a Miami Hurricane," but right now, it's more "complex" than anything else.

 

Will Any Coaching Moves Be Made?

Whether or not someone believes Al Golden is the right man for the head-coaching position at Miami is an opinion. However, the fact is athletic director Blake James said Golden will continue at the helm, per the Sun Sentinel's Christy Cabrera Chirinos (subscription required).

So, barring an unexpected change of plans, it's time for everyone to bury the hatchet and accept that, for better or worse, Golden is leading the Hurricanes next season.

What isn't set in stone, of course, are the assistant jobs at Miami. Three matters are called into question for this topic: Loyalty, stubbornness and realism.

Golden is loyal to defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio, defensive line coach Jethro Franklin and defensive backs coach Paul Williams, each of whom was brought from Temple when Golden was hired in 2010.

D'Onofrio has been on the fanbase's verbal hot seat for, oh, about two years now. Franklin's front line has struggled to maintain consistent production after encouraging starts to the last couple seasons, while Williams' secondary noticeably regressed in 2014.

As for stubbornness, Golden needs to hire a special teams coach because the current one—Golden—struggled immensely last season. Add four kicks blocked to the following table, and it was a forgettable season for the unit.

Will it happen? Don't bet the rent on it, but don't be surprised if it happens.

Nevertheless, Golden needs to be realistic with himself, which entails addressing loyalty and overcoming stubbornness to potentially make a few changes.

Offensive coordinator James Coley should stay with Miami—excluding a promotion elsewhere, which doesn't appear likely. Plus, Coley's relationship with and trust in quarterback Brad Kaaya is undoubtedly valuable.

The running backs were solid under the leadership of Tim "Ice" Harris, most notably Gus Edwards starting to run like the powerful 6'2", 230-pound talent he is rather than a finesse back.

Additionally, tight ends coach Larry Scott and O-line headman Art Kehoe are probably safe—and for good reason. Behind those four, though, a shakeup might be coming.

 

How Will the Recruiting Class Shake Out?

National signing day is less than one month away, and the 'Canes must find a way to finish strong on the recruiting trail. They currently sit at No. 20 in the 247Sports Composite Rankings.

Dexter Williams recently backed out of his commitment, leaving 4-star running backs Mark Walton and Jordan Scarlett verbally tied to Golden and Co. The latter, though, has been mentioned in various rumors of a flip to Florida State.

Lawrence Cager pledged to the Hurricanes at the Army All-American Bowl, though his commitment was overshadowed by rumblings of parental pressure, per 247Sports (subscription required).

Miami is looking to snag 4-star defensive back Marcus Lewis to cap a very solid DB haul that includes Jaquan Johnson, Michael Jackson and newly committed Robert Knowles.

The coaching staff addressed two of the team's biggest needs admirably, earning six pledges from offensive linemen and four on the D-line. Plus, Miami isn't finished in that department since Kendrick Norton, Fredrick Johnson and others are still available.

Linebacker is the one position with a lingering question mark, however, because Charles Perry is the lone commit at an already thin spot. Marques Gayot moving from safety to weak-side linebacker helps, but Miami should be looking for an inside linebacker.

Note: The school is switching its apparel sponsorship from Nike to Adidas, per Matt Porter of the Palm Beach Post. Though there certainly might be a marginal influence on a few recruits, it's a negligible factor in a majority of cases.

 

How to Replace Key Players

The Hurricanes have a solid group of seniors heading toward the NFL draft in Phillip Dorsett, Clive Walford, Shane McDermott, Jon Feliciano, Anthony Chickillo, Olsen Pierre, Denzel Perryman, Thurston Armbrister and Ladarius Gunter.

Plus, Duke Johnson and Ereck Flowers elected to forgo their respective senior seasons and declare for the professional level. And, oh by the way, Miami obviously has to replace every last of one of them.

Wide receiver Rashawn Scott and edge-rusher Al-Quadin Muhammad are expected to return after missing the recent season. Standish Dobard should take over at tight end, Jermaine Grace should appear at outside linebacker and Corn Elder should grab a larger role at corner.

