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Why 2014 Spring Game Is SEC Coming-out Party for Butch Jones' Tennessee Team

Their names are yet unknown across the landscape of the SEC, where legends of players grow larger than the stadiums, and legacies are etched in rugged rivalries.

Few fans know the names of head coach Butch Jones' 2014 Tennessee Volunteers, but for the first time in years, you should probably learn them.

There is talent on Rocky Top again, and Saturday's Orange and White Game will be an on-stage dress rehearsal for numerous newcomers with the potential to become household names.

In a league normally unkind to youngsters, the Vols must play them everywhere. Several other little-used players already in the program will be thrust into key roles as well.

Fans at Neyland Stadium on Saturday—and intrigued observers wanting to witness UT's deep, top-10 recruiting class in action on their television sets—will need a roster handy. Depending on who trots out with the first team, the Vols could have as many as 18 new starters.

"It's where we're at in the program," Jones told The Associated Press (via USA Today). "We can't hide it. It is what it is. But I'm encouraged by their youthfulness, their eagerness and the talent that we have and the talent we have coming in."

This group of players is different than any UT has recruited in nearly a decade.

Phillip Fulmer got complacent his past few years in Knoxville, Tenn., and his recruiting suffered because of it.

Even though Lane Kiffin's one full class was highly regarded, it was loaded with paper prospects—recruits lauded by services but not as heavily recruited by some of the nation's top programs for various red flags.

That was painfully evident in retrospect, as 17 of UT's 22 commitments from the 2009 class failed to complete their eligibility in orange.

Derek Dooley wasn't an awful recruiter, but he neglected high school prospects close to home and performed program-crippling numbers gaffes such as failing to sign a single offensive lineman in the 2012 class.

Not only did Jones' first full class go a long way in meeting UT's massive needs, but the Vols also signed depth at virtually every position that lacked it.

At most established programs across the country, spring is a time to mix-and-match players, make position changes and develop depth.

For Jones, this 15-practice session was about upgrading talent and finding starters. Fourteen newcomers arrived midterm as part of a gigantic 32-player recruiting class. At least 11 of them are expected to play immediately, and 10 of those are in the mix to start.

Players expected to be the future of the Vols will be on display for their first spring game, and that will be the vast majority of Jones' team.

Tennessee has rebuilt both sides of the ball from the ground up.

Offensively, running back Jalen Hurd, quarterback Riley Ferguson, receivers Josh Malone and Von Pearson, tight ends Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm, and offensive linemen Coleman Thomas and Dontavius Blair will see their first live action in front of an audience.

Defensive linemen Owen Williams and Dimarya Mixon, linebacker Jakob Johnson and cornerback Emmanuel Moseley also burst onto the college scene this spring, and they will try to show everybody why coaches are so excited.

Because of all the new players, Jones said it is "critical," per WDEF News, that fans pack the stadium for the spring game to give the youngsters a true preview of what's to come this fall.

A season ago, the Vols surprised the SEC with an upset of No. 11 South Carolina that sent shock waves across the league. But their highest high was followed with a dire dose of reality.

Alabama, Auburn and Missouri all exposed Tennessee for what it was: a team that may have been senior-laden but too far short on talent to compete consistently in the SEC.

When Vanderbilt knocked the Vols out of a bowl game, it soured a season that had once held hope.

That old guard has been razed. After all the "brick by brick" propaganda Jones has preached throughout his tenure, this spring game will be the first glimpse the college football world gets at the first fruits of his rebuilding efforts.

If the '14 recruiting class is truly the start of the turnaround as the prospects have preached, Saturday will be the first chance for everybody to see its origins.

Jones gave ESPN.com's Chris Low a little preview of what to expect:

We only have 13 seniors in the program. We'll be much more talented, but very youthful. It's kind of invigorating, though, because this football team has been willing and they've been eager. We've just got to teach them.

We're still not where we need to be to compete at a high level in this conference, but we have taken great steps in moving forward by increasing our team speed and overall athleticism, and the exciting thing is that there are 18 more newcomers arriving in June.

For all the new Vols, this Saturday is a chance to show everybody for the first time that they have the talent to put Tennessee football back on the map.

 

All recruiting information via 247Sports unless otherwise noted.

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UCLA Football: 5 Players Needing to Prove Themselves in Spring Practice

Jim Mora's bunch is currently in its second week of spring practice. This period offers the staff a good look at the current state of the football team. 

For some of the players, this camp will provide an opportunity to impress. Younger players in particular will hope to gain valuable experience. 

As for others, it could in essence be a reclamation project in terms of reestablishing value in the eyes of the coaches. 

This slideshow will detail five members of the team needing to prove themselves during spring practices. 

 

 

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UCLA Football: 5 Players Needing to Prove Themselves in Spring Practice

Jim Mora's bunch is currently in its second week of spring practice. This period offers the staff a good look at the current state of the football team. For some of the players, this camp will provide an opportunity to impress...

