NCAA Football News

Curt Maggitt's Return to Tennessee Boosts Vols' 2015 SEC Title Shot

With this season's recruiting class nearly wrapped up, by far the biggest target Tennessee coach Butch Jones could land this offseason was one already leading his roster: rising senior defensive end Curt Maggitt.

On Thursday morning, Jones confirmed to GoVols247's Wes Rucker that the 6'3", 251-pound hybrid defensive end/linebacker would be returning for his final season in Knoxville, giving UT a pass-rushing duo capable of carrying it to an SEC East title.

"He'll be back with us," Jones said. "And, obviously, we're excited about that."

The Vols have every reason to be. Maggitt and freshman All-American Derek Barnett give UT one of the most fearsome pass rushes in the country, as the two had 21 sacks and 35.5 tackles for a loss between them this year.

Only Washington's Hau'oli Kikaha and Andrew Hudson (31.5), Utah's Nate Orchard and Hunter Dimick (30.5) and Missouri's Shane Ray and Markus Golden (23) combined for more sacks as a tandem, according to CFBStats.com.

UT is the only team returning both players from that list. Since pressuring the opposing quarterback is vital to a defense's success, this puts the Vols in an envious position heading into 2015.

After Maggitt missed the final couple of games of the 2012 season and all of '13 recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, he steadily got healthier as this season progressed.

The healthier he got, the more dominant he was. By the end of his junior season, he was unblockable at times off the edge, racing Barnett to the quarterback.

Getting Maggitt back is huge on several levels. First of all, he's the vocal, emotional leader of a unit that has gotten better as he's gotten better.

Even when Maggitt's buddy and UT star middle linebacker A.J. Johnson was indefinitely suspended from the team, Maggitt still kept the group together.

Time and time again this season, Jones referred to Maggitt's leadership capabilities. Even during the '13 season when Maggitt was on the sideline, he was constantly cheering, teaching and hyping up his teammates.

With new star prospects coming in to stockpile talent on UT's defensive line of the future, such as Kyle Phillips, Darrell Taylor, Andrew Butcher and Marques Ford, they can be mentored by a player who leads by example and on the field.

Also, with LaTroy Lewis and Corey Vereen coming on at defensive end and linebacker Chris Weatherd showing flashes in some obvious pass-rushing situations, Maggitt's return allows UT to continue to have multiple options with their sets and personnel.

Now, all those players can still be used situationally, and Maggitt will return to try for a first-team All-SEC encore.

UT hasn't had an emotional spark plug like Maggitt for years. Having him around for another season will not only help bridge the gap while the new potential stars learn, but it will give them somebody to watch to see how it's done.

It's also huge for UT from a versatility standpoint.

Maggitt helped cover a lot of warts for a defense in 2014 that went from 84th to 37th nationally.

A key reason for Tennessee's success was the fact that D-line coach Steve Stripling led the unit to its most sacks since 2001, and Maggitt, who led the team in that category with 11, came at quarterbacks from different angles.

As a defensive end, Maggitt was the player who came into his UT career as a speedy outside linebacker and was hard to handle, especially once he got back into playing shape and adjusted to the speed of the game.

With the Vols short on outside linebackers, Maggitt sometimes stood up in traditional 4-3 sets. From the second level, he came at players like this:

Maggitt returning isn't shocking. He wasn't really on any of the draft big boards this year, and the best thing for him is to return, show NFL teams that he's completely healthy and can remain that way and play his way up the list.

But that doesn't matter; it's still huge news for the Vols. He's a great college player who appears to be primed for a big season, and with the questionable decisions some juniors are making these days, you never know until a player says he's coming back.

Much like how Johnson returned for his senior season to help Tennessee turn the corner and get back to a bowl game, Maggitt is going to be a big part of helping the program take the next step forward.

UT likely has huge aspirations in mind next year, such as competing for the East title and getting back to Atlanta for the first time since 2007. Maggitt returning as an elite pass-rusher and defensive leader is essential to the Vols shocking the league.

 

All recruiting information from 247Sports' composite rankings, unless otherwise noted. All statistics taken from CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted.

Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter: @Brad_Shepard.

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How Ohio State Replaced Seven NFL Starters and Got Better

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Even if Ohio State fell short of its ultimate goal of playing for the national championship, Urban Meyer knew he had a pretty good team in 2013. But the Buckeyes head coach didn't realize just how talented his previous squad was until he examined the current landscape of the NFL.

It was there that Meyer saw that of the seven Ohio State rookies currently on active NFL rosters, all seven had started in games this season. It's not a matter of ex-Buckeyes getting opportunities on bad teams either, as six OSU rookies will have started in playoff games this season, with five starting in the upcoming weekend's divisional round.

"I don't know if that's ever been done before," Meyer said. "Seven players left our program and are starting. Not playing, not backups, not practice squad; starting in the National Football League. In the history of college football, I'd like to know if that's ever been done."

While having seven rookies starting is impressive in and of itself—and a helluva recruiting tool for Meyer—what's even more impressive is that Ohio State lost a septet of talent capable of starting in the NFL and somehow managed to get even better in 2014. Unlike last year's team, which fell short with a loss in the Big Ten championship game to Michigan State, this year's Buckeyes will play for the national title, taking on Oregon in Monday's first-ever College Football Playoff championship.

How did this happen? Let's take a look.

 

Ryan Shazier, linebacker, Pittsburgh Steelers

Racking up 144 total tackles, 23.5 of which came for a loss and seven sacks, Ryan Shazier figured to be the player who Ohio State would have the hardest time replacing from a season ago. In a linebacker corps that already struggled in its first two seasons under Meyer, Shazier was seemingly the lone bright spot, evidenced by the Steelers' decision to select him 15th overall in last May's draft.

But while Shazier was lighting up Big Ten backfields—and eventually, the NFL combine—the Buckeyes underclassmen were already eyeing the vacancy that they knew he'd be leaving. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee got the first crack at filling it in spring practice and hasn't let go since.

"I’ve gotten the comfort level down learning different offenses," Lee said. "I’m learning more about linebacking and the entire defense than I feel I would have learned somewhere else."

The smarts that Lee has picked up have been apparent in his play, as he ranks third on the team in tackles (73) and second in tackles for loss (16.5) and sacks (7.5) heading into Monday's championship game. Those aren't Shazier-like numbers quite yet, but it's a more-than-promising start for a player who was tasked with replacing one of the most talented linebackers in Ohio State history.

"I love that kid," Meyer said of Lee.

 

Bradley Roby, cornerback, Denver Broncos

The second of Ohio State's two first-round picks last May, the Denver Broncos selected Bradley Roby with the 31st overall pick of the draft. A two-time All-Big Ten selection during his time in Columbus, Roby left a sizable void in the Buckeyes secondary, but there wasn't much guessing when it came to who would be filling it.

Moving from field to boundary corner, Doran Grant would take over the role of Ohio State's top corner after starting opposite Roby in 2013. And while he was inconsistent throughout the first three seasons of his college career, the Akron, Ohio, native went out with a bang, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors in 2014.

