NCAA Football News

Which States Are Producing the Most National Championship Talent?

When No. 1 Clemson and No. 2 Alabama line up for the College Football Playoff National Championship Game on Monday, it'll be a star-studded game full of household names and future NFL stars—not to mention an all-time great coach (Nick Saban) versus another who's creating his own path (Dabo Swinney). 

But rewind three, four or even five years ago. The two rosters competing for college football's top honor had to come from somewhere. What are the origins of a championship-caliber team? 

We traced the two-deep depth charts for Alabama and Clemson (plus a few key reserve contributors) to find out the states from which they came. Not surprisingly, there's a heavy Southeastern presence, as there have been with multiple recent BCS champs. 

Where does championship-caliber talent come from? We traced more than 80 players from both sides to find out. 

 

Winning Your Home State Actually Matters

If you've ever listened to a head coach's national signing day press conference, you've probably heard the phrase "we have to win our state in recruiting" more times than you can count. It sounds like coachspeak on the surface, but there's actually a lot of truth in it. 

Looking at this year's championship contenders as an example, it's easy to understand why. In-state prospects accounted for about about one-third of Alabama's starters and key contributors. That number drops slightly for Clemson but remains at just under 30 percent. 

The table above shows the Tide and Tigers are getting a bulk of their key players within their own state borders. However, each program also had roughly three or four pipeline states in which it acquired another high percentage of players. 

Not surprisingly, these pipeline regions are either border states or, like Florida, act as a recruiting ground for pretty much everybody in major college football.

In either case, Alabama and Clemson have geography on their side. When leaving the state, Alabama gets a bulk of its key players from Florida, Georgia and Louisiana, with some traces from Texas, Mississippi and the like. Clemson also mines Georgia and Florida but has a presence in North Carolina and Virginia as well. 

Basically, if Alabama and Clemson were the circles in a recruiting Venn diagram, Florida and Georgia would be in the center. 

Ultimately, though, winning the in-state recruiting battle is important, even if the state is not traditionally considered one of the richest talent producers. Prospects like running back Marcus Lattimore (2010) and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (2011) boosted the profile for recruiting in South Carolina—not just because they were so highly rated, but because they opted to stay home.

Neither, of course, went to Clemson, but they were part of raising the national profile of South Carolina football. That's what a top in-state player can do for a program. 

 

Origins of the Blue-Chip Players

Recruiting isn't an exact science, but there is a correlation between teams that regularly recruit at a high level and ones that win (or at least compete for) national championships. Go ahead and look at the last handful of title-winning teams, and then look at how they recruited. No one's winning with only 2-and-3-star players. 

Yet the popular contrarian opinion to have is that recruiting stars are laughable, at least when compared to coaching and player development. This is what Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Mac Engel tweeted during the Orange Bowl between Clemson and Oklahoma, noting that Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield was a walk-on:

Mayfield's path to stardom certainly goes against the norm, but he's also an exception to the rule. Oklahoma's star running back, Samaje Perine—a player literally standing right next to Mayfield in the backfield—was a 4-star prospect. Go through Oklahoma's starting 22, and you're more likely to find recruits of Perine's mold than Mayfield's. 

The not-so-hush-hush insider secret of the business is that all of those factors—recruiting, coaching and development and even scheme fit—matter; nothing exists in a vacuum by itself.  

Alabama and Clemson have mastered all of those elements. Neither would be playing Monday if it hadn't. But it all starts with recruiting. According to 247Sports composite rankings, here are Alabama's and Clemson's average recruiting class rank over the last five years (to account for redshirt seniors and true freshmen):

Clemson: 12.5.

Alabama: 1. 

The Tide, in fact, had the No. 1 class in the country in each of the last five years. 

From where do the blue-chip (4-and-5-star) players over the last five years hail? In the table below, signees were charted from the following areas: home state, Florida and Georgia and the top pipeline state.

Seeing as a large chunk of Alabama's key contributors are in-state products, it makes sense that most of the blue-chip players are as well. Guys like linebacker Reuben Foster were once 5-star prospects from Alabama. Still, the Tide have succeeded in plucking blue-chip players from Florida and Georgia, like Heisman-winning running back Derrick Henry and his backup Kenyan Drake, respectively.

Clemson's recruiting dominance has been more spread-out. It has to be. As mentioned before, South Carolina isn't quite on the same level as some other talent-rich states. The big-time players who have come out of that state haven't always signed with the Tigers, either. 

Linebacker Ben Boulware and receiver Mike Williams (injured) were in-state products, but some of the biggest names came from out of state. Quarterback Deshaun Watson is from Georgia. Cornerback Mackensie Alexander is from Florida. 

Clemson has been forced to win outside its state more than Alabama, but that doesn't mean it hasn't done so successfully. Clemson's presence took a major turn in 2006 when Swinney, then an assistant for the Tigers, recruited a 5-star running back by the name of C.J. Spiller out of Florida. 

Alabama has made its way to this point with lots of homegrown talent and more blue-chip players than you can possibly imagine. Clemson didn't exactly do it the hard way, but Swinney deserves a lot of credit for building a championship-caliber program at a place where the best players in the country don't line up at his door. 

 

Conclusion

With all due respect to the rest of the country, the South has a built-in recruiting advantage. You probably already knew this, but it's a fact nonetheless. The number of 4- and -5-star players per capita is simply more concentrated in the Southeast, as SbS Football tweeted earlier in the year: 

There are outliers, of course. Ohio State can pick up plenty of in-state products while having the brand to recruit nationally. Notre Dame has completely transformed its recruiting pitch by becoming a partial member of the ACC. 