Begin Slideshow

Nebraska Football: 5 Players to Watch in Cornhuskers' Spring Game

Nebraska football fans can be forgiven if they are a little overwhelmed at this Saturday’s spring game. Trying to keep an eye on both sides of the ball and get a handle on what Nebraska’s strengths and weaknesses in the upcoming season might be as a result is a daunting task.

So, as a public service, here are five players whom fans should be keeping an eye on during the course of the spring game.

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Scouting Report, Video Highlights and Predictions for 5-Star OLB Malik Jefferson

Malik Jefferson is a 5-star linebacker from Texas who is one of the best overall players in the country. An incredible talent, Jefferson has the potential to win a lot of different awards in college.

His fantastic skill set has attracted the nation's best programs. Jefferson has offers from just about every major school in the country, and he could be ready to play immediately as a true freshman.

His talent warrants a closer look.

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

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Clemson Football: Week 4 Spring Practice Stock Report

Spring practice is almost in the books for the Clemson Tigers. Next for Clemson fans is the annual spring game which takes place Saturday at 4 p.m.

The most exciting part of the spring game is the quarterback battle. However, that excitement was tempered a bit with Monday's news that freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson suffered a shoulder injury and will miss the spring game, reports Aaron Brenner of the Charleston Post and Courier.

Head coach Dabo Swinney was disappointed in the news, per Brenner:

This is a shame because he was having an outstanding spring. Fortunately, this is not a serious injury. I hate that he will miss the Spring Game; I know a lot of people were anxious to see him make his debut in Death Valley

Fortunately, this doesn't appear to be a serious injury and Watson will be OK for fall camp.

While the quarterback race has been close thus far in the spring, senior Cole Stoudt will have a chance to separate himself from sophomore Chad Kelly with a strong performance Saturday. Look for Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris to split the reps equally between the two. 

While Watson is out for the remainder of the spring, don't count him out—yet.

 

Is Kelly a legitimate threat to win the job? 

For most of the spring, we've heard about the excitement surrounding Watson and Stoudt's experience. But it almost seems like Kelly, the nephew of Hall-of-Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, is an afterthought.

Swinney and Morris both insist this competition is legitimate, and Kelly received both the first and most reps with the first-team offense during Clemson's first scrimmage last week. Does that forebode what the coaches are thinking? Or is it strictly for evaluation purposes as the coaches know what they have in Stoudt?

As it turns out, Stoudt took the most reps with the first-team offense during Monday's scrimmage. 

Last week's scrimmage saw each quarterback make some good plays and some bad plays. 

For Morris, while he would have liked one quarterback to take the reins early, he has been happy with the experience each player is gaining, according to David Hale of ESPN.com:

I was hoping someone would separate himself and make it clear cut that this was the guy. I thought you’d see some quick separation this spring. But it hasn’t happened, and that’s a good thing for us because they’re all three doing really well.

Kelly has a unique skill set. He has a strong arm, is accurate and is a very good athlete. Of the three contenders for the starting position, Kelly provides the best combination of those attributes. Don't be surprised if Kelly is under center when the Tigers head to Athens on Aug. 30. 

 

Vic Beasley believes defense could be one of the nation's best

When senior defensive end Vic Beasley returned to school for his senior season, he did so thinking this team could be special. His return makes Clemson's defensive line one of the best in the ACC. 

But Beasley has his sights set much higher. 

"We can be the number one defense in the country," Beasley told the assembled media after practice last week, per David Hood of TigerNet.com. "I think our front seven is the best in the country."

Those are high expectations, but Beasley has reason to be excited.

Senior linebacker Stephone Anthony returns and looks to wrap up a solid career with a big senior season. 

The defensive line has solid depth and the Tigers, led by Beasley, will be able to pressure any passer in the conference.

And expect linebacker Dorian O'Daniel, a highly regarded freshman last season, to take the field in 2014 and make an impact. O'Daniel has special talent and defensive coordinator Brent Venables can get creative when he is on the field. 

If the secondary comes along, this defense could be special. Led by freshman Mackensie Alexander, the secondary will be young, but possesses loads of talent. 

 

News and notes from the week

Watson isn't the only starter or high-profile player who will miss the spring game. Most notably, starting offensive lineman Eric Mac Lain will miss the contest.

In other injury news, former Clemson star Brandon Thomas tore his ACL last week during his preparation for the upcoming NFL draft, reports Adam Caplan of ESPN. Thomas was viewed as either a first- or second-round pick.

Swinney has no regrets about allowing hits on the quarterbacks in the scrimmages and feels it is the best way to get a quarterback ready for live game action, per Brenner:

We don't get preseason games. It's no different than the NFL, their quarterbacks are live when they have four preseason games. So the first time they're going to be live is when they go to Athens? I don't know when we can have a fair evaluation.

Saturday's scrimmage is more than just a battle between Stoudt and Kelly. Keep an eye on the freshman WRs and Clemson's running game. But don't expect a lot of answers as players look to position themselves for a bigger role come fall camp.  