Many members of the 2014 class—Joe Yearby, Braxton Berrios, Nick Linder, Kc McDermott, Trevor Darling, Chad Thomas, Courtel Jenkins, Anthony Moten, Darrion Owens and Juwon Young—will battle for the vacated positions.

But can they replace what is leaving the Hurricanes?

Miami is losing a career record-holder (Johnson), the top two receivers (Dorsett and Walford), 111 starts on the offensive line, a four-year starter (Chickillo) and the man with the ninth-most tackles in school history (Perryman).

It's a tall task, but someone needs to step up. Actually, make that 12 someones.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of CFBstats.com. Recruiting information via 247Sports.

Follow Bleacher Report college football writer David Kenyon on Twitter: @Kenyon19_BR.

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Alabama Football: Who Should and Shouldn't Declare Early for NFL Draft

The downside of bringing in No. 1 recruiting classes year after year is the annual draft exodus that occurs for Alabama’s top junior players.

That will be in full effect once again this year, with the January 15 NFL draft decision date looming.

Last year, it was Cyrus Kouandjio, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Jeoffrey Pagan and Adrian Hubbard. Kouandjio, Clinton-Dix and Hubbard were all expected to declare early. Pagan was somewhat of a surprise.

So which Alabama players should declare this year? Should and will are two different questions here. And whether a player should or shouldn’t go depends a lot on their individual circumstance.

Nick Saban spent much of last offseason preaching about the dangers of so many juniors wanting to go pro early. Still, he typically encourages players with a first-round grade to declare.

That number slips a little bit for running backs. Eddie Lacy, for example, declared as a redshirt junior, was drafted in the second round and is off to a fine start to his NFL career. The shelf life of running backs is such that Saban is OK with backs—especially if they’ve gotten their degree, like Lacy—to go ahead and start that ticking clock.

And Hubbard wasn’t expected to be a slam-dunk NFL player. But he had already come back for a redshirt junior year to get his degree and had hit his ceiling as a player, with talent coming back around him. It made sense. Sometimes, a player also has personal or family needs that make him want to get to a paycheck—any paycheck—a year early.

“I try to encourage our guys who aren’t going to be top draft picks to stay in school,” Saban said two weeks ago. “Last year we didn’t have success in convincing everyone about that, and I don’t know if we’ll be able to do it this year or not.”

According to DC Reeves of The Tuscaloosa News, Cyrus Jones and D.J. Pettway have already said they’ll be back for another year. So which other top draft-eligible players should turn pro this year?

Let’s take a look.

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USC Football: The Biggest Offseason Storylines for the Trojans

In 2014, the primary plot points for USC football centered around the Trojans' adjustments in the first year under a new coaching staff.

Heading into the 2015 offseason, the storylines emanating from Heritage Hall are focused on building on those first-year adjustments in pursuit of the program's first conference championship since 2008.

The Trojans won nine games and finished in the final College Football Playoff rankings. They'll also be ranked in the last Associated Press Top 25 poll of head coach Steve Sarkisian's first season.

But Sarkisian said that USC just laid a foundation this year.

"Was there more out there for us this year? Maybe. [Losing is] part of the process," he said following USC's 45-42 Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska on Dec. 27. "That's part of laying the foundation of getting better as a program."

The build for his second year at the helm begins right away, first on the recruiting trail and in a few months with spring practices.

As the offseason progresses, the storylines for 2015 will begin to take shape.

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Starting the 2015 Hype Train for Tennessee Football

Tennessee, meet the hype train. Hype train, meet the Tennessee football program.

You two get comfortable with each other, because for the next nine months, you're going to be locked arm-in-arm.

Tennessee capped off its first winning season since 2009 with en emphatic 45-28 win in the TaxSlayer Bowl on Friday in a game that wasn't nearly as close as the score indicated. The Vols jumped out a 42-7 lead heading into the fourth quarter before Iowa made it look respectable with a few garbage touchdowns in the game's final frame.

"We wanted to start fast," head coach Butch Jones said in quotes released by Tennessee. "We thought that was critical in this game. We did start fast. I believe we only had three third downs in the entire first half. When we're moving on offense, we're generating first downs on first and second down."

