NCAA Football News

UCLA Football: Incoming Freshmen Most Likely to Contribute This Season

The UCLA football team has the luxury of adding impact players from a talented 2014 recruiting class. Multiple members of the group should be able to come in right away and contribute to a team hopeful of winning the Pac-12. 

Many of the said prospects reside on the defensive side of the ball. While it's possible some could start, the likely scenario will involve the incoming recruits in a reserve role.  

Although not a freshman, UCLA adds an impact transfer in the form of Malcolm Bunche. Of the players listed in this piece, the former Miami offensive lineman has the best chance to start. 

Here's a look at the new roster additions most likely to contribute in 2014 for the UCLA Bruins.

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Miami Football: Over, Under Stat Projections for Duke Johnson in 2014

The Miami Hurricanes have long anticipated star running back Duke Johnson's return to game action, and that day is less than two months away.

Christy Cabrera Chirinos of the South Florida Sun Sentinel notes the junior said he gained 15 more pounds of muscle this offseason to prepare for the physical toll of being a featured back.

With that in mind, let's set over-under lines for his 2014 campaign—not including a potential bowl game. Before we get too far, though, the following table provides a general idea of what numbers Duke compiled during his freshman and sophomore years at "The U."

Ready? Good. To the projections.

 

Rushing Yards: 1,488

Duke's rushing total of 1,488 yards was engineered this way: a modest 20 attempts per game at 6.2 yards per carry for 12 games—or 124 yards per outing.

He boasts a collegiate average of 6.6 yards throughout 284 career carries. Last season, Duke essentially played seven nights after missing three quarters against North Carolina and one at Florida State and reached 6.3 yards on 20.1 attempts.

Over the last two years, he registered 50-plus-yard runs against Boston College, Virginia Tech, Virginia, Duke, Florida Atlantic and UNC. It sounds—and is—fantastically cliche, but he really becomes a home-run threat each time he handles the football.

Long story short, the big plays add up. He averaged 115.0 yards in the eight official appearances as a sophomore, even tallying a hard-earned 97 against an elite FSU defense.

A lofty number like that is extremely reliant on the Miami offensive line, but the triumvirate of Ereck Flowers, Jon Feliciano and Shane McDermott forms a powerful left side.

 

Receiving Yards: 187

Questioning whether Duke manages to reach a target of 17-22 catches is not ridiculous, but the drop from 27 in 2012 to four last year is equally as baffling. For example, he could reach 187 yards by:

  • 17 receptions, 11.0 YPC
  • 22 receptions, 8.5 YPC

Offensive coordinator James Coley allowed Stephen Morris to live and die by the deep ball in 2013, but his second season at Miami should be markedly more contained.

And that's where Duke comes in. It's fair to anticipate a few more screen passes and checkdowns this season because of the delicate quarterback situation. A key to minimizing mistakes under center is quickly distributing the ball to the team's playmakers in various ways.

Granted, he has just 298 career receiving yards—not exactly a staggering number from the backfield. But Coley must utilize his superstar in this fashion, lest the 'Canes ignore adding a dangerous dimension to their offense.

 

Total Touchdowns: 10.5

You want a compelling argument for Duke eclipsing that mark? You want legitimate reasons the superstar cannot? You can have them both, of course!

As mentioned earlier, the junior is electrifying whenever his number is called, talented enough to slash through holes and outrun defenders to the end zone.

Even while he was a backup to Mike James, Duke still bolted his way to 10 rushing touchdowns. Add one score through the air, one on a screen pass with two kick returns, and he scored in nearly every non-defensive way possible.

On the other hand...

Dallas Crawford came in as a short-yardage bruiser last season, and that job figures to fall on Gus Edwards' broad shoulders this year. Plus, freshman Joe Yearby will "steal" a couple touchdowns from his fellow back. Remember, goal-line vulture Crawford tallied seven scores during 2013 games in which Duke was actively involved.

What's more, it is unlikely Duke returns many kicks, mostly due to the young, non-starting speedsters on the sideline. Additionally, why subject him to an unnecessary beating on a kick return? He'll take a handoff on the next play anyway.

The main factor is determining whether Duke will set up touchdowns for teammates or score them on his own.

So, what say you? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

 

Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter: @Kenyon19_BR.

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Michigan Football: Is Countess the Wolverine Under the Most Pressure for 2014?

Last week, Michigan unveiled its 2014 roster, and the first name listed ended months of speculation about the status of a hallowed number from the team’s storied past.

Defensive back Blake Countess is switching from No. 18 to the No. 2 jersey of Heisman Trophy winner and NFL great Charles Woodson.

The roster revelation ended conjecture that 5-star recruit Jabrill Peppers, who hopes to emulate Woodson’s career at Michigan, would don the No. 2 jersey. Peppers will wear No. 5 at Michigan, the jersey number he wore for his high school career—at least for now.

