NCAA Football News

How Charlie Strong, Texas Can Take Back Big 12 Football in 2014

While "sleeper" may not necessarily be the right term, Texas is at the point where it's no longer the hunted program in the Big 12. Schools like Baylor and Oklahoma State have significantly closed the gap between themselves and Texas, and Kansas State has become perennially good without bringing in blue-chip talent.

There's also the emergence of Texas A&M in the SEC. Yes, the Aggies no longer compete for Big 12 titles, but their impact on recruiting and exposure in Texas can't be ignored. 

By hiring Charlie Strong from Louisville, Texas wants to widen that gap again and take back the conference and national spotlights. As crazy as it may sound, it's possible Strong could accomplish some of that in year one. 

Oklahoma should be the preseason favorite to win the conference after beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, but it wouldn't be surprising to see K-State and Baylor receive serious consideration as well. And Texas is right in that second tier. 

Making a run at a conference title—Texas' first since 2009—starts on defense. That's where the Horns are strongest and it's Strong's calling card. 

Even with the departure of defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, the defensive line returns Cedric Reed, Malcom Brown and Desmond Jackson. Linebacker Jordan Hicks returns from injury, meaning the Horns' starting defensive front seven should be as stacked as any in the Big 12. 

But returning starters are only as good as their improvements, and last season Texas struggled early to stop the run. The first example that comes to mind is BYU quarterback Taysom Hill, who rushed for 259 yards in a 40-21 win over Texas last September. 

That was the game that cost defensive coordinator Manny Diaz his job. His successor, Greg Robinson, did a much better job of simplifying things and getting results. Still, mobile quarterbacks proved to be Texas' kryptonite all the way up to the Alamo Bowl, when Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota rushed for 133 yards in a 30-7 win. 

In Texas' five losses, the defense allowed the quarterback to rush for at least 95 yards three times. And Texas never faced Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight.  

Knight, along with Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty and possible Oklahoma State quarterback J.W. Walsh, is one of the mobile quarterbacks Texas may have to contain in 2014. That's not including back-to-back games against Hill and UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley on Sept. 6 and Sept. 13, respectively. 

Just as stopping the run is important for Texas, having a sound running game is critical for the Horns' offensive success. This is where Texas is strongest on offense with running backs Malcolm Brown, Johnathan Gray and Joe Bergeron. 

With Gray recovering from an Achilles injury and Bergeron dealing with "personal issues," according to Texas, depth in the backfield is thinner this spring. That said, it should be a strength once the season rolls around. 

The biggest question mark will be the offensive line, where four starters are being replaced. Couple the turnover with the knee injury to tackle Kent Perkins, and Texas is off to a rough start shoring up the O-line. 

"Losing Perkins hurts us because he was doing so well," Strong said, via B/R's Taylor Gaspar. "But it now gives us a chance to look at the younger guys and watching them compete and making sure they get enough reps."

If that group can come together, though, the offense can be serviceable and still win plenty of games. That would be the case whether it's David Ash lining up at quarterback or anyone else. 

Looking back at Strong's time at Louisville, the Cardinals last had a 2,000-yard rushing season in 2010. That was before Teddy Bridgewater took over at quarterback. 

With uncertainty surrounding the quarterback spot at Texas, look for Strong to concentrate on a stout defense that takes pressure off the offense while playing clock management and field position. (Louisville finished in the top 20 in time of possession in the past three seasons.) 

Instead of beating teams 40-30, look for Texas to win more games in the 28-21 range. That's how the Horns take back the Big 12 in 2014. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.

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Notre Dame Football: Week 6 Spring Practice Stock Report

Notre Dame's final spring practice will be live for every Irish fan to see, with the NBC Sports Network broadcasting the 85th annual Blue-Gold game at 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday.

With a sunny day forecast, a large crowd expected and a slew of recruits descending on South Bend, the annual scrimmage is a wonderful finale to the spring session. Our last opportunity to see this football team before they gather for fall camp, the game serves as our last peek through the window before four months of darkness. 

As we close out practice, let's take one last look at the big board. 

 

Can Jarron Jones Keep Up Productivity?

Late last year, Jarron Jones emerged as the unlikely heir apparent to Louis Nix at nose tackle. For those that had tracked his career up until that point, it seemed like a far-fetched idea.

Jones spent his redshirt freshman season learning the ABCs of college football. He didn't do much more in his sophomore campaign, until Nix went down. But after being buried on the depth chart at defensive end, Jones emerged as a productive player at nose tackle, even if he was learning on the fly.

Jones was set to walk into spring practice as one of the only legitimate options at nose guard. That distinction loses its importance with the Irish playing in Brian VanGorder's four-man front. But lined up on the interior next to Sheldon Day, Jones be even more productive after the system switch. 

VanGorder commented earlier this week on the knack Jones has for making plays, something this defensive front could use. 

"As much as we're on him about technique, every time we scrimmage or get in a physical-type team run, he's productive," VanGorder said about Jones. "As much as he still has to learn and develop from a technique standpoint, he's a productive player. You can't ignore that."

Day is expected to have a breakthrough season, finally healthy after a lingering ankle injury. He is capable of wreaking havoc—and at 6'5.25", 310 pounds he should. The two Irish tackles might give the unproven defensive ends plenty of help. 

 

On Offensive Line, Possibilities Still Endless—That's Good Thing 

It looks like Harry Hiestand and Brian Kelly know what they think they want their offensive line to look like. But it's also clear that they're in no hurry to get there. 

If everybody were healthy and the Irish were playing Rice tomorrow, here's how the Irish would line up along the offensive front. 

Ronnie Stanley, LT
Steve Elmer, LG
Nick Martin, C
Christian Lombard, RG
Mike McGlinchey, RT

But after reloading the depth chart the past few years and developing plenty of depth during the injury streak that hit the offensive line hard last season, there are plenty of options to consider. Does McGlinchey give the Irish their best five? Is Elmer better served as a tackle? Has Matt Hegarty or Conor Hanratty shown enough in relief to battle for a starting job?

It all feels like a champagne problem. 

After not having enough healthy players to prepare for Alabama and the BCS Championship game, even shorthanded with nine healthy bodies, this offensive line looks the best it has in a decade. (And that's before a highly touted freshman class enters the picture.) 

"We’re not anywhere near where we need to be," Hiestand told Tim Prister of IrishIllustrated.com (subscription required) last week.  "It’s definitely way out of whack. We’ve been throwing guys all over the place. But in the end, it will serve us really well."

 

After Much of Season in Coverage, Jaylon Smith Could Help Pass Rush 

What? Jaylon Smith can blitz, too? Don't expect to see it take place on Saturday. Blink and you could miss Smith, a player far too valuable to risk in a glorified scrimmage. But while settling into his outside linebacker spot this spring, Smith could be unleashed in the pass rush in VanGorder's system, something that didn't happen much under Bob Diaco. 

"I think what (VanGorder's) done more importantly has created some pass rush from where we've lost some guys that could get after the quarterback," Kelly explained about the schematic shift. "For example, Jaylon playing drop, we never saw him come off the edge. Now he's coming all the time, so he's an extra pass-rusher."

After an impressive freshman season, Smith filled the stat sheet everywhere but in the sack column. But there's every reason to believe Smith has the ability to be a Anthony Barr-like terror coming off the edge.

He's just got to get his chance. 

 

Stock Down, Stock Up: Don't Count Out Jarrett Grace Just Yet 

It's been a roller-coaster few months for Jarrett Grace. When Kelly announced that Grace had another rod inserted into his surgically repaired fibula, the writing seemed on the wall. The Irish's starting inside linebacker looked like a long shot for next season, as his slow recovery from a leg fractured in four places seemed unlikely. 

