NCAA Football News

Jeremy Johnson Named Auburn Starting QB, Has Skill Set to Be Heisman Contender

Everything about Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson screams "Cam Newton 2.0."

Johnson chimes in at 6'5", 230 pounds, has the same size and arm strength of the former Auburn signal-caller who led the Tigers to the 2010 national title and has the same kind of tough running ability between the tackles. 

Even their separate paths to become Auburn's starting quarterback are similar.

Newton held off a "heated" spring competition in 2010 that included Barrett Trotter, Neil Caudle and Clint Moseley to earn the starting job a week after spring practice. In 2015, it took head coach Gus Malzahn—who was Newton's offensive coordinator on the Plains—only two days to hand Johnson the job over Sean White and Tyler Queen.

Can he follow in Newton's footsteps and take home the Heisman Trophy?

Yep, and here's why:

 

Passing Prowess

Unlike former quarterback Nick Marshall, Johnson will take the job on a full-time basis with the passing prowess of a seasoned veteran.

The world got a taste of Johnson during the season opener last season, when he lit up Arkansas' defense for 243 yards and two touchdowns in the first half in place of the suspended Marshall. It was more of the same during Auburn's spring game on Saturday, when he completed 14-of-22 for 252 passes and two touchdowns.

During that game, he showed off his accuracy deep on several tough passes, including a touchdown to star wide receiver D'haquille "Duke" Williams and a fullback wheel route to Chandler Cox. He looked in command of the offense, comfortable with the timing routes (which was Marshall's biggest problem) and capable of putting up the 3,000 passing yards he set as a goal during the middle of spring practice while on the SEC Network.

"I'm very excited about this year, and I'm pretty sure the rest of the guys are, too," Johnson said after Saturday's A-Day Game, according to Charles Goldberg of AuburnTigers.com. "We're just coming on as a team and building team chemistry on and off the field."

Will that increased focus on the aerial attack change Auburn's offense?

Absolutely, but with veteran receivers such as Williams, Louis, Melvin Ray, Marcus Davis and fresh faces including spring star Myron Burton, there are plenty of options for Johnson—all of whom look capable of exploiting mismatches.

If he tops the 3,000-yard mark in Malzahn's run-based, power attack out of the spread, it will keep Auburn in the thick of the SEC West title race and sit well with Heisman voters who are seemingly always blinded by shiny passing statistics.

 

Scheme

Speaking of Heisman voters being impressed with video game numbers, Auburn's system under Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee is ready-made to send Johnson past that 3,000-yard passing mark and enter into uncharted passing waters in Auburn.

Malzahn was the first FBS coordinator in history to produce a 5,000-yard passer, 1,000-yard rusher and three 1,000-yard receivers in the same season when he did it at Tulsa in 2007. 

Is that harder to do at Auburn? Of course. Players and coaches are better, and Malzahn certainly won't sneak up on other coaches now like he did in 2007—which was just his second season in the college ranks. 

But the system works regardless, and now that Johnson is officially the starter—which was the worst-kept secret in the SEC—he has an entire summer to continue developing that relationship with his receivers and the staff, which will only help him progress from the potential star we've seen in spot duty during his career.

Auburn isn't the most quarterback-friendly system in the country. It's close, though, despite the fact that Malzahn didn't show it over the last two seasons with Marshall at the helm.

When you combine the veteran skill players returning with Johnson's familiarity with the high-octane scheme that's in place, you have the recipe for Heisman success.

 

Ground-and-Pound

Newton was the kind of quarterback—similar to former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow—that made 3rd-and-short the football equivalent of a gimme in golf.

Johnson can replicate that in 2015. 

He set the goal of 1,000 rushing yards in that interview with SEC Network, and while that may be lofty, doing the dirty work inside is more than enough to keep Heisman voters happy and keep Auburn in the national picture.

He has the frame to take the punishment and, in the limited time we've seen him on the ground, always seems to fall forward—just like Newton.

He's more than just a bruiser, though. As you can see in the video above from his senior season at Carver High School in Montgomery, Alabama, Johnson (No. 6 in white) has breakaway speed and is much more elusive in space than you'd expect from a big guy.

That doesn't mean he's going to be a home run hitter, but he's capable of doing that at times, which will undoubtedly play well on his potential Heisman highlight reel.

Johnson allows Malzahn to replicate the same type of offensive scheme that won Newton the Heisman Trophy and Auburn the national title in 2010 more so than any other quarterback Malzahn has had since then.

If all goes according to plan, the script will lead Johnson to New York City in early December as a Heisman finalist.

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports' composite rankings.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and college football video analyst for Bleacher Report, as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on Sirius 93, XM 208.

Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

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Who Will Emerge as Brad Kaaya's Top Target for Miami Hurricanes in 2015?

The Miami Hurricanes graduated a ton of their top offensive players from 2014, leaving a huge void for Brad Kaaya and the Hurricanes offense. 

Bleacher Report college football analyst Michael Felder joined Stephen Nelson to discuss Miami's offense and potential returning players who could step up for the 'Canes. 

Who will step up for Miami? Check out the video, and let us know! 

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OSU Spring Buzz: Barrett Finally Looks Healthy, but Jones Still Leads QB Battle

Ohio State is the defending national champion, and it is looking to make another run at the title this year with a roster loaded with absolute studs. 

Adam Lefkoe sits down with Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Adam Kramer to discuss the takeaways from the Ohio State spring game. 

How good can this year's Ohio State team be? Check out the video, and let us know!

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President Barack Obama Leads 'O-H-I-O' Chant During Buckeyes' White House Visit

The national champion Ohio State Buckeyes made their trip to the White House on Monday, and President Barack Obama wasted no time in making the team feel right at home.

Once he stepped to the podium, President Obama led the room in Ohio State's signature "O-H-I-O" chant:

[The White House]

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Pro Player Comparisons for College Football's Top 25 Stars

As we look forward to watching today's college football stars play on Saturdays this fall, we can't help but wonder how they'd look if they were instead performing one day later each week.

In projecting what kind of a pro career a collegiate standout would have, it's common to compare his skills, size and mindset to that of someone who's currently in the NFL or was one of the more notable players at their position. This isn't a foolproof method, but it's one that pro scouts use to assess talent and it at least gives us some idea of how the best college players would handle the next level.

Take a look at our pro player comparisons for college football's 25 best players, chosen based on their rankings in Bleacher Report's list of the country's top sophomores and juniors and the top overall players heading into spring practice, listed alphabetically.

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5-Year-Old Yells 'Roll Tide!' When Groom Kisses Bride at Alabama Wedding

Alabama fans are some of the most loyal and diehard supporters on Earth.

As evidence, check out a five-year-old kid yelling "Roll Tide!" as the groom kisses the bride at a wedding.

A reader emailed Barstool Sports and elaborated on the scream:

I was at my girlfriends cousins wedding this weekend and they are all huge Alabama fans. As soon as they announced you may kiss the bride her 5 year old cousin screamed out “Roll Tide!!!”

[Barstool Sports]

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Every SEC Team's 2015 Spring Football MVP

Spring practice is in the books around the majority of the SEC, with a few other schools wrapping up their sessions this spring with spring games.

For some schools, established stars have taken the next step. Others have seen unknown players step up to the forefront and contend for playing time in the fall.

Who have been the stars of the spring around the SEC?

Our picks based on results, talent, scheme and opportunity are in this slideshow.

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Which Players Will Step Up and Replace FSU's NFL-Bound Stars?

The Florida State Seminoles are sending a slew of talented players to the NFL draft. After winning the national title in 2014 and cracking the first-ever College Football Playoff last season, FSU has a deep talent pool.

But who will step up for the Seminoles in the wake of all the NFL departures? 

Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder and Stephen Nelson discuss the current Seminoles and who will fill voids at all the major positions. 

Who will step up? Check out the video and let us know! 

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Which 2015 Clemson Signee Has the Most Upside?

Clemson had a fantastic 2015 recruiting class. The Tigers continue to build toward the future behind head coach Dabo Swinney. 

Stephen Nelson sits down with Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder to discuss the 2015 Clemson signee who can make a huge impact. 

Which 2015 Clemson signee will make a huge impact next season? Check out the video and let us know!

 

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Rapid-Fire Predicting Winners of College Football's Biggest QB Battles

Top programs in college football are in the midst of a quarterback battle. These positions are up for grabs heading into spring football. 

Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Barrett Sallee and Adam Kramer give their picks for the starters when the season begins for these top teams. 

Who do you think will win these battles? Check out the video and let us know!

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Tennessee OL Breaks Out 'The Whip' Dance at Student Practice, Kills It

The Tennessee Volunteers held a student practice this past weekend to show appreciation to fans and to add a game-day atmosphere for players.

Toward the end, offensive lineman Kyler Kerbyson wanted to show his appreciation by showing off his dance moves. 

The 317-pound lineman busted out the famous "whip" dance as fans circled around him. Of course, the belly was out to play as well.

Break it down, big man.

[Twitter, UT Sports]

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2015 Tennessee Signee Has 'Potential to Be Future No. 1 NFL Draft Pick'

The Tennessee Volunteers have been on an absolute tear in the recruiting world. The Volunteers are stockpiling talent to make a run at the SEC East title. 

Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder gives his 2015 Tennessee recruit with the most upside. 

Which recruit do you think has the most upside? Check out the video and let us know!

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College Football's Most Important Offers of the Week

LSU is known as “DBU” thanks to the success they’ve had recently in producing standout defensive backs.

However, given the success of former Tigers wide receivers such as Dwayne Bowe—and more recently Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry—Les Miles’ club is becoming a factory for producing high-caliber pass-catchers. 

Last week, Miles and his staff offered one 2016’s top athletes in 4-star Trevon Diggs—who most schools are recruiting to play receiver.  

The 6’0”, 183-pounder—who rates as the nation’s No. 5 athlete and No. 88 player overall in the 2016 class—recently named fellow SEC West power Alabama as his leader.

Florida, Maryland and Penn State are among the schools that have also been involved with Diggs—who is the younger brother of former Maryland star wideout Stefon Diggs. 

As Ryan Bartow of 247Sports noted, the younger Diggs has mentioned taking a trip down South to visit a number of schools, with LSU being included in that list.

The Tigers already have a pair of commitments at receiver in the 2016 class, but Diggs is one of the more explosive receiver prospects in the country. 

Given LSU’s recent success with producing star receivers, Miles and his staff have enough clout to sell Diggs on the idea of potentially heading to Baton Rouge for college.

 

FSU Offers 2016 In-State Safety 

Florida State is another school that has had success in recruiting elite defensive backs in recent years.

The Seminoles offered 2016 4-star safety Craig Watts last week while he made an unofficial visit to campus: 

“I was so happy,” Watts told Josh Newberg of Noles247. “FSU was always my dream school. I don’t even know - I was just happy.”

Watts now lists the ‘Noles along with Notre Dame and Ohio State as the schools currently at the forefront of his recruitment. 

The Saint Petersburg, Florida, native has more than 30 offers to his credit and rates as the nation’s No. 11 safety in the 2016 class.

 

West Virginia Offers 2017 5-Star RB 

247Sports released their new rankings for the 2017 class earlier this week, with 5-star Philadelphia native D’Andre Swift checking in as the nation’s top all-purpose back.

The 5’9”, 195-pounder already has 14 offers, with West Virginia being the latest school to enter the mix for Swift's services, according to Chris Anderson of 247Sports:

Alabama, Michigan and Penn State are among the other schools who are involved with Swift in the early stages of his recruitment.

Swift is the nation’s No. 20 overall player in the 2017 class.

 

2018 QB Nets Trio of Big Offers

With the recent wave of quarterback commitments in the 2016 class, it’s clear that interest at the position is getting started earlier each year.

Last week, Joey Gatewood—who has three years left to play on the prep level—picked up offers from Florida and Ohio State.

According to ESPN’s Derek Tyson, Miami also tendered the 2018 standout from Jacksonville.

Florida State, South Carolina and UCLA are among the other schools who have already offered the 6’3”, 206-pounder.

 

Best of the Rest

 

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

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7-Year-Old Rice Signee Showing He's Way More Than a Publicity Stunt

Rice football head coach David Bailiff used several powerful adjectives to describe seven-year-old signee Fre'Derick Young-Redd III.

"Intelligent," "strong," "witty," "inquisitive" and "energetic," Bailiff offered, among others.

Bailiff then went on to give him one of the greatest compliments of his young life.

"He's a fighter," Bailiff told Bleacher Report. "Someone I'm proud to have on my team."

When he talks about the new signee, Bailiff speaks of someone who will be an outstanding asset to the Rice football team. He's a young cub with the heart of a lion, particularly with the life he's lived.

For starters, he is a survivor of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL, a form of cancer starting from white blood cells in the bone marrow. ALL develops either from lymphocytes, a specific type of white blood cell central to the immune system, or from lymphoblasts, an immature type of lymphocyte.

Call him Ziggy. All of his family and friends do, as well as his new teammates: the members of the Rice football team.

The guys he considers "his brothers."

"I never had big brothers before," Ziggy said. "They make me feel like I'm part of the team forever."

 

"I'm Going to Help Motivate Them"

Born in Greenville, Mississippi, Ziggy moved with his family to the Greater Houston area and received cancer treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Doctors first diagnosed him with ALL as a four-year-old. His cancer went into remission in 2013 but returned the following year.

Ziggy first connected with the Rice players a couple of months ago during an inpatient hospital visit. After conversing and playing a couple of games, it didn't take long for Ziggy to make a great impression with the Rice players, particularly quarterback Driphus Jackson.

"The biggest thing that got me with him was his character," Jackson said. "When we first went to go visit him, just seeing how big his eyes got is something I'll never forget. He warmed up to us instantly.