Countess, a redshirt junior, is a worthy recipient of Woodson’s jersey after having racked up impressive statistics during his Michigan career, including totaling 90 tackles (56 solo) over two full seasons. He emerged as a star last season with six interceptions that he returned for 169 yards, including a touchdown. His performance earned All-Big Ten first-team honors.

Last season’s performance came after he missed the entire 2012 season after being injured in the season opener versus Alabama.

The jersey switch will increase the spotlight on Countess.

While technically not a Michigan Legends jersey, No. 2 is an obvious candidate to join the pantheon of honored Wolverine greats.

Even without the official designation, the jersey holds a special place in Michigan history because of Woodson’s status as the most recent Wolverine to win the Heisman Trophy and the first defensive player to do so. He also bears the distinction of having a stellar NFL Hall of Fame-caliber career while still being an active professional player. Woodson’s NFL resume includes Super Bowl champion (XLV), eight-time Pro Bowl selection, seven-time All-Pro, NFL Defensive Player of the Year (2009) and being named to the 2000s All-Decade team.

Countess now steps into the shadow of Woodson’s celebrated collegiate and pro careers.

The only jersey that comes with similar baggage is Desmond Howard’s No. 21. Howard also won the Heisman Trophy and is a frequent presence around the Michigan football program in his current role as an ESPN college football analyst.

The other Legends jerseys are associated with players in the distant past, long before televised games became standard.

Countess will also need to contend with the expectations that precede Peppers’ collegiate career. Peppers has set a goal of eclipsing Woodson’s collegiate accomplishments. But, no matter how quickly he taps his potential, the No. 2 jersey won’t be available until Countess is done with it.

Countess’ task is to create his own legacy for his new jersey number while keeping fans from looking ahead to who might wear it next.

 

All season statistics from MGoBlue.com, the official University of Michigan athletic department web site.

Phil Callihan is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this article were obtained via Press Conferences or in person.

Follow @PCallihan

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Recruits Tennessee Volunteers Must Land to Complete 2015 Class

With Tennessee coach Butch Jones' orange-hot three weeks on the recruiting trail, the Volunteers don't have many open spots remaining in their 2015 class.

Quarterback Quinten Dormady's June 9 pledge started a surge that led to seven total commits in the month. UT's "Orange Carpet Day" event kept the Vols hot, and they now have 18 commitments and rank seventh nationally, according to the 247Sports Composite.

UT secured a star running back prospect in Alvin Kamara, landed a couple of key defenders in Austin Smith and Quay Picou and lured in-state tight end commit Kyle Oliver at Orange Carpet Day festivities.

Local athlete Jocquez Bruce and Florida punter Tommy Townsend also committed to the Vols in June.

If UT signs a complete class of 25 players, that means seven spots remain.

Considering there is always attrition—come on, this is SEC recruiting!—and Jones is known for creativity with numbers (he signed 32 players last year), there could be another spot available.

So, here are eight players the Vols need to get to commit to close out the recruiting class.

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How Defensive Coaching Shake-Up Will Impact Michigan in 2014

Michigan's defensive coaching changes weren’t really of the major variety, but they could be enough to tilt the odds in its favor this fall. 

Perhaps the most notable swap, Wolverines coach Brady Hoke relinquished his control of the D-line, leaving Mark Smith as the sole mentor for defensive coordinator Greg Mattison's front four. 

Hoke, who enters his fourth year as the man in charge in Ann Arbor, said the following in April about the change, via ESPN’s Brian Bennett:

Our first message to the players this offseason was to learn from going 7-6 [in 2013] on every front you can. That’s from how you prepared to how you came in the building every day. 

It’s the same thing with us as coaches. We talked a lot about us doing a better job with the fundamentals of playing the game and holding everybody to those expectations. And I think you always have to check yourself before you go anywhere else with it.

In February, Hoke addressed the same topic through a prepared statement, via MLive.com’s Nick Baumgardner:

Everyone on the staff and the kids are really excited about these changes. Greg [Mattison] and I met and felt this was the best for everyone, including him and his ability to coach a position group and run a defense from the middle.

When you look at Mark's [Smith] experience on the defensive line, then being able to split the secondary, where you have five positions and 20-plus guys, and with the way offense and passing has changed in college football, I think it balances our staff on that side of the ball.

Before this goes any further, it’s worth mentioning that Team 134’s defense wasn’t in need of an entire overhaul, just a few minor tweaks; and in all likelihood, the adjustments on Hoke’s end were to maximize Mattison’s personnel, which finished 2013 as the No. 13-ranked total defense, per NCAA.com.