It capped off a 7-6 season for a young Vols team in which 38 of the 79 players to play in the regular season made their first appearances in orange and white, according to the final game notes of the season.

Hype machine, you can commence spinning. 

Others are more wary of the Vols and what the bowl performance will do to voters, who undoubtedly were impressed with the way they capped off 2014.

If, by "drastically," you're picking Tennessee to earn a College Football Playoff berth, then yes, you need to pump the brakes. But the SEC East? That's much more attainable for the 2015 Vols.

The hype is warranted, but only a small piece of it has to do with the actual bowl game itself. Here's why:

 

The Progression of Joshua Dobbs

For the first time in Joshua Dobbs' career as Tennessee's starting quarterback, he got first-team snaps in a camp-like setting leading up to the trip to Jacksonville. 

It showed.

Dobbs completed 16 of 21 passes for 129 yards, one touchdown and one pick, and he rushed 13 times for 76 yards and two scores in the rout of Iowa. A true dual-threat, Dobbs also showed the consistency in performance and the maturity to lead an offense that thrives with a quarterback who's efficient.

"Sometimes Josh has options on plays, not just pass plays but run plays, where he can hand the ball off or run the play," Jones said according to the postgame quotes. "I thought Josh did a great job of really managing the offense all game long. Some of those sweeps were him reading it, and others were pre-called."

Dobbs took over for an injured Justin Worley in the middle of the season, and he showed flashes of brilliance as a runner and a passer in an offense that had nagging injuries to a number of its wide receivers, including Josh Smith, Von Pearson, Marquez North and Jason Croom. 

Now Dobbs gets a full offseason as the unquestioned starter with a wide receiving corps that was forced to establish depth in 2014 due to injuries. On top of that, it's not like Dobbs has to throw for 400 yards every game. He's a slippery runner who's deceptively fast and adds a dimension to the the Vols offense that wasn't present under Worley.

 

Dangerous Front Seven

Texas A&M freshman defensive end Myles Garrett stole most of the freshman defensive headlines this season for breaking Jadeveon Clowney's SEC freshman sack record (eight) with 11.5 on the season, but it was Tennessee freshman defensive end Derek Barnett who had a bigger impact in the backfield.

Barnett's 10 sacks also topped Clowney's record, and he finished his inaugural campaign in the SEC with the second-most tackles for loss in the conference (20.5)—two shy of Missouri's Shane Ray.

In the TaxSlayer Bowl against Iowa, Barnett squared off with star tackle Brandon Scherff. While he didn't record a sack, Jones was pleased with Barnett's performance against a player who's slated to go 17th overall in B/R NFL draft lead writer Matt Miller's latest first-round projections.

"He's a great, great player," Jones said of Scherff. "I know Derek accepted the challenge. He's one of those individuals on New Year's Eve, we did the bed check, couldn't find him. But he was sound asleep at 10:00 at night."

Toss in hybrid veteran Curt Maggitt and leading tackler Jalen Reeves-Maybin at linebacker and a front seven that included one senior on the entire two-deep depth chart at the end of the season, and the Vols are loaded.

What's more, the Vols have monster 5-star defensive tackle Khalil McKenzie, 4-star defensive tackle Shy Tuttle and 4-star defensive end Kyle Phillips, Andrew Butcher and Darrell Taylor committed in the class of 2015. 

The foundation for defensive success is already on Rocky Top. After all, they didn't finish second in the SEC in opponent's third-down conversion percentage (34.21 percent) by accident. Now that experience has been gained from the youngsters.

 

Thunder and Lightning

It's clear that the Vols have the potential to be ridiculously good up front. What's the common theme in football even in an age of exotic offenses? You have to run the ball and stop the run.

The Vols will be able to run it very well. 

In addition to Dobbs' emergence as a true dual-threat weapon at quarterback, Jalen Hurd emerged during his freshman year as a player who can be counted on to be an every-down back in the SEC. Hurd rushed for 899 yards and five touchdowns in 2014, and he capped it off with a 122-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Hawkeyes.

Hurd also realizes how important this offseason is for his progression.

