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What Recruits Are Saying About Charlie Strong as New Texas Head Coach

Texas officially concluded a high-profile nationwide coaching search Sunday. The university hired former Louisville head coach Charlie Strong following flirtations with Alabama's Nick Saban, UCLA's Jim Mora Jr. and Baylor's Art Briles.

Strong spent four seasons with the Cardinals, taking over in 2010 after serving as defensive coordinator at Florida. He led the team to 23 victories in the past two seasons, including bowl wins over Florida and Miami, and he gained increased exposure due to the popularity of potential No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Teddy Bridgewater.

As Strong gets underway with his new role in Austin, recruiting immediately emerges as a top priority. National signing day is fast approaching, and a top-10 class is still within reach for if he can convince prospects that Texas remains a desirable destination.

Several Longhorns commits and targets have already reacted to the hiring. Here's a glimpse at how some of the nation's premier junior and senior high school standouts initially feel about Mack Brown's replacement.

 

4-star QB Jerrod Heard (Denton, Texas)

2014 Texas commit

Jerrod Heard committed to Texas as a sophomore and has long been viewed as the team's quarterback of the future. He admires the way Strong increased the level of competition at Louisville.

"(Texas) definitely got a good coach," Heard told OrangeBloods.com reporter Jason Suchomel. "How he turned Louisville around into one of the top schools, he's a great recruiter, got some good guys in and I think that's what he's going to do at Texas. It's heading to the right track."

He also expressed excitement in Strong's willingness to open up the playbook for dynamic passers. Heard appreciated the way he allowed Bridgewater to flourish at Louisville.

"He lets the quarterback work," Heard told 247Sports reporter Blake Munroe. "That's the kind of offense I like.”

 

4-star RB Donald Catalon (Houston, Texas)

2014 Texas commit

Donald Catalon rushed for nearly 3,000 yards since his sophomore season. The running back pledged to the Longhorns prior to his junior year and seems undaunted in his commitment to Texas.

“He seems to be a great coach," Catalon told 247Sports. "I know he’s done some great things with Louisville and with Florida, so I’m really looking forward to playing for him. I’m excited about it.”

 

3-star DT Trey Lealaimatafao (San Antonio, Texas)

2014 Texas commit

Defensive tackle Trey Lealaimatafao didn't sound quite as ready to buy into the Strong era as some of his fellow commits.

"I don't really know him too well. We'll just have to restart this recruiting process," he told OrangeBloods.com. "It's (a) soft (commitment), but I'll have to talk to (Strong) first before I do anything."

Lealaimatafao is also considering UCLA, Oregon and Texas Tech.

 

4-star DE Derick Roberson (San Antonio, Texas)

Dominant defensive end Derick Roberson reacted with a heavy dose of excitement on Sunday. He committed to Texas in August 2012 and clearly can't wait to get to campus with a new coach.

Texas is going to be too too RAW next year ❕❗️🐂😁🙌 I cant wait 😏

— D-RO (@DerickJRoberson) January 5, 2014

 

3-star LB Andrew Beck (Tampa, Fla.)

2014 Texas commit

Plant City High School standout Andrew Beck is an outstanding tackler who projects as an outside linebacker at the next level. Strong primarily worked with linebackers during his tenure at Florida, so it will be interesting to see what kind of imprint he makes on the position in Austin.

Beck is on board with the hire and ready to compete for a defensive-minded coach.

“I think it will be good for the university and for me personally," Beck told 247Sports. "He seems like a great guy and a great coach who obviously has turned things around at Louisville, so he knows what he is doing. He also seems like a high energy coach, so I’m excited.”

 

4-star LB Otaro Alaka (Houston, Texas)

2014 Texas commit

Texas would love to pair Otaro Alaka with Beck in the linebacker corps, but Strong may have some work to do during the final stretch of his recruitment.

"I would like to talk to him before I make any decisions," he told 247Sports. "I still may take some visits but want to speak with him first.”

Alaka, a Texas commit since April, holds offers from Arkansas, Baylor, LSU and several other schools.

 

4-star TE Blake Whiteley (Arizona Western College)

2014 target

Blake Whiteley is rated the nation's No. 1 junior college tight end prospect by 247Sports. He received an offer from the Longhorns in early December, and the team quickly rose to the top of his list.

However, with a new regime in place, he wants questions answered about Texas' revamped offensive game plan.

"I do think coach Strong is a great coach. However, for me as both a blocking and a pass-catching tight end, I still need to hear what kind of offensive philosophy and coordinator he is going to choose," Whiteley told OrangeBloods.com.

Virginia, Purdue and Arkansas are likely Texas' stiffest competition for his commitment.

 

4-star LB Cameron Townsend (Missouri City, Texas)

2015 target

Ridge Point High School junior Cameron Townsend is considered one of the top linebacker prospects in the 2015 class. He will be one of Strong's top in-state targets during his first full recruiting cycle at the helm, competing with the likes of USC, Oklahoma and Michigan.