Generally speaking, though, it should be no surprise that the above graphic matches the table below charting the number of national championship game appearances by state: 

Alabama and Clemson succeeded in recruiting their own backyards but also found plenty of players in neighboring states. Put simply, if you want to compete for a national championship, you have to pluck blue-chippers from states like Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas; the same can also be said for California, but that's in a completely different geographical region. 

But good luck with that. Every program in college football is already chasing Alabama. Soon, they could be chasing Clemson, too. 

“Those great businesses out there, those great programs, they don’t plateau. How do you do that? Well, you have to constantly reinvent, reinvest, reset, learn, grow, change,” Swinney said, via Matt Connolly of the State. “You have to do that. You don’t just change to change, but you have to always challenge yourself each and every year to say, ‘OK, well this may be how we’ve done it, but is it the right way?’" 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. All recruiting information compiled by 247Sports

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Clemson vs. Alabama: Overlooked Factors in College Football Championship 2016

The national championship game is only days away, and we'll finally put the debate to rest.

Which unit is better: Clemson's high-powered offense led by Deshaun Watson, or Alabama's always talented defense?

Earlier this week, we talked about some matchups that will determine who wins the national championship. It's going to come down to how well Watson plays and which defense can make the most plays toward the end.

But there are some things we need to look at a little more closely. They're the key factors that could swing the game in a huge way. Those two factors, more than anything, are going to be the running backs from both sides who don't get much attention or credit.

Let's take a look at some overlooked factors heading into Monday's title game.

 

Wayne Gallman vs. Alabama Defense

For all the time spent talking about Watson and how important he's been to Clemson (and he's been very important), there hasn't been much talk about leading rusher Wayne Gallman.

Clemson's sophomore running back has tallied 1,469 yards and 12 touchdowns, tying him with Watson's 12 scores. He's also averaging 5.5 yards per carry. He's going to be the X-Factor for a Clemson offense that needs to attack an Alabama defense that has been good against the run all year long.

The Crimson Tide have only given up 100 rushing yards or more twice, with the last time coming Oct. 24 against Tennessee. The Volunteers ran the ball 39 times in that game, but Alabama survived a major scare at home.

Gallman has been Clemson's silent assassin this year, carving up defenses with the spotlight on Watson. ESPN's David Hale gave us an idea of the kind of player Gallman is:

There was a point midway through the second quarter of the Capital One Orange Bowl when Wayne Gallman stared across the line of scrimmage and smiled. He saw Oklahoma’s defense, hands on hips, hunched over and gasping for air. For Gallman, this is when the fun begins.

In truth, the first half was relatively slow going for Clemson’s record-breaking tailback. He had mustered a mere 39 yards on the ground by the time the teams hit the locker room at halftime, but he was simply biding his time.

In the Tigers’ past two games, Gallman has been Clemson’s version of Mariano Rivera. He’s the closer, and when his number is called in the second half—19 times in the ACC championship game versus North Carolina, 19 more against the Sooners—he has delivered the knockout blow.

It's going to be a much more difficult challenge for Gallman to make an impact against Alabama's defense, but if Watson is struggling, it'll have to be up to him. Especially when it comes down to the second half, like it has for Clemson's last two games, Gallman will need to be the workhorse again.

 

Kenyan Drake In Relief of Derrick Henry

When Alabama runs the ball, most credit goes to Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry.

Senior tailback Kenyan Drake has not carried the ball much this year. He's only tallied at least 10 carries three times, but all have come in games in which Drake has played in relief of Henry.

Or he could have a big game in limited carries, like he did in the Cotton Bowl against Michigan State. With Henry struggling to break four yards per carry, Drake carried the ball four times for 60 yards against the Spartans.

Clemson is going to try to take Henry out of the game and force Jake Coker to win. But it's important for the Tigers to not forget about Drake, who has played in many of these big-game situations throughout his career. He had back-to-back 100-yard games in 2013 at Kentucky and then against Arkansas.

Drake is still capable of pulling off big games when the touches are there, so Clemson needs to play a complete game.

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Noel Mazzone Named Texas A&M OC: Latest Contract Details and Reaction

After four seasons as UCLA's offensive coordinator, Noel Mazzone is reportedly heading back to the SEC to take the same position at Texas A&M.

According to ESPN.com's Joe Schad, the 58-year-old coach agreed to a three-year deal to serve under Kevin Sumlin. Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports confirmed the news and added that Mazzone's son and UCLA quarterbacks coach Taylor Mazzone will join the Aggies too.

The Bruins averaged at least 32 points per game in each of Mazzone's four years at the helm, and he will look to bring Texas A&M's offense back to prominence after it slipped to 27.8 points per contest in 2015.

Mazzone's decision to depart UCLA comes just one day after Bruins head coach Jim Mora pumped the brakes on rumors that a move to Texas A&M was imminent for his offensive coordinator on the L.A. AM570 Petros and Money Show, per Jack Wang of InsideSoCal.com:

"There is no confirmed validity to the rumor that Noel is leaving," Mora said. "He may, but he may not. I would hope that by the end of the day, we'll know one way or the other."

Mazzone enjoyed three previous stints in the SEC as Ole Miss' offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 1995 through 1998, Auburn's offensive coordinator from 1999 through 2001 and Mississippi's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach once again in 2005.