"I walked in the locker room a couple weeks ago, they already have a chart," Jones said in the postgame quotes. "There's a contest between [tight end] Ethan Wolf and Jalen Hurd, a number of guys about their offseason lifting totals, what they're going to do."

Another full offseason for Hurd—who enrolled early last January—will do wonders for his progression.

He's going to have company in the backfield, too.

Jones inked junior college transfer Alvin Kamara—a 5'10", 210-pounder from Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College in December. The former Alabama running back rushed for 1,253 yards and 18 touchdowns in junior college and is the second-best junior college running back in the country.

Hurd and Kamara are both true all-purpose backs who excel in different areas, which opens the playbook for Jones and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian.

It's not crazy to think that Tennessee is going to take a massive step forward in 2015. The Vols have the foundation for success, are accumulating more talent and play in a down division.

The hype train should be gaining steam this offseason. As long as it's headed on a track that has the Vols contending for the SEC East, that's appropriate.

Anything more would be a stretch—but that might not last much longer.

 

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and video analyst for Bleacher Report, as well as a co-host of the CFB Hangover on Bleacher Report Radio (Sundays, 9-11 a.m. ET) on Sirius 93, XM 208.

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of cfbstats.com, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

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Who Is the No. 1 Recruit in the 2015 Class?

The 2015 recruiting class is full of top-notch talent, from quarterbacks to defensive ends, all ready to contribute to their respective programs. But who is the No. 1 recruit in all of the land?

Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Michael Felder, Adam Kramer and Barrett Sallee dish out who they believe is the best recruit in the country.

Who is the No. 1 recruit in the country? Check out the video and let us know!    

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Notre Dame Football: The Biggest Offseason Storylines for the Irish

Notre Dame’s last-second 31-28 win over No. 23 LSU in the Music City Bowl helped change the vibe surrounding the program. Now the Irish enter an offseason filled with optimism and questions.

The acidic taste of a four-game losing streak to end the regular season isn’t completely washed away, but the outlook is certainly sweeter after senior kicker Kyle Brindza buried a 32-yard field goal as time expired to topple one of the SEC’s elite. And while there are positive takeaways from the performance in Nashville, Tennessee, there are questions too.

So what are the biggest offseason storylines for Notre Dame?

 

What Happens at Quarterback?

Bet you saw this one coming.

It’s the clear-cut biggest offseason storyline for the Irish. There are multiple layers, and the potential consequences go without saying.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Malik Zaire made his first career start against the Tigers and impressed, completing 12 of 15 passes for 96 yards and a touchdown. Zaire, a natural runner, shined on the ground, directing a nifty read-option to the tune of 96 yards and a touchdown on 22 attempts.

Everett Golson, who went from Heisman candidate to punching bag while starting all 12 regular-season games, didn’t draw the same headlines that Zaire did against LSU, but Golson was needed, too.

He connected on six of 11 passes for 90 yards and thrived on Notre Dame’s game-winning drive. Golson pulled the Irish out of 2nd-and-long with a 14-yard completion to Will Fuller before finding Ben Koyack and Tarean Folston on consecutive plays for first downs. Golson’s final pass—an eight-yard toss to Chris Brown—moved the Irish within Brindza’s range.

So what happens next?

Does Irish head coach Brian Kelly truly commit to utilizing both quarterbacks moving forward? Can a platoon actually work?

If Zaire is named the singular starter, what becomes of Golson?

Meanwhile, if the Irish do turn to Zaire—either in a platoon situation or in a full-fledged starting role—is Kelly committed to deploying a run-based offense?

We’ll see.

There’s still a lot to be decided through winter workouts and spring practice, for starters.

 

Who Returns?

Even early in the season, when the Irish rolled to a 6-0 start, many Notre Dame followers realized the arrow was really pointing toward 2015, when a heaping crop of underclassmen would return with added experience.

The future is still undoubtedly bright in that regard.

Now, though, we wait and see who returns.

Redshirt sophomore left tackle Ronnie Stanley was one of four Irish players who submitted the paperwork for an evaluation from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, per B/R's Keith Arnold.

If Stanley returns, he'll immediately stabilize an offensive line that played physically against LSU and will only lose Christian Lombard.

