NCAA Football News

The 16 Most Exciting Early Enrollees to Watch in 2016 Spring Practice

Spring practice isn't simply the return of college football. This year, the offseason workouts provide an initial look at some of the most exciting early enrollees from the 2016 recruiting class.

From quarterbacks with their eyes on a starting job to highly rated prospects hoping to join the rotation immediately, there's no shortage of premier talents to watch.

The following weeks are an important time for the true freshmen who were able to graduate from high school in the winter because they'll be immersed in the program and fast-tracked into the learning curve.

Whoever performs well this spring—and all of the following players are entering favorable situations—will have an excellent chance to rise up the depth chart during fall camp.

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Lovie Smith Reportedly to Be Illinois Head Coach: Contract Details, Reaction

The Illinois Fighting Illini football team will reportedly name former NFL head coach Lovie Smith as its next head coach, per CBS in Chicago (via Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports).

The 57-year-old Smith, who was the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year, will replace Bill Cubit.

The Buccaneers fired Smith on Jan. 7 after going 8-24 in two seasons. The Buccaneers won four more games in Smith's second season with No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston starting all 16 games, but that wasn't enough for Smith to keep his job. 

This is not the first time Smith will be among the college coach ranks. He was a linebackers and defensive backs coach for six different schools before finally reaching the NFL level in 1996, being hired as Tampa Bay's defensive backs coach under Tony Dungy.

Smith will return to the state where he received his first head coaching gig when he was the Chicago Bears head coach from 2004 up until 2012. He led the Bears to three NFC North championships and an appearance in Super Bowl XLI.

As the Bears' coach, Smith went 81-63 and finished below .500 in only three of his nine seasons.

Cubit was named the interim head coach at Illinois a week before the season began after then-coach Tim Beckman was fired amid allegations of player mistreatment. Illinois went on to finish 5-7 last year. New athletic director Josh Whitman dismissed Cubit on Saturday, Whitman's first official day at the AD helm, per FightingIllini.com.

If Smith is named the next coach, he will take over an Illinois team that has been in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten for the last eight seasons. Since making the Rose Bowl in the 2007 season, Illinois has not won more than seven games in a season. The Illini have made three bowl games during that span, however, winning two of them. He'll also have two offensive building blocks in senior quarterback Wes Lunt and sophomore running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn.

A leader with NFL head coaching pedigree might be just what Illinois needs to return to Big Ten prominence. 

 

Stats courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com. Follow Danny Webster on Twitter.

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Illinois Head Coach Search: Latest News, Rumors, Speculation on Vacant Position

A tumultuous time for the University of Illinois football program may have a promising ending as the athletic department opens its search for a new head coach. 

Continue for updates. 

Illini Targeting Lovie Smith  Saturday, March 5

According to David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune, citing two NFL sources, Lovie Smith "will be [a] candidate" for the Illini's head coaching vacancy. 

Per Ryan Baker of CBS 2 in Chicago, citing "credible sources," he will be named Illinois' next football coach. 

It's been an interesting day for the Illini, as new athletic director Josh Whitman announced the firing of Bill Cubit. The 62-year-old took over as Illinois' football coach on an interim basis in August before he received a two-year contract to remain the head coach in November. 

Cubit originally took over after Tim Beckham was fired in August following an external review of the program brought up allegations of player mistreatment, including forcing players to play despite injuries and efforts to discourage injury reporting. 

Smith, who was fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in January, is familiar with the Illinois area and program after coaching the Chicago Bears for nine years from 2004-12, leading the franchise to an NFC championship in 2006. 

Illinois' football program can certainly use a spark after posting losing records in each of the last four seasons and not winning more than seven games in a season since 2007.  

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Cam Cameron, LSU Agree to New Contract: Latest Details and Reaction

The LSU Tigers have extended offensive coordinator Cam Cameron with a new three-year contract, according to Ross Dellenger of the Advocate

Financial figures were not immediately disclosed, though Dellenger reported Cameron's new deal will be in the ballpark of defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's contract, which will pay him $3.75 million over three years.  

Cameron’s contract was set to expire at the end of the month. He made $1.5 million per season in his first three years, and it’s unclear if he’ll be getting a raise. 

LSU also promoted defensive line coach Ed Orgeron to recruiting coordinator and will give him a raise and extension, per Dellenger. The Tigers have been working without a recruiting coordinator for almost two months after Frank Wilson took the head coaching job at Texas-San Antonio. 