Despite some unfamiliarity, Townsend has lofty expectations for Strong.

"I don't know much about him, but seeing the things he did at Louisville makes me think he can make Texas a national championship contender again," Townsend told OrangeBloods.com.

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Why Did Hundley and Mora Both Pass Up a Ton of Cash to Stay at UCLA?

All too often in college football, pundits and fans are focused on the next big thing for players and coaches: The next job for coaches, and the next level for players. It's a narrow scope view, which blocks the big picture. 

The big picture at UCLA is big enough that it attracted quarterback Brett Hundley back to the program for 2014, spurning NFL riches and a likely first-round draft pick for one more year in pursuit of the Bruins' first conference championship since 1998—and, perhaps, the program's first national championship in 60 years. 

"I told [my dad] I came to UCLA for this specific reason: Bring this program back to national prominence," Hundley said at a news conference Monday. "That was the one thing that stuck in my head [during the decision-making process]."

The NFL and professional riches will still be there for Hundley next season, but in rejoining head coach Jim Mora for another season, he could make some UCLA football history on his way out.  

The Bruins won 10 games this season, the program's most since 2005, and did so despite playing as many as 18 freshmen throughout the campaign. A favorable schedule awaits the battle-tested Bruins in 2014, and the pieces are in place for what Hundley called "something special." 

Hundley will captain the Bruins offense for a third season. Among the Pac-12, only Oregon's Marcus Mariota, another highly coveted draft prospect who put off the NFL for one more season, has much experience as his team's exclusive quarterback.

Surrounding Hundley is a bevy of similarly experienced talent on both sides of the ball. His deep receiving corps returns notable names like Devin Fuller, Thomas Duarte and Devin Lucien, all of whom caught multiple touchdown passes in 2013. 

Surely there's individual motivation behind Hundley's decision to return to UCLA. The evolution of professional offenses to integrate more freedom from quarterbacks makes the dual-threat Hundley a more viable first-round option than he may have been 10 or even five years ago.

Combine that with his sky-high potential, and it's no wonder NFL scouts are high on Hundley. But he also has room for improvement, as B/R draft guru Matt Miller and others note. 

Hundley said his draft advisory board assessment was all over the map, from second to as far down as fourth round. He sometimes struggled in the pocket in 2013, appearing indecisive against the pass rush. 

Some of the first major strides in Hundley's passing game were taken in UCLA's 42-12 romp over Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl. After sending the Hokies' vaunted rush defense back on its heels as a ball-carrier in the first half, Hundley unleashed his arm on their secondary.

He finished with 226 yards passing and two touchdowns to go with 161 yards rushing and another two scores. Following such a strong performance, making the choice to turn pro could have been that much easier—UCF quarterback Blake Bortles, for example, opted to make the jump following his stellar Fiesta Bowl.  

And Hundley said his leaving was as close as "a coin flip" at one point. 

"After a big-time game like that and everyone’s giving you praise…you need to let it settle," Hundley said. "It’s a big decision, but I’m happy I made this decision." 

Hundley said former teammates and 2013 NFL rookies, running back Johnathan Franklin and defensive end Datone Jones, helped him through the decision. 

"When you go to that next level [of the NFL], it’s different than having that brotherhood [in college]," Hundley said.  

Brotherhood is a theme that Mora has emphasized in his time at UCLA, and the coach has practiced what he preaches via his dedication to the program. 

In much the same fashion Hundley said "no, thanks" to the next big thing of the NFL, Mora turned down the next big thing in coaching—an opportunity to lead Texas, one of the game's most historically rich programs and a flagship for the sport. 

"It is always flattering when someone is interested in you. But I am committed to being the UCLA coach," Mora told the Los Angeles Times.

After turning down Washington, his alma mater and a job he once called a "dream," Mora has rebranded UCLA. His passing on what is considered a top-tier collegiate coaching job to remain in Westwood, Calif., sends a message that UCLA is itself a top-tier destination. 

And why not? The Bruins are positioned in one of the nation's deepest recruiting pools, are in the nation's second-largest media market and play their home games in one of college football's premier venues. 

With no NFL franchise in Los Angeles, USC is the only local competition, and UCLA has won the last two head-to-head meetings to claim the city's bragging rights. 

There will be plenty more interest in Mora as UCLA continues to win. His pedigree is in the NFL, and another opportunity to lead a professional franchise may be just around the corner. After all, three of the 12 coaches to lead teams into this season's NFL playoffs were in the Pac-12 no more than just four years ago. 

But Mora stressed this season how much the bond between players and coaches at the college level means to him. 

"I love Coach Mora to death," Hundley said. "He loves us not only as football players, but as young men."

For coach and quarterback, that relationship and the shared dedication in building the next big thing transcends chasing the next big thing. 

 

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. 

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Why Did Hundley and Mora Both Pass Up a Ton of Cash to Stay at UCLA?

