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Meet the New Oregon Ducks Starters for 2014

The Oregon Ducks will still look like the Oregon Ducks when they hit the bright green turf of Autzen Stadium in one of their neon uniform combinations on August 30th. They’re going to score a lot of points, they’re going to run the ball up and down the field and the defense is going to rotate more players than a hockey team doing 30-second line shifts. 

While the Ducks were supposed to return nine starters to the second-ranked offense in the country from 2013, injuries to wide receiver Bralon Addison and left tackle Tyler Johnstone have decreased the number of returnees to seven. Fear not Duck fans, Oregon’s offense isn’t going to score less. There’s just likely to be some different names doing the scoring.

On defense, the Ducks only return five starters—defensive end Tony Washington, defensive tackle Arik Armstead, middle linebacker Rodney Hardrick, middle linebacker Derrick Malone and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. However, the Ducks, under new defensive coordinator Don Pellum, use more defensive players than almost any team in the country. What that means is that the backups from last year have a lot of game experience and should be ready to take over.

Philadelphia Eagles coach, and former Oregon boss, Chip Kelly used to use the mantra “next man up” when discussing players having to fill holes on the roster. Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich has taken his mentor's advice. It’s “next man up” in Eugene this year.

So who’s up next for the Ducks? It’s time to meet your new Oregon starters.

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Meet the New Oregon Ducks Starters for 2014

The Oregon Ducks will still look like the Oregon Ducks when they hit the bright green turf of Autzen Stadium in one of their neon uniform combinations on August 30th...

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Kent State Center Jason Bitsko Passes Away at Age 21

Kent State offensive lineman Jason Bitsko, 21, passed away on Wednesday. The cause of death is unknown after a roommate found him unresponsive.  

A release posted on the university's official athletics site states police believe an "undetermined medical issue" was a factor. It also included comments from both director of athletics Joel Nielsen and head football coach Paul Haynes.

"Kent State University and the entire Kent community mourns his passing," Nielsen said. "We are heartbroken by the news of Jason's death. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family, friends, teammates and everyone whose lives he touched."

"Our players, coaches and everyone involved with our team are hurting because he was family," Haynes said. "As a team, we will come together and get through this one day at a time."

The Golden Flashes were made aware of the situation at the conclusion of the day's morning practice. All further activities scheduled for the team on Wednesday were canceled.

Bitsko started all 12 games for Kent State last season at right tackle and was slated to become the team's starting center heading into his junior campaign. The Huber Heights, Ohio, native had developed into one of the most reliable and versatile linemen in the Mid-American Conference.

His bio on the school's athletics site notes he was a co-recipient of the Read Award, which is handed out for "exemplifying hard work and dedication beyond the call of duty." College football writer Phil Steele also named him to the Preseason All-MAC Second Team. 

Dri Archer, who played college football at Kent State before being drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in May, sent out a message of condolence:

New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman, who also starred at Kent State, provided support for the family as well:

No further details were provided as to how Kent State plans to move forward following the tragedy.

The Golden Flashes are currently scheduled to start the regular season at home in 10 days against Ohio.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Alabama Football: Blake Sims Isn't Going to the Bench Without a Fight

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama’s quarterback competition was going to be as much of a competition as an Alabama-Chattanooga game, right?

Highly touted Florida State transfer Jacob Coker was going to come in and immediately be anointed starter, win a Heisman or two and ride off into the sunset after two years with a lot of hardware under his belt.

All of that could still come to fruition, but Coker hasn’t even been named the starter yet and doesn’t appear to be close to doing so, either. There is a very real chance that Blake Sims is Alabama’s starting quarterback for the 2014 season, and he won’t be relegated to backup duty for the third straight year without a fight.

“I would like to see somebody take the bull by the horns from a leadership standpoint, a consistency standpoint and win the job here sometime,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said on Tuesday. “But we're not going to make a decision until somebody does that.”

The biggest thing Sims has on his side in all of this is leadership.

He’s been around for four years now, going on five, so he is as familiar as anyone in that locker room with the other players. His teammates and coaches have spoken in the preseason about how he’s embraced that role.

“He’s definitely improved a lot,” wide receiver Chris Black said. “He’s more focused, being way more vocal, really stepping up as a leader, kind of trying to take control of the offense.”

That could go a long way for Sims in this competition. Having teammates who believe in you is half the battle for a quarterback, maybe more.

“Immensely. He's taken on a leadership role, at least a vocal role, on the offense,” center Ryan Kelly said. “Between him and Jacob, they're huge competitors. That's all you want out of a quarterback. When you get up to the line of scrimmage and you know you got those two guys behind you, you know they're going to give you everything they got. As an offensive line, it's awesome that we can work for someone like that. Whoever wins the job, I know they're going to do a great job competing for us.”

Off the field, Sims has been doing just about everything he can to improve as a passer.

He spent spring break and some of the summer in Florida with Ken Mastrole of the Mastrole Passing Academy. Mastrole has worked with the likes of E.J. Manuel, Tajh Boyd and Teddy Bridgewater and liked what he saw from Sims.

“He’s got the tools, definitely, to be the guy for Alabama,” Mastrole said in the spring. “Like I’ve been saying all along, just a good kid, he’s got very good leadership qualities, I think he really cares about this offseason and this year, about being the guy. He’s been patient. He does all the things that you want. He’s gonna walk the straight line, he’s going to represent the program well.”

The big question for Sims is his accuracy and learning how to manage using his feet to make plays.

Saban has, in the past, criticized him for going “rat-trap”—giving up on a play too early and trying to make something happen on the ground too quickly. He said on Tuesday that that’s changing.

“Blake's really improved first of all his knowledge of the offense,” Saban said. “He's capable of doing a lot more things. Really improved as a passer and because he's improved as a passer, I think he's more confident.

“So he doesn't go what I call rat-trap and start running around. He really has enough confidence to throw the ball on time and throw it to the right place and feel like he can make a completion and not have to do everything himself. I think those are probably the two areas that I think he's improved in the most.”

Alabama’s quarterback battle will likely go down to the wire between Sims and Coker, possibly all the way until the fourth game of the season, when Alabama plays Florida.

Coker came in as the favorite, but Sims is staking his claim for the starting job and has a very real chance of being Alabama’s quarterback in 2014.

“He's doing everything he's got to do to try to win the job,” Kelly said. “Him, Jacob and all the quarterbacks. When you step in to play quarterback for this offense, you know you're going to need to know the entire playbook in and out. Every quarterback has tried to do that, and they're still working on it everyday. Nobody is perfect on offense. Everybody is going to have a bad day. It's how you overcome it. They're both huge competitors.”

 

Marc Torrence is the Alabama lead writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats come from cfbstats. All recruiting information comes from 247Sports.

Follow on Twitter @marctorrence.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Western Michigan Gives Wheelchair-Aided Son of Former Player a Chance to Play

The 2014-15 college football season hasn't started yet, but the Western Michigan Broncos have already gotten the scoring underway—in a special way.

John Mulhearn, who is in a wheelchair, is the son of former Broncos linebacker Sean Mulhearn. He is one of Western Michigan's biggest fans, so the team wanted to give him a chance to make a play.

With his dad helping him all the way, John was able to score a touchdown during a recent Broncos practice. The touchdown set off a big celebration in the end zone.

As the video title indicates, this touchdown is worth more than points to the Mulhearn family.

[Bronco Video, h/t Dr. Saturday]

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Wisconsin Football: Final Game-by-Game Schedule Predictions

Coming into 2014, there is plenty of optimism between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona for the Wisconsin Badgers.  Last season, the Badgers won most of the games they were supposed to, lost the ones they were underdogs in and fell apart at home against Penn State.

This season, despite heavy losses on both sides of the ball including linebacker Chris Borland and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, both of whom will be recognized in the coming years for their outstanding achievements while wearing Cardinal and White, there are plenty of signs of hopes for the Badgers.

The biggest thing for the Badgers is their relatively soft strength of schedule, though it is of no fault of their own.  In their non-conference schedule, the Badgers are playing a game in Houston against LSU and taking on the MAC champions in Bowling Green.

Their Big Ten schedule, which is scheduled by the league and not the teams themselves, have them playing Big Ten newbies Maryland and Rutgers in their "crossover" games, avoiding heavyweights Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State.

All of this adds up to Phil Steele's 72nd-ranked strength of schedule, which should mean a good shot at double-digit wins and a bowl berth locked up halfway through their Big Ten schedule.  Beyond that, the Badgers have a realistic chance to play in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

With all of that being said, let's take a look at game-by-game predictions for each of the Badgers' 12 regular-season games, starting at NRG Stadium in Houston.