"I've been here four years and I'm a first-time Big Ten champion," Grant said following OSU's 59-0 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. "I'm happy, you know?"

But Grant's impact has gone beyond his five interceptions, nine pass breakups and 14 passes defended, as he played a major role in the Buckeyes shutting down Michigan State wideout Tony Lippett (five receptions, 64 yards) and keeping Alabama Heisman Trophy finalist Amari Cooper (nine receptions, 71 yards, two touchdowns) in check. It won't get any easier in his college finale either, as Grant will be tasked with slowing down another Heisman Trophy finalist—the winner of this year's award—in Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.

But if Grant can do that, it won't be long before he joins seven of his former teammates as a starter in the NFL.

 

Carlos Hyde, running back, San Francisco 49ers

The Big Ten Running Back of the Year in 2013, Carlos Hyde put together a monster season a year ago, rushing for 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns in just 11 games. Meyer's first 1,000-yard running back, Hyde became the third running back selected in last May's draft when the San Francisco 49ers took him with a second-round pick (57th overall).

Technically, Hyde never started a game in his rookie season but saw significant time while spelling Frank Gore. With the bruising 6'0", 235-pounder now in the NFL, Ohio State figured to move to a less run-based offense, as sophomore Ezekiel Elliott stepped into Hyde's shoes.

As it turned out, the Buckeyes offense was more balanced, but that didn't mean that Elliott's contributions have been any less than that of his predecessor. In fact, Elliott has rushed for 1,632 yards and 14 touchdowns in 14 games this season, while also proving to be a more reliable threat as a pass-catcher out of the backfield (27 receptions, 221 yards).

"We had big plans. We had a lot of confidence in him," Meyer said of Elliott. "He started kind of slow. His last two games are really productive."

And that might be a bit of an understatement.

Against Wisconsin's second-ranked defense in the Big Ten title game, Elliott totaled 220 rushing yards and two touchdowns, before torching Alabama's No. 1 rushing defense for 230 yards and two scores in a Sugar Bowl MVP performance. As Ohio State heads to the national title game, it does so on the back of its running back, who has already put together the fourth-best rushing season in Buckeyes history.

"I just think the line has really come on," Elliott said. "They're definitely opening up some great holes for me to run through."

 

Jack Mewhort, offensive lineman, Indianapolis Colts

Speaking of Ohio State's offensive line, that's the unit that figured to take the biggest hit this season, as it lost four multiyear starters from a season ago.

That started with the loss of left tackle Jack Mewhort, who started in 14 games this season after being selected by the Indianapolis Colts in the draft's second round (59th overall).

While Mewhort prepares to protect quarterback Andrew Luck at left guard in this weekend's divisional playoff game against Roby's Broncos, Taylor Decker is getting ready to cover the blind side of Cardale Jones in Monday's championship game. The Buckeyes' right tackle a season ago, Decker has played so well in his new role that some have projected the junior to be an early entrant in the upcoming draft.

Decker, however, put those rumors to rest on Tuesday, announcing that he will return to Ohio State for his senior season. That will be a big boost for the Buckeyes in 2015, as Meyer will get to wait another year before having to replace another NFL-caliber left tackle.

 

Corey Linsley, center, Green Bay Packers

After the Green Bay Packers selected him with a fifth-round pick (161 overall), it didn't take long for Corey Linsley to make NFL headlines. Forced into the Packers' starting lineup on the NFL's opening night, cameras captured Linsley being yelled at by Green Bay star quarterback Aaron Rodgers in his professional debut.

Linsley bounced back with a stellar rookie season, with Rodgers even campaigning for his new center to make this year's Pro Bowl. As for Ohio State, the Buckeyes were left searching for a replacement for what Meyer calls "the apex" of his spread offense, which they seem to have found in junior center Jacoby Boren.

The youngest of the storied Boren family (brother Justin was an OSU offensive lineman from 2009-10, brother Zach was a fullback from 2009-12, father Mike was a linebacker at Michigan from 1980-83), Jacoby originally committed to former Buckeyes head coach Jim Tressel, who each of his brothers played for. But when Meyer inherited the commitment of the 6'1", 285-pounder in 2012, he initially believed that he was too small to play center and saw a position change in his future.

"He walked through the door and, I was like, 'Uh‑oh, what's this now?'" Meyer said. "I actually started thinking maybe he could be a blocking fullback."

That switch never happened, as Boren went on to beat out Alabama transfer Chad Lindsay in fall camp for the right to succeed Linsley. The results of the OSU offense have spoken for themselves, as Jacoby has managed to continue the Boren legacy in Columbus.

"He's turned out to have a heck of a year," Meyer said. "He is a tribute to the family. Every Boren I've ever met is like that. I've had two of them, and if there's another one, I want him."

 

Philly Brown, wide receiver, Carolina Panthers

Despite going undrafted last May, Philly Brown has managed to make a mark in his rookie season, starting for the NFC South champion Panthers at punt returner and finishing sixth on the team with 21 receptions, 296 yards and two touchdowns. Having started three games at wide receiver this season, Brown is listed as second on the team's depth chart heading into this weekend's divisional playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks.

And while Brown could be considered a pleasant surprise for the Panthers this season, the same could be said of the Buckeyes' wide receiving corps, which was tasked with replacing the team's leading receiver for each of the past two seasons.

It's a job that's been accomplished by committee, with senior Devin Smith (32 receptions, 886 yards, 12 touchdowns) finding more consistency and redshirt sophomore Michael Thomas (50 receptions, 746 yards, nine touchdowns) emerging as J.T. Barrett's most reliable threat. Throw in the addition of redshirt freshman H-Back Jalin Marshall (589 total offensive yards, eight total touchdowns), as well as the advanced passing of Barrett and Jones, and it's not hard to see how the Ohio State throw game has taken a step forward in 2014.

"Who are we going to throw it to?" Meyer asked rhetorically in November while reflecting back on Ohio State's inconsistent passing game in his first two seasons in Columbus. "Now when I say who are you going to throw it to, three or four names pop in my mind."

 

Andrew Norwell, offensive lineman, Carolina Panthers

It isn't just Brown who has made an impact for the Panthers as an undrafted free agent this season, as Andrew Norwell has started nine games in his rookie season. Norwell will line up at left guard when the Panthers take on the Seattle Seahawks this Saturday, the same position he occupied for three seasons during his time at Ohio State.

With All-Big Ten performer Pat Elflein manning the right guard position, the Buckeyes have leaned on redshirt freshman Billy Price on the other side. A converted defensive lineman, Price had his struggles early but has since turned into one of Ohio State's most improved players this season.

"Mental toughness," Meyer said when mentioning that the turning point in Price's season came during a road win at Penn State. "Freshman lineman, freshman this, freshman that, and they toughened up and got it in there."

That mental toughness manifested itself recently, in the form of springing Elliott free for an 85-yard touchdown in the Buckeyes' Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. And like many other of Ohio State's group of key replacements, he has plenty of eligibility left, which certainly bodes well for the future of the Meyer's Buckeyes.