 

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Alabama Football: 5 Players Who Need to Turn it Around in Spring Practice

With Alabama past the midway point in spring practice, there are a handful of players who still have work to do in hopes of making a strong impression on coaches heading into the summer.

As Michael Casagrande of AL.com notes, Nick Saban has been quick to emphasize the fact that there is no solid depth chart.  Saban’s message to his players is simply to try to improve on a daily basis.

If you focus on getting better and being the best you can be then you have the best opportunity to get where you want to go, and that's where we want to get, that's where they want to get and we want to work together with them so they have the best opportunity to do that.

Even though the focus isn’t on earning a top spot on the depth chart, a few players could use a strong final two weeks of spring practice in order to stand a better chance of seeing significant reps in the fall.

 

Leon Brown

One of the bigger questions for Mario Cristobal’s offensive line unit entering the spring was filling the left tackle vacancy. 

Senior Leon Brown was the player who started out with the first unit when spring practice began. 

However, Brown was running with the twos after sophomore Brandon Greene was moved up to the first unit this week, as detailed by Cliff Kirkpatrick of the Montgomery Advertiser.

BamaOnline’s Marc Torrence (subscription required) reported that Brown regained a spot with the ones, but that it was at right tackle for the Tide’s first scrimmage last Saturday.

With a decorated class of linemen set to arrive in the summer, Brown is a player who needs to finish strong in hopes of landing a starting role this season.

 

Chris Black

Alabama’s wide receiver group may be the deepest segment on the roster, and the addition of Cameron Sims only bolsters a unit ripe with experience and young talent.

The upperclassmen trio of Amari Cooper, Christion Jones and DeAndrew White are known quantities, and rising newcomers such as Sims and Robert Foster are poised to challenge for a spot in the rotation.

Rising sophomore Chris Black, a former touted recruit in the 2012 class, is entering a critical phase of his career. 

According to Andrew Gribble of AL.com, Black’s name didn’t appear on the stat sheet following the Tide’s first scrimmage.

After earning limited reps last season, Black—who caught eight passes for 79 yards and two scores in 2013—needs to show that he can become a reliable and consistent threat working out of the slot.

 

Defensive Line Unit

While optimism surrounds the Tide’s defensive line unit entering the season, Saban was quick to temper it when asked about the perceived depth at that position last week, according to ESPN’s Alex Scarborough.

“What it looks like on paper?” Saban scoffed. “We’ve never seen these guys play or seen them take on an SEC lineman. That’s how we form public opinion because something appears to be that way and everyone believes it.”

Saban’s point on the lack of actual production is a valid one. However, with young talents such as A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen entering their sophomore seasons, their continued development is critical to the success of the defense this season.

 

Ryan Anderson

Alabama returns a pair of starters at linebacker, and rising junior Dillon Lee is in good position to man a third after impressing Saban early in the spring, as noted by Aaron Suttles of the Tuscaloosa News.

Similar to Black’s predicament, third-year sophomore Ryan Anderson—a former 5-star recruit—is surrounded by veterans in front of him and a wealth of incoming studs set to arrive in the summer.

Travis Reier of BamaOnline identified Anderson as a player in Lance Thompson’s segment that needed to make a move in the spring, and that sentiment still applies less than two weeks away from the A-Day game.

 

Maurice Smith

The secondary is another unit that should see a lot of fresh faces this season.  However, it’s also another area where the Tide landed multiple prospects who are arriving with sterling prep credentials.

While veterans Landon Collins, Nick Perry and Jarrick Williams are safe bets to be on the field early and often, the rest of the secondary has more questions than answers.

The situation at corner took a turn for the worse with corner Eddie Jackson suffering a torn ACL in a non-contact drill last weekend, according to Scarborough.

Smith, who saw action in 11 games and recorded 13 tackles and three pass breakups as a true freshman, has the opportunity to seize a role if he can show that he’s fully grasped the playbook and is ready to complete his transition from the prep level.

As Reier details (subscription required), Smith is still running behind veterans such as Bradley Sylve and Cyrus Jones, as well as newcomer Tony Brown.

With Jackson out for the immediate future, Smith is one of a handful of corners who will be counted on to step up and fill the void created by his absence.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Jameis Winston Shows off New Collection of Championship Rings

Florida State's Jameis Winston already has a Heisman Trophy at home, but now he has some jewelry that he can show off when he walks around campus.

Winston earned some great rewards during his freshman season, as the Seminoles quarterback received his ACC championship and national championship rings on Tuesday.

Those flashy rings should certainly be enough to motivate him and his teammates to make a run at a repeat.

[Jameis Winston]

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Natereace Strong Commits to Missouri: Tigers Land 4-Star RB

Running back Natereace Strong spent time visiting with the Missouri Tigers on Tuesday. The 4-star East St. Louis High School (Ill.) standout decided it's the campus he'd like to call home in the coming years and committed, according to his team's Twitter account:

Strong, a 6'1", 210-pound junior, is the fourth 2015 pledge for head coach Gary Pinkel. He selected Missouri from an offer list that featured Florida State, Illinois, Michigan State and Ohio State.