All too often in college football, pundits and fans are focused on the next big thing for players and coaches: The next job for coaches, and the next level for players. It's a narrow scope view, which blocks the big picture...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

Notre Dame Football: How Stephon Tuitt's Departure Will Impact Irish Defense

Defensive end Stephon Tuitt decided three years was enough at Notre Dame. The standout defender, who was the Irish's leading sack artist the past two seasons, will declare for the NFL draft. Tuitt spoke with SI.com about his rationale while thanking fans on Twitter for his three years in South Bend. 

Tuitt joins defensive tackle Louis Nix III in leaving Notre Dame with eligibility on the table, with both players a good shot to be drafted in the first round. Their departure from the Irish's defensive front leaves two gigantic holes to fill.

It's a true changing of the guard for the Notre Dame defense. Coordinator Bob Diaco is now running the UConn football program. And when the Irish take the field this spring under new coordinator Brian VanGorder's direction, they'll have a front seven that features only Sheldon Day from the group that opened the 2013 season.

Diaco's departure alone signaled change to the defense. But the personnel on the Irish roster, as well as Kelly's hiring of VanGorder, a coordinator known for his attacking, 4-3 defense, gives us a few hints as to what the defense will look like.

The secondary should remain constant. While the Irish need to replace Bennett Jackson, freshmen Cole Luke and Devin Butler saw early playing time, and there's confidence that the young cornerbacks will be capable to fill Jackson's shoes. The safety play also needs to improve, but there's plenty of available talent to elevate the position.  

Yet, the front seven remains a mystery, both because of schematic changes and unproven personnel. That's not to say there isn't talent. Anchoring the group will be linebacker Jaylon Smith. After earning a spot on 247Sports' True Freshman All-American Team, Smith will enter next season as one of the country's elite defensive playmakers. 

Leading the defensive line will be Sheldon Day. Plagued by a lingering ankle sprain most of the season, Day failed to take a step forward during his sophomore season, but the defensive staff believes they have an elite player in Day. 

Where he plays remains to be seen. At 6'2" and 290 pounds, Day has the size to be a disruptive defensive tackle, though not the type of two-gap, run-stopper that Nix was. Day doesn't have the ideal length to play defensive end, and a slide inside (not to mention a scheme change) could actually benefit his production. 

But behind Smith and Day are mostly question marks. Inside linebacker Jarrett Grace looked like a future building block, but he's in the middle of a long recovery after breaking his leg against Arizona State. Ben Councell is rehabbing a torn ACL as well. Ishaq Williams enters his senior season with no roadblocks in front of him, but he has yet to play anywhere close to the 5-star ranking he brought with him to South Bend. Romeo Okwara is another intriguing piece at outside linebacker, though he's only played sparingly in his first two seasons. 

On the defensive front, key veterans Tony Springmann and Chase Hounshell are both coming off major injuries. They'll be counted on to play big minutes. First year players Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell did some nice things during their debut seasons but will need to take huge steps forward. And a journeyman like Justin Utupo might have earned a fifth year, with the defensive line in desperate need of veteran leadership. 

The wild card in all of this is a talented recruiting class. Early enrollee Andrew Trumbetti is coming off an impressive week at the Under Armour game and will be one of the early benefactors from Tuitt's departure. A handful of other edge players like Grant Blankenship, Jonathan Bonner, Matt Dickerson and Jhonathon Williams could play as well.

Five freshman linebackers enter with something to prove. US Army All-American Nyles Morgan could be an immediate contributor at inside linebacker. Richard Yeargin III held his own in San Antonio as well. While Bob Diaco was slow to trust freshmen as anything more than complementary parts, the verdict is still out on how quickly VanGorder will use young players.

Talent doesn't seem to be the problem. Just about every defender on this roster was handpicked by this staff and highly recruited. But after having some key pieces in place for a few seasons, 2014 will be a new-look group, with Tuitt's departure the final brick.

Still, you can't help but look at the past two seasons and understand that things don't always go as expected. In 2012, the Irish rode a rebuilt secondary and unproven starters like Nix, Tuitt and Danny Spond into the school's record books. In 2013, preseason expectations for Nix, Tuitt and Prince Shembo all went unfulfilled as the defense crumbled

After getting four seasons from Zack Martin, Manti Te'o, Tyler Eifert, Harrison Smith and Michael Floyd, Tuitt is the first three-and-out player since Kyle Rudolph was the first tight end taken in the 2011 draft. His departure opened the door for Eifert, who seized the opportunity and became the Irish's next All-American tight end. 

Tuitt leaves a gaping hole in the defense. But great players leave. Finding his replacement will be one of the key's to the Irish's future. 

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Johnny Manziel Starts 'The Chop' with FSU Fans at Hollywoood Party

Stop me if you've heard this one: "Johnny Manziel walks out of a bar..."

Granted, that's a story nearly as tired as anything to do with signatures or tantalizing touchdowns, but there is something new to offer: Johnny Football is an equal-opportunity party reveler. 