"I thought these young kids were pretty good coming up," Meyer said. "In my own heart, I said, 'This is, what is it. This '15 team, watch out.'

"And then they got better and better and better and better."

 

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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TBT: Pass Interference Helps Ohio State Beat Miami in National Championship Game

Ohio State is set to play in its fourth national championship game since the 2002 season against Oregon on Monday. The last time the Buckeyes were champions of the college football world, they were the beneficiaries of a controversial call.

The Buckeyes entered the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, which served as the national championship game that year, as big underdogs against the Miami Hurricanes, winners of 34 in a row. However, they were able to shock the world with a thrilling double-overtime victory.

After the Hurricanes got seven points on the opening possession of the first overtime period, the Buckeyes needed a touchdown to keep the game going.

Facing a 4th-and-3 from the Miami 5-yard line, Ohio State quarterback Craig Krenzel threw a pass to the end zone intended for Chris Gamble. Gamble was unable to make the catch and the ball fell to the ground, setting off a Miami celebration.

Not so fast.

A referee threw a flag on Hurricanes defensive back Glenn Sharpe for pass interference. That gave the Buckeyes new life, something that they would take advantage of. Krenzel sent the game into double overtime with a one-yard touchdown run that tied the game at 24.

Ohio State went on to pull out a 31-24 victory, giving the Buckeyes their seventh national championship in program history.

If Monday's inaugural College Football Playoff final between the Buckeyes and the Ducks is anything like the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, football fans are in for a treat.

[YouTube]

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How Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg Can Rebound in 2015

Christian Hackenberg took a mighty step back in 2014, throwing 15 interceptions to 12 touchdowns and submitting a QB rating (109.44) that ranked outside the national top 100.

But the former 5-star recruit is not a lost cause. He is still 6'4". He still has a nuclear cannon for an arm. He still completed 21 of 30 passes for 339 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions on the road against Wisconsin as a true freshman in 2013.

Not a lot of guys can say they've done that.

Hackenberg ended his disastrous 2014 season on a high note, too, leading Penn State to a 31-30 win over Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl. He threw four touchdowns (to zero interceptions) and had a QB rating of 156.73, both of which were season highs and the most he had recorded since the 2013 Wisconsin game.

Is there any good way for Hackenberg—whom at one point many considered the No. 1 overall prospect for the 2016 NFL draft—to recapture the magic of his high school days and freshman year? Or is he doomed to repeat the history of his sophomore campaign?

And what must he do to make that first part a reality?

Let's take a look.

 

Manage the Pocket

The bane of Penn State's season was its offensive line, which was an abject disaster and played a big role in Hackenberg's struggles. But facing pressure is part of the game—especially for a quarterback such as Hackenberg, who is not what one would call "mobile."

Hackenberg is a capable athlete, though, and has at times shown great pocket awareness. It just happens that those times came mostly back in 2013. He regressed when facing pressure as a sophomore, struggling to feel the rush and take advantage of space.

Part of this might have been mental. A fatigue comes with facing such consistent pressure, to the point where one might sulk and forget one's training. Another free rush off the edge?! Why even bother?

That is not a very healthy attitude.

The video above shows a poorly timed slide protection, one which leaves a 205-pound running back (Bill Belton) on a 285-pound defensive end (Keith Bowers). That is not a matchup many backs can win, and Belton, predictably, gets bull rushed.

On a binary scale—one in which quarterbacks either "are" or "aren't" the guilty party on a sack—this is not Hackenberg's fault. He barely had any time. Maryland called the right play in the right situation.

But that doesn't mean he didn't have options. There was space to the left for him to step up and extend the play—so much that he might have even been able to tuck and run. There was Geno Lewis flashing across the middle on a drag. Hackenberg didn't have tons of time to see Lewis, but he did have enough to get the ball out, and he would have had even more if he'd acknowledged the mismatch in blocking (which should have been evident at or before the snap) and compensated by stepping up sooner.

These are plays NFL quarterbacks make. They're plays good college quarterbacks make too. Cody Kessler at USC, for example, has vastly inferior physical tools to those of Hackenberg. But he's the more effective college player—at least for the time being—because he's as good as any QB in the country at maneuvering in the pocket.

Hackenberg doesn't need to be great at this (it's admittedly harder for big, long-limbed quarterbacks than small ones), but he does need to be better. Penn State finished No. 122 in the country with 3.39 sacks allowed per game. Most of that was on the offensive line.

But a lot of it was on Hackenberg too.

 

Stay Aggressive at All Costs

Of the many criticisms lobbed at Hackenberg this season, the fact that he kept turning the ball over might have been the most pervasive. His touchdown-to-interception ratio, which until the bowl game was eight-to-15, became a punchline—the go-to wisecrack for rival fans.

But the real trouble with his season had less to do with turnovers and more to do with conservatism. After pushing the ball downfield in the first four games of the season, his yards per attempt fell off a cliff.

Yards per attempt is not a perfect reflection of aggressiveness, but it is, at the very least, strongly correlated. Hackenberg played to his strengths—his vertical arm—during the first third of the year but was reticent to stretch the field once the offense started to struggle.

Part of this had to do with the way opposing defenses played him. Penn State tried and tried to get a running game going but never could. It finished No. 120 in the country in rushing yards per game (101.92) and No. 125 in yards per attempt (2.97).

Defenses knew they could keep two deep safeties over the top, defend the run with seven (or sometimes even six) and still keep Penn State's ground game in check. They realized this after Penn State's 4-0 start to the season—the stretch in which Hackenberg averaged 8.24 yards per attempt—and were quick to react to the film.

All of this precluded Penn State from stretching the field most of the season, but Hackenberg proved in the Pinstripe Bowl that if he's willing to test the deep third in spite of the run game, this offense still functions better than it does when it takes what it's given.

The Nittany Lions gained just 82 yards on 29 carries against Boston College, struggling as always to make their opponent respect the run. But Hackenberg managed to take the top off the defense in the first half, connecting with Chris Godwin on a 72-yard touchdown:

And once he found a rhythm, he was able to slide and throw dimes like this 16-yard touchdown to DaeSean Hamilton:

Ideally, Hackenberg wouldn't struggle with interceptions next season as he did in 2014. But if forced to choose between attacking and turning the ball over or checking down and…well, still turning the ball over, Penn State might as well go down swinging.

Part of this is out of Hackenberg's control; it depends on the running game showing some sort of semblance of life. Any bite Hackenberg can get on play-action passes would help immeasurably.

Either way, though, he has the vertical arm and the big-play weapons to make this work. Godwin and Lewis both averaged 13 or more yards per catch this season. Hamilton averaged more than 10. All three return in 2015, and with tight end Adam Breneman coming back from injury to join Kyle Carter, Hackenberg already has all the underneath and middle-third targets he needs.

What he needs is to get back to his strengths.

