NCAA Football News

Auburn HC Gus Malzahn: Impact DE Carl Lawson's Return a 'Breath of Fresh Air'

ATLANTA — "Hello, boys. I'm baaaaaaack."

Carl Lawson isn't going to save the world like Randy Quaid's character did shortly after screaming that iconic line in Independence Day. He could, however, save an Auburn defense that was nearly as frightening last year when it gave up 398.8 yards per game, 26.7 points per game and 5.67 yards per play in 2014.

The redshirt sophomore defensive end sat out the entire season recovering from surgery to repair a torn ACL, one season after playing a big role in Auburn's run to the 2013 SEC championship.

As a true freshman, the 6'2", 257-pounder from Alpharetta, Georgia, notched 20 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks, while earning a more significant role as the season went on.

His return has head coach Gus Malzahn relieved and excited about the future.

"He’s like a breath of fresh air," Malzahn said on Wednesday prior to his Tiger Trek event in Atlanta. "Last year, it was very challenging to play without him because he’s an impact player and one of the better defensive players in the entire country. When you don’t have him, it’s tough."

How important is Lawson's return?

Auburn managed just 21 sacks last year, which was the fourth-worst mark in the conference. Malzahn and former defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson mixed and matched pieces all season long, to a point where hybrid safety/linebacker Brandon King even moved down to defensive end in the middle of the season in an effort to kick start the Tigers' stagnant pass rush.

"That was our Achilles' heel on defense," Malzahn said. "When you can’t put pressure on the quarterback, it makes it tough on everybody."

In the end, nothing worked. That was the biggest reason Johnson got shown the door and Malzahn welcomed former Florida head coach and noted defensive mind Will Muschamp back into the Auburn program as his new defensive coordinator.

Lawson's return is vital to the success of the 2015 Auburn defense.

"Muschamp needs Lawson to affect the pocket to help that secondary," Cole Cubelic, host of the Cole Cubelic Show on WUMP 730 in Huntsville told Bleacher Report in March. "If [Muschamp] is forced to overcommit to [bringing] pressure, you will see similar results as last year."

Lawson didn't play in the spring game, but that was just a precaution.

"He did all of the 'thud tempo,' which is everything except tackling the player to the ground," Malzahn said. "You always have to say 'whoa' to Carl anyway, which is a good thing and really makes him special. He’s very eager to get back out there.

"I really believe he’s back to 100 percent."

He participated in virtually every other aspect of spring other than live scrimmages, which helped Muschamp to install most of his scheme during the latter part of spring practice.

"Will has worked extremely hard," said Malzahn. "First of all, he had to evaluate our guys. The second part of spring, they started putting packages in and putting guys in different situations to see who can put some pressure on the quarterback."

More help could be coming.

The star of Auburn's ninth-ranked recruiting class in 2015 was 5-star defensive end Byron Cowart. At 6'4", 250 pounds, the top-ranked defensive end in the class is similar to Lawson in stature and has the same quick first step and violent hands that helped Lawson make an impact as a freshman two seasons ago.

Malzahn knows that while Muschamp accomplished his goals this spring, Cowart's presence could provide a little fuel additive to the new-look pass rush.

"I think [Cowart] could have a big impact," Malzahn said. "It’s going to be up to him. He’s going to have an opportunity. Carl Lawson made a big impact as a freshman, and I see a lot of similarities not only ability-wise, but also mindset-wise."

If all goes according to plan, the return of Lawson combined with the appearance of Cowart could turn Auburn's pass rush from a punchline into a power.

 

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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One Year Later: A College QB and a Bar Fight Gone Bad

MANKATO, Minn. — On any given Friday or Saturday night, the cluster of bars in downtown Mankato, Minnesota, near the intersection of Front and Cherry Streets, is a hive for 20-somethings, many of them students at nearby Minnesota State. People pop in and out of Rounders and Blue Bricks and other bars, loading up on cheap beer and cocktails. Then at around 2 a.m., closing time, they empty into the streets en masse, like puppies released from a pen.

As to be expected, the occasional fight breaks out. Alcohol and the hubris of youth puff the insignificant—a spilled drink, a misheard remark—into something bigger, hard words are spoken, and then…violence.

The fight that occurred early on the morning of May 11, 2014, was like most others in that it started over something trivial. According to court documents, Philip Nelson, then a 20-year-old quarterback at Rutgers, saw a bouncer at Blue Bricks kiss his girlfriend on the hand. This stewed inside him, and then he found himself outside, a little before 2 a.m.

He encountered 24-year-old Isaac Kolstad, a former football player at Minnesota State, who, like Nelson, grew up in the area. Nelson mistook Kolstad for the bouncer, according to court and police documents, had words with him and pushed Kolstad in the back. Friends briefly separated the two, but then Kolstad retaliated, running at Nelson and throwing a flying punch that sent him to the ground.

Seconds later, a man police would later say was Trevor Shelley, who went to high school with Nelson, entered the fracas. He blindsided Kolstad with a punch that knocked him unconscious, according to the criminal complaint filed by police. Kolstad's head hit the pavement. Witnesses would later tell of the horrifying thud they heard.

The fight—caught on video by a mounted police camera—featured one final savage act: Nelson walked to where Kolstad lay motionless near a stopped car and kicked him in the head.

