NCAA Football News
As college football continues the trend of spreading opponents thin with lavish formations that space defenses out, athletes are moving to positions they'd have never seen two decades ago. Football is cyclical, often repeating past trends with just slight variations. The popular passing game en vogue now has put a premium on players like UCLA linebacker Myles Jack.
A standout athlete at the linebacker position allows a defensive coordinator to be creative enough to be less reactive than aggressive. With the average team throwing the ball over 60 percent of the time, run-clogging linebackers aren't as valuable. But that doesn't mean traditional linebacker duties are worthless, and pure athletes can just roam the field and expect to be successful.
Myles Jack declared for the 2016 NFL draft in early October despite tearing his meniscus in a practice session. The 6'1", 245-pound freak athlete is a highly valued player because of his immense physical gifts. He compares favorably to even the best linebackers in the NFL, if NFLDraftScout's projected 40-yard dash of 4.56 is correct.
Jack's ability to drop into space or even into man coverage is what makes evaluators drool. Rob Rang of CBS Sports has Jack going fourth overall in his latest mock draft. Jack is a great athlete, but his football acumen leaves reason for concern if that's the cost to acquire his talent.
The reason why that cost is too steep is that Jack is a large projection as an NFL linebacker. While it is exciting that he was able to cover slot receivers against New Mexico State, that's not a task he'll be asked to execute often. Jack will be expected to cover tight ends and running backs as well as drop into zone to use his speed to close out on routes.
Jack is a pure weak-side linebacker because of his ability to shoot gaps and play in space. The other linebacker positions will present massive challenges for Jack, largely because he was rarely asked to do more at UCLA. And when he was, he struggled. It is difficult to find tape of Jack shedding blocks and making plays at or behind the line of scrimmage.
Some may want Jack to move inside to middle linebacker, but that would be an incredibly big task. Jack was at his best when playing next to a true middle linebacker in Eric Kendricks and strong-side linebacker Anthony Barr.
Unfortunately, due to Jack's knee injury, fans didn't have the chance to see how he'd do when he was the undisputed best player within his positional group.
It's not size or even bulk that makes Jack pigeonholed as a weak-side linebacker. He's very physical but almost to a fault. He doesn't use his hands when blockers approach. Jack slams into them to bounce off and then jets around. This is ineffective from a team-defense approach and increases the chance of injury.
Above, we see Jack following reactively to the ball, instead of reading the blockers and meeting the running back at the lane. He only ends up in the general area because he is shoved to the ground. This is a constant in Jack's run-defending film and a major issue if he's to be counted on as a middle linebacker.
Jack's ability to play man coverage is definitely a tremendous positive. He is like a chess piece, and defensive coordinators will love utilizing Jack on a variety of tight ends and running backs. But when Jack is asked to read plays and make the right decision, he struggles.
Above is an example of Jack guessing. He can't read the offensive linemen, who rise into a pass-blocking stance as soon as the ball is snapped. Cal quarterback Jared Goff immediately sees Jack crashing down to play the run, instead of covering the tight end. The gaffe cost UCLA about 40 yards.
Issues like this are why UCLA head coach Jim Mora Jr. warned Jack of leaving for college so early. According to Michael Silver of NFL.com, Mora had this to say about his decision to declare for the NFL draft:
He's taking his chips and shoving them into the middle, and we hope he draws a good hand," Mora told reporters Tuesday. "I think it's risky to do this. Having been on that side, there's going to be a lot of speculation as to what he is and where he fits. And as I told Myles on Sunday, NFL teams are very, very conservative, and if there's any question whatsoever, they'll pass on you in a heartbeat…
"If he played all year, I was thinking that we would (not have him next year), but when you only play in three games and that's all the tape they have of you your junior year. ... I've been in 25 draft rooms, and I've never seen a guy taken off of that ever. I worry about that for him."
Mora seemed like he had sour grapes at the time, but he had a good point. We cannot be sure that Jack will fully heal from his knee injury. Arthritis can develop in any surgically repaired knee, which hurts the long-term outlook and longevity of a career.