Thanks to TMZ and the advent of social media, we get to see Manziel perform the Florida State Seminole chop before, we assume, he heads off to bigger lights, fatter paychecks and grander parties. 

Thanks to Twitter user Cate Bevans, we get to see what an extremely happy Manziel looks like. Forget getting all bent out of shape over the Seminole tomahawk chop, because that face should receive all of your energy. 

It's OK, Mr. Football. We all get one mulligan. 

Man, I wish there was video, possibly one with NSFW language. Hey, thanks to ESPN Radio Tallahassee's promotions director Alicia Cross for providing just that with this Instagram video

Forget Flavor Flav, because Manziel is the ultimate hype man. 

Now if you are wondering about the where and when behind all the festivities, TMZ was there to catch the Texas A&M star quarterback as he was coming out of the nightclub. 

Here is the video, featuring a confused Manziel who really just wanted to find out where his buddy on the other side of the phone was. 

According to the report, Manziel was at the Emerson nightclub in Hollywood on Sunday, partying it up with an already excited Florida State contingent. 

As you are no doubt aware, the BCS Championship Game takes place on Monday night at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. The No. 2 Auburn Tigers take on the No. 1 Seminoles, and it's clear who the Aggies QB is pulling for—or at the very least was pulling for on Sunday night. 

If he does stiff arm the NFL and comes back to school, it's probably smart to keep his rooting interest outside the conference.

As TMZ notes, Manziel, who is coming off a come-from-behind win over Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, did manage to toss one big shout out to his fellow Aggies: "I love my teammates—always and forever."

Not done with the classy shout-outs, Manziel tweeted out the following: 

The Houston Chronicle's Brent Zwerneman reports fellow Aggie Ricky Seals-Jones believes Manziel has already left the college life in spirit, stating simply, "Johnny's gone. He’s gone."

If so, you can't blame the kid for taking a victory tour of sorts. He has to get an early push on NFL parties, which we are confident he will enjoy. 

 

Hit me up on Twitter


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John Plattenburg Flips Commitment from UCLA to USC

Steve Sarkisian continues to do well for himself on recruiting, as the USC Trojans reportedly have flipped UCLA Bruins defensive back commit John Plattenburg Jr. on Monday.

FOX Sports national recruiting analyst Greg Biggins reported the news and a quote from Plattenburg: 

The 3-star cornerback out of Houston, Texas committed to UCLA back in November, but it appears the changing of the guard at USC has had an impact on his allegiance to the Bruins. New defensive backs coach Keith Heyward recruited Plattenburg hard while at Washington, and his presence at USC has had an influence on Plattenburg's change of heart, according to FOX Sports' Brandon Huffman:

His 5'10", 179-pound frame gives him good size, and he will only fill out more as he develops in college. Aside from the threat he provides in coverage, Plattenburg is an asset on kick returns and has a penchant for making quarterbacks pay for badly thrown balls. 

Plattenburg's commitment to USC is a godsend for the Trojans, who have just two other defensive backs in the ranks for 2014. With Dion Bailey electing to enter the NFL draft, USC has just Josh Shaw and the freshman phenom Su'a Cravens as reliable starters for next season. Kevon Seymour is developing into a real talent at cornerback, but injuries have decimated the rest of the secondary. 

Redshirt junior Anthony Brown, redshirt sophomore Ryan Henderson, redshirt freshman Devian Shelton, sophomore Ryan Dillard, freshman Chris Hawkins, freshman Leon McQuay III and senior Gerald Bowman are all waiting in the wings for USC, but injuries have prevented any of them making significant contributions to Troy. 

Despite the work Clancy Pendergast did with the secondary, making the unit more respectable than it has been in years, the lack of depth and skill there still reared its ugly head in long-ball situations.

Even in his introductory press conference, Steve Sarkisian noted that USC's secondary has been one of the biggest victims of the NCAA sanctions, forcing players onto the gridiron before they are ready. He said he wanted to bring in more talent there—and flipping Plattenburg achieves that purpose.

With Plattenburg now in the ranks, USC secures more depth, and in return he gets the chance for early playing time. 

The Trojans now have 17 of their 19 scholarships filled for 2014, but expect a few decommitments before national signing day arrives in February. According to FOX Sports' Lindsey Thiry, there are still some last-minute fireworks that could still go off at USC:

Buckle up, Trojan fans. Things are going to get very interesting for USC down the homestretch. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

John Plattenburg Flips Commitment from UCLA to USC

Steve Sarkisian continues to do well for himself on recruiting, as the USC Trojans reportedly have flipped UCLA Bruins defensive back commit John Plattenburg Jr. on Monday...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

Brett Hundley Officially Announces He Will Stay at UCLA for 2014 Season

The speculation can finally stop: Brett Hundley will not enter the 2014 NFL draft. 