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5-Star LSU Commit Kevin Toliver Sets 5 Official Visits: Should Les Miles Worry?

Longtime LSU pledge Kevin Toliver will take all five of his official visits this fall, opening the door for other programs to present their case for a commitment flip. Along with an early November trip to Baton Rouge, the 5-star cornerback plans to spend time at Auburn, Ohio State, Virginia Tech and UCLA, per Barton Simmons of 247Sports.

Toliver, who committed to the Tigers during his sophomore season, is rated second nationally among cornerbacks and seventh overall in 247Sports' composite rankings. He helped lead Trinity Christian Academy (Jacksonville, Florida) to a state title last fall, earning invitations to The Opening, Under Armour All-American Game and U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

The 6'2", 185-pound defender is at the foundation of an LSU class that rates 12th nationally in 247Sports' composite team rankings. Toliver was the first member of a group that now includes 15 prospects.

"I had a real good connection with the coaches and everyone who was there,” he told Justin Barney of Jacksonville.com after his 2012 commitment. “I knew I always wanted to go to LSU. There wasn’t no reason to wait.”

Despite dozens of offers at his disposal, Toliver has remained steadfast in his pact with the Tigers. His official visit schedule presents LSU head coach Les Miles with one final gauntlet to survive before securing his long-awaited signature.

SEC rival Auburn is the first to welcome Toliver to campus this season. He will attend the team's Aug. 30 matchup against Arkansas.

Head coach Gus Malzahn quickly reshaped the program's image in 2013, shocking the country with an SEC title and coming within seconds of a national championship. That leap piqued Toliver's interest.

"The big jump they've had from two years ago to last year, that's a big difference. ... They surprised me," he told Keith Niebuhr of 247Sports (subscription required) earlier this year. "I want to go to a game and see how the game environment is."

Auburn could certainly be seen as the most legitimate threat to LSU considering the team's proximity and recent success. If Toliver plays anywhere but Baton Rouge in the SEC, Auburn is the most likely landing spot.

Urban Meyer will aim to win over another Sunshine State prospect when Toliver comes to Columbus for a Sept. 6 showdown with Virginia Tech. Ohio State already holds commitments from Florida defensive backs Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis.

The Buckeyes have assembled quite a stockpile of defensive talent during the past two recruiting classes and could solidify a cornerback spot for the next three or four years with Toliver on board. Fortunately for Meyer, the Florida standout isn't coming to campus during the latter portion of the season when snowstorms are possible.

Fair or not, that can be a deal-breaker for Florida recruits.

Toliver will watch Virginia Tech for the second time in on Oct. 3. His journey to Blacksburg provides tremendous potential for the Hokies, who've also locked down an official visit weekend with in-state 5-star defensive end Josh Sweat, rated No. 1 overall in the class.

The pair of highly pursued playmakers will attend Ohio State together a month earlier, and that could set the stage for them to conspire about possibly playing together.

Needless to say, it will be one of the biggest official visit weekend schedules in recent Virginia Tech history.

Toliver is set to stay off the recruiting trail for a six-week span before heading to Baton Rouge on Nov. 8, when LSU battles Alabama. It's a chance for Miles, the coaching staff and Tigers fans to remind him why he committed to the team two years ago.

Miles' goal will likely be to have Toliver shut things down after that visit, but UCLA hopes he moves ahead with plans to travel west. The Bruins are set to welcome him into town for a Nov. 22 game against USC.

(Quick sidebar here: When you follow up LSU versus Alabama with UCLA versus USC, you're maximizing a once-in-a-lifetime recruiting process. Well done, Mr. Toliver.)

Jim Mora has been aggressive in his efforts to recruit East Coast athletes. His persistence has impressed Toliver.

"The biggest school coming at me is UCLA," Toliver told NOLA.com reporter Amos Morale in July. "I'm going to take an official visit there just to see what its all about." 

The Bruins would love to land a long, rangy cornerback to contend with the significant influx of top-tier quarterback talent set to hit the Pac-12 next season. It's a long shot, but getting Toliver on campus would be a major coup for Mora.

UCLA, Ohio State, Virginia Tech and Auburn better prepare their best sales pitches. Toliver will join each coaching staff for a few days this fall, then head home.

More than likely, he'll spend any return trip on the visitors' sideline.

Miles and LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis have been diligent throughout this recruitment and probably expected Toliver to at least explore some other options. He may be taking a nationwide tour to fraternize with other suitors, but this is LSU's chase to lose, and you have to like its chances to reach signing day with the coveted defender still on board 27 months after his initial commitment.

 

Recruit ratings courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

National Title, NFL Draft Dreams Within Reach for Former Oregon QB Bryan Bennett

It took a change of course, but Bryan Bennett is on the road he wants to be: competing for championships and chasing his NFL dream. 

"Ever since I was young, I've been saying I want to be a professional athlete," Bennett said. "For as long as I can [remember], it's been football. It's been the NFL. That's what I want to do. It's crazy how close it is now to being there."

Bennett is on track to achieve his goal, but it took an unexpected detour for him to get here.   

"I came into a situation where I was looking to transfer," Bennett said. "Looking for a better opportunity to play." 

He got that opportunity at Southeastern Louisiana University.

He enters the 2014 season as captain of a legitimate national championship contender in the Football Championship Subdivision. He’s a preseason favorite to contend for the Walter Payton Award, given to the subdivision's premier offensive player. 

And, if all goes according to plan, Bennett will have his name called at next May's NFL draft. 

The fact that all these lofty goals are within Bennett’s reach is not necessarily surprising. As a 4-star recruit out of Crespi Carmelite High School in Encino, California, in 2010, 247Sports ranked Bennett the nation’s No. 9 pro-style quarterback.

His blend of prototypical size and pocket presence, combined with explosive mobility, made Bennett a fit for Chip Kelly's Oregon program. 

The Ducks were fresh off the first of three straight conference championships under Kelly when Bennett committed. He'd have a redshirt season learning the ropes from Second Team All-Pac-10 honoree Jeremiah Masoli, then could compete for the starting job in 2011. 

That's where Bennett's road to his football goals veers down an alternate route. 

 

An Opportunity to Play  

Quarterback is a unique position. Every other spot on the offensive and defensive lineups requires multiple players, whether simultaneously or in specific situations. Barring rare exceptions, just one quarterback plays in meaningful situations.  

Falling behind on the depth chart is not necessarily an indictment of a quarterback's ability or potential—particularly not when he trails a once-in-a-generation kind of teammate. 

"Unfortunately, Bryan was behind a guy [who] doesn't come around every year," Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich said last month at Pac-12 media days.

Helfrich was the Ducks' offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach during the 2012 season. In the offseason leading up to that campaign, Oregon had a heated quarterback competition unfolding between Bennett and redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota. 

The back-and-forth lasted until one week before the season opener. Kelly didn't name a starter until Aug. 24—and his starter was Mariota.  

Bennett was relegated to a reserve role in 2012, and by season's end, it became apparent that his best shot to play would be in a different uniform.

It was an interesting turn of fate. Just a few months prior, Bennett looked to be Oregon's quarterback of the future.

After redshirting in 2010, he made clean-up appearances against Nevada and Southeast Missouri State early in 2011.

Darron Thomas—the Ducks' starting quarterback in 2010 after Masoli was dismissed just before the season—sustained a leg injury against No. 18-ranked Arizona State on Oct. 15, 2011.

That night, Bennett got his first opportunity to shine in a high-profile situation. He rushed five times for 65 yards, helping the Ducks preserve a 41-27 win over the Sun Devils.

The next two weeks against Colorado and Washington State, Bennett factored more prominently into the game plan. He waylaid the Buffaloes for 156 yards passing and two touchdowns, with another 69 yards on the ground. A week later, he threw for another two scores in the Ducks' romp over the Cougars.

Thomas returned to finish the season, but his unexpected early entry into the 2012 NFL draft seemingly gave Bennett an inside track to keep the Oregon machine rolling and launch his individual career.

In a way, the Ducks' 2012 quarterback competition was responsible for launching two outstanding quarterback careers.  

Heading into the 2014 season, Bennett and Mariota are in mirroring situations. Oregon has legitimate national championships aspirations; SLU has legitimate national championship aspirations. 

Mariota is a preseason favorite for his subdivision's top individual honor; Bennett is a preseason favorite for his subdivision's top individual honor. 

Come May and the NFL draft, their career arcs could again follow similar trajectories. Both are prospects to play at the next level. 

I asked Helfrich if landing two quarterbacks who spent time together in the same program in the same draft qualified Oregon for the designation as the new "Quarterback U." 