"At first, he was kind of shy with us, but once we got the football in his hands, and once we got him moving around, he really opened up to us. We did warm-up drills, and he picked up where we started. At seven, that's phenomenal."

Once viewed as an introvert, Ziggy, when in the Rice locker room, is now looked at as just another teammate. He stretches with the team. He runs routes with receivers. He does drills with the running backs. Bailiff even had him working with the special teams group attempting to kick field goals.

And like any good player wanting to help his teammates get better, he isn't ashamed to express himself for the good of the team.

"He told me that he thought some of the players weren't running hard enough. That was absolutely comical," Bailiff said. "He's told a couple guys they need to keep their grades up. He's not that shy little boy we saw at the press conference."

"They needed to work harder," Ziggy added. "I'm going to help motivate them."

Every good team needs a player or two like that—regardless of his age.

 

The Big Surprise

The entire signing ceremony came as a shock to Ziggy. Credit Ziggy's mother, Philandis Stovall, for that. She said he didn't have any idea what was going on until she told him as they were sitting down before the start of the ceremony.

And when he signed, he gave a short but sincere acceptance speech, one that triggered a large ovation from excited Rice teammates.

"He said, 'Thanks for allowing me to be a part of your team,'" Stovall said. "He interacts well with people, and people seem to embrace him, sometimes just by looking at him. If you meet him for the first time, you'd probably think he was older than he was."

After the signing, Ziggy later went to practice. He had his questions, of course.

"He said, 'Can I talk to you?'" Bailiff said. "Then he asked, 'Those guys over there...they're my teammates? Is that stadium mine? How about the clock?'"

Quick and witty, Ziggy knows how to put a smile on every face around the facility. His charm is one of his many assets. His refusal to live life with a frown is another. For someone fighting cancer for the second time—in such a short amount of time—his attitude toward everything is beyond impressive.

"The fact this football team keeps his spirits up, it really says a lot," Bailiff said. "What's best is, I think he's actually helped some of our young men more than they've helped him."

In addition to his cancer treatments, Ziggy has also conquered both kidney failure and pneumonia. He has been in intensive care for both, and on both occasions he's come out on top.

Stovall calls her son "the miracle child" and firmly believes that he's where he is now because of "the two F's."

"It's fight and faith," she said. "Chemo is not your average treatment...but you can't even tell he's a cancer patient. That's how he handles it."

Jackson added: "Seeing him, it melts you. You ask yourself, 'What more can I do for him?'"

 

Learning From Brothers

Ziggy has a younger sister, four-year-old Zai. He's now proud to have an extensive family of more than 100 brothers and more than two dozen father figures with the Rice coaching staff and administration.

One of the players who first built a relationship with Ziggy was Jackson. As the youngest sibling in his immediate family, Jackson said he always gravitates to younger kids in an effort to play the big-brother role.

"To see him gravitate toward me, as well, that was a big thing for me," Jackson said, "It was probably bigger for me than it was for him."

Since the initial meeting, Jackson and Ziggy have been nearly inseparable. Now a member of the team, Ziggy makes it a priority to do everything his teammates do on the field. He practices very hard on campus and is making sure he is working hard away from campus.

His mother even said the signing has made Ziggy want to do more both athletically and academically.

"With academics, we were doing homework through the week. Now we do it on weekends, too," Stovall said. "I was working out before, but now he'll say, 'Mom, let's go work out.' He's definitely picked it up.

"Overall, with everything he's been through and is going through, the good still outweighs the bad."

The energy of this seven-year-old, Jackson said, will win over the coldest individual. It's his intelligence and free spirit that will put him over the top—particularly when he understands his situation but won't allow it to get him down.

Complaints are minimal. He never uses his condition as a crutch.

In short, he's a warrior. It's one of the many reasons why Rice wanted to sign him. It's also why he's so welcome within the Rice program.

"Having Ziggy a part of this team is like a mother or father hearing their child say his first words," Jackson said. "That's how excited I am, personally, having him on the team. I want to learn how he gets the strength he has. He's just an amazing young man."

 

Damon Sayles is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand. Follow Damon via Twitter: @DamonSayles

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5 Top Performing QB Recruits from 2015 Washington, D.C., Elite 11 Regional

Premier prospects and surprise standouts took center stage during Washington, D.C., Elite 11 Regional action Sunday, April 19. Many of the Mid-Atlantic's most dynamic quarterbacks, ranging from high school freshmen to juniors, arrived at Centreville High School in Clifton, Virginia, with ambitions to prove they belong among the best.

