NCAA Football News

LSU Football Recruiting: Looking Ahead to 2016 Class

LSU lives by the old college football adage that "recruiting never stops."

The Tigers hosted their fifth annual "Boys from the Boot" junior camp on Saturday, per Shea Dixon of Geaux247. James Smith of The Times-Picayune has the full list of attendees. 

Head coach Les Miles hopes Boys from the Boot leads off a great recruiting cycle for the Tigers. Miles and his staff were pleased with their 2015 class, but there is still plenty of work to be done by the next national signing day in 2016. 

The Tigers' five commitments in 2016 so far rank ninth nationally in the 247Sports Composite Team Rankings. Though it is still early in the process, LSU should feel like it's gotten off to a great start. 

This will be the first full year of recruiting for new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and defensive line coach Ed Orgeron. Steele and Orgeron have both won awards for their recruiting prowess, so expect more elite players to be heading to Baton Rouge.  

Here is a preview of LSU's 2016 recruiting trail. 

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Why Florida's Dante Fowler Is the 2015 NFL Draft's Best Pass-Rushing Prospect

Playing a position that is annually valued at a premium in the NFL draft, there are at least five edge pass-rushers who are in the conversation about potential top-10 picks in 2015.

Nebraska’s Randy Gregory has been projected as the top 4-3 defensive end/3-4 outside linebacker prospect by many draft analysts, while Missouri’s Shane Ray, Clemson’s Vic Beasley and Kentucky’s Alvin Dupree have also been included as top-10 picks in many media mock drafts. All four of those players, however, look as though they could be limited to situational roles until they make necessary developments in their game.

The most complete edge defender prospect in the 2015 draft—both in terms of his ability to rush the passer and to project as an every-down, scheme-versatile player—is Florida’s Dante Fowler (Leonard Williams is the top defensive prospect in this year’s draft and played some on the edge at USC, but he projects best to the NFL as an interior defensive lineman).

Fowler, like the others, still has areas of his game he must develop to reach his potential. That said, he has all the tools to be a star if he is drafted by a team that will coach him effectively and play him where he wins.

 

Explosiveness to Blow Up Plays

While there are other edge prospects in this year’s draft who are more technically refined and had better collegiate production than Fowler, such as Washington’s Hau’oli Kikaha and Utah’s Nate Orchard, the pass-rushers selected at the top of the draft are typically those who have outstanding physical traits, which Kikaha and Orchard do not have.

Fowler, on the other hand, is as explosive as any player in this year’s class. Given any path to the quarterback, Fowler has the burst to close in a hurry, while he has also good size for his position at 6’3” and 260 pounds.

In addition to his elite first-step quickness and a rare ability to accelerate for a player of his size, Fowler also has great lateral agility. That combination is demonstrated in the clip below from earlier this year, when Fowler (No. 6) made a cutting inside move to blow by Kentucky right tackle Jordan Swindle and lay a hit on quarterback Patrick Towles that forced an incomplete pass.

What makes Fowler especially dangerous is his ability to bring the heat from a wide variety of spots on the field. While he frequently creates disruption from the defensive-end spot, he can be moved all around the formation and generate pressure from anywhere because of his speed.

The following clip shows Fowler hitting Towles to force a fumble on a play he blitzed from the middle linebacker position. Below that, you can see Fowler cover almost 15 yards of ground for a sack against East Carolina on a play in which he initially dropped into coverage from outside linebacker.

Fowler’s athleticism also presents a serious threat to ball-carriers, as he is a tough player for running backs to evade. On the following play, also from this past season’s game against Kentucky, Fowler put his motor on display as he tracked Braylon Heard all the way down to the sideline despite starting the play in contain on the edge.

In total, Fowler recorded 15 tackles for loss, including 8.5 sacks, and 17 quarterback hurries, according to CFBStats.com. Add in the occasions that Fowler drew holding penalties from blockers and the frequent occasions on which he was double- or triple-teamed by opposing offenses, and Fowler computes as being one of college football’s most disruptive players during the 2014 season.

For most productive collegiate playmakers, the question is whether their skill sets will translate when playing against bigger and more athletic NFL opponents. Those questions need not be as significant for Fowler, however, because he will continue to be a top-tier athlete for his position—even at the next level.