Junior defensive end Sheldon Day also hasn’t officially announced his intention one way or another.

The decisions by arguably Notre Dame’s best offensive and defensive lineman, respectively, are critical, but so too are other potential returns.

If cornerback KeiVarae Russell and defensive end Ishaq Williams do indeed return after missing the entire 2014 season, there will be two more starting-quality players on the defense. Russell, in particular, would team with breakout cornerback Cole Luke and offer one of the strongest cornerback tandems in the country.

There’s less clarity with wide receiver DaVaris Daniels. In late November, Kelly said Notre Dame was at the point of “determining eligibility as it relates to academics” with the athletic wideout.

And we can’t forget about all the injuries, either.

The health of middle linebacker Joe Schmidt (ankle) and defensive tackle Jarron Jones (foot), as well how quickly they can round back into form, will be pivotal for the center of the Notre Dame front seven, which was decimated by injuries and accordingly shredded by offenses down the stretch.

 

Defensive Growth

Notre Dame’s defense mashed expectations early in the season. The young group didn’t allow more than 17 points in each of the first five games, and the Irish even shut out Michigan. The final seven games of the regular season were a different story before—but especially after—the injuries mounted.

The injuries make it difficult to truly assess the defense. Were the struggles in the second half of the season closer to the norm than the stifling defense at the outset? And how much can be pinned on health?

After all, Notre Dame was healthy against North Carolina, yet the Tar Heels tallied 43 points in South Bend. And then-No. 2 Florida State notched 21 points in the second half of the showdown in Tallahassee.

The injuries started cropping up against Navy, but the Midshipmen ran the option for 39 points.

With a healthy group, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder will have a chance to re-evaluate and reload.

 

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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

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Notre Dame Football: O-Line Needs to Build on Music City Bowl Dominance

Where was that offensive line all season? 

In the wake of Notre Dame's stunning 31-28 victory over LSU in the Music City Bowl, you're not alone if you're wondering what got into Harry Hiestand's offensive line. After struggling with consistency all season, the front five put together its best performance of the season against the SEC's top-rated defense. 

With a game plan that demanded the Irish control the football—and therefore the line of scrimmage—Brian Kelly went all-in on his O-line. And the group delivered, powering an Irish ground game that went for 263 yards and a passing attack that didn't allow a sack. 

Now comes the important part.

After finally finding its identity in the season finale, the offensive line needs to build on its dominant performance against LSU and become the driving force of the 2015 offensive attack. 

First, the Irish need to get a little bit lucky. After a strong finish to his season, left tackle Ronnie Stanley looks like a potentially high draft choice. B/R's own Matt Miller has Stanley going No. 11 to the Minnesota Vikings in his most recent mock draft. But Stanley didn't receive a first-round grade from the NFL's advisory board and has yet to decide on what he'll do. 

Bringing Stanley back would be undoubtedly huge. But if he decides to head to the NFL, it appears his heir apparent is freshman Alex Bars. A highly touted recruit who is redshirting this season, Kelly raved about Bars during bowl practice, calling him among the best offensive line prospects he's seen in his 25 years of coaching. 

At right tackle, Mike McGlinchey impressed during his first start of the season. At nearly 6'8", McGlinchey has the size and athleticism coaches covet and will bring an impressive blend of power and length to the line with Christian Lombard having graduated. 

From there, figuring out the interior of the offensive line is crucial.

An early-season shuffle swapped Nick Martin from center to guard, with Matt Hegarty taking over snapping duties. They're both slated to return for their fifth years. Meanwhile, sophomore Steve Elmer began 2014 at right tackle but shifted inside, with Lombard moving outside. These three will likely start in 2015, but center might still be up for grabs. 

After a slow start to the season, Elmer found his comfort zone at guard, using his impressive size and strength to his advantage without having to worry about playing in space at tackle. Keeping Elmer in one position all season should put the 6'5.5", 315-pounder back on the trajectory that had Kelly and Hiestand so excited after his freshman season. 