But Grace certainly hasn't given up on making it back for next season, and this week Kelly delivered some good news. While the Irish are waiting to make any medical decisions until they get to six weeks after surgery, Grace looks like a new man. 

"Early indications are very positive,” Kelly said. "We’re cautiously optimistic where he is. He feels great. He’s in a good frame of mind."

Grace's return would solidify a position that's one of the biggest question marks on the roster, even with Joe Schmidt's emergence this spring. While it's still too soon to know what exactly this means, Kelly's optimism tells you he's rooting for the veteran leader. 

"There’s not a better kid that you would want to root for in terms of coming back from the kind of injury that he had than Jarrett Grace," Kelly said. 

 

After Spring Inside, We'll See How Much Progress Irish's Special Teams Have Made

The Blue-Gold game will be only the Irish's sixth practice outside. For as nice as the Loftus complex is to accommodate practice during inclimate weather, it's no substitute for the great outdoors when trying to practice special teams. 

And practice is what the special teams desperately need. So even with the Irish fair-catching punts and forgoing kickoffs on Saturday, Kelly had his gallows humor in midseason form. 

"There will be all fair catches and I'm sure we'll drop three of them, and the Internet will blow up on punt returning and who that might be," Kelly cracked.

We don't have to wait until a muffed punt to wonder how the Irish will get things figured out. But just as intriguing will be the guys Kelly decides to trot out and fair-catch punts. 

Kelly identified Greg Bryant as a top candidate in the punt return game. He also tabbed Amir Carlisle and Torii Hunter Jr. (He even offered Irish sports information director Michael Bertsch as a candidate.) 

"We're going to try anybody that has a pulse. We're going to try them back there," Kelly said. "We just don't know who that guy is going to be." 

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter.  

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4-Star WR John Burt Talks Texas, Auburn, FSU and Future Visit Plans

Wide receiver John Burt has plenty to consider as his recruitment continues to heat up. An expansive list of opportunities presents plenty of potential scenarios.

The 4-star Tallahassee playmaker could commit to the national champions who reside in his hometown or venture out of the neighborhood to establish a career far away from Florida State. Auburn is in hot pursuit, along with several SEC programs, while a new contender out west has emerged as a slight front-runner.

Like most prized prospects, Burt has plenty to juggle when it comes to deciding where he wants to play college football.

"I have a lot to think about," he said.

The Lincoln High School playmaker is undecided, but recent developments have brought a new team to the forefront.

Burt received an offer from Texas in February during a visit to Austin and has quickly established a relationship with the new Longhorns coaching regime.

“I hadn’t really heard from [former head coach] Mack Brown," he said. "Charlie Strong has ties in Florida and his assistants at Louisville were recruiting me to play there. That carried over when he went to Texas.”

Burt, who routinely communicates with Strong and first-year defensive backs coach/special teams coordinator Chris Vaughn, has been pleasantly surprised by the program's ability to quickly rebound from a high-profile coaching change.

“The team has a lot of cohesiveness for not being together that long," Burt said. "Expectations are high at Texas but not unrealistic. With the coaches they have there, I think they have a chance to succeed in whatever they want to do.”

Despite growing up in a community that glorifies Florida State icons and Seminoles success, the Longhorns have always been a favorite. Burt's family ties to Texas fortified those feelings from an early age.

"Having an opportunity to go to college at Texas is surreal. I’ve been following the team for most of my life," he said. "I have family in Austin. My aunt works at the university and my grandmother was involved in the administration department there."

Still, the hometown team remains a legitimate option.

“I talk to FSU every now and then," Burt said. "I plan on going to the spring game this weekend [April 12] and I’ll talk to coaches then. Obviously it’s very close to home.”

So is that proximity a positive or negative?

“I don’t have a problem with staying so close, but I need to figure out where I want to spend my college years," Burt said. "Whether I want to stay nearby or leave the area."

Auburn isn't as much of a hike as Texas, but the university presents another potential landing spot beyond the Sunshine State. The Tigers hosted Burt earlier this year, and he was in attendance for the team's epic 2013 Iron Bowl victory over Alabama.

"I like Auburn a lot. Coach Craig talks with me a lot about what I could do there," he said, referring to wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig. "The campus is small and the community really supports Auburn, which I like.”

Campus environment is crucial, according to Burt.

“The main thing for me is about feeling comfortable at the university," he said. "That’s why it’s important for me to visit as many schools as I can."

Burt plans to expand his horizons by lining up future college trips. He lists South Carolina as a definite destination and would like to explore UCLA and USC if his schedule allows.

“It wouldn’t make sense for me to come up with a top-three or a top-five list until I visit more schools," Burt said. "I don’t think I’ve seen enough campuses to come up with a top group yet so I don’t want to rush it.”

When Burt eventually whittles down his list of offers, plenty of programs will be in play. His options also include Alabama, Miami, Tennessee and LSU.

A look at Burt's highlight reel reveals obvious reasons for his frenzied recruitment.

He enjoyed a strong junior season during a journey to the state playoffs. Burt caught 37 passes for 713 yards and nine touchdowns.

A well-rounded receiving approach makes him a top target for offensive coordinators across the country.

“I just want to make plays any way possible, whatever the team needs," Burt said. "If we need five yards, I’ll pick up five yards. If you need me to go deep for a big gain, I can do that too.”

When he self-assesses his skill set, Burt doesn't need to look far for a comparison.

“Calvin Johnson is my favorite receiver, but at the college level I would compare myself to [Florida State's] Kelvin Benjamin," he said. "Like them, I’m a guy that can go up and high-point the ball. They’ll also catch short passes and create big plays that way. I can do all those things.”

Burt, who lists himself at 6'3", 185 pounds, belongs at the highest level of FBS competition but faces several decisions during his journey to a final choice. A commitment doesn't appear imminent, so expect him to continue surveying options while lining up campus visits.

 

All quotes obtained firsthand by B/R college recruiting columnist Tyler Donohue unless otherwise noted.

Recruit information and statistics courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.

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Will Urban Meyer's Ohio State Buckeyes Really Get Any Better in 2014?

Following Ohio State’s Big Ten Championship Game loss to Michigan State last December, coach Urban Meyer looked positively inconsolable.

The Spartans’ upset ended the Buckeyes’ 24-game win streak and their hopes of competing in the final BCS National Championship Game, and Meyer wasn’t taking it well. An image of the intense head coach perched on a golf cart in the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium, “enjoying” some Papa John’s pizza, went viral.

His mood matched that of Buckeye fans. While some questioned Ohio State’s BCS worthiness, the tandem of quarterback Braxton Miller and bruising tailback Carlos Hyde playing behind a senior-laden offensive line gave Meyer’s bunch a chance to compete with anyone nationally.

As Ohio State prepares for Saturday’s spring game, the Buckeyes remain at the top of the Big Ten food chain alongside Michigan State. But those expecting them to take another step forward towards national prominence in 2014 could be in for a rude awakening.

The Buckeyes have major questions to answer on both sides of the ball, and while they’ll be among the Big Ten’s best again, expecting them to be better than 2013 could be a very difficult undertaking indeed.

Last fall, Ohio State’s offense was fueled by its ground game. Hyde rushed for 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns, and multi-talented quarterback Braxton Miller added 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns. Miller missed spring practice while recovering from shoulder surgery, but will be fine for the regular season. However, Hyde is gone, and so are four of the five starting offensive linemen who paved his way.

Rising junior tackle Taylor Decker is the only returning starter, and competition for three offensive line spots is expected to stretch into preseason practice. Pat Elflein has locked down a guard spot, and Antonio Underwood leads for another guard spot with Darryl Baldwin the favorite at the other tackle spot. Jacoby Boren and Billy Price are battling to become the No. 1 center.