UCLA's dynamic sophomore quarterback has been at the center of "will-he-won't-he" talk for several months now, but after seeking feedback from those closest to him, he finally made the decision to stay at Westwood.

Edward Lewis of Rivals.com provided the news and a photo from Hundley's announcement:

This is undoubtedly a major win for the Bruins, as many believed he would take his talents to the pros. Instead, Hundley follows in the footsteps of fellow highly acclaimed sophomore Pac-12 quarterback Marcus Mariota and will return to school.   

Hundley said that his draft projection was a wide range when he explored the possibility of going pro:

Still, according to Abbey Mastracco of FoxSportsWest.com, Hundley talked about hos close he was to entering the draft:

How close was Hundley to leaving? He said, "It could have been a coin flip at one point in time." #UCLA

— Abbey Mastracco (@AbbeyMastracco) January 6, 2014

Hundley still has areas that need improvement, and despite the fact that the Chandler, Ariz., native had a tremendous year he felt he needed more time at the college level to refine his skill set.

In leading UCLA to a 10-3 overall record, Hundley completed 67.2 percent of his throws for 3,071 yards, 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also ran for 748 yards and added another 11 scores on the ground. 

While Hundley is still a work in progress, he possesses the physical traits—arm strength, dual-threat ability, elusiveness in the pocket—that can't be taught, and it gives UCLA a major boost for next season.

The redshirt sophomore was gaining momentum as one of the top quarterbacks in college football, including Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr and Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles and Zach Mettenberger.

Hundley's decision is one that will have a major impact on the quarterback class and the Pac-12.

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Cold Hard Fact for Monday, January 6, 2014

Fact: Florida State has not trailed in a game since they were down 17-10 to Boston College in the 2nd quarter of their game on September 28. That's a span of 571 minutes and 49 seconds game time. 

Bleacher Report will be bringing sports fans the most interesting and engaging Cold Hard Fact of the day, presented by Coors Light.

Source: Florida Today

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BCS Championship 2014: Why Florida State's Jameis Winston Will Be MVP

Before the start of Monday night's VIZIO BCS National Championship Game, it's tempting for people like myself—members of the hot take-desperate media—to issue a contrarian angle or argument, simply for the sake of doing so.

We've spent nearly a month gearing up for this game, after all. What good is telling you things you've already read or heard or watched? There's an attractive impulse to shatter the mold, an urge to say something fresh and new.

Let's not do that.

Jameis Winston has been the best player in college football this season, and really, it hasn't been all that close. He won the Heisman Trophy with ease—and should have won by even more—after throwing for 3,820 yards, 38 touchdowns and 10 interceptions as a redshirt freshman, leading Florida State to the only undefeated record in the country.

Auburn fans might argue that he's yet to play a quality defense, which is fair. Especially after watching the ACC's performance during bowl season, it's hard to defend the Seminoles' schedule, which might be what allowed for Winston's numbers. He hasn't been tested too often.

But who's to say he will on Monday night?

It's not like Auburn's defense has been an immovable object. Sure, it's come against five very good opponents—LSU, Texas A&M, Georgia, Alabama and Missouri—but the Tigers allowed more than 6.9 yards per play on five different occasions this season, including each of their last three games.

Say what you will about the Seminoles' competition, but there's little doubt that they belong in the same class as those offenses. Behind Winston, a veteran offensive line and the deepest stable of playmakers in the country, this group led the nation in Football Outsiders' offensive F/+ ratings—a stat that is adjusted for strength of opponent.

Pressure also doesn't seem to affect the redshirt freshman, despite his young age. Against Clemson in Memorial Stadium—FSU's biggest game to date, by far—Winston completed 22 of 34 passes for 444 yards and three touchdowns. That is how he fared in the biggest spotlight of his career, leading Florida State to a 51-14 rout of the eventual Orange Bowl Champions.

He won't shrink away from the stage.

Beyond that, Winston got experience against a vaunted SEC defense this season, albeit one that was decimated by injury. Still, Florida finished with the 14th-best defense in America, according to Football Outsiders' F/+ ratings, so the Gators were far from a slouch.

Winston threw for 330 yards on just 19 completions, leading his team to an easy 45-7 win. Throw out that argument of "SEC speed."

"I still haven't reached my maximum goal," Winston said at his media day appearance, according to B/R's Barrett Sallee. "With all of the awards that an individual can receive, nothing is more important than hoisting up that crystal football with your team on that stage singing, 'We Are the Champions.'"

Like any good leader, Winston puts team goals over individual ones. But who's to say those things are mutually exclusive?

If Winston just plays like he has all season, he'll make Auburn's secondary look...well, like it has all season. If that's the case, it will work to the benefit of both his team and his own self, padding the line score just as quickly as the box score.

When it's all said and done, Winston will still be holding a crystal football on stage singing, "We Are the Champions."

It just won't be the only trophy he's holding.

 

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Cold Hard Fact for Monday, January 6, 2014

Fact: Florida State is going to its 32nd consecutive bowl game, the longest such streak in the FBS. Virginia Tech has the second-longest streak (21).

