NCAA Football News
As the world of college football recruiting continues to develop, the significance of impact freshmen continues to rise as well.
Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston were both freshmen when they won the Heisman Trophy, and there are plenty of other examples of players who tore it up on the gridiron their first season on campus.
In the Big 12, guys like Trey Millard and Shaun Lewis had their impacts immediately felt on their respective squads.
With that, let's check out one freshman to pay special attention to this season for each Big 12 team.
*All recruiting information from 247Sports unless otherwise noted.
With the reigning Heisman winner on Clemson's 2014 schedule, it should be pretty obvious who tops this list. Other than Jameis Winston, however, there are several solid quarterbacks the Tigers defense will face this season.
Two of the major games on the schedule this season, Georgia and South Carolina, both feature new starters at the position.
Which quarterbacks make up the other four spots on our list?
Now that fall practice has begun, the official countdown is on for the Clemson Tigers' trip to Georgia on August 30.
Can the Tigers repeat last season's success, when they defeated the Bulldogs 38-35 in one of the nation's most exciting games of opening weekend?
Clemson has three straight 10-win seasons, but it will be difficult to reach that mark in 2014. Not only is the schedule tougher, but the Tigers are also replacing a big portion of their offense. Senior Cole Stoudt should successfully replace Tajh Boyd at quarterback, but will it be too late?
Fortunately for Clemson, only three teams on the schedule return last year's starting quarterback. That plays into what should be one of the team's strengths this fall: a ferocious pass rush.
Who are the toughest opponents on Clemson's 2014 schedule? Here are four teams that could get in the way of Clemson reaching another 10-win season or challenge for the ACC title.
Virginia added one of the best defensive stalwarts in the class of 2015 following the commitment of Jahvoni Simmons.
Simmons confirmed the news via his Twitter account:
The product of Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia, is rated as a 4-star prospect and is ranked as the 143rd-best prospect overall and the second-best inside linebacker in the country, according to 247Sports' composite rankings.
His arrival in Charlottesville isn't all that surprising. After lagging behind Virginia Tech for some time, the Cavaliers became the odds-on favorites to land the coveted linebacker in 2014, according to 247Sports' Crystal Ball predictions.
Although Simmons didn't know which school he would choose until recently, he has known for the past four years that a college career was all but assured. In an interview with Bleacher Report's Tyler Donohue, he spoke about how good of a feeling it was for him to receive his first scholarship offer as a freshman:
Having an offer freshman year is definitely a major accomplishment. I think most eighth-graders and freshman would want to get their first offer early. It’s big knowing your parents won’t have to go into their pocket and pay for college.
At the Nike Football Training Camp in March, Simmons revealed what his plan would be for determining his college choice, per ESPN.com's Gerry Hamilton (subscription required).
"I’ll probably narrow it down to 10 before the season," he said. "Then five from there and commit after that. I may commit in mid-season, or after the season.”
One of the first things that stands out about Simmons' game is his tackling ability. Like so many top high school defenders, he's more than capable of laying out the ball-carrier with a huge hit. What Simmons does so well is understand when the situation calls for a little more caution and simply wrapping up the ball-carrier.
Many coaches will look to their inside linebacker to act as the quarterback of the defense, and Simmons is the archetype of that. He reads the game very well, and 247Sports gives him an eight out of 10 in the category for instincts.
At 6'1" and 225 pounds, Simmons may be a bit limited in terms of how much bigger he can get, but he should be able to add more bulk in time. If he can add a little more size and strength, he'd be an even bigger force on the inside.
Simmons should figure into Virginia's defensive plans within a few years and possibly right when he steps onto the field. He possesses everything you look for in a blue-chip inside linebacker.
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From the moment he first stepped onto a football field, Ray Ray McCloud III has been blessed with an uncanny ability to see things before they happen.
His father—Ray Ray McCloud Jr. or Big Ray, as he's known to friends and family—said his son's prowess on the football field was evident when he first began playing organized football at four years old.
“I put him in flag football leagues with kids who were a year or two years older than him, and he was just doing things that make you say, ‘wow,’ and making it look easy, and then it became like a habit,” the elder McCloud said.
It’s that type of vision and foresight that led him to make a critical decision last summer at a time when his recruiting process was in its infancy.