 

Curt Mallory (Safeties)

Formerly the coach of the entire secondary, Mallory now heads the safeties, which means that he’ll have the duty of grooming incoming freshman Jabrill Peppers. But then again, guiding the 5-star phenom will be the job of everyone—he’s capable of playing several positions on both sides of the ball.

But forget Peppers for a second, because before welcoming the high-flying kid from Jersey, Mallory already had a solid set to work with: Jarrod Wilson (6’2”, 202; Jr.), Dymonte Thomas (6’2”, 191; So.), Delano Hill (6’0”, 205; So) and several others.

In 2013, the defensive backs were either on-point or off-kilter, evidenced by its No. 7 ranking among Big Ten passing defenses (230 yards). In fact, 23 of 28 touchdowns surrendered by the Wolverines were through the air. But 15 of 17 picks were by corners and safeties. 

 

Roy Manning (Cornerbacks)

In 2013, Manning, a former Michigan letterman (2001-04), coached the outside linebackers. This year, though, he’ll be asked to dictate to the corners, who are led by two of the top cover men in the nation, Blake Countess (5’10”, 183; RS Jr.), and Raymon Taylor (5’10”, 182; Sr.), a physical, sure tackler.

This shift is interesting, to say the least. Now that he’s taking on the far-reaching members of the secondary, Manning’s stepping into relatively new territory. However, due to coaching stops in Cincinnati and Northern Illinois, the former linebacker has gained experience coaching on both sides of the ball. The fact that he’s moving to a new position shouldn’t be an issue.

Manning, who played four years in the NFL, adapts to new surroundings, which is something he discussed during a recent radio interview with WTKA-AM Ann Arbor (via Baumgardner of MLive):

Coaching is creating change, that's what coaching is. One of the most important things, I was honest and up front with those guys. It was 'I'm going into a new position, I won't have all the answers (right now), I won't say everything the way maybe they were used to in the past,' but I told them it was a growing process.

I just kept stressing 'I'm going to hammer you guys, be on you guys and be demanding.' The corner position is so much about mindset. That's why my personality marries with the position well, I think. It's literally 'game on' every single play. You can't take a play off. You can't be lackadaisical.

 

Greg Mattison (Linebackers)

Mattison has been orchestrating college defenses for more than 15 years—he also spent two years with the Baltimore Ravens. His professional pedigree is a major advantage in terms of recruiting, and it certainly helps with the college guys—they want to get to the NFL, so having a guy with NFL experience to teach them how to get there serves as a great motivator.

Back in early June at Sound Mind Sound Body in Detroit, Mattison couldn’t resist praising his defensive line. But he also mentioned that the linebackers were coming along nicely, waiting to show off their skills this fall. Among those mentioned were Joe Bolden, who “had the best spring of any player,” according to Mattison, who’s entering his fourth year as DC.

As one of the catalysts, Bolden, a 6’3”, 225-pound junior, will be counted on to raise his level of play while Jake Ryan, who was moved to the middle, eases his way back to comfort in the wake of an ACL injury suffered in spring ball 2013. With Mattison so excited about Bolden, it’s fair to assume that the rest of the position group is eager to take the field and show that it can excel with its senior leader.

However, rest assured that Ryan will return to his old, dominant self this season and accentuate a rock-solid corps that includes the likes of James Ross (6’1”, 225; Jr.), Ben Gedeon (6’3”, 236; So.) and, among a few others, Desmond Morgan (6’1”, 225; Sr.).

Mattison's a defensive genius. Having him hover over the linebackers isn't a good thing, it's a great thing. 

Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81

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What Missing on 4-Star QB Travis Waller Means for Notre Dame

Notre Dame didn't need to worry about landing a 2015 quarterback for a lengthy stretch of this recruiting cycle. Now, nearly four weeks after 4-star recruit Blake Barnett broke his pledge to the Fighting Irish, the search for his replacement continues with more questions than answers.

The team emerged as a finalist for another Southern California quarterback, but Anaheim standout Travis Waller chose Oregon over Notre Dame on Tuesday morning. Ironically, he fills a spot in Eugene that many thought Barnett was going to take when he initially decommitted.

Waller is a Duck, Barnett is headed to Alabama and Brian Kelly must turn elsewhere.

Jarrett Stidham, a Texas Tech pledge who received a Notre Dame offer in June on the same day as Waller, hasn't publicly given any indication he's wavering in his commitment to the Red Raiders.

The 4-star dual-threat passer was no doubt thrilled by the attention, but if he's reciprocating any interest from South Bend, it's been in silent fashion. Stidham, who threw for 2,613 yards and 30 touchdowns in 2013, will remain on the team's radar but other options must be explored at this point.

Skipping a quarterback in this class is included on the list of possibilities, as current Notre Dame passers Everett Golson, Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer have 10 total years of eligibility between them.