Who will replace Hyde in the backfield? 2013’s No. 3 rusher, Jordan Hall (536 yards, 8 TDs), was also a senior. That leaves rising sophomores Ezekiel Elliott (262 yards, 2 TDs) and speedy Dontre Wilson (250 yards, 1 TD) to battle with Rod Smith and Bri’onte Dunn, although Elliott is the favorite to win the role.

Steady playmaker Philly Brown (63 receptions, 771 yards, 10 TDs) was Miller’s favorite target at receiver, but with his departure, rising senior Devin Smith must become a more consistent option as Miller’s lead receiver.

Smith had 44 receptions for 660 yards and eight touchdowns in 2013, but had just six catches in the Buckeyes’ final five games.

With Hyde gone and a mostly new offensive line, it is unclear exactly what form the Buckeyes offense will take this fall. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman will still spread the field, use Miller in the running game and employ a power run attack, but in what mix now?

Here’s the rub. Unless Ohio State’s defense makes serious improvement (particularly on the back end) it might not matter how much the offense progresses this fall with its new pieces.

Ohio State allowed 268 yards passing per game last fall, which ranked 110th nationally and 11th in the 12-team Big Ten.

Over the last three games, Michigan’s Devin Gardner carved up the Buckeyes for 451 yards passing, Michigan State’s Connor Cook rolled up his first 300-yard passing game and Clemson’s Tajh Boyd torched the secondary for 378 yards and five passing touchdowns.

Rising senior corner Doran Grant is the only full-time starter returning from that secondary. Junior Bradley Roby declared early for the NFL draft and safeties Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett graduated. Rising sophomore Tyvis Powell, a part-time starter, returns. The secondary’s progress has been slowed this spring by rising sophomore Vonn Bell’s knee injury, which has sidelined him.

Meyer revamped his defensive staff following safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers’ departure to become James Madison’s head coach and defensive line coach Mike Vrabel left to join the staff of the NFL’s Houston Texans.

Meyer replaced Withers with Arkansas secondary coach Chris Ash and Vrabel with former Penn State line coach Larry Johnson. Ash will use a Cover 4 style of coverage and the defense is expected to put more emphasis on stopping the pass.

The secondary does not lack for talent.

Redshirt freshman corners Eli Apple and Gareon Conley were highly touted recruits, and Powell and Cam Burrows (who stand 6’3” and 6”0’, respectively) bring much-needed size to safety.

Ohio State’s defensive line should take some pressure off the secondary. Rising junior Noah Spence (52 tackles, eight sacks) and rising senior Michael Bennett (42 tackles, seven sacks) were both All-Big Ten selections, and the linebacker corps is also solid.

Meyer is also trying to change the Buckeyes’ culture this season. He has adopted a mantra: 4 to 6 and A to B. What does that mean? He wants Ohio State players to go hard for four to six seconds every play and run hard from point A to point B.

“We have a mantra, we have a culture that I want to make sure we don’t lose,” Meyer told The Lantern after his team’s first spring practice March 4. “What I’m looking for is simplicity, and 4 to 6 and A to B. If you can’t give us that, then we gotta move on and get another player that will.”

Unless the defense shows significant improvement and a replacement for Hyde emerges, however, it is hard to imagine Ohio State making a move upward from last year’s 12-2 record.

The Buckeyes will be good this fall. They’ll win a bunch of games. But national greatness could be elusive. Double-digit wins and a New Year’s Day bowl bid, while not necessarily what the fanbase is hoping for, would be a solid baseline for the new-look Buckeyes.

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Your Best 11 Mailbag: Ohio State Secondary and 2014 SEC Offensive Production

Last week, my good pal and colleague Ben Kercheval took over the mailbag effort for me and handled himself admirably. Following a good friend's bachelor party, I am back in the driver's seat and ready to take your questions and wrestle down answers. Here we go!

Ah, Patti is back and as great as ever. For those too lazy to click on the article, it basically details the Buckeyes going from playing off coverage to pressing on nearly every play. Given how often I get tweets from fans and texts from friends that all basically say, "Gah, why are our corners so far off," I think this is a great topic.

Although it is something I have hit on before in the mailbag, I've got no problem going nuts and bolts here in the offseason. A season ago, the Buckeyes secondary played plenty of off coverage and now they are looking to turn that on its ear and get more aggressive, going with press.

Keep in mind that press does not exclusively mean man coverage. Press looks work in man and zone. It is simply a means for cornerbacks to get their hands on a player and disrupt his timing before they get into their responsibility. 

With the right cornerbacks it can be glorious. However, press plus responsibility adds another element to the defensive back's plate. Instead of just reading keys and reacting on the snap, he is tasked with reading many of those same keys and reacting, all while handling the preliminary job of rerouting a wide receiver.

Whether it is man or zone, it is a lot of teaching and a lot of practice. For man it means making sure players understand body control, alignment and how to get themselves out of trouble through the balance of aggression and power with measured movements and good feet. For zone it means knowing where to send the receiver and how to ride him while seeing through to responsibilities and knowing when to let him go in order to correctly do their job.

Given the proliferation of the quick passing game, plenty of squads are using press to disrupt timing. If the Buckeyes can make it work for them, it should be a strong move.

I really only take my non-omelet or frittata two ways: over easy or sunnyside up. I know they're almost the exact same thing, but the point is that I require runny yolks because the biscuits have to do some sopping.

Carter, my good brother: I think the idea that they drop below the 20s, for most games, is a bit drastic. However, I do see them getting back to the 2011-type levels. 

When you lose successful quarterbacks, scoring comes at a premium. In the SEC, schools all over lost amazing pieces. Three tremendous ballplayers in the SEC East. Three tremendous ballplayers in the SEC West. Sure, there are replacements and great schemes and returning talent, but the truth is scoring and total yardage will likely be down for several teams in 2014.

That said, Auburn should be expected to produce at a high level. Ole Miss has weapons in the West, too. Plus Mizzou and South Carolina will be interesting to watch as well, since they feature a pseudo-returning quarterback player.

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South Carolina Football: Spring Practice Week 4 Stock Report

COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina practiced on Tuesday and Thursday in preparation for Saturday's spring game, with the Thursday workout coming under the lights at Williams-Brice Stadium.

In Saturday's Garnet and Black Spring Game, the Gamecocks will play four 12-minute quarters, and in the second half, the clock will run continuously.

The game can be seen live on ESPNU at noon ET with Joe Davis, Matt Stinchcomb and Maria Taylor serving as the announcing crew.

At halftime, South Carolina will honor the seniors from last year's football team, along with the SEC champion women's basketball team and SEC champion equestrian team.

“We'll be honoring the women’s basketball team," head coach Steve Spurrier said. "Our equestrian girls cannot make it. I understand they will be practicing. Practicing is more important than getting recognized in front of 40,000. Hopefully, they’re getting ready to go win a national championship.”

 

Thompson will get time

In South Carolina's three previous scrimmages, starting quarterback Dylan Thompson has played the opening drive and then taken a seat.

Spurrier says Thompson will play a bit more on Saturday.

“We’ll let some of the older guys play a little bit,” Spurrier said. “Dylan [Thompson] will probably play at least a half. It should be a fun day here at Williams-Brice Stadium. We’re looking forward to a good game. Hopefully nobody will get hurt.”

Heading into the spring game, Spurrier said redshirt freshman Connor Mitch has moved ahead of walk-on Perry Orth for the No. 2 quarterback spot.

"Perry slipped a bit, so Connor is probably No. 2 right now," Spurrier said. "Maybe Perry read all those nice articles that were written about him. I don't know."

 

Williams back

Redshirt freshman running back David Williams was able to practice on Thursday and should be able to play in the spring game.