"I like the way you think," he joked. 

Playing at Oregon may not have been the football path for which Bennett was destined, but he maintains ties to the program. 

"[Oregon center] Hroniss Grasu, we were roommates. We went to school every day together in high school and then again in college," Bennett said. "That’s almost like family." 

He also counts Josh Huff among his close Oregon friends. Huff reunited with Kelly on the Philadelphia Eagles roster. 

Pursuing his opportunity may have required a change of scenery, but there's nothing but respect between Bennett and Oregon. 

"I still care about them, care about their success, just as they do for me," he said. "You part ways sometimes, but it wasn’t a bad thing." 

"I'm really happy for his future," Helfrich said. "I'll be a fan of his wherever he ends up."

The positive note on which Bennett left Oregon carried over into his new role as starting quarterback at SLU. 

Lions head coach Ron Roberts welcomes transfer players, but he expects a certain attitude from a newcomer into his program. 

"He's got to be a team guy," Roberts said. "He can't fall into the [mindset of], 'I'm not getting recognition or fame,' or that there's not 80,000 people in the stadium, and he isn't getting seven pairs of shoes.

"Bryan's not that. He's a totally selfless guy," Roberts added. "Total team player all the way around." 

Roberts said he first talked to Bennett right around the Ducks' 2013 Fiesta Bowl appearance. Those initial conversations were the first step in building a successful relationship.   

 

From Eugene to Hammond

Bennett's transfer to Southeastern Louisiana meant a change in classes, a change in teammates and even a change in lifestyle. 

Transitioning into a new program and university are the obvious challenges associated with a transfer. But Bennett said making the change from Oregon to SLU was seamless in that regard. 

"I was kind of going back-and-forth at Oregon, whether I was going to stay or whether I was going to go," he explained. "I decided to take a trip out [to SLU]; [the semester] hadn’t started yet, so I could get out for the spring, not be behind in any classes and have a spring football with the team."

For a young man from California who spent three years in the Pacific Northwest, the more difficult aspect of transferring was acclimating to a new culture and pace of life. 

Bennett said attending the Manning Passing Academy in nearby Thibodaux, on the campus of SLU's Southland Conference rival Nicholls State, gave him some familiarity with the area. But visiting for a few days and living so far from home are two different things. 

So too are Hammond, Louisiana, location of Southeastern Louisiana University, and the West Coast locales Bennett had previously called home. 

The US Census estimates Hammond's population in 2013 was 20,337. In contrast, the University of Oregon's undergraduate enrollment in the fall 2013 semester was 20,808 per the university's official website.

Fortunately for Bennett, he describes himself as someone who "can adapt wherever I go." 

"It’s been a great learning experience and just a great experience in general," he said. "Getting to be in a different part of the country and a different culture and adapt to it; I’ve learned a lot from being down here." 

While he was familiarizing himself with his new surroundings, Bennett found at least one immediate similarity to Oregon.

Both football programs favored an uptempo style of offense that allowed Bennett to do what he does best: make plays. And he'd have the chance to do so immediately. 

"When it came time to transfer, I talked to different people," Bennett said. "I heard there’s a new coach at Southeastern, things are looking bright for the future and they need a quarterback."

That new head coach was Roberts, who is now preparing for his third season at helm. Roberts came to SLU from Delta State, a Division II powerhouse in his five years there.

Roberts' first team at SLU finished 5-6, a two-win improvement over the season prior. Add Bennett to fill that quarterback void, and the Lions' improvement from 2011 to 2012 paled in comparison to the jump they made in 2013. 

"We thought we had a lot of talent going into the year," Roberts said. "The coaches, we thought we had the ability, maybe not to compete for the championship, but get into the playoffs." 

Bennett saw a chance to take the wheel and help lead the Lions on that course. Bennett applied lessons from his time as a Duck into his new role.  

"At Oregon, there are a lot of great coaches…I had the chance to be around a lot of guys who went on to play at the next level. I got to kind of sit back while I was there and observe," he said. 

Roberts saw that leadership quality in Bennett immediately. 

"Really as soon as he got here, he took on that leadership role," Roberts said. "Because he's a guy who works really hard—he's a tough kid—he stepped immediately into that role, and the kids followed him." 

 

Rewriting Record Books

For Bennett, transferring to SLU was an opportunity to play. For the Lions football program, his arrival proved downright historic. 

Behind Bennett's 3,165 passing yards, 1,046 rushing yards and 37 combined touchdowns, the Lions didn't just improve. They flourished.   

SLU’s 11 wins in 2013 were the program’s most in a single season. Its Southland championship was the program's first league title since winning the Gulf States Conference in 1961. 

Claiming the Southland crown meant beating Sam Houston State, the two-time FCS runner-up. And the Lions did it twice, the second time knocking the Bearkats out of the playoffs in a 30-29 thriller. 

Bennett rushed for a game-high 83 yards with a touchdown and passed for 286 yards with another two scores. 

His second touchdown pass that December night was history-making. 

Trailing 29-24 with 1:21 remaining with the ball on his own 15-yard line, Bennett found Tony McCrea for a gain of 11 yards. Then he hit Marquis Fruge' for 12 yards, Jeff Smiley for 21 and Fruge' again for another 15. 

Four snaps, four passes and four completions. SLU moved into Sam Houston State territory in seconds and wasn't finished yet. 

A 25-yard strike to Fruge' following his first and only incompletion of the drive set up Bennett and the Lions at the one-yard line. The last call of the drive was easy enough: Bennett to Smiley, touchdown SLU. 

In 85 yards, 45 seconds, six completions and one touchdown, Bennett forever etched his name in SLU football history.  

"For us, Bryan is a marquee player. He’s really helped elevate our program," Roberts said.

Yes, SLU is certainly elevated within the FCS ranks. Where a season ago they were projected to finish fourth by the sports information directors and fifth by the head coaches in the Southland, the Lions open 2014 ranked No. 3 nationally in the both the Sports Network and Coaches Polls.  

The only two teams ranked ahead of them are Eastern Washington and North Dakota State, which account for the last four national championships. 

SLU football's rise in the past year is meteoric. Not bad for a program that restarted in 2003 after 16 years of dormancy. 

"The only thing that’s different now is people know what we’re capable of. We’re going to have a target on our back," Bennett said. "We have a goal, and we want to achieve it. Just like last year: We had a goal [of winning the Southland championship], and we achieved it. 

"But we didn't fully fulfill what we wanted to."

The goal to which Bennett alludes is a national championship.  

"We have a lot more depth. We answered a lot of question areas we had, and we just have a lot more experience coming back," Roberts said. "We have guys who've won a [conference] championship and guys who've won in the playoffs." 

As often comes with the territory of quarterbacking a championship-caliber team, Bennett is a contender for the game's top individual honor. In FCS, that's the Walter Payton Award. 

Past winners include Dallas Cowboys star Tony Romo, Michigan-slayer and current Chicago Bear Armanti Edwards and 2014 NFL draftee Jimmy Garoppolo. 

Bennett said he embraces the pursuit of the award because of the implications it has for SLU football as a whole. 

"I should be working to try and win that," he said. "You have those individual goals when you say, 'Yes, I want to be a Walter Payton Award winner,' and, 'Yes, I want to be an All-American.'

"I want to do that. But now I'm more focused on doing what I can to make me and my team better. If we do that, everything else should fall into place," he said 

Improvement is a theme Bennett hit on frequently, and in pursuit of that goal, there's one critical element he emphasized both for himself and his team. 

"Work our tails off."  

It's a mantra that also applies both to SLU's championship aspirations and Bennett's own NFL stock. 

 

From Playing at SLU to Playing on Sundays 

Bennett said part of what made SLU attractive to him was it gave him "the best opportunity to try to play after college." 

His performance there thus far has helped land Bennett on draft boards early into the 2015 evaluation process. 

NFL.com's Mike Huguenin taps Bennett as a top small-school prospect. 

Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday, a 2015 NFL draft prospect in his own right, roomed with Bennett at last month's Manning Passing Academy. 

Halliday marveled when discussing Bennett's arm strength last month at Pac-12 media days, comparing the SLU quarterback to one NFL playmaker.   

"We lined up for skinny posts," Halliday said. "He threw the ball 84 yards. It was like seeing Michael Vick."  

This year's Manning Passing Academy was Bennett's fourth and a most productive visit indeed. The big arm Halliday described wowed others in attendance. 

Bennett's offseason grind also included work with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia. 

The process of cashing in on these efforts begins Aug. 30 for Bennett and the Lions, when they host Jacksonville University.  