Bleacher Report enjoyed an up-close look at drills and competition, identifying players who flourished under pressure. We also caught up with camp leader Matt James, who kept his eyes on the competition and helped determine who ultimately entered the final "Pressure Chamber" phase, to find out what he thought of each top performer.

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Breaking Down Top College Football QB Battles Following Key Spring Games

April 17-18 was unofficially known as "Quarterback Battle Weekend" because of the handful of high-profile position battles in team spring games. Of the more than 40 spring games that weekend, seven took center stage because of quarterback competitions: Alabama, Auburn, Louisville, LSU, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Texas. 

Did we get a ton of answers coming out of the weekend? Not quite. 

In fact, all of the aforementioned quarterback battles will continue into the summer months and preseason camp. There are clear leaders in some instances, for sure. Auburn's Jeremy Johnson looks like the No. 1 guy for the Tigers by a landslide. 

Other competitions, like those under way at Alabama, LSU, Notre Dame and Texas, are still a dead heat. Others, like those at Ohio State and Louisville, won't really kick off until later because of injuries. 

Still, last weekend provided a glimpse at where things stood. Here's what we learned from the major quarterback battles based on performances and coach quotes. 

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Why Alabama Solved Its Biggest Issue During Spring Practice

Alabama head coach Nick Saban's reaction to the play of his quarterbacks in the 2015 spring game on Saturday wasn't exactly a ringing endorsement.

"There can be no great conclusions drawn from anything that happened today, other than we were pleased in what we saw in some of the guys," he said in quotes emailed by Alabama. "We will certainly take that into fall camp and summer and try to build on it. I was encouraged by the way the first offense played."

Not the most surprising thing in the world. With five quarterbacks vying for playing time, the best-case scenario for Alabama this spring was to narrow its race down to two. It appears to have done that, with redshirt senior Jake Coker leading the way ahead of redshirt freshman David Cornwell.

While all eyes were on the quarterbacks, though, Alabama was busy solving its most pressing issue of the offseason as it closed up shop on spring practice—cornerback.

Redshirt freshman and former 5-star prospect Marlon Humphrey picked off a pass, broke up another and had eight total tackles. Fellow corner Anthony Averett notched a pick, pass breakup and three tackles, sophomore Tony Brown played well and the secondary as a whole looked much more comfortable than it did last year thanks to the emergence of safety Ronnie Harrison.

The Tide finished with six interceptions, and the two offenses combined to post just 426 total passing yards, according to stats released by the school.

Humphrey's alma mater Hoover High School seemed pleased with his play.

This is huge news for Alabama and its hopes of repeating as SEC champs. 

The Crimson Tide gave up 133 passing plays of 10 or more yards last year—the worst mark in the SEC. The inconsistency of the secondary has been the major reason Alabama has lost big games over the last two seasons, including the 2015 and 2014 Sugar Bowls, as well as the 2013 Iron Bowl.

Sure, play of the wide receivers was one of the most pleasant surprises of the game, which typically would be an indictment of the secondary. But there weren't major breakdowns in coverage, and even on the longest pass play of the game—the 40-yarder to ArDarius Stewart—the coverage was decent.

With Cyrus Jones—a bona fide star—out this spring, Alabama needed several reliable options to step forward and give confidence to Saban, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and new defensive backs coach Mel Tucker.

They have that now.

As Kevin Scarbinsky of AL.com notes, the quarterback position is under control thanks to the presence of offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. That's not going to be an issue in Tuscaloosa, even though the battle is still unresolved at the moment.

The cornerback issue is a much more pressing and lingering issue that Alabama has to overcome if it's going to win its first national title since 2012. 

The spring game proved that it's well on its way to doing that.

A little bit of stability will go a long way for the Crimson Tide defense. The front seven is deep, talented and versatile, and the world saw that again on Saturday during A-Day. All Alabama needs is a secondary that can take advantage of the pressure generated up front at key times, and the Tide will be all set.

So far, so good.

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com, unless otherwise noted, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports' composite rankings.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and college football video analyst for Bleacher Report, as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on Sirius 93, XM 208.

Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

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Every College Football Conference's Top Heisman Contender for 2015

Across the nation, teams are wrapping up their spring football practices. Saturday is the final major day for spring games, after which programs will turn their focus to summer workouts in preparation for the 2015 season.

It’s the perfect time to start thinking about award candidates for the 2015 season—specifically for the Heisman Trophy, the most coveted individual award in college football. With 2014’s winner Marcus Mariota gone to the NFL, we will have a new player hoisting the stiff-arm trophy in New York in mid-December.

The candidate list is lengthy for what will be a wide-open race. Here’s a look at the top Heisman candidate from each conference. Candidates were selected for their skills, potential, past performance and ability to win the award. Here we go!

