NCAA Football News

How Nike and Oregon Created College Football's Perfect Brand

On a gloomy December day in 2011, under overcast Eugene skies, Oregon conducted a secret test, which was actually more of a science experiment.

With the Rose Bowl just weeks away, the now infamous “LiquidMetal HydroChrome” metallic helmets hit the practice field for the first time under observant eyes.

The entire project remained surreptitious—somehow, a feat that has grown increasingly difficult in an era built on access and information. With scattered clouds overhead—and not a single camera phone or public opinion in sight—the operation proved successful.

They were ready. The 12-step process to create this headwear—most of which took place with the aid of water or underwater testing—had worked. The unique helmets were packed and shipped to Pasadena, awaiting their master reveal.

When the Ducks finally took the field on January 1, 2012, however, a rush of concern hit those tucked behind the neon curtain.

The cloudless sky and bright California sun provoked a much different reaction. The helmets shined—unlike anything we had seen before—and our televisions struggled to keep up. Early on, there was genuine concern that the spaceship-infused, magnificent chrome creations were not going to be allowed because of the reflection they cast.

“I was nervous for that game,” Oregon’s football equipment administrator Kenny Farr said. “We were worried about the legality of it, blinding our quarterbacks and thinking about a Plan B if we couldn’t wear them. But thankfully everything worked out.”

The helmets sizzled, chameleon-izing throughout the day as the sun hit the headgear from various angles. On the field, the Ducks provided a high-octane attack that seemed fitting of the Daft Punk-ian attire.

As the sun went down, and the reflective properties faded, Oregon capped off a 45-38 over Wisconsin to earn its first Rose Bowl title in 95 years.

"None of us were around 95 years ago, and we never talked about it," former Oregon coach Chip Kelly told ESPN.com after the game. "We're a forward-thinking operation, and we're always looking ahead."

It’s this mentality that has helped drive Oregon football into another stratosphere over the past decade. Metallic helmets can’t score points—and they didn’t account for a single portion of the 621 total yards—but their role in the Ducks’ dramatic rise to football power is undeniable.

It’s why 4-star guard Zach Okun, a 2015 commit and one of the best players as his position according to 247Sports, visited Eugene and committed before he headed home.

“I don’t know how you visit Oregon and don’t commit,” Okun said. 

Some of the nation's premier recruits from the 2014 class shared a similar sentiment. While parity was prevalent when they were tasked to name the best fans and coaches in the country, the question on uniforms required no further debate.

In a sport that rarely produces a consensus, we have found one. The Ducks have won college football's Cool Contest. 

Getting to Know the Future Stars of College Football

QUESTION
Mama
Garrett
Settle
White
Shaw
Which school has the hottest girls?






Who is the NCAA's scariest coach?

Saban


Meyer 


Saban
None
None 
Should college players be paid?

Some should
For retail sales
Yes
Yes
Yes
Which school has the craziest fans?






Which school has the best uniforms?






One word to describe the SEC

Manly 
Exhilarating
Best 
Athletic 
Dominant

Oregon’s rise goes beyond winning football games at an incredible rate. It’s the product of a bold blueprint built around loud, attention-grabbing uniforms and facilities so good you won't want to leave. And the entire process, with a helping hand from a very rich man and his very rich and creative company, has worked our brilliantly.

 

Abandoning Tradition: The Chameleons and Trendsetters of College Football

Only three years later, Oregon is off of chrome. The godfathers of this wide-spreading helmet fad—the architects that pushed televisions to their very brink—have had enough. And quite frankly, it’s our fault.

“Everybody’s doing it, and we’re kind of moving on because of it,” Farr said regarding the chrome helmets. “It’s onto the next thing.”

To seek out the next great thing, you must first abandon your past. In a sport built on tradition, sights, songs and smells, hitting the reset button is almost never encouraged. It might as well read “self-destruct.”

But Oregon saw what we saw, two nine-win seasons before 1994, neither of which occurred before 1950. The Ducks needed a change. 

“Our tradition is that we’re willing to push the envelope when it comes to uniforms and branding,” Farr said. “There are a lot of schools that are based on tradition, and I understand and respect that. But Oregon embraces not having tradition.”

Farr, who has been with the school since 2008—the football program specifically since 2009—has watched the program go through its various stages. Before he was the team’s football equipment administrator, he was a student in Eugene.

As the equipment manager, it’s his job to ensure that the team is always dapper and ready to play to the cameras. He’s in charge of ordering and coordinating—from the helmet, to the socks, to the neon-splashed mouth guards (which are more popular than you would imagine, according to Farr). He also plays a prominent role in the creative process.

Farr graduated from Oregon in 2002, which served as an integral time in the program’s history. It was during his tenure as a student that he saw, specifically, a change in the branding.

“Between the 1998 and 1999 season, we went from our traditional interlocking U-O to the O,” Farr said. “When we went to that, we also went to mallard green helmet. That kind of started the whole process.”

Slowly but surely, it expanded. Oregon took on new looks—pushing the envelope a bit further each time—and it has succeeded in doing so. The brand change in 1999 may seem subtle compared to the unbelievable advancements on display weekly, although it has been a gradual, calculated climb to reach this point.

Surprisingly, Farr's “wow” moment didn’t come at the Rose Bowl. His moment actually came a year prior when Oregon competed against Auburn for the national championship in socks you could see from space.

“I got the most contacts from people I hadn’t heard from in a long time was when we wore the carbon fire helmet, the neon “O” and the neon socks in the national championship against Auburn,” Farr said. “That reminded me of what an impact this stuff can have.”

Although the neon socks are still matched by few, the chrome helmets and alternate uniforms have become common practice. Once unexplored waters have now grown crowded. 

Oklahoma, a program proud of its timely look, just released its bright and boisterous alternate threads.

Bringin' The Wood! #BringTheWood#Unmatched#0to100RealQuick / http://t.co/WxZ75hVqpZpic.twitter.com/Y56rzyx9v3

Bob Stoops (@OU_CoachStoops) July 1, 2014

Other teams with rich traditions, such as Ohio State, Michigan and Notre Dame, have also dabbled with new ensembles. Closer to home, Oregon’s direct competition is now thoroughly invested in thread experimentation.

“There aren’t many schools in the Pac-12 that don’t have multiple jerseys and multiple helmets,” Farr said. “It’s taken on a life of its own.”

Because of this, Oregon has to stay in front of a booming market. Thus far it has done so.

It’s not easy (or cheap), but it is worth it. More importantly to Oregon, there’s a reputation to uphold about being the mad scientist that always delivers just the right amount of mad.

“It’s cool to be the trendsetter,” Farr added.

 

Bringing Neon Together: Oregon’s Melting-Pot Approach to Uniform Design

It’s all about speed.

When Nike announced Oregon’s 2014 Nike Mach Speed Uniform—as seen against Texas in last year’s Alamo Bowl—those were the first words used in its release.

Speed is, without question, Oregon’s paramount currency. Nike knows this, which is why terms like “laser perforated mesh” and “heavy-duty stretch-woven panels” are bullet points to describe football attire and not components of nuclear missiles.

But the process of creating these uniforms—from the now infamous spring game digs to a potential championship game ensemble—requires more of an Alabama-esque approach. It takes time, patience and, most importantly, it involves more than just a few Nike fabric savants destroying a whiteboard with various shades of green.

“The ideas come from so many places,” Farr said. “Nike will send their creative teams to meet with our players. Our golf coach might have an idea, or maybe somebody’s wife will suggest something at a party. We’ll throw all the ideas into a bucket and talk about each one.”

The player involvement is integral; it’s also incredibly rare.

This isn’t simply a gesture of courtesy on Nike’s behalf; it’s genuine interest. Those who wear the uniforms will have a say—not just in when they wear them—but how they will look going forward. That’s a recruiting pitch in itself.

It’s an open line for innovation, which was evident with the latest Oregon creations. The players wanted the focus to be on comfort and performance.

Nike listened.

“We meet with the team on a regular basis to gain insights into what they need on the field,” said Todd Van Horne, Nike Football VP and Creative Director, when the uniforms were revealed. “They’ve told us that uniform fit, range of motion, and airflow make a drastic difference on the field, and we are excited to provide them with a uniform that solves those problems and helps them perform on the field.”

It all sounds so simple, although the alterations are anything but. The colors are outlined accordingly, and the technology undergoes vigorous testing in order to determine if it’s functioning as planned.

It takes time—not days or weeks—months. Before a uniform can be deemed game-ready, it is sent down various avenues for approval.