SLU's season opener is his first opportunity to show off the efforts he's made in the offseason within a game situation.  And Bennett knows people will be watching. 

"I know there are some things I need to work on. I know what [NFL scouts] are going to be looking for," he said.

Improved accuracy is one metric on which Bennett can improve. With fewer interceptions and a higher completion percentage, his draft stock should climb. 

"Now I just need to take care of my team and the things I can do to better myself. I can't worry about, 'Oh, I need to to do this to make it to the league,'" he said. "I just have to do what I need to do to help my team wins games. If I do that, just like the awards, [the NFL draft] will take care of itself."  

It may have required a detour, but the next exit on the horizon for Bennett is a lifelong dream. 

 

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics compiled via LionSports.net and CFBstats.com. Recruiting rankings and information culled from 247Sports.com composite scores.  

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Why Ohio State Is the Best-Value Bet in 2014 College Football Season

The season-ending shoulder injury—or, the re-injuring of said shoulder, if you will—to Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller already projects to have major championship effects. 

From the moment that Tim May of TheColumbus Dispatch first reported the news Monday, Ohio State's Big Ten and national-championship picture got fuzzier. 

As it turned out, the concern expressed by Haney wasn't a matter of creating a storyline through hyperbole. 

According to Las Vegas SuperBook, the Buckeyes have dropped to 50-1 odds to win the College Football Playoff (h/t Chip Patterson, CBSSports.com). For reference, Ohio State was listed at 12-1 by the same oddsmakers to win it all before Miller was officially ruled out for the year. 

Now is actually a good time to consider buying stock in Ohio State's championship odds. 

Miller's injury is more devastating to him than it is to Ohio State. You simply have to feel awful for a guy whose season is over before it begins. 

"My thoughts and prayers are with Braxton and his family," Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said in a statement. "This is an unfortunate injury to a young man who means so much to this program and to Buckeye nation."

True, you can't understate the importance of Miller's injury. Good quarterbacks, especially ones who can pick up yards with their feet, are nearly impossible to account for and can mask a lot of deficiencies. As B/R's Ohio State lead writer Ben Axelrod writes, new starter JT Barrett isn't as physically gifted as Miller—not to mention he doesn't have experience. 

What Barrett does have, however, is leadership. That's a much-needed quality during a difficult time: 

Despite being just a second-year player with no playing experience at the college level, Barrett has also already been lauded for his leadership within the Ohio State locker room. And while he may not be a physical freak capable of stringing together single-game highlight reels like Miller, he prides himself on his intangibles and ability to spread the ball around.

But it's not like the Buckeyes were devoid of talent elsewhere. The defensive line of Michael Bennett, Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and Joey Bosa could be the single best group at that position anywhere in the country.

Coupled with a secondary that will feature an up-and-coming star in Vonn Bell, the Buckeyes pass defense, which ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten a year ago, should be better.  

The question marks lie mostly on offense, which even before Miller's injury had to replace four offensive linemen, leading running back Carlos Hyde and leading receiver Philly Brown. The talent is there for the next wave of stars, there's just not a ton of experience in the trenches or in the backfield. 

But there's an X-factor with offensive coordinator Tom Herman, who was recently ranked as the top assistant in college football by Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman. That should inspire confidence that the offense will come together sooner rather than later. 

And, as of mid-August, Ohio State has one preseason top-25 team on its schedule: No. 8 Michigan State on November 8. That's not to say the Buckeyes won't be challenged before then, but that does give the offense time to iron out wrinkles. 

The odds may have dipped out of Ohio State's favor, and for all anyone knows, Miller's injury could cost the team a game or two it might have normally won. 

That said, there are still plenty of reasons to like Ohio State and their title chances in 2014. Putting the Buckeyes at 50-1 odds seems like a steal. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All odds courtesy of Las Vegas SuperBook.

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Why Ole Miss Can Win The SEC West in 2014

Over the last decade, the Alabama Crimson Tide, the Auburn Tigers or the LSU Tigers have won the SEC West division nine out of the 10 years. Those three are the top contenders in the division once again in 2014, but this year, the Ole Miss Rebels can win the SEC West for the first time in school history.

Before Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze came to Oxford, the Rebels finished with a 2-10 record in 2011. Since then, Freeze has the Rebels on the rise, as they finished with a 7-6 record in 2012 and improved to 8-5 in 2013. With a number of personnel losses at LSU and Texas A&M, the Rebels have a great opportunity to win their first SEC West division title this season.

The Rebels’ strength is their prolific offense led by quarterback Bo Wallace, who is one of the best and most experienced quarterbacks in the SEC. Last season, Wallace threw for 3,346 yards with 18 touchdowns and completed 64.8 percent of his passes. He also added 539 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. Wallace led the Rebels to some big wins against the Texas Longhorns and over then No. 6-ranked LSU.

While Wallace needs to eliminate the mistakes in key moments, like in the Mississippi State game, he is poised for a huge senior season.

Wallace he has an abundance of weapons around him, such as sophomore receiver Laquon Treadwell and tight end Evan Engram. Treadwell, who was named the 2013 SEC Freshman of the Year, caught 72 balls for 608 yards and five touchdowns. With Treadwell moving from the slot receiver to the outside, expect to see his number increase even more in 2014.

In the first seven games last season, before suffering an ankle injury, Engram emerged as the Rebels’ big-play receiver. Now that the tight end is 100 percent healthy, Engram—along with Treadwell and Wallace—could make the Rebels one of the best passing offenses in the nation.

Not only do the Rebels have a potent passing game, but they also have a solid running game to keep the SEC defenses honest. Running backs I’Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton combined for 1,114 yards and nine touchdowns a season ago.

The Rebels also have one of the best left tackles in the nation in sophomore Laremy Tunsil, who earned SEC All-Freshman honors a season ago. He will have to help anchor an offensive line that has many question marks, including the health of left guard Aaron Morris.

On defense, Ole Miss has nine starters returning, including All-American safety Cody Prewitt and All-SEC linebacker Serderius Bryant.

Last season, Prewitt made 71 tackles and had six interceptions. Bryant was just as active as he racked up 78 tackles, 9.5 of them for a loss.

Defensive end C.J. Johnson, who was injured in 2013, should provide close to his 2012 numbers when he had 6.5 sacks and finished sixth in tackles for the Rebels with 55.

Moving Robert Nkemdiche from defensive end to defensive tackle late last season helped him improve his production. He is a more natural tackle because of his 280-pound frame, and he can use his strength and long arms to push offensive linemen off the ball.

The biggest reason Ole Miss could win the SEC West is its favorable schedule. Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State will all come to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Also, Ole Miss catches a break in SEC crossover play as it avoids Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Missouri.

Ole Miss' game against the LSU Tigers on Oct. 25 will go a long way in determining if the Rebels are SEC West contenders. Ole Miss did defeat the Tigers last season and only lost to the Tigers by a touchdown or less in its last two trips to Tiger Stadium.

Freeze has had highly touted recruiting classes the last few seasons. So he can’t use the excuse that he doesn’t have the weapons to compete with Alabama, Auburn and LSU. With an experienced quarterback, excellent talent on offense and a skilled defense, there are plenty of reasons for optimism in Oxford, Mississippi, this season.

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Auburn Football: Jeremy Johnson Is Already a Leader for the Tigers' Offense

AUBURN, Ala. — Jeremy Johnson's teammates say the Auburn sophomore quarterback would start at the 13 other schools in the SEC.

Although he is senior Nick Marshall's backup, Johnson said he entered each practice of his collegiate career like he's the starter at Auburn.

In less than two weeks, when the Tigers host Arkansas for its season opener, that focus and preparation will pay off for him.

With Marshall sitting an indefinite amount of time against the Razorbacks as part of his punishment for a July marijuana citation, Johnson will most likely—it somehow hasn't been made official yet by Auburn's coaching staff—make his second career start on Aug. 30.

"If I'm called upon, I'll be ready," Johnson said. "I really don't feel any pressure. I've just got to do what I've been coached to do, and everything will pan out right."

A start against an SEC opponent will come at the end of what has been an important month in the development of the young quarterback.

Johnson may not know if he's going to play a quarter, a half or the whole game against the Razorbacks, but his teammates say the sophomore is more than capable of leading the Tigers' offense into the 2014 season.

"Most freshmen are immature, just kind of lollygagging, but now he’s stepped up," senior H-back Brandon Fulse said. "He’s taking the game more seriously now, and I see that. First game, anytime you put him in, we have 100 percent that Jeremy Johnson will get the job done."

Since the start of fall camp, when Malzahn announced Marshall would not start against Arkansas, Johnson has split first-team reps with the returning starter.