"When the call came in, none of the responding officers would have thought this would be any different from other incidents in the area we have experienced," says Amy Vokal, the deputy director of the Mankato Department of Public Safety. "No one anticipated this would be as devastating as it turned out to be."

They could not have guessed the fight would put Kolstad in the hospital with brain injuries that doctors assumed would kill him. They could not know the incident would cost Nelson his scholarship at Rutgers, damage his NFL aspirations and initially lead to two felony assault charges. They certainly could not have predicted the reverberations from that night's events would continue a year later.

Today, Nelson is preparing to restart his college football career at South Alabama; Kolstad is battling the aftereffects of his devastating injuries; two well-liked local families remain at odds, each demanding their own version of justice. And there is the lingering unease the whole affair has caused among the citizens of Mankato, a place where "Minnesota Nice" remains a real sentiment.

"It is like a lake early in the morning, so calm, and then you throw some rocks in," says Kenneth White, a local attorney hired by the Kolstad family. "In this case, the rocks were the lives of these young men that sunk to the bottom, and it has created all these ripples."


When Molly Kolstad was awoken by a knock on her bedroom door at around 2:30 a.m. on May 11 and then told by one of Isaac's friends that her husband had been in a fight, she figured he had suffered, at worst, a black eye.

"I got up and was like, 'OK, I'll go to the hospital and bring him home,'" she said. If that had been the extent of his injuries, it would have made a good cocktail party story, how Isaac made his pregnant wife fetch him from the hospital…on Mother's Day.

"But then I got to the hospital and they asked me if I knew what Isaac's last wishes were."

Court documents state that the blows Kolstad took to the head fractured his skull, and then fluid filled his lungs, preventing air from reaching his brain. At Mayo Clinic Health Services hospital, he was immediately put on life support and placed in a medically induced coma, according to a blog the family updated.

During one procedure less than a week after the fight, a significant portion of dead brain tissue was removed to help with swelling. Other surgeries followed, and the consensus early on was that if Isaac lived—a big if—there was only a 3 percent chance he would emerge as a functional person.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Molly sat on a sofa in the living room of the Kolstad's home in a working-class neighborhood near downtown. Next to her was Isaac, who watched his two daughters—Haidyn, four, and nine-month-old Malia—play with photographs of the family spread out on the floor.

He isn't the same muscled former linebacker he once was. He moves gingerly now, and his right arm is slow to react, taking several seconds to, say, reach up and shake a visitor's hand. His speech is also slow and deliberate. But he is very much a functional individual. Molly calls him "my 3 percent man."

On weekdays, Molly takes the children to daycare and goes to work as a nurse at the hospital where Isaac was once a patient. Isaac vacuums, does laundry and makes the occasional grilled cheese. He also has physical therapy four days a week at a facility near Minneapolis and occupational and speech therapy at home.

"Before [the fight], I didn't have the determination I have now," Isaac says. "Now, if I can't do something, I want to try it again."

"I have never seen him frustrated," Molly added. "I get frustrated."

She flashes a smile at Isaac. "But not him. He's always positive. There was a time when he came out of the coma and asked, 'Why am I here?' and I told him what happened and I could see he was angry. That was my moment to say, 'We can't focus on that.' Once he was alert, we established we have to be positive or we won't get through this."

That the Kolstads are through to this point is a Mankato Miracle. It is a credit to their resolve, to the work of the doctors, nurses and therapists who helped Isaac and to the Kolstads' friends and family.

Isaac's employer at the time of the incident, Fastenal, an industrial supply company, raised more than $66,000 during a fundraiser and another $72,000 was donated online. A friend let Molly use a house near Minneapolis when Isaac was receiving treatment in the area, and there have been family members who assisted them in myriad ways during the eight total months he was in the hospital.

That included three days when Molly was also bedridden. On June 4, less than a month after the fight, Molly gave birth to Malia. Isaac was still in a coma at the time and in a room on the third floor of the hospital. Molly was on the fifth floor.

It was a difficult birth. Malia had the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck four times (she said she was told the record was five), necessitating an emergency C-section. Molly lost so much blood during the procedure she received a transfusion. "Nothing was easy in 2014," she said.

At the time of the fight, the Kolstads' life had momentum. They had purchased their first home less than a year earlier. Isaac had been hired as a salesman at Fastenal only four months prior. They had one child and another on the way.

The couple, who began dating when they were both seniors at Mankato East High, were rounding out their life together. Now they mark smaller milestones: the day Isaac stopped wearing a gait belt, which people used to catch him when he fell; his first shower unassisted; the day he ran the length of a basketball court without falling.

"We can't really look too far into the future," Molly said, "And we try and not look back. Anything that is not helpful we try and not let it in."

That proved difficult as the court case against Philip Nelson played out. On January 20, Blue Earth County Judge Bradley Walker reduced Nelson's charges to a single count of fifth-degree assault, a misdemeanor, to which Nelson pleaded guilty. Walker's decision came after medical experts concluded that Shelley's punch and Kolstad's head hitting the pavement—not anything Nelson did—likely caused Kolstad's brain damage.

Then came an emotionally charged sentencing hearing on March 2, 2015, during which Isaac labored through a statement about not being able to hold his children without someone watching him, and Molly also spoke. "Philip Nelson made decisions that night that left me with permanent brain damage," Isaac said.