“Everything has to be approved through Nike, the football program and coach [Mark] Helfrich,” Farr said of the process. “I won’t just get a call that we’re making a new uniform and it will be there in two weeks. It’s a much longer process than that.”

While it’s ultimately Nike’s job to craft Oregon’s gear, the path to the final product involves as many insiders as are willing to get involved. It’s a collaborative attack that begins with the simplest, most experienced and most knowledgeable source.

"Our relationship with Nike is unique and continues to be incredibly beneficial to our program and our players," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said when the Mach Speed Uniforms were announced. "To see their feedback translate directly into improved uniform and equipment design is awesome, and it will only add to their level of confidence and performance on the field."

It has, and it will. Players will continue to shape the way the Oregon uniforms are crafted moving forward, and the products will only continue to improve thanks to this insider help. 

 

The Man, the Swoosh and the Willingness to Spend

In 1978, Phil Knight, co-founder of Blue Ribbon Sports, decided it was time to change the name. He settled on Nike—the Winged Goddess of Victory—and paid a student $35 to draw up an edgy logo.

That logo has become iconic, the company a giant and Phil Knight was recently recognized at No. 44 on Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people. His net worth is reportedly $19.2 billion.

In his Forbes profile, the Oregon alum was featured in a sport coat at a Ducks sporting event, with a trendy Oregon “O” t-shirt in place of a suit and tie.

This, in many ways, is the elegance and edginess that mirrors the Oregon football team’s attire. Knight’s influence is felt in what the Ducks wear, but it’s not exclusive to just that. The branding that has taken place within the program is an extension of his creativity and an enormous bit of generosity.

“The relationship with Nike, Mr. Knight and all the former Oregon players and alums working up the road in Beaverton has created a great partnership,” Farr said. “They’re [Nike] pushing the envelope in terms of innovation and style, and we’re willing to try those things. It’s a great marriage between the two.”

We’ve known of this marriage for quite some time. It’s why the masses will push their East Coast bedtimes back on Saturday nights, just to see what Nike has drawn up this time. But Nike’s (and Knight’s) influence on the football program is more than just the threads. In fact, the endless neon clothing designs are the tip of the iPad-equipped, self-navigating iceberg.

Knight recently donated nearly $70 million so Oregon could build the nation’s most elaborate football operations building. It is a state-of-the-art electronic football playground with Brazilian hardwood, a barbershop, custom foosball tables, Ferrari leather chairs and a lobby equipped with 64 flat screen televisions.

The players reacted to the opening of the facility as you might imagine.

“It’s indescribable and it’s even better in person,” Helfrich told Bleacher Report when the facility first opened.

The business chairs come with yellow trimming. The comfortable “war room” leather seats feature a giant “O” in the middle of each one. In the cafeteria, “Eat Your Enemies” is etched in enormous neon writing on the wall followed by “And the Other Food Groups” on the other side.

It is a football palace built for the player, by the man who has the means and appetite to provide. For his contribution, Knight was given a permanent parking spot at the facility, and yes, his very own locker.

Yes, Phil Knight has his own locker #goduckspic.twitter.com/7uSALjUwto

— Jen Beyrle (@JenBeyrle) August 5, 2013

Over time, Knight’s donated more than $500 million to the school, spreading that money through various avenues and departments. Nike's influence on the university as a whole is undeniable, and Knight’s generosity within the football program has shaped the dramatic climb.

The timing isn’t just coincidence.

He might not direct each and every stripe on a proposed helmets or suggest ways to improve airflow through mouthpieces, but he’s still deeply involved with the happenings of the program. 

Passion and business have come together, all at once.

 

The Art of the First Impression: How Oregon Sells Itself

Before Zach Okun was one of the nation’s premier guards, he was a high school freshman touring the Oregon campus. This was long before Phil Knight’s starship was complete, of course, although the California native was intrigued by the Ducks even before he knew it would be a real option.

On his second visit in March of this past year, he was given the full mallard green carpet treatment and shown everything the Ducks had to offer.

He verbally committed before heading home.

It was the coaches, the players, the campus and the education that led Okun to his decision, as it should be for recruits. He found comfort in Eugene, something he recognized early.

But it was also the power of the visit—the wave of neon enticement that hits you when you step inside the program and see the array of technology that is just a signature away.

“I visited a bunch of schools, but the whole package at Oregon was incredible,” Okun said on Oregon. “Every facet of the program is just top notch.”

“It’s unreal. Everything there is for you.”

The helmets didn’t directly lead to his commitment. Neither did the immaculate facilities. It plays a role in the process—especially in the courting of the player—but the fit has to be right first. When it is, the gorgeous amenities within the program start to take over.

The look and feel of a football program—from the uniforms, to the locker room, to the overall vibe—can serve as a kicker in a decision. For Oregon, showcasing these perks early on is even more important than it is for most.

"It's quite a trip to Eugene, Oregon from most places, so there has to be a hook and motivation to get prospects there and expose them to the brand as the Ducks,” 247Sports’ national recruiting director JC Shurburtt said. "Things like uniforms and facilities can help Oregon get its foot in the door with top recruits across the country.” 

Only 17 players on the Ducks’ current roster come from the state of Oregon. From Hawaii to New Jersey, Oregon’s courting hinges on successful first impressions and on-campus encounters. What better place to do this than the football future.

Okun’s future teammate, 4-star quarterback Travis Waller, recently announced his verbal commitment to the school, picking the Ducks over Notre Dame. Like Okun, the California product came away dazzled after getting the grand tour.

“It was definitely the best one hands down,” Waller said on his visit to Oregon. “It’s going to be hard to beat that visit.”

For Waller, it was more than just the visit. As the nation’s No. 4 dual-threat quarterback, according to 247Sports, he saw an opportunity to a) play in a system suited for his physical gifts and b) perhaps play early—if all goes well—with an opening at quarterback next year.

The little things mattered, but Waller also approached his decision with a realistic understanding of the situation.

“You have to be a little mature about it, and it can’t just be about how crazy the uniforms are,” Waller said. “They’re great, but it’s a great school overall.”

Still, even with this astute, levelheaded approach Waller—like his future teammate—was hypnotized as he was given the grand tour. One of the greatest recruiting tools in the country struck again.

“It’s like the future basically,” Waller said on Oregon’s football operations building. “It feels like 2035 in there.”

 

The Bottom Line: What It’s Meant and Where They’re Headed

In 2013, 66.6 percent of Oregon’s athletic revenue came from football. The next highest revenue generator for the program was basketball, which produced 12.4 percent of all revenue. What’s most intriguing about this discrepancy is that it is not the least bit surprising.

Over the past nine years, Oregon has watched its athletic revenue skyrocket, which again, should come as no surprise. The appearance in the BCS National Championship—as outlined by the enormous outlier in the graph below below—prompted a surge of momentum, one that has further propelled the brand and performance to another level.

Now Oregon is on a steady path, cracking the top 10 in total national revenue this past year. This upward trend, especially after a $21 million jump in only one season, speaks volumes about where the program is headed.

In front of our very eyes, Oregon has transformed itself into a football power. A club that rarely accepts newcomers has embraced the Ducks with open arms. Quite frankly, it has had no other choice.

It hasn’t come through the typical path of rich tradition and decades of football success. It instead has been a product of winning, unmistakable speed, original, bold branding and a helping hand from the world’s most successful provider of athletic apparel.

Nike’s influence has been critical. And Oregon has done its part to help The Swoosh on the other side.

Thanks in large part to the brand recognition that has come with Oregon—and also a long history of delivering eye-popping, quality materials—Nike now provides attire for 88 colleges.

From a financial standpoint, Nike, Inc. just announced that revenues totaled $27.8 billion for the fiscal 2014 year, up 10 percent from 2013. Of course, Oregon's football look isn't the sole reason for Nike's incredible success, but the Ducks have done wonders to enhance Nike's reputation in the business.

The two are the best-working, most-convincing and best-looking couple in college football today. The relationship has resulted in money, success, and a recruiting device that is unmatched in college football.

What's perhaps most intriguing about the relationship is not where they've come from, but where they're headed. As much progress has been made in the past decade—pushing others to alter their traditional approaches entirely—Oregon and Nike are only scratching the metallic, tantalizing surface on what can be done.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Projecting Every College Football Conference's Surprise Team for 2014

At this time last year, very few people could have predicted that Auburn would play for the national title. Coming off a 3-9 record and with a new head coach, there might have been hope and optimism, but to expect what the Tigers did wasn't realistic.