The LSU board of supervisors must approve the contracts at its next meeting on March 18, per Dellenger.

Under Cameron, LSU ranked seventh in the SEC in total offense last year but led the conference in rushing behind workhorse Leonard Fournette. However, Cameron and the Tigers couldn’t match their success through the air. They ranked ahead of only Vanderbilt and Missouri in passing offense at 173.1 yards per game.

This will be the first spring Cameron enters with an upperclassman under center. Incumbent Brandon Harris (junior), Purdue transfer Danny Etling (junior) and Anthony Jennings (senior) will get reps.

Cameron came to Baton Rouge with an extensive NFL background. He was the offensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers from 2002-2006 when LaDainian Tomlinson thrived in his prime. He then replaced Nick Saban as head coach of the Miami Dolphins in 2007, lasting just one season. After that, he spent four years as offensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens, winning Super Bowl 47. 

The Tigers started 7-0 last year and were No. 2 in the College Football Playoff committee rankings before losing three straight. The late-season slide led to reports head coach Les Miles would be fired before the season even ended. Had that been the case, Cameron likely would’ve been jettisoned as well. 

But the decision to keep Miles was made at halftime during the Tigers’ regular-season finale against Texas A&M. 

Now with the futures of Miles and Cameron secure, the Tigers can focus solely on football when spring practice begins Monday. 

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4-Star Stanford Samuels III Talks Recruitment, FSU Legacy and Decision Timeline

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. – Stanford Samuels III doesn’t have to look far for an encouraging word when things aren’t going right on the football field. 

After all, his father—former Florida State corner Stanford Samuels Jr.—coaches his son at Flanagan High School in Hollywood, Florida, as the Falcons’ defensive coordinator. 

Around campus, father and son are known as “Boosie” and “B.J.”—an ode to the elder Samuels’ childhood nickname, with B.J. being the shortened version of “Boosie Jr.” 

The younger Samuels, who is the nation’s No. 4 corner and the No. 32 player overall, acknowledges his dad’s presence as an advantage that has helped him learn the finer details of playing the game. 

“[It’s great] just having somebody who has been there and who has the experience at the position that I play,” Samuels told Bleacher Report. “Just being able to get pointers from him when I’m stuck in one place, having someone who has the expertise helps me out a lot.” 

Their football bond was forged while Boosie was in college at FSU. He fondly remembers bringing his son around practice when he was a defensive back in Tallahassee from 1999 to 2003.

Back then, former ‘Noles receivers such as Anquan Boldin would be throwing passes to B.J. in between reps of one-on-one sessions between the receivers and defensive backs in the offseason. 

“The receivers took to him for some reason, and they would take turns throwing to him,” Boosie recalls. “[B.J.] would imitate them with the way he would make catches, and they would be amazed at how he caught the ball. He was advanced back then. You could tell he was really into the game.” 

Fast-forward to present day, and the 6’2”, 175-pounder has earned a reputation as being one of the nation’s top corners in a loaded 2017 class, which is a spot he always expected to be in growing up.

“I’ve been playing football since I was born,” B.J. said. “[My father] put a football in my hands. Since I was born, that’s what I’ve loved to do. I always expected to be here because that was what was expected of me growing up.”

With more than 40 offers to his credit entering the spring, colleges from coast to coast are coming after him hard. 

Of course, Florida State—who had him on campus for its junior day last month—is the school that most observers feel is the heavy favorite to land him, according to 247Sports' "crystal ball" predictions. However, he’s in no rush to proclaim a favorite at this time.

“I don’t have a top group. But a couple schools [are pushing hard for me],” B.J. said. “I would say Georgia, Florida State, Michigan, Oklahoma and Clemson.”

Still, B.J.—who noted that he’s spent time in the offseason studying film on Seminoles defensive backs Derwin James and Jalen Ramsey—admits that Florida State has his attention because of the program’s recent success under head coach Jimbo Fisher.

“[FSU] are used to winning. They are always going to win and produce great players. They always develop guys that go on to the NFL. They have a great coaching staff. It’s a lot of things that stand out with their program,” B.J. said.

He’s also in the process of planning out his visits in the coming weeks and months ahead.

“I know sometime in the near future, I will be going to Georgia. I think I will get up to Maryland sometime soon. I am trying to get up to Michigan, and I think I will go up to Alabama soon also,” he said. 

One program that could be a legit threat to pull him away from the ‘Noles is Michigan—who landed Seminoles legacy and former Flanagan teammate Devin Bush Jr. in the 2016 cycle.