Instead of competing at a Nike camp in Orlando for a chance to earn a coveted invite to The Opening, Ray Ray skipped the event in favor of attending a church retreat.
“It was about me basically looking myself in the mirror and trying to figure out what God has in store for me,” Ray Ray said. “I already had faith in God, but this kind of helped me realize just how important my faith is to me.”
Big Ray said his son never hesitated with his choice—one that his father predicted would reap rewards later on.
It's decisions such as that one that let former Tampa Bay Buccaneer linebacker Derrick Brooks know that his words were getting through to young Ray Ray. Brooks, who met Ray Ray through his work with Tampa's youth football leagues, immediately gravitated to him and became a mentor to the budding star.
Ray Ray has spent the last 12 months bursting onto the scene as one of the most explosive playmakers in the 2015 class.
After earning offers from the likes of Alabama, Auburn, Florida State and Florida, McCloud committed to Clemson last week. While the Tigers celebrated landing a potential future offensive cornerstone and one of the most dynamic players from the Sunshine State, the newly minted member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame beamed with pride.
Brooks vividly recalls the first time he saw Ray Ray in action. Brooks—in the middle of his decorated career with Tampa Bay—was watching his son, Decalon, play in Tampa’s youth leagues when a 10-year-old McCloud caught his eye.
“I was out there just watching the kids run around, and I noticed little Ray Ray instantly,” Brooks said. “His football instinct—or knowledge—he had that at a young age. You could see it then. He was just always a step ahead of all of the other kids out there.”
Brooks had known Big Ray since he moved to Tampa, and their relationship grew stronger after their kids wound up playing on the same youth team a few years later.
The elder McCloud would coach the offense while Brooks served as an assistant coach on defense. It was at that point when the bond between Brooks and Ray Ray—who still to this day refers to the former Florida State star as “Coach Brooks”—would blossom.
A few years later when it came to McCloud’s recruiting process, Brooks shared clues with Ray Ray that he should look for when dealing with coaches from different schools. After all, Brooks—who was recruited by several schools as a safety when he preferred linebacker—can empathize with what McCloud is going through.
The young Ray Ray prefers playing on the offensive side of the ball in college, while some schools have mentioned liking him as a defensive back.
As their relationship has grown, Ray Ray’s questions have shifted from advice about the recruiting process more to guidance not related to football.
“I’ve always respected Ray Ray’s football IQ and the questions he’s asked over the years about how to be a better player,” Brooks said. “But our last couple of years, our conversations have shifted more so about being a better person and a better human being.”
As the accolades have come, the messages from Brooks have helped Ray Ray remain humble and focused on the goals he's set for himself and his team.
“He told me that my talent won’t be enough on its own to succeed,” Ray Ray said. “Coming from him and knowing where he’s been and the things he’s accomplished in football, it really opened my eyes as to what it takes to be great in this game.”
During Ray Ray’s years in middle school, Big Ray would often let his son attend and compete in workouts led by college-bound standouts such as Javier Arenas and O.J. Murdock. The younger McCloud, who would often watch film of his youth games with his father in his free time, dazzled his older counterparts and quickly earned the respect of his peers.
Right before he entered high school, McCloud also joined Unsigned Preps—which is a non-profit organization that works with student-athletes in the Tampa area. Big Ray credits his son’s work with Unsigned Preps as helping him develop his game during the offseason periods.
Over the last two seasons at Sickles High School, McCloud—primarily operating at running back—rushed for 3,635 yards and 36 touchdowns while averaging nearly eight yards per carry.
However, his profile has grown immensely after numerous standout performances on the camp circuit this offseason.
At the Orlando Nike camp in March, the 5’10”, 184-pounder dominated at wide receiver and even took some reps at corner and shined in doing so. One year after winning the skills MVP at the Rivals Camp Series, McCloud took home MVP honors at wide receiver at the same event this year.
His seven-on-seven exploits culminated with a standout performance at The Opening last month. As noted by Luke Stampini of 247Sports, McCloud earned a spot on the event's offensive All-Tournament Team.
“It was great,” Ray Ray said. “I wanted to prove to people that I can be an all-purpose back or a receiver and do it at a high level. I can play corner if my team needs me. I just wanted to showcase my talent and have fun. It was on national TV, so I wanted to enjoy that and show what I can do.”