But that's how college football can be sometimes. Though most of the traditional powers tend to dominate year in and year out, each campaign a number of surprise teams come out of nowhere to put together a great season.

Besides Auburn, Missouri also went from 5-7 the year before to reaching the SEC title game. In addition, Marshall played for the Conference USA Championship (as well as knocked off an ACC team in a bowl game) after being 5-7 in 2012. Boston College, Tulane and UNLV each went from two wins in 2012 to seven a year later, and seven other teams went from below .500 to bowl-bound.

Who will be this year's surprise teams? Looking at the schedules and making some history-backed assumptions about the prevalence of turnarounds, we've identified one school from each FBS conference that should do far better than in 2013.

Begin Slideshow

Andre James to UCLA: Bruins Land 4-Star OT Prospect

Taking the opportunity of a lifetime to announce his collegiate decision on national television, Andre James made a whole lot of UCLA fans pump their fists on Thursday.

ESPN College Football had the news:

James gave his verbal commitment to the UCLA Bruins on ESPNU as part of Nike's The Opening camp in Oregon. A 4-star offensive tackle prospect out of Herriman High School in Utah, James chose UCLA over Oregon, USC, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Utah.

His recruitment has been up in the air throughout the process. When James announced he would verbally commit at The Opening, 247Sports' Crystal Ball predictor had Oregon as a slight favorite over USC. By the time Thursday rolled around, momentum had clearly swung away from the Ducks and toward UCLA.

The Bruins had been recruiting him for much of the process, and he indicated in a June visit to Los Angeles that Jim Mora and Co.'s persistence was a factor.

"I'd say [USC] has some making up to do, they haven't been recruiting me as long," James told Lindsey Thiry of Scout.com. "UCLA was the second school who ever offered me, so I have had a great relationship with UCLA for a very long time."

Because he is a Class of 2015 recruit, the spurned schools still have plenty of time to sway James' answer. His verbal commitment does not lock him into UCLA, but merely acts as a preserver for his scholarship. James can decommit anytime between now and national signing day without suffering an NCAA penalty.

Listed as the No. 18 tackle in the country by 247Sports' composite rankings, UCLA hopes the next year only affirms his desire to play in Los Angeles. James has a unique combination of size (6'5", 275 lbs) and athleticism, showing a quick first step off the line and ability to quickly adjust his footwork when needed.

While 275 pounds is not ideal for Pac-12 competition, his frame should allow him to bulk up without much problem. If he's able to add 10 or 15 pounds by next fall, there's little reason to think he can't compete for playing time as a freshman. James is a two-way player who should be a weapon against the run and pass.

Of course, all of this is speculative. James still has his senior season to go, during which anything could happen. He might vault up recruiting rankings and suddenly get the likes of Alabama knocking down his door, sending a monkey wrench into his recruitment. Though less likely, things could also go the opposite direction.

Either way, Thursday was one of celebration for one of 2015's best young linemen and UCLA alumni and fans everywhere. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Meet Blake Barnett, the Elite 11 2014 MVP

It's been a steady climb to the top for Blake Barnett, who capped a fantastic week at Nike's "The Opening" in Beaverton, Oregon, with a win in the seven-on-seven championship game and the Elite 11 MVP Award, given to the camp's top quarterback.

Here he is accepting the award:

"It's a great group of quarterbacks and I'm glad I had the opportunity to come out here and compete against the best," Barnett said after winning, per Bleacher Report's Tyler Donohue. "It's an honor."

That humility is part of what makes Barnett so sought-after. And it's not an act, either. After spending some time with him and his family this past week, Donohue spoke highly of Barnett—not just as the on-field star of "The Opening," but as an impressive young man:

Barnett is the No. 63 overall player and the No. 3 dual-threat quarterback on the 247Sports composite rankings.

Among the many talented quarterbacks he beat for MVP honors were the only four who rank ahead of him: Josh Rosen (UCLA), Kyler Murray (Texas A&M), Ricky Town (USC) and Jarrett Stidham (Texas Tech).

Barnett himself is committed to Alabama, but the road the Corona, California, native has has taken to get here has been complicated.

According to Tom Loy of 247Sports, he didn't really hit the national recruiting scene until appearing at a few local camps last September. Afterward, he was graded an 88 on 247Sports' subjective ratings—a score that in hindsight looks small but at the time represented a sea change in his recruitment.

He committed to Notre Dame on November 24, one day after taking an unofficial visit to South Bend. But as the year went on and his ratings continued to climb—first to a 90, then to a 94, then to a 95 and now to a 96—he began to bring in offers from other schools.

He wondered if he had committed too soon.

Eventually, he decided that he had. He took an unofficial visit to Oregon on June 2, decommitted from the Irish on June 4, visited Alabama on June 11 and committed to the Crimson Tide on June 18, announcing his decision live with Adam Lefkoe of Bleacher Report:

"I think I committed too early," Barnett told Bleacher Report's Chris Simms of his decision to leave Notre Dame. "I jumped on the whole Notre Dame picture—I jumped on it really fast.

"I didn't really get to explore all the schools and the places that I had an opportunity to, and I think as time went on I regretted that."

If he sticks with Alabama throughout the cycle—and there's no reason to think he won't—Barnett could redefine what it means to be a Crimson Tide quarterback under Nick Saban.

His mobility sets him apart from predecessors such as AJ McCarron, Greg McElroy and John Parker Wilson, and his size (6'4.5", 200 lbs) and arm talent set him apart from current senior Blake Sims. 

He's the best combination of raw, athletic tools that Saban has landed at the position.

And Barnett is already ahead of the game when it comes to a rapport with future teammates. He was paired with fellow Alabama commit Calvin Ridley, the No. 40 overall player and No. 6 wide receiver in the country, during the tournament, and the chemistry they showed in Beaverton was a sight to make 'Bama fans blush.

"Get used to 'Barnett to Ridley,'" wrote B/R's Barrett Sallee, "because it will be a dominating theme in the SEC for years to come."

"We really found a rhythm together," Barnett told Donohue of playing with Ridley. "He's such a talented receiver and it's big that we have a chance to build some chemistry before we both arrive at Alabama."

The Crimson Tide have options at quarterback—just as they do at every position. Florida State transfer Jacob Coker might still be around next season, and even if he isn't, former blue-chippers Cooper Bateman and David Cornwell will still be underclassmen.

There are no clear paths to playing time in Tuscaloosa.

But if Barnett shows to Saban and Lane Kiffin what he showed Trent Dilfer—and, really, the entire college football scouting community—in Beaverton, it will be impossible to keep him off the field.

 

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

5-Star Kahlil McKenzie Commitment Will Be Program-Defining Pledge for Tennessee

Forget bricks. Tennessee added a big ol' pillar to its rebuilding project Thursday night when 5-star defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie committed to the Volunteers.

After being named the Defensive Line MVP at The Opening, the 6'4", 341-pound prospect committed to the Vols over Arizona in front of a live television audience on ESPNU.

McKenzie is much more than a major recruiting win at a position of need for UT coach Butch Jones. The recruit has the ability to be a program-changer and the cornerstone of a defense.

In a league where championships are won in the trenches, McKenzie's commitment marks the biggest remaining puzzle piece that Jones needed to secure to get Tennessee back in the conference arms race.

McKenzie decided to follow in his family footsteps and commit to Tennessee, where his father Reggie and uncle Raleigh played in the 1980s.

"First I’d like to say thank you to my family and all my friends, and thank you to God for blessing me with tremendous talent in this sport of football that I love so much," McKenzie told ESPNU's Tom Luginbill. "But for the next few years, I’ll be attending...the University of Tennessee."

Before McKenzie uttered his final destination, he reached for his signature bucket hat. This one was orange with two white stripes and had a power T prominently displayed.

"It's just a second home," McKenzie continued. "Everything about it I love. From top to bottom, everything about it is just a perfect fit for me."

Now, the younger McKenzie is firmly in the fold and can attempt to recruit other elite defensive linemen to join him on Rocky Top.

 

McKenzie Turned Heads at The Opening

Regardless of McKenzie's family ties to the program, Jones recruited him like he was never a UT lean.

The second-year UT coach doggedly pursued him via visits, constant communication and social media, ultimately landing a prize that—along with last year's pledge by Jalen Hurd—is one of the two biggest of the coach's short tenure.

The Concord, California, defensive tackle proved this past week he's the kind of player Jones couldn't take for granted, even with his connections to the school.