For all of his boundless athleticism Jack has 4 INT's, 1 sack, and one forced fumble in 29 games. Assign what value you will to production.— Keith Mullins (@KeithDeuces) January 13, 2016
The NFL will scout Jack's talent more than production, which helps boost his draft stock. But comparing his collegiate production to that of linebackers who ended up being very good or elite in the NFL shows more cause for concern. Take a look at the numbers comparison below, per DraftCobern.
These numbers represent the percentile rank of Myles Jack's solo tackles in his 29-game career compared to elite NFL linebackers and his closest competition. Jack fails to sniff the area where the finest NFL linebackers were in college, which should raise massive flags.
Someone taking Jack in the top-10 of the draft should be wary of production that is closer to average than not.
Will Myles Jack be the next Ernie Sims? Sims was another great athlete miscast as a traditional linebacker. He bounced around the NFL because of his poor instincts and small frame. I doubt it, since Jack fits the current NFL perfectly as a weak-side linebacker and is exceptionally good at seeing and attacking. Those skills have value but don't project to a top-tier inside linebacker or pass-rusher.
And if not a pass-rusher or an elite middle linebacker prospect, then the value for a weak-side linebacker alone will make Jack go lower than some may expect.
Speaking of elite physical specimens at linebacker, Kwon Alexander fell to the 124th overall pick in 2015, and he had a very similar skill set. Stephone Anthony was a better overall player and still an elite athlete for the position, but he went 30th overall in 2015.
Can Jack be a great, impactful player? Yes, in time he can be.
However, what he starred at in college is not what he will be asked to do in the NFL. That gives major cause for concern, especially when talking about a top-10 pick.
All stats used are from Sports-Reference.com.
Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
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Junior linebacker Tim Williams announced Wednesday he'll return to Alabama for his senior year.
Williams broke the news on Twitter:
Williams finished 2015 second on the Crimson Tide in sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (12.5). Both represented a significant improvement over his sophomore season, when he recorded 1.5 sacks and 1.5 tackles for loss.
According to Matt Zenitz of AL.com, Williams told reporters he received a late-first or an early second-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board. However, Zenitz wrote head coach Nick Saban "strongly advised" Williams to put the draft off another year.
Staying in school is the smarter decision for Williams, who failed to crack the top 300 on the big board of Bleacher Report's Matt Miller. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. was much higher on Williams' ability, listing him as the third-best outside linebacker. CBS Sports considered him to be a 2017 prospect, ranking him eighth among draft-eligible OLBs.
Alex Byington of the Decatur Daily argued Williams would help his draft stock by becoming a more consistent defender:
The Crimson Tide won't be lacking in talented players along the front seven next year, particularly with defensive lineman Da'Shawn Hand and linebacker Rashaan Evans coming back. Having Williams for his senior season is still a major boost to the defense. He could be one of the premier pass-rushers in college football in 2016.
Another good season will only improve Williams' chances of becoming a first-round draft pick as well. Especially since he'll likely have a more prominent role on the Crimson Tide, he can truly emerge as a dominant presence coming off the edge.
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With the 2015 college football season officially in the books, the sport's calendar is now transitioning to two important matters—recruiting and the NFL draft.
Departing college players will spend the next several months preparing for the draft and looking to push their stocks even higher in the final few events before the big weekend.
Early draft declarations for underclassmen who are already eligible to go pro have been rampant since the regular season ended, and more and more names—such as Clemson's trio of Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd and Mackensie Alexander, per the Independent Mail—are joining the list.
For some, going pro early is an easy call, with the guaranteed money of a first- or a second-round pick waiting. Others have to gamble on their futures and hope they can do enough to get their stock where it needs to be.
Let's take a look back to this time last year, when plenty of the top players in college football where considering whether to declare for the NFL draft or stay in school.
Who made the right call, and who could've used another year?
The NFL Draft Advisory Board tweaked its grading system for underclassmen prior to last year's draft. Now players deciding whether they want to stay in school or go pro receive either a "first round," "second round," or "stay in school" grade.
"We want the kid to make an informed decision," NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent said in 2014, per Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated. "Use our resources, make an informed decision. Each institution has those resources for every prospect and every head coach. The numbers and the facts speak for themselves."