Bleacher Report will be bringing sports fans the most interesting and engaging Cold Hard Fact of the day, presented by Coors Light.

Source: NCAA.com

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Gus Malzahn's Wife Kristi Assists Auburn Coach in Connecting with Players

The Auburn Tigers have experienced one of the most significant turnarounds college football has ever seen this season, and head coach Gus Malzahn is just getting started.   

Malzahn's first year at the helm has been nothing short of spectacular. He has taken a program that was 3-9 a season ago to a BCS No. 2 ranking and a spot in the BCS title game against the Florida State Seminoles.

However, when the 48-year-old offensive wizard's intensity gets too fierce, he relies on his wife, Kristi Malzahn, who has played an integral role in helping him focus on the subtler aspects of football, such as simply connecting with his players.

As reported by AL.com's Joel A. Erickson on Jan. 5, the coach feels as though he can rely on his better half when it comes to getting a second opinion on his constant forward thinking.

"I wouldn't be here without her," said Gus Malzahn. "We do this thing together. She is my accountability because I'm a one-track focused mind."

Malzahn elaborated further on the importance of building relationships with those he coaches outside of the gridiron realm:

First of all, even when I was a high school coach, I think it's extremely important that you develop relationships with your players. I think it's very important that your players know that you care about them more than what they can do on the football field. I think even more can be said for coaching college because you've got to win, the pressures to win and everything that goes with that.

According to tight end C.J. Uzomah, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee keeps the sometimes high-strung leader of the staff in check:

You know, Coach Malzahn, anytime something doesn't work, he takes it really personally. Coach Lashlee will be like 'Coach, calm down, it didn't happen on purpose. They didn't mean to drop the ball or run the wrong play, it's okay.' And Coach Malzahn will freak out, and sometimes Coach Lashlee is sometimes, 'It's okay.'

Malzahn can be as stubborn apart from game situations as he has been this season in running the ball relentlessly down opponents' throats. That attitude has spurred the Tigers to first in the nation in rushing offense, but it's also something Malzahn constantly has to check on.

Erickson outlines a story about former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, who actually sought out Kristi Malzahn for counsel when he wasn't quite clicking with his then-offensive coordinator before his Tigers debut.

"That situation you're talking about, that was before the first game, and I was extremely hard on Cam and would push him and push him. She just noticed that, hey, you need to make sure he knows you care about him," said Malzahn.

The tough-love approach that Malzahn deploys at times has evidently been reined back enough so as not to be a detriment to the Tigers or any of his previous stops.

Getting through the tough SEC and capping it off with a dominant 59-42 victory over Missouri in the conference championship game makes the swift turnaround engineered by Malzahn especially impressive.

Malzahn's meteoric rise to date has been astonishing, and a testament to his innovative offense as well as his ability to moderate and maximize the effectiveness of his message as a leader of a marquee football program.

According to CBSSports.com's Jason La Canfora, that has generated interest for at least one coaching vacancy in the NFL—the Cleveland Browns, who are reportedly interested in interviewing Malzahn.

Former Browns GM Phil Savage discussed the regime's potential rationale for bringing in Malzahn by comparing the coach's dynamic offensive schemes and leadership ability to that of Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly:

That's high praise, considering Kelly led the Eagles to the NFC East title in his first season in the pros.

Regardless of the outcome of the national championship clash in Pasadena's Rose Bowl on Monday, Jan. 6, it seems the sky is the limit for Malzahn's future.

The AP Coach of the Year can thank mentors who helped him along the way, his players for executing his exciting, fresh concepts and his wife for keeping him even-keeled through the grind.

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Who Is the No. 1 Recruit in Class of 2014?

With bowl season wrapping up, recruiting season is taking center stage. So let's take an updated look at who's the best recruit in the country. 

Running back Leonard Fournette recently committed to LSU. The 6'1", 226-pound prospect already looks like a senior in college and has the skills to have a serious impact on LSU's offense.

Barrett Sallee, Adam Kramer, and Michael Felder break down who is the No. 1 recruit in the 2014 class. 

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Jimbo Fisher and Wife Candi Open Up on Son Ethan's Battle with FA

As Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher prepares for the biggest battle of his coaching life, he and his wife, Candi, are opening up on the biggest battle they face off the field.

In 2011, the couple's youngest son, Ethan, was diagnosed with a disease called Fanconi anemia, a rare blood disorder that can cause bone-marrow failure, leukemia and tumors, according to Fanconi.org. The average lifespan of someone suffering from the disease is between 28 and 30 years.   

“That moment will always be pivotal in our family,” Candi Fisher said of her son's diagnosis, per USA Today's Laken Litman. “I don’t think we take things for granted like we used to. We cherish a lot more.”

Although the number of documented patients is unclear, the chances of a child suffering from the recessive disease are about 1-in-131,000. Only 31 children each year on average are diagnosed with the condition in the United States. 