While returning to the conference could help increase his profile, he figures to have his work cut out for him on the heels of quarterbacks Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray both opting to transfer away from Texas A&M.

Since averaging over 44 points per game in Sumlin's first two seasons with the Aggies, that production has dropped off due largely to Johnny Manziel making the leap to the NFL.

Mazzone worked wonders with quarterback Brett Hundley at UCLA, helping him develop into a Heisman Trophy candidate.

It is unclear if he will have that level of talent to work with under center with the Aggies, but Sumlin is banking on the fact that he can mold Jake Hubenak or an incoming signal-caller into someone capable of leading Texas A&M to the top of the SEC.

 

Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter.

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The Battle for No. 1 ATH Recruit Lives on at 2016 Army Bowl

SAN ANTONIO — Lasting words overheard Tuesday by 5-star prospect Mecole Hardman Jr.: "We're just out here having fun, man."

He's right. The atmosphere blanketing both the Blossom Athletic Center and Heroes Stadium—the practice sites for the two U.S. Army All-American Bowl teams—reminds everyone that although this is a prestigious all-star event, it's also an opportunity for 90 of the best athletes in the 2016 class to relax and enjoy the moment.

But let's not kid ourselves. These same prospects, who are having a good time preparing for Saturday's game, didn't get to where they are as football players by living lighthearted full-time. It's all about competition and being the best of the best.

So when Saturday's kickoff goes down, don't be surprised if Hardman, Demetris Robertson, Jack Jones and Devin Asiasi all play the game as if it were their last. According to 247Sports.com's composite rankings, these four individuals represent the top four classified at the "athlete" position.

"You don't get this opportunity all the time," Jones said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing, so you have to take advantage of it. You want to show you're the best."

"We all work so hard to get to this point," Asiasi added. "To be able to be here and play in this game is surreal. It motivates me knowing I'm just in the top five, but you always want more."

Saturday's U.S. Army All-American Bowl is supposed to be played just for fun, but both Jones and Asiasi agreed that when you're surrounded by talent, it's only natural for competitive natures to rear their heads.

Consider it a time to determine who's the No. 1 "athlete."

Hardman currently occupies that top spot and is ranked No. 21 overall in the composite rankings. Robertson is the No. 2 athlete and No. 24 overall. Hardman and Robertson, two from the state of Georgia, will play for the East team Saturday.

The West team will feature Jones and Asiasi, two California players considered top-50 players by many. Jones is the No. 3 athlete and the No. 44 overall player according to the composite rankings. Asiasi is the No. 4 athlete and just missed the top-50 cut in the composite rankings at No. 51, but that could change with his play in practices throughout the week.

Saturday, everybody will look to make multiple plays. The game will be televised on NBC, which means there will be an opportunity to shine on a global level.

"That motivates me, but being in the top five motivates me, too," said Asiasi, who is looking to play tight end and not defensive end in college. "All those athletes are crazy. They're fast, they've got good hands and they're all-around great players. Every day, I have to come out with the mentality that I have to prove something."

Being No. 1 is strictly for bragging rights, but playing well against the talent on the field further enhances their already stellar recruiting resumes. Collectively, the quartet has 103 reported offers.

Hardman (31 reported offers) is eyeing schools such as Alabama, Georgia, Michigan, Tennessee, Florida and Clemson. Robertson (28 offers) has schools like Georgia, Alabama, Notre Dame and Stanford high on his list. Jones (22 offers) posted a top-five video with Bleacher Report, including USC, UCLA, Alabama, Oklahoma and Texas A&M. Asiasi (22 offers) is eyeing USC, UCLA, Alabama, Washington and others.

All four could have announcements on national signing day. But on Saturday, the casual fans—those slightly unfamiliar with their talents—get to see why they are top-five talents at the position in the first place.

And expect all four to compete for the No. 1 spot as we inch closer to signing day.

"Everybody's going to compete," Jones said, "but I'll let you know that I'm coming to play and will get you better on the field and off the field. I'll let the reporters will decide on who they think is the best athlete."

 

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

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Henry Swinney, Dabo's Brother, Arrested for Stalking: Latest Details, Comments

Henry "Tripp" Swinney III, the brother of Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney, was arrested Tuesday on a charge of aggravated stalking.  

Zack McDonald of the Panama City News Herald, citing the Bay County Sheriff’s Office, reported that Henry Swinney's estranged wife claimed she continued to receive messages from him despite filing a civil injunction against domestic violence.

Graham Watson of Yahoo Sports passed along comments about the situation from Dabo Swinney following Thursday's practice:

There's consequences for your actions. If you don't do the right things, you suffer the consequences. I'm no different from anybody else, my family's no different than anybody else. I think the only sad thing is, it's a story because he's my brother. You know, if I was Joe Schmoe then you're not asking me that question.

The Panama City News Herald report noted that the Bay County Sheriff's Office stated the situation began in October when Swinney's wife told him she was planning to file for divorce. He allegedly continued to "maliciously" contact her, which caused "substantial emotional distress."

"It's been a horrible experience," the unnamed victim told the outlet. "No one should have to go through that."

Swinney had his first court appearance Wednesday and was held on $15,000 bond, according to the report. He's due back in court for his arraignment on Feb. 9.

Meanwhile, Dabo Swinney is trying to prepare for Monday night's national championship game against Alabama while the situation plays out. The coach said he loves his brother, but he admitted "he's had a long history of not doing the right things," per Watson.