McKenzie is fresh off a dominant performance against the nation's best at The Opening, where he did nothing but solidify (if not elevate) his status as one of the biggest impact players in the 2015 class.

Analysts such as Scout.com's Scott Kennedy wondered aloud if McKenzie shouldn't be the nation's top overall player:

Regardless of where he finishes in the recruiting rankings, McKenzie left little doubt he was worthy of his 5-star status. He is also going to be a handful for linemen for the next four years.

Against some of the nation's top offensive linemen, he showcased his talents as a dominant pass-rusher, blowing quickly by them into the backfield.

Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder recognized McKenzie as one of his biggest freaks from The Opening. Felder also mentioned him prominently as one of the beasts who blew up the lineman challenge.

His performance made everybody in the nation take note of one of the fastest-rising prospects in the cycle.

 

Can McKenzie Cure All?

McKenzie possesses the skill set that Tennessee has lacked on the defensive line in recent years. Not only is he blessed with a thick, powerful body and tree-trunk legs, but he also has incredible athleticism for his size, as evidenced by his 101.04 SPARQ Rating at The Opening, per StudentSports.com.

A lane-clogging interior force who also has the quickness to bull rush quarterbacks is a luxury the Vols haven't consistently boasted.

Current Denver Bronco Malik Jackson had that talent during his career in Knoxville, but not since the days of Albert Haynesworth and John Henderson has UT had a player with the size and athleticism of McKenzie.

The Vols have struggled miserably on defense during their recent swoon, especially during the past four years.

A study of composite rankings from 2009 to 2013 shows the Vols' recent struggles to sign elite defensive linemen. Of the 26 linemen who did commit to UT, 10 didn't finish their careers in Knoxville.

  • UT signed only 12 defensive ends during that span, and their average recruiting ranking was 30th at their respective positions.
  • Of the 14 players who wound up as defensive tackles, UT's average positional ranking was 31st.

 

Jones Turning Fortunes Around in D-Line Recruiting

With Jones at the helm, the Vols attempted to cure those ills with the 2014 recruiting class, signing eight defensive linemen. Six of those were 4-star prospects on either the 247Composite rankings or on 247Sports.

Still, just one of those players (Michael Sawyers) is a no-doubt interior defensive lineman. Others like Derek Barnett and Dimarya Mixon were ends that the Vols are growing into tackles, and guys like Charles Mosley may eventually fit on the offensive line.

Not McKenzie. He's a star defensive tackle all the way who can stop the run and rush the passer. He's a rare breed with the athleticism to complement his size, and he's the kind of player around which championship defenses are built.

The moment he signs his letter of intent, McKenzie will be in the defensive tackle rotation. Not only is he that good, but he's that big of a need.

Given UT's inability to sign elite defensive tackles in recent memory who possess the skill set to dominate in a league loaded with quality players, McKenzie is the kind of player who will go a long way in curing the Vols' defensive ills.

If Jones can pair him with another top target remaining on the list, such as defensive ends Josh Sweat or Kyle Phillips or defensive tackles D.J. Jones, Shy Tuttle or Tim Settle, the Vols will be set for the future in the defensive trenches.

McKenzie is the biggest cornerstone yet for Jones' program.

 

All recruiting rankings and statistics courtesy of 247Sports Composite. All statistics gathered from CFBStats.com.

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

@Brad_Shepard

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Kahlil McKenzie to Tennessee: Volunteers Land 5-Star DT Prospect

It turns out the allure of carrying on the family name was greater than Kahlil McKenzie's desire to stay on the West Coast.

McKenzie committed to Tennessee at a scheduled announcement on Thursday. The 5-star defensive tackle announced on Twitter last month that he would be deciding between the Volunteers and Wildcats, narrowing down a robust list of offers to two schools.

Bleacher Report's Tyler Donohue had the report:

McKenzie also made his voice heard on Twitter:

McKenzie is the son of Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie, who starred as a linebacker at Tennessee and played parts of five seasons in the NFL. The elder McKenzie spent the 1993 season as an assistant coach under Phillip Fulmer before going into player personnel.

The younger McKenzie seems eager to follow in his father's footsteps.

Tennessee seemingly had an insurmountable lead throughout the recruiting process. 247Sports' Crystal Ball feature gave a 98 percent chance that McKenzie would head to Knoxville as of July 3. He's also had fun on social media throughout the process, retweeting numerous fan pleas for both schools while openly answering questions.

"I like Tennessee because I have a ton of family there in Knoxville and around," McKenzie told Wescott Eberts of SBNation. "I had never really been on campus and seen anything that they had done with the football stuff, so it was really cool to get in there and see all the new changes that they have made to the football facilities and meet the coaches to see what type of guys they are."

Arizona, a dark horse rarely mentioned in the early get-go, stood out because of its infrastructure. McKenzie cited everything from the coaching staff to the facilities as being impressive.

In the end, Butch Jones got his man.

Listed at 6'4" and 330 pounds, McKenzie is already built like a grown man. He overpowers offensive linemen with the sheer force of his being at the high school level and can knock players off-balance with a quick first step. It will be interesting to see how he develops at the collegiate level. Coaches will need to work on adding a more complete arsenal of moves at the line if he wants to develop into an above-average pass-rusher. Working against the run should be a more natural transition.

Rankings are somewhat scattered for that very reason, but few deny McKenzie's potential. 247Sports' composite rankings have McKenzie as the No. 32 overall prospect in the class of 2015, and he's the seventh-best defensive tackle and player in the state of California. 

Those rankings may wind up improving even more during McKenzie's senior season, when he'll transfer from to Clayton Valley Charter-Concord. He'd previously played for De La Salle, where he recorded 74 total tackles and 12 sacks last season.

A propensity for transferring might be something to watch over the next year. McKenzie's commitment does not become official until national signing day in February. Until then, opposing coaches can still attempt to woo him into flipping or re-opening his recruitment. McKenzie has embraced the process and seemed steadfast in paring his schools down, but crazier things have happened.

For now, though, Tennessee fans can look forward to the next potential defensive cornerstone.

 

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Biggest Takeaways from Miami Recruits' Performance at The Opening

Nine prospects either currently committed or being heavily recruited by the Miami Hurricanes recently participated in Nike's The Opening.

The camp included SPARQ testing, individual drills and 7-on-7 battles, giving many of the nation's premier high school talents multiple opportunities to stand out.

As the dust settles on the high-profile event, three major takeaways emerged from the performances of the players who head coach Al Golden and his staff have targeted.

Plus, one recruit even gave a verbal pledge to the 'Canes during the camp, highlighting an eventful week for Miami football.

 

Jordan Scarlett Shines, Then Commits to Miami

Running back Jordan Scarlett recorded the fourth-best SPARQ score at his position, but he was the fastest sprinter at The Opening. The 4-star's 40-yard dash was, per Student Sports, timed at a ridiculous 4.30 seconds.

While it's insanely difficult to buy into that number, one thing is for sure: Scarlett is not slow.

Regardless, Ryan Bartow of 247Sports (subscription required) called Scarlett the position's "Alpha Dog" of Tuesday's portion, saying he is "an explosive speed back in a big man’s body (5'11", 210 pounds). He had the change of direction and vision to go with the breakaway home run speed and nobody made more explosive plays—highlight film-worthy plays."

Though Scarlett had headlined Florida Atlantic's class, it was long considered only a matter of time before he flipped somewhere else. And the St. Thomas Aquinas back, as expected, committed to the hometown school.

According to Safid Deen of The Miami Herald, Scarlett will now be a player-recruiter for the 'Canes, focusing on 4-stars Calvin Ridley and Shawn Burgess-Becker.

"We definitely want to play together at the college level," Scarlett said while pointing out the Monarch duo is attempting to persuade him toward Alabama.

Scarlett is the fourth 4-star running back commit in the current class, but the log-jam being created in the Miami backfield is an excellent problem to have.

 

Miami Targets Post Surprising Numbers

And not necessarily in a good way. Five of the Hurricanes' six commits or top targets who participated in SPARQ testing ranked in the bottom third of their respective position.

Every player wants to be judged by in-game performances, when they are wearing pads and reacting to a given situation. That, obviously, is completely fair, but it does not change the surprise at lower numbers from Miami targets.

Note: Dexter Williams, Burgess-Becker and Tevon Coney did not participate.

Dieter Kurtenbach of the South Florida Sun Sentinel helped explain what exactly the subpar scores mean:

SPARQ is an artificial system; reputations can be built up through it but it doesn't mean you are a great football player. [The biggest question is] do they get the job done and fill the role they are expected to fill. There is literally nothing a SPARQ score can do to convince me someone is a good football player or not a good one.