In addition to his exploits on the field, Ray Ray—who mentioned pharmacy as a potential major in college—is getting it done in the classroom with a 3.7 GPA.
While he’s been spectacular on the field, one area where Brooks has encouraged his young pupil to improve is providing leadership to his teammates.
As his stature has risen individually, the soft-spoken McCloud has gone through an adjustment period with the attention brought on from his recruiting process.
“He’s still trying to get comfortable in the spotlight,” Brooks said. “He’s starting to understand it and get more comfortable with it and be able to still go out and perform. He’s a kid who when he gets on that field, he turns the switch on.”
Assuming he and good friend and fellow Tampa stud recruit Deon Cain maintain their pledges to Clemson, the two Florida products have a chance to follow in the path of former Sunshine State stud recruits and former Tigers Sammy Watkins and C.J. Spiller.
But before he heads to the next level, McCloud has some unfinished business he hopes to take care of during his senior season at Sickles.
After the Gryphons went 11-2 last season and fell in the Class 7A quarterfinals, McCloud’s main focus is to try to lead his team to its first state title in school history.
One thing that is certain is that there will be plenty of eyes focused on him from this point forward, including the pair belonging to his accomplished mentor.
“I’m just proud of him,” Brooks said. “I’m proud of what he’s done thus far and I’m looking forward to what the future may hold for him, not necessarily as an athlete, but as a citizen and a human being. I’m expecting him to have a positive impact on the world.”
Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand, and all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.
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The Clemson Tigers opened fall camp on Friday, and the countdown to the season opener at Georgia is officially on. The Tigers had it easy through the first few days of practice, with the temperatures unseasonably cool and practicing in just helmets and shorts, but expect head coach Dabo Swinney to ramp things up this week.
Swinney, speaking to reporters, said he's never seen weather like this during his time as a college coach, per Clemson's official website:
It has been Cupcake Camp so far, this is my 25th season of college football and I have never been around weather this cool for the first two days. It has been good in that it has added to the energy and the attention to detail by the players. At the same time, we need some hot days from a conditioning standpoint. We know they are coming. When we put the pads on in the heat it will separate some of the positions.
While Swinney and the coaches may want to the see weather warm up a bit, the players likely have no problem with it. Swinney will have the Tigers in full pads for the first time on Wednesday.
Although Clemson has been on the practice field for just a few days, there has been enough time to make impressions. What are the biggest impressions made from Clemson's first set of practices?
Generally, when you speak of a player gaining weight it's viewed as a bad thing. It's often the wrong kind of weight. Coaches often fear players will not use the time between the end of spring practice and the beginning of fall camp wisely.
That's not the case anymore, as it's easier than ever for coaches to keep tabs on players and monitor their time in the weight room.
Before the Tigers had their first practice on Friday, the annual fall weigh-in occurred on Thursday evening and, surprisingly, quarterback Cole Stoudt had put on 21 pounds since the spring and weighed in at 231 pounds. At 6'4", Stoudt now has the size to withstand the additional hits he will incur as the starting quarterback.
Isaiah Battle, Clemson's projected starter at left tackle, weighed in at 288 pounds. At 6'7", Battle has struggled to keep weight on in the past and would like to begin the season at 297. For most linemen, though, it's tough to keep the weight on throughout a long season. Battle seems determined, though, per Aaron Brenner of The Post and Courier:
"After I leave here, you'll see me with three plates (of food). At least three plates. Nothing less, whatever they have for dinner. Lot of carbs, protein, a lot of meat. I eat three peanut butter and jellies a night, just try to stay consistently eating and adding on my diet."
Redshirt freshman running back Wayne Gallman showed up at 209 pounds. Gallman is the most diverse back on the roster and is seen as a dark horse to start for the Tigers. The increased weight is good for Gallman as long as it doesn't slow him down.
Charone Peake's Knee
Junior receiver Charone Peake arrived at Clemson with Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant in the much-heralded class of 2011. While Watkins and Bryant are now in the NFL, Peake is trying to take over as Clemson's No. 1 receiver.