They had hoped Nelson would get 90 days in jail, the maximum sentence, but Walker gave him 100 hours of community service, a $300 fine and two days in jail—time already served.

One of the methods James Fleming, Nelson's lawyer, used in his effort to get his client a lighter sentence was to submit to Judge Walker letters of support from people who knew Nelson. Among those who wrote on Nelson's behalf were his former Mankato West football coach, an academic adviser at Rutgers, parents of his high school friends, his pastor, even residents from the assisted-living facility where Nelson worked almost daily during his year away from football.

The tone and content of those letters are largely the same. They state that Nelson is a good, humble and hardworking person. They tell of moments he helped the injured and the elderly, when he excelled on the football field, in the classroom and in the community. They make clear that Nelson is not an egotistical, "pretty boy" quarterback, that he is not a bully.

That composite portrait rings true. That is how teammates and coaches described Nelson long before the events of May 11, 2014. He is a young man who made a singular mistake, and it is also true that he has suffered for that mistake.

Any discussion of what has happened to Nelson since the fight inevitably draws a comparison to Kolstad's anguish, for which there is no comparison. But Nelson's life was altered that night, too, one of the stones that sunk to the bottom.

"You have no idea how difficult this has been for him emotionally," said Pat Nelson, Philip's father. "And he was physically hurt in this, too, which many people don't know. He was treated for a severe concussion."

Philip Nelson could have been Rutgers' starting quarterback this coming year. He transferred there in January 2014 after playing two seasons at Minnesota, where he started 16 games.

Before that came a decorated high school career. One scouting service ranked him the No. 2 pro-style QB and 40th-best prospect in the country. At 6'2", Nelson has the size and arm to play in the NFL, something his father will tell you. Pat Nelson played football at Wisconsin in the 1970s and is a dedicated steward of his son's football career.

Ask Pat Nelson who was to blame for starting the fight and he will say it was Isaac. "Had he not thrown that first punch, none of this would have happened," he said.

Fleming made the same point during his oral argument at the sentencing hearing. It is true the fight likely wouldn't have happened if Isaac hadn't hit Philip, but it also would not have happened if Philip hadn't been drinking underage, hadn't gotten his hair up over a kiss on a hand, hadn't mistaken Isaac for someone else and if he hadn't pushed Isaac.

Philip's family and lawyer have gone so far as to express incredulousness that Kolstad hasn't been charged with a crime. But at the sentencing hearing, Philip did stand in court and say, "I'm sorry to Isaac and the Kolstads. I'm sorry to my friends and family for letting them down."

Most people in the community who know both the Nelson and Kolstad families have declined to discuss the fight with the media—or even amongst themselves—so as to not appear to be taking sides. There is also some sticky context people would rather avoid. Kolstad went to Mankato East High, Nelson to Mankato West, and the rivalry between those schools is fierce.

East is the ugly, blue-collar school; the joke is that its windowless buildings were once used as a jail. It is also more diverse because of African immigrants who live within its boundaries. West is considered a prettier school, better academically, safer, whiter. Kolstad is a mixed-race man in a mixed-raced marriage from East. Nelson is the white quarterback with the white girlfriend from West.

"Those are not things people around here are going to willingly talk about," said White, the Kolstad's attorney.

Pat Nelson would love to talk about his son's "redemption story," how Philip has "overcame adversity." He wanted that story written in January, when he was trying to get Philip enrolled at Ole Miss. After Philip avoided jail time, he wanted that story told again, because having it written might help get the attention of other schools. He initially agreed to make his son available for an interview but then backed out days before the scheduled interview.

Why?

"If you are going to be talking to the Kolstads, I don't think we can be a part of that. You have to understand, they are just so negative," he said. "The stuff they were saying in court, it was just—we don't want to be associated with something that includes these people who are just so focused on the negative."

"I don't know how I am going to feel," Molly says. She is talking about the coming one-year anniversary of the fight. She and Isaac have considered organizing a 5K run, but that would be for the weekend before May 11, which falls on a Monday. "I guess when the day comes, I will just have to see how I feel."

Molly wrote on her blog that she is hoping 2015 is a "gentle" year, and that is a perfect word choice.But there will be some harsh days.

Trevor Shelley's case is still pending—he has pleaded not guilty to two felonies. White, Nelson's lawyer, said he is considering filing a civil suit against one or more of the bars that served Nelson alcohol.

There is also the possibility of a civil case against Philip, White added, but perhaps only if he makes it as a pro quarterback. Without football success, he would be just another young man with few financial assets starting out in the world, much like Isaac last May.

As for Philip's planned return to college football this fall at South Alabama, the Kolstads aren't sure how they will feel reading about him in The Mankato Free Press or seeing him in highlights on the local news.

"At the end of the day, I am coming home with Isaac Kolstad, not Philip Nelson," Molly said. "I am more concerned with what we are doing as a family than anything he does."

Isaac leaned forward in his seat and in firm tone he added, "I don't care what he does." Then came a long pause as he worked to get the words out. "I am only worried about my family and getting better."

 

George Dohrmann is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Play Their Hearts Out, which in 2011 received the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing. He is a contributing writer at Sports Illustrated, where he worked for 14 years, and previously was on staff at the Los Angeles Times and the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He teaches journalism at Southern Oregon University.