If the recommended target for declaring underclassmen is to get drafted in the first two rounds, then plenty of them made incredibly informed decisions last year.
Heisman-winning quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota went No. 1 and No. 2 in the 2015 draft, respectively. Both were Day 1 starters for their new teams, and both have legitimate chances to win Rookie of the Year, according to Chris Wesseling of NFL.com.
Five more underclassmen joined Winston and Mariota in the top 10 of the draft—former Florida defensive end Dante Fowler, Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper, USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams, Miami offensive tackle Ereck Flowers and Georgia running back Todd Gurley.
Gurley was a Pro Bowler and a second-team All-Pro, while Cooper was a four-time Rookie of the Week. On a more somber note, No. 3 overall pick Fowler tore his ACL on the first day of the Jacksonville Jaguars' rookie minicamp and didn't play at all this season.
Other first-round picks include Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes, Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, Missouri defensive end Shane Ray and Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson.
Alabama defensive back Landon Collins and Michigan wide receiver Devin Funchess were among the underclassmen who were solid second-round picks. Arizona State wide receiver Jaelen Strong, Indiana running back Tevin Coleman and Miami running back Duke Johnson were selected in the third round but still received valuable playing time in 2015.
While every year has horror stories about leaving school too early for the NFL draft, most of the big names who forgo their final college seasons make the right call.
Left too soon
According to Dane Brugler of CBS Sports, 24 of the 84 underclassmen who declared early for the 2015 NFL draft did not get drafted at all.
College football fans may recognize some of the names from that list—USC wide receiver George Farmer and TCU safety Chris Hackett are notables—but none of them were top players at the college level.
Two underclassmen who went early, though, received quite a bit of spotlight during their time on campus but fell into the latter rounds.
UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley redshirted before starting two seasons for the Bruins, so he faced the NFL draft question twice during his college career. As Bleacher Report's Dan Hope wrote in November of 2014, Hundley was the "most polarizing quarterback prospect" in the draft:
A three-year starter with pro potential and a university degree, it makes sense for Hundley to move on to the next stage of his career. That said, some believe Hundley would be better served by returning to school for another season, as he still has not yet developed into an NFL-ready signal-caller.
While some draft analysts pegged him as a second-day draft pick, others had him sliding even lower. The latter experts won out, as Hundley was drafted in the fifth round at No. 147 overall by the Green Bay Packers.
As Hope mentioned, Hundley already had his degree from UCLA and three years of experience under his belt. The Bruins also had 5-star quarterback prospect Josh Rosen, his eventual replacement, enrolling early for the 2015 season.
Still, sliding to the fifth round was far from ideal for Hundley and his football future. Another year at UCLA or a possible graduate transfer to another school would've given him more time to round out his skill set for NFL teams.
Gerod Holliman could have used more time at Louisville in order to fine-tune his game.
While the Thorpe Award-winning safety tied an all-time record with 14 interceptions in the 2014 season, Holliman did not win over those at the next level.
"He needs to go back to school," an unnamed NFL scout told Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "He's horrible. He can't make a tackle to save his life. He's got pretty good instincts, but he's not that athletic."
While some analysts weren't as harsh on Holliman as that scout, the former Cardinal fell all the way down to the seventh round and the 239th overall pick. He was cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers before the season began and is now a practice squad member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Perhaps the worst aspect of Holliman's rough first year as a pro is that he was only a redshirt sophomore in 2014. He had two more years of college eligibility left.
But there's an exception to every rule, and Stefon Diggs was just that in 2015.
The former Maryland wide receiver left school early and was selected in the fifth round of the draft—a low spot for a declaring underclassmen.
However, Diggs finished the season better than some first-round selections and made plenty of teams regret passing on him in the draft.
He was second among rookies in yards and touchdown catches despite being inactive for the first four games of the year, according to Jeff Ermann of 247Sports.
Way to stay
Patience is going to pay off—literally—in the future for a good number of draft prospects that opted to stay in school for the 2015 season.