Additionally, the Wolverines recently hired Devin Bush Sr.—who was the head coach at Flanagan from 2013 to 2015—as a defensive analyst. 

“That definitely helps just knowing that I can always feel at home with Coach Bush already there and those guys I grew up with. That would be great if I do decide to go to Michigan,” B.J. said. “But at this point, I’m trying to make sure that doesn’t affect my decision.” 

Similarly, his ties to FSU may loom large to outsiders, but B.J. and his father maintain that it won’t play a role in his decision.

“He has to choose the best path for him,” Boosie said. “Because it was the spot for me doesn’t mean it will be the right spot for him. Our family has history at the school. It would be great. I’m sure my family is rooting for it [to happen], but again, it goes back to the understanding that this is a business, and he has to make the best business decision for him. This is the most important decision that he will make.”

B.J., who reports a 3.7 GPA with plans to enroll early at his school of choice, hasn’t decided on a potential major yet, but business management is a possibility.

Academics is just one part of the formula he will be looking for in the school he ultimately decides to commit to. 

“It’s not one main factor that will be the most important in my decision. [There are] several things that will tie into which school I choose,” B.J. said. “Right now, I’m just looking at all the schools interested in me and getting all the information I need on them. When it’s time to make a decision, I’ll be ready for it when the time comes.”

 

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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5-Star Trevon Grimes Updates Recruitment, Talks Calvin Johnson-Inspired Nickname

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Calvin Johnson’s days playing in the NFL may be over, but his influence is alive and well in the form of 2017 5-star receiver Trevon Grimes

In fact, the nation’s No. 2 wideout and the No. 10 player overall in the 2017 cycle has even used the former Lions legend’s nickname of “Megatron” as inspiration for a nickname of his own.

“Calvin Johnson is a guy I’ve always looked up to and admired. If I had to choose a receiver to be like, I’d pick Calvin Johnson,” Grimes told Bleacher Report recently. “I have a nickname I call myself. I call myself “Tregatron.”

Getting bigger to match his idol on a physical level has been on the top of Grimes’ offseason to-do list, as he now checks in at 6’4”, 201 pounds.

“I just hit the 200-pound mark. I’m trying to get to 210 [before the season]. I just want to add some muscle. I look forward to displaying that during my senior season,” he said.

Grimes is just one of several prospects from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida—one of the nation’s premier prep powers.

Raiders head coach Roger Harriott said Grimes has many qualities that make him one of the nation’s most coveted skill talents in the 2017 class.

“He has a great work ethic in the weight room. He pushes himself hard and inspires his teammates,” Harriott said. “Obviously, he’s physically gifted with a big, strong body and a substantial amount of speed. He has an ability to stretch the field and make explosive plays. From an intangible standpoint, he has strong character. He has a very positive attitude. He has a will power and drive that is uncanny.”

Originally from Indiana, Grimes has thrived in the football hotbed of South Florida since relocating.

He’s landed more than 25 offers heading into his senior season, with schools such as Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Miami and Ohio State among the programs aggressively recruiting him.

However, there’s no secrecy involved in identifying the school in the driver’s seat for one of 2017’s most explosive prospects.

“I always keep in contact with [Ohio State head] Coach Urban Meyer. He’s a great guy, and they have a great staff. That’s one of the reasons Ohio State is my leader,” Grimes explained. “I just feel like they don’t look at me like a regular recruit they just want. They look at me more as like a son and they want to mentor me in life and help me with my life goals. I feel like those are the two coaches [Meyer and receivers coach Zach Smith] that stick out to me the most.”

Another school is positioning itself to pose the biggest challenge in preventing Grimes from eventually landing in Columbus.

“Right now, Florida is chasing Ohio State. That’s probably the biggest threat to Ohio State,” Grimes said. “I like a lot of things about Florida. My quarterback here, Jake Allen, he’s committed to Florida, and he’s on me everyday in class about Florida, this and Florida, that. I got to get up there and see what he was talking about and since then, I was amazed. I like everything about it. I like [receivers] Coach [Kerry] Dixon. I like the atmosphere and facilities. Everything is good there.”

For his part, Allen acknowledged being in his teammate’s ear about teaming up again in college.

“That’s my guy. Everyday. I have math with him, so I’ll be like, ‘Tre, what’s up? Go Gators,’ or something like that just to let him know we want him up there,” Allen said.

Grimes visited the Gators in January for the program’s junior day, and he recently took a trip to Miami for a similar visit.

