NCAA Football News

Under-the-Radar Recruits Butch Jones Needs to Target for Tennessee

The Tennessee Volunteers, under head coach Butch Jones, are beginning to turn the tide on and off the field. Their impact on the recruiting trail has been significant, and it is showing no signs of slowing down. With that being said, who are some under-the-radar recruits Tennessee should target in the 2016 cycle? 

Bleacher Report's College Football Analyst Barrett Sallee and Stephen Nelson discuss all things Tennessee recruiting and who the Volunteers will need to land to bolster their class. 

How far can Tennessee go in 2015? Check out the video and let us know!

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Girl Asks Boyfriend to Prom Using Ezekiel Elliott-Themed Proposal

Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott broke free for an 85-yard touchdown run during the semifinals of the College Football Playoff against Alabama back in January. The score proved to be the game-clincher for the Buckeyes, who beat Alabama 42-35 before dominating Oregon 42-20 for the national championship.

Ohio State fans will never forget this play, and one high school student made sure of it. Buckeyes fan Michaela Amato used Elliott's monster run as the centerpoint for her "promposal" to her boyfriend, Nick Schaffer. She also apparently gave him a jersey. 

Love is in the air. 

[Twitter, h/t College Spun]

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Julian Okwara Commits to Notre Dame: What 4-Star DE Brings to Irish

Notre Dame picked up a big commitment on Tuesday evening when 4-star defensive end Julian Okwara announced his pledge to the Irish.

The 6’4”, 210-pound North Carolina product becomes the fifth commitment for Brian Kelly and his staff in the 2016 cycle.

Okwara selected the Irish over offers from Georgia, Michigan, Ole Miss and Tennessee, among others.

But what are the Irish getting in Okwara?

In the simplest of terms, they are getting a prospect who can put heat on the quarterback.

"Notre Dame is getting a guy with a quick first step," Okwara told Ryan Bartow of 247Sports. "I get off the ball quick and I'm great with my hands. They are getting a pass rusher."

Okwara, whose brother Romeo is a senior defensive end for the Irish, recorded 90 tackles—including 10 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles—during his junior year at Ardrey Kell High School in Charlotte.

He’s a versatile defender who can play defensive end or outside linebacker when he arrives in South Bend.

As noted by Evan Sharpley of Irish247, Okwara has extremely long arms and the type of frame suited to hold more weight at the next level. He’s also athletic enough drop into coverage and stick with receivers, tight ends and running backs in space.

He’s also been a standout on special teams during his prep career, which is something that could help him find the field early when he transitions to college.

Of course, there are a few areas that Okwara will have to work on prior to becoming a contributor at the next level.

As Sharpley details, he needs to add more muscle to his 210-pound frame and also has to work on staying low with his pads after the snap and building a strong base in the lower half of his body.

Still, he’s a big-time get because of his versatility and his ability to create havoc in the backfield.

The elder Okwara had three sacks last year, which was the top mark among the Irish defensive line.

Adding a promising pass-rusher in his younger brother fills one of the major needs that defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder had in the 2016 cycle—a factor that wasn’t lost on Julian in his decision-making process.

"The first reason I picked Notre Dame was the academic part," Okwara told Bartow. "I'll be studying business management and their program is 10th in the country in that so that's pretty good. They need a speed rusher and I'm able to help them there. Plus everything felt right when I visited. Just the team and the coaches."

Given his skill set and his potential to develop into a pass-rushing menace at the next level, Kelly and his staff scored a major coup in landing the nation’s No. 11 weak-side defensive end and the No. 186 player overall in the 2016 cycle.

 

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

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Ohio State Football: 5 Things to Watch in Buckeyes Spring Game

Urban Meyer and Ohio State are still months away from officially kicking off their title defense, but on Saturday in Ohio Stadium, they'll showcase a bit of what's to come during the Buckeyes' annual spring game.

The product on the field, however, will be very different than what we'll see in the fall. Meyer is holding out a number of veterans in an effort to save their bodies from unnecessary contact, while giving some younger players an opportunity to show out in front of a big crowd.

Even still, there will be plenty of storylines to follow as the action unfolds. 

 

The Maturation of Cardale Jones

College football's most interesting position battle has been a bit of a one-horse race so far as Cardale Jones has been the only fully healthy quarterback for the Buckeyes this spring. 

While Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett continue the comeback from their respective injuries, Jones has taken the lion's share of reps during spring camp. And despite his incredible run through last year's postseason, Meyer still views Jones as a young guy with a lot to learn.

"He's still raw, almost a rookie," Meyer said last month, according to Zac Jackson of Fox Sports Ohio. "He's an older rookie, but he became a more functional player as he got all of the reps during the bowl season and playoff run."

He should be even more functional after a full workload this spring, and seeing him operate the offense on Saturday will provide a glimpse at his development. If the coaching staff follows the same logic of spring games past, Jones should get a majority of the top offensive starters on his squad to go against the better defensive unit.

 

The Emerging Counterpunch to Joey Bosa

Noah Spence's season-long suspension left the Buckeyes defensive line a bit lopsided a season ago. While Steve Miller and Rashad Frazier combined to be a serviceable replacement, they weren't able to give Ohio State the one-two punch they were expecting with Joey Bosa.

That could change this season with the emergence of redshirt sophomore Tyquan Lewis.

The Buckeyes have plenty of promising young candidates at weak-side defensive end with Jalyn Holmes and Sam Hubbard in the fold, but Lewis has really impressed the coaching staff during the offseason.

“Tyquan is having a great spring, really great spring,” defensive line coach Larry Johnson said, according to Tim Moody of The Lantern. "It’s clicked in his mind, the kind of player he has to be,” Johnson said. “He’s playing much faster than he played last year.

“He’s had a really outstanding spring.”

Bosa, Ohio State's first unanimous first-team All-American selection since 2007, is certainly impressed.

“Tyquan is the other starting end and he’s doing an unbelievable job this spring of just killing it; going hard every day," Bosa said, via Dave Biddle of Bucknuts.com. “Speed, he’s physical, he’s just a freak out there.”

Buckeyes fans will be able to get their first real look at Lewis this Saturday.

 

The New and Improved Noah Brown

Every spring, there seems to a breakout star who comes out of nowhere for Ohio State.

Last season it was Darron Lee, who locked down a starting linebacker spot and went on to be one of college football's most productive players.

This year, the Buckeyes' big surprise is all-purpose back Noah Brown.

The dynamic athlete played sparingly as a true freshman a season ago, but he came into the offseason motivated to change that in 2015. Brown dropped 25 pounds before spring camp opened, and now that he's lighter on his feet, he's making more plays for an offense that's becoming more lethal by the day.

"Noah Brown's probably [had] about as good a spring as I could have wanted...he's on a different level than he was in the fall," wide receivers coach Zach Smith said, according to Eric Seger of Eleven Warriors. "He's looking like a guy that's going to contribute heavily in the fall."

The Buckeyes are moving Brown around the wide receiver spots to see where he fits best, so look for him to run a variety of routes this Saturday.

 

The Heated Cornerback Battle

Ohio State's quarterback race has hogged the spotlight—and for good reason—but there's a heated battle at cornerback that may be even more important to the Buckeyes' success this season.

Meyer has proven that he can win with any of the three signal-callers he has on the roster, but holes in the secondary have been problematic during his tenure in Columbus.

With the departure of senior Doran Grant, Eli Apple has risen as the Buckeyes' top cornerback. But the other spot remains open, and there could be as many as three guys competing for it come fall.

Redshirt sophomore Gareon Conley currently has the edge, but redshirt freshman Damon Webb is closing the gap. Cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs talked about the position battle on Monday, via Bill Landis of The Plain Dealer:

There's a different level of expectation on the part of the player who feels really good that he's gonna be the starter. Damon Webb is nipping at [Conley's] heels and he wants that job, but Gareon is walking out of the building every morning saying, "I'm gonna be that guy." It's a different level than, "I hope I might be that guy." There's no safety net.

It doesn't look like either Conley or Webb will lock the spot up this spring, which opens the door for Marshon Lattimore. The talented redshirt freshman is coming off a surgically repaired hamstring, and the coaching staff loves his potential

The Buckeyes certainly have plenty of options, and they're hoping to see if any of them can step up this Saturday.

 

The New-Look Curtis Samuel

The next Percy Harvin?

That's something Ohio State fans have been looking for since Meyer arrived in Columbus. From Corey Brown to Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall, the Buckeyes have tried a number of guys in that role, but no one has replicated the eye-popping numbers that the former Florida great produced under Meyer.