One of the players who saw his stock soar with one more year is Notre Dame defensive tackle Sheldon Day. According to Pete Sampson of Rivals, the Irish defensive lineman received a "stay in school" grade from the Advisory Board, and he listened.
In 2015, Day more than doubled his tackles for loss (7.5 to 15.5) and quadrupled his sack total (one to four) while anchoring an experienced Notre Dame defense.
"He wants to help this football team as a captain, and I think—he came back for a reason," Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said in November, per JJ Stankevitz of CSN Chicago. "He came back so this would be his best year and help Notre Dame and help himself, and I think he's living up to all those things."
Day has jumped from "stay in school" to the No. 54 overall prospect in the latest big board from Bleacher Report NFL Draft Analyst Matt Miller.
Oklahoma defensive end Charles Tapper did something similar by staying with the Sooners for a College Football Playoff run. He rebounded from a rough 2014 season and is now Miller's No. 73 overall recruit.
The Michigan State duo of defensive end Shilique Calhoun and quarterback Connor Cook had strong seasons for the Big Ten champions. Both were projected to be somewhere around late-first round or second-round picks in 2015, and they kept their stocks strong this fall.
Georgia defensive end Leonard Floyd was a possible first-round pick heading into last year's draft process, but he decided to stay in Athens for one more season. Now, the first-round designation seems like a lock for the edge-rusher.
"You guys [the media] are too low on Leonard Floyd," a scout told Miller in early December. "He's going to be top 10 for us."
Stayed too long
These stories are rare, but they happen every now and then in college football—a player's stock soars ahead of the draft, and their decisions to stay in school don't pan out at all.
One of the biggest examples of this is the most famous name from last year's College Football Playoff.
Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones only needed three starts to have NFL scouts salivating over his pro potential. He replaced the injured J.T. Barrett and showed a tremendous arm and power-running style during the Buckeyes' national title run.
Jones' future was one of the hottest debates during the first few cold days of 2015, and he decided to stay in Columbus and battle to become the Buckeyes' full-time starter.
The 6'5", 250-pound quarterback wasn't consistent in the first seven weeks of the season, and he was ultimately benched for Barrett. He didn't take a single snap during the final three games of the campaign.
As Miller told Bleacher Report Big Ten Football Lead Writer Ben Axelrod, Jones "would have easily been the third QB drafted" behind Winston and Mariota last year. His stock after the national title game couldn't have been any higher.
Now, Miller doesn't even have him as one of the top 10 quarterbacks in the 2016 class.
"If he interviewed well, I think he's still drafted," Miller told Axelrod. "But he's a project based on potential, and not being able to show that potential makes him a Day 3 [Rounds 4-7] guy."
Another breakout star of the 2014 season, former Auburn wide receiver D'haquille Williams' future turned south in an even bigger way this past year.
A former No. 1 JUCO prospect, Williams was a reception machine at Auburn, grabbing 45 passes in just 10 games for the Tigers. Analysts loved Williams' physical nature and massive catch radius, and he showed signs of possibly being picked in the first few rounds of 2015's draft.
Then the problems started arising for the wideout.
Williams, who was suspended for the Outback Bowl against Wisconsin and missed two games due to injury, made the surprising decision to stay in school. He was later suspended for the first part of fall practice and only had 12 catches for 147 yards in the first five games of the 2015 season.
Auburn dismissed the former star in early October, and reports emerged later that week that he punched multiple people in an altercation at a bar.
Now Williams is expected to be a late-round pick at best in 2016, according to NFL Media draft analyst Lance Zierlein (via NFL.com's Chase Goodbread):
Tape says he should be drafted inside the first four rounds, maybe the first three, but his character and athleticism are going to probably make him a third-day guy (rounds 4-7). And if the Auburn staff can't support his character when scouts ask about it, he might not even get picked.
That's a long way to fall for a talented wide receiver that had many buzzing this time last year.
Justin Ferguson is a college football writer at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.
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After playing the last five years without a conference championship game, the Big 12 will bring it back after winning an NCAA vote.
Brian Davis of the Austin American-Statesman reported Wednesday that the NCAA vote granted the Big 12 its right to stage a title game featuring the top two teams in the conference during the regular season.
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