 

Keep His Head on Straight

When Penn State was winning, Hackenberg was a lovable figure. He was putting up numbers despite an obviously flawed offensive line and appeared to have the temperament of an NFL franchise player.

When Penn State started losing, though, Hackenberg became sullen and ill-tempered. He berated teammates on the sideline and grew visibly frustrated with his lack of protection. Instead of fixing some of the deep-rooted issues around him, he amplified them.

So pointed were some of Hackenberg's outbursts that the rumor mill began to churn with (unsourced) speculation about his wanting to transfer. The quarterback's father, Erick Hackenberg, promptly shot that down in a phone interview with Lancaster Online, but that it even went so far speaks volumes about the 2014 season.

"He's frustrated," head coach James Franklin admitted after the regular-season finale, a 34-10 home loss to Michigan State. "…I don't think there's any doubt he's frustrated moving forward in what he wants to do."

But he can't let that frustration spill onto the field.

The shouting matches with teammates are one thing—that can be chalked up to the emotion of the game—but the turnovers, the mistakes, the recklessness, all of that needs to go. He can't sulk once his team starts losing. He can't force so many ill-advised throws. He has to keep his wits about him, play every down like it's 4th-and-goal in the fourth quarter of the College Football Playoff.

Basically, he has to never do this:

If we grant that Hackenberg has NFL-caliber physical tools, and that those physical tools didn't disappear overnight, the only possible reasons for his step back were (a) mental issues or (b) improper utilization by the players and coaches around him.

The truth lies somewhere between those two options, which means part of fixing Hackenberg is up to Franklin, offensive coordinator John Donovan, offensive line coach Herb Hand and the players who surround Hackenberg on next year's PSU offense.

The other part is up to Hackenberg himself; and for what it's worth, he's saying all the right things in interviews.

"I thought it was the best thing that could possibly happen to me," Hackenberg told reporters after the Michigan State game, when asked to sum up his "eventful" sophomore year. "I learned a lot."

That looked to be the case against Boston College, and there's no reason to think it can't remain the case in 2015. After Steve Muench and Kevin Weidl of ESPN.com (Insider required) snubbed him from their list of the top 25 underclassmen in college football, he might, for the first time ever, even come out with something to prove.

This is uncharted territory for a kid who, until now, has been decorated and deified as America's next great quarterback. The 2015 offseason is the most important of his young career.

Maybe this was the best thing that could possibly happen to him?

 

Note: Recruiting data refers to the 247Sports composite rankings

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeigh35

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5 Burning Questions 1 Month Away from National Signing Day

A frenzied 2015 recruiting cycle concludes Feb. 4, when national signing day rolls around and solidifies incoming classes for college football programs across the country. Despite years of diligence dedicated to the recruitment of top players, most coaches remain faced with plenty of unknowns during the final month of this process. 

Some situations demand more attention than others during the oncoming stretch. We looked across the recruiting spectrum to uncover five developments worth monitoring in the weeks to come.

Begin Slideshow

Malcom Brown Declares for 2015 NFL Draft: Latest Details and Reaction

Texas defensive lineman Malcom Brown has been a star for the Longhorns, but ultimately made the decision to enter the 2015 NFL draft.

Longhorn Network reported the news of Brown's decision:

Brown recorded 6.5 sacks during the regular season during his junior campaign, more than he collected during his first two seasons in Austin. He also led the Longhorns with 14 tackles for loss and six more QB hits.

Prior to his decision, Brown spoke about what it would take for him to leave Texas early, per Kirk Bohls of the Austin American-Statesman:

His first two seasons were mostly quiet, but Brown's emergence as a junior helped turn him into a great pro prospect. Alex Dunlap of Orangebloods offered his take on the lineman:

Given his immense talent, Brown looks like a potential first rounder in the upcoming draft. After his comments earlier in the season, it appears Brown was given a solid grade for either the first or second round.

Now he has a chance to prove that talent during offseason workouts, the Scouting Combine and his Pro Day. Brown has a long road ahead, but he has a great chance of getting drafted early following a year where no Longhorns were drafted since 1937.


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Mario Edwards Declares for 2015 NFL Draft: Latest Details and Reaction

Following an already solid career with Florida State, defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. will forgo his final season to enter the 2015 NFL draft.

Joe Schad of ESPN passed along Edwards' comments on the decision:

The junior defensive lineman was hurt by injury at times this season, but still had three sacks during the regular season.
When he was healthy, Edwards made a difference on the field. FSU coach Jimbo Fisher spoke about the defensive end, via Corey Clark of the Tallahassee Democrat:

He was physical, strong at the point. Affecting the quarterback in a lot of ways, even when he wasn't sacking him. Making plays in the run game. Mario has kind of (gotten) his second wind. ...

He can bring a lot of versatility. That's why I'm really anxious for him to grow as a player because he can cause some havoc.

During his career, Edwards has collected at least three sacks in each season. Even with him camping in the backfield against several ACC teams, his stock didn't remain as high during the junior campaign.

At 6'3", 294 pounds, Edwards has a chance to make an impact at the next level. If he remains healthy, the Seminoles standout might join Timmy Jernigan, Bjoern Werner and Cornellius Carradine as recent defensive standouts taken from FSU.

It will be interesting to see how Edwards fairs during offseason workouts in the Scouting Combine and Pro Day. Given his talent, Edwards will need to prove his athleticism to improve his draft stock moving forward.


Follow @RCorySmith on Twitter.

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USC Football: Stars Aligning for Trojans to Return as National Power in 2015

Last weekend, the stars aligned in USC football's ongoing mission to make the 2015 season one to remember—12 stars, to be exact.

That's the combined star rating of newly added commits Ykili Ross, Ronald Jones II and Marvell Tell, all of whom are 4-star prospects per 247Sports.

The trio of verbal pledges gives Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian 20 recruits for national signing day 2015, the most any USC class has had in four years. It's no coincidence that USC is also primed for its highest finish in the national recruiting rankings since 2011, when the Trojans were No. 3

This upcoming class has the potential to match last year's new wave of freshmen, which played a huge part in USC's nine-win season.

Like last year's class, Sarkisian and his staff are addressing several areas in the lineup that have holes. In 2014, it was offensive line: Damien Mama, Viane Talamaivao and Toa Lobendahn were all vital to the unit's success. 

This year, the secondary gets needed reinforcements.

Tell—the nation's No. 4-ranked safety—joins 4-star Isaiah Langley and 3-star Taeon Mason, both of whom are cornerbacks.

Pass defense was one of the Trojans' greatest deficiencies in 2014. They surrendered 274.5 yards per game to rank No. 118 in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Certainly having more options to rotate with the young, returning corps of Adoree' Jackson, John Plattenburg, Chris Hawkins, Kevon Seymour and Leon McQuay III is a major plus for defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. 

And Wilcox could have another first-year option in Ross. A two-way prospect in the same vein as 2014 breakout star Jackson, Ross' role in preseason workouts will be one storyline to follow. 

So, too, will be the development of USC's backfield. 