Athleticism is great, but it does not define whether or not a player excels at football. Kurtenbach used the example of Tom Brady being outstanding in a football sense but a horrible athlete, whereas Terrelle Pryor is a fantastic athlete but mediocre on the field.

The SPARQ result is an all-around number that quantifies athleticism. Camps are trying to quantify skills, but skills are reflected by ability to follow direction.

Just because Jordan Cronkrite didn't post a great score doesn't mean he is not an elite running back. I don't know of many situations a vertical leap is necessary. He is not going to run a 4.3. He is not going to shake a bunch of people. But what he will do is drop his shoulder and ruin your life.

For example, key target Jaquan Johnson posting the second-worst score would be more concerning were he not phenomenal from a football standpoint last season. Instead of recruiting the buzzword of athleticism, Miami is banking on targeting elite football talent.

That also means the Hurricanes' coaching staff is largely relying on their evaluation processes. In other words, the staff is focused on nailing their collective scouting because these players will typically be less flashy than more athletic competition.

Which method is better? Well, that is a matter of subjective opinion, and Miami prefers the latter route for the 2015 cycle.

 

Calvin Ridley Ready for Next Level

Ridley did not test well SPARQ-wise, finishing 12th of 14 participants at his position. Once the receiver lined up opposite a cornerback, however, Ridley showed why he is such a heralded recruit.

In the accompanying video, Bleacher Report's Michael Felder highlighted Ridley as a top performer, noting the receiver's ability to get open. Additionally, Felder said:

The speed and precision have been his biggest sell. The receiver has gotten himself open consistently with some great route running and he has the hands to finish the play. I don't think Ridley's been the best receiver at The Opening but he's been a consistent performer who is clearly ready to contribute at the next level.

It appears Ridley will be a tough pull from the Crimson Tide, especially after he built rapport with quarterback Blake Barnett at The Opening. The fellow 'Bama commit was Ridley's quarterback during the 7-on-7 competition, connecting with him all over the field.

But until pen meets paper on national signing day, Miami will continue chasing him—just like opposing secondaries.

 

Note: All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Results from The Opening courtesy of Student Sports.

Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter: @Kenyon19_BR.

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5-Star DT Kahlil McKenzie Commits to Vols, 'All-SEC-Type Player'

Kahlil McKenzie is a monster 5-star defensive tackle in the 2015 class. He is the No. 7 defensive tackle in the country, according to 247Sports composite. McKenzie has just committed to the Tennessee Volunteers out at The Opening. His size and strength are off the charts, which will allow him to come in and produce at a high level for Butch Jones. How well do you think he will do in Knoxville?

Watch College Football Analyst Michael Felder break down this future Volunteer.

 

Rankings from 247Sports CompositeHighlights Courtesy of XOSDigital.

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Nebraska Football: Fixing Field Position Key for Cornhusker Championship Dreams

Nebraska football fans know the numbers all too well—NU has never lost fewer than four games in Bo Pelini’s six years at the helm in Lincoln and has failed to win a conference championship since 1999. Fixing Nebraska’s field position woes is one key for Nebraska to take that next step and put a new number on the facade of the West Stadium.

Based on some great work by Brandon Vogel of Hail Varsity and the mind-blowingly useful FBSDriveStats.com, we can see some concrete data that backs up what most Nebraska fans suspected—NU was making things awfully hard on itself in 2013. All the drive data from here going forward is from FBSDriveStats unless noted otherwise.

Last year, Nebraska’s average starting field position was 72.4 yards away from the end zone (which would be NU’s own 27.6 yard line, if there was a line for every tenth of a yard. But of course there isn’t, so please can everyone stop saying the “X-and-a-half yard line” when there isn’t a freaking line there and save my sanity just a little? Sorry, pet peeve rant over now.)

That was only good enough to be No. 10 (!) in the Big Ten Conference and No. 107 (!!) nationally. It was almost three yards worse than the B1G average (69.7, or the 30.3 yard “line”) and more than two yards worse than the national average (70.2, or the 29.8 yard “line.”)

Two or three yards. Is that really such a big deal? Well, keep in mind that those numbers are the average starting position per drive.

Perhaps this will help put it into more perspective. BCFToys.com is an amazingly cool site with some splashy graphs and some fantastic numbers to help understand college football. One of the toys on this site is a graph calculating the average points per possession based on starting field position from 2007-2012. Points on the board, of course, is the ultimate determinative of how well a team is doing.

For Nebraska’s average starting field position in 2013, teams averaged 1.7 points per possession from 2007-2012. For the national and league average starting field position, teams averaged 1.9 points per possession.  For the best team in the conference in average field position in 2013, Penn State, which averaged starting 67.9 yards away from the end zone, teams averaged 2.0 points per possession.

Again, those look like tiny numbers, a difference of 0.2 or 0.3 points. What does that mean? Well, given that teams averaged 11 drives per game in 2013, that means Nebraska was spotting its opponents 2.2 points per game and spotting Penn State 3.3 points per game.

Wrap your head around that. Nebraska’s field position woes are bad enough that it’s almost like NU gives its opponents a field goal before kickoff.  Think that makes winning games harder?

One of the neat things about looking at field position as a reason for Nebraska’s struggles is that it takes some of Nebraska’s other problems into consideration. Take turnovers, for example, which just about everyone knows is a problem for Nebraska. Here’s how, in 2013, starting field position and turnovers correlated.

Team

Conference Rank, Starting Field Position

Conference Rank, Turnovers

Penn State

1

9

Michigan

2

2

Ohio State

3

3

Iowa

4

5

Wisconsin

5

7

Michigan State

6

1

Indiana

7

4

Purdue

8

10

Northwestern

9

6

Nebraska

10

11

Minnesota

11

8

Illinois

12

12

 

Pretty amazing how much the two line up, isn’t it? Seven out of the twelve teams (as italicized)—over half of the conference—have their starting field position and turnover conference ranks within two of each other. That would suggest what we probably know intuitively—that the more turnovers you have, the worse your average starting field position will be.

(The table also demonstrates some other interesting facts, such as how efficient Penn State’s offense was—No. 1 in field position despite being No. 9 in turnovers and how Michigan State could have been even better—No. 6 in field position despite being No. 1 in turnovers. Math is awesome.)

So maybe a better way to think about it is that fixing field position isn’t necessarily the goal for Nebraska. Instead, field position can be looked at as the indicator to determine if some of the other underlying factors (like turnovers, punt returns and other areas where Nebraska has struggled) have improved.

 

If you’d like to contact Patrick, send an email to patrickrunge@gmail.com.

Or you could also always use the Twitter machine to follow @patrickrunge.

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Elite 11 2014 Results: MVP Winner and Highlights

Months of buildup, multiple competitions and countless young quarterbacks working to earn a spot will lead to one final list for the Elite 11. With hope and optimism, all 18 signal-callers entered the closing day of the event looking to shine.

At the end of the nearly week-long process for the finalists, one player emerged to take the title of MVP of the entire competition. Alabama commit Blake Barnett was that player, capturing the crown after a great showing at the end, per the official Elite 11 handle:

Barnett secured a spot in Trent Dilfer's Elite 11 QB Camp later this summer. ESPNU provided a full look at the "Summer of Next" slate, which includes the camp:

Now that the competition has officially concluded, let's take a look at the Elite 11 finals and get to know the quarterback who rose to the occasion in Beaverton, Oregon.

 

Finals Recap

The quarterback who sat atop the rankings heading into the last day of competition was the one who took home the MVP trophy.

Barnett, entering his senior year at Santiago High School in Corona, California, separated himself from the pack from Day 1 and took the top prize. Paul Myerberg of USA Today passed along his thoughts on Barnett:

Barnett led Team Apocalypse to a win over Ricky Town's team, the Land Sharks, in the seven-on-seven championship. The 4-star signal-caller crushed the opposition when games started, moving his name steadily up the Elite 11 list and coming into Thursday as the No. 1 quarterback.

Following the announcement, Tom Luginbill of ESPN posted a photo alongside the Elite 11 MVP: 

Josh Newberg of 247Sports posted a video of the announcement:

The other player taking home an MVP award was Barnett's future teammate, Calvin Ridley. The 4-star wide receiver was Barnett's main target throughout the week as the tandem quickly found chemistry.

Both players provided a look into the future for the already dominant Alabama program. 247Sports' Barton Simmons captured one huge touchdown reception from the duo and shared it on Instagram:

While the final list for the Elite 11 won't be announced until later on Thursday night, Barnett assured himself of a spot on the team after locking up his MVP award.