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Jake Ganus' Amazing Journey from UAB to the SEC

When someone jerks the rug out from under you, you expect to fall down. So Jake Ganus had just enough time to panic before he realized: He was falling up.

Ganus was a star linebacker at Alabama-Birmingham finishing up his junior season when school president Ray Watts told the team Dec. 2 that UAB was dropping football for financial reasons. The meeting, recorded on someone's cellphone, went viral on YouTube, showing players crying, yelling and making fiery speeches. Ganus remembers the feeling—which surely every player on the team had—of wondering who would want him now?

Turns out, in Ganus' case, the answer was the SEC.

Ganus is now at the University of Georgia, having "fallen" from a small college team to the world of national TV, crazed fans and, well, practice fields, a locker room and a coach's office.

"It's first-class everything," he said. "Everything is amazing. I'm sure you've heard our facilities at UAB were not…uh, let's say there were certain high schools that had better facilities than us. But we never used that as getting down and saying, 'Oh, we lost because we didn't have an indoor facility.' It's not an excuse.

"Look, I wish we had a turf practice field, yes. I'd seen how nice they are at bigger schools, and I wouldn't say I was jealous, but I'd have loved to have had it."

One of the first things you notice while talking with Ganus is that he still calls UAB "we" or "us." The players were his family, and the place was the center of his goals for so long that no matter how well things have worked out, he brings the past with him.

It's as if he fell down an elevator shaft and landed on a lost lottery ticket that turned out to be a big winner—but he's still hurting from the fall.

Most UAB players have found a new place to play. Running back Jordan Howard and receiver Marqui Hawkins went to Indiana. Receiver Jamari Staples went to Louisville. Offensive lineman Victor Salako went to Oklahoma State. They fell up, too, though not as far as Ganus. Several players went to Georgia State or South Alabama or smaller schools in Montana, Kentucky, Tennessee or Massachusetts.

It's a broken family. But while its members spread out all over the country, they try to stay close.

Ganus led Georgia in tackles in the first two spring scrimmages and, he said, former players texted him congratulations. He represents them. He is competing for a starting job.

He is the face of UAB football.

There is still so much confusion and distrust about what really broke up UAB football, whether it was really finances or backdoor politics.

The big picture is that this is just the new way of life for smaller college teams in the world of the College Football Playoff. The top five conferences have hoarded all the money and created an even more uneven playing field than existed before. That makes it nearly impossible for the little guy to find the financial means to keep up.

But the small picture is more scrambled. Even as Ganus was talking with Bleacher Report, he started getting messages on his phone from ex-teammates to look at a particular story popping up on several websites about UAB. The school had hired private sports economists to conduct a study on the football program. Then, for some reason, UAB fired that firm and boosters picked up the bill. It showed that the football team hadn't been losing money and suggested that the school's projections of big future losses were highly overstated.

Without having read the story yet, the headline sent Ganus back into the past.

"A lot of my teammates were injured and playing through injuries," he said. "They did that for UAB. I haven't read the article, but if it's true, that wouldn't sit too well with me. When (President) Watts came in there and addressed the team—you can see it on YouTube—people are asking 'Why, why?' And he just says it's about numbers and money.

"That's all he told us, that it's all about money. If it's true, then I guess he was wrong. I don't know. There's a lot of things I would say about it, but I don't want there to be a banner headline about a UGA player ripping the UAB president. I'll just say I hope it works out."

It certainly seems to be for Ganus.

He led UAB in tackles the past two seasons but has just one year of eligibility left. He is still holding on to NFL dreams and needs to play another season. On top of that, at 6'2" and 225 pounds, he still needs another year in the weight room to get bigger.

"I was thinking, 'Is anyone going to want me?' " he said.

Ganus was barely even recruited out of high school, so even if he's motivated by the big time, it'd be hard to blame him for wondering deep down if he's really good enough to play there.

Georgia thinks he is. The school called him the day after UAB announced it was cutting the program. And then, suddenly, everyone started calling. Ganus said at least 40 schools called.

"I had mixed emotions about things," he said. "Hot and cold. I was still angry. But I felt like a hot recruit. Out of high school, I was recruited by UAB to play safety, and Navy and Air Force offered me to play quarterback."

Those were his only major college offers. He had grown up in Georgia and Alabama with dreams of playing at a big-time school, but by his sophomore year, it was clear that wasn't going to happen.

Now, all these years later, there he is.

"I think I got my whole two-year recruiting process in about 10 days," he said. "Every coach that was calling was like, 'Hey, it's Wednesday and we've got to get you on a plane. You've got to come for an official visit this weekend. Everything was going 100 mph."

It has slowed down now, and all for the good. By the end of spring practices, Ganus seemed to be in a three-way competition for the two starting inside linebacker spots. He said his new teammates took him in immediately and that most of his business management credits at UAB transferred, so he should be able to graduate.

Now, he has one year left to live out his dreams, ones he'd already forgotten about. He says the opportunity was created by the hard work he put into practices, weightlifting and track sessions with one goal in mind: winning a Conference USA championship on the crummy equipment and practice fields he loved at UAB.

From that, he fell all the way to the top.

 

Greg Couch covers college football for Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. 

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Texas Football: Charlie Strong Will Make Longhorns Relevant on Draft Day Again

Ever so slightly, Texas football's presence in the NFL draft is returning. Second-year head coach Charlie Strong is the reason why, and he can make the Longhorns relevant on draft day once again. 