Running back looked to be one of the Trojans' deepest positions heading into 2014, but the loss of Ty Isaac to transfer and Tre Madden to injury left Javorius "Buck" Allen and Justin Davis as the unit's sole scholarship players.

Davis is back for 2015, but Allen's future is up in the air.

Allen said following the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 27 he will weigh his decision on the NFL draft after talking it over with family and evaluating his academic standing.

Madden's return from injury with Jones' arrival promises a deeper backfield in 2015, whether Allen stays or goes. That's a huge boon for returning quarterback Cody Kessler.

As attrition wore down the workhorse Allen come November, USC's rushing production dipped. More ball-carrying options in the Trojans' hurry-up offensive scheme means a more diverse attack.

USC was at its most potent when it effectively attacked both with the run and pass, as evidenced in a 45-point, 515-yard output in the Holiday Bowl.  The Trojans rushed for nearly 200 yards that night, while Kessler threw for 321.

That night started a process for what USC could be in 2015. Kessler's announcement that he is returning put the first star in place, and the big recruiting haul to follow was next.

USC's stars are building a constellation that looks an awful lot like championship material.

 

Statistics courtesy of CFBstats.com. Recruiting rankings and information via 247Sports.

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Alabama's Quarterback Battle Much More Important This Year Than Last

In Hollywood, sequels rarely top the original.

That is, of course, unless we're talking about The Godfather: Part II.

Alabama fans better hope that college football's version of the Godfather—head coach Nick Saban—follows the same path, because the 2015 Alabama football season depends on it.

Graduate transfer Jake Coker was the talk of the offseason, but Blake Sims' efficient play in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game against West Virginia relegated Coker to mop-up duty in the first game of the season—which is a role he settled into for the duration of the 2014 season.

"I was shocked that Coker did not at least attempt a pass during the game," said Ryan Fowler, host of The Game on Tide 99.1 in Tuscaloosa. "I had heard rumblings that Sims was going to get a majority of the playing time, but I did expect to see Coker play more. I remember watching him during pregame warm-ups and saying his arm strength is as good as advertised, especially on the deep throws."

With Sims gone, Coker watch will continue—just maybe without the hype of last summer.

The rising senior will battle with junior Alec Morris, sophomore Cooper Bateman, redshirt freshman David Cornwell and true freshman early enrollee Blake Barnett for the starting gig in Tuscaloosa.

Who will get the nod? Bleacher Report Alabama lead writer Marc Torrence gives the nod to either Coker or Morris in his early depth chart projection.

Finding a starting quarterback early is a much more pressing issue for Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin than it was last season, because not only is the quarterback position back to square one, the offense has to hit a reset button of sorts thanks to graduation and potential early departures.

ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough reported on Thursday that wide receiver Amari Cooper, running back T.J. Yeldon and safety Landon Collins will jump early to the NFL draft.

Cooper's departure isn't exactly the most surprising news in the world, but it's very important considering the makeup of the 2015 Crimson Tide roster.

The Alabama coaching staff knew that Cooper would be outside for the quarterback to rely on, and it was clear from the moment toe met leather in the Georgia Dome against the Mountaineers that Cooper provided the safety net for Sims and Kiffin to fall back on as Sims and Kiffin both eased into their new roles as quarterback and play-caller, respectively.

According to Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer (h/t Marquavius Burnett of the Anniston Star), who saw plenty of film of Cooper in the month leading up to the Allstate Sugar Bowl, Cooper's future in pro football is bright:

Unless Cooper passes up on big money at the next level, Alabama will be without its three leading receivers from this season, as DeAndrew White and Christion Jones have also exhausted their eligibility.

"Cooper is going to be the most difficult to replace," Fowler said. "He will go down as one of the all-time greats in the program's history. It will not be possible to replace his production with only one player. Kiffin will have to combine the strengths of multiple players to get the yardage he got from Cooper in 2014."

It's not an impossible task because Alabama is loaded with talented players like Robert Foster, ArDarius Stewart, Chris Black and a medium-sized village of highly touted prospects.

It does, however, make the quarterback battle much more important this year than last.

The participants in last year's quarterback battle had Cooper to work with whenever they got first-team reps and knew that he was going to be a primary piece of the Alabama puzzle.

If Cooper jumps, each quarterback will have the chance to develop their own chemistry with a new crop of talented, yet largely inexperienced wide receivers.

Despite some heated moments and rather uncomfortable screenshots on the sideline, the first year of the Saban/Kiffin marriage worked well on offense. This offseason is much more intriguing, though, due to the offensive skill position turnover and Coker's inability to win the job last season.

Will Coker's potential be realized?

Will Stewart, Black, Foster or one of the countless other potential superstars at wide receiver develop that chemistry with Coker or one of the other quarterback contenders?

Will Alabama hit what could be one of the best quarterback graduate transfer free-agent markets in the sport's history?

All of those will contribute to one of the most important offseason quarterback battles in recent conference history.

 

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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Oregon vs. Ohio State: Underrated Players in College Football Championship 2015

Just a few weeks before the title showdown between the Oregon Ducks and Ohio State Buckeyes, it was the latter's Ezekiel Elliott who could have passed as underrated.

Perceptions change in a hurry on a national stage.

The sophomore rushed for 220 yards and a pair of scores against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship then hit gazelle form once again against Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinals thanks to 230 yards and two more scores.

Elliott is now a household name, but there are others to know as the title encounter approaches. After all, it will only take one major performance on Jan. 12 to go down in history.

 

College Football Playoff National Championship Odds and Schedule

 

Underrated Players to Watch

Troy Hill, CB, Oregon

Outside of Heisman winner Marcus Mariota, arguably no player is more important to Oregon than corner Troy Hill. 

Hill is now fully out of Ifo Ekpre-Olomu's shadow after a season-ending injury to the Ducks' top corner. Now, the senior figures to be up to the task. After all, opposing offenses threw his way more often than not in an effort to avoid Ekpre-Olomu.

In the Rose Bowl against Florida State, Hill proved his mettle.

His assignment, Seminoles wideout Rashad Greene, caught just six passes for 59 yards. Impressive, but even he understands that Ohio State presents an even bigger challenge, per Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman:

The nation's fifth-ranked offense continues to thrive despite Cardale Jones—a third-string quarterback—under center.

If the Oregon defense is to fend off Ohio State and allow Mariota and the offense to distance themselves, Hill needs to play like a No. 1 corner once again.

 

Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State

Containing the smashmouth Alabama attack is no easy accomplishment.

After doing so, Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett turns his attention to Oregon's prolific offense.

Bennett, the owner of six sacks this season, is a major reason the Crimson Tide's lead backs were both held under the 100-yard mark and Ohio State was able to control the time-of-possession battle en route to a win. Ditto for Alabama quarterback Blake Sims' three interceptions while under pressure.

Things are more difficult against Oregon, though.

Mariota thrives under pressure and prefers to be on the move to open up things downfield. Bennett's ability to generate that unorthodox pressure up the middle, in theory, will flush Oregon's signal-caller into the arms of Joey Bosa and others.