There isn't an immediate need for someone who can take the first snap of 2015. Still, is Kelly willing to sit on the sidelines while other powerhouse programs capitalize on an above-average crop of quarterbacks?

That scenario seems unlikely, leading to two options.

Notre Dame can extend new offers to uncommitted prospects like it did with Waller. Or the Irish can attempt to poach pledges from other teams, as in the case of Stidham.

Deondre Francois could still be a candidate in the uncommitted column. The 6'1", 195-pound Florida gunslinger features as powerful a throwing arm as you'll find in this class.

He remains more raw than other top-tier contemporaries, including Stidham and Barnett, but you can argue Francois has more potential as a passer than Waller. His skill set also includes mobility, though he won't sprint past secondaries like the new Oregon commit.

Francois, who recently transferred from Olympia High School (Orlando) to IMG Academy (Bradenton), is now under the tutelage of former Florida State star Chris Weinke. The Heisman Trophy winner is head coach at IMG and may be grooming the Seminoles' next quarterback.

Florida State, Auburn and Oregon were identified as the top three in his recruitment last month. The Ducks are now likely out of the picture with Waller on board, leaving two teams in the mix.

Francois has been targeting a late July announcement, but nothing is certain at this stage. It may not be too late for Notre Dame to change the narrative, and he plans to visit each of his finalists before making a decision.

If he is willing to travel to Oregon, wouldn't Indiana be in his range?

There have been mixed reports about whether or not Francois has received a formal offer, but he would require some serious convincing based on recent comments.

“Notre Dame kind of came in the picture last and it’s not happening with Notre Dame,” Francois told Amy Campbell of Scout.com (h/t South Bend Tribune). “I don’t even have a relationship with the coaches.”

Fast-rising sleeper Sam Darnold may also warrant a closer look from Kelly's staff. He missed most of his junior campaign with a broken foot, but he has shown enough skills at camps to warrant nationwide attention and a spot in the Elite 11 finals this month.

Offers from Tennessee, Duke and, most recently, USC arrived in June. The 6'4", 208-pound California product can pick up big chunks of yardage as a runner and will have a chance to prove his stock as a premier college prospect with a full senior season of work.

Notre Dame may not be able to wait and see how he produces this fall. Judging by Darnold's recent avalanche of interest, the Irish would have a lot of ground to make up by then.

If Kelly opts to go the route of flipping a committed recruit, keep an eye on Brandon Wimbush (Penn State), Sheriron Jones (Florida) and Tyler Queen (Auburn). As Notre Dame fans can attest, quarterback decommitments can happen even when they aren't anticipated.

Notre Dame netted Barnett more than seven months ago. Considering how much can change during that span, perhaps it's important to note we're still seven months away from national signing day.

The search continues in South Bend, for now.

 

Recruit information and ratings courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.

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Texas A&M Football: 5 Toughest Players Aggies Will Face in 2014

The Texas A&M football team will face the typical gauntlet of tough teams that make up an SEC schedule in 2014. They will also face a number of the top individual players at their position in the country. 

The Aggies experienced tremendous struggles on defense in 2013. They played a lot of freshmen and could not physically match up with a lot of teams. 

The Aggies will be a year older on defense in 2014 and will be a more physically mature group. Whether or not that translates into success on the field remains to be seen. 

There are individual football players that the Aggies will face in 2014 who are not a good matchup for the defense on paper. This is a look at some of the toughest players the Aggies will have to try to stop in 2014. 

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The Opening 2014: Power Ranking Every 7-on-7 Team

A big part of The Opening is the seven-on-seven portion of the event. All recruits are assigned to teams, where the skill-position players compete in a highly competitive seven-on-seven tournament.

Quarterbacks will not be drafted by teams until July 7, but all non-quarterback skill-position prospects have already been named to rosters. Looking at the squads, each of them has a wealth of strengths. However, some weaknesses may be exposed.

There's a team with an excellent trio of receivers, while another has an outstanding secondary. Plus, there are a few X-factors.

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Clemson Football: Realistic Expectations for Cole Stoudt in 2014

It’s not going to be easy for any quarterback replacing a legend like Tajh Boyd. If anyone can handle it, though, it’s Cole Stoudt. He is a more-than-qualified replacement with three years of experience as Boyd’s backup.

The senior from Dublin, Ohio, looked comfortable running Chad Morris’ offense in the spring game. He finished 15-of-23 passing for 158 yards and two touchdowns.

His maturity and leadership at the position will go a long way this fall in an offense that needs a playmaker to step up.

 

What to Expect

Stoudt may not be as flashy as Boyd was when it comes to throwing the deep ball, but his accuracy is off the charts. Last season against S.C. State, he was 19-of-20 passing for three touchdowns and no interceptions.

In his three-year career, he has completed 72.3 percent of his passes and has a 145.1 pass efficiency rating. He has only thrown one interception in 22 career games.