Curtis Samuel, an all-purpose back who was Ezekiel Elliott's primary backup a season ago, is next in line.

But Meyer didn't yank Samuel from the running backs room just because he's looking for the next Harvin. It was a move that was made to get the most talent on the field.

"The days of Curtis Samuel playing 10 plays are over," Meyer explained, according to Ari Wasserman of The Plain Dealer. "It's our job to get him on the field for 40 or 50 plays."

To do that, Samuel will line up all over the field for the Buckeyes this fall. His ability to line up on the perimeter or motion into the backfield will keep opposing defenses guessing, and it's a role he's very comfortable with.

"I played running back and slot in high school, so coming to college, it hasn't been much of a transition for me," Samuel said, via Wasserman. "But it's just going to help me get in space more and help me make more plays for the team."

 

David Regimbal is the Ohio State football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412.

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9 Most Overpaid Coaches in College Football Today

It’s no secret that there’s plenty of money to go around in college football. The new College Football Playoff, along with lucrative television contracts, have pumped a large infusion of cash into FBS athletic departments, and head coaches have benefited. 

This week, Ohio State announced that coach Urban Meyer had received a new contract which will pay him $6.5 million annually, second nationally behind Alabama’s Nick Saban (who made $7.1 million in 2014, per a USA Today salary database). In the SEC, the coaches of both Mississippi schools, Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen and Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze, received contract extensions which pushed their pay over $4 million annually.

In December, Michigan signed Jim Harbaugh to a deal that will pay him $5 million annually, continuing college football's arms race, as Adam Kilgore of TheWashington Post noted.

“It’s simple, really,” agent Neil Cornrich, who represents Bob Stoops, Kirk Ferentz and other top coaches, told Kilgore. "As long as the revenues from college football continue to grow, all the numbers will follow.”

Last fall, 27 coaches were listed by USA Today with salaries of $3 million or more, a figure sure to jump this year. 

With all that cash floating around, there are some programs which aren’t getting the biggest bang for their buck and athletic directors that regret handing out contracts. Here’s a look at the nine most overpaid coaches in college football. Unless otherwise noted, all salary figures came from the USA Today database. 

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Georgia Football: Grading the Bulldogs Position Groups' 2015 Spring

Spring practice will officially end on Thursday for the Georgia Bulldogs. But with the spring game played on Saturday, fans and coaches got a look at what the team is good at and what the team needs to work on moving forward.

The Bulldogs have the talent to be a contender in the SEC and the College Football Playoff, but it was the same story last year and the year before, and they could not put it all together.

There are some positions that are strong and will carry the Bulldogs in the fall. But there are a few positions that will need to do some adjusting in order for them to get back in the SEC title game and beyond.

Here are grades for each position group post-spring practice.

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Auburn Football: What to Watch for in Tigers' 2015 Spring Game

The "Guschamp" marriage will be in full effect on Saturday, when the world gets its first real glimpse of the new-look Auburn Tigers led by third-year head coach Gus Malzahn and first-year defensive coordinator Will Muschamp.

Is that the championship combination?

There's no question that the Tigers are loaded with talent, but that doesn't mean this spring has been a breeze. Malzahn has to replace his starting quarterback and the top rusher in the SEC, while Muschamp is in desperate search of a pass rush and defensive backs that won't get burned week after week. 

What should you watch for on Saturday on the Plains?

 

Focus on the Backup QBs

Malzahn, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee and the rest of Auburn's offensive staff can sell the idea that there's a quarterback battle going on, but there's not. It's junior Jeremy Johnson's show.

The Montgomery, Alabama, native has been sharp in the limited time he's seen the field over the last two seasons, particularly in a 243-yard, two-touchdown performance against Arkansas in the season opener last year. What's his goal for the season? It's pretty lofty, according to James Crepea of the Montgomery Advertiser.

His experience, ability to kickstart the Tiger passing game and keep some of the same dual-threat elements that were present in previous seasons—particularly with fellow bruiser Cam Newton—will be too much for the staff to ignore.

But who will be the backup?

Sean White is a former Elite 11 MVP, and Tyler Queen enrolled early to try to earn backup snaps as a true freshman. White is the more likely to win the job, and his upside can't be ignored. But what, exactly, does he look like?