Williams has been hampered most of the spring with a pulled hamstring.

Even so, he has impressed starting tailback Mike Davis.

"He's big, fast and strong," Davis said. "He's everything you're looking for in a tailback."

 

Anderson out indefinitely

Earlier in the week, Spurrier announced that starting tight end Rory “Busta” Anderson had surgery and could potentially miss the 2014 season.

“Dr. Jeff Guy felt like we needed to go ahead and repair a torn triceps,” Spurrier said. “He could be back next year. We’ll see how his physical condition is. He does have a redshirt year available if we need to do that. We’ll try to do what’s best for Busta and what’s best for the team and go from there.” 

Junior Jerell Adams is the probable replacement for Anderson at tight end.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.

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Notre Dame Football: Will Irish Get UGA or Auburn Version of Brian VanGorder?

There is no smart way to tell, for sure, whether Notre Dame will get the good or bad version of first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder in 2014 (or beyond). Given the extremes of his previous college experience, each pole of the good-bad spectrum is plausible, along with every data point in-between.

The good involves his four-year stint at Georgia in the early 2000s. VanGorder won a Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant in 2003, leading a Bulldogs defense that allowed just 14.5 points and 276.9 yards per game—both of which were in the top five nationally.

But it wasn't just one year that defined VanGorder's time between the hedges. The fullness of his work was just as impressive:

On the flip side of this is the 2012 season at Auburn, VanGorder's only other season as a power-conference defensive coordinator. That was, of course, a historically bad year for the Tigers on both sides of the ball, and VG's defense allowed 420.5 yards per game and finished No. 95 on the Football Outsiders' defensive F/+ ratings.

With that as the last taste in their mouth, some Notre Dame fans didn't know how to feel when VanGorder was hired in late December. They were even more anxious when VanGorder started tinkering with the defensive formations. Where does he get the right?!

However, if ever any coach deserves a mulligan, it would have to be one from the Auburn staff in 2012. That was a sinking ship for reasons beyond VanGorder's control, as he joined Gene Chizik's crew the year before the whole thing got blown to pieces. It was unstable from the day he walked through the doors, which is different than the model Brian Kelly has established in South Bend.

Chizik lost his favorite assistant (Gus Malzahn), and the operation crumbled before him. Kelly loses his top assistants routinely, but the ship always seems to stay afloat.

With spring practice rearing to a close, Notre Dame has already seen a bit of the pre-2012 VanGorder—VanGeorgia, if you will. It has come in the emergence of walk-on linebacker Joe Schmidt, who has been running with the first team, per Rachel Terlep of the Elkhart Truth.

That is classic VanGorder. A linebacker specialist at heart, VG can coax the best out of a guy like Schmidt, whose physical limitations are offset with high football IQ and scheme comprehension.

VanGorder—the good VanGorder—makes average linebackers good and good linebackers great, just as he did at Georgia (but not Auburn).

That makes this spring, already, a very welcome sign.

Ultimately, though, VanGorder's first year in South Bend will be defined by how he rushes the passer. After registering just 21 sacks in 2013, the Irish return just three in 2014. He and Kelly are determined to improve those numbers.

"We want to create more pressure for the quarterback," said Kelly, according to B/R's Keith Arnold. "We want them under more duress."

"From that standpoint, maybe the net-gain there is turnovers, but I think if they're making bad decisions and throwing the ball away, we're gaining downs in that respect, too."

That means a shift to a multiple-front defense, abandoning the straightforward 3-4 of years past. It means VanGorder must be the same, only different, than he was more than a decade ago. The game has changed since VanGorder thrived in the early 2000s, and he knows, to his credit, that his philosophy must follow.

"...My mindset, especially in today’s game, is to take more and more control on defense by being aggressive," said VanGorder, according to Arnold (for NBCSports). "It starts out there. That’s where you start your decisions as a coach. Can we hold up out there?"

VanGorder's Georgia defenses were consistent. Even when they weren't at their best, they were at their good-enough-to-beat-you. According to Matt Smith of Southern Pigskin, they only gave up 30 points in one game during VG's four-year tenure—a paltry fraction of their output in the preceding and superseding years:

Notre Dame's defense might be different.

With so much emphasis on aggression and forcing turnovers, this team has the potential for a 30-point slip-up here or there. Especially with North Carolina, Florida State, Arizona State, Louisville and USC on the schedule, it will be hard to post the same numbers as UGA in 2003.

However, against an offense like Florida State, playing aggressive is the lesser of two evils. Unlike sitting back and trusting your base package, it does not put you at risk of systematic destruction. It might result in a few long plays and a massacre, sure.

It also might result in an upset.

In this regard, perhaps it's not right to ask whether Notre Dame will get the Georgia or Auburn version of VanGorder. Perhaps the right answer is neither: that he'll be a version of himself we've never seen.

The Notre Dame version of VanGorder.

 

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT

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SEC Football Q&A: Jacob Coker over Blake Sims, Heisman QBs and Impact Assistants

Every Friday, we feature questions from Twitter. Do you have a question for next week's Q&A? Send it to SEC lead writer Barrett Sallee on Twitter at @BarrettSallee.

You have SEC questions, and I have SEC answers. Thank you for your questions. If I didn't get to them this week, they will be saved and used in the future.

And we're off! 

@BarrettSallee Assuming Blake Sims is the number 1 guy coming out of spring, do you think he has the ability to beat out Coker and start?

— Ben Wallace (@Bill_Braskyy) April 11, 2014

If you believe the spring hype that Blake Sims is taking the next step and progressed as the pocket passer, then he's certainly got a shot. If he emerges as the top contender following spring practice and Alabama's spring game next week, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will like the fact that his ability to create with his legs is there as an insurance policy.

With that said, it's still Florida State transfer Jacob Coker's job to lose.

Kiffin and head coach Nick Saban wouldn't bring Coker, a two-year graduate transfer, on campus without thinking that he's not only a contender, but would enter fall camp as the man to beat for the job.

But is he worth the hype?

Technically he pushed Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston for the Florida State quarterback job all the way through fall camp last season, but that may be more lip service than anything else. His reputation is built off a very limited sample size in mop-up duty and second-hand information from closed practices, for the most part. Because of that, I'm not buying him as the second-coming of AJ McCarron quite yet.

Coker will be the front-runner when he gets to campus, and it will be up to Sims to unseat him. Even Sims' progress this spring is a bit of a mystery. But if his progression is real, he'll certainly make things interesting in fall camp.

 

@BarrettSallee Which new SEC starting QB could be a Heisman contender?

— Paul Pabst (@PaulPabst) April 11, 2014

We've seen redshirt freshmen quarterbacks win each of the last two Heisman Trophies, and there certainly are plenty of first-year starters to choose from this season in the SEC.

Let's eliminate some candidates first.

Hutson Mason, Dylan Thompson, Alabama's eventual winner and LSU's eventual winner (likely Brandon Harris) can take a seat. All of those teams will have running backs who will be gobbling up yards and touchdowns. Even though only two running backs have won the Heisman since the turn of the century, they can prevent quarterbacks from winning the Heisman. That's exactly what will happen with that group.

In order to compete with Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley and the rest of the quarterbacks who will likely be in that discussion, an SEC quarterback is going to have to put up some video game numbers.

Because of that, Texas A&M is the likely landing spot if you're looking for a new starting quarterback who's a Heisman contender.

Is that true freshman early enrollee pro-style signal-caller Kyle Allen, veteran Matt Joeckel or dual-threat (and currently suspended) sophomore Kenny Hill? That remains to be seen. But head coach Kevin Sumlin adjusted the air raid style he was successful with at Houston with Case Keenum to fit Johnny Manziel's skills in his first season at Texas A&M in 2012.