That quest took a bit of a hit last week when Swinney announced that Peake had minor knee surgery. Remember, Peake suffered a torn ACL last September that forced him to miss the majority of 2013.
Swinney said Peake's ACL was structurally sound and in good shape. However, is any surgery minor? It has to be a bit concerning that on the eve of fall practice Peake had to undergo another knee surgery.
Peake is expected to only miss about a week of practice. Injuries like this often linger, so expect Clemson's coaches to take it easy on Peake so he isn't re-injured.
While it may be a setback for Peake, it opened the door a bit for some of the younger receivers on the roster like Trevion Thompson. Thompson looks like Bryant and appears to be in good enough shape to push for playing time this fall.
Battle at Weak-Side Linebacker
Yes, the starting spot at weak-side linebacker belongs to senior Tony Steward. A former top recruit, Steward has battled injuries throughout his Clemson career.
Enter sophomore Ben Boulware.
Coaches have continually praised Boulware, and he will be in the mix for playing time this fall, even if Steward holds down the starting gig.
To Steward's credit, he has looked good thus far in limited practice time. For the first time in awhile, he doesn't appear to have anything holding him back—and it couldn't have come at a better time. Steward is poised for a big senior season.
What has impressed coaches so much about Boulware is his knowledge of the defense. As a freshman last season, Boulware played in 11 games for a total of 73 snaps. In that limited duty, Boulware made an impact-registering 25 tackles and one interception.
Throughout the spring, Boulware pushed Steward, and while Steward was listed atop the first post-spring depth chart, it remains fluid.
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Throughout the offseason, college football programs across the nation released new uniforms that will be worn during the upcoming 2014 campaign. And man, some of them were sweet.
Soon enough, the fresh looks will be on display in a stadium near you, adding to the initial entertainment value of the greatest sport on the planet.
A couple of the following eight sets are meant for a single game, but others are official redesigns for a given program's foreseeable future.
Let's find out which teams will be rocking the best updated uniforms this year.
8. Arkansas Razorbacks
Although the Arkansas Razorbacks debuted a secondary logo that has been compared to Pumbaa from The Lion King, their jerseys are less fatty.
Arkansas will don a simplistic design, featuring crisp edges that draw attention to the shoulders, numbers and team name across the middle.
Slight tweaks to the facial region of the Razorback on the helmet actually resulted in a mean-looking animal—though that's definitely the intent of illustrating a feral pig.
On another note, we've been relegated to critiquing the face of an inanimate object. We need football and soon.
7. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Adidas typically lags behind Nike in the fashion department, but the Mississippi State Bulldogs have a winner, which they intend to emulate.
Per Michael Bonner of The Clarion-Ledger, "The football uniforms are a tribute to the teams of the 1990s, specifically 1998 when the Bulldogs won the Southeastern Conference's west division."
Highlighted by the school's "Hail State" slogan, the one-game edition is clean. The maroon and white is not accented by any unnecessary patterns, and it ties the helmet and pants together well.
Mississippi State will wear these for the season-opener against Southern Miss on Aug. 30 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Scott Field.
6. BYU Cougars
One season after a debut debacle, the BYU Cougars released a superb trio of alternates meant for one game each. Like the stripes on the shoulder, the refined appearances are not flashy, but they are modern.
Dylan Cannon of KSL shared his thoughts, saying the white will help unify the crowd and team by wearing the same color. He continued: "I prefer the two-color scheme, but any time the Cougars go back to the royal I will take it. ...The black-on-black looks sharp and tough: I really like this jersey combination."
BYU will not be lauded for creating a breakthrough, visionary style, but they won't turn heads the opposite direction, either.
Each uniform will be worn at home, with the white on Sept. 20 against Virginia, royal on Oct. 3 versus Utah State and black on Nov. 15 when UNLV comes to Provo.
5. Syracuse Orange
The Syracuse Orange received a major upgrade over block-number, basic-outline jerseys of past seasons, which pleased senior linebacker Dyshawn Davis.
For the last couple years, we've been wearing the same uniforms, same orange helmets with the orange pants and the blue. ...We felt like our uniforms [were not] up to date with college. Every time you turn around, it's different colleges in different uniforms. We play against them. We just wanted to feel something new and be part of something new.