It's been well-documented that Texas was shut out of the NFL draft last year for the first time since 1937. It was an embarrassingly low moment for a college football blue blood used to recruiting top in-state talent and churning it out into the pros.

However, it validated that the Longhorns needed a change, that former head coach Mack Brown was no longer getting the job done on the recruiting trail or with player development. In hiring Strong from Louisville, Texas was getting someone with a proven track record of talent development. 

As Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports explains, the Cardinals' recent success in the draft—10 players were chosen last weekend, and four were taken in 2014—should excite Longhorn fans everywhere:  

Four years ago, none of the major online recruiting sites ranked Charlie Strong's first full recruiting class at Louisville in the top 25, but it produced three first-rounders (Teddy Bridgewater, Calvin Pryor and DeVante Parker); three third-rounders (John Miller, Jamon Brown and Lorenzo Mauldin); two sixth-rounders (Deiontrez Mount, Charles Gaines); and one seventh-rounder (Gerod Holliman). 

In all, Louisville had eight picks drafted in the first three rounds in the past two years. The Cards had only seven players picked in first three rounds in the previous 10 years. U of L also had four first-rounders in the past two years compared to just two first-rounders in the 16 years before Charlie Strong was hired.

Keep in mind too that Strong and his coaching staff were mostly developing players who weren't considered blue-chip prospects coming out of high school. Whether or not you believe being a 4- or 5-star prospect matters to future NFL hopes, the point remains Strong and his staff were crushing it on the player-development front.   

In one year's time in Austin, Strong has shown he can do the same thing at Texas. 

Five Longhorns were taken last weekend in the 2015 NFL draft: defensive tackle Malcom Brown, who went 32nd overall to the New England Patriots; linebacker Jordan Hicks in the third round to the Philadelphia Eagles; safety Mykkele Thompson in the fifth round to the New York Giants; cornerback Quandre Diggs in the sixth round to the Detroit Lions; and tight end Geoff Swaim in the seventh round to the Dallas Cowboys. 

Three of the picks—Brown, Hicks and Diggs—weren't surprising. But Thompson and Swaim getting drafted? Who saw that coming?

Granted, teams unexpectedly draft players all the time, but it does say something about Strong that he can get NFL organizations to pick up under-the-radar names. 

For a couple of more years at least, Strong may have to pull similar strings. Brown's final two classes at Texas—2012 and '13—have been notorious busts by and large.  

Strong's 2015 class, however, finally has his stamp on it and includes guys such as linebacker Malik Jefferson, the former No. 1 in-state player. Why is this important? Louisville's recent draft history shows Strong has an eye for evaluation and development. The '15 class is the first time we get to see that fully in action in Austin. 

And, from a raw numbers standpoint, blue-chip recruits do tend to be drafted higher

This doesn't mean Strong will necessarily win 12 games every season going forward. Schools like Miami (Fla.) continue to churn out NFL-caliber talent every year, yet head coach Al Golden can barely seem to get bowl-eligible. Mike Sherman, the former Texas A&M coach, recruited four future NFL offensive linemen in one year (2010) but couldn't keep his job. 

Whether Strong follows the paths of Golden or Sherman remains to be seen, but his recent history indicates Texas could have a bright future on draft day. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

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Insider Buzz: USC Making Strong Push into SEC Recruiting Territory

The USC Trojans, fresh off one of the strongest recruiting classes in the country, now have their sights set on the next crop of top talent. Can head coach Steve Sarkisian do it again? 

National Recruiting Analyst Sanjay Kirpalani joined Bleacher Report's Stephen Nelson as they discussed all things USC recruiting.  

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Power Ranking College Football Conferences by Their NFL Representation

The SEC once again dominated the NFL draft in terms of conference representation, with its 54 selections leading the way for the ninth straight year. Even without Tennessee and Vanderbilt contributing to that effort, the league provided pro teams with more than 21 percent of its next batch of future stars.

Considering how long the SEC has been performing at this level, draft-wise, it would stand to reason it's the conference with the most players on NFL roster, too, right? Yes, but its edge in that department is not as significant as you'd expect.

Not including this latest batch of draft picks or the undrafted free agents that teams have signed since Saturday, nearly 1,700 players from the 10 FBS conferences are on active NFL rosters. We've broken this down by league to rank them in order of how well represented each is, also taking into account All-Pro selections that came from each league.

 

NOTE: Active roster figures are based on information available on NFL.com as of Wednesday, May 6.

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Which 2016 Recruits Do the Alabama Crimson Tide Need to Land?

The Alabama Crimson Tide have long established themselves as a recruiting powerhouse, having landed top class after top class. But what players are on Nick Saban and his coaching staff's radar? 

Bleacher Report's Stephen Nelson was joined by National Recruiting analyst Sanjay Kirpalani as they went through the list of top talent the Crimson Tide should target. 

Who will Alabama land? Check out the video and let us know!  

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Most Underrated Recruiters in College Football Today

The familiar faces we see each national signing day—Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Jimbo Fisher, Les Miles, etc.—may be royalty in college football recruiting, but there are plenty of less celebrated assistants who put in work throughout the year in order to improve rosters. 

Success in the recruiting department requires cohesion among members of a staff, consistent communication with targeted prospects and individual dedication to sealing the deal by winning over athletes and their families.