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Urban Meyer's Plan to Overcome Ohio State's Massive NFL Departures in 2016

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Having just wrapped up his 14th season as a head coach, Urban Meyer knows better than to compare.

After all, what's the upside to setting unfair expectations on one of his players to be the next Tim Tebow, or on one of his teams to be the next 2008 Florida Gators? Meyer's seen those unrealistic standards devour "the next Percy Harvin," and even his own expectations for seasons before.

So when the fourth-year Ohio State head coach broke his own rule and compared his outlook of the 2016 season to that of a recent Buckeyes team, it should have raised some eyebrows. Especially considering that Meyer said his program's current situation reminds him of where Ohio State found itself two years ago, before going on to win the first-ever College Football Playoff.

"Very similar to the 2014 team," Meyer said of his 2016 squad. "That was a team of development. That was a team where Eli Apple and Vonn Bell, Darron Lee and guys who either redshirted or didn’t have a big input in 2013...you saw a steady improvement. And obviously it culminated in a pretty good finish."

So much so that Apple, Bell and Lee—as well as six other underclassmen and a senior class responsible for a 50-4 record over the course of the past four seasons—now find themselves headed to the NFL as a part of an expected mass exodus of talent in Columbus.

The cupboards aren't bare—they never are when Meyer's in charge of your recruiting—but even the three-time national champion head coach would admit that his team faces no shortage of uncertainty heading into 2016. The same could have been said two years ago as well, although there was no accounting for Braxton Miller suffering a season-ending injury two weeks prior to the start of the season.

This year, however, so long as quarterback J.T. Barrett remains healthy, Meyer knows what he'll be replacing, and he has a plan. In fact, it's already started by naming the Buckeyes' 2016 captains—Barrett, center Pat Elflein and linebacker Raekwon McMillan—something he hasn't done since arriving at Ohio State four years ago.

"I’m jumping the gun a little bit," Meyer said of announcing his three captains in January. "We’re not waiting. You won’t hear that in August like we normally do. It’s done."

The designations certainly make sense. Barrett will be in charge of an offense replacing eight starters, including star running back Ezekiel Elliott and wide receivers Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall and Braxton Miller. Elflein will be the undisputed leader of an offensive line breaking in three new starters, including both tackle positions, and McMillan will have his hands full with a defensive unit that will return just three starters.

Offensively, the Buckeyes will be replacing 83.1 percent of their receiving yards and 73.1 percent of their rushing yards in 2016. On defense, Ohio State loses seven of its top 10 tacklers, but will return its top tackler in McMillan and its top two sack leaders in defensive ends Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard.

With Barrett, Elflein and McMillan each playing key positions and having seen extensive playing time over the course of the past three seasons, the Buckeyes' development could be accelerated as soon as this offseason.

But it will take more than just having its captains set—Ohio State is going to need new contributors to emerge, much like they did two years ago.

Starting at running back, the hole left by Elliott is going to be especially difficult to fill. A part of that transition will be eased by Meyer's desire to run a more balanced offense than he did in 2015, when Elliott accounted for 35.9 percent of the Buckeyes offense, but a running back will still need to step up in the absence of Ohio State's all-time leading rusher.

As it currently stands, a running back by committee seems likely, with Meyer mentioning fifth-year senior Bri'onte Dunn, sophomore-to-be Michael Weber and former H-back Dontre Wilson as potential replacements in the Buckeyes lineup. The wild card of the bunch is Curtis Samuel, who began his career as a running back but transitioned to H-back in 2015 and could see an increased role in the OSU offense in 2016.

"Instead of being a guy second to someone," Meyer said of Samuel, "him and Dontre have got to take charge."

At wide receiver, Meyer mentioned Noah Brown, who enjoyed a breakout preseason before suffering a season-ending broken leg last summer, as a player to watch, as well as freshman K.J. Hill and tight end Marcus Baugh. On the offensive line, the Buckeyes will be counting on junior Jamarco Jones and sophomore Isaiah Prince at their two tackle positions, with Elflein, guard Billy Price and a right guard to be named later solidifying the interior offensive line.

Defensively, it's no secret what Ohio State is losing, with defensive end Joey Bosa possessing the potential to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. Lee, Bell and Apple could all go in the first round as well, leaving defensive coordinators Greg Schiano and Luke Fickell with their work cut out for themselves heading into the offseason.

"It is a different mentality to climb the mountain than stay on top of the mountain and hold the mountain," Fickell said. "I don’t think it will be real difficult. It could be more exciting."

A part of that excitement will be Ohio State seeing what it has in inexperienced but highly touted players such as defensive linemen Jason Cornell and Dre'Mont Jones, linebackers Dante Booker, Chris Worley, Jerome Baker and Justin Hilliard, safeties Malik Hooker and Erick Smith and cornerbacks Damon Webb, Denzel Ward and Eric Glover-Williams.

They may not be household names just yet, but neither were Apple, Lee and Bell at this point in 2014.

"You have a lot of guys who are hungry and have a chip on their shoulder like these guys did two years ago," Fickell said.

Perhaps more than that, what will be most important will be for the Buckeyes to draw on lessons from not just 2014, but last season as well. After suffering a devastating defeat to Michigan State that ended Ohio State's playoff hopes, the Buckeyes finished 2015 strong with convincing wins over Michigan and Notre Dame.

With an early-season date with playoff participant Oklahoma looming, the Buckeyes may once again need to bounce back from a disappointing loss. They would follow a path similar to that of the 2014 squad, which fell to Virginia Tech in its second week of the season.