Again, in theory.

 

Keanon Lowe, WR, Oregon

Sometimes stats are meaningless.

The nation outside of Eugene does not know who Keanon Lowe is. As a senior, Lowe has just 25 catches for 359 yards and four touchdowns, good for sixth on the team.

With Devon Allen out against Florida State, Lowe did not appear on the stat sheet while Darren Carrington stepped up with seven catches for 165 yards and two touchdowns.

Despite this, Mariota says the senior's impact comes elsewhere—on and off the field.

"I think it really, honestly, starts with Keanon Lowe," Mariota said, per ESPN.com's Chantel Jennings. "Keanon taught a lot of these guys what they're doing out there on the field, and they all look to him as their leader."

Of course, Lowe is capable of major performances. Look back to mid-November, when he caught five passes for 104 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a narrow seven-point victory against Washington State. 

Perhaps the senior has saved his best for last.

 

Jeff Heuerman, TE, Ohio State

What, forget about Ohio State senior tight end Jeff Heuerman already?

Heuerman owns just 17 catches for 207 yards and a pair of scores this year, a big reduction from his 26 for 466 and four in 2013. Against Oregon, though, the Naples, Florida, native might take on more responsibility than ever as Hill and the Ducks secondary shuts down outside weapons.

While a non-factor against Alabama thanks to an injury, Heuerman sure sounds as if he will be ready for the title game:

The Oregon defense did not have to deal with Florida State's Nick O'Leary much at all thanks to injury, which did much to help the Ducks.

Monday, it is a safe bet Jones will look to his safety blanket often to move the chains and in the red zone. So long as he is healthy, Heuerman is reliable enough to make a few game-changing plays.

 

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

 

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Sheriron Jones Commits to Tennessee: Will Add Much Needed Depth to QB Position

Sheriron Jones, a 4-star dual-threat quarterback, per 247Sports composite rankings, committed to the University of Tennessee Thursday, per Ryan Bartow of 247Sports. Jones joins a Volunteers roster loaded with quarterback talent. 

Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder discusses Jones' commitment and what his impact will be for the Volunteers. 

Where will Jones fit at Tennessee? Check out the video, and let us know! 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Ultimate Guide to the 2015 National Championship Game

The first College Football Playoff National Championship will pit the 13-1 Ohio State Buckeyes against the 13-1 Oregon Ducks.

The national semifinals did away with Alabama and Florida State—two teams that would have, in all likelihood, played for the national title under the old BCS system—and gave the Ducks and Buckeyes a chance to earn their spots in Arlington, Texas.

Both teams took eager advantage.

Oregon beat Florida State 59-20 in the Rose Bowl, snapping the nation's longest winning streak at 29 games and handing Jameis Winston the first loss of his career (in what would prove to be his final game). Ohio State beat Alabama 42-35 in the Sugar Bowl, overcoming a 21-6 deficit against the supposed best team in the country.

Both teams feel like this is their year, and both are justified in feeling that way. They are the top two teams on the F/+ ratings at Football Outsiders, and the difference between them is almost too small to count. Both have had championship-worthy seasons, but only one can hoist the new College Football Playoff trophy.

Only one can make history in Jerry's World.

Which one will it be?

Begin Slideshow

Most Important Remaining 2015 College Football Recruiting Visits

The clock is ticking toward national signing day, and college programs continue to clamor for top talent. The next few weeks feature a frenzied stretch of communication between prospects and coaches.

Those interactions include key campus visits, as recruits aim to decide where their right fit can be found. Let's look ahead at key trips set to take place across the country and how they could impact team fortunes.

Begin Slideshow

Michigan Names D.J. Durkin DC: How Will Wolverine Defense Look in 2015?

According to University of Michigan Official Athletic Site, former Florida defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin has been hired to be the new Michigan DC. This is the first big hire of the Harbaugh regime. 

Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder discusses why this hire is so important for the Wolverines.

Do you think Michigan made the right hire?

Watch the video and let us know! 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Alabama Football: Early 2015 Depth Chart Projections

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It's never too early to start looking ahead to 2015.

Alabama fans always have a keen eye on the future despite Nick Saban's pleadings about living in the present, but with the 2014 season over and in the books, fans can do that now guilt-free.

And what better place to start than with a depth chart projection?

Obviously, a lot can and will change between now and then—a recruit could commit or decommit, players make improvements in spring practice and fall camp, and there could be an unexpected transfer or two.

But it's still valuable to look at projections like this. It can help give a feel for expectations for certain players, how weak or strong some units are supposed to look and where the biggest offseason focuses will be.

Let's give the two-deep a shot along with some observations:

 

Wide open at quarterback

Jake Coker and Alec Morris make the first team here since they have the most experience and most playing time. But this race will be a lot more than the two-horse contest we saw between Coker and Blake Sims this time last year.

The big question is how much will that experience matter to Saban and Lane Kiffin this time around?

With the returning talent this year, especially on offense, it was easy to go with a "win now" mentality with Sims. Will Kiffin and Saban want to go with Coker this year, a guy with the tools whom they wanted a year ago? Or will they opt for a younger face to give them some continuity at the position and not have to do this all over again next year.

Keep an eye on Blake Barnett, a super freshman from Oregon who is already on campus and ready to make an impact sooner rather than later.

 

Work to be done on offensive line

Alabama will be replacing three starters on the offensive line, so like this past offseason, expect that unit to be a work in progress.

It returns its anchor in Cam Robinson, who will be entering his second year in the program after a stellar freshman season. And also back is Ryan Kelly, who will be in his third year starting at center.

After that, your guess is as good as mine.

Grant Hill and Dominick Jackson seem to be the best "next man up" candidates, but they both primarily play right tackle. Can either make the switch to guard? And will one of Alabama's other studs from the 2014 class—J.C. Hassenauer or Ross Pierschbacher—make the next step, or will a true freshman like Dallas Warmack or Lester Cotton emerge?

 

New faces at skill positions

The Crimson Tide will be breaking in a new starter at running back as well as at all three wide receiver positions. That doesn't mean those replacements will be as green as the spring grass, though.

Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake and Tyren Jones figure to make up Alabama's next version of a three-headed monster, with each member of the trio bringing a different skill set to the position.

Out at wide receiver, though, the competition may be as wide open as that of the players getting them the ball.

ArDarius Stewart, Chris Black and Cam Sims saw the most playing time this season of any returning player. Robert Foster was a highly touted prospect out of high school who has waited two years for his turn.

That group may lack experience, but they don't in talent.

 

Defensive line the strength on D

Alabama won't lack for size and speed up front.

In Jarran Reed, D.J. Pettway, A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen, the Crimson Tide are expected to return four studs from their already great 2014 unit. Now, all four will have an extra year under their belts.

To really get a feel for how strong this group is, consider the names who didn't make the cut—Dalvin Tomlinson, Darren Lake, Josh Frazier. They all figure to see the field at some point in time in what will be a deep rotation.

 

Will a true candidate at safety step up?