We looked beyond the headliners to identify several assistant coaches who continue to get the job done on the recruiting trail.

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Which 2016 Recruits Do the Georgia Bulldogs Have to Land?

The Georgia Bulldogs experienced success in 2014 due in large part to their ground game and stout defense. What direction will head coach Mark Richt take in recruiting to help get the Bulldogs over the hump?

Stephen Nelson was joined by Bleacher Report College Football National Recruiting Analyst Sanjay Kirpalani to discuss which recruits Georgia should zero in on.

Who will Georgia land? Check out the video and let us know!

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Ohio State's 2015 NFL Draft Class Is One of Urban Meyer's Best Recruiting Tools

COLUMBUS, Ohio — In today's day and age of information, we always seem to be looking ahead.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that even before the 2015 NFL draft came to a close last weekend, attention was already turning toward the 2016 selection show. And even though it's still a full year away, most of that premature 2016 draft talk has centered around Ohio State.

And for good reason.

Way-too-early mock drafts have projected a heavy Buckeye presence in next year's draft, with as many as five Ohio State players slotted to be selected in the first round, including potential No. 1 overall pick Joey Bosa. Joining Bosa in next year's first round could very well be quarterback Cardale Jones, running back Ezekiel Elliott, defensive tackle Adolphus Washington and left tackle Taylor Decker.

The ability to put so many players in the professional ranks at once will undoubtedly be a huge recruiting tool for Urban Meyer, albeit one he won't have to wait until next year to use. While his history of developing NFL-caliber players dates back to his days at Bowling Green—and only grew during stops at Utah and Florida before arriving in Columbus—Meyer's 2015 draft class may provide him with his best proof of player development yet.

Despite not making nearly as much noise as they're expected to a year from now, the Buckeyes were still well-represented at the draft this past weekend with a total of five players selected. But unlike the Ohio State players projected to be picked in 2016, these ex-Buckeyes weren't seemingly destined for the NFL from their recruitment, only furthering the evidence of the benefits of playing for Meyer.

“Good things happen to good people and that’s the situation here," said tight end Jeff Heuerman, whom the Denver Broncos selected in last weekend's third round. "We had a lot of good things happen at Ohio State."

Recruited to Ohio State by Jim Tressel as a 3-star prospect in 2011, Heuerman hardly fit the mold of a pro prospect, especially in a Buckeyes offense that rarely relied on its tight ends. 

Upon Meyer's arrival, however, Heuerman instantly became one of his head coach's favorite players and was deemed the "heart and soul" of the 2014 national champion Buckeyes, upping his draft stock without putting up the stats to match as he was hobbled by an ankle injury throughout his senior season.

And for that, Heuerman credits his time in Columbus.

"I didn’t catch as many footballs as I wanted to, but we won a national championship," Heuerman said. "I got to do a lot of things, a lot of blocking, a lot of pass protecting, things that make you a well-rounded tight end. I was extremely happy to do that and to help bring a championship to Ohio State. I’m ecstatic for that and to be a part of the Denver Broncos.”

Heuerman wasn't the first Buckeye taken off the board over the weekend, as that honor belonged to wide receiver Devin Smith, whom the New York Jets picked with the draft's 37th overall pick.

Seemingly just a speedster when Meyer took over the Ohio State program in 2012, Smith developed into more of a complete receiver over the course of the final three seasons of his college career, culminating with his selection in last weekend's second round.

Meyer's insistence that Smith—also a former 3-star prospect—continue to play special teams even as he turned into one of the Buckeyes' best offensive weapons also didn't hurt his cause and should aid him in prolonging his professional career.

“I’m versatile,” Smith said on a conference call. “You can move me inside, you can move me out. I’m also very good on special teams.”

Versatility should also help Pittsburgh Steelers fourth-round pick Doran Grant, who developed from special teams contributor to first-team All-Big Ten cornerback in his three seasons under Meyer. But perhaps no player benefited more from the marketing of Meyer than wide receiver Evan Spencer, whose selection by the Washington Redskins came as somewhat of a surprise.

Picked in last weekend's sixth round, Spencer hardly had the stats of a standard draft pick, recording 52 receptions for 579 yards and seven touchdowns in the four seasons that made up his college career. But the 6'2", 208-pounder's willingness to do the dirty work drew the praise of his head coach, who referred to Spencer as the MVP of the Buckeyes' national title team.

“He’s unbelievable,” Meyer said of Spencer in January. "He's the leader of our team. He's the guy that at the right time, I'll probably make an executive decision and make him a captain."

For a player who caught just 15 balls for 149 yards in his senior season, it's hard to imagine a team would have picked Spencer without Meyer's unsolicited endorsements.

The 2015 NFL draft wasn't all good news for Ohio State, at least in the case of defensive tackle Michael Bennett, who slid from projected first-round pick all the way to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the sixth round. Questions of Bennett's size (6'2", 293 lbs) seemed to plague him throughout the draft process, as did a history of injuries that dates back to his sophomore season.

But while Bennett's slide may not have been ideal, the fact of the matter remains that Meyer managed to put five players in the pros through the draft, none of whom came to Ohio State as surefire NFL prospects.

Couple that with the number of Buckeyes already projected as first-round picks in next year's draft, and it's clear that the pipeline from Columbus to the pros is as stable as ever. And high school prospects are surely taking notice.