Stoudt isn’t going to be a contender for the Heisman or constantly steal the media’s attention, but he’s the guy Clemson fans should want behind center.

With playmakers at wide receiver and tight end, expect Stoudt to throw in the range of 3,400 yards and 27-32 touchdowns. It wouldn’t totally surprise me to see him over that 32-touchdown mark, but he likely won’t be taking as many downfield shots as Boyd did.

Expect the senior to find a consistent groove after the Florida State game. This isn’t to say he won’t perform well in the first three contests, but the five subsequent games will allow him to really get into a rhythm.

After the showdown with the ‘Noles, four of the next five games are at home against teams that Clemson will be favored against.

 

What Not to Expect

Tiger fans shouldn’t expect Stoudt to be the guy who never makes mistakes. He has shown great leadership and poise throughout his time at Clemson, but he has a tough road ahead of him.

Two of his first three games will come on the road against likely top-10 teams, with his first career start against the Georgia Bulldogs in Athens. While he gets S.C. State in Week 2 to earn more game experience and an off week in Week 3, the next game will be his biggest test of the year.

Stoudt will have a tough task going into Tallahassee with only two starts under his belt to take on the defending champion Florida State Seminoles.

He did gain some experience against the Seminoles last season, going 5-of-8 passing for 47 yards in a game that had already seen its end. Any experience is a good thing, but the situation will be totally different inside Doak Campbell Stadium this fall.

Also, don’t expect Stoudt to be the typical first-year starter. If Deshaun Watson was to be the starter come Week 1, experience would definitely be an issue. Stoudt is a guy who has seen the field in 22 career games and was mentored for three years by one of the best quarterbacks in ACC history.

All in all, realistic expectations for the senior should be to lead the offense in an efficient manner, keeping his turnovers low. While the Tigers may not rank as high as last year’s No. 10 mark in total offense, it certainly shouldn’t take much of a hit with Stoudt replacing Boyd.

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Georgia Football: Will the Bulldogs Redshirt Sony Michel and Nick Chubb?

If there is one position that the Bulldogs don’t have to worry about entering the 2014 season, it would have to be the running back position.

And it hasn’t been a concern since 2012 when Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall burst onto the scene and lead the Bulldogs to the SEC title game. It's obvious that the Bulldogs want to the keep the position going because they signed Sony Michel and Nick Chubb back in February.

Michel and Chubb are two of the 10 best running backs in the country according to 247Sports, and both have a chance to repeat the success that Gurley and Marshall had two years ago. With that being said, Gurley and Marshall are still with the team, and they are both coming back from injuries they suffered last year.

So the question is will Michel and Chubb see action this season or will they take the redshirt?

Another question is will one player see action and another be redshirted? If so, who?

In order to figure out what will happen with Chubb and Michel, there has to be an analysis of the two. Here’s a comparison of the two according to 247Sports:

 

 

So there’s very little separating the two because both players have the ability to contribute right away. And both players will have the opportunity to prove themselves when preseason practice begins next month.

The thing is that Michel and Chubb are not going to beat out Gurley. He is a preseason All-American and a Heisman candidate. And they probably won’t beat out Marshall who is just as talented as Gurley and is looking to bounce back from an ACL injury.

Then there are Brendan Douglas and A.J. Turman. Douglas rushed for 345 yards in limited action, and Turman was arguably the best running back in spring practice as he scored twice in the spring game.

If the Bulldogs remain healthy at running back, Michel and Chubb will likely both redshirt, and it won’t be because they aren’t talented enough to play. It will be because the coaches will not need them to play because of the depth at running back.

However, if one or two of the running backs get hit with the injury bug, there’s a very good chance that either Michel or Chubb will see action—whoever has the better camp will likely get the nod.

When preseason practice begins, both Chubb and Michel will get a lot of attention from the coaches, players and the media because the expectations for them will be high. However, because the depth at running back is so strong, there will not be a ton of pressure on them to contribute right away, and that is a good thing.

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The Opening 2014: Each Top 25 Team's Most Important Target at Beaverton

More than 150 premier prospects were invited to compete at The Opening, a Nike football showcase being held July 5-10 in Beaverton, Oregon. The annual event promises to provide plenty of storylines, as a rare collection of talent assembles to prove their abilities against top contemporaries.

Aside from the on-field action, a large percentage of players are still working their way through the recruiting process. Many of them remain in search of the right collegiate fit, considering expansive lists of scholarship offers.

Teams will keep tabs on coveted athletes during The Opening and look to line up campus visits later this summer. We explored the primary targets for programs that currently claim a top-25 recruiting class in 247Sports' composite rankings.