Outside of a start against FCS opponent Western Carolina and reserve duty for an injured Marshall against Florida Atlantic last season, Johnson has not had a lot of time running the first-team offense.

The pressure of starting against an SEC opponent in a highly anticipated season opener might be too much for some underclassmen, but teammates said Johnson has showed great poise in the weeks leading up to the Arkansas game.

"I think he’s been handling it all pretty well," junior receiver Ricardo Louis said. "He's been more confident going into his second year. That's going to carry over for him by getting more reps and being more confident in throwing the ball and running the offense."

Auburn's coaches are already looking beyond the season opener in their plans to use a more confident Johnson in the offense this season.

"Me and [offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee] decided Jeremy Johnson was going to have a bigger role regardless this year," Malzahn said. "We've talked about him and his ability and how we feel about him. We feel very good about our quarterback position as a whole."

One area Johnson said he has improved over the offseason is his work with the zone read, a staple of head coach Gus Malzahn's offense. The speedy Marshall excelled with the option last season, but the 6'5" Johnson brings a different element to the Tigers' ground game.

Johnson only ran the ball seven times last season for the Tigers, who mostly played him in special package plays. Whether it's through more package plays or more second-half snaps in lopsided games against weaker opponents, those numbers are expected to rise this season.

"They’ve got packages for me, so whenever it’s my time to go in on a certain package or a certain play, I’m going to make the best of it," Johnson said. "If it calls for a zone read, I can do it perfectly fine."

Johnson was considered a 4-star, pro-style quarterback out of Carver High School in nearby Montgomery, where he was named the 2012 Mr. Football winner for the state of Alabama. Despite the pass-first designation, Johnson still ran for more than 700 yards and seven touchdowns for the Wolverines.

His frame and athleticism may remind Auburn fans of a certain Heisman-winning quarterback, and Johnson said he strives to be just like him.

"I look up to Cam Newton," Johnson said. "I watch Cam on YouTube every day—watch his work ethic and everything he does."

While he has a bigger role for the team this season and aspirations to become an Auburn legend like Newton in his collegiate career, Johnson isn't looking to start any quarterback controversy with Marshall this season.

Johnson went as far to say he knew "for a fact" that Marshall would return to the field and win the Heisman Trophy this season.

Lashlee said the friendship between the two quarterbacks, who went head-to-head in an intense battle for the starting job in 2013, is completely genuine.

"I have even teased them before about their bromance on Instagram," Lashlee said. "They are just good friends. They get along. They are good in meetings. They are good on the practice field. I have never one time thought one had ulterior motives over the other."

So when Johnson leads the offense in Jordan-Hare Stadium a week from Saturday against Arkansas, he will have the full support of his close friend.

"I see Jeremy coming out there and practicing [well] every day," Marshall said. "He's leading the team just like he's going to be the starter, and I'm just behind him 100 percent."

 

Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.

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Notre Dame Football: Why Everett Golson Is Now More Important Than Ever

SOUTH BEND, Indiana — The last time he started a game, Notre Dame football quarterback Everett Golson was a redshirt freshman. Two years later, a new-look Golson is the vital, valuable engine as the Irish enter the 2014 season.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly made a simple but blunt distinction at the start of fall camp when evaluating Golson.

The question posed to Kelly referred to Golson as “the quarterback that took you to a title game.”

“I would argue that Everett rode the bus to the championship,” Kelly clarified.

It was less a shot at the yet-to-be-named starter and more a truism about Golson’s role as a redshirt freshman.

Now?

“It’s really, quite frankly, night and day compared to where he was in 2012 in my opinion,” Irish offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock said at Tuesday’s media day.

To the untrained eye, Golson looks different in the physical realm, in terms of size, strength and accuracy. Bigger. Stronger. Crisper. And when you ask coaches and teammates, Golson has grown immensely on the mental side of the game as well.

It all adds up to what surely looks like a much-improved quarterback in 2014. And as the Irish retool their offense this season, looking to push an uptempo attack, hoping to jump on teams instead of relying on their defense, Golson is key, probably the key.

Notre Dame’s offensive brain trust sat down at the end of last season and analyzed the team’s strengths and weaknesses. The faster tempo is one of the byproducts of the self-study.

“We feel like we’re to the point now offensively where we can take a little bit more of the game control and kind of control the tempo of the game, control the outcome of the game by the way we play offense, as opposed to just kind of leaning on our defense and offense let’s score one more than they do,” Denbrock said.

Naturally, Golson plays a crucial role in the attack.

“He’s the cornerstone of the whole deal,” Denbrock said. “He’s the guy who really is the puppet-master who’s pulling the strings even though coach Kelly is calling the plays.”

The offensive coordinator praised Golson’s work over the last three or four days of practice, saying Golson has made some impressive adjustments. He’s noticing the safeties rotating before the snap. He’s recognizing blitzes from the defense, threats “that he never saw in 2012,” according to Denbrock.

“He is just remarkable in the way that he’s developing in my opinion,” Denbrock added. “So I think he’s poised to really do a great job with us.”

Denbrock isn’t the only coach to think that. Former Texas head coach and current ESPN broadcaster Mack Brown came through camp in South Bend recently and left with high expectations for the Irish signal-caller.

ND QB Everett Golson looked great in practice Sunday. Look for him to have a super year

— Mack Brown (@ESPN_CoachMack) August 13, 2014

Golson’s job becomes even more important now while the Irish proceed without the services of the four players—wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, cornerback KeiVarae Russell, defensive end Ishaq Williams and linebacker Kendall Moore—who are being held out of practices and competition during an ongoing academic investigation. Without their top receiver and top cornerback—as well as a projected starting defensive lineman—the Irish have a smaller margin for error. Golson has the ability to shove the academic investigation from the forefront.

Maybe just as importantly as his on-field ability, Golson has improved leadership qualities, at a time when the Irish need stability and focus. He used to be an underclassman who had “spotty” attendance and showed up late, according to Kelly.

“He wasn't doing the things leaders do,” Kelly said Tuesday.

Now, Kelly says, Golson is first to everything and first to speak up.

“He has matured, and he knows what great leadership looks like, and he's paid attention to it and knows what it looks like, and now he's that guy out in front,” Kelly said.

The Irish are hoping Golson and the fresh offense put them out in front of the opposition.

“We want to be aggressive, and we want to really beat you on the offensive side which was different from 2012,” Golson said Tuesday.

“He has the keys to the offense,” Denbrock said of Golson.

He’s now driving the bus.

 

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.

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LSU Football: Final Camp Stock Report

LSU's closed scrimmages during fall camp are mysterious.

Usually, little can be made of what happens in these glorified practices because they are closed to the public. But that was not the case on Tuesday, as head coach Les Miles openly discussed some important topics surrounding his team after the scrimmage.

LSU focused on Wisconsin for the first time in fall camp during the scrimmage, per David Ching of ESPN.com. Miles said his team's similarity to the Badgers made it easier.

“We were able to accommodate both offense and defense to some extent exactly what Wisconsin would be like,” Miles said, per Ching. “Our defense has the ability to kind of mimic, if you will, their defense. And our offense certainly is very similar.”  

Tuesday was the most revealing day of fall camp. Here are some other important storylines that came from it.

 

Starting Quarterback Deadline

Miles said he will have a decision made at quarterback before the day of the season opener. But chances are he will only tell the quarterbacks, not tell the media.

"We'll tell the starter probably that Thursday (Aug. 28th) when we put together the final list of starters," Miles said, per Glenn Guilbeau of The Daily Advertiser.  

Miles also said sophomore Anthony Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris have yet to emerge as the better of the two, though he thought they both performed at a "high level of execution." 

There is no telling what Miles and the coaching staff will do. Harris is more gifted, yet he has not been able push himself ahead of Jennings. Expect both to play.  

 

Thomas Is Back, Valentine Cleared

LSU defensive tackle Quentin Thomas participated in full-contact drills for the first time since early August. Miles said Thomas is not quite back at full strength but showed he can still make plays, according to Jim Kleinpeter of The Times-Picayune.  

Thomas' improved health is great news for the Tigers. They could have survived without him, but his experience and disruptiveness makes the defensive line better.

LSU's good fortune at defensive tackle continued when 4-star incoming freshman Travonte Valentine was cleared to play, per his Twitter account. 

Valentine had to take summer courses to meet the academic qualifications from NCAA Clearinghouse, but he is not completely in the clear yet. Miles says it will take a couple more days before he can step onto campus.

Defensive line coach Brick Haley said he must first see if Valentine is game shape before he puts him on the field.