He's more known for his accuracy than his arm strength, and Auburn fans need to know what he's capable of and how the offense will change when he steps on the field.

 

In the Trenches

Auburn finished last season with only 21 sacks and was searching for a pass rush all year long—so much so that Brandon King, a hybrid safety/linebacker, moved down to defensive end in certain situations.

The reason?

Carl Lawson's absence due to an ACL injury had a lot to do with it. The rising redshirt sophomore was a beast as a freshman in 2013, notching 7.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and solidifying himself as a true every-down defensive end. 

Who will help him out? Montravius Adams has the potential to be a force inside and could get some help from fellow defensive linemen Maurice Swain, Dontavius Russell and others who need to make an impact. Auburn hasn't finished in the top half of the SEC in total defense since 2008—which was Muschamp's last season as defensive coordinator during his second stint on the Plains (he was a graduate assistant under Terry Bowden from 1995-96).

"I'm very excited because people look at Auburn as an offensive team," Swain said, according to Charles Goldberg of AuburnTigers.com. "We want to change their mindset. Auburn started as a defensive team, ever since I've been a fan. We're just trying to get back to it."

That starts up front. With incoming freshman Byron Cowart looming, the Tigers participating in spring practice need to finish strong to leave a favorable impression for the new defensive staff during summer workouts.

 

Secondary Shuffle

Auburn tied with Ole Miss for the SEC lead last season with 22 interceptions, but the difference between the Tigers and Rebels was about as wide as the Grand Canyon. The Tigers got torched to the tune of 230.1 passing yards per game—due in part to the fact that the pass rush was virtually nonexistent.

The good news is that there's a quality corner in Jonathan Jones returning, but he could be limited for the spring game, according to Joel A. Erickson of AL.com. That could be a blessing in disguise.

Josh Holsey moved back over to corner from safety alongside Stephen Roberts and others, "Rudy" Ford is at safety alongside Georgia transfer Tray Matthews, Nick Ruffin is backing up the safeties and newcomer Tim Irvin is lining up at nickel.

How will the new-look secondary look and can they be more consistent?

Expect Auburn to air things out to give its quarterbacks some work, which means there will be plenty of chances for the corners and safeties to shine.

 

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

Malzahn has produced 12 1,000-yard rushers in nine seasons as a college head or assistant coach and is charged with replacing the SEC's leading rusher from last year. Cameron Artis-Payne was phenomenal last year, posting 1,608 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Junior college transfer Jovon Robinson, true sophomore Roc Thomas and redshirt sophomore Peyton Barber are all vying for playing time this spring. Robinson is still adjusting to life at Auburn and what the staff is expecting of him from a pass-protection standpoint, Barber is more of the underdog and Thomas—"Mr. Football" in the state of Alabama in 2013—is trying to be more patient this year in Auburn's offense, which features plenty of pulling guards and tackles.

"Maybe my patience hitting holes," Thomas told Brandon Marcello of AL.com, when asked about a weakness. "I think I was a little bit too fast last year trying to hit the holes. I mean, I just really need to be patient."

Auburn doesn't need to find a true No. 1 running back right now. After all, it wasn't until October of 2013 when Tre Mason solidified himself as the top option and then ran all the way to New York City as a Heisman Trophy finalist.

The running backs do, however, need to show that they're capable of earning that trust of the staff, because at some point, Malzahn will settle on one so the Tigers can press tempo in drives without substituting running backs. 

My gut is that Robinson will be the guy, and the staff will see that on Saturday.

 

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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Texas Football: Position Battles to Watch in Longhorns' 2015 Spring Game

More Longhorns than just Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard will be fighting for starting jobs this offseason. Saturday's spring game gives them all a chance to enter the summer with a head start.

Settling the quarterback competition is far from the only tough decision the coaches have to make between now and the fall. Linebacker, defensive end and cornerback all have vacated starting spots, as do tight end and receiver on the offensive side of the ball.

Then there are the offensive tackle and "Fox" end positions, which each return starters but have plenty of new competition courtesy of some early enrollees.

Because of injuries and a general lack of depth, the real competition for most of these spots will have to wait until the freshmen arrive.

The real intrigue lies with the quarterbacks, linebackers, receivers and offensive tackles. We'll have a good idea of who owns those jobs by the end of the week.