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Oklahoma Sooners Football Team Unveils New Alternate Uniforms for 2014 Season

The Oklahoma Sooners are known for their traditional uniforms, but thanks to Nike, the football team will have more options to choose from.

Oklahoma unveiled new uniforms, dubbed "The Rough Rider," on Tuesday. For the first time, "Oklahoma," not "Sooners," will be across the front of the jerseys.

Although the uniforms will have a modern look to them, they will were influenced by the team's history, according to the team's press release.

These additional jersey-pants-helmet combinations were inspired by the rich heritage of the state of Oklahoma and the Sooners’ storied football history.

[...]

Nike’s white helmet design pays tribute to Wilkinson’s squads that captured national championships in 1950, 1955 and 1956.

[...]

Both jerseys also feature subtle touches such as “47 Straight” emblazoned on the inner Nike Flywire neckline, serving as a tangible reminder of the college football’s incomparable victory streak amassed during Wilkinson’s tenure.

Here's a look at the "47 Straight" tribute:

Not only are the jerseys and pants new, but the helmets also received a makeover:

Here are some details on the new helmet:

The modified version of Oklahoma’s iconic crimson helmet also features an enlarged interlocking OU above each earhole with the distinctive wood-grained design embedded into the protective outer shell.

Sooners fans who like the traditional uniforms shouldn't be too upset. These new uniforms will only serve as alternates to the traditional uniforms, but the team has not determined the games in which the new uniforms will be worn.

[Oklahoma Football, Phil Hecken]

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Alabama Football: 6 Position Battles to Watch in Fall Camp

With Alabama’s fall camp set to open next month, Tide fans will have their sights set on a few position battles in the practices leading up to the team’s season opener.

The race to find AJ McCarron’s successor will generate the most headlines, but other intriguing spots that will feature tight races include positions along the offensive and defensive lines and in the secondary.

Which positions are likely to field the toughest calls for Nick Saban and his staff to make before the season opener against West Virginia on Aug. 30?

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Top Uncommitted QBs to Watch for at the Elite 11 Finals

The Elite 11 Finals will take place simultaneously with The Opening July 5-10. That means 18 of the best quarterbacks seen at passing events this spring will get a chance to show their skills on a national platform.

Among those 18 field generals, several still remain uncommitted. While it's a bit late in the recruiting process for quarterbacks, all uncommitted passers in Beaverton will have something to prove.

A rising quarterback from California will be monitored closely, while a signal-caller from Florida will be looking to show he has all the tools. Plus, a few sleepers will be in attendance.

All recruiting ratings and rankings are from 247Sports' Composite Rankings.Player evaluations are based on review of tape at Scout.comRivals and 247Sports.

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Why USC Is Better Positioned Post-Sanctions Than Past Penalized Teams

When NCAA-mandated probationary periods end for college football programs, their struggles are often just beginning. 

The full burden of bowl bans and scholarship reductions is not often felt until after sanctions end. USC enters the 2014 season two years removed from the end of a two-year postseason ban and just weeks removed from a three-year scholarship reduction that could have crippled the program.

Head coach Steve Sarkisian inherits a situation much more favorable than past head coaches have faced with programs just emerging from the woods. 

"When we come out of this thing, it's truly going to show the power of USC," Sarkisian told Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com. "Not many schools could have withstood that in the manner and fashion as USC. This is a very powerful place."

Indeed, USC is better positioned to return to prominence without hiccups than previous programs that endured heavy sanctions—including two of the most prominent on the current college football landscape. 

The sanctions levied against USC were the most severe given to any major program since Auburn in the mid-1990s. The Tigers were hit with a bowl ban, scholarship reductions and a television ban that prevented the public from seeing any of the 11 wins in their undefeated 1993 campaign.

Auburn finished 9-1-1 the next year while still barred from the postseason. By 1995, Terry Bowden had the Tigers back in the postseason in the first of two straight 8-4 runs.

But the real brunt of the NCAA penalties was felt when the reduced scholarship classes were the program's upperclassmen. In 1998, Auburn stumbled to 3-8, and Bowden was fired midseason—a move that should sound familiar to USC faithful. 

The Tigers finished 5-7 the next season while still adjusting with an imbalanced roster. 

Beating the long-term challenges of sanctions starts—of course—on the recruiting trail. When scholarship restrictions are lifted, a program's roster has a disproportionate ratio of underclassmen to upperclassmen.  

The challenge is ensuring the greatly outnumbered juniors and seniors are talented to compensate for the lack of depth and enough newcomers are prepared to play immediate roles. 

USC remained successful on the recruiting trail despite its limitations.

This year's juniors were the first signees in USC's scholarship-reduction era. It's a group that includes preseason All-Americans Nelson Agholor and Leonard Williams, cornerstones of the Trojans offense and defense, respectively. 