Per a release, Syracuse is also honoring tradition: "On the neck, the number 44 is proudly displayed in a military-inspired graphic patch that references the quad and its crossing walkways, the legend of 44, and the team’s annual trip to Fort Drum, N.Y., each year to train with the military."
Ar first glance, the elongated numbers look a little strange. However, Nike's intent was "mimicking the height of New York City’s skyline" even though the cities are nearly 200 miles apart.
Overall, after adding a gray set to its classic combinations, Syracuse finally has some sharp uniforms.
4. Washington Huskies
The Washington Huskies are an under-the-radar threat in 2014, but U-Dub's attire demands attention.
Nike did an excellent job blending the purple and gold into each jersey, connecting the black, white and purples with multicolored fading in the numbers.
Washington's black-on-black is one of the toughest sets in the nation, especially when you envision rising star Shaq Thompson barreling down on a ball-carrier.
Two weeks before these uniforms were unveiled, first-year head coach Chris Petersen pulled an April Fools' joke on his squad, debuting a fake pair that were truly horrific. But it's safe to say the Dawgs liked the real ones better.
3. Miami Hurricanes
Excluding a pair of Pro Combat specials in 2009 and 2010, the Miami Hurricanes have worn some relatively tame styles over the last decade. Nike's redesign, however, returned a sleek, versatile ensemble to South Florida.
All four jerseys feature an ibis on the shoulders, a tribute to the team's mascot and secondary logo of the early 2000s. The 'Canes have labeled their digs Stormtrooper, Juice, Surge and Smoke, and they are essentially a mix-and-match to be complemented by a white, orange or green helmet.
How did the current Miami players feel about the uniforms? Let's check in with superstar running back Duke Johnson.
Well that answers that.
2. Florida State Seminoles
Florida State branded their set "Ignition Tradition," which head coach Jimbo Fisher emphasized along with how the school sought approval from the Seminole tribe. According to Rivals, Fisher said:
I really believe that the traditions of Florida State are as deeply rooted and important as any in college football and perhaps even more because of our relationship with the Seminole Tribe, and I wouldn't have approved anything that I felt detracted from that. The elements that went into the design changes are all based on our unique history and that's an important part of the story. In fact, we went to the Tribe right away and got their opinion and permission before we took the first step.
The 'Noles kept their classic gold helmet, but a garnet and black option is now available. Additionally, FSU can pair black, white or garnet jerseys with black, white or gold pants.
Most importantly, the reigning national champions will be defending their title in style.
1. Oregon Ducks
Death, taxes, and the Oregon Ducks wearing amazing uniforms.
No matter what your fun-hating buddy says, the wings on Oregon's shoulder never get old. Honestly, he's probably just mad his favorite program doesn't have a staple like the Ducks.
Additionally, Oregon must be one of few programs who can sport an unlimited amount of color shades, since this snazzy green is yet another hue. The team busted out the white uniform for the 2013 Alamo Bowl, but they will be used in 2014, too.
Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer discussed how Oregon and Nike created college football's perfect brand.
Our tradition is that we’re willing to push the envelope when it comes to uniforms and branding," Kenny Farr, the school's football equipment administrator, told Kramer. "There are a lot of schools that are based on tradition, and I understand and respect that. But Oregon embraces not having tradition.
Nike constantly outdoes itself for owner Phil Knight's alma mater, and there's no apparent end for us reveling in the program's uniform superiority. Nor do we want there to be.
Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter: @Kenyon19_BR.
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The SEC has owned college football over the past decade. So, it's no real surprise the league also stamped its insignia all over the NFL as well.
According to NFL.com's Mike Huguenin, 49 SEC players were selected in the 2014 draft, the most among any conference for the eighth consecutive season. The SEC also had 11 first-rounders (the most from any conference), and every team had at least one player selected, led by LSU's nine.
The league could take a significant hit on star power in 2014, but it's still rife with talent that will suit up in the NFL in the not-so-distant future.
Even though there are dynamic, game-changing stars all over the SEC, a few stand out among the pro prospects. These are the players who could make an immediate impact on an NFL roster today, and some aren't even eligible to enter the draft yet.
These players were chosen for a combination of their skill sets, level of production and how their talent and intangibles are projected to translate into the NFL game. They've not only displayed immense skill but also shown enough polish that they wouldn't be considered a project on the next level.