 

Quarterback

As has been and will be the case all offseason, Texas has to choose between Swoopes' grasp of the offense and Heard's athleticism. Whichever prevails in this matchup will tell us a lot about who ends up with the job.

Now that Texas is moving to an uptempo system, Heard looks like the choice here based on upside. He's a true home run threat on both designed runs and scrambles, which adds a dimension that the bigger Swoopes just can't provide.

However, the junior does hold an edge in both his understanding of the offense and arm talent. According to Mike Finger of the San Antonio Express-News, that edge was significant when spring practice began, but Heard has been narrowing the gap of late as he takes first-team reps.

We'll get to find out just how these two compare on Saturday. We know Heard will make plays with his feet, so if he and Swoopes are comparable through the air, we'll be well on our way to seeing the redshirt freshman take control of this team.

 

Linebacker

Depending on how you classify the Fox position, there are three open linebacker positions with five viable candidates playing in the Orange-White scrimmage.

At least we'll get a real sense of who's actually in the running.

Prior to his injury, Dalton Santos had the inside track on one of Texas' open linebacker spots. He's the only true middle linebacker currently on the roster, with nine starts there for his career.

A healthy Santos considerably shortens this conversation. Instead, it's been a free-for-all now that he's succumbed to an ankle. Senior Peter Jinkens and junior Tim Cole appear to be the favorites in the meantime, with redshirt freshman Edwin Freeman hot on their heels, according to HornsDigest.com.

Freshman phenom Malik Jefferson has also gotten a look.

This is the last chance for Cole and Jinkens to grab starting jobs. More talented linebackers will arrive this summer, and head coach Charlie Strong's preference to play a nickel corner and Fox end leaves only two spots for Jinkens, Cole, Freeman and Santos once he returns.

As for that Fox role, Jefferson will almost certainly factor into the rotation and could beat out incumbent starter Naashon Hughes.

Ideally, the coaches can find a way to get both of them an abundance of snaps because these are two of the best athletes on the squad.

Barring a little creativity, that's going to be one of the most exciting battles of the entire offseason.

 

Receiver

When Armanti Foreman was ripping off huge plays against Oklahoma State and TCU, could anyone have imagined that his slot role would be in jeopardy in 2015? It is, and for good reason.

It's been the spring of the receiver at Texas. Dorian Leonard has been making insane one-handed grabs on a weekly basis, Jacorey Warrick looks like a terror out of the slot, Daje Johnson has his head on straight and nobody can count out Lorenzo Joe.

Add in senior Marcus Johnson, and a supposed position of weakness looks like the best group on the team. 

The issue at this point will be finding snaps for all of these guys, not to mention Foreman and the slew of freshmen who will arrive this summer. Each has a skill set the Horns could really use, especially from the plus-sized Leonard (6'3", 203 lbs) and multitalented Daje Johnson.

If the quarterbacks throw the ball well, these guys are all going to have nice games this Saturday.

 

Offensive Tackle

Four early enrollees have added necessary competition to the offensive tackle position that was overwhelmed most of last season. By the time fall rolls around, both jobs could belong to newcomers.

Even with several experienced blockers at his disposal, Joe Wickline is going to tinker with his group until the bitter end. Not only is he eyeing a redemptive campaign, but the new attack requires a different style of blocking from these guys.

The interior of this group is pretty much set with three effective starters back in the fold, but this staff recruited for immediate competition. For that reason, Texas has four early enrollees with the size to play tackle who will all see action in the spring game.

Incumbent left tackle Marcus Hutchins told reporters that the competition is making an impact thus far:

Yes, it makes all of us work even harder. Especially at the tackle position, we compete every day. I think it gives us more insight of how hard it is. Each and every day is not a given day. It can be switched, I can be here or I can be there. It's whoever goes out there and works the hardest, and we all go out there and play and bust our butts. It's a competition everyday and it's the difference.

Connor Williams, Tristan Nickelson, Brandon Hodges and Garrett Thomas—the four current newcomers—have all seen work at tackle. Williams and Nickelson have seen the most work with the first team, with Hodges looking like a utility player along the front.

Right tackle is definitely the most available spot of the two, as no real starter emerged last season. That role best fits the 6'8" Nickelson, though we can't count out true freshman Williams. HornsDigest.com's Chip Brown believes he'll be an NFL left tackle.