In addition to a return trip to Gainesville, there are a pair of college football titans he wants to visit in the near future.

“One of my major schools I want to get up to soon is Florida State. Another one I want to see is Alabama, and I want to get back to Florida,” he said.

Two things Grimes noted that will be critical in his decision are his relationships with the coaching staff and his comfort level on campus at his school of choice.

He’s not in a rush to make a decision, although he admits it could come at any moment. 

“I really don’t have a timeline, but I’ll do it when I feel comfortable. It could be within the next couple of months if I feel right, but I have to talk with my mom and see when the time is right,” Grimes said. “Whenever I feel like I’m ready to get this thing over with, that’s when I’ll do it.”

 

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

College Football Programs with the Weirdest Mascots

College football is a game steeped in tradition. Many fans are born into their allegiances, given their rooting interests by their parents at birth. Six to seven times per year, they head to their stadium of choice, taking the same route, setting up in the same tailgating spot and sitting in the same seats they’ve had for generations.

One important part of those traditions is the team mascot. Mascots play a key role in college football fandom. They adorn the gear fans wear, elicit emotional responses and provide sideline entertainment. While many programs have classic mascots such as Lions, Tigers and Bears (oh my!), others have more of an eclectic nature. While the University of California at Santa Cruz doesn’t offer football, it’d be worth it just to see the Banana Slug mascot (immortalized by John Travolta’s T-shirt in Pulp Fiction) sliding along the sidelines.

Weird mascots make college football fun. Here’s a look at some of the game’s strangest mascots, both by name and by the actual mascots themselves.

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Bill Cubit Fired by Illinois: Latest Details, Comments, Reaction

The University of Illinois announced the dismissal of head football coach Bill Cubit on Saturday following one year as the program's interim boss. 

The team's official Twitter account relayed a statement from new athletic director Josh Whitman: 

Freshman quarterback Eli Peters expressed his shock at the decision:

Meanwhile, offensive lineman Joseph Spencer thanked the coach for his work:

Cubit took over as interim head coach last August after former head coach Tim Beckman was fired in the midst of an NCAA investigation into the reporting of injuries and the medical treatment of members of the football team.    

The Illini went 5-7 under Cubit during the 2015 season, and as USA Today's Erick Smith noted, the dismissal came on Whitman's first day as the school's athletic director. 

However, ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg theorized Whitman may not have made the move in hasty fashion: 

Fox Sports' Stewart Mandel provided another perspective through the prism of Cubit's appointment to the position of head coach: 

Illinois also announced Ryan Cubit was relieved of his duties as the program's offensive coordinator, while all other assistants currently with the team will be afforded a chance to retain their jobs via interviews with the next head coach. 

The school's statement mentioned that Bill will receive the remaining $985,000 on his deal, while Ryan will take home $361,000. 

With the 2005 MAC Coach of the Year out in Champaign, the team will need to find a replacement fast. As Bleacher Report's Bryan Fischer noted, the Illini are scheduled to start spring practice in six days.

And with the personnel shuffle just beginning, Illinois could be in for another long year as it searches for stability that has long been elusive. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Shilique Calhoun Among the Best, and Safest, Pass-Rushers in 2016 NFL Draft

In NFL draft discussions, there’s occasionally a rift between a player perceived as "safe" and a player who has "upside." Too often, players narrowly fit into one of these categories, grouped as either NFL-ready with limited growth potential or prospects who need ample work before their teams can trust them.

Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun is proof a prospect can be both. Teams don’t have to sacrifice upside and production for relative safeness all the time in the draft process.

Calhoun isn’t the sexiest of athletes and may never be a top-five pass-rusher in the NFL, but it’s his reliability, future impact and persistent activeness as an edge player that should force NFL teams to ignore their desire for pure “upside” and draft the future long-term starter in round one. 

 

Run Defender: Active Yet Controlled

In today’s NFL, the focus is on defensive ends or outside linebackers who can rush the passer. Sacks and tackles for loss are the gold standard for edge-rusher success, which has some merit; there aren’t many pass-rushers who can consistently cause consistent pressure, just like there are few NBA players who can effectively create their own shot.

It’s a rarity, and when you find a Von Miller or a Stephen Curry type who can win on their own, it’s important to properly appreciate it. 

But few college edge players enter the NFL with as refined and consistent run-defending skills as Calhoun boasts as he departs Michigan State. Working as a strong-side defensive end the last three seasons, Calhoun has dealt with all types of offensive focuses against him in the running game. 