Each of the 11 prospects named will earn an invite to Dilfer's camp held on Aug. 17. With several of the players already making their college commitments, they will look to prove that they are worthy of the ranking they've earned.

As for Barnett, keeping the target on his back as the top signal-caller in the camp will be his primary focus. And if the Crimson Tide players taking home both MVPs is any indication, Alabama's program appears to be in good hands.

 

Follow @RCorySmith on Twitter.

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What 2015 RB Recruit AJ Turner Commitment Means to South Carolina

South Carolina landed a verbal commitment from 3-star running back AJ Turner (Centreville High School, Virginia) at Nike's "The Opening" Thursday evening.

Turner was a heavy South Carolina lean throughout his recruitment—checking in with a 100 percent on his 247Sports Crystal Ball before the decision—and chose the Gamecocks over Michigan State and in-state Virginia, per Adam Friedman of Rivals.com.

Turner announced his decision live on ESPNU with analyst Tom Luginbill. Brandon Parker of the Washington Post confirmed the news:

Turner is the No. 27 running back and No. 342 overall player on the 247Sports composite rankings. That puts him on the higher echelon of 3-star recruits, which begin with the No. 314 player in the class. He is, for all intents and purposes, just as good as a low 4-star recruit.

At 5'11", 180 pounds, Turner projects as an all-around back but skews more toward power than speed. He isn't by any means slow, however, and picking up steam is part of what enables him to run with so much force in the first place. He gets going downhill in a hurry and knows how to initiate contact. He just won't be much of a home run threat.

Which is fine. South Carolina could use another singles and doubles hitter in its backfield. Mike Davis, Brandon Wilds and Shon Carson will all be juniors this season, leaving a future void at the position.

Of the 20 players committed to South Carolina this cycle, Turner is the only running back. The Gamecocks also missed out on a running back in 2014, and one of the only two running backs they landed in 2013, Jamari Smith, has been converted into a full-time cornerback.

The other running back from the 2013 class, David Williams, took a redshirt last year and is the early favorite to start once Davis, Wilds and Carson are gone. He was the No. 156 overall prospect that cycle, and, although there is competition ahead of him, Bleacher Report's Charles Bennett thinks he could be an X-factor as soon as 2014.

He explains:

Everyone already knows what juniors Mike Davis, Brandon Wilds and Shon Carson can do.

The guy to watch is redshirt freshman David Williams, a consensus 4-star recruit, including 247Sports, who has a quality the other three don't possess—blazing speed.

Make no mistake, Davis has proven to be deceptively fast, and Carson has a quick burst that makes him dangerous, but Williams is a blazer along the lines of wide receiver Damiere Byrd, the fastest player on the team.

Williams is big in his own right (6'1", 210 lbs), but that he projects as a speed threat along the lines of Damiere Byrd means Turner could make a perfect complement for him. No need to waste a lead back on short-yardage downs when another player can convert.

Or, of course, Turner could pan out as the lead back himself, and Williams could be the speedy complement behind him who subs in on passing downs. So is the nature of this business: There is no way to know for sure, at this point, who will and who won't develop.

What we do know is that Turner gives South Carolina options—and that he does so at a position it hadn't recruited well the past two cycles. That makes him a healthy combination of talent and need.

Good get for Steve Spurrier's ball club.

 

Note: All recruiting information via the 247Sports composite rankings

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT

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Biggest Winners of The Opening 2014

The Opening has come to an end out in Beaverton, Oregon, with a few big-time recruits proving to be the biggest winners. The best of the best were out to prove that they are the top athletes in the country. Who do you think will have the best college career?

Watch Bleacher Report college football analyst Michael Felder break down the studs who performed at the highest level during The Opening.

Rankings from 247Sports Composite.

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Future Buckeye Duo Hilliard and Cornell Destroy at The Opening

The 2014 edition of Nike's The Opening officially came to an end Thursday with a couple big-time Ohio State Buckeye commits in Jashon Cornell and Justin Hilliard showing what they have to offer. The best of the best were out in Beaverton, Oregon, and this defensive duo showed why they were a huge get for Urban Meyer. How do you think they will do at the next level?

Watch Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder break down the performance of these future Buckeyes at The Opening.

 

Rankings from 247Sports' composite rankings.

 

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Osa Masina Tweets Top 5: Which Program Is Best Fit for 4-Star Prospect?

Osa Masina, one of the top running back/linebacker prospects in the 2015 class, narrowed his potential college destinations to a top five that didn't include any teams from his home state of Utah—despite presumed interest in Utah and BYU.

Instead, the No. 81 overall player in the country spurned the Utes and Cougars for a top five of UCLA, Michigan, Wisconsin, USC and Arizona State, per a tweet Masina sent out Thursday afternoon:

Masina is 6'4", 230 pounds, which would be uncommon size for a running back. He is similar in frame to Alabama sophomore Derrick Henry (6'3", 238 lbs), who also had to choose between offense and defense when he got to the college level.

In this regard, finding the best fit for Masina depends a lot on what he, himself, wants to play. Most in the scouting community project him as a linebacker, but if he'd rather find a role as a running back or a tight end, he would need to find a school willing to play him there.

Per Greg Biggins of Scout.com, ASU is one such alternative:

For now, though, let's ignore that and regard Masina as a linebacker prospect. That is where all of the big four recruiting services (247Sports, Rivals, ESPN and Scout) have him listed. He fits better on defense than he does on the other side of the ball.

Specifically, he fits better with a team that plays a 3-4 defense. Mike Fletcher of StudentSports.com compared him to Anthony Barr and Kyle Van Noy, two ideal 3-4 outside linebackers, and with the speed and football I.Q. Masina exhibits off the edge, it is easy to see why.

That knocks Michigan off the list, leaving UCLA, USC and Wisconsin as Masina's three best options (since Arizona State wants him on offense). He could do great things in any or all of those systems.

If forced to choose, though, I would say the precedent for running backs playing outside linebacker at UCLA is too good to ignore. One of the players Fletcher compared Masina to, Barr, started his career on offense before becoming a first-round NFL draft pick, and sophomore Myles Jack excelled on both sides of the ball last season.

The Bruins' new defensive coordinator, Jeff Ulbrich, retired from the NFL just recently (2009) and understands the rapidly changing framework of the game. He did a masterful job molding Barr and Jack—not to mention Eric Kendricks and Jordan Zumwalt—into NFL prospects the past two seasons and could do the same for Masina.

And who better for the two-way star to learn from than Jack?

 

Note: All recruiting info refers to the 247Sports composite rankings

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT

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5-Star Iman 'Biggie' Marshall Is Best CB at the Opening

The Trojans have a big-time target in Beaverton, Oregon, as Iman "Biggie" Marshall is showing that he can make a huge impact in college at Nike's The Opening.

Do you think he's a lock to USC?

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2014 Stat Predictions for Every Big 12 Football Starting QB

We're just a few months away from the start of the 2014-15 season, and that means it's time to start predicting how the most important players on each Big 12 team will perform. 

At the quarterback position, the Big 12 is loaded with talent such as Bryce Petty, Jake Waters and Davis Webb. It's almost a sure thing that those guys will have big seasons. 

But some question marks include the likes of Trevor Knight, J.W. Walsh and Clint Trickett. 

So let's check out B/R's 2014-15 stat predictions for the starting quarterbacks in the Big 12. 

Begin Slideshow

Alabama 2014 Quarterback Fall Practice Preview: Depth Chart and Analysis

For the first time since September 2011, Alabama is looking for a new starting quarterback. AJ McCarron was very good and very durable during his time in Tuscaloosa, leaving no one with starting experience on the depth chart in his wake. 

For Nick Saban and first-year offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, that meant the waging of a six-way QB battle at the start of the offseason.

Luke Del Rio transferred to Oregon State, but Jacob Coker transferred in from Florida State, so there remains a sextet of players vying for the role at the moment. However, the rumored impending transfer of Parker McLeod, as first reported by Charles Power of BamaOnLine, would knock that number down to five before the season.

Sophomore Alec Morris and true freshman David Cornwell are the long shots, with Coker, senior Blake Sims and redshirt freshman Cooper Bateman the three most likely candidates to win the job.

 

QB 1: Jacob Coker

2013 Stats (w/FSU): 18-36, 250 YDS, 0 TD, 1 INT; 10 CAR, 15 YDS, 1 TD

Recruiting Info: 3-star prospect; No. 15 pro-style QB in 2011

For reasons that should be obvious, Saban and Kiffin have not anointed Coker the starter or even the favorite. How unfair would that be to the other QBs on the roster—the ones who have, you know, actually started practicing with the team?