"I’m going to ask this team coming back, 'Why did he do that?'" Meyer said, pointing to Elliott's play in the final game of his college career as an example. "He did it for love of teammates, for love of unit and for the culture that’s here at Ohio State."

It's that culture Meyer is going to need to rely on as he faces a dramatic overhaul of his roster.

It's one that served him well two years ago and resulted in, in his words, a "pretty good finish" to the season.

 

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.

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4-Star WR Cavin Ridley Tweets Decision to Enroll Early at Georgia

Less than a week after he announced intentions to play college football for South Carolina, wide receiver recruit Cavin Ridley shared he will instead enroll early at Georgia. 

The 4-star Florida playmaker revealed his new plan Thursday night on Twitter:

"I took a step back to go over my recruiting options and take an in-depth second look at all the schools on my final list," Ridley wrote. "After talking things over with my family and coaches at Deerfield Beach [High School] I have decided to 'Commit to the G' and become an early enrollee at the University of Georgia."

His declaration gives new Bulldogs offensive coordinator Jim Chaney another promising piece. The fact that Ridley will arrive on campus in January is pivotal, providing the young pass catcher with an opportunity to develop on and off the field during spring camp.

The 6'1 ½", 198-pound prospect spent just two days committed to South Carolina. Ridley provided a public Gamecocks pledge Jan. 2, immediately after the Under Armour All-America Game. 

He cited South Carolina's freshly acquired coaching regime, led by former Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, as main motivation to commit.

“It’s just the new environment they have going on and all the new coaches they are bringing in,” Ridley told Phil Kornblut of The State. “When they were recruiting me for Auburn, they showed me that they know how to recruit players down South. Now I just have to get up there and compete.”

Those sentiments quickly faded and Ridley reopened his recruitment Monday. He hopped in a rival SEC class three days later.

"This was by far the biggest and hardest decision I've had to make in my life," Ridley wrote. "As you all have seen I've really struggled to choose between some amazing universities with outstanding football programs."

Alabama was also considered a strong contender, due in large part to the presence of older brother Calvin Ridley. The Crimson Tide freshman was America's top-ranked receiver in the 2015 recruiting cycle and leads Alabama with 83 receptions through 14 games.

“I’ve got the chance to play with my brother, but I’ve got to do what’s best for me. I want to be my own man," Cavin told Kornblut.

Georgia adds Ridley to an impressive collection of offensive talent. He joins fellow 4-star receivers Charlie Woerner and Javon Wims, top-rated in-state running back Elijah Holyfield and 5-star quarterback Jacob Eason, who will join him in Athens this month.

The Bulldogs hope to bag another coveted recruit Saturday when 5-star tight end Isaac Nauta announces his choice during U.S. Army All-American Bowl action. The Peach State native will decide between Alabama, Georgia and Michigan.

Ridley, rated No. 32 nationally among receivers in composite rankings, caught 36 passes for 501 yards and four touchdowns as a high school senior, according to MaxPreps.

 

Tyler Donohue is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. All player ratings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings. Follow Tyler via Twitter: @TDsTake.

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Ohio State Football: Is Mike Weber Destined to Be Buckeyes' Next Great RB?

With the mass exodus of talent leaving for the NFL draft, the Ohio State Buckeyes football team will feature a number of underclassmen in 2016. None, however, will have a bigger void to fill than running back Mike Weber, who's primed to step in for All-American Ezekiel Elliott.

The 5'10", 215-pound bruiser committed to Ohio State on national signing day last February, spurning Jim Harbaugh and the home-state Michigan Wolverines.

He was one of the most coveted running backs in the country—a high 4-star prospect who ran for 2,268 yards and 29 touchdowns (averaging 10.1 yards per carry) despite playing in just 10 games as a senior, according to Ohio State's official website.

He brought that bruising running style with him to Columbus when he reported for fall camp, and he made an instant impact on a team brimming with talent.

With Curtis Samuel's transition to wide receiver, the spot behind Elliott on the depth chart was wide open. There was Bri'onte Dunn, a redshirt junior who's played sparingly at Ohio State, and Warren Ball, who's seen very little game action during his three years in Columbus.

Weber didn't waste any time and immediately caught the attention of his teammates and coaches.

He showcased his toughness and explosiveness, both of which were on display during a scrimmage in fall camp, when he said he ran the ball 15 times for nearly 200 yards with "a few touchdowns," according to Dave Biddle of 247Sports.

Everything was setting up for Weber to make his college football debut as Elliott's backup in 2015. He had his "black stripe" removed in fall camp—a tradition that signifies a freshman is ready to officially join the team—three weeks before the opener at Virginia Tech.

But three days later, Weber suffered a torn meniscus in his knee that required surgery. He was expected to return after a four-week recovery, but with the nagging injury and Elliott's ability to carry the load, Weber took a redshirt and sat the season out.

Behind the scenes, though, Weber was still working hard and continued to improve.

He was sharp during bowl practice and completely recovered from the injury, and with his health back, he's ready to make a big impact in 2016, according to Ari Wasserman of Cleveland.com:

I started off really good. I kind of caught on to the college speed of the game really quick and was basically running the ball really good. The injury slowed me down a little bit. It kind of set me back this whole year and maybe pushed me toward a redshirt.

But if I had to do it again, I'd be a redshirt because I learned from Zeke and the guys in front of me. I just sat back and watched those guys. I am just going to let it all loose next year. 