The versatile rusher cited locker room camaraderie and program accountability as defining factors in his recruitment with the Tigers.

"The bond they have as a family, and the coaches who are honest and look after you as a son, and how the coaches check on you and make sure you are good in school and your personal life," Strong told 247Sports' Steve Wiltfong.

Strong, rated No. 19 nationally among running backs in 247Sports' composite rankings, is the third player to commit to Missouri at the position. He joins 4-star junior college prospect Chase Abbington and in-state recruit Ryan Williams in a Tigers class that also includes Kansas offensive lineman A.J. Harris, who committed last Tuesday.

With Strong, Missouri lands a playmaker who displays plenty of potential despite missing substantial snaps during his high school career.

"He's had a lot of injuries," East St. Louis assistant coach Harith Mitchom told Wiltfong. "He's more disappointed than anyone regarding those injuries."

As a result of the health setbacks, Strong has been limited to 1,033 yards and 11 touchdowns on 139 carries during the past two seasons. He'll aim to get back on track with a big senior year before heading off to Columbia.

Strong is a powerful strider who fits the mold of a slasher out of the backfield. He can create off one cut and possesses break-away speed that complements an impressive physical frame.

The Tigers have already acquired significant offensive talent during the early stages of this recruiting cycle. Strong is the latest addition to a suddenly crowded backfield outlook for the future.

 

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

10 Teams That Will Have Most Difficult Time Replacing Their Starting QB in 2014

Starting over isn't always easy...or fun. 

Replacing a veteran starting quarterback, especially one who has carved out a place in program history, only makes that process harder. 

From Johnny Manziel to Keith Price, there are quarterbacks who will be sorely missed across college football. So, congratulations to the following 10 teams that have to replace the most important piece to their offense. No one envies you. 

Which teams will have the hardest time replacing their starting quarterbacks? The answers, as always, are in the following slides. 

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Georgia Has Golden Opportunity to Land a No. 1 Recruiting Class in 2015

The Georgia Bulldogs routinely stake claim to impressive recruiting classes, courtesy of strong efforts within state borders. The Peach State is particularly packed with elite talent in the 2015 cycle, providing an opportunity for head coach Mark Richt and company to assemble America's No. 1 prospect haul by taking care of business at home.

"This is up there with the best classes I’ve seen in Georgia," said Daryl Jones, the program's director of on-campus recruiting. "Our recruiting home base is strong. We have a real appreciation for talent in this state."

There's plenty to appreciate in a class that features an impressive collection of top-level talent.

The state of Georgia boasts four 5-star recruits and 25 4-star recruits in 247Sports' composite rankings. Those totals rate fourth nationally behind only Florida, California and Texas—states with significantly larger resident populations and several more FBS programs.

The Bulldogs perennially pack classes with in-state products, which bodes well for the potential of a big signing day next February.

Richt, who was hired in 2001, has deep roots in Georgia. In an era of constant coaching changeover throughout the country, his lengthy tenure has created serious rapport with the state's high school coaches.

"It gives you history with many high school coaches," Jones said. "(Richt) speaks with them regularly and visits when it’s allowed by the NCAA. He personally reaches out to coaches who achieve milestones. It helps build relationships."

Powerhouse programs like Camden County, Norcross and Tucker reload with exceptional recruits on an annual basis, so it's imperative to establish a pipeline with schools that sustain success. There are premier student-athletes to be found throughout the state, which the Bulldogs break down into categories.

"There are those who have grown up here and have a fondness for Georgia football as the flagship program in the state," Jones said. "Then there are athletes who moved here from elsewhere. We have to win them over and make it clear what our program and our brand is about."

Georgia competes in the country's most contentious conference—on and off the field. SEC rivals regularly make the state a top recruiting priority, even those beyond the range of nearby proximity.

As of late February, Texas A&M had extended offers to 13 of Georgia's 2015 prospects, per The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Aggies are mounting a major recruiting effort in the state after offering just eight total players during the 2013 and 2014 cycles combined.

"It hit us that ‘Hey, there is some interest here in Texas A&M from the state of Georgia,’" Aggies head coach Kevin Sumlin told Journal-Constitution reporter Michael Carvell. "Because of that, we’re interested in some of the prospects there because there’s a tremendous talent pool in the state of Georgia."

Programs outside of the SEC are also focused on tapping into that talent pool.

Clemson secured five Georgia recruits during the 2014 cycle. Ohio State reached down to pluck 5-star linebacker Raekwon McMillan and quarterback Stephen Collier.

Top-ranked 2015 offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt committed to Clemson in February. Shadell Bell, a 4-star wide receiver from Decatur, also pledged to the Tigers as head coach Dabo Swinney continues to plunder the Peach State.