 

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of CFBStats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.

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Which 2016 Recruits Do Florida Gators Have to Land?

With new head coach Jim McElwain settling in, the Florida Gators are making noise on the recruiting trail. Having locked up some great talent in the 2015 cycle, all eyes are now on the current crop of potential recruits.

247Sports Recruiting Analyst Sanjay Kirpalani joined Bleacher Report's Stephen Nelson to discuss which recruits the Gators should be targeting in the 2016 class?

Will UF have a top-five recruiting class? Check out the video and let us know!

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Power Ranking College Football's Best QBs After Spring Practice

The college football spring season is in the books. It was a great time for players to make an impression on their coaching staffs before they head into the fall. Which players, quarterbacks in particular, performed the best?

Bleacher Report's Stephen Nelson was joined by College Football Analyst Barrett Sallee, who ranked the top quarterbacks following the spring season. 

Which quarterbacks stood out the most? Check out the video and let us know! 

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Kyler Murray Opts out of MLB Draft; 'Will Be a Star' at Texas A&M

Kyler Murray, a 5-star dual-threat quarterback, per 247Sports, announced via Twitter that he plans to eliminate his name from the upcoming MLB draft to focus on playing football and baseball at Texas A&M. 

Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Barrett Sallee discusses Murray's decision and what his impact will be at A&M. 

Will Murray start next season for the Aggies? Check out the video and let us know! 

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Alabama Football: Crimson Tide's 2015 Offseason Checklist

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — There is, of course, no offseason in college football, but we’re at the part of the calendar year that is about as close as you can get.

Over the next three months, coaches are not allowed to do organized, on-field work with their teams, but a lot of players still stick around on campus to take some summer classes and put together training sessions on their own time.

Teams are also allowed to hold off-field meetings, but no live football action will take place until fall camp gears up in August.

So what all can be accomplished during these summer months? Here’s an offseason checklist for Alabama. 

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What to Expect from Every New College Football Coach in 2015

New Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh has been under an intense spotlight since joining his alma mater this season. But how well will the Wolverines do in year one under their new head coach? Just because Harbaugh is a star doesn't mean Michigan is playoff bound right away. 

Harbaugh was one of 15 coaches hired by Division 1 FBS programs over the past several months. With spring games in the books, it's time to look ahead at what Harbaugh and all the other new coaches can accomplish this season. Whether it's getting back to a bowl game, naming a starting quarterback or competing for a conference championship, every coach has a different to-do list. 

Here's what to expect from every first-year head coach in major college football in 2015 in terms of win total and necessary improvements on offense and/or defense. 

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LSU Football: WR Malachi Dupre Is Real Key to Tigers' Success in 2015

It's safe to say that last season's offense for the LSU Tigers left plenty to be desired. 

Head coach Les Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's crew produced just 387.5 yards per game and 5.62 yards per play—ninth in both categories in the SEC. 

If that's going to change in 2015, somebody is going to have to step up and become a reliable deep threat opposite of junior wide receiver Travin Dural.

Enter: Malachi Dupre.

The former superstar prospect caught just 14 passes as a true freshman in 2014 but finished with 318 receiving yards—the second-most on the Tigers. Think about that for a second. LSU's second-best receiver had just 318 receiving yards. If that doesn't exemplify just how putrid the passing game was in Baton Rouge last year, nothing does.

The 6'3", 187-pound Dupre has stepped it up this offseason—his first full offseason with the program.

He caught four passes for 112 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game last month, according to stats released by LSU, and the comfort he's gained with nearly a year in the system is something that has helped the New Orleans native.

"The difference is I have a year under my belt, and it’s not going to be a big surprise to me," Dupre said in quotes released by LSU. "Just moving forward, I know what I have to do to dominate and make plays to help with the run game and the passing game."

SportingNews.com's Bill Bender recently named Dupre as one of the candidates to break out in 2015:

That's exactly what the LSU offense needs. 

Dural is a known commodity and an established deep threat who can also be dangerous as a runner on jet sweeps. But if you're looking for downfield threats, he's really all Miles and Cameron have. Without anybody else to draw attention, it makes the job of the quarterback—either Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris—incredibly difficult.

Dupre knows just how important the role of the wide receivers is to the development of the offense as a whole.

"The coaches that we have and the quarterbacks that we have and the improvement that they’ve made, I feel like they are going to be very dominant in the passing game and so will the other receivers," Dupre said in quotes released by LSU.

If that translates to the fall, will LSU become a contender in the SEC West?

It might.

The Tigers certainly have the offensive line in place and a stable running game led by Leonard Fournette, and that has created a situation where the quarterback simply has to be adequate in order for the offense to click.

That's easier said than done, though.

Jennings completed just 48.9 percent of his passes last year and lost his job briefly to Harris—who promptly completed just three of 14 passes in his lone start at Auburn. Dupre's emergence will help change that, though. Both quarterbacks knew they had to improve this spring, and by stretching the field, Dupre has opened up the passing windows a little more for his quarterbacks.

The spring game gave LSU fans hope, and Dupre's emergence is the biggest reason why. If he can emerge as a solid No. 2 and others behind him, like D.J. Chark and John Diarse, can step up as well, it could be all the quarterbacks need to be "adequate."