"Hopefully he’s going to be in really good condition. If he’s not, he’s going to be behind. That’s normally the reason why guys don’t start as true freshmen. They do get behind and they have a lot to learn and it’s a lot on their bodies. But you can always get a young guy to come in and give you valuable minutes to rest some of those other guys," said Haley, per Shea Dixon of Geaux247.com

Valentine does add depth to a unit filled with uncertainty, but do not expect to see him on the field anytime soon. The Tigers are fine for now with the likes of Thomas, Christian LaCouture, Frank Herron, Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain. 

There is a chance Valentine could be part of the rotation later in the season, especially on goal-line and short-yardage situations that require extra big bodies on the field. 

 

Receivers Get a Boost from Freshmen

LSU 5-star incoming freshman Malachi Dupre did not participate in last Saturday's scrimmage, but he returned on Tuesday. Dupre caught a few passes, as he and fellow freshman Trey Quinn impressed Miles. 

"He's (Dupre) beyond what was an early injury. He's really just getting back to health now, and I think he'll maintain this opportunity to play from this point forward," said Miles, per Guilbeau. "Trey Quinn caught a couple of balls. All in all, it was a pretty decent offensive outing." 

Dupre and Quinn will certainly be in the mix, which was expected. They are two of the best receiving prospects Miles has ever brought to Baton Rouge. Outside of leading receiving returnee Travin Dural, playing time is still up for grabs in the receiving corps. 

 

Fall Camp Schedule

Expect Miles to implement more of the game plan for Wisconsin as the week goes along.

LSU will do a walk-through on Wednesday afternoon to allow themselves to recover from Tuesday's 120-play scrimmage. Usually in practices such as these, coaches work on the specifics of certain plays and upcoming opponents.  

Here is LSU's schedule for the rest of the week, via Ross Dellenger of The Advocate

  • Wednesday, Aug. 20 4 p.m. Walk-through
  • Thursday, Aug. 21 4:35 p.m. Practice
  • Friday, Aug. 22 4:30 p.m. Practice
  • Saturday, Aug. 23 10:35 a.m. Practice
  • Monday, Aug. 25 First day of school

 

Rankings and stats provided by cfbstats.com, LSU Sports Information and 247Sports. Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow me on Twitter @CarterthePower

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Bo Pelini and Nebraska Football Team Send Special Message to Jack Hoffman

Young Nebraska fan Jack Hoffman recently found out that he has had a reoccurrence of brain cancer, so Bo Pelini and the Cornhuskers want their buddy to know that they are behind him.

Coach Pelini sent out a tweet to Jack to let him know that he has the support of the team:

Two years ago, Hoffman captured the hearts of everyone in the United States when he ran in a touchdown during Nebraska's spring game. Ever since then, the youngster and the team have fought the battle together.

Last year, his brain tumor had been declared in remission. The family found out in early August that the tumor has been growing over the past few months. 

It appears that Hoffman has plenty of people supporting him in his battle once again.

[YouTube, Bo Pelini

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10 Bold Predictions for the SEC on 2015 College Football Recruiting Trail

The SEC's dominance on the field has coincided with the league's penchant for winning big on the recruiting trail in February.

With six SEC teams currently holding down spots in 247Sports' team rankings, it looks like business as usual for the league's powers in the 2015 cycle. 

To the surprise of no one, Alabama is in the driver's seat to finish with another top-rated class. However, Texas A&M is on the Tide's heels, and schools such as Georgia, Auburn, South Carolina and Tennessee have put together classes that rank among the nation's elite. 

With national signing day less than six months away, what are some of the key storylines for SEC fans to observe, and how will the league fare down the stretch of recruiting season?

Begin Slideshow

College Football 2014: Top Heisman Favorites Heading into the Season

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston secured the Heisman Trophy and national championship last season. The road to repeat will be a difficult one for him, with defenders aiming to stunt his progress.

He may be looking to repeat, but there is a host of other players aiming to surpass him.

Watch as Bleacher Report experts Adam Kramer, Michael Felder, and Barrett Sallee highlight the top Heisman candidates for the 2014 season.

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Tennessee Volunteers Football: Final Camp Stock Report

The Tennessee Volunteers are (relatively) healthy, the youngsters are as ready as they're going to get, the quarterback is settled and camp is about to give way to game week.

All in all, it's been a successful three weeks of football on Rocky Top.

Utah State looms on Aug. 31, and, in some ways, the Vols are ahead of schedule. In others, they're behind. That's just the way it's going to be with such a young group.

And, boy, are the Vols young.

Of the 32 newcomers UT brought in, all but about five or six should receive immediate playing time. Any time there's that much youth on a roster, it's difficult to gauge what you've got until the season starts.

An extra year of practice is a luxury head coach Butch Jones and his staff don't have. He told Volquest.com's John Brice and Paul Fortenberry (subscription required):

We're still work-in-progress from the maturity standpoint. Like I said, some individuals are ahead of others in terms of maturity. We knew this. This isn't any surprise to us. They're 17-year-old kids going through their first training camp. It's having that mental toughness, mental conditioning to fight through the fatigue, especially the mental fatigue. We talk about being relentless and having a relentless approach. But the mental approach is so much more important than the physical approach. … We're very, very youthful. So every day is a learning experience for them.

Every game will be, too; at least early. So, buckle up for a rocky road on Rocky Top—but it's one that holds a lot of hope, too.

 

Robertson's Surge Means Surprising O-Line Depth

Without question, the biggest surprise of fall camp is Jashon Robertson, and he may just wind up being the steal of a decorated recruiting class.

The 6'3", 304-pound former 3-star prospect from Nashville shifted from defensive tackle to offensive guard four days into fall camp.

By late last week, he was starting at right guard, bumping entrenched Kyler Kerbyson out to tackle and bouncing fellow freshman Coleman Thomas from the first team.

Robertson was a long-time commitment to James Franklin's Vanderbilt Commodores, but when the coach bolted for Penn State, the two-way lineman started looking.

With childhood buddy Jalen Hurd a prominent member of UT's 2013 recruiting class, Robertson visited in January of this year and wound up flipping to UT on the 15th of that month. He enrolled this summer, and it hasn't taken the former high school wrestler long to shine on the offensive line.

"Jashon," Kerbyson told UTSports.com's Brian Rice, "seems like a natural."

Offensive line is one of the most difficult positions to learn as a freshman, and the fact that Robertson did it so quickly is extremely encouraging.

It also means UT has some options along a completely rebuilt offensive line from a season ago.

The past few days, the Vols have been working a first team that consists of Jacob Gilliam at left tackle, Marcus Jackson at left guard, Mack Crowder at center, Robertson at right guard and Kerbyson at right tackle.

Thomas can play all the positions, and Dylan Wiesman is a super-utility interior lineman who can play guard or center. JUCO transfer Dontavius Blair is still battling Gilliam at left tackle.

The Vols aren't going to be dominant in the trenches, but they have some flexibility, at least. Jones told GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required) in regards to depth:

It's about what we expected. … It's having depth, and when you're limited with not much depth, we want to be able to move players around, because it’s all about putting the best five on the field. … When you don't have depth by overall numbers, you have to get it by, you know, players who can play multiple positions up front. And that's what we're attempting to do.

Thanks to the emergence of Robertson—who has apparently made it impossible for coaches to ignore him—UT now has the ability to mix and match.

That'll help fuel competition, depth and ultimately the improvement of a group that is going to be vital to this team's success.

 

Good News on Saulsberry Injury

The biggest concern for the Vols is finding playmakers along the defensive line, and they thought they received a major blow when Trevarris Saulsberry went down with a knee injury during Saturday night's open scrimmage.

Instead, UT got some good news for a change.

The 6'4", 296-pound redshirt junior "re-aggravated the knee" injury that kept him out of most of last season, Jones said, according to GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required). Jones said the injury could keep Saulsberry out a couple of days to a week.

That's much better than the season-ending injury UT initially feared. Saulsberry missed most of last season and all this past spring and has been injury-prone in the past. The Vols desperately need him to return to the player he showed glimpses of being against Oregon last year and Alabama two years ago.

Defensive tackle is a "great concern" for the Vols right now, Jones told Callahan. If Saulsberry can get back on the field, he has the size and athleticism to team with former Gainesville (Fla.) High School teammate Jordan Williams in the center of UT's revamped defensive line.

Saulsberry is a player who can be a major difference-maker when at 100 percent. Considering there aren't many proven players for the Vols on that line, they need him.

 

Passing the Test

When the Neyland Stadium lights came on Saturday night, some 40,000 fans were present to watch the Vols' open scrimmage.

They saw an offense that was by all accounts efficient—if not spectacular—mere days after Justin Worley was named the starting quarterback.