Depth behind the starting five shouldn't be a problem. Freshman Quenton Nelson looks ready to make a move, with the coaching staff working him inside at guard. While Hunter Bivin wasn't dressed for the LSU game because of an undisclosed injury, he'll battle this spring to be in the two-deep at tackle. Talented young players John Montelus and Colin McGovern also will get extended looks. 

Perhaps the best part of the offensive line's impressive performance against LSU is the potential to establish an offensive identity. With both Malik Zaire and Tarean Folston getting more than 20 carries, the Irish went out and won a football game relying on the power game. That's music to the ears of an offensive line that doesn't need to identify blitzers coming from everywhere on the pass rush; it can simply dictate terms with its size and strength advantage. 

That happened against Florida State, when Kelly leaned on the ground game to keep the ball away from Jameis Winston. And after seeing a two-quarterback platoon work effectively against the Tigers, it's a formula that Kelly needs to consider moving forward, eliminating the razor-thin margin for error that a pass-heavy game plan puts on his quarterbacks. 

After proving it could serve as the engine that moves the offense against LSU, the offensive line will be the key to 2015. With sky-high expectations and more skill talent than we've seen in South Bend in decades, it'll be on the guys up front to deliver.

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Ohio State Football: Could Dontre Wilson Be Difference-Maker Against Oregon?

At this time two years ago, Dontre Wilson was a 4-star recruit who was verbally committed to play his college football at Oregon.

Fast forward to current day, though, and Wilson is set to line up with Ohio State in a highly anticipated showdown against the Ducks in the national championship.

The dangerous all-purpose back out of DeSoto, Texas, flipped his commitment to the Buckeyes when Chip Kelly left Oregon for the Philadelphia Eagles in January 2013. Wilson instantly became a contributor in Columbus, registering 460 total yards and three touchdowns during his freshman season.

But with Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde forming one of college football's most dangerous backfields, Wilson's primary role was to serve as a decoy last year. This season, with Hyde gone and four new offensive linemen up front, the Buckeyes wanted to feature their bevy of playmakers on the perimeter—led by Wilson.

Ohio State certainly went to the air more frequently, but Wilson didn't have the breakout season many expected. The sophomore blazer accounted for 400 total yards (300 receiving, 100 rushing) and three touchdowns before breaking his foot against Michigan State—an injury that sidelined him for Ohio State's next five games.

According to Ari Wasserman of The Plain Dealer, Wilson was a game-time decision against Alabama—he was hoping to see the field as a returner at the very least—but the coaching staff decided to give him some additional time to heal.

With 11 more days to recover, Wilson is certain he'll be back in the fold when the Buckeyes travel to his home state to play the team he was formally committed to for a national title.

When asked about his chances of playing against Oregon, Wilson said, via Wasserman, "100 out of 100. I'm back. I'm back." 

Will Wilson be healthy enough to make an impact against the Ducks?

The week-and-a-half he has to prepare will be pivotal. He'll need to learn the new plays and formations Ohio State has installed for Cardale Jones, and he'll need to get back into game shape after missing eight weeks of practice reps.

"It's going to give me a lot of time to get back in shape and learn the new plays we put in and come out in Jerry's World and go as hard as I can," Wilson said of the time leading up to the title game, via Wasserman.

If he's able to do that, Wilson will be one more weapon Ohio State can add to its already explosive offense. And to his credit, he's chomping at the bit to get a shot at the team he almost joined back in 2013.

"It seems like a dream, it's like a story," Wilson said, per Wasserman. "I could [write a] book if we go to Dallas and handle our business."

 

All recruiting information via 247Sports. All stats via NCAA.com and B/R research.

David Regimbal covers Ohio State football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412

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The Best Backfield in College Football

Let's start with a game of "Guess That Football Team." 

This team's first four scores in one semifinal game came on a field goal and three rushing touchdowns totaling five yards. The drives that ended in those scores went an average of 11 plays for 76 yards. The pair of running backs scoring those three touchdowns averaged 222 pounds. 

That had to be Alabama, right? Florida State? Ohio State? Anyone? Bueller? It was Oregon—none of the above—and the Ducks impressively outmuscled Florida State in a 59-20 rout to send themselves to the College Football Playoff National Championship. 