The Buckeyes will need him to let it loose in an offense that has to replace eight starters next year. But Weber won't be bringing the elusiveness and breakaway speed that Elliott gave Ohio State's offense over the last two years.

Weber's running style more closely resembles that of Carlos Hyde, whom Elliott replaced after two dominant seasons in 2012 and 2013.

In fact, he looks so similar to Hyde—who ran for 2,491 yards and 31 touchdowns in Urban Meyer's offense—that teammates are calling him "'Baby 'Los,' Carlos Hyde," according to Eleven Warriors' Eric Seger.

If Weber can capitalize on his potential in 2016, then Ohio State's next great running back is on the verge of his breakout season. 

 

Unless otherwise noted, all recruiting information via 247Sports.com.

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

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Grading Every New College Football Head Coaching Hire

Once again, the 2015-16 college football coaching carousel is grinding to a halt. For now. On Thursday, Ball State hired Mike Neu as its new coach, per Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports, and Texas State announced Everett Withers as its new leader (h/t Yahoo Sports). That leaves only Texas San-Antonio, which let veteran coach Larry Coker go earlier this week, as the only current FBS program with a head coach opening.

While the NFL sorts out its openings, that’s subject to change. But at the moment, the dust has mostly settled on the movement in head coaching circles for this season. Thus far, 26 programs have hired new head coaches. That’s up from last season, but the domino effect that some predicted in November hasn’t really materialized, with plenty of coordinators getting opportunities and several programs turning to interims to fill their vacancies from within.

While it takes several years to effectively evaluate a coaching hire, now is as good a time as any to give an initial grade to the hires. That’s what we’re doing here for all 26 programs that have filled vacancies.

Agree? Disagree? Let us know what you think!

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Tracking Top Day 4 Practice Performers from 2016 Army All-American Bowl

SAN ANTONIO — Thursday was the final day of open practice for the U.S. Army All-Americans as they prepare for Saturday's much-anticipated U.S. Army All-American Bowl at the Alamodome. The week has seen some of the best athletes in the 2016 class elevate their games—just in time for them to get ready for life in college.

The East vs. West showdown is expected to be competitive and intriguing. The participating athletes know that while they're there to enjoy the experience and overall atmosphere, they're also trying to prove they're the best at their respective positions. A few athletes have made their cases throughout the week.

The annual event has served as a platform for athletes who have made it to the NFL over the last 15 years, including Andrew Luck, Adrian Peterson, Patrick Peterson, Ndamukong Suh, Odell Beckham Jr. and many others. Every athlete to step on the Alamodome turf Saturday is hoping to follow in their footsteps.

With no Wednesday practice taking place, Thursday was huge as the athletes made their final tuneups in preparation for Saturday. Here are some of the players who made noise during Thursday's practice sessions.

 

West Team practice

Devin Asiasi: Big man, important target

It's easy to see that the tight end position will be important Saturday, and Asiasi is showing everyone why he's such a wanted athlete. Listed at 6'5" and 235 pounds, he finds a way to play bigger than his size—figuratively and literally.

What makes Asiasi so fun to watch is his hands. Seeing the big man make fingertip grabs and over-the-shoulder catches is enough to frustrate any defense. Additionally, in running situations, he makes for a sound blocker on the line.

Schools like Washington, USC, UCLA and Alabama are still in the mix for Asiasi. He will take three official visits this month, the first to Washington (Jan. 16), followed by Alabama (Jan. 22) and finally USC (Jan. 29). Some consider the Trojans a favorite, but Asiasi said he is still wide-open with his process.

 

Caleb Kelly: Raising the bar defensively

All week long, Kelly has risen to the occasion. In fact, some may say the 5-star prospect has elevated his game each practice, which is a great sign for the West roster.

Kelly's quickness, agility and lateral movement have made him a problem for the offense. He's a solid rush defender in run plays, and in passing situations, he's shown good coverage skills. Kelly plays the game with a high football IQ, and he's been a game-changer among game-changers as of late.

Kelly, the nation's No. 3 outside linebacker, has 24 reported offers but has narrowed his list to Oklahoma, Notre Dame and Oregon. He has made official visits to all three schools.

 

Landon Young: Rising to the occasion

If there's a player who may see a significant rise in his recruiting ranking, it's Young. The Kentucky commit has played well during the week, but he may have stepped up his game Thursday.

Long and agile, Young has done a good job at right tackle containing a group of defensive linemen who are looking to be buzz saws at the next level. During lineman blocking drills, Young showed his aggressiveness by scoring an emphatic pancake block on a defender. It was enough to garner shouts from his peers.

At 270 pounds, Young has room to add weight to his 6'7" frame, and Young said that's something Kentucky coaches really like. He's a streamlined big man who is technically sound and plays with a mean streak. He'll have a chance to show his skills against an East team with a talented defensive line group.

 

Usual suspects put on a show

All week long, it seems as though the same names are being praised. But there's a reason for that.

On offense, Shea Patterson is making his case as the nation's top-ranked quarterback. The Ole Miss commit has been the most consistent quarterback of the three on the West roster, and as he gets more and more comfortable with his teammates, you can see the confidence building with each throw.

On defense, Mark Jackson Jr. has been impressive and has silenced any argument about his size at defensive end—or lack thereof. Listed at 6'2" and 226 pounds, Jackson, a Texas A&M pledge, looks more like an outside linebacker, but his speed-rush ability and nose for the football make him dangerous to offenses in passing situations.