 

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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Ranking the 50 Best College Football Players Heading into 2015

With spring football officially wrapped up, it’s time to start thinking about college football’s 2015 regular season in earnest. We’re not far away from glossy preseason magazines hitting newsstands across the nation, followed by a deluge of watch lists—lots and lots of watch lists, promoting every award you can think of.

The point is, the season is on its way. And even though the NFL draft took plenty of talent from college football’s ranks, plenty still remains. It’s a perfect time to take a look at the top 50 players in the game as we prepare for the 2015 season. Players were chosen by virtue of their performance, their skills and accumulated statistics and their importance to their team. Here we go.

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Urban Meyer Undergoes Appendectomy, Expected to Make Full Recovery

Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer was forced to miss a scheduled appearance at the University of Findlay Wednesday after requiring an appendectomy.  

Doug Lesmerises of Northeast Ohio Media Group had the report:

Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer required surgery to have his appendix removed on Wednesday, his wife, Shelley, told Northeast Ohio Media Group.

Ohio State had made it public that Meyer would be forced to miss an event at the University of Findlay on Wednesday night because of an unplanned surgery. And anything regarding Meyer's health is of note given some past health issues.

But Shelley made clear this is a routine, though unplanned, medical situation and said just after noon on Wednesday that she was in the hospital with her husband with the surgery soon to begin

Meyer's past health concerns include chest pains he experienced in 2009 and a brain cyst he had removed in 2014. 

The coach is scheduled to throw out the first pitch at Yankees Stadium on Friday, and per Marcus Hartman of Fox Sports Ohio, that appearance has not yet been cancelled: 

Since taking over at Ohio State in 2012, Meyer has swiftly returned the program to national prominence, going a remarkable 38-3 in three seasons and leading the Buckeyes to a national title this past season. A master recruiter and a progressive offensive mind, Meyer has coached at four programs (Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and Ohio State), has gone 142-26 in his coaching career and has won three national titles. 

 

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SEC Football: The Most Underrated Players in the Conference

Stars shine bright in the SEC, with LSU's Leonard Fournette, Mississippi State's Dak Prescott, Georgia's Leonard Floyd and Florida's Vernon Hargreaves III leading the way.

But what about everybody else?

Don't be blinded by star power, because the conference will be loaded with underrated players during the 2015 season.

Who are the most underrated players in the SEC? Our picks, based on talent, exposure and the players who stand in their way on depth charts, are in this slideshow.

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Florida State Offers 8th-Grade Recruit Blake Hinson in Football and Basketball

College football recruiting purists won't like this. However, it's what's happening in sports.

On Tuesday, Florida State offered Class of 2019 athlete Blake Hinson. Twice.

Hinson, a two-sport standout at Warner Christian Academy in South Daytona, Florida, received scholarship offers in both football and basketball, per Chris Nee of 247Sports. It's rare to see an athlete offered in two sports.

It's even rarer to see an eighth-grader offered at all. According to Nee, this is the second time Hinson's gotten offers for both sports. The first double-offer was from the Miami Hurricanes.

Is it too early to offer an eighth-grader? It's a valid question, but perhaps here's a better one: Is Hinson the typical eighth-grader?

At first glance, the answer is no. Hinson is a 6'5", 200-pound athlete who already has varsity experience in both sports. Athletically, he's a specimen, and as a football player, he now has offers from Florida State, Miami, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina and Kentucky.

On the football field, Hinson caught 24 passes for 518 yards and four touchdowns last season, per Florida Gridiron Preps. He proved to be a matchup problem for many defensive backs he competed against, regardless of age.

Hinson is a "rare breed," possessing great body control in addition to his size and strength, according to Alan "Pops" Popadines, national youth scouting director and football editor at Youth1.com

In many respects, he's already physically ready to take his game to the next level.

"Something that makes him special is that his size creates such a big window for any quarterback to throw to," Popadines said. "He's the ultimate security blanket who can win jump balls. With his wingspan, if the ball is thrown in his vicinity, he'll more than likely catch it or at least make a play on it so it's not picked off."

As good of a football player as he is, basketball may be his ticket to athletic success. Hinson's an agile, super-versatile athlete for someone his age and size.

According to MaxPreps.com, he averaged 22.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.3 blocks per game—as an eighth-grade student playing on varsity against high school athletes.

Hinson's family background bleeds athleticism. His father is Denny Hinson, a former Central Florida basketball player who now coaches basketball at Deltona High School in Florida.

Hinson's older brother is Deltona High's Evan Hinson, a 2016 tight end who committed to Miami in February. Evan also is a two-sport standout who is expecting to play football and basketball for the Hurricanes.

There are some who feel offering Hinson in two sports at such a young age is a bad idea. Athletically, there may not be a better time to do it. Athletes are committing earlier and earlier (Miami already has three freshmen committed), which means coaches are making earlier runs for young, talented players.

A player like Hinson already has shown that he has the physical and athletic tools to compete. An early offer from a school gives that school the opportunity to say that it was recruiting Hinson from the beginning—which ultimately could be an advantage later if Hinson manages to land a very high number of offers.

Early offers for athletes, particularly those not in high school, haven't been the most popular idea to many who follow recruiting, but when it comes to a player of Hinson's caliber, getting in the race late could be detrimental. Look for Hinson's offer sheet to fill up throughout high school.

 

Damon Sayles is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. All player ratings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings. Follow Damon via Twitter @DamonSayles,

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