The safety groupings are as good a guess as any but will likely see a lot of experimenting during the spring and into the fall.

The Smiths—Geno and Maurice—are the most experienced options on the back end who have shown some promise. Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who also coaches the secondary, are likely hoping those two can make for a formidable tandem.

Behind them, Laurence "Hootie" Jones is a good candidate at "Star"—essentially a fifth defensive back who typically plays closer to the line. Jones showed some of that promise as a true freshman.

 

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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Sheriron Jones to Tennessee: Volunteers Land 4-Star QB Prospect

In need of help at the quarterback position, the Tennessee Volunteers have landed 4-star recruit Sheriron Jones for their 2015 class. 

According to Ryan Bartow of 247Sports.com, Jones made his decision to attend the University of Tennessee on Thursday:

Jones is the seventh-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the country and 191st-ranked prospect overall, according to 247Sports.com. Tennessee beat out Florida, Arizona and LSU to secure its third high-profile quarterback for 2015. 

A California native, Jones had originally committed to Florida but became one of many future Gators to re-open his recruiting in December after Will Muschamp was fired, per Chris Hays of The Orlando Sentinel

Volunteers head coach Butch Jones is having a banner recruiting season so far. They currently own the No. 3 class in the country, per 247Sports, with 28 total commits, including two 5-stars and 11 4-stars. 

Steve Wiltfong wrote on 247Sports.com that the addition of Jones to an already-strong class will likely give Tennessee the best collection of talent at the quarterback position in the country this recruiting season:

Tennessee may have the nation's top quarterback class, as Jones joins Top100 dual-threat passer Jauan Jennings and Top247 pro-style quarterback Quinten Dormady, who both enrolled early. 247Sports ranks Jennings as the country's No. 5 player at his position and No. 89 prospect overall. Dormady checks in at No. 6 and No. 190. Jones is the country's No. 144 prospect overall.

Jones will have stiff competition to become a starting quarterback at Tennessee, as Jauan Jennings and Quinten Dormady have already enrolled at the school in preparation for the 2015 season. 

Tennessee's offense was a problem for most of the 2014 season, thanks to a combination of erratic quarterback play and a bad offensive line. Joshua Dobbs helped stabilize the situation late in the year because of his ability to run the ball. 

Jones has to upgrade his offensive line for the Volunteers to get back in the national conversation, but he's got this program heading in the right direction with what's shaping up to be a stellar recruiting class and more depth at quarterback than a coach can handle. 

 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Breaking Down 247Sports' Latest Recruiting Moves in Class of 2015

The newest edition of the 247Sports rankings have revealed some changes among 2015's group of 5-star prospects, according to Barton Simmons of 247Sports.

For starters, Trent Thompson is now the nation’s top-ranked player, replacing offensive lineman Martez Ivey—who slid to No. 2.

However, there were several other players who made moves up and a few new players who earned the coveted 5-star designation.

Which players made the biggest moves in the 5-star shakeup on 247Sports?

 

Thompson Is the New No. 1

Thompson proved he was worthy of being the nation’s top overall prospect with a dominant performance all week during the practices for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

Per Jake Rowe of Dawgs247, Thompson was also dominant during the game itself, notching four tackles despite mostly facing double-teams.

The Georgia commitment is still the nation’s No. 2 player in the 247Sports composite rankings behind Ivey.

However, his strong week in San Antonio cemented him as one of the potential game-changers in the 2015 cycle.

 

Biggest Risers

Five players made huge jumps of more than 30 spots into the nation’s crop of elite talents.

Headlining that list is Louisiana athlete Donte Jackson, who is now rated as the nation’s No. 10 prospect overall.

According to Sonny Shipp of Geaux247, Jackson was a standout at corner all week long at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

Other Army Bowl standouts who rose into the class of 5-stars include defensive end Kyle Phillips, offensive lineman Chidi Valentine-Okeke and linebacker Osa Masina.

Phillips, who committed to Tennessee during the game, was practically impossible to block off the edge, which led to him jumping 86 spots to No. 21 in the nation.

The biggest riser from the Under Armour All-America Game is the newest member of Clemson’s 2015 class—defensive tackle Christian Wilkins.

Per Simmons, Wilkins proved himself as a top-flight talent with a dominant week of practice and a strong outing during the game.

 

Other New 5-Stars

Three additional players who were rated among the top 50 prospects overall were bumped into the 5-star realm.

Florida State corner pledge Tarvarus McFadden moved up 11 spots to No. 19 after recording an interception and a kickoff return for touchdown in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

Oregon defensive end commit Canton Kaumatule moved from No. 31 to No. 26 overall. The Hawaii native put on a show at the Under Armour All-America Game and looked strong at defensive end, according to JC Shurburtt of 247Sports.

The final prospect among nation’s newest 5-star recruits is offensive lineman and Ole Miss pledge Javon Patterson, who separated himself as one of the nation’s elite interior line prospects at either game, per Simmons.

 

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

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The Coming of Age of Mark Helfrich

If we've learned anything from Hollywood, it's that every great sports team has a defining moment: an inspirational speech, a trip to a veterans' hospital or something of the feel-good nature. It's that light-switch moment when everyone finally gets it. Win-one-for-the-Gipper stuff.       

Everything happens in giant steps. That's why we'll never see a movie about the Oregon Ducks or coach Mark Helfrich, even though he'll become a national-title winning coach if he beats Ohio State on Monday. And he will.

But he looks like the guy you ask for help from at JCPenney, only to apologize later when you find out—after he helped you—that he doesn't work there.

The big issue for Oregon this season was whether things were slipping under Helfrich, who had taken over for Hollywood-ready Chip Kelly. Would Helfrich be able to make this team his own? Did he have the strength to do it?

Turned out the answer was yes, he did do it. But no, there was no defining moment. How did he make the program his?

Quietly. Smoothly. Patiently.

I asked him this week how he turned things around midseason. Last season, in Helfrich's first year since being promoted from offensive coordinator, the Ducks failed to make it to a BCS bowl for the first time in five years. This year, when they lost to Arizona at home, that made three losses in six conference games. Since then, the Ducks have posted blowout victories. 

Somewhere in there, that had to be Helfrich's moment. What happened?

"We believe very much in what we're doing," Helfrich told Bleacher Report on a media conference call Monday. "Our guys believe very much in what we're doing and how we're doing it.

"There's always—from the media's perspective or the fans' perspective—second-guessing. In our world, that's evaluation. You go back and evaluate why something happened. And you fix it."

Helfrich doesn't get it. Evaluate it and fix it? Who could play a role like that in a movie?

If there were any one moment that the program became Helfrich's, that was it. But there was no moment. He is not willing things to happen by sheer force, excessive study or a football-24/7 lifestyle. He is re-defining what a leader is in football, breaking stereotypes.

"As far as structure of what we do (between Helfrich and Kelly), it's the same format, the same routines," Steve Greatwood, offensive line coach who has been an Oregon assistant for 29 years, told Bleacher Report Wednesday night. "Mark's added a few tweaks.