On both sides of the ball, Jack Jones has been phenomenal. He's been used more as a cornerback, and he's flourished in multiple drills. During Thursday's seven-on-seven play, he recorded an interception on one play, and on the very next play, he dropped what would have been a second pick. Jones has a top five of Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, UCLA and USC.

 

East Team practice nuggets (courtesy of 247Sports)

  • It was another solid day in the office for tight end Isaac Nauta. When he wasn't making one-handed grabs, he was giving key blocks to spring running backs. Nauta also showed his power by bulling over a defender after making a catch.
  • The defensive line as a unit has been good with Dexter Lawrence and Derrick Brown standing out as headliners. Thursday was Jonathon Cooper's time to shine, though. The Ohio State pledge showed explosiveness off the edge and played at a high-intensity level.
  • Is there anything Mecole Hardman Jr. can't do? He has been all over the field all week, and on Thursday, he lined up on the offensive side of the ball. With the ball in his hands as a receiver, you can expect yards after the catch. He's dangerous with the ball.

 

Damon Sayles is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. All player ratings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings. All player heights and weights are courtesy of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. Follow Damon via Twitter: @DamonSayles

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In What Likely Will Be Derrick Henry's Final Game for Alabama, Expect Greatness

In the College Football Playoff National Championship vs. top-ranked Clemson on Monday night, Alabama running back Derrick Henry might not break his single-game high of 271 rushing yards set vs. Auburn this year.

He might not break his single-game high of 46 carries he had in that same game.

He might not even extend his 19-game touchdown streak to 20 against the Tigers.

After all, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney and defensive coordinator Brent Venables boast a defense that has given up just 124.36 yards per game on the ground and is loaded with talented players in the front seven.

None of that matters though.

In what could be the final game for the junior Heisman Trophy winner before he moves on to the NFL, expect greatness. Expect Henry to grind it out when it matters most. Expect him to prove one more time that he is college football's ultimate closer.

"Obviously they've got the Heisman in Henry," said Swinney on Tuesday, according to CollegePressBox.com. "He's a whole different animal."

Indeed he is.

During his three years in Tuscaloosa, Henry has rushed for 1,954 yards in the second half/overtime of games, as opposed to 1,479 in the first half. That balanced out this year as he ascended to the top spot of the depth chart for the first time in his career.

But the 6'3", 242-pounder from Yulee, Florida, has proven from the moment that he stepped foot on campus that he shuts the door when head coach Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin need him to.

And they'll need him to do it once more on Monday night.

While Alabama's defense is terrifying, its best defense against these Tigers is a good, punishing, ball-control offense. 

Clemson is built to hit every sore spot that typically presents issues for Alabama defenses.

It has a mobile quarterback in Deshaun Watson, who has topped the 100-yard mark on the ground in five of his last six games. It spreads defenses out with multiple wide receiver sets with studs like Artavis Scott.

It has a power rushing game within that spread led by Wayne Gallman, a sophomore from Grayson, Georgia, who has rushed for 1,482 yards and is one of the most underrated players in the nation. It uses tempo to prevent defenses from substituting, which allows Swinney to exploit mismatches when they develop.

With apologies to Ole Miss—which has topped the Tide in each of the last two seasons—Alabama hasn't seen an offense like this since the 2013 Auburn Tigers, who weren't as prolific in the passing attack as the 2015 Clemson Tigers. After all, while Ole Miss has had success against Alabama, it simply hasn't had the power rushing element that Swinney's crew boasts.

While guys like defensive linemen A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen, as well as linebacker Reggie Ragland and others are directly responsible for shutting down Watson and Co., it's Henry who will have the biggest impact. 

As long as Clemson doesn't have too much success offensively, Alabama won't stray from its tried-and-true plan of a heavy dose of Henry, as SEC Network analyst "Booger" McFarland noted on WUMP's The Cole Cubelic Show in Huntsville, Alabama on Friday morning:

That should pay dividends in the second half against a Tiger defense that, while talented, hasn't seen anything like what the Heisman Trophy winner brings to the table. 

In Bleacher Report's expert picks, which was published on Thursday, I chose Alabama to win a close one, with Henry earning offensive MVP honors. Henry probably won't top his career high in yards, but he will grind it out in the second half, deflate the football and lead Alabama to its first national title since 2012. 

Statistically, it won't jump off the page.

But it will be the best—and most important—performance of his career.

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics are courtesy of cfbstats.com, and recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

 

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While Rivals Reload, Michigan Football Will Rely on Returning Starters for 2016

As eligibility expires for key players at Michigan State and the NFL beckons for Ohio State's studs, Michigan football's roster will remain largely intact for 2016.

The Wolverines will compose the veteran unit of the Big Ten, and college football followers saw in 2015 how dangerous depth of experience can be when watching Iowa run the table during the regular season.

Next year, Michigan will discover if continuity under head coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff translates to defeating raw talent with similarly elite coaching.

Although the Maize and Blue must replace a handful of team leaders—most notably quarterback Jake Rudock, center Graham Glasgow as well as linebackers Joe Bolden and Desmond Morgan—a strong majority of Michigan's standouts will return.

Second-team AP All-American tight end Jake Butt and cornerback Jourdan Lewis have announced their intentions to come back for another season. First-team All-Big Ten receiver Jehu Chesson is sticking around, and defensive back Jabrill Peppers cannot bolt for the pros quite yet.

Six more offensive starters—including versatile lineman Mason Cole and leading pass-catcher Amara Darboh—and 10 notable defensive contributors are also eligible to return.