Of course, the Bulldogs must also contend with Georgia Tech.

Despite several early decisions, most of Georgia's top in-state targets remain uncommitted, including 5-star defensive tackle Trent Thompson, who is rated the nation's No. 1 overall player in 247Sports' composite rankings. Florida State, Alabama and Auburn have entered the equation, but the Bulldogs have always been in the picture, and his respect for the program is apparent.

“Talking to Coach Richt almost on a daily basis is pretty cool," Thompson told the Journal-Constitution in  February. "It’s a huge honor, especially with it being Mark Richt, the head coach of the University of Georgia. You can’t get better than that.”

A commitment from Thompson would build substantial momentum for the Bulldogs, who picked up 5-star Georgia athlete Terry Godwin in January. Dominant in-state defensive linemen Chauncey Rivers and Justin Young have since followed suit while 4-star receiver Christian Owens joined the class last April.

Richt remains in the mix for a plethora of Georgia prospects, as 16 of the state's 4-star standouts are still undecided. The team will attempt to make a push for these playmakers with recruiting events in Athens, including game-day action.

"I don’t think you’ll find a better environment in college football than what we have between the hedges," Jones said. "Our fans—Bulldog nation—are unreal in their support of the team. They can win over visiting student-athletes with the enthusiasm and support they show during a game."

The state is ripe for Richt and his staff to pick up an abundance of incoming stars. It's just a matter of sealing the deal despite outside interference from programs like Alabama, which holds commitments from three Peach State players, including 5-star defensive end Mekhi Brown.

If Georgia is able to beat out opponents on its home turf—and a strong 2014 season would go a long way toward doing that—there's a legitimate chance for a rise to the top of national recruiting rankings. The Bulldogs don't have to stray far from a backyard brimming with talent to build something special on signing day, providing plenty of promise and a high ceiling for the team's 2015 class.

 

All quotes obtained firsthand by B/R college football recruiting reporter Tyler Donohue unless otherwise noted.

Recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.

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Texas A&M Football: Kevin Sumlin's 4 Biggest Concern's Post Spring Practice

The Texas A&M football team completed spring practice on Saturday. The Aggies answered some questions during the spring but still have multiple issues as they head into the offseason. 

The story that captured the most headlines during the spring was the competition at quarterback to replace Johnny Manziel. Kyle Allen, Matt Joeckel and Kenny Hill all competed to win the starting job. 

That competition will continue into fall practices in August. Aggies fans should expect a quarterback to be named around two weeks before the season opener against South Carolina on August 28. 

The Aggies will need to sort out their other issues over the summer. This is a look at the biggest concerns facing head coach Kevin Sumlin and the Aggies coming out of the spring. 

 

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Auburn Football: Tigers O-Line Searching for Right Mix

One of the biggest (literally) questions facing the Auburn offense in 2014 is, who's going to replace Greg Robinson at left tackle?

The 6'5", 320-pounder locked down quarterback Nick Marshall's blind side and was a big part of the success Auburn's running game had off tackle and off the edge in 2013.

But while the loss of Robinson—who's slated by B/R's Matt Miller to go second overall in the upcoming NFL draft—will deservedly dominate headlines, four of Auburn's five starters along the offensive line are returning.

Just maybe not in familiar places.

Junior Patrick Miller and sophomore Shon Coleman have been battling at left tackle, but Miller jumped over to the right side, according to AL.com's Brandon Marcello. When he did, that moved Avery Young—last year's starter at right tackle—inside to right guard, relegating returning starter Chad Slade to second team.

Experiment?

Apparently not, because Miller again worked at right tackle during Tuesday's practice, according to James Crepea of the Montgomery Advertiser

Offensive line remains Coleman-Kozan-Dismukes-Young-Miller

— James Crepea (@JamesCrepea) April 8, 2014

So what does this mean for Auburn's offensive line?

It means that replacing Robinson isn't an issue, and that Shon Coleman is the front-runner.

The 6'6", 310-pounder came to Auburn as a hot-shot recruit, but as B/R's Justin Ferguson pointed out in his tremendous feature on offensive tackle, Coleman battled through acute lymphoblastic leukemia before finally arriving on the Plains to start his career.

He has long arms, a solid base and is fully capable of filling in for Robinson.

"Shon is one of the toughest run-setters I’ve ever seen in my life," defensive tackle Gabe Wright said (via: Ferguson). "It’s like hitting a brick wall with a hammer. If you ever thought Greg was strong, Shon is probably two times stronger than Greg."

Two times?

That may be a stretch because, let's be honest, two times stronger than Greg Robinson is pretty much impossible.

Regardless of how strong Coleman may or may not be, it appears that he's winning (or possibly already won) the starting left tackle spot, and that 6'7", 289-pound Miller impressed enough in the battle to force the offensive staff to search for a home for him.