 

More Than Just a Pass-Rusher

Fowler’s ability to get after the quarterback gets the emphasis here because that’s what NFL teams prioritize on draft day. Being a great run-stopper does not always make one an early-round selection at an edge position, but being a great pass-rusher usually does.

That said, Fowler has shown himself to be more than capable of holding his own as a run defender, which could be what pushes him ahead of some of his counterparts in the draft order.

Fowler exhibits the strength to maintain his ground against bigger blockers at the line of scrimmage, while he has enough block-shedding ability to take advantage of his lateral agility and slide his way into running lanes.

Between those attributes, his seemingly always running motor and aforementioned ability to chase down plays with his speed, Fowler has the potential to make an immediate difference against the run on an NFL defense.

It’s likely that Fowler still might have to bulk up by five or 10 pounds if he is drafted to play as a 4-3 defensive end. But he already stronger and more well built than Gregory (who is listed at 6’6” and 240 pounds), Ray (6’3”, 245 lbs) and Beasley (6’3”, 235 lbs), who each need to get bigger and stronger to play in four-man fronts.

Of all Fowler’s strengths, the most exciting might be his versatility. As you can see in the following screenshots, Fowler saw playing time at defensive tackle, defensive end and linebacker this past season at Florida and was even split out into coverage at times.

In his NFL career, you probably won’t see Fowler lined up over the opposing center or opposite a receiver on the numbers very often. The team that drafts Fowler, however, should have a plan for how it can take advantage of his versatility. His physical gifts enable him to play a wide variety of roles; moving him around a formation could be an asset for keeping opposing offenses guessing.

 

Still a Project

While there is much to like about Fowler, especially the fact he is oozing with physical potential, he is far from being a finished product at this point. As such, there are legitimate reasons why some evaluators will be less confident in Fowler’s chances of becoming a star.

One such analyst is Bleacher Report’s Ryan Riddle, a former NFL defensive end, who only considers Fowler to be the eighth-best edge defender in this year’s draft class.

“He could be the best athlete at the position in this draft but lacks instincts and functional strength,” Riddle wrote. “He also misses too many tackles, is often out of position and doesn't have many pass-rush moves.”

Fowler might not be able to hang his hat on being strong, but as previously mentioned, he still stacks up relatively well in that capacity to many of the players he is competing for draft position with.

Instinct, as Riddle noted, might be Fowler’s biggest question mark. The following example from this past season’s contest against LSU was just one of many plays on which Fowler traveled away from the ball due to his own misread.

Nonetheless, that play ended the way many others did in 2014: Fowler using his speed to get himself back into the play and catch the ball-carrier. He won’t be able to get away with recognition mistakes as easily at the next level, but his athletic range does enable him to recover in situations many other edge defenders cannot.

Tackling is another area in which Fowler must improve, and it’s one of the reasons why Fowler had twice as many hurries in 2014 as he did sacks.

While getting to the ball is often no problem for Fowler, finishing plays has been, like it was on the following near sack against Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston.

Fowler’s NFL coaching staff will also need to work with the defensive end on developing his hand skills. Although he has shown the ability to incorporate a number of pass-rushing moves to beat blockers over the course of his career, he has often been more reliant upon his physical ability than he can afford to be when he starts going up against professionals.

The good news for Fowler is that all of his issues are in areas in which he can progress with proper development. He can legitimately become stronger, improve his tackling form and advance his pass-rushing technique, and his physical gifts give him upside that few others have.

 

Where Will Fowler Be Drafted?

Ultimately, Fowler’s draft position will be determined by the preferences of the teams that decide to target pass-rushers early in the draft.

The good news for Fowler, as well as his counterparts, is that a majority of the teams who hold top-10 picks this year are likely to consider the edge defenders among the options for their selections.

It would come as a surprise if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went in any other direction than a quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick, but Fowler could presumably be in play as early as the Tennessee Titans at No. 2.

The next seven teams in the draft—the Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders, Washington Redskins, New York Jets, Chicago Bears, Atlanta Falcons and New York Giants—are also teams that could target Fowler and would be smart to do so.

Some teams might favor Gregory because of his length and growth potential. Others might have favor Ray or Beasley, as each is a more refined pass-rusher who had higher collegiate production than Fowler.