"But the difference is Mark's approach to his relationship to his players and the way he leads. Chip was a very, very outspoken, dynamic guy that kind of hammered a mantra over and over and over again. Mark is a much more laid back, approachable kind of guy.

"The way he states our goals to the players—these are our expectations of you—they don't want to disappoint him. They relate to him. Mark has a very self-deprecating personality. He'll throw himself under the table and always place the blame on himself and spread the credit around."

Helfrich, 41, grew up in a small town in Oregon. He played quarterback at Southern Oregon and then for the Vienna Vikings in Austria. When he got into coaching after that, he gave up plans to be an orthopedic surgeon.

That isn't a typical background for great college coaches. 

In general, head coaches are a strange group, all alpha-male or self-isolated in a football bubble. There is usually too much personality (Jim Harbaugh) or maybe a few serious gaps in one (Nick Saban, Bill Belichick).

But no matter what it is, they somehow look like a dominant figure. 

Not Helfrich. And I'd say he's missing the leadership gene. But his results suggest that the leadership gene isn't what we think it is. You let people know you're in charge, set the tone and put that together with incredible football knowledge. Maybe that's all it is really is about.

Asked at his press conference Monday what he needs to improve on, he said:

"I definitely need to work on the biceps. That's true. I'm sure my wife will have a couple other things that I need to work on—throw out the garbage on time, stuff like that."

We keep hearing stories about how humble Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is. It's his Hawaii roots, his Samoan upbringing. Yes, but something about that made him a fit with Helfrich.

Mariota was not a highly recruited high school player. But Helfrich, who was Kelly's offensive coordinator at the time, found him while he was recruiting someone else. It was Helfrich's eye and attitude that got Mariota where he is.

"He'll joke with you; he'll find any little thing to make you laugh, " Mariota told Bleacher Report on Monday on a media conference call. "Coach Helfrich is really somebody that you love to play for. He develops that relationship with you from the moment you get here. It doesn't matter if you are a starting offensive lineman or a scout-team guy. When you feel that compassion, it makes you want to play that much harder for the guy."

Does he get angry? And if so, how can you tell?

"You'll know when he's mad," Mariota said. "His face gets red and his voice gets a little higher."

You can point to the days after the Arizona loss, but that's not really when this became Helfrich's team. It's when his approach proved itself.

The Ducks were 4-1 at the time, but not only had they lost to Arizona (on Oct. 2), they also had looked sloppy in beating Washington State a week earlier. The offensive line was a mess, loaded with injuries. Mariota was scrambling around, getting hit. The media was openly questioning whether Helfrich had it.

Greatwood said it was a tough time, but Helfrich's level-headedness kept everyone calm and focused. Now, even the line is great.

"I appreciate that," Greatwood said. "After the Arizona game, I had to look at myself first and see what I was doing. We (the linemen) weren't getting beat by mental mistakes. We were getting beat physically because of fundamentals.

"We had been spending more time on scheme than fundamentals. I need to go back to fundamentals. It's pays off. You'd think after doing this for 30-some odd years I'd have been able to figure that out sooner."

Another humble Duck? They all follow their leader, even if he does look like a biceps-challenged clerk at the JCPenney.

 

Greg Couch covers college football for Bleacher Report.

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Jimmy Fallon Uses Puppies to Predict Winner of Oregon-Ohio State Title Game

For those who want to know who will win the 2015 College Football Playoff National Championship Game between the Oregon Ducks and the Ohio State Buckeyes, look no further.

Every college football analyst will make a prediction on the big game, but we know who the real experts are.

Puppies.

On his late-night talk show, Jimmy Fallon had a group of puppies predict who will be hoisting the trophy on Monday night. It was a very suspenseful couple of minutes, but in the end, we did get an answer.

[The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, h/t USA Today's FTW]

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College Football Championship 2015: Under-the-Radar Players to Watch

Even casual college football fans know the main pieces for both Ohio State and Oregon as the national championship game approaches, but showdowns like this often come down to the under-the-radar players.

That means someone besides Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota and Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott will have to make critical plays in crunch time.

With that in mind, here is a look at a couple of under-the-radar players who will play critical roles Monday.

 

WR Jalin Marshall, Ohio State

Ohio State’s playmakers were on full display in the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama.

Elliott gashed the mighty SEC defense for 230 rushing yards and two touchdowns, Devin Smith tallied 87 receiving yards and a monumental second-half touchdown as the deep-ball threat, Michael Thomas (Keyshawn Johnson’s nephew) caught a critical touchdown pass in the closing minutes of the first half, and Evan Spencer threw a touchdown and snagged an onside kick in the final minutes.

Lost in the shuffle was one of Ohio State’s best playmakers all season: Jalin Marshall.

Marshall may not be a traditional under-the-radar threat, because he played such an important role this season, but much of the focus is now directed elsewhere. On the season, Marshall had 447 receiving yards, 142 rushing yards and eight total touchdowns.

One of those touchdowns came on a punt return against Indiana, which helped rescue the Buckeyes from a lackluster effort as the heavy favorites.

Marshall could be a problem for Oregon if he gives it a taste of its own medicine. He is a speedster who does most of his damage on end-around plays and shovel passes by bursting to the outside and getting to the edge. He is also a dangerous punt returner who could break a game open with a special teams play. 

Another aspect to consider with Marshall is the fact that he played high school quarterback. Dave Biddle of Bucknuts.com noted that Marshall was being treated like the backup in the last game:

If the Ducks load the middle to stop Elliott or drop some safeties back to contain Smith and Thomas, Marshall can get the ball in space underneath and use his speed to accelerate to the next level or perhaps even find the end zone.

 

OT Jake Fisher, Oregon

It doesn't get more under the radar than an offensive lineman, but Jake Fisher is critical to what the Ducks do on offense.

The low point of Oregon's season came when Fisher was out with injury, as the Ducks allowed 12 sacks against Washington State and Arizona. Fisher’s presence helps set the tone for the rest of the line, and the Ducks were much better at protecting the passer for the rest of the year after he returned.

Fisher has the agility and explosiveness to get downfield on running plays or stay in front of Mariota on passes. His versatility also stands out, as he was a right tackle last season but played left this year after Tyler Johnstone went down with injury.

Fisher is the No. 10 offensive tackle in CBS Sports' draft prospect rankings. His talent is clear, but he is even more important than usual in this game, and he understands who will be standing on the other sidelines, per Steve Mims of The Register-Guard:

Fisher leads an offensive line that has to deal with first-team Associated Press All-American Joey Bosa and third-teamer Michael Bennett. Bosa led the Big Ten with 13.5 sacks and spearheads a defensive group that racked up 40 sacks on the season.

Oregon's entire offense relies on the line giving Mariota enough time to either go through his progressions on passes or read the defense on speed-option plays. It is critical for the Ducks offensive line to prevent Bosa and Bennett from occupying blockers or getting to the quarterback and disrupting those plays. 

If Fisher and the rest of the front can’t do that, it could be a long day for the Heisman Trophy winner.

 

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