Calhoun has grown into a complete edge run defender, offering remarkable consistency in two key areas: edge setting and in-space finishing.

The 23-year-old is rarely pushed off balance when working on the perimeter, utilizing a strong core to re-engage after the initial block and work toward the running lane with momentum. As in the play below, Calhoun plays with a violent activeness with his hands while also maintaining balance and meaningful steps as he works down the line:

Notice how he erased the tight end's hand placement, baited and slipped underneath the pulling center and eliminated any hope of a cutback lane for the running back. He not only eliminated the value of two blockers but also inhibited any potential cutback lane for the running back. With so many teams valuing the outside zone run as a part of their horizontally stretching offense, having a strong-side defensive end who can neutralize it like this is supremely valuable. 

The second aspect of Calhoun’s game that makes him an NFL-level run defender is his ability to finish in space. Too often, defensive ends can get to their spot and eliminate blockers, only to be just a minor delay in a running back’s big play. Calhoun, who may be considered by some teams as a 3-4 outside linebacker, is able to evade second-level blockers, stay linear in his pursuit and breakdown to finish in space.

In the play above, Calhoun effectively read the underneath screen thanks to the right tackle pushing upfield after the snap. Calhoun dips into the flat, evaded the receiver’s poor block and worked to get into position. His tackling form and finishing here should be the go-to play when considering whether Calhoun can play 3-4 outside linebacker.

As in these two instances, Calhoun has displayed effectiveness as a run defender who's more than just being physical, active or having the inherent skill set to do so. The upside is there to add bulk, improve hand alignment and diagnosis even quicker, but he’s NFL-ready in the two areas that generally give rookie defensive ends trouble in the NFL.

 

Pass-Rusher: Impact Without Risk

As alluded to earlier, the breadwinning skill of any highly valued edge player is his ability to rush the passer. Calhoun doesn’t dominate with elite athleticism or explosiveness, as some of his 2016 draft counterparts are able to. But Calhoun can win with refined technique, hand placement and positioning, as well as with dynamic counter-rush moves and straight-line bursts to the quarterback. 

For a strong-side edge player as a pass-rusher, Calhoun needs to prove he can take advantage of one-on-one matchups without blitzing support, can counter rush to maximize the handful of opportunities and still generate disruption against double teams. Calhoun, especially as a senior, has consistently displayed all three of those pass-rushing dynamics.

Despite rushing a bit high at times and not playing with a consistently low-centered pad level, Calhoun is able to dip on the perimeter initially and work underneath edge-blockers with plus-shoulder technique and an underneath rip. Calhoun’s ability to run the arch, get position on kick sliding tackles without giving up ground and finish in the backfield is exemplified in the play below:

Along with winning on the perimeter in his senior year, something he’s drastically improved upon since his 2013 and 2014 seasons, Calhoun has also become more effective as a counter rusher inside. He’s developed well-defined and effective outside-in rip move setups as well as a sharp spin move, both of which should translate nicely to the NFL level in time.

As in the play below, Calhoun works outside initially, gets the left tackle to overcommit only slightly, then uses a push and inside rip move, coupled with a balanced, linear approach to the quarterback, to finish the sack. Staying linear and more under control as a pass-rusher allowed Calhoun to be a far more effective backfield tackle finisher than in the past.

Finally, Calhoun has willingly accepted double teams in his time at Michigan State. In the past, it was to support the host of NFL prospects at linebacker and defensive line to generate their own pressure with as many as one-on-one opportunities as possible. This season, as the defense’s feature defender, he was asked to continue to generate pressure despite the added attention, and he answered the call.

In the play above, Calhoun first executed a perfectly stepped (though a tad high) spin move, keeping his back exposure minimum and stepping the blocker’s full width in his footwork. He moved past the blocker with upfield penetration, split the aiding running back block and forced the quarterback into a throwaway.

Calhoun’s aggressiveness was on display throughout the 2015 season, and his campaign to prove to NFL teams he could be a feature pass-rusher has paid off based on his play as a senior.

 

Worth a 1st-Round Pick?

After producing middle-of-the-road NFL Scouting Combine numbers—4.82-second 40-yard dash, 23 reps on the bench press and a 6.97-second three-cone drill— Shilique Calhoun’s performance reiterated to NFL teams he’s not an elite-level athlete. But that was expected. He won’t have the terms "high upside” or “developmental” tied to his name, and that’s great news. 