For his faults as head coach, Lane Kiffin continued to recruit well despite the limitations. USC is stocked with enough talent from its reduced classes to remain competitive while in transition. 

Sarkisian kept the ball rolling with the nation's No. 11-ranked class in 2014. His success in bringing together USC's final class with reduced scholarships is a positive indicator of the program's directions as it embarks on this new era.

Sarkisian capitalized on his familiarity with the local prep scene, the lifeblood of USC's recruiting. From his time as a Trojans assistant and in his tenure as head coach at Washington, Sarkisian built relationships in the Los Angeles-area high school football landscape that will power the Trojans for years to come.

Marvin Sanders is head coach of Loyola High School in Los Angeles. Loyola produced UCLA star Anthony Barr as well as 2014 USC offensive line commit Chris Brown. Sanders explained to me how the school's relationship with USC was mutually beneficial, and Sarkisian has established other such connections in other Southland high schools. 

Among them is Long Beach Poly, home of 5-star 2014 recruit John "JuJu" Smith: 

Sarkisian is looking like the right hire to bring stability to the program as it enters potentially choppy waters. Having such a leader navigate the post-sanction terrain is vital, lest the program suffer a setback similar to that which plagued Alabama in the first half of the 2000s.

Alabama initially hired Mike Price to replace Dennis Franchione, immediately removed from a two-year postseason ban and reduction of scholarships. The Crimson Tide were just seven years out of a different period of sanctions, further complicating their rebuilding. 

Price was dismissed in the spring after allegations of improprieties and just months after signing a recruiting class Rivals.com ranked No. 49. Such a scenario is unfathomable for Alabama a decade later. 

Price's dismissal left Alabama scrambling, and Mike Shula was tabbed for the job. His four-year stint ended with a whimper at 6-7. The ensuing rebuilding project began in 2007 under Nick Saban,  and even he mustered only a 7-6 campaign in his first year. 

Expectations on Sarkisian in his debut season at USC are higher—and understandably so. The Trojans may have faced particularly harsh sanctions, but they come out of them far more equipped for immediate success than past penalized teams. 

 

Recruiting rankings and information culled from 247Sports.com composite scores unless otherwise noted. 

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Wake Forest Football Preview: The 2014 Schedule

Happy July.  Or rather, happy "one month until August," when football season starts.  

That's right: We're just 68 days away from Week 1 kickoff. So why not start the countdown with a preview of each regular-season game?

Here's a preview of all 12 games this fall, complete with some way-too-early predictions to boot. 

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Why Alabama DC Kirby Smart Is Wise to Wait for the Right Head Coaching Job

It isn't often that an Alabama assistant coach speaks publicly, so when one does, we listen.

Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart made an appearance with "The Front Row" on WCNN 680 The Fan in Atlanta on Monday with "Steak" Shapiro, Sandra Golden and Brian Finneran. In the interview, he discussed a laundry list of topics including potential leaders on his defense, the incoming class of potential stars and some of his fellow coaches that he's had the opportunity to work with in Tuscaloosa.

At the end of the interview, he was asked about the elephant in the room—his next step.

"I could finish my career being a defensive coordinator and say 'hey, he's Mickey Andrews'," Smart said, referring to the former Florida State defensive coordinator who coached from 1984-2009. "I'd be happy knowing that I had the success doing it and I was the best I could be at my job. But if the opportunity knocks, then so be it. There may be a time when I'm 45 or 50 that you get a little more antsy to be a head coach, but at 38, I'm not sitting here saying I got to go today in order to take one just to take it."

He shouldn't.

He made $1.15 million last year according to the USA Today coaching salary database, which made him the second-highest paid assistant in the country behind Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris. It would have put him 69th among head coaches last year had he carried the head coach title.

From a personal standpoint, he has something very rare in coaching circles—stability.

"My family is so happy in Tuscaloosa," Smart told . "My wife loves it. We have six-year-old twins and a two-year-old. We've been very fortunate. I moved seven times the first seven years I coached. The last eight—going on eight, I've been in the same place."

That's incredibly important for any man and any family, regardless of the profession.

Sure, he could have jumped at a head coaching job at a Sun Belt school or perhaps even one in the SEC a few years ago. But if it isn't the perfect gig at the perfect time, why bother?

Plus, he has no pressure.

Head coach Nick Saban is heavily involved with the defense as well. That, coupled with his policy that prevents assistants from talking to the media except during a few select appearances throughout the year, has created a pretty sweet gig for Smart.

Why would he leave?

He has the ability and structure within the framework of the program to focus strictly on X's and O's, without being pulled in a bunch of different directions. He has financial stability and clearly appreciates the opportunity to put down roots in Tuscaloosa, all while building his resume for "the big one."

Essentially, he is in "Will Muschamp mode" when Muschamp was the defensive coordinator and coach-in-waiting at Texas.