As B/R's Adam Kramer noted, this was not your traditional big-play, finesse Oregon offense. Sure, the Ducks run their version of the spread. Yes, they used tempo against Florida State; no scoring drive lasted longer than five minutes. However, this was a team that earned every yard it gained—301 on the ground, tying a season high—and beat the Seminoles at the point of attack. 

Only when Florida State began turning the ball over in the second half did Oregon's offense strike more quickly.

The reality is Oregon hasn't been that team with the fancy uniforms and gimmicky offense for some time. The Ducks have added muscle over the past few years in recruiting. But sometimes, it takes a big spotlight to shine a light on those efforts. 

"Everyone talks about their shovel passes, or whatever," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer told George Schroeder of USA Today"It's not that. There's a culture out there that has been started."

Because of those efforts, Oregon can claim the best backfield in college football. By the time the game was nearing its end, the Ducks were beating down Florida State with reserves. 

There's a three-headed monster that fuels this backfield, though. It starts with a freshman, which is appropriate since 2014 has morphed into the year of the freshman running back. Without a doubt, Royce Freeman has been among the most productive true freshman backs from Week 1. Before tallying just 44 yards on 12 carries against Florida State, Freeman had at least 98 yards in each of his previous eight games. Only once in the regular season did Freeman dip below four yards per carry (3.75 vs. Washington State). 

Freeman didn't gain the most yards of any freshman back, and he didn't have the most touchdowns. His impact on Oregon's rushing offense right away cannot be denied, however, as he's accounted for 40 percent of his team's rushing attempts. 

But with Freeman being slowed down against the Seminoles, Thomas Tyner took control without missing a beat. The sophomore had a season-high 124 yards and two touchdowns on just 13 carries. Tyner has served in more of a complementary role in his two seasons in Eugene but was also slowed by a nagging shoulder injury this year. When healthy—or, at least, close to healthy—he provides the speed and power that drives this new-look Oregon offense. 

Then, there's Heisman-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota. The passing stats (4,121 yards, 40 touchdowns and 10.1 yards per attempt) are what earned him college football's most prestigious award. Still, Mariota is second on the team in rushing attempts (125), touchdowns (15) and yards per attempt (5.8) for all rushers with at least 50 carries. 

There are some designed runs for Mariota, but he seems to do the most damage when scrambling for chunk yards. Either way, the Ducks have college football's most outstanding player running and throwing from the backfield. 

With those three players, the design of Oregon's ground attack, where tough, inside running meets speed on the edge, has been an inspiration to others. That includes Ohio State, which will face Oregon next Monday in the national championship. As Schroeder explains: 

Last week all the talk was about whether the Buckeyes were built in the image of an SEC team. In reality, as much as they resemble [Ohio State coach Urban] Meyer's Florida teams — size, speed, and strength, though probably not as much depth yet — they look like nothing so much as Oregon. And it's by design.

Which is why come Jan. 12, when the Ducks and Buckeyes meet in the inaugural College Football Playoff championship game, the similarities could be uncanny. Thursday night, after beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, Meyer mused that he would 'probably be able to call Oregon's plays, because we study them and they study us.'

Thus, when those two teams face off in Arlington, don't be surprised to see similar looks in the respective running games. When you're the best, other teams want to model themselves after you. Right now, Oregon has the most complete backfield. It'll be up to Ohio State's rushing defense, along with its outstanding defensive line, to stop it. 

There's no guessing there. 

 

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

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Winners and Losers of the 2014-15 College Football Bowl Season

Next bowl season can't come soon enough.

Sunday night's crazy GoDaddy Bowl served as a fitting finale to two weeks of wild and wacky action, during which we saw comebacks galore and enough trick plays to wonder what football was like before teams realized they could throw it twice or put the ball in the hands of large individuals.

Now that the dust has settled and all we have left is next week's championship game between Ohio State and Oregon—which, technically, is not an actual bowl game—it's time to take stock of what we've just witnessed. There was a whole lot of great, as well as a sizable helping of not so good.

Here are the winners and losers from the 2014 college football bowl season. Come along for the ride down (recent) memory lane.

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