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Michigan Football: Can Wolverines' 2015 Defense Be as Good as Michigan State's?

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is in the midst of an arms race in the Big Ten, where conference titles hinge on the points of capable offenses but are claimed with the arms of suffocating defenses—the blueprint for such success lies 65 miles to the northwest of Ann Arbor in East Lansing.

Known for innovative and unique coaching tactics, Harbaugh doesn’t need to copy or mimic anyone’s styles or methods. However, he’s a football guy to the core. He knows what works, too. Coach Mark Dantonio's defensive staff has something going at Michigan State worth—at the very least—emulating in some way.

Given the proper conditions, Harbaugh is capable of constructing something powerful and dynasty-esque with Michigan’s defense.

With coordinator D.J. Durkin, D-line coach Greg Mattison and secondary coaches Mike Zordich and Greg Jackson, the Wolverines’ already top-15 defense could easily transform into a truer national power this fall.

Or in other words, just like what has happened at Michigan State. Credit Harlon Barnett for building the secondary, Ron Burton for the D-line and Mike Tressel for the linebackers. Success was no accident; it was indeed a true team effort.

Let’s face it, like the rest of major college football, the Big Ten is a league predicated on the idea of “if you can’t beat them, join them.” Dantonio’s teams have been aided by offense, but they’ve enjoyed their place atop the Big Ten for one reason, and one reason only: defense.

And believe it or not, the Wolverines, at least statistically, are almost there. They finished with the No. 7-ranked total defense in 2014, one place better than the No. 8-ranked unit from Michigan State.

Of course, comparisons can get dicey, and some can qualify as stretches of the human imagination. But in this case, Michigan isn’t light years behind its in-state rival.

Harbaugh can have his cake and eat it, too. He’ll get his quarterback and offense while his staff crafts the rest. He’s assembled an all-star group designed to win today.

Until proven otherwise, the Spartans are superior to Michigan across the board. That’s what consistency does for a program. But Dantonio did it the hard way, from the bottom to the top. Harbaugh’s essentially stepping into a ready-made situation, complete with a familiar cast and nationally relevant defense courtesy of Greg Mattison.

 

Minimal-Minded

Dantonio didn’t manufacture his top-tier defense overnight. It took time; he needed a year to lay the groundwork and more time to further develop his plan. His results were quick, though. In 2008, his second year as the Spartans’ head coach, he snagged his first win over Michigan, 35-21.

Sure, getting 35 points from the offense helped expedite the process, but Michigan State’s defense sealed the win by forcing four turnovers and holding the Wolverines to just 84 rushing yards. Michigan scored three touchdowns, converted just three of 12 third-down attempts and finished with 252 yards of offensive production.

Most of Michigan’s six losses during the past eight years have been similar—all caused by a relentless group of quarterback-sackers, pass-interceptors and fumble-causers.

Fortunately for Harbaugh, defense hasn’t been much of a recent concern for the Wolverines. They need to tighten up in spots, mainly the secondary, but they’ve been steady since 2011. Despite giving up 34 and 35 to the Spartans during that span, they have somehow avoided being thoroughly embarrassed on the scoreboard. A team with a pulse on offense could have easily kept most of the six losses much closer.

Although some have felt like 56-10 throttles, the Wolverines’ average margin of defeat has been 19.6 points in each of the six recent defeats. That’s a credit to Michigan’s defense. Once assisted by a capable offense, the Wolverines will eventually grow stronger and beat teams in a similar manner, maybe even Michigan State.

That’s what happened for Dantonio, whose fortunes changed once his D-line, linebackers and secondary aligned. In addition to having the No. 8-ranked total defense in 2014, his team also touted the No. 11-ranked total offense. Simply put, there is a harmonious, defensive-inspired balance in East Lansing.

 

Specialists Can Help

Former coach Brady Hoke had the right idea: Get Mattison on the job. As it turned out, Mattison outlasted Hoke, who was ousted this past winter, and has continued molding monsters in Ann Arbor.

In 2011, Mattison inherited the No. 118-ranked total defense in the nation. By year’s end, he had the makings of a top-25 contender.

A pillar of the program, Mattison knows how to develop and identify talent. On Tuesday, he went on the road to visit Rashan Gary, a 5-star defensive tackle out of Paramus Catholic in New Jersey. The 6’4”, 270-pounder epitomizes the type of pass-rushers that have accentuated Michigan and Michigan State defenses during the past few seasons.