Dupree could also be a favorite for some teams, as he is a better run defender than Fowler, Gregory, Ray and Beasley, but he is also a weaker pass-rusher than the other four at this point in his development.

All five players have great strengths and legitimate weaknesses, which make all of them projects and none of them sure things. But Fowler’s physical attributes, ability to play the run and capacity to play myriad positions makes him the best bet for a team looking to make a big investment in its pass-rush this April.

 

 

All GIFs and screenshots were made using videos from Draft Breakdown, YouTube and Dailymotion. All GIFs were made at Gfycat.com; all screenshots were illustrated by the author.

Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Is Georgia RB Todd Gurley the NFL's Next Steven Jackson?

At the head of a deep and talented running back class in the 2015 NFL draft sits former Georgia Bulldog Todd Gurley. Three seasons of dominant play in the Southeastern Conference earned Gurley respect, hype and lofty comparisons to NFL greats.

When Gurley was able to stay on the field, he knifed through defenses on a weekly basis. Various injuries, including a torn ACL in Week 10 of his junior season, and a four-game suspension for an NCAA violation, kept him from participating in every contest throughout his career.

It's his special talent that has led to many comparing Gurley to future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson. A simple Google search brings up pages of scouting reports or comments that trace the two together. In college, the comparison isn’t far off. Both missed numerous games due to injuries, but when on the field, they were revered by opposing fanbases.

But, looking deeper than that, the similarities between the two are more of a reach than some might expect. Linking Gurley and Peterson is a convenient argument because Peterson has been so extraordinary throughout his career, and aesthetically, Gurley is the closest thing since “All Day” hit the NFL.

Coming out of Oklahoma, Peterson was an athletic freak. At 6’2”, 217 pounds, his 40-yard dash, vertical and broad jump were each in the 90th percentile. That type of size and athleticism is impressive enough, but it translated perfectly on the field as well. He’s a transcendent talent that creates no matter the limitations of his surrounding cast.

Looking at Gurley’s most productive collegiate games, there’s no question he’s a very talented athlete. But, he doesn’t play like Peterson. The best comparison for Gurley is former St. Louis Rams star and current Atlanta Falcons back Steven Jackson. Although Gurley cannot participate at the NFL combine drills, his numbers would likely be similar to Jackson’s.

Jackson was a highly touted playmaker out of Oregon State taken with the 24th overall pick in 2004. Despite playing on some terrible teams, Jackson produced eight consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, and he has averaged 333 receiving yards a season.

He may end up as a Hall of Fame player as well. His argument will be a strong one based off his accomplishments on the gridiron.

The difference between Jackson and Peterson is more about style and level dominance, so the comparison for Gurley to Jackson is not a slight, at all. Let’s take a look into Gurley’s games to see where he wins, and what makes him more like Jackson.

 

Balance Over Power

Determining the difference between a broken tackle that stems from power or balance requires an understanding of normal pad level for a player, as well as consistency in similar situations. Both Gurley and Jackson are listed at 6’1”, so their pad levels are naturally high, but neither particularly excels at bulldozing through opponents.

Being able to take a hit on one side of the body and stay on two feet is a great example of balance. On the screenshot above, Jackson takes a hit from a defender on his left side, but he’s strong and balanced enough to absorb the hit and shed the tackle. If he'd been using pure power, his pad level would be as low as his attacker.

Relying on balance helps shed arm tackles and hits from the side, whereas a low pad level and power will lead to more head-on tackles being broken. Peterson really has exquisite power, balance and athleticism. He shows the ability to run through defenders at any level. It’s what makes him that special.

Gurley consistently shows that he has excellent balance but high pad levels. He can blow through arm tackles but struggles to push through more straight-on attempts. His inability to sink his hips and lower the boom on a defender means that he will go down often on direct contact.

Using balance and efficient movements is certainly translatable to the NFL. On the gif above, watch as Gurley subtly steps to the left as he approaches the line of scrimmage. This sets up his burst downfield, and he sheds two tacklers as he makes his way downfield. The key to the play is his vision and footwork, which brings us to his next positive trait.