If he did it once, he can do it again. Plus, unless A&M's defense takes a gigantic leap forward, he's going to be asking his quarterback to do a lot.

 

@BarrettSallee What new Coach will have the biggest impact for this season? Kiffin, Roper, or Jeremy Pruitt

— Steve Moulton (@sugarstevem) April 11, 2014

Jeremy Pruitt, no doubt.

Take nothing away from Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, Florida offensive coordinator Kurt Roper or any other new assistant in the SEC, but Jeremy Pruitt is stepping into a perfect situation in Athens.

Let's take a step back, first. Former defensive coordinator Todd Grantham's exit from the Georgia program—to anywhere—is the biggest assistant coaching move of the offseason in the SEC. On top of that, though, head coach Mark Richt went out and hired Jeremy Pruitt, fresh off his first season as Florida State's defensive coordinator and recently fitted for a national title ring, to run his 2014 defense.

There couldn't have been a more perfect hire. 

Pruitt has nine returning starters to work with, a deep and talented roster and the experience of being an elite coach and teacher—the latter of which being a trait that Grantham is clearly missing. On top of that, Pruitt is a trained secondary coach, which was Georgia's biggest problem on that side of the ball last season.

All are big hires, but Pruitt's is the biggest assistant coach hire not only in the SEC, but in the country.

 

Do you have a question for next week's Q&A? Send it to SEC lead writer Barrett Sallee on Twitter at @BarrettSallee

* 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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Auburn Football: Week 4 Spring Practice Stock Report

The Auburn Tigers have two regular practices and one scrimmage left in spring camp before their grand finale a week from Saturday: the 2014 A-Day Game at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Personnel moves and position-battle updates highlighted the Tigers' fourth week of spring practice, which wraps up Saturday back at Jordan-Hare Stadium with its final closed scrimmage. 

Several players across Auburn's depth charts are looking to make one more impression on the coaching staff before the annual spring game, and some are getting that opportunity in new spots on the field.

As we count down the few days left before A-Day, let's hit the high points from the Tigers' fourth week of spring practice.

 

Settle down about the offensive line shuffle

The third week of spring practice ended with some surprising movement across Auburn's offensive line, which originally featured just the battle for the starting left tackle job.

Patrick Miller, who was battling cancer survivor Shon Coleman at left tackle, moved to right tackle, where he started the first five games of 2013. Returning starter Avery Young moved inside to right guard for some reps in last Saturday's scrimmage at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

But Auburn's staff set the record straight in Week 4 after a weekend of speculation.

Head coach Gus Malzahn also cleared up the offensive line shuffle earlier this week, telling reporters the moves were non-permanent and all about building depth across Auburn's veteran front five.

"We’re trying to develop depth at different positions this spring," Malzahn said, per the Opelika-Auburn News' Alex Byington. "Especially when you got a lot of veteran guys, you can move some guys around to see what depth looks like and kind of play the what-ifs if you go through injuries next fall."

 

Therezie unfazed by new positions, hand injury 

Auburn's mixing and matching on the field has not been limited to just the offensive line.

Robenson Therezie, the returning starter at defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson's "star" safety/linebacker spot, said earlier this week he is also getting some work at safety in Auburn's dime package. Like with the offensive linemen's moves, Therezie said his reps at safety are important for developing depth all across a unit.

“It’s like the best thing for us to learn all the positions,” Therezie told Byington. “We can just rotate and play around with it — corner to safety to dime to star. We all learn every position and how it unfolds and works and where our help is.”

Therezie has been playing most of the spring with a cast on his hand. According to AL.com's Joel Erickson, Therezie jammed and broke a bone in his hand early in camp, but the injury has not slowed him down in his work at star, safety or even punt returner.

"I got comfortable with it after a day or two catching punts," Therezie said, per Erickson. "Now, I can catch punts like the cast ain't there."

 

Louis joins injury list

The hero from the "Miracle at Jordan-Hare" has joined Auburn's slowly growing list of minor injuries during spring camp.

Wide receiver Ricardo Louis sat out Tuesday's practice with what Malzahn described as a "minor ailment," per the Ledger-Enquirer's Ryan Black. The Tigers head coach did not go into any more specifics on the injury.

Defensive linemen Keymiya Harrell, JaBrian Niles, LaDarius Owens and Tyler Nero were also out due to injuries, joining wide receiver Jaylon Denson and safety Josh Holsey, who are still on the road to recovery from long-term knee injuries.

Malzahn told the Montgomery Advertiser's James Crepea "nothing's changed" with the status of Nero, who collapsed during a drill March 27. While Nero has been back to practice in a non-playing capacity, Malzahn has repeatedly declined to give any additional details on the incident.

 

Running backs have their eyes on A-Day

With the three-way battle between Cameron Artis-Payne, Peyton Barber and Corey Grant showing no clear signs of separation through spring practices, many fans are already looking to next Saturday's A-Day Game for their first look at the trio.

A couple of those running backs already have their sights set on Auburn's spring game as well.

Artis-Payne was the Lionel James Offensive MVP from last year's A-Day, compiling 164 all-purpose yards and a rushing touchdown. After a breakout performance as a newcomer to the program in last year's contest, the powerful senior running back sounds confident in his hopes of repeating as MVP next Saturday.

"I definitely have a shot at that," Artis-Payne told AL.com's Brandon Marcello. "I don't think I'm going to need as many touches as I did last year."

Neither Grant nor Barber, a redshirt freshman who continues to impress in his move from scout team to first team, participated in last year's A-Day Game. Grant, a former transfer from Alabama, said he is looking forward to competing against fellow senior Artis-Payne for the MVP award.

"I think [Artis-Payne] can be [MVP], but I'm going to be right at his neck," Grant said, also per Marcello. "Because, you know, last year I didn't to get to play in it, so I'm kind of excited about this year."

 Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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Oregon Football: How Bralon Addison's Reported Injury Impacts Ducks Offense

If Oregon wide receiver Bralon Addison has indeed suffered a torn ACL, as reported by Andrew Greif of The Oregonian, the Ducks have lost one of their best returning playmakers.

Although it's unlikely Oregon's coaching staff will talk extensively (or at all) about Addison's reported injury, details don't sound promising. Erik Elken of KEZI tweeted that Addison fell to the turf after making a cut—with no contact. Non-contact injuries like those can be severe.

On Thursday, Addison tweeted, "Life is tough man."

When Addison is able to return this year—if he's able to return—remains to be seen. Should he need it, Addison does have a redshirt available that would give him two more years of eligibility beginning in 2015.

In the meantime, Oregon loses one of its more explosive and experienced players on offense.

Addison started 11 games in 2013 with 61 receptions for 890 yards and seven touchdowns. He also had a pair of punt returns for touchdowns. With the departure of receiver Josh Huff and now the reported injury to Addison, the Ducks are down their top two receivers from last year.

Additionally, running back De'Anthony Thomas declared for the NFL draft. Thomas, though hampered by his own injuries last season, was still one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the country.

For an offense that's usually loaded with talent, Oregon is now without some top-tier skill receivers.

Quarterback and preseason Heisman contender Marcus Mariota will be the nucleus of a group with plenty of newer faces there. It's possible that tight ends and running backs become an even bigger part of the passing game as a result.

Oregon's wide receiver group is talented to be sure, but it isn't the most experienced beyond senior Keanon Lowe—and he had 18 receptions for 233 yards and three touchdowns in 2013. Chance Allen, B.J. Kelley and Dwayne Stanford will highlight the Ducks' new-look receiving unit.

In addition to production, the absence of Addison means Oregon loses a leader on the field as well.

“We’ve got guys like Keanon, who’s a senior, and after him it’s me as the next oldest guy,” Addison previously told Ryan Thorburn of The Register-Guard. “I really have to step up and be a leader this year, more vocal than I’ve ever been. That’s going to be a big challenge for me.”