Ethan, who was five years old at the time of his diagnosis and is now eight, undergoes quarterly blood tests at University of Amplatz Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis to check on the progression of the disease. He is also subject to yearly bone-marrow checks. Although there is no known cure at this time, the continuous testing is meant to identify any concerns and put him on a possible transplant list if needed. 

Doctors estimated that Ethan would need a transplant within three to five years of his diagnosis, per CNN's Jacque Wilson

FA, which causes numerous problems throughout the body, causes at least one physical abnormality in 60 percent of patients. The most common among those is a short stature, as children suffering from FA often look years younger than others their age. Other conditions include learning disabilities, extra extremities and defects in heart tissues. Ethan shows no outward signs of FA. 

“The hardest part is knowing that it’s a waiting game,” Candi said. “We know that we can never ever let our guard down. We know that we can never relax. It’s always in the back of your mind, knowing this blood test day could be the day they say his numbers are dropping.”

Jimbo Fisher, whose Seminoles play for the BCS National Championship against Auburn on Jan. 6, has worked particularly hard to balance out home and coaching life since the diagnosis. Ethan is a regular fixture in the Florida State locker room, hanging with the players and coaches. Per Wilson, every player has signed up for the bone-marrow donor registry. 

After learning of Ethan's disease, Candi founded the Kidz1stFund, which has already raised nearly $2 million since 2011. The organization works with afflicted families to help raise awareness and find a cure for the condition. In September, Florida State and Pittsburgh wore decals on their helmets with the Kidz1stFund's slogan, "I fight Fanconi," in an effort to raise awareness.

Despite being hours away from a possible national title, Jimbo sounds more like a coach when discussing how his family plans to defeat FA than he does talking about Seminoles players. 

“We accepted it in that God doesn’t put more on your plate than you can handle,” Jimbo said. “Everybody has issues in their life and we know this is a very serious one, but life goes on. It’s not going to control us. We’re going to control it. We look at it like an opponent. We’re gonna beat it.”

Doctors say that, while the odds are stacked against a cure, they're getting better. Dr. Margaret MacMillan, a hematologist oncologist at the hospital where Ethan receives his treatment, noted that bone-marrow-surgery survival rates have jumped by 65 percent over the past 16 years. That's not necessarily enough to cure a degenerative disease, but it can go a long way in starting to expand the lifespans of those afflicted with FA.

Until then, Fisher seems determined to use his triumphs on the field to help his son have one off of it. 

"I love what I do," Fisher said, per Wilson. "The more success I have, the more awareness I can bring to this disease."

 

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FSU vs. Auburn: Seminoles Defense vs. Auburn Run Game Will Be Deciding Matchup

The Auburn Tigers, this year's Southeastern Conference representative, will have their hands full when they face off against No. 1 Florida State and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston in the BCS National Championship Game.

A prolific offense has to have a prolific quarterback, and that's exactly what head coach Jimbo Fisher has in his redshirt freshman quarterback. Winston threw for 3,820 yards and 38 touchdowns while leading the nation's most high-powered offense (53 points a game) to an undefeated record.

While it appears that Florida State has the upper hand when the two teams play in Pasadena, Calif., it'll need to limit the nation's best rushing offense if it wants any chance of taking home the national title crown. An offense that has made head coach Gus Malzahn look like the Merlin of college football.

After Auburn won the 2011 BCS National Championship, Malzahn, then the offensive coordinator of the Tigers, bolted for a head coaching job at Arkansas State. Without Malzahn at the helm, Auburn struggled. In 2012 the Tigers went 3-9 and then head man Gene Chizik was fired. Malzahn filled the coaching vacancy and led the Tigers back to the promised land in his first season as head coach.

However, without extremely talented running backs and a powerful offensive line, Malzahn's offense would be nothing. But that's not the case. Instead, he has the running skills of quarterback Nick Marshall and Heisman finalist Tre Mason to utilize.

Both Mason and Marshall rushed for over 1,000 yards this season, including a combined 405 yards and five touchdowns against Missouri in the SEC Championship Game.

The No. 1 rushing team in the nation doesn't try to hide its running intentions. Just ask the guy who's scouted it for the past month: Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.

"They've done an outstanding job over the course of the year," Pruitt told Elton Hayes of the Tuscaloosa News.  "They've been really stubborn about it. They're going to run the football. Everybody knows they're going to run the football, and you've got to be able to stop them.”

The best thing the Tigers can do is run the football, take time off the clock and keep Winston and the Seminoles offense on the sideline. If Florida State can stop the Tigers, it'll most likely have something to do with its do-it-all linebacker, Telvin Smith.

The senior linebacker has done everything for Pruitt's defense this year. Smith leads Florida State's defense in tackles and interceptions, and is also third on the team in sacks.

Florida State has the talent, and speed, across the board to get a couple stops on defense and get the ball back to its high-scoring offense. Auburn will score, and Mason will get his yardage. However, it'll be Florida State in the end that takes home the national title in Pasadena.