 

Vision and Burst

To get a feel for how Gurley produces so many 15-yard-or-more gains, I charted his three best games of 2014. The goal was to see which blocking schemes Gurley excels. Most NFL teams feature some power-blocking and zone-blocking methods but use each to varying degrees based on personnel.

Collegiate programs like Georgia often use power-blocking tactics because they have athletes on the offensive line that are dominant enough to do so. Take a look at the running lane below for Gurley in such a scheme.

There are numerous examples of these huge running lanes. Georgia deserves credit for executing so well, but these lanes are easy for any back to exploit. Huge lanes like this rarely happen in the NFL because the hash marks are wider, and the competition is consistently great.

When the running lanes were tight, Gurley really struggled to create for himself. His tight hips make it difficult for him to jump when he sees a lane developing at the last second. He’s a downhill runner that struggles having to go laterally too much, and defenders can swarm him.

When given space to work with, Gurley is very good at setting up defenders. As Gurley nears the line of scrimmage, Gurley gets close to his blockers to sell that he is close to cutting upfield. This is called pressing the linebackers because the second line of defense is likely to cheat toward the line to get to the ball-carrier quicker. Gurley has the burst to take advantage of the new angle created, and he does so very well.

Gurley accelerates quickly to eat up yards. He isn’t a burner, but like Jackson, wins when he finds cutback lanes.

Unsurprisingly, Gurley was most effective when his line worked to create the backside running lanes that the zone-blocking system aims to provide. As the line works toward one direction, the defense will follow unless a defender can penetrate the gap. This leaves the back with the decision to either follow his line or, if the defense doesn’t stay disciplined, reverse course and hit the wide-open cutback.

Gurley is tremendously good at seeing these openings as they unfold. He wastes little to no time to chop his feet and reverse course. Sometimes, the cutback will go for a moderate gain but, eventually, a chunk can turn into an opportunity for a home run play.

Of the 14 explosive plays charted, seven were considered to be translatable to the NFL. These include zone-reads and power dives that Gurley was able to gain 15 or more yards on. The rest came via pitches or read option calls.

Although the NFL has adapted and began using the read-option, it is not nearly as dangerous as it is in the collegiate game. Seattle is one of the few teams that are reliant on its effectiveness weekly, but they also possess an elite running back and mobile quarterback.

Collegiate plays that are completely reliant on being more athletic than the opponent shouldn’t be considered the same as more traditional methods of execution. The NFL doesn’t have vast talent gaps like Georgia had many games. Expecting Gurley to replicate six big gains in three games off the read-option isn’t reasonable because the read option isn’t a consistent source of production on a down-by-down basis.

 

Durability

The more hits that a running back takes, the more likely an injury can occur. Unlike Peterson, all of Gurley’s injuries were due to contact or running style. He missed six games in college due to injury, and he participated in 30. That trend cannot continue as he enters the NFL.

Longevity and durability are major factors for running back success, but it’s hard to be confident that Gurley’s track record of nicks and bruises will suddenly end. The ability to absorb or avoid contact is important for health purposes.

Yes, Peterson returned from an ACL and MCL tear with incredible speed, but he was an anomaly. Again, he’s a physical freak that is incomparable. Gurley is a great athlete but not to the level of Peterson.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Gurley is 100 percent when he returns from his ACL tear, but his risk to re-tear it is greater, and he’ll be just 21 when the regular season starts. Coming back from one ACL tear isn’t abnormal, but two is, and the odds of it happening again in the first 24 months after rises by 15 percent.

 

Future Projection

There is no doubt that Todd Gurley is a tremendously talented football player. He’s strong, quick, smart and explosive. His ability to be an impact runner and receiver for an NFL franchise shouldn’t be doubted.

To reach his potential, Gurley will need to stay healthy and have his strengths accentuated as much as possible. He may do well for a power-blocking team, but his best fit is with a team that will allow him to use his vision and burst more often in a zone-blocking system.

Some of the NFL teams that are primarily zone are Seattle, Denver, Miami, Washington and Cleveland. Most franchises utilize zone reads for at least part of their game plan, so wherever Gurley lands, he’s very likely to produce at a high level.

 

All stats used are from sports-reference.com.

Ian Wharton is a Miami Dolphins Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, contributor for Optimum Scouting, and analyst for eDraft. 

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