Here (in alphabetical order) are 10 of the SEC players who are already prepared to play on Sundays and will do so when their college days are done.
Every down in a college football game is important, but that does not mean they are weighted equally. First- and second-down success can make or break an offense, but most of that is only with regard to how well it sets up down No. 3.
Unlike first and second down, third down is supremely important unto itself. It decides whether the drive will continue with a clean, safe first down, or whether the offense will have to punt, kick a field goal or risk screwing over its defense by going for it on fourth down.
Accordingly, players who thrive on third down hold added value over players who might not. Their ability to keep the chains moving with so much at stake can alter the course of a drive, a game or a season.
So, looking back on last year's numbers, but also accounting for some film study, measurables and context, let's take a look at some of the best third-down weapons in the country for 2014.
Their defenses are lucky to have them.
Short-Yardage Quarterback: Chuckie Keeton, Utah State
Before tearing his ACL and MCL against BYU last season, Chuckie Keeton was almost unfair in his 3rd-and-short efficiency.
The sample was small—only 24 total pass attempts—but he had a 203.9 passer rating on 3rd-and-3-or-less and a 203.0 passer rating on 3rd-and-4, -5 and -6. He completed 22 of those 24 passes, and even though none went for 20 yards, 18 went for first downs.
Keeton also picked up three first downs on eight attempts with his legs, which is an underrated but important part of short-yardage quarterbacking. Here he is on the first drive of Utah State's season last year, picking up an important 3rd-and-3 against rival Utah:
Keeton was even better at this in his last full season, 2012, when he took seven of 12 rushing attempts on 3rd-and-4, -5 and -6 for a first down. Breaking contain to keep the drive alive on these types of plays is about the most crippling thing one can do to a defense.
Here Keeton is doing precisely that against Southern Utah:
Really, though, it's the combination of throwing and passing that makes Keeton so good. Others such as BYU's Taysom Hill, for example, do a better job converting 3rd-and-shorts on the ground, but Keeton uses his legs equally well in both facets of the position.
Here's a good example from last year's USC game. The Trojans had a top-five defense in the country, per Football Outsiders' F/+ ratings, and finished first in red-zone defense with just 27 scores allowed on 43 possessions. A high percentage of those scores were touchdowns, but even their 51.16 percent TD rate was top-15 nationally.
Here, leading by seven points in the second quarter, they've forced Utah State into a 3rd-and-1 at the 10-yard line. An unbalanced rush provides pressure from the blind side, but Keeton feels it coming and extends the play to his right. As he rolls, receiver Travis Reynolds moves in the opposite direction, finds a hole in the zone, reels in Keeton's pass and darts forward for a game-tying touchdown:
Keeton might never be able to run the same 40-yard-dash time after his horrific knee injury, but he won't necessarily have to. Top-end speed helped him, but it was never his most important skill.
The thing Keeton does best is keep his eyes down the field when he's moving, even if he's moving in a fast jog instead of a slow sprint.
And on that front, he should be fine.
"We’re trying to be smart about this," Keeton told Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer in early May. "But I feel good about my knee and the doctors feel really good about where we are right now."
Tennessee better be ready when the Aggies come to visit August 31.
Long-Yardage Quarterback: Jameis Winston, Florida State
Jameis Winston did a lot of things well last season.
He excelled in almost every scenario, leading the nation with an overall quarterback rating of 184.85 that was more than 10 points higher than the second-place finisher, Bryce Petty (174.29).
Nowhere did he excel more, however, than on long third downs, where his numbers were so good that they almost had to be an outlier. But 24 pass attempts on 3rd-and-10-or-longer is not that small of a sample, which gives reason to believe that they weren't.
On those 24 attempts, Winston completed 17 passes for 346 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions (QB rating: 246.93). Crazier still, 16 of those 17 completions went for a first down. If you somehow managed to throw Florida State's offense off schedule and force it into a 3rd-and-10-or-longer, but then you allowed Winston to get a pass off, the Seminoles converted 67 percent of the time.
Sixty-seven percent of the time!
Let's look at a few examples from FSU's signature performance of the season, a 51-14 romp over Clemson at Memorial Stadium.