“I’ve noticed he’s taken his game up to the next level,” said Oregon wide receivers coach Matt Lubick. “He knows that we need to count on him even a little bit more.”

Oregon, like all other programs, has a philosophy of "next man up." Unlike most programs, though, Oregon has actually been able to execute that motto with little to no drop-off year after year.

With questions about whether head coach Mark Helfrich can get the Ducks back to the Pac-12 Championship Game, that "next man up" philosophy will be tested in 2014.

 

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

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Oregon Football: Week 2 Spring Practice Stock Report

Oregon suffered its first major setback of the 2014 season in its second week of spring practice.

Aaron Fentress of CSNNW.com reported on Thursday that wide receiver Bralon Addison had suffered a torn ACL. KEZI first reported that Addison had sustained an unspecified "non-contact" left knee injury on Wednesday. 

Possibly losing Addison for the entire campaign further clouds the Ducks' receiving situation. The Ducks have also lost leading wide receiver Josh Huff and multipurpose back De'Anthony Thomas, quarterback Marcus Mariota's favorite targets in 2013 and 2012, respectively. 

Addison was primed to be a breakout star in the Oregon passing attack, coming off a sophomore campaign of 61 receptions for 890 yards. 

Oregon had another scare at receiver when redshirt freshman Darren Carrington left last Friday's workouts "visibly upset," according to Andrew Greif of The Oregonian:

Head coach Mark Helfrich offered no timetable on Carrington's return, but Helfrich's vague assessment, via Steve Mims of The Register-Guardwas promising:

Carrington is just one high-potential candidate with little or no in-game experience vying for a spot in the receiving rotation.

Jalen Brown, a 4-star prospect in the Ducks' 2014 signing class, is an early enrollee. He capitalized on his opportunity Wednesday and made a grab in traffic, per Rob Moseley of GoDucks.com. Dwayne Stanford has also earned praise for his performance in spring practices. 

The receiving unit also welcomed reinforcement in the form of Johnathan Loyd, a 5'8" point guard on the Ducks basketball team. Loyd joined the team Monday. 

Helfrich said, via KEZI, that Loyd's friendship with wide receiver Keanon Lowe may have sparked the point guard's interest in returning to the gridiron. He last played football at prep powerhouse Las Vegas Bishop Gorman. 

Helfrich added that Loyd can work his way into a contributing role:

He’s giving great effort…He’s got that great smile on his face we’ve come to know so much on the basketball court. Start with that, and you’ve got a chance [to contribute]...His athleticism and skill set fits a lot of slots on the football field. He was a great high school football player. He’s not doing anything else, might as well come out.

Loyd is reunited with former basketball teammate Arik Armstead, who opted not to return to the hardwood this season so he could focus on football. A 5-star recruit in 2012, Armstead has yet to break out at the college level. 

There are rumblings of Armstead moving to the offensive line. Even Helfrich said offensive line coach Steve Greatwood is trying to recruiting Armstead, via The Oregonian

But in an interview with The Oregonian, Armstead made it clear that he intends to take his performance to the next level on the defensive side:

I'm a defensive lineman now, that's what I focus on. They try to joke around and play with me and try to get me to switch over but I'm a defensive lineman...[T]hat's what I'm passionate about. I feel like whatever I'm passionate about I'm going to be the best at that and, you know, this is what I chose to do with my life so I'm going to give it all I can.

Oregon certainly needs more help on the defensive line than it does on the offensive line. While the offensive front returns four starters from 2013, the defensive line must replace Taylor Hart, Wade Keliikipi and Ricky Havili-Heimuli. 

The defensive line may be getting support in the form of 6'3", 315-pound and 3-star recruit Ratu Mafileo, however. Mafileo told Justin Hopkins of 247Sports that he received academic clearance from the NCAA over the weekend, making way for his signing with the program. 

Mafileo is the nephew of Haloti Ngata, one of the top defensive talents to come out of Eugene, Ore., in program history. 

 

More Dual-Sport Ducks

Loyd is in good company as a two-sport athlete in the Oregon football ranks. Cornerback Dior Mathis and wide receiver Devon Allen are splitting their time between spring practices and Oregon's track team, on which both are sprinters. 

The duo helped Oregon to a 114-47 defeat of Arizona in a dual meet Saturday. Mathis finished third in the 100 meters, per GoDucks.com editor Rob Moseley

Allen finished the 110-meter high hurdles in 13.96 seconds, which Ken Goe of The Oregonian reports is 17th-best time in NCAA Division I this season. 

Allen explained the process of tackling two sports simultaneously to The Daily Emerald: "I have hard track days and hard football days back to back. But it wasn’t too bad. I got into the treatment room on Friday night and then Saturday morning try to get my legs back, so that felt pretty good."

 

Mariota's Pro Prep 

Mariota may have been a first-round selection in next month's NFL draft had the quarterback foregone his remaining eligibility. With another year captaining the Ducks offense, he can ensure his spot on draft day in 2015.

He is already making strides in that direction, adding a little NFL twist this week by taking snaps from under center.  

"It's stuff that will help me get prepared for the future as well, little things that can help me," Mariota told The Oregonian. "It wouldn’t hurt to get ready." 

 

No. 11?  

Eleven is the number of games Helfrich won in his first season as Oregon's head coach. It's also his spot on Athlon Sports' ranking of Pac-12 coaches. Helfrich is ahead of only Cal's Sonny Dykes. 

Greif says Helfrich offered only a smile when Grief asked him about the ranking:

 

Spring Scouting Opportunity

The only two teams to defeat Oregon in 2013—Arizona and Stanford—host their spring games Saturday. Both will appear on Pac-12 Network at 4 p.m. ET in a split broadcast. Regional channels are airing the games in their entirety. 

Of interest to Oregon is Stanford's running back situation. The Ducks struggled slowing Cardinal running back Tyler Gaffney in their November 2013 meeting, and his ability to pound out yards contributed to Oregon's 26-20 loss. 

Barry Sanders, Ricky Seale and Kelsey Young will see repetitions with Stanford's first string, per Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News

"Every day, somebody does something special,'' Stanford head coach David Shaw told Wilner. "It's not a competition so much as a showcase."

 

Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com. Recruiting rankings and information culled from 247Sports.com

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Texas Tech's Kliff Kingsbury Battles His Players in Dance-Off at Practice

Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury has no problem messing around with his players.

Not only did the players battle in a dance-off during a recent spring practice, but the 34-year-old coach joined in as well. Kingsbury and receiver Derreck Edwards both showed off their moves, much to the delight of the rest of the team.

If he uses these moves when recruits' single moms flirt with him during visits, Kingsbury will certainly leave a good impression.

[techathleticsRed Raider Sports]

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Notre Dame Football: Complete Spring Game Preview

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Finally.

It took forever, but it finally feels like spring is here. Saturday’s forecast predicts temperatures in the 70s with a zero percent chance of rain.

I can’t think of better conditions to close out spring practice with Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium. It’s technically the 15th and final practice for the Irish, and it’s our last public look at them until August.

So what should we be on the lookout for on Saturday?

Let’s get to it.

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Virginia Tech Football: Week 3 Spring Practice Stock Report

It still might not feel like spring in Blacksburg, Va., but the Virginia Tech football team’s spring practice is well underway. 

As the team’s spring game rapidly approaches, excitement about the upcoming season is in the air on campus. Even incoming university president Tim Sands couldn’t resist the allure of stopping by the practice field to get a glimpse of the Hokies. 

The coaching staff has started to become particularly enthralled with some players, while others have fallen out of favor slightly. 

Read on to get a sense of which players’ stock is ascendant and which ones have seen some slight dips.