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B/R Behind the Scenes: Butch Jones Cultivating a New Culture on Rocky Top

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — They trickled into the Anderson Training Center's team room individually, in cliques or in clusters.

But from the moment head coach Butch Jones began the afternoon of meetings with a simple "'Sup, men?" that was met with an in-unison echo of "Sup!" those loose groups fused into one Tennessee football team.

Through the next four hours, they were a single living, breathing, chaotic organism.

The outside world was shut out as players raced from that large auditorium to more intimate settings for positional groupings where cut-up, high-definition practice film awaited. Meetings ticked off at a rat-tat-tat, machine-gun pace. Coaches peppered players with questions at each stop, and they answered, filling notebook pages.

The Vols meet and conduct film study like they want to play football: so fast that every morsel of every second is wrung dry.

"It's defined in one word: culture," Jones said. "Everything is about our culture; the standard, the expectations that are in place from on the field to off the field. Our practice expectations, our style of play, team chemistry, academic excellence, everything we talk about within our football program, we all have the same goals, dreams and aspirations."

The Vols took the first steps of a program rebirth with 2014's frenetic finish that culminated with a convincing victory over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl in January.

A winning season and an upstart team of young, talented players gave way to national media projecting the possibility of a return to championship contention on Rocky Top in 2015.

But those are big things not meant for today. Today is about the details that Vols players and coaches say universally—almost robotically—will add up to accolades.

"Pay attention, stay focused, stay locked in," rising senior LaDarrell McNeil said of the atmosphere. "There's just an electric energy in the building and around the program."

"We're all for each other."

That oneness, Jones and the players believe, is the biggest change in a program left forgotten following the failed coaching tenures of Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley.

To understand Tennessee's transformation under Jones is to see the way this business is conducted behind the scenes.

Bleacher Report joined the Vols for exclusive access inside the Anderson Training Center for a weekend of meetings, weight lifting, training and practice to try to find the heart that beats in one of the nation's up-and-coming programs.

 

Buying in to Butch

Curt Maggitt remembers the first week of meetings under Jones and the quizzical looks shot between players. There was admittedly a little "who is this guy?" vibe.

"Looking back on it, I can say he was very specific about small things like being 15 minutes early to a meeting, having your notebook open, sitting up straight," said the senior defensive end/outside linebacker and the Vols' emotional leader.

"Guys at first were like, 'Come on now, we're going to do this in a meeting?'"

It was a massive change from the previous coaches. The current staff wants no time wasted on its watch.

With all his slogans and daily self-improvement messages, Jones can sometimes seem like a walking motivational poster, but he lives it. The structure was nice for a team that had lacked it, even if results weren't immediate.

McNeil said that gradual acceptance came because the coaches seemed not only to care about winning but about them.

"Honestly, it's just the family structure," McNeil said. "It's not just everyone for themselves. It's like we are all a family, so we all have each other's backs. Even with the coaches, the players have the coaches' backs, and the coaches have the players' back. We're one big family, and we want to win."

Though none of the upperclassmen pointed a finger at the old regime, hearing them talk about how much improved the detail and organization are now versus then is fascinating.

Dooley cared about off-field details such as shower hygiene and helping start the Vol For Life program, but the elements of winning football games were nonexistent.

Jones implemented his structure-oriented style at UT in 2013, and the players bought in. Things began falling into place: grades, body changes, time management, on-field improvement.

Those early indications of a program change were enough for many of the upperclassmen to believe, even if the wins weren't present.

"They were a tremendous help," defensive coordinator John Jancek said of the holdovers from the previous regime. "We talk about being accountable to your teammates, and those guys really believe in that and reinforce it. So, that's important to have players saying it and not just the coaches always saying it."

Though another bowl-less postseason followed Jones' first campaign on Rocky Top, his mission statement got the biggest endorsement possible last year: a winning season.

The Vols finished 2014 by winning four of their final five games, which was kick-started by an overtime win against South Carolina.

Now, everybody believes.

"I think the South Carolina game was very, very important," Maggitt said. "I think that was the turning point. Everybody was bought-in even more. I think it was good for these young guys to see that firsthand."

Now, Maggitt can recall that transitional period to Jones fondly.

When young guys now have those puzzled looks the first time coaches lay ground rules about meeting attentiveness, note taking and other stuff, Maggitt steps in.

"Like he said, it's the small things and inches that matter in a win," Maggitt said. "I can now see a picture of why he was so critical on small things, and I'm making sure the other guys understand that as well."

 

Details Making a Difference

The attention to detail isn't exclusive to the team meeting rooms or on the field, either. It reaches across every football facet in the Anderson Training Center, a state-of-the-art facility that, while already in the works before Jones arrived, has the coach's fingerprints all over it.