This is what's called a "rich man's problem" for head coach Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee. They've already solved their biggest issue along the offensive line, are comfortable with the rest of the pieces already in place but are trying to improve the unit up front by moving pieces around.

One of the players on the move appears to be the 6'6", 309-pound Young, which is great news for him and for Auburn. He's big enough to be a solid straight-ahead blocker, but athletic enough to be effective when he pulls—which is a staple of Malzahn's offense. 

This is great news for Auburn, because while running back Tre Mason and quarterback Nick Marshall stole the headlines last season, a big part of Auburn's success stemmed from the offensive line's ability to consistently win the line of scrimmage.

It looks like the Tigers are well on their way to doing the same with the new-look offensive line, even if some familiar faces are in new places.

 

*Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report.


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UCLA Football: How Will Bruins Handle High Expectations in 2014?

The program's first 10-win finish and highest end-of-season ranking in almost a decade, combined with the bevy of talent returning, have expectations set high at UCLA in 2014.

"There's something growing around here that's going to be special," Mora said after UCLA's 38-33 loss to division champion Arizona State on Nov. 23, 2013, per UCLABruins.com. "It's not there yet, but it's growing."

Coinciding with the growth of that "something" are high hopes for the 2014 Bruins—both outside of and within the program. 

"There are a lot of expectations, but our expectations are probably higher than most individuals have on us from the outside looking in," quarterback Brett Hundley told the Associated Press at the beginning of spring practice last week.

That's saying a lot, because UCLA is a fashionable pick for the preseason top-10 after finishing last season ranked No. 16 in the final AP Top 25. 

Hundley is a primary reason for the ambitious goals. Hundley's shown more than just flashes of greatness in his two years as UCLA's starting quarterback, racking up almost 7,000 yards passing and more than 1,100 yards rushing in that time.  

But he has also been prone to lapses in production. Sustaining those stretches when he looks like one of the most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation is key to UCLA fulfilling its promise. 

Head coach Jim Mora said, per the Associated Press, that Hundley working with a group that includes San Diego Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers has had notable impact on the redshirt junior's performance. 

It's only one practice, but he looked fantastic today. Spending time with NFL guys has really helped him. Just the mindset, the dedication, the commitment that it takes to be great is very clear to him now.

Hundley leads the most veteran starting contingent in the Pac-12, another key component of the 2014 outlook. His progression is tied to the maturation of an offensive line that Mora told reporters "really impressed" him through the first week of practices, via the Orange County Register. 

But while the Bruins don't lose much, what they do is significant. 

Linebackers Jordan Zumwalt and Anthony Barr leave tremendous voids in a corps that was central to the Bruins defense. UCLA has a new coordinator on that side of the ball in Jeff Ulbrich, and replacing Barr and Zumwalt is among his more pressing duties this offseason. 

The entire front seven is integrating new blood in key spots during spring workouts. Cassius Marsh left one spot on the defensive line to be filled, and talented youngster Eddie Vanderdoes is currently nursing a broken foot, as Chris Foster of the Los Angeles Timesreported via Twitter.  

Inexperience and injury have challenged both of Mora's UCLA teams, but he said in a teleconference call following an October 2013 loss at Oregon, that the goal was to build off of those tribulations. 

"You've got to learn the lessons that were taught in the losses and apply them going forward," Mora said. "You just turn the page, but you learn the lessons as you turn the page." 

Mora's arrival before the 2012 season sparked renewed confidence and enthusiasm around the program that manifested in a divisional championship his first season. Reaching another benchmark in his second year begs the question: What's next? 

The 2014 season is important for both Mora and the program. UCLA is parlaying its brief, albeit promising success into a long-term vision. Meeting the lofty expectations inherent with a talented, veteran team and strong finish the year prior is crucial to continuing the program's forward momentum. 

Last year's culmination is greater cause for hope in 2014 than simply reaching 10 wins on its own. The Bruins routed rival USC to cap the regular season then blasted perennial ACC contender Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl. 

That finish was a stark contrast to the end of 2012, when UCLA dropped three straight to close out Mora's debut season, including a 49-26 rout at the Holiday Bowl. 

The thud with which the Bruins concluded that season is indicative of a hurdle that they still must clear. UCLA avoids slip-ups against the teams it should beat, but breaking through against top-tier competition is the next step. 

UCLA gets both Oregon and Stanford at home, and the former is an early-season matchup that could shape the entire course of the Bruins' championship pursuit. 

 

Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. 

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UCLA Football: How Will Bruins Handle High Expectations in 2014?

The program's first 10-win finish and highest end-of-season ranking in almost a decade, combined with the bevy of talent returning, have expectations set high at UCLA in 2014...

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Notre Dame, Georgia Reportedly Working to Schedule Home-and-Home Football Series

Notre Dame is reportedly working on a home-and-home series with Georgia that would pit the Irish against an SEC team in the regular season for the first time since 2005.

Per Jeremy Fowler of CBSSports.com:

Georgia and Notre Dame are working to finalize a home-and-home series, according to a source, possibly for 2018-19.