 

Augie Conte and Wyatt Teller 

After last week’s round of practices, it seemed as if redshirt freshman Wyatt Teller was the backup on the offensive line that had the best shot to compete for playing time.

Now the staff looks to be leaning toward redshirt sophomore Augie Conte instead, as The Roanoke Times’ Andy Bitter reports.

Conte is currently listed as Laurence Gibson’s backup at right tackle on the depth chart, and his development is likely a major reason why the staff is giving Teller a shot at guard. 

Considering that Conte has an extra year of experience at the position, and that Teller is still adjusting to playing on the offensive side of the ball in general, it’s not a huge surprise that Conte’s a little further along so far.

Conte put up some huge numbers in the team’s winter workouts, breaking the school record for power clean by a tackle and topping the team in the bench press, so it’s a good sign that he’s been able to turn his physical tools into results on the field.

He might not have a particularly clear path to the field while working behind Gibson, but his improvement will certainly help the team’s depth on the line.

 

Backup Running Backs

J.C. Coleman is pretty firmly entrenched as the spring starter with Trey Edmunds on the sidelines, but it does seem like there’s been some movement on the depth chart below the top spot. 

Jerome Wright appeared to be in the mix for carries this season at running back along with Joel Caleb, but he since seems to have fallen out of favor with the staff, as Bitter notes.

It looked like Wright was catching on after he made a few big plays in the Sun Bowl, but this move seems like a demotion for Wright and a vote of confidence in Caleb.

Wright may still be on the depth chart as Sam Rogers’ backup at fullback, but he was in on all of 27 plays on offense when working in a similar role last season—an especially small number when compared to Rogers’ 257 offensive snaps.

Meanwhile, early-enrolled freshman Marshawn Williams may still be on the third string, but he continues to turn heads in practice.

He only got three carries in for nine yards during the team’s first spring scrimmage, but he blew coaches away with his physicality on a 14-yard run up the sideline.

Williams has long seemed like the type of back that could help the Hokies in short-yardage situations, and the coaches appear to agree, according to Bitter.

 

Bucky Hodges

If coaches were pleasantly surprised about Bucky Hodges’ athleticism at tight end last week, they were positively giddy this week.

The redshirt freshman is still adjusting to the position after playing quarterback in high school, but every media availability this spring seems to be another chance for the staff to rave about his athletic abilities.

"I think he’s a guy that's a prototypical weapon," offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler told Bitter. "Potentially a prototypical weapon in that you can play him in a lot of different places, which is really good with matchups." 

The coaches initially seemed to be excited about Hodges because of the way he could blend his speed with incredible size, in the same style as tight ends like UNC’s Eric Ebron.

However, they now appear particularly excited about what his versatility can do for the offense, as Bitter explains.

Hodges could be especially critical for the offense that Loeffler wants to run. What makes Hodges so valuable is that he won't be relied upon to just play tight end. For that spot, the Hokies have Ryan Malleck, who's back from a shoulder injury, and Kavlin Cline, who's now played more than just a handful of football games in his life. 

That frees up Hodges to do more things if he's up to the task. He did split out wide some in Saturday's scrimmage. He played on the line. He went in motion. At the very beginning of drills, he tossed a deep ball to Willie Byrn out of the Wildcat.

That flexibility is a crucial component for Loeffler's offense, which will motion players to different spots on the field to take advantage of matchups without having to substitute.

Even blocking, something that would seem difficult for a guy who has played almost exclusively quarterback in his career up to this point, has come naturally.

The staff might’ve originally envisioned Hodges revolutionizing the offense from under center when they recruited him two years ago.

But, now it sure seems like the staff has fallen head over heels for Hodges due to his abilities to shape the offense in other ways.

Suffice it to say that Hodges’ stock is positively through the roof right now at this point in the spring.

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Penn State in Position to Land Monster 2015 Top 5 Recruiting Class

Penn State has been on fire lately when it comes to recruiting, and it has new head coach James Franklin to thank for that. The Nittany Lions most recently landed 4-star LB Josh Barajas out of Merrillville, Ind., who was a huge pickup for Franklin and his staff.

Bleacher Report spoke with JC Shurburtt of 247Sports.com, who discussed Barajas, top targets and what should be expected from the Nittany Lions recruiting class.

Watch the video, and get the latest news on Penn State recruiting.

 

Highlights courtesy of XOS Digital.

Ratings courtesy of 247Sports.com.

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What Will Muschamp Needs to See from Gator QBs in 2014 Spring Game

The most important spring practice session in Will Muschamp's short tenure as the Florida head coach will come to a close on Saturday in the Orange and Blue Debut at "The Swamp" in Gainesville.

New offensive coordinator Kurt Roper was brought in to revitalize an offense that has been stagnant since former Gator Tim Tebow was taking snaps. Quarterback Jeff Driskel returns from a leg injury that cost him the final two-plus months of the 2013 season, and is finally in an offense that suits his dual-threat capabilities.

What does Roper and Muschamp need to see from Driskel and the rest of the Gator quarterbacks in the spring game on Saturday?

 

Can Driskel Stretch The Field?

Driskel has been rather efficient through his first three seasons in Gainesville, posting a career completion percentage of 62.9 percent (214-for-340).

Great, right?

Well, not really, because he's only passed for 2,271 yards—for a mediocre 6.7 yards per attempt average. For reference, that would have placed him 12th in the SEC last year among qualifying passers, according to CFBStats.com.

Florida has a stable of running backs and will likely evolve into more of a ground-and-pound spread team like Auburn was last year under Gus Malzahn rather than one that slings it all over the field. But for that to happen, Driskel has to keep defenses honest by stretching the field.

That means a guy like Demarcus Robinson, who was a hotshot recruit from 2013, will have to show that he's matured as a player and between the ears. He was suspended twice for a total of three games last year, but has been impressing the coaching staff this spring. 

Whether it's Robinson, Ahmad Fulwood, Quinton Dunbar or somebody else, Driskel has to find a way to take the top off of the defense every once in a while to make sure the offense clicks the way Roper intends. 

It's been clicking so far this spring.

“When you turn on the film you see a bunch of guys making big plays,’’ Driskel said according to GatorZone.com's Scott Carter. “It just gets guys really excited for this offense. I feel like it’s coming together pretty quickly."

We'll see on Saturday.

 

Will Driskel Make the Right Reads in the Running Game?

The majority of Florida's offense will come out of the shotgun, which is a whole new world for Driskel, who has been under center for the majority of his Florida career. 

Just how much rust needs to be knocked off in the read option? Will that leg injury impact Driskel's decision-making?

Quarterbacks won't take hits during the spring game, but Roper will still run his offense. When the Gators run zone reads, keep an eye on Driskel. Is he properly reading the defensive end? Is Florida advanced enough in its offensive installation to run some zone reads off of the outside linebacker?

Don't worry about that leg injury, though, because Driskel is confident that he's back.

“I want to show them that I’m confident, that I didn’t let the Miami game or the injury take away from my confidence,’’ Driskel said according to Carter. “And I want to show everyone that I’m having fun out there playing the game.”

 

Is There a Viable Backup?

Driskel is the unquestioned starter at Florida, but let's be honest, he doesn't instill a ton of confidence based on his track record. He is set for a bounce-back season in this offense, but what if that doesn't happen?

Tyler Murphy and Skyler Mornhinweg weren't ready for the big stage when they both got shots last year after Driskel went down. Mornhinweg is back, along with hot-shot early enrollee Will Grier. Grier, a former 4-star prospect, has the athletic ability to be a dual-threat but is a passer first. 

Is he the future of the quarterback position in Gainesville? 

He'll get a shot to impress the coaches and fans on spring's biggest stage. 