It's in the expansive weight room's orange-and-white weights, racked meticulously and awaiting strength and conditioning coach Dave Lawson to decide how to work out the team each day.

It's in Smokey's Grill, a cafeteria with specialized bars set up labeled carbohydrates, proteins, deli, salads, recovery and others.

It's in the facility's nutrition bar, where the players have their own cups adorned with labels detailing what shakes they need to help their bodies meet the demands of their positions.

It's in the sports medicine's training center housing multiple pools equipped with underwater cameras so trainers can watch the motion of athletes' legs as they rehab lower-body injuries.

And it's in something as simple as the open lobby that serves as not only the nexus for all football activities, as all the meeting rooms are adjacent to it, but also as the hallway that opens onto the outdoor practice field. Here is where all the trophies, bowl championships, a list of first-round draft picks and other accolades reside.

"Every day, we go through here to practice," said Jason Yellin, UT's assistant athletic director for media relations. "All around the players are constant reminders of greatness, what it's like to be great."

Though they're surrounded by excellence, that's a level these Vols know they haven't yet reached.

There's a hunger to get there, and Jones sees it where he hasn't before. Last summer when B/R sat down in his office to discuss the state of the program, Jones talked about how far away the program was.

It's closer now, and it directly affects the way the team feels about stepping in the complex each day.

"I do see that belief," Jones said. "That's born through confidence in finally some results but also confidence in the work ethic and the environment. There's an expectation, there's a standard, and we have competitive individuals now in our football program.

"We have individuals who take great pride in performance, in being here, and, again, they understand the culture, standards and expectations now.

"Are we there yet? No. We have to continue to make monumental strides, but I can tell you this: I have never looked more forward every day to coming to work for spring football than I have with this football team."

 

The Arrival of Accountability

In the defensive line session, highlights are greeted with "Oooohs" from the players, along with constant running commentary from coach Steve Stripling. Prior to each play, screams of nonsensical words fill the room as players make calls as if they were on the field.

During a lull in the on-screen action, tangential discussions veer from football for a few minutes. Stripling lets it go on for a few moments before calling on junior defensive tackle Danny O'Brien to calm the room. "Meeting room attention!" O'Brien shouts, and everybody shuts up and zones in.

"The only talking I want to hear occurring is from younger guys sitting next to older guys," Stripling said. "Teaching points, all right?"

It doesn't take long for an ideal illustration of this to manifest.

A nearly perfect play by freshman defensive end Andrew Butcher flashes across the projected screen. He flushes quarterback Joshua Dobbs out of the pocket to the right. With nobody open, Dobbs just throws it away, a win for the defense.

"Hand up, Butch! Get your hand up!" shouts Maggitt from the back of the room.

It turns out that the play, while productive, wasn't perfect. As Butcher strings out Dobbs toward the sideline, he is supposed to have his right hand up, guarding against a potential across-the-body pass attempt. Maggitt notices it immediately and points it out.

Butcher turns around and pays attention, nodding his head at the elder player. This interlude isn't interrupting the meeting; Stripling loves it.

When told of the episode, Jones does, too.

"In this league, it's all about split-second decisions, and it's the little things that add up to the big things that everyone sees and wants," Jones said. "That right there, you just defined our culture when you saw that. That's Curt Maggitt taking ownership in helping teach and coach a young freshman. Yeah, you made a good play, but you're supposed to mirror the off hand of the quarterback.

"So, I think that kind of defines everything we're kind of in continuation of building."

Tennessee's football meetings are a mixture of interactive teaching, business and fun. Coaches aren't there to present. Instead, they ask questions to the players, and the vast majority of the time while B/R observed, they answered correctly.

It wasn't uncommon for a player to get hammered for something he did wrong one minute and praised in the next.

At one point during the quarterbacks meeting, new offensive coordinator Mike DeBord showed a particular play, rewinding it several times.

"Right now, what are you thinking?" DeBord asked freshman Quinten Dormady. The quarterback began to answer, hesitant, pausing when he perhaps internally mistook silence as a reaction to an incorrect response.

"I'm asking," DeBord told him, "keep talking."

Once Dormady finished his answer, DeBord nodded, "There ya go!"

"It starts from the top down," Maggitt said of the vibe around team meetings. "Our coaches are accountable to one another, and we feed off that, and I think the hardest thing about players being accountable to one another is that line of respect where it's not like I'm trying to pick on you or criticize your work, but I want it for the betterment of the team.

"[This concept is] fairly new in our program. I think our meetings are very interactive from player to player, coach to player and player to coach. That camaraderie and that respect is all around for everyone in the room. We know we've got one goal, and we know there's a standard. When play is not met to that standard, in the past, I think people were a little bit shy to say something about it, but I think it's real good that now we can talk to one another and hold each other accountable."