When reached Tuesday, Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity acknowledged verbal communication with Notre Dame about a potential series but stressed there's no agreement in writing and, thus, no reason to get too excited.

This report doesn't quite come from left field.

According to Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly called Georgia a perfect team to play against last August, though he did also lament how the Irish's new ACC scheduling commitment might get in the way:

It appears now that the feeling is mutual. According to Fowler, when asked about the potential series, UGA athletic director Greg McGarity said, "I think it'd be great for the University of Georgia if we were able to make it happen."

Notre Dame's last two games against the SEC haven't gone so well. There was the 2013 national title game against Alabama, which the Irish lost 42-14. Before that came the 2006 Sugar Bowl against LSU, which the Irish lost by a near-identical score of 41-14 against a team led by Jamarcus Russell.

Before that, though, Notre Dame played a home-and-home series with Tennessee in 2004 and 2005, winning a close game 17-13 in Knoxville the first year before blowing out the Vols 41-21 in South Bend.

Starting in 2014, Notre Dame must play five games against the ACC—the scheduling commitment Kelly alluded to—in addition to other long-standing agreements to play certain opponents.

Hopefully this series can get past the conceptual phase. 

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Nation's No. 2 ILB Jahvoni Simmons Talks Nick Saban, NFL Comparison and More

Virginia Beach linebacker Jahvoni Simmons is a touted member of the 2015 recruiting class who ranks atop the wish list of several FBS squads. He received his first collegiate scholarship offer as a freshman and has seen interest increase throughout a productive career at Ocean Lakes High.

Simmons, a 6'1", 225-pound junior, helped lead the Dolphins to a 26-2 record and consecutive deep state playoff runs the past two seasons. He quickly emerged as one of the premier defenders in talent-laden Virginia.

A strong sophomore campaign put Simmons on the map as a national prospect. He compiled 157 tackles, including 23 for loss, in 2012, per Scout.com.

Simmons followed with 125 tackles and four interceptions in 2013, per HamptonRoads.com. His efforts earned him first-team All-State honors last fall.

Offers have arrived at a steady pace. Simmons' list of options features Clemson, Tennessee, Alabama, Michigan State, Miami and Ohio State.

Rated the country's No. 2 inside linebacker recruit in 247Sports' composite rankings, Simmons is listed at No. 99 among all members of the 2015 class.

Bleacher Report caught up with the coveted defender this week, discussing his aspirations as a senior and at the next level. Simmons shared his thoughts on an evolving recruiting process, including what it's like to receive interest from a college football coaching icon.

Bleacher Report: Give us the scouting report on Jahvoni Simmons. What makes you a special player?

Jahvoni Simmons: I can diagnose both the run and pass equally. I’ve become good at differentiating the two before the snap. It helps me understand what's coming. I can anticipate plays and put myself in the right position.

BR: Your first college scholarship offer (Old Dominion) came during your freshman year. What was it like to get the recruiting process underway so early?

JS: Having an offer freshman year is definitely a major accomplishment. I think most eighth-graders and freshman would want to get their first offer early. It’s big knowing your parents won’t have to go into their pocket and pay for college.

BR: You've continued to receive plenty of offers since then. Is it ever intimidating to hear from some of the country's most famous coaches? 

JS: It’s shocking more than anything. It’s like, 'wow, I’ve been looking up to you my entire life and now you want me to play for you?' It makes me feel a lot of appreciation.

BR: Any particular moment during this recruitment that really felt special?

JS: An offer from Nick Saban stood out. He’s one of the winningest coaches to compete in the NCAA and has all those national championships. It’s an honor to know he wants me on his team.

BR: That Alabama offer came in March, so did an offer from Michigan State. Those are some strong defenses.

JS: Absolutely. Both were big to me. The way Michigan State produces professional athletes is impressive.

BR: You recently spent time on campus at Virginia, Clemson and North Carolina State for junior days. What was your biggest takeaway from those visits?

JS: The Clemson visit was great. That team is on the rise and just won the Orange Bowl. The coaching staff really knows the game of football. Coach (Dabo) Swinney and (defensive coordinator/linebackers coach) Brent Venables are excellent coaches.

BR: When you look around at your different college options, how much do you focus on defensive scheme?

JS: A team’s defensive scheme plays a part but it’s not really a determining factor. It’s all about finding a role and adapting. When you leave college and go to the NFL, it’s the same thing.

BR: Is there a particular linebacker you grew up admiring and trying to be like?

JS: Ray Lewis was always a great linebacker to watch. I really like the way he played the game as a true "Mike" linebacker. He's a student of the game, like I try to be.

BR: During the past few years, you've had All-American defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi lined up in front of you. Next season, he'll be playing for Florida State. How does that change things for you?

JS: Having Derrick up front definitely lightened my load. With him gone, it’s going to force me to improve in a lot of ways. It's a challenge and I'm working hard to be ready.