Sure, he's had opportunities. According to USA Today, he interviewed with Southern Miss before the Ellis Johnson debacle in 2012, and was connected to Auburn before the Tigers hired Gus Malzahn prior to the 2013 season. 

What's the hurry, though?

He can continue to cash those checks in Tuscaloosa in the same town he's lived in for the better part of the decade while waiting for the next "big one." All the while, he'll coach some of the most talented players around with one of the most distinguished defensive minds in the world in Saban—a man who shoulders some of the defensive load and virtually all of the blame.

Smart would be smart to stick around in Tuscaloosa. He has earned the right and ability to take a job at an elite program that's ready-made for a quick turnaround.

Until that job opens up, why bother?

 

* Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer Barrett Sallee. All stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.com.

 


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Aaron Hernandez Is 'Mr. July' in the 2014 Florida Gators Calendar

Aaron Hernandez put up good numbers in his football career, both at the University of Florida and in New England. However, given his current legal troubles, he may not be the best choice to be featured in a team calendar.

The former Gators tight end was featured as "Mr. July" in a 2014 calendar. (Tim Tebow also was featured.)

It may seem like a poor decision to include Hernandez in the calendar now, but the Gators football Twitter account explained how something like this happened:

Hernandez wasn't arrested until summer of 2013. Maybe it wasn't possible to make a change a few months after approval, but it certainly seems like it would have been worth trying.

It doesn't appear as though this calendar is one that the team put out:

No matter who created the calendar, it's not a good look for anyone right now.

[Twitter, h/t Deadspin]

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What Jameis Winston's Reported Insurance Policy Means for His NFL Plans

Whether Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston declares for the NFL draft in about seven months remains to be seen. But the Heisman Trophy winner has shown he's at least thinking about the future. 

According to Rand Getlin of Yahoo Sports, Winston purchased a "large disability and 'loss of value' policy that provides him with $8 million to $10 million in insurance coverage." The amount of the policy is based on a projection that Winston will be a top-10 draft pick in 2015. 

Getlin goes on to report that Winston's policy provides protection if he falls out of the first round due to injury or illness. Based on history, a policy as large as the one Winston reportedly purchased likely means he's headed to the NFL sooner rather than later: 

Industry experts say underclassmen who purchase insurance policies as large as Winston's almost always enter the NFL draft following the season for which they purchased coverage. That reality is largely due to the hefty premiums players have to pay out of pocket (often with the help of their families) to protect themselves. Policies the size of Winston's can carry a $55,000 to $60,000 premium payment per year, which industry sources say most players have to obtain by financing.

So, if nothing else, history suggests Winston is gone after this season. 

Bud Elliott of TomahawkNation.com, who is as plugged in as anybody when it comes to Florida State, lists several other reasons why Winston is likely to depart for the NFL after the 2014 season. The simplest reason is the money. Elliott calculates that if Winston were to stay one more year in college, he could lose $15 million during his first five years in the league. 

For what it's worth, Winston's father told Jeff Sentell of al.com in June that he wants his son to play two more years of football for the Seminoles. Winston's father certainly wouldn't be the first parent to want his son to get his degree. Winston also wouldn't be the first player to go against those wishes if he decides to declare. 

Winston has been on mock draft radars for a while. Dane Brugler of CBSSports.com and Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated have Winston going No. 7 to Tampa Bay. Of course, it's July and mock drafts at this point are little more than fun conversation starters. Still, it provides an idea of where experts believe Winston grades out. 

Winston's biggest question mark isn't his tangibles or his locker room leadership. It's his off-the-field headlines. From an alleged rape incident in December 2012—it deserves to be noted again that Winston was not charged—to being cited for shoplifting crab legs from a Publix, Winston hasn't been able to keep a low profile. 

As Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman reported in April, multiple NFL scouts have started to drop Winston on their big board: 

This from an NFL scout: "When I heard about this, I was stunned. He was the top overall pick next year. Was. Not anymore. This latest thing shows a continuation of bad judgment. I don't trust him, and I can tell you very few teams in the NFL will trust him."

This from a front-office executive: "He's on his way to falling out of the first round."

If Winston were to hypothetically fall out of the first round because off-the-field issues, his insurance policy wouldn't cover the financial hit he'd take. 

But if Winston can improve on what was a stellar redshirt freshman year (4,057 passing yards, 40 touchdowns and 10 interceptions) while keeping his nose clean, character concerns could diminish rather quickly. Winston would almost certainly be a first-round selection, if not a top-10 or top overall selection, and the insurance policy wouldn't be needed. 

Purchasing the policy, though, shows that Winston is protecting the one thing he can't entirely control: his health. And when players aren't getting paid to play football, protection from every possible roadblock is necessary. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All stats courtesy of ESPN.com

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