Along with accountability, however, Maggitt said the second-most important change in this regime from the last is relationships. The word "family" was thrown around by most. But it isn't just lip service.

As players milled around between meetings, eight-year-old Andrew Jones, out of school for Good Friday, roamed the hallways. Butch Jones' youngest was born just three days before he accepted the head coaching job at Central Michigan University.

College football can be hard on families when you're accountable for nearly 100 young men. So, Jones brings his family to college football. It makes it more fun to let life seep into the business sometimes.

That family atmosphere bleeds into the team meetings as well.

Moments after dishing a hefty helping of constructive criticism to his team, Jones broke into a praise session with candy bar rewards. For good plays, Jones tossed Mr. Goodbars and PayDays. Nestle Crunches were handed out for big hits.

When Stripling later tosses a candy bar to Butcher in the defensive line meeting for making a good play, he asks, "You gonna eat it?"

"No," Butcher answers. "Why?" Stripling asked with a small smile.

"Linemen don't eat candy," Butcher said.

Somebody yells from the back of the room, "Weatherd's the candy man! Give it to him," referring to the 217-pound converted outside linebacker, Chris Weatherd, who'll need to add weight to play on the defensive line this fall.

Everybody laughs. It's a refreshing reminder for these kids that learning can be laced with levity.

 

The End of the Beginning

Lighthearted moments don't mean the Vols have lost sight of ultimate goals.

They're listed in the meeting rooms, and there are allusions to them throughout every conversation. But they ultimately boil down to one thing: returning Tennessee to competing for championships.

Nobody believes the Vols are a finished product, but the excitement to see just how far they've come is palpable. Finally, there's a chance the team could do big things in 2015.

"I think that drives us every day, and it gives us a great energy around the building like every single day, every practice, just knowing we can go out there and compete with great teams, other SEC teams," McNeil said. "That's what motivates us every day."

The end of the 2014 season felt like the beginning of something big. It wasn't just in the way the Vols won, according to Maggitt, but the feeling that they shared once the 45-28 TaxSlayer Bowl dismantling of Iowa was complete.

"We played pretty well toward the end of the season, and a lot of guys, myself included, we wish we could have had that mindset or playing that way throughout the whole season, and now we know what a little bit of success feels like," he said. "I know we're not to our goal yet, but we know what it feels like a little bit.

"So we've got to keep that momentum rolling through the offseason and training camp."

Jones spends countless hours critiquing himself and his team to find ways to do that. It's almost obsessive how each day—each minute—is accounted for.

When the schedule deviates, it's normally because they're striving to perfect something before moving on.

Restoring Tennessee drives Jones. Sometimes, the bags under his eyes are dead giveaways of sleep deprivation, and his hoarse voice is a constant companion from spending countless words teaching, correcting, perfecting.

The Vols aren't where their coach wants to be, but the naked truth is they never will be.

Perhaps that's what Tennessee fans should take away most from that steady, rapid heartbeat of the program.

Jones knows he can't let it stop beating.

"It's an inner drive to be great at everything you do," Jones said. "My worst fear as a head coach is you're always fighting human nature, and it's complacency. Complacency is a human condition. It's about keeping things focused on the task at hand, but you have to take the emotion out of it every day.

"When I go to bed at night, the last thing I do when I lay my head down on my pillow is I say, 'If I had the day to do over again, how would I do it differently? Did I get the most out of the day?' It's a constant evaluation process of yourself, your coaches, your players and your overall program. Leaders are driven that way, but they're also driven by doing things the right way.

"Like, I know we're nowhere near where we need to be as a football program or where we want to be, but we're getting there. I'm as impatient as anybody. I want things right now, just like our fanbase. But also I know the things we want that last over time take time. You don't fix six, seven, eight, nine years in one or two or three years. It's a course-of-time thing. Things that are built to last take time."

From the inside out, Tennessee is building for the long haul.

 

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Georgia Football: Projecting Bulldogs' Post-Spring 2-Deep Depth Chart

Now that spring practice is over for the Georgia Bulldogs, the countdown to the 2015 season begins.

There are still some things the Bulldogs need to take care of in order to get ready for fall Saturdays in Athens, and the first thing is summer workouts followed by fall camp. This year’s fall camp will be interesting because there will be new freshmen such as Trent Thompson and Terry Godwin in the mix.

Speaking of the depth chart, what does it look like now since spring practice is over? Who would be the starters and the reserves if the season were to start right now?

Here’s a look at the two-deep post-spring depth chart for the Bulldogs.

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