BR: What's the main focus of your efforts to improve?

JS: I'm trying to get bigger, faster and stronger. But it's really about becoming a student of the game. I’ve started to watch a lot of film, as much as I can. I look for my mistakes on film and see where I can get better.

BR: Are there particular campuses you want to visit for games this season?

JS: I definitely want to see the game-day atmosphere at schools—Alabama, Miami, Ohio State, Clemson and Georgia Tech, for sure. Really, I want to try to visit as many of the teams that offered me as possible.

BR: Are there any programs that haven't yet offered you that you'd be interested to hear from?

JS: Yes. Some teams would be LSU, Oregon, UCLA, USC, Georgia and Auburn.

BR: When do you plan to decide on a college?

JS: Probably not until midseason. I might wait until after the season.

BR: Are you targeting a specific conference or are you wide open in that regard?

JS: It doesn’t matter what conference I play in or what team I’m on. I’ll work hard and strive to be the best linebacker in the country. That’s my main goal.

BR: Are you the best high school linebacker in the America?

JS: Absolutely. I do believe I’m the best linebacker in this class, that’s how I feel about it. But it’s about me going out and proving it with my play. That’s what matters.

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2015 Notre Dame Commit Blake Barnett Talks Top Offers, Compares Self to Mariota

Blake Barnett, a 4-star quarterback per 247Sports, has committed to play his college ball for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The 6'4", 195-pound athlete has a strong arm and the ability to use his legs when necessary.

Bleacher Report caught up with Barnett in Las Vegas at the Pylon 7v7 tournament. He discussed his commitment to Notre Dame, the other schools still after him and what he likes so much about Oregon's Marcus Mariota.

Watch the video and meet one of the top QBs in the 2015 class.

 

Highlights courtesy of XOS Digital.

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How Deshaun Watson's Injury Impacts Clemson QB Battle

Clemson plays its spring game on April 12, and for the Tigers, a team looking for a quarterback, the recent injury to Deshaun Watson does little for 2014 beyond make the spring battle a true two-horse race. Watson, a 4-star recruit according to 247Sports, will not be forced to sit out the 2014 season, but this setback certainly helps his coaches advance the cause when it comes to redshirting the talent.

Saturday, in Memorial Stadium, the Tigers coaches will not have to battle the hype surrounding Watson. There will be none of the second- and third-team reps that have kept the quarterback in the mix. There will be no chance for Watson to do something special with his athleticism that makes the crowd scream for the youngster.

Instead, Watson will be watching from the sideline as he nurses a cracked clavicle, Greenville Online reports. Although the injury should allow for Watson to return to throwing duties over the summer and compete in fall camp, the quarterback out for the spring game means he misses a chance to wow. As offensive coordinator Chad Morris told ESPN, "We’d love to redshirt him, but if he’s given the opportunity to play, he’s a guy that if the door opens for him, he may never look back.”

Watson having to wait on his awe-inspiring moment means the two leaders of the race, Cole Stoudt and Chad Kelly, will get top billing. Stoudt versus Kelly is the true battle for the starting position, both quarterbacks have been exchanging blows throughout spring, each getting first-team reps.

Stoudt is the most experienced. Kelly was a highly touted prospect in his own right. Both young men want the job, and after spending most of spring keeping Watson at third in the pecking order, the onus is on one of them to step ahead and win the job.

The injury to Watson is not serious enough to force the early enrollee to redshirt in 2014. Similar to Aaron Rodgers with the Green Bay Packers in 2013 and fellow ACC quarterback Anthony Boone from Duke, Watson will be healthy quite quickly. The injury does not require surgery, and as Rodgers and Boone both demonstrated, returning means being healthy enough to play in three to four weeks, not merely cleared for non-contact.

That means if Stoudt and Kelly leave the door open for Watson, the freshman will be plenty healthy to step through it during fall camp. It also means that if Stoudt and Kelly do remain out in front, performing well, Clemson will find it easier to keep Watson under wraps, sitting and learning for the upcoming season.

The Tigers are in good shape as spring comes to a close; the two quarterbacks who have led the competition remain at the top, as Watson is forced to the sidelines. Stoudt and Kelly are going to continue to duke it out, and barring a major mishap, their competition will leave Watson sitting in the third spot once the freshman is healthy.

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10 Biggest College Football Stories You Likely Missed During March Madness

For roughly three weeks each calendar year, college football is not the most important NCAA sport. For the other 11-and-change months, pigskin is given a disproportionate amount of airtime and media attention, and it would be selfish to not let basketball enjoy its brief moment in the sun.

But it's not like the news cycle grinds to a halt. Even if we, the college football-obsessed, are distracted by the sound of squeaky shoes and torn-up brackets, there are still stories of import being broken.

To ensure you aren't lost when fall practice or the start of next season rolls around, here are 10 stories you might have missed—or, in some cases, seen but not entirely researched—during your three-week preoccupation with the NCAA tournament.

Only four more months until August!

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