In that near-game setting, Josh Malone surged again, and the Vols offense hummed along pretty well, according to Volquest.com's Rob Lewis (subscription required).

Worley told Lewis:

I thought I did well. We didn't do a lot of new stuff, didn't install anything for today. We executed well in that second series that we played out, drove down the field in a matter of a couple of plays. That was good to see, I thought we responded well overall with the crowed out here and everything.

Thankfully, Jones realized he needed to name a starting quarterback sooner rather than later. With the shackles off, the offense can get synced up with Worley, and the Vols will be better for it.

While UT didn't have as many "splash plays" again as it would have liked, the offense had a little extra motivation during Saturday's scrimmage. Junior receiver Von Pearson told GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required) it was easy to get pumped up with that many people in the stands for practice.

Yeah, it did (fire me up). I can’t wait until the Utah State game, you know what I’m saying? … can’t believe how many people were here for practice. Sixty-nine thousand for a spring game, and then this tonight? I can’t believe that.

 

Updates on Tennessee's Top Position Battles

In addition to Robertson looking like he's going to be firmly in the mix to start along a shaken-up offensive line for the Vols, there are plenty of other starters yet to be determined.

Those battles likely will last well into the season.

Though true freshman Emmanuel Moseley has held down the cornerback position opposite Cameron Sutton since spring practice, he lost that grasp in the past week to a walk-on.

But Michael Williams is not an average walk-on. The former Maryland track star transferred to UT to play both sports, and the third-year sophomore has turned heads with his physicality, according to Rucker (subscription required).

He's also the brother of NFL veteran defensive back Madieu Williams, so he has some impressive bloodlines, too.

The 5'11" cornerback has surged ahead of Moseley and fellow freshman Rashaan Gaulden, but that's a battle that will likely go on for a while.

Volquest.com's John Brice and Grant Ramey (subscription required) noted that George Bullock is still ahead of freshman Aaron Medley for place-kicking duties.

They also reported that Alton "Pig" Howard trotted out with Pearson and Marquez North as first-team receivers as the Vols continue to show extreme depth and talent at that position.

RockyTopInsider.com's Houston Kress said of JUCO transfer Chris Weatherd, who is carving a role in pass-rush situations: "This guy is FAST. Weatherd just has such an explosive burst when making his first move to the quarterback, and he often gets to the offensive lineman before the player is even out of his stance."

While Jalen Reeves-Maybin and A.J. Johnson are entrenched as starters at linebacker, Weatherd, Elliott Berry and Dillon Bates all could find themselves on the field at outside spots in various packages.

Though sophomore Devaun Swafford continues to keep a small distance between himself and second-team safety Todd Kelly Jr., it wouldn't be surprising to see Kelly overtake him soon.

Jones told Volquest.com's Austin Price (subscription required) "the game is slowing down" for Kelly. He has the size and speed to be special soon, and it's going to be extremely difficult to keep him off the field.

 

Roundup from Rocky Top (News and Notes)

  • According to Jones' official Twitter account, two more UT players (Kelly and junior defensive tackle Owen Williams) lost their black stripes this week.
  • It's certainly possible that senior punter Matt Darr could experience the same final-year resurgence as Michael Palardy did a season ago. Kress noted Darr has been "consistently kicking the ball 45-55 yards in the air with a few sprinkled in that went even further than that."
  • UT junior defensive end Curt Maggitt is still not back from an ankle injury that has hobbled him for a week, but he is not expected to miss any game action.
  • Freshman running back Jalen Hurd told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required) his shoulder is "100 percent" nearly a year removed from surgery to repair a labrum tear. Like always, Hurd's media session this week was as impressive as his on-field play.

 

All recruiting rankings and statistics courtesy of 247Sports composite rankings. All statistics gathered from CFBStats.com.

Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter here:

 

@Brad_Shepard

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How Ohio State's Offense Will Change with JT Barrett Instead of Braxton Miller

Speaking about his plans to minimize Braxton Miller's rushing attempts this season, Ohio State offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman conceded that the two-time Big Ten MVP's legs would always be a part of the Buckeyes' arsenal.

"Whatever it takes to win," Herman said of Miller's designed runs. "We know that they'll always be there in our back pocket."

That, however, is no longer the case in Columbus, as Herman and head coach Urban Meyer find themselves searching for new plays to fill their pockets. Out is Miller, who will miss the entirety of the 2014 season with a reported torn labrum, and in is redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett, who brings a different skill set to Ohio State's quarterback position.

Just how much will the OSU offense change with Barrett behind center for the Buckeyes? We won't know for sure until Aug. 30. But we've seen enough in select practices and picked up as many clues from coaches to know to expect a different approach from the Ohio State offense when it takes the field for its season opener against Navy in 10 days.

 

More Runs From The Runners, Less Designed Runs

When Miller's status was still unclear a week ago, Meyer admitted that the Buckeyes would need to rely on their run game more if their star signal-caller wasn't yet full-go. And with a quarterback who's yet to take a single snap in his college career, one would imagine that mindset won't change, as Ohio State's passing game is anything but proven at this point.

That could prove to be problematic, however, as the Buckeyes' rushing attack isn't exactly experienced either. Gone are Big Ten Running Back of the Year Carlos Hyde and four multi-year starters on the offensive line, replaced by a stable of talented—albeit unproven—young players.

As far as the quarterback's role in running the ball, Barrett is hardly the home-run threat that Miller's been for the past three seasons, but an efficient runner nonetheless. He's also been the Buckeyes' most impressive decision-maker in the zone-read game this offseason, a skill that Miller has struggled with as he's shown a propensity for telegraphing his runs.

What Barrett makes up for in decision-making he loses in designed runs, as Miller's signature quarterback counters will likely disappear from the Buckeyes' playbook in the coming year. For that reason alone, the running backs should shoulder the load of the OSU run game, although opposing defenses could make Barrett prove what he's capable of on the ground.

Nevertheless, expect to hear names like Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith, Bri'onte Dunn and Curtis Samuel early and often for the Buckeyes this season—especially in their debut against the Midshipmen. Both facets of the Ohio State offense may be unproven, but like legendary Buckeyes coach Woody Hayes once said, there are three things that can happen when you throw the ball—and two of them are bad.

 

Shorter Passes 

When it comes to arm strength, Barrett is no Miller, nor is he even fellow signal-caller Cardale Jones. But that's no secret to Herman, who's well aware of his new starting quarterback's physical shortcomings.

"We've gotta work on strengthening his arm," Herman admitted. "He's a distant third behind Braxton and Cardale in terms of just rearing back and trying to throw it through a wall."

So gone will be deep balls from the Buckeyes quarterback, perhaps attempts that would have predominately been targeted for senior speedster Devin Smith. But what Barrett lacks in power, he makes up for in accuracy, which could ultimately prove for a more well-rounded attack in the OSU passing game.

"He gets the ball out quickly, is very efficient. Smooth release. Very accurate," Herman said of Barrett. "Extremely cerebral."

One player in particular who could benefit from Barrett's insertion into the starting lineup is wide receiver/running back Dontre Wilson, who came to Ohio State expected to play the "Percy Harvin role" in Meyer's offense. With dinks and dunks expected to be in the new bread and butter of the Buckeyes offensive approach, look for a lot of them to land in the arms of Wilson, as well as senior tight end Jeff Heuerman.

"We're a little bit better than we were the past two years in terms of skill," Meyer told ESPN's Mike & Mike radio show. "We have a handful of guys where if you make one mistake, that could be a big play for the Buckeyes."

 

A More Systematic Approach

Truth be told, Ohio State's offense may look more like what Meyer envisions for his spread attack with Barrett calling the shots rather than Miller. Sure, Miller is one of the most unique players in college football, but his talents have made the Buckeyes look one-dimensional at times as they've often relied too heavily on his legs and big-play ability.

That shouldn't be the case with Barrett, with Meyer conceding that his top priority will be to spread the ball around. Asked on Mike & Mike how the OSU offense would be different without Miller in the lineup, Meyer pointed to the approach that the Buckeyes took when Kenny Guiton replaced Miller for the better part of three games a season ago.

"We changed a little bit like we did when Kenny Guiton was in there. Kenny Guiton was distributor," Meyer said. "We do a lot of the management throws, especially with a young quarterback."

That's not necessarily a bad thing, as evidenced by the combined 643 yards and 12 touchdowns that Guiton threw for in the three games where he took the majority of Ohio State's snaps. And while Herman isn't ready to put Barrett on Guiton's level just yet, he has confidence in his new starter's ability, which is one reason while Columbus hasn't been all doom and gloom over the last 48 hours.