The Tigers defense was actually quite good in 2013, ranking No. 13 in the overall F/+ defensive ratings. It was especially efficient on third downs, too, allowing the opponent to convert just 30.8 percent of the time, the fifth-lowest rate in the country.
But Winston and the Seminoles shredded Clemson with a series of long third downs at the end of the second quarter and start of the third quarter that iced the game away with almost 30 minutes left.
Here's Winston breaking the pocket and throwing against his body to find Rashad Greene for 13 yards on 3rd-and-9:
Later in the same drive, Winston stands in against pressure, takes a hit and lofts a 19-yard completion to Kenny Shaw on 3rd-and-10:
Clemson forced Florida State into a field goal on that drive and appeared to come out with energy when the Seminoles got the ball to start the second half. After being forced into a 3rd-and-12, however, Winston deflated that energy by calmly reading the defense and delivering a 27-yard strike to Kelvin Benjamin:
Then, as a coup de grace, Winston dumped a screen to Greene on 3rd-and-10 from the 17-yard line for a kill-shot touchdown:
Short-Yardage Running Back: Malcolm Brown, Texas
For the sake of full disclosure, it should be mentioned that most of the best 3rd-and-short running backs in college football last year are gone. Stanford's Tyler Gaffney, Washington's Bishop Sankey, Auburn's Tre Mason and Colorado State's Kapri Bibbs all would have made the cut over our 2014 choice, Texas' Malcolm Brown.
Still, it wouldn't be crazy for Brown to surpass those players' production this season. Despite barely touching the ball behind Johnathan Gray at the start of 2013, Brown came on late and finished with 20-plus carries in seven of his final eight games.
On the whole last season, Brown had 20 carries on 3rd-and-3-or-less and converted 14 of them into first downs. He also took his one reception under those parameters for a 74-yard touchdown.
More importantly, Brown did all this behind a poor first-surge offensive line. Despite Brown's efficient conversion numbers, the Longhorns unit up front finished No. 95 in power success rate, per SB Nation's Football Study Hall, which measures how well a line fares in short-yardage rushing situations.
Here is how Brown's numbers stack up with Gray's:
Texas' offensive line was good on the whole last season, so it's not like Brown was doing everything on his own in short-yardage situations. But it also wasn't like his numbers got inflated by a dominant unit up front (something that could probably have been said about Mason).
Brown used good vision and his 6'0", 228-pound frame to bowl up the middle even when the defense knew he was coming. Here he is fighting for extra yards on the first possession of the Oklahoma game last year, converting on 3rd-and-2 to help set up a field goal:
Later in the game, Brown kept another drive moving with a patient cutback and strong burst on a 3rd-and-1 in Texas territory:
Texas connected on a 59-yard touchdown pass three plays later, extending its lead to 24-10 before eventually blowing out the rival Sooners in what amounted to the highlight of its season.
Brown had nine carries on downs with six yards or less to go, and he converted eight of them for first downs. The one time he didn't, which came on a meaningless 2nd-and-4 as Texas salted away the game, he followed it up with a two-yard gain on 3rd-and-1.
Oh, and it doesn't hurt that Brown was a 5-star recruit back in the day. His power has been well-documented since high school.
Long-Yardage Running Back: Kevin Parks, Virginia
Kevin Parks is one of the hidden gems in college football—an undersized (5'8") but talented player who is stuck on a cruddy team. Bleacher Report's Michael Felder was early on the Parks bandwagon, ranking him a top-150 player in the country before his sophomore year in 2012, and Parks has only gotten better since then.
Some expected blue-chip freshman Taquan Mizzell to cut into Parks' workload in 2013, but Parks responded to the challenge and had the best season of his career (despite the 2-10 tire-fire slowly igniting around him). Especially on third downs—both short and long—he was often the best thing Virginia's offense had going for it.
Park did well rushing the ball on 3rd-and-3-or-less, converting 14 of his 22 carries for first downs, but he was even more valuable as a pass-catcher on 3rd-and-long. He took nine receptions on 3rd-and-7-or-more for a total of four first-down conversions, highlighted by a trio of 15-plus-yard gains on 3rd-and-10-or-longer.
He's got a flair for the dramatic, too.