More than few teams should be coveting an NFL-ready strong-side edge defender. While there are a handful of free-agent options to fill the void, such as Chris Long, William Hayes and Courtney Upshaw, they’ll cost a pretty penny and may not be much more effective in 2016 than Calhoun.

Just because a prospect such as Calhoun doesn’t possess elite upside as a pass-rusher doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be considered a first-round pick. First-round values are players who can make an impact early in their NFL career and grow into one of the cornerstones of the team.

Calhoun could provide immediate starting capabilities in the NFL, and his growth as a senior along with completeness as a prospect should make him a key cog in any defensive line.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

4-Star CB Thomas Graham Balances USC Commitment While Looking at Other Schools

Hours before drills commenced at The Opening's Los Angeles regional camp on Feb. 28, Thomas Graham envisioned a successful day for himself.

The 4-star defensive back aimed to make a statement.

"Last year, I feel like I dominated the [2016 class]. Now I feel like I should do more than just dominate," Graham told Bleacher Report. "I should put on a show for everybody and prove I'm the No. 1 cornerback in the nation."

He impressed enough throughout the action-packed afternoon to earn an invitation to The Opening national finals, an elite prospect showcase held in July at Nike's world headquarters. Graham will continue his quest to climb national recruit rankings in Beaverton, Oregon, where he'll face many of America's premier high school receivers in a competitive environment.

"My father got me involved in the game at a young age, so my football IQ is very high," he said. "I recognize stuff a lot faster than other people. I've been running track my whole life, so that helps me on the field. And lastly, I stay patient with receivers at the line, take chances when I'm in good position and feel like I make most of those plays."

Rated No. 6 nationally among cornerbacks and No. 39 overall in 2017 composite rankings, Graham showcased his skills throughout a dominant junior campaign at Rancho Cucamonga High School in California. The 5'11", 170-pound playmaker collected 103 tackles, four fumble recoveries and one pick-six, according to MaxPreps.

Graham, who collected scholarship offers from Arizona State, Oklahoma, UCLA and Washington as an underclassman, committed to USC last summer. He maintains that pledge is still in place today, though it's far from secure.

Many would label it a "soft verbal" pact, considering his interest elsewhere.

Graham isn't shy about an open-door policy when it comes to alternative schools. He identified Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Arizona and Utah among programs that have gained positive momentum in his recruiting process.

His offer list is 15 universities deep, according to Graham, and he hopes it continues to grow.

Alabama, LSU, Ohio State and Oregon would be welcome additions to the collection, Graham told B/R.

"Those are schools I watched growing up and I can see myself playing there. If they show me the contact, I would really show them love," he said.

USC will have another chance to stabilize things with the coveted defender on March 8, when Graham plans to visit campus. The Trojans have undergone significant changes—replacing both the head coach and defensive coordinator—since he pledged to the program.

Graham said it wasn't easy to watch the drama unfold last fall, but he believes the Trojans are now headed in a desirable direction.

"USC is moving forward," he said. "It's too big a program and too many kids from Southern California go there for it not to be great. They just had a lot of distractions last season, and I feel like this year is going to be a fresh start for them."

Graham, who may consider enrolling at college early next winter, will spend time with the freshly settled USC staff next week. The Trojans are sure to deal with competition at every turn of his recruitment.

"I want to put myself out there and give every college coach the chance I gave USC," he said. "If coaches want to communicate with me, I'll give them that opportunity."

 

Quotes obtained firsthand by Bleacher Report National Recruiting Analyst Tyler Donohue unless otherwise noted. All player ratings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings. Follow Tyler via Twitter: @TDsTake. 

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Swing Set Can't Hold 282-Pound Oregon State Offensive Lineman Blake Brandel

Aw, look at this—a few Oregon State Beavers football players doing community service.

So great.

Until they hopped on the swings, that is. The guys looked like they were having a good time. Some were taking selfies; others were just enjoying the ride. Offensive lineman Blake Brandel, though, was trying to reach the clouds.

Instead, the 282-pound big fella met the mulch.

[Twitter]

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Auburn Football: Tigers' Players Who Could Surprise People This Spring

AUBURN, Ala. — Even if the weather hasn't reflected it yet, spring has sprung for the Auburn Tigers, who started a crucial 2016 camp Tuesday. 

The Tigers took the field for helmet-only practices Tuesday and Thursday and will hit Jordan-Hare Stadium for the first time in 2016 Saturday morning. 