Still, insofar as someone new can be a lock to start at the most important position on the field, Coker is a lock to be the quarterback.

At 6'5", 230 pounds, the former Florida State backup has ideal size for the position—something the 6'0" Sims does not. He also has a cannon for a right arm. There isn't a throw on the field he can't make.

However, the question with Coker isn't whether he can make all the throws; it's whether he can read a live defense well enough to make the right throws. That is something that, no matter how he performs in practice, cannot be known in earnest until the regular season.

Until then, Coker is the consummate "Man of Mystery" in college football. The best we have to go on is tangential reports and firsthand accounts. He technically competed into fall camp for the right to start at Florida State last season, but even in the moment—before Jameis Winston was Jameis Winston—it felt like a competition in name only. Still, that hasn't stopped former coaches from raving about him.

Here's what Seminoles quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders said about Coker before the BCS National Championship Game, per Bruce Feldman of FoxSports.com (then with CBS Sports):

I've never had anybody with his size who throws it as well as he does. Jake has a really quick release with tremendous arm strength. Rarely does it not spiral or not go where he wants it to go…

Coker's arm is kind of at a different level (than Winston's). Jameis has a very special arm, and this isn't any knock against Jameis, but Jake's probably the best I've seen in 25 years at throwing it…

A lot of times when you have a quarterback competition, the most valuable player isn't the guy who wins the job it's the guy who doesn't win the job because they have the ability to almost divide a team. Jake's done a great job of supporting Jameis and helping him in any way he can. That's part of what makes him a special player.

That is some flattering praise. On top of being a grade-A teammate, Coker has an arm that compares favorably with that of the Heisman Trophy winner. But how about the Heisman runner-up?

Here's Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher—a Saban disciple—on how Coker compares with every Saban-era Crimson Tide quarterback, including McCarron, per D.C. Reeves of TideSports.com:

Including what they've had, he's much more talented than anything they've had. I don't mean to discredit the previous guys, they were all great. But this guy is extremely talented. Arm and mind. He's a backup because he's behind the best quarterback in America. (Coker) may have been one of the top three or four quarterbacks in America physically.

We could have been right there in the same position last year with him, I really believe that. You just had to make a choice. If he had played, got his reps and got in that role, we would have done extremely well. I'm a Jacob Coker fan.

Again, even though Fisher credits Coker's mind (in addition to his arm), it is hard to tell what sort of decisions a player will make based on practice reps and mop-up duty. It's one thing to see and think clearly when you're wearing a non-contact jersey or up by 50 points. It's another thing to stay poised against a six-man blitz on 3rd-and-4 with two minutes left and the game on the line in Death Valley.

What can Alabama fans expect from Coker next season? Heck, what can anyone expect from Coker next season? It's a question without a good answer. He could be a Heisman finalist and high-round NFL draft pick. He could also be a backup by Week 5. The range on his season is greater than that of any player in college football.

And no, that is not hyperbole.

 

QB 2: Blake Sims

2013 Stats: 18-29, 167 YDS, 2 TD, 0 INT; 15 CAR, 61 YDS

Recruiting Info: 4-star prospect; No. 19 ATH in 2010

Unlike the two career backups who are projected to start under center as seniors in the SEC this season—Georgia's Hutson Mason and South Carolina's Dylan Thompson—Sims does not have the advantage of knowing his playbook inside and out.

Kiffin's arrival in replacement of Doug Nussmeier set all of the QBs on the roster back to a relatively even playing field. Sims still has the experience advantage because (a) there wasn't a crazy amount of coaching turnover and (b) he's been playing with these teammates for multiple seasons, but that advantage is now a mild one.

And while Sims (and the other non-Coker QBs) did get the advantage of learning Kiffin's system this spring, any momentum they gained—at least with regard to public sentiment—was fractured during an ugly A-Day game, which was dominated by the defense.

Even after the game, Saban warned fans not to hand the job over to Coker. His comments must be viewed with coachspeak-wary lenses, but it would be remiss not to at least mention them.

"Blake Sims did a good job during the spring," said Saban, per Andrew Gribble of AL.com. "As I said before, we were a little disappointed, he was a little disappointed in the way he played in the A-Day game. We didn't really feature what he could do."

It's nice that Saban put the blame on himself and Kiffin (and the nature of spring games in general), but especially in a fishbowl like Tuscaloosa, it's naive to think the A-Day game doesn't matter. Sims looked like a backup doing a poor imitation of a starter, and he did it in front of 73,000 accustomed-to-McCarron fans.

Sims' height doesn't necessarily jibe with Kiffin's pro-style offense, although his arm looked better during spring practice and his mobility adds a wrinkle that Alabama fans (and opponents) aren't used to.

If he's forced to play in short spurts of meaningful games next season (ostensibly due to injury), he should be able to manage the team and keep the offense moving along reasonably. But if he's forced to be a long-term option, the Crimson Tide might be in trouble.

He's essentially a high-basement, low-ceiling safety net. 

 

QB 3: Cooper Bateman

2013 Stats: n/a

Recruiting Info: 4-star recruit; No. 4 pro-style QB in 2013

In terms of recruiting pedigree, Bateman is the star of the depth chart at the position. He has the background of an Alabama starter.

At 6'3", 208 pounds, he has the size of a McCarron-type signal-caller, landing somewhere between the freaky measurables of Coker and the less-than-desirable stature of Sims. He also falls between them on the arm-talent spectrum (if such a thing exists).

He was also the most impressive Alabama QB during A-Day:

The only thing Bateman doesn't have is experience. Even Coker and Sims—two players with zero combined starts—supersede him in this regard. Bateman is a redshirt freshman who's never taken a snap or thrown a pass in a real, live college football game.

To wit, that makes him a risky potential option—at Alabama of all places. Tide fans think the word "game manager" is pejorative, but, in truth, that is all that this current team needs. With so much offensive talent, it needs a quarterback who won't screw things up.

Bateman projects as a good one, in time, but something would have to go wrong for Saban to throw him into the fire in 2014. This team would have to be out of the College Football Playoff much earlier than expected and grooming him for next season, or Coker and Sims would have to be injured or woefully unproductive.

If he's forced to play this year under that type of circumstance, expect to see a watered-down playbook. Even more watered down than it's sure to be with either Coker or Sims at the beginning of the year. It would be a heavy diet of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry combined with play-action passes to give Bateman the easiest conceivable reads.

Still, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world for Bateman to get some reps this season. If Coker is playing well as the starter, he could easily be the one—as opposed to Sims—who subs in during garbage time. The reps would be good for him before the QB competition next season (if Coker struggles or heads to the NFL) or in 2016.

He, Cornwell and 2015 blue-chipper Blake Barnett are the future.

 

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT

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Why Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah Is Legit 2014 Heisman Contender

Ameer Abdullah has already made a name for himself. After three seasons with the Huskers, the I-back made headlines when he chose to stay for his senior season at Nebraska over entering the NFL draft.

A few months after that decision was made, the benefits are starting to pay off.

Abdullah has already been named to the Paul Hornung Award watch list, alongside 47 other high-level performers in college football. He has also been invited to speak on behalf of all Big Ten football players at the conference's annual media days luncheon, as reported by the Omaha World-Herald.

At this point, it seems like Abdullah is unstoppable. As a result, if the senior is able to stay healthy, he will be a legitimate contender for the Heisman Trophy in 2014.

The Heisman Pundit has already placed Abdullah on its post-spring watch list. A fan-created Facebook page dedicated solely to his 2014 Heisman campaign already has more than 17,000 likes. Even USA Today noted back in January that the I-back is a favorite to win the award.

It's not just buzz around Abdullah, either. He genuinely has a shot at not only being in New York City on Dec. 13 but also winning the whole thing.

His career stats speak volumes.

If he can replicate the last two seasons and have 1,000 or more rushing yards, it would put him in the Husker history books.

Beyond that, it would make him hard to ignore as a top contender for the Heisman. His numbers are impressive, and they only get better each year.

Plus, Abdullah is more than just a great player. He is also a great example. As the Lincoln Journal Star's Steven M. Sipple wrote, "Ameer Abdullah is team-oriented, degree-oriented, family-oriented, big-yardage-oriented and media-oriented."

That would make him a very welcome member of the Heisman family.