"At the end of the day, the offense moves when he’s in," Herman said of Barrett. "That's the sign of a good one."

 

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Ohio State Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All recruiting information comes courtesy of 247Sports.

 

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LSU's Season Riding on Les Miles' Ability to Pick a Quarterback

If you have two quarterbacks, you have no quarterbacks. 

LSU is on the verge of having no quarterbacks.

Head coach Les Miles said after Tuesday's scrimmage that sophomore Anthony Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris could both play in the season opener vs. Wisconsin.

“There’s an opportunity to see both quarterbacks play,” Miles said in quotes released by LSU. “We still have several practices left. I think I’ll wait (to name a starter) until I see how I want to play the guys. We’ll tell the starter on Thursday (of game week) when we put together the final (play call) list.”

Good move? Hardly.

Each situation is unique, and while it's fine if Alabama's quarterback battle wages on into the season, LSU really doesn't have that luxury.

With so much roster turnover on the offensive side of the ball, including the absence of quarterback Zach Mettenberger, 1,000-yard rusher Jeremy Hill and 1,000-yard receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., LSU's offense needs continuity, and that continuity begins with Miles settling on a signal-caller.

Wisconsin isn't the team to conduct an audition with. Sure, there are some questions in the front seven for the Badgers to answer, and LSU can play ground-and-pound football with backs Terrence Magee, Kenny Hilliard and Leonard Fournette and get out of there with a win.

But does that solve the quarterback issue? Nope. It would mask it.

In most cases, if all things are equal, a team should go with the veteran—especially if the season opener is a big game that could potentially make or break its national title hopes. The word "veteran," in this case, is a relative term.

Jennings saw spot duty as Zach Mettenberger's reserve leading up to the season finale last year and then led the Tigers on a 99-yard touchdown drive in the closing minutes to beat Arkansas 31-27. The future looked bright.

In his first start—a 21-14 win over Iowa in the Outback Bowl—Jennings was inconsistent, completed only 36.8 percent of his passes (7-for-19), looked apprehensive in the pocket and took four sacks. That trend continued in LSU's spring game when Jennings threw two picks and was sacked four times, according to stats released by LSU.

All the while, Harris looked sharp throwing for 195 yards, rushing for 77 and totaling four touchdowns.

In this case, going with youth is the best approach if all things are equal.

LSU's leading returning receiver is Travin Dural, who had seven catches last year. Not 17 or 70, seven. It's imperative for LSU's young wide receivers, including Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, to develop chemistry with their quarterback. Rotating guys in throughout the duration of fall camp and into the season makes that much more difficult.

Yes, LSU has rotated quarterbacks in the past, including Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson in the SEC championship year of 2011. But those players had experience and familiarity with their teammates.

Jennings and Harris don't, and if Miles doesn't on settle on one soon, LSU is destined for a rebuilding year.

 

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.

 

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JT Barrett Holds Key to Ohio State's Title Hopes After Braxton Miller's Injury

From unassuming backup to the starting quarterback of a national-title contender. Such is the life of Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett, who suddenly finds himself in the enviable position of being the Buckeyes' starting signal-caller and the unenviable (read: and terrifying) position of replacing a Heisman favorite.

Braxton Miller, entering his senior season on the shortest of shortlists for college football's top trophy, suffered a torn labrum in practice Monday and will miss the entire 2014 season.

"I love Ohio State and Buckeye nation, and my goal is to come back from this injury stronger and better than ever," Miller said in a statement, per the team's official website.

"I am on course to graduate in December and I want to attend graduate school, and then return to lead the Buckeyes next season. In the meantime, I want to give all the support I can to my coaches and teammates as they chase a championship this season."

Miller will take a redshirt this season and plans on returning in 2015. While he's not yet become the world-beating superstar many expected during his freshman ascent, Miller seemed to be on the precipice of a real breakout as a senior.

He has gradually improved every season, setting career bests in completion percentage, passing yards, passing touchdowns and quarterback rating in 2013. He's even improved his yards per carry every season.

Ranked fifth by The Associated Press and sixth by the coaches, Ohio State opened camp with designs on being invited to the inaugural College Football Playoff. Michigan State and Wisconsin are the only major threats in another watered-down Big Ten, and the Buckeyes and Badgers will only go head-to-head if they win their respective divisions.

When assessing the title picture, I'd already penciled Ohio State into my "obligatory undefeated Big Ten team" slot. Gone were the likes of Carlos Hyde, Bradley Roby, Ryan Shazier and basically every lineman on the damn roster.

But there were enough returning starters defensively to give hope that the leaky unit from last season would improve, and Miller was there to hit Devin Smith downfield and atone for the departure of the steady stalwart Hyde.

Now? Yikes.

The Buckeyes go from title contender to third-best team in their conference in the blink of an eye. After being 10-1 or 12-1 at most sportsbooks throughout the preseason, Ohio State sits at odds anywhere from 30-1 all the way to 50-1 after news of Miller's injury was confirmed, per OddsShark

Urban Meyer, who has compiled a 24-2 record in two seasons in Columbus, basically has one hope: He's brilliant enough to mold Barrett into a worthy Miller successor within the next 11 days.

The bad news: Barrett has never played a collegiate snap. The redshirt freshman sat out all of last season while recovering from a knee injury that cost him his senior season in high school. He is basically the Derrick Rose of football players, having appeared in only five games combined over the last two seasons.

Unfortunately, the NCAA does not accept self-made vouchers for one free year of Troy Smith eligibility. 

The good news: Barrett might not be terrible at football! Listed at 6'1" and 225 pounds, Barrett has an almost identical build to Miller. He was considered the third-best dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2013 by 247Sports' composite rankings and was the No. 137 player nationally. In five games prior to his knee injury, Barrett had averaged 263.4 total yards per game and scored 12 touchdowns.

With more than a full year of recovery under his belt, Barrett seemed to be picking up where he left off in camp. While he fell behind in the backup quarterback race during the spring, Barrett has since usurped third-year sophomore Cardale Jones.

"The offense moves better when he's in there," offensive coordinator Tom Herman told reporters Monday. "You can throw all the completion percentages – he's probably completing more balls and making more of the right reads in the run game.

"But at the end of the day, the offense moves when he's in and sometimes it doesn't as much, not that Cardale is doing a bad job, but the offense moves more frequently when J.T. is the quarterback, and that's the sign of a good one."

From a skill set standpoint, he's much farther along as a passer than Miller was arriving at Ohio State. He is a natural quarterback—not an athlete forced into the position who can throw.

While Miller's lightning-quick speed is typically the first thing that stands out, for Barrett, it's about his stellar mechanics. Working in Meyer's spread offense will be a perfect fit; Barrett loves getting the ball out of his hands in short, quick-read throws. 

And it's not as if Barrett is Peyton Manning in the pocket. He is a very good athlete, able to beat linebackers and rushers around the edge on scrambles and smart enough as a rusher to handle designed carries. It's doubtful we'll see him bust off the 70-yard runs fans in Columbus have been accustomed to from Miller, but he has fine top-end speed as well.

That said, there's a sense losing Miller is one blow too many for Ohio State.

Not only is Barrett entering the fire nearly two calendar years away from his last competitive game, he's doing so behind an inexperienced offensive line. The Buckeyes are replacing four starters from last year's team.

Though graduate transfer Chad Lindsay brings some stability at center, Meyer will basically be banking on years of seasoning as a backup turning the likes of Darryl Baldwin and Antonio Underwood into solid contributors.

Offensive line was already seen as one of the Buckeyes' biggest concerns. Throwing a green unit out on the field to protect an even greener quarterback is a recipe for trouble. Ohio State doesn't have long to build chemistry on a cupcake trail either. After opening the season with Navy, Virginia Tech and Frank Beamer's consistently ferocious defense pays the Horseshoe a visit.

Even if the Buckeyes are able to retain home-field advantage—after all, the Hokies remain fatally allergic to scoring those point things—trips to Penn State and Michigan State become infinitely harder.

The Spartans bring back stars Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford and are consistently among the nation's best defenses. If the Rose Bowl champs weren't already the favorite in that game, they certainly are now.

That, when boiling it down to its core, is kind of the problem. Barrett can and—I suspect—will be pretty good this season. Miller was preparing for an invited-to-New York City-level great season. 

Ohio State's margin for error is not big enough to withstand a drop from superstar Heisman contender to above-average freshman. For the Buckeyes to win the national championship, they need Barrett to be Braxton Miller—not a decent facsimile.

As Ohio State fans know all too well and are preparing to find out, there's unfortunately only one Braxton Miller. 

 

Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter.

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