Several newcomers on the coaching staff stood on the field for the first time next to some already-famous names on campus, including JUCO quarterback John Franklin III and wide receiver Kyle Davis. Other familiar faces such as defensive end Byron Cowart, linebacker Jeff Holland and running back Roc Thomas commanded the spotlight as they began their pushes for starting jobs this fall.

But what about the players who haven't gotten as much attention on Gus Malzahn's 2016 squad?

Here's a look at five players who could surprise Auburn fans this spring with their work in practices—from a pair of newly eligible transfers to an underclassman who is embracing a new offensive role. 

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The 50 Biggest Position Battles in 2016 College Football Spring Camp

The term "spring practice" is a relative one in college football, since several schools start (and even finish) these offseason workouts before winter is over. But what every FBS team has in common at this point in their preparations for 2016 is identifying candidates to start at key positions.

Either because they've lost a starter to graduation, injury or the NFL draft, or those who held that spot a year ago didn't meet expectations, there are hundreds of jobs up for grabs this spring. Most won't get decided until preseason practices in August, but the groundwork for that competition begins now.

We've identified the 50 most noteworthy position battles in college football that will get waged this spring. Only players who are currently on the roster—including early enrollees—and are expected to have a legitimate chance to win a starting job are listed.

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4-Star DE/LB Hybrid Jaelan Phillips Talks Recruitment, Values of Academics

REDONDO BEACH, California — Picture Redlands, California, 4-star talent Jaelan Phillips as the guy who could deliver bruises on the football field and then, one day, patch the bruises in a medical room.

It could happen.

For Phillips, who earned an invitation to The Opening finals last week, getting the most out of his academic future is just as important as—if not greater than—his athletic achievements. Ranked as the nation's No. 8 weak-side defensive end, Phillips has aspirations to earn a quality degree from a top institute of higher learning.

That degree, Phillips said, could involve him one day being addressed as "Dr. Phillips."

"I'm interested in pre-med," he said while preparing to compete at last week's The Opening Los Angeles regional. "I love anatomy and studying the body."

Fortunately for football fans, Phillips also enjoys hunting down quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers on the field. At 6'5" and 235 pounds, Phillips is a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker at Redlands East Valley High School who is equally effective at rushing the passer as he is at dropping into pass coverage.

Fifteen schools have recognized his talent so far, and he's expected to get a few more offers during the spring and summer. Texas A&M is the latest school to offer.

"It's getting pretty hectic," Phillips said. "But I'm loving it and really enjoying it. I'm still open and taking it all in and learning about all the universities."

Phillips was in Palo Alto, California, last Saturday for Stanford's junior day. Unofficial visits and spring practice appearances to UCLA and USC also are upcoming, he said. He also said he's interested in taking a visit to Notre Dame if his schedule works out.

Stanford and UCLA are two schools to keep an eye on, according to 247Sports' "crystal ball" predictions for Phillips. He said the winning school will have to balance a solid football program with an outstanding academic reputation.

"I'm really high on academics. It's been a huge thing in my entire life, and my parents really stress that," said Phillips, who, along with pre-med, has interest in business, entrepreneurship and bioengineering. "I want to be at a place where I'm comfortable the next four years of my life and after that. It'll all kind of be a gut feeling for me when it's time to make that decision."

Stanford fans will be happy to know that Phillips thoroughly enjoyed his junior-day appearance. Seeing the campus and meeting up with the players and coaching staff scored high marks.

"The academics and athletics speak for themselves," he said. "I'd been to Palo Alto once before, but to go as a recruit and see myself there the next couple of years was awesome."

The winning school will get an athlete who showed his versatility at Redlands East Valley. His 87 tackles showed he has a nose for the football. His 13 ½ sacks showed his ability to beat offensive linemen and get to the quarterback as a defensive end. His three interceptions showed that he can drop back into coverage as an outside linebacker.

What's best for schools is that he doesn't mind lining up at either position.

"I've been playing outside linebacker for longer," he said. "But as I've started growing into my body and getting taller and wider, I love rushing the passer. That's my forte and what I like doing, but I still like dropping into coverage."

Phillips is ranked in the 2017 class as a defensive end, and he earned his The Opening invitation competing with the defensive ends. Look for him to continue weighing the option of playing both defensive end and outside linebacker at the next level.

And look for him to continue monitoring schools that have the athletic and academic resumes he's looking for.

 

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

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The Case for and Against Notre Dame to Make a National Title Run in 2016

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish were one victory away from presenting their case as a contender for the national title last year, and they return the talent to snag that final necessary win in 2016.