Abdullah won't be alone in this campaign, though. His entire team will also be responsible for helping the senior get noticed. Big wins and a break in the typical four-loss season would help Abdullah tremendously.

Also, a trip to the Big Ten Championship game wouldn't hurt his chances either. Nebraska will have to step up to provide Abdullah the best possible situation to be considered for the award.

However, his talents can and likely will speak louder than anything else. While Heisman voters may take the entire Nebraska team into account, the award is ultimately about the player. If Abdullah shines, it could very well outweigh the type of season the Huskers have.

Things can always change. What's working in Abdullah's favor is that he's staying very level-headed about it. He made mention of that when he addressed the media in January, per Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal Star:

At the end of the day, you have to take it with a grain of salt and understand there are going to be a lot of high expectations now. You have to stay humble and stay focused on what matters at this point. The Heisman doesn't matter at this point. It's about getting stronger, getting faster, getting back up to speed and getting prepared for next year.

The Heisman Trophy is one of the most prestigious awards in sports. Nebraska currently has three players that have won the award—Johnny Rodgers in 1972, Mike Rozier in 1983 and Eric Crouch in 2001. Could 2014 be the year the Huskers add a fourth?

If anyone has a chance, it's Abdullah.

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SEC Football Q&A: Will Leonard Fournette Ever Deliver on His Heisman Hype?

We are less than a week away from SEC Media Days, which means the football season is just around the corner.

Which players will make a run at the Heisman Trophy? How will Auburn's defensive line look? Will Texas A&M actually field a defense?

Find out in this week's Q&A, which was moved up a day to Thursday this week.

@BarrettSallee Will Brandon Harris or Leonard Fournette ever be heisman finalists?

— maxtoscano (@maxtoscano1) July 3, 2014

The common assumption is that the more likely candidate of the two would be running back Leonard Fournette. After all, he was the No. 1 overall player in the class of 2014 and has drawn comparisons to former Oklahoma running back and 2004 Heisman finalist Adrian Peterson.

Harris making it to New York City is much more likely.

That's not a knock against Fournette. The Heisman has just evolved into a very quarterback-centric award over the last 14 years. Only two running backs have won the award since 2000, with one of those being former USC running back Reggie Bush, who had to give his back.

Sure, Auburn's Tre Mason and Boston College's Andre Williams made it to New York last year. But they were absolute workhorses in offenses with quarterbacks who put up solid numbers (especially Auburn's Nick Marshall) but didn't have the video game numbers Heisman voters typically like.

Harris will have bigger numbers and more responsibility, which means he's more likely to get Heisman love.

I love his ability to create behind the line of scrimmage, throw his receivers open and stretch the field with his arm. Plus, he has the ability on the ground to be a difference-maker on read options, designed runs and when his protection breaks down.

He won't put up Johnny Manziel-like video game numbers, but they'll be flashy nonetheless. Plus, he's on a team that routinely contends for the division title. That's a recipe for Heisman success.

@BarrettSallee Montravius Adams, Elijah Daniel, and Carl Lawson (injured). Who leads Auburn in sacks and with how many?

— Mitchell Tate (@Mitchell_Tate4) June 27, 2014

If Carl Lawson is healthy, Carl Lawson—with double-digit sacks (12).

Since that's sort of up in the air now after the rising sophomore defensive end underwent knee surgery this offseason, I'll go with fellow sophomore Elijah Daniel with 7.5.

I love what Daniel brings to the table. The 6'2", 263-pounder played well as a rotational player last year, notching three tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks playing end and dropping down to tackle in passing situations. 

That's exactly why I think he'll have a big year this year. His versatility will make him an important piece of the puzzle and will put him situations where he can and will thrive.

Even if Lawson is out or limited, Auburn will have a bunch of guys sacking the quarterback. Daniel, Adams, LaDarius Owens, Ben Bradley and the entire Tigers defensive line is incredibly deep and incredibly versatile, which means it'll be in the backfield quite a bit in 2014.

@BarrettSallee where does Texas A&M's defense rank (in the SEC) at the end of the season?

— Say Say (@TwerkCity) June 27, 2014

Let's see, 15th out of 14 teams? 

But seriously, it's not going to be great. The front seven is a massive question mark, and the secondary, even though it is a veteran group that includes Deshazor Everett and De'Vante Harris, is a sieve.

The Aggies really need to find a star in the front seven, and it could be true freshman defensive end Myles Garrett. Whoever it is, the Aggies need to get pressure with four and let the secondary take advantage of those mistakes generated from pressure.

The silver lining for Texas A&M is that it doesn't need to have a great defense to win; it just needs to be opportunistic. Getting pressure with four and forcing turnovers is exactly why Missouri was successful last season, and the Aggies can follow that same blueprint.

It's just not going to happen on that level, though.

Texas A&M's defense will finish 12th in the SEC in total defense this year. That would be a marked improvement but still not good enough. Not at all.

 

Do you have a question for next week's Q&A? Send it to SEC Lead Writer Barrett Sallee on Twitter at @BarrettSallee. If your question wasn't answered this week, it has been saved and could be used in the future.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings are courtesy of 247Sports, and all stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com.

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The Biggest Takeaways from Texas A&M Recruits' Performances at the Opening

The Texas A&M football team had seven of its recruits from the 2015 recruiting class participate in The Opening in Oregon this week. A few of those recruits took this opportunity to make a big impression on the national stage. 

The fact that the Aggies have seven verbal commits in their 2015 class participating in this event speaks to the quality of their class. Texas A&M currently has the No. 2 overall recruiting class for 2015. The recruits who traveled to Oregon were Kyler Murray, Jordan Davis, Justin Dunning, Larry Pryor, Daylon Mack, Kemah Siverand and Damarkus Lodge.  

The Opening is a recruiting event put on by Nike. It is the culmination of a series of combines held throughout the nation to measure the athletic ability of the top high school football players in the country. 

The top performers from those combines are invited to compete against each other in 7-on-7 tournaments, linemen challenges and the Elite 11 quarterback academy in Beaverton, Oregon, on the Nike campus. 

Some of the Texas A&M commits took this opportunity to make statements about their ability. A few of them proved that they will be able to contribute from the day they step on campus in College Station. 

 

Daylon Mack Is A Freak Of Nature

Texas A&M nose guard recruit Daylon Mack showed in testing why he is considered one of the top defensive tackle recruits in the 2015 class. He is currently ranked as the No. 21 overall recruit in the nation, according to 247sports.com, and he may move up after this event. 

Mack measured in at 6'1" and 330 pounds, then proceeded to turn in a blistering time of 4.98 seconds in the 40. That is an exceptional time for an athlete of his size. He also turned in a time of 4.81 seconds in the shuttle and had a vertical leap of 28.1 inches. 

Mack is a recruit about to enter his senior year of high school and he is putting up numbers that would impress scouts at the NFL combine. He has previously show his elite athleticism on the field by scoring on a 61-yard touchdown run as a running back in the Texas high school playoffs in 2013. 

Mack has the size and athletic ability to compete for a starting spot at nose guard from day one at Texas A&M. He is a freakish athlete that has displayed NFL-level athleticism. 

 

Justin Dunning Is An SEC Safety

There had been some concern over what position defensive back recruit Justin Dunning was going to play in college. Some felt that he would eventually grow into a linebacker or even a defensive end. 

Dunning put all that speculation to rest during the testing. The 6'3.5", 204-pound athlete turned in a time of 4.59 seconds in the 40. That is a tremendous time for a safety especially one of Dunning's stature. 

He proved turned in a 38.9" vertical leap. Dunning has explosive power, which bodes well for the future of the Texas A&M secondary. He then went on the field during 7-on-7 competition and snagged a couple of interceptions. 

Dunning looks like the prototypical big SEC safety. He will play immediately in 2015 and should be a physical presence in the Aggie secondary for years to come.

 

Kemah Siverand Has True Breakaway Speed 

While wide receiver recruit Damarkus Lodge has received most of the hype at the position, fans need to remember the name Kemah Siverand. He has prototype NFL size and speed.

The 6'1", 187-pound athlete turned in a blazing time of 4.47 seconds in the 40. Siverand had a vertical leap of 36.8". which means he will be a viable option for jump balls in the end zone.

He is ranked as a 4-star prospect by 247sports.com. Siverand caught 25 passes for 611 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013,so he showed game-breaking ability on the field.

It is always nice to be able to get out there and prove it on a laser timer. In Siverand, the Aggies are getting one of the best athletes in the nation with breakaway speed. He will be a tremendous addition to the program.

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