The ideal scenario for Florida would be for both Mornhinweg and Grier to prove that they are viable backups and can win games. If that happens, Mornhinweg can be the backup that steps on the field in a pinch or in mop-up duty, and Grier could possibly redshirt unless the staff needs a long-term replacement for whatever reason. 

 

* Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All statistics are courtesy of CFBStats.com, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.com.

 


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Tennessee Football: Complete Spring Game Preview

It would be difficult to script a better spring finale for the Tennessee Volunteers and head coach Butch Jones.

Saturday's weather is supposed to be perfect, competition promises to be intense, and the hype surrounding all the new faces and intriguing position battles has all the trappings of a large crowd in Neyland Stadium.

The Vols made it through spring practice without any catastrophic injuries (so far), and while there are numerous questions that can't be answered until deep into the fall, UT made a lot of headway in finding some help on a team with needs all over the field.

Jones told ESPN.com's Chris Low that he expects this year's Vols will be faster and more athletic than his first team at Tennessee, and this will be the first opportunity for fans to see that firsthand.

Let's take a look at all you need to know about the Orange and White Game.

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Florida State Football: Complete Spring Game Preview

Florida State will finish up spring camp with its annual Garnet and Gold Game on Saturday afternoon. The intrasquad exhibition will broadcast live at 3:00 p.m. ET on ESPN's flagship channel because...well, this is college football in the year 2014.

Fresh off a BCS National Championship—the last BCS National Championship—in 2013-14, Seminoles stars such as Jameis Winston, Rashad Greene, Cameron Erving, Mario Edwards, Nate Andrews and Jalen Ramsey will take the field before public eyes for the first time since beating Auburn on a last-minute touchdown, 34-31.

However, the long list of players absent from last year's team is just as troubling as the list of returnees is encouraging. FSU dealt with a similar NFL exodus after 2012, which is reassuring, but there are still questions to answer up and down the depth chart.

Will Saturday provide an answer to all those questions? Of course not. Injuries to key young players and the impending arrival of 247Sports' No. 4 recruiting class make fall camp a pivotal exercise; the spring game is more about digging for clues than actually solving problems.

But it should still be a whole mess of fun.

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Georgia Football: Complete Spring Game Preview

For Georgia football fans in desperate need of gridiron action, this Saturday's spring game is as good as it gets—at least until August.

While the annual G-Day game always offers a respite for those who are tired of the long, monotonous offseason, this year's battle between the red and the black teams is particularly compelling thanks in no small part to a few vital changes.

New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and his new staff of assistants have renovated the defense, while the offense prepares to enter its first season since 2009 without Aaron Murray under center.

With changes brewing in Athens, here is everything you need to know about the Georgia Bulldogs' spring game.

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College Football Teams Embracing the Weird This Spring, and That's a Good Thing

The crowd was anxious, the pressure mounting as a human wall enclosed the scene. It all came down to one short field goal, a chip shot by most kickers’ standards. The snap was low—but good enough—and the holder quickly inverted the football and placed it on the ground, just like he has done a thousand times before.

All eyes then turned to the kicker, undersized and inexperienced.

As the approach toward the ball began, there was silence. Only the thumping base and the faint sound of music could be heard in the background. And that’s when Nicki Meyer—the daughter of Ohio State coach Urban Meyer—sent her kick sailing past Ohio State’s mascot, Brutus the Buckeye, whose cartoonish large hands came just short of YouTube greatness.

While the kick was off course, Brutus’ redemption from last season’s spring embarrassment would have to wait for another year.

This was the scene at Ohio State on April 5 for the third annual Student Appreciation Practice, where approximately 2,500 Ohio State fans attended, according to the school. There was actual football sprinkled in, of course, but this day—in large part—was constructed for the fans.

Some attendees got to race players, while others showed up for signatures. Others—including Nicki Meyer—even attempted a field goal with the Buckeye team. The scene was strange, unnecessary and absolutely magnificent.

The fact that a major football program took time out of an integral part of its limited interaction with players is telling. It's also good for the average fan. And thankfully, such hands-on spring opportunities are now becoming protocol and will only continue to evolve.

Ohio State has bridged the gap between team and fans by opening up its doors for a day. Others, like Georgia, are allowing one lucky fan to draw up his or her very own offensive play for its spring football game.

If you’ve wanted to embrace your inner Art Briles from your couch with your son or daughter’s colored pencils, the Bulldogs are giving you that chance. And if it’s good enough, it might just go from concept to creation in one of the SEC’s biggest offseason scrimmages.

Bulldog Nation, you can call a play for UGA. Email a diagram of your idea to kmcdaniel@sports.uga.edu & we'll pick the best to run at G-Day!

— John Lilly (@JohnLillyUGA) April 9, 2014

One play not enough? Well, how about something more. How about getting paid to kick a 50-yard field goal or out-throw a college quarterback? (Reconstructive shoulder surgery and meniscus operations are NOT included, at least as far as we know.)

That’s what Arizona is offering at its spring game, which means it’s time to bust out the Sambas and give it a go.

Arizona offering $500 if a student can kick a 50-yarder at the spring game pic.twitter.com/hIOBsHygsG (via @danielfheck)

— darren rovell (@darrenrovell) April 11, 2014

Still not good enough? Well, then this is probably right up your alley. How would you like to take over the head coaching reins at a major program for an entire day?

You can, if you’re the highest bidder on eBay.

Arkansas State and the Red Wolves Foundation are currently offering this possibility to the individual who comes out on top of this lovely eBay listing. As outlined in the description on the page, your experience will include the following:

·       Head Coach for the game on Friday, April 18.

·       Give the pregame and halftime talk.

·       You choose whether your team 'goes for it' or punts on 4th down.

·       You get to call for the deep ball, trick play, run or pass, blitz, etc.

·       On headset with the staff throughout the entire game.

·       Winning Coach will receive a Powerade bath (and bragging rights)!

·       Photos of your Coaching Experience.

·       Coaching Gear.

Admit it. You’ve always wanted to enjoy the shocking chill of a sports drink being dumped on your head in large amounts by players who are contractually obligated to call you “Coach” for a few hours.

Haven’t we all.

While most teams have yet to take it as far as Arkansas State has, some—including Ohio State, Georgia and others—are pushing this involvement further. They’re doing so because many teams do care about appealing to their fanbases, but it’s also good for business.

If you’re a major program, this is a no-brainer. While the limited practice hours are vital for player development and system familiarity, improving the relationship with your fans can have benefits beyond those benefiting directly from what you’re offering.

It garners attention—like this article you’re reading right now—and the countless other blog posts that were made to highlight a fact that a team put coaching duties on eBay. It’s marketing and in the age of social media, it has a chance of hitting more eyeballs than ever before.

If you do something cool and different, chances are it will spread through the various news mediums with tremendous pace.

Marketing—in the college football realm—can mean much more than headlines and shares on Facebook. It can also help out brand awareness and, in turn, recruiting. While it’s a leap to assume that paying fans for 50-yard field goals will suddenly flood the cupboard with 5-star talents, the extra attention certainly can’t hurt these efforts.

At the very least, there will be discussions taking place about a school (or team) that wouldn't have transpired in the first place.

For the fans, regardless of the intentions, they should embrace the opportunities. The sport can be robotic in ways, especially come fall, and coaches and players rarely break character given its cutthroat nature. Involving the fans for a day is a chance for everybody to let down their guard. In its simplest form, it's a way to feel like you're a part of the team you care far too deeply about.

Even if it's only a few hours, you might be a big part for that day. 

So let’s get weird. Bring on the mascots blocking field goals, Joe Bulldog’s version of Four Verts, the eBay coaches, the $500 pipe-dream field goals and whatever else you have in store. 

Market yourselves accordingly. Just bring us along for the ride.

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