However, Brian Kelly's team might be eliminated from the conversation well before the closing weeks of the upcoming campaign.

Though injuries significantly impacted Notre Dame's 2015 season, those cannot be projected with any shred of certainty. So factors like that do not affect either the case for or against the Irish.

Rather, the conversation focuses on players, coaches and already-known external forces—most notably, the schedule.

 

Why the Irish Can Make a Run

First question: Malik Zaire or DeShone Kizer? Considering the talent of both players, there won't be a more important or discussed quarterback battle in all of college football this offseason.

Second question: Is there a wrong choice? Kizer assembled a tremendous unexpected season after stepping in for Zaire.

While there's no easy answer to either question, the competition isn't quite a parallel to 2015 Ohio State with Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett. Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford is the primary reason why.

The Buckeyes' struggles last season certainly were the result of Tom Herman's departure to Houston, whose success certainly was a result of Herman's arrival. Similarly, Sanford had a tremendous effect on his team's offense. Ohio State can't say the same for Tim Beck and Ed Warinner.

Although play-calling duties are shared, Sanford's impact showed in Kizer's rapid progression. The redshirt freshman took Notre Dame to the brink of a College Football Playoff appearance.

We've seen the level at which Kizer is capable of playing, and that should only increase with another offseason. Plus, Zaire is expected to make a full recovery. The Irish have the ability to thrive under a top coordinator in Sanford.

And it helps to have a schedule in which most of the games considered the toughest are against programs replacing multiyear starting quarterbacks.

Connor Cook (Michigan State), Kevin Hogan (Stanford) and Cody Kessler (USC) each exhausted their eligibility. Keenan Reynolds (Navy), Jacoby Brissett (North Carolina State) and Michael Brewer (Virginia Tech) did the same.

Additionally, Thomas Sirk (Duke) may miss the 2016 season after tearing his left Achilles. At this moment, Brad Kaaya (Miami) is the lone daunting matchup for the Notre Dame defense.

Once the campaign begins, we'll discover which quarterbacks replacing those starters are ready to succeed at a high level. For now, though, it's a matter of development—and keeping up with what Sanford has done for the Irish.

 

The Case Against Notre Dame

Although the feeling surrounding Notre Dame's quarterback dilemma is different than Ohio State, the numbers aren't. Zaire, like Jones, has less than a handful of games as a starter but excelled. Kizer, like Barrett, is the younger quarterback with more production.

In all likelihood, though, the Irish won't have a two-quarterback system or utilize special packages in the red zone. Kelly has never truly embraced that for an extended period of action. Tommy Rees and Everett Golson shared time in 2012, but Golson was the clear No. 1 guy.

So what happens at the first sign of trouble?

That won't necessarily be a product of offensive problems, either.

The defense lost six of its top eight tacklers, including potential first-round NFL draft pick Jaylon Smith (114) as well as fellow linebacker Joe Schmidt (78). Plus, the productive and disruptive tandem of Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara is headed to the pros.

Consequently, the resurgence of Jarron Jones and development of the front seven is paramount to the defense's success in 2016. One player will not completely replace Day, nor will one seamlessly step in for Smith.

Notre Dame's attack must reload, too.

Along with three starters—Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin and Steve Elmer—on the offensive line, premier vertical threat Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle are all gone. JJ Stankevitz of CSN Chicago notes Fuller isn't worried about the transition on the outside.

However, Fuller, Brown, Carlisle and C.J. Prosise combined for 69.7, 74.9 and 80 percent of the team's receptions, yards and touchdowns, respectively.

Torii Hunter Jr., Corey Robinson, Equanimeous St. Brown and Tarean Folston, among others, have sizable shoes to fill and must consistently produce against top opponents. The Irish don't encounter any particularly brutal stretch, but they will challenge a handful of tough foes.

Michigan State and Duke travel to South Bend in September, followed by Stanford and Miami in October. Notre Dame hosts a potentially dangerous Virginia Tech offense on Nov. 19 before heading out to the Coliseum and closing the regular season vs. USC.

Even just one loss complicates the Irish's title hopes.

The College Football Playoff committee gives preference to programs that won a conference championship. That's simply a part of the protocol if an independent isn't "unequivocally one of the four best teams in the country."

Unless Notre Dame establishes itself as a clear-cut top-four squad in 2016—in other words, undefeated—the uphill battle may be too difficult for a promising Irish squad to climb.

 

All recruiting information via 247Sports. Stats from cfbstats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.

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