Securing those types of talents is one way of keeping up with the Dantonios, but not entirely necessary. The Spartans have often produced without big-name talent.

Take a look at Dantonio’s unheralded array of 3-star linebackers such as Greg Jones, or 2-star corners such as Darqueze Dennard, or 3-star tackles such as Shilique Calhoun—those guys were overlooked by everyone but had record-setting careers in college.

That’s a credit to development, which happens to be one of the strengths of Mattison, Zordich and Jackson. Mattison’s known at the NFL and collegiate levels, while Zordich and Jackson come heavily recommended by Harbaugh. 

Zordich played 12 years in the NFL, some of which were spent with Jackson, who was a secondary coach with the San Francisco 49ers during Harbaugh’s reign in the Bay Area.

 

Durkin Factor

With Durkin, that combination of coaches gives the Wolverines a clear and immediate shot at defensive dominance—and soon. 

With Durkin, there may not be a waiting period like the one Dantonio had with former coordinator Pat Narduzzi. Prior to taking the head coaching job at Pitt, Narduzzi was known for building hulls of battleships, not just defenses.

But even he and Dantonio needed some time: In 2007, the Spartans gave up 26.6 points per game. The next year, they decreased to 22.1 before shooting up to 26.3 the next year—that was the learning curve. In 2010, the Spartans surrendered 18.4 points per game, and since then, teams have found it incredibly difficult to score twice.

Building from the back also worked for the Spartans, who evidently knew they’d only be as good as their last line of defense. That’s why players such as Johnny Adams, Trae Waynes, Chris Rucker (both of them), Isaiah Lewis and Kurtis Drummond were so important.

Because of great defensive backs, the Spartans fronts and linebackers appeared to gain confidence by the week.

The Wolverines need help in their backfield, but they have pieces—big ones, too. There’s Jabrill Peppers, a redshirt freshman safety who’ll probably play corner, too; then there’s veteran corners Blake Countess and Jourdan Lewis headlining a group of vastly untapped talent; and there’s incoming freshman Tyree Kinnel, another versatile option at corner or safety.

Channing Stribling, Brandon Watson and Dymonte Thomas could end up filling similar roles for the Wolverines as Adams, Rucker, Waynes, Lewis and Drummond had done for Michigan State. There isn’t a chasm of talent levels between them.

Their fates will come down to coaching and system, both of which are prevalent at Michigan State and quickly developing at Michigan. But with Harbaugh’s staff, they could see similar outcomes.

Stingy defensive concepts aren’t foreign to Durkin. While at Florida this past season, he watched his defense intercept 14 passes and recover an SEC-leading 13 fumbles.

As stated above, head-to-head comparisons can get iffy, but Durkin seems to be cut from the same airtight-defensive mold as Narduzzi, Dantonio and Mattison.

Other than sustained success, Michigan State has enjoyed another advantage, and that’s continuity among coaches. Dantonio is accessible and flexible, which has likely contributed to his relationships with Narduzzi and staff members. Establishing something like that with Harbaugh would only make the jobs of Mattison, Durkin, Zordich and Jackson much easier.

 

A Like Identity

For Michigan, it’s not necessarily a matter of doing what Michigan State has done. It’s not about copying Dantonio to the letter or hoping to acquire one of Narduzzi’s old playbooks, either. It’s about using strategy that makes sense.

Whether by way of the 3-4 or 4-3, man or zone, Dantonio has a revolving door that never seems to stop. Where one goes, one follows, oftentimes doing better than the man he relieved. That’s recruiting, development and system working together at its finest.

Since taking over Dec. 30, Harbaugh has demonstrated a strong commitment to a genuine rebirth. He’s more action than talk, so that’s why he pursued Durkin, Zordich and Jackson, and that’s why he retained Mattison.

Statistics don’t always paint an accurate picture. Numbers can be easily skewed to fit a narrative. But in the case of Michigan’s defense, there is no need to stretch while comparing its potential to that of Michigan State.

Harbaugh’s staff can equal or better the Spartans in the near future, and there is concrete proof beyond one or two stat columns suggesting that his head start could pay off this fall.

 

Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and references were obtained firsthand by the writer via press conference, press release or other media availability. Recruit information comes via 247Sports.

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