Here Parks is on a 3rd-and-7 against Duke, balancing a checkdown pass against his hamstring while he's running, then flipping into the end zone through four defenders for a 13-yard touchdown:
As a pass-blocker, Parks faces the obvious deficiencies of any 5'8" player but has gotten better each season. Now entering his senior year, he can be counted on to protect the QB on third down.
According to Jamie Oakes of 247Sports, Parks said "he takes great pride in his blocking ability and not letting his quarterbacks get killed" during a moderated panel at ACC media days.
Suffice it to say that's the right attitude for a third-down back.
Suffice it to say Parks is a great one.
Short-Yardage Receiver: Tommy Shuler, Marshall
Tommy Shuler was a menace in the slot last season and might be the best short and intermediate receiving weapon in the country.
Standing only 5'7", he has quick feet, an advanced route tree and a preternatural rapport with quarterback Rakeem Cato that allows him to get open and gain the necessary yardage on third down.
On 3rd-and-1, -2 and -3 last season, Shuler took all six of his receptions for a first down despite never gaining more than 11 yards on a single catch. On 3rd-and-4, -5 and -6, he took all seven of his receptions for a first down despite never breaking off a 20-yard catch.
He did exactly what he needed to keep the chains moving.
Shuler came up big in this regard when the Thundering Herd most needed it, too. Trailing Maryland by three points, 20-17, in the fourth quarter of the Military Bowl, Marshall faced a 3rd-and-4 in the red zone, and Cato hit Shuler on a quick out for the first down:
Earlier in the season against Virginia Tech, Shuler upped his range and converted a number of third downs from longer than six yards. Considering the talent level of the Hokies' defensive backfield, his 10 catches for 120 yards in that game were remarkable.
Here Shuler is on 3rd-and-8, adjusting to a lofted back-foot pass to haul in a 13-yard reception…plus the foul:
Three plays later, facing another 3rd-and-8, Shuler beat safety Kyshoen Jarrett to the sideline and made a sliding eight-yard catch:
And three plays after that, facing a 3rd-and-9, Shuler saw Cato leave the pocket, used some nifty footwork to adjust, lost his defender in man coverage and kept the drive alive with a 13-yard gain:
Unfittingly, this drive ended with a Cato interception, and Marshall ended up blowing its seven-point lead and losing in triple overtime. But the statement Shuler made against one of the nation's top secondaries was clear: Don't cover me with a safety.
Otherwise, you're in for a long afternoon.
Long-Yardage Receiver: Antwan Goodley, Baylor
Call him a "product of the offense" if you want, but Antwan Goodley's speed made defenses pay for cheating on shorter routes.
He had 19 receptions on 3rd-and-7-or-longer, 12 of which went for first downs, and he took those 19 receptions for 304 yards and three touchdowns, ripping off four separate gains of 25-plus yards.
Here he is on 3rd-and-10 against Louisiana-Monroe, taking the top off the defense with a streak for a 65-yard touchdown:
It wasn't all boom or bust for long gains, either.
According to Football Study Hall (see: the attached spreadsheet), Goodley was efficient on all passing downs, hauling in 28 of his 43 targets (65 percent) for an average of 12.9 yards per target.
No player who averaged as many yards per target had more total targets, the closest being San Jose State's Chandler Jones (40). Among returning players with 15-plus targets from a power-five conference, the only one who bested Goodley's average was Nebraska's Jordan Westerkamp…and he needed a Hail Mary pass to get there!
That is impressive efficiency for someone who's been labeled a big-play threat, and even though that label is fitting, it does not wholly encapsulate what Goodley is capable of. There is more to what he does than sprinting untouched down the field for six points.
Take, for example, this touchdown catch against Texas, which might have been the most important play of Baylor's season.
With the Big 12 title on the line and the game tied 3-3 in the third quarter, Baylor faced a 3rd-and-9 at the Longhorns' 11-yard line. Knowing that a touchdown would help break the game open, Petty looked to Goodley, who shook cornerback Duke Thomas with a slant route, reached out with one hand to catch a bad pass, kept his balance, broke a tackle and walked into the end zone:
That catch did, in fact, break the game open, and Baylor went on to win 30-10, securing its first Big 12 title in school history.
Goodley and Petty are back to defend that title in 2014.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT
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