Compare that to the program's two biggest rivals, and Michigan has a significant advantage.

Ohio State is losing a stunning nine underclassmen to the professional ranks, which is a testament to the stellar player development in Columbus. Combined with the handful of NFL-bound seniors, though, the Buckeyes are set to undergo a major transitional period.

Now, this isn't the death of Urban Meyer's Ohio State. It would be foolish to suggest otherwise. MLive.com's Nick Baumgardner shares that sentiment:

As long as quarterback J.T. Barrett is healthy, the offense can thrive. Additionally, the program is working on its sixth straight 247Sports composite top-10 recruiting class. The Buckeyes will remain a formidable opponent.

Nevertheless, will Ohio State excel right away and sustain a high level of success? That's a lot of change to overcome and unproven talent to infuse while attempting to meet lofty—maybe undefeated—expectations.

Michigan State's forecast likely won't be as optimistic from the national crowd.

The Spartans will be without Connor Cook, Aaron Burbridge, Jack Allen, Jack Conklin, Shilique Calhoun, Lawrence Thomas, Darien Harris, RJ Williamson and a few other meaningful pieces.

Again, doubting the coaching staff isn't smart, but those are multiyear team leaders. Programs rarely brush off that kind of turnover. Were it not for a tremendous defensive performance to stun Ohio State, the questions surrounding MSU would be louder.

If the Spartans feature an elite defense, they shouldn't have much of a problem reaching the 10-win mark again. Considering Malik McDowell, Riley Bullough, Demetrious Cox and potential sixth-year senior Ed Davis will headline the unit, elite can happen.

But another Big Ten title? "It's possible, though perhaps not probable," MLive.com's Mike Griffith said.

The knocks on reloading Ohio State and Michigan State aren't to say the Wolverines are obvious front-runners for the East Division crown. That title may fall on the Buckeyes because of Barrett.

Besides, not only is reloading not an insult for MSU and Ohio State, Michigan has clear weaknesses. Who will play quarterback is unknown. The offensive line is improved but not consistently great. Depth at linebacker is a glaring issue.

Plus, the first matchup among any two of the three programs is Michigan at Michigan State on Oct. 29. Cohesion and chemistry will—or won't—be obvious by then. Until shown otherwise, the division title will be won or lost during the three total meetings between Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State.

But the 2016 Wolverines will strive to show that experience from Lewis, Chesson, Butt, Peppers and the rest of the returning players is a more important asset than their rivals' promising, yet unproven talent.

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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FCS Championship 2016: Date, Start Time, TV Info for NDSU vs. Jacksonville State

The North Dakota State Bison won the FCS Championship in 2011—and no one else has since.

However, if the No. 3 team in the country wants to win its fifth-straight title, it's going to have to beat the No. 1 team in the land.

The Jacksonville State Gamecocks come in with a 13-1 record in their first appearance in the championship game.

Head coach John Grass watched film of past North Dakota State games when he took over as head coach in 2014, per Tyler Greenawalt of NCAA.com.

“I wanted to see how the best did it,” Grass said. “I wanted to see where the bar was.”

It looks like that strategy may have paid off, as he has his team one win away from a championship.

 

What: NCAA Division I Football Championship

When: Jan. 9

Where: Toyota Stadium, Frisco, Texas

Time: 12 p.m. ET

TV: ESPN2

 

The Defending Champs vs. The Upstarts

North Dakota State may come into the game ranked lower, but rest assured Grass will not be overlooking the Bison, per Greenwalt: 

I studied that film inside and out and to kind of see where the direction, where you needed to be at in recruiting and what type caliber athletes you needed to compete at this level, because they are the standard. You've got to go through North Dakota State to win a National Championship. I think that's where the bar is at right now.

The Bison have overcome adversity this season to get where they are. Star quarterback Carson Wentz was lost for the season after he broke his wrist in an Oct. 17 loss to the South Dakota Coyotes.

The senior had completed 63.7 percent of his passes for 1,454 yards, 16 touchdowns and just two interceptions prior to the injury. The Bison had lost their second game in a season for the first time since 2010, and head coach Chris Klieman said many wrote off his team, per Greenwalt.

“People thought, well, the Bison are probably done,” Klieman said. “Then when Carson Wentz got hurt, I would have said most people didn't think this team probably was going to maybe even get to the playoffs, let alone make a run.”  

Boy, were they wrong.

North Dakota State hasn't lost in eight games since, despite playing with a freshman at quarterback, Easton Stick, who has filled in admirably with 13 touchdowns and three interceptions.

The two teams feature different styles—at least in the playoffs—and one will have to break in order to crown a champion.

Jacksonville State has been bullying opponents in the playoffs with plays like this during its 62-10 victory over Sam Houston State in the semifinals, per FCS Football:

While the Gamecocks have been lighting up the scoreboard, it might not be as easy to do against the Bison, per FCS Football:

No matter what happens, as FCS Football shows here, it should be a good game considering the success each head coach brings to the table:

With one day left until game time, final practices and preparations are being made, but Klieman said once the ball is kicked off, it will come down to nothing more than who wants it the most at that moment, per Greenwalt.

“All those things are little things that maybe take some of the nerves away. But it's going to play no factor once we kick that thing off at 11 o'clock [CT] against a great football team."

For Grass, he's just glad his team has a chance to make history, per Greenwalt.

“We're excited about an opportunity to play in this game and have the opportunity to play for a National Championship,” Grass said. “It's going to be a great game.”

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