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Arkansas State Runs 'Hide the Midget' Trick Play in GoDaddy Bowl

In the second quarter of Arkansas State's 23-20 victory over Ball State in the GoDaddy Bowl, the Red Wolves ran a strange trick play. 

The ESPN announcer called it the "Hide the Midget" play, where 5'9" wide receiver R.J. Fleming crouched behind the offensive line. Fleming then took the handoff to the left, while the rest of the play went right. 

He got outside for a 27-yard gain that helped set up a game-tying touchdown. 

Thanks to ESPN for the video. 

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BCS National Championship Game 2014: Potential Unsung Heroes to Watch for

With the 2014 BCS National Championship Game only hours away, the anticipation for what should be a hard-fought battle between the Florida State Seminoles and Auburn Tigers is at a peak.

Florida State will look to dominate the ball through the air with 2013 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston, while Auburn will counter with the nation’s most explosive rushing attack led by quarterback Nick Marshall and running back Tre Mason.

Points are expected to be in abundance, and punts should be at a premium.

But those are the players everyone is talking about. What about the lesser-known playmakers that could make an impact in the BCS’ final national championship matchup?

Join B/R as we take a look at five potential unsung heroes from tonight’s game.

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Panthers Kicker Graham Gano, an FSU Alum, Pranks Auburn Alum Cam Newton

In advance of Monday's BCS National Championship Game, Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano, a Florida State alum, played a little prank on quarterback Cam Newton. 

Newton led Auburn to a national championship following the 2010 season, and he isn't shy when it comes to showing his love for the Tigers. 

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Auburn vs. FSU Game Time: Crucial Info for 2014 BCS National Championship

Florida State and Auburn will ensure that the BCS goes out with a bang, as both teams have had incredible (albeit, different) paths to the BCS National Championship Game.

The Seminoles were led by the arm of Heisman winner Jameis Winston. The redshirt freshman quarterback led FSU to a 13-0 record and the No. 1 offense in the nation. What often gets overlooked, however, is the team's No. 1 defense. By all accounts, FSU has been the best team in the nation this season.

The Tigers, on the other hand, were a late addition to the BCS title game scrum. A last-second win against then-No. 1 Alabama on Nov. 30 put Auburn in the discussion, but it was the Tigers' Dec. 7 win against Missouri in the SEC Championship Game that really locked them in.

The matchup between undefeated FSU and Cinderella story Auburn will be of epic proportions. Can Auburn stop FSU from running the gamut? Can FSU put a halt to Auburn's Cinderella dreams?

Here's all the crucial information you need to know for the game in order to tune in and find out.

 

 What to Expect from VIZIO BCS National Championship Game

Both physicality and finesse will be on display when Auburn and FSU take the field for the final BCS title clash in college football history.

The Seminoles defense and offensive line will be handling most of the physicality. The No. 1 defense in the country allowed just 10.7 points per game this season—and that includes a 34-point outburst by Boston College on Sept. 28. Since then, no team has scored more than 17 (NC State, Oct. 26) against them.

Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com breaks down what makes FSU's defense so dominant:

Florida State's defense has allowed the fewest points in the country (10.7 points per game) and has produced the highest total of interceptions (25). To be a dominant unit, you need to have impact players at all three levels of your defense: defensive line, linebacker and secondary. The Noles check all three of those boxes. Defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, linebacker Telvin Smith and cornerback Lamarcus Joyner are among the best players in college football at their respective positions.

Those three—along with the rest of the defensive unit—will look to make things difficult for Nick Marshall and Co.

In terms of finesse, Auburn's offense relies on the option and the usage of speed runs outside the tackles. Marshall is more of a runner than he is a passer under center, and Heisman finalist Tre Mason racked up over 1,600 yards on 5.7 yards per carry this season. The two of them were instrumental in ranking Auburn's offense No. 1 in terms of yards per game on the ground (335.7).

If the Tigers' finesse can break the physicality of FSU's defense, then Auburn should be able to put points on the board. Gus Malzahn's squad scored 40.2 points per game this season (No. 9 in the nation), so something will have to give between the two units.

 

The Quarterbacks

Winston and Marshall will be the most important players on the field come game time.

The case for Winston is obvious. His on-field triumphs this season were tremendous. Just take a look at his numbers.

There's a reason Winston won the Heisman. His ability to both lead and make plays for the Seminoles during his first season as the team's quarterback was unheralded. There was no defense that could stifle his decision-making skills, nor was there ever a situation that could knock him off his game.

Ironically, Winston will turn 20 years old on Monday, Jan. 6. He told Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald that all he wants for his birthday is a blowout:

"The NCAA has all these rules, but it does not say you cannot blow out everybody you play," Winston said Friday. "Before we played Clemson, before we played Florida, before we played Miami … I said ‘Guys, where in the rulebook does it say we can’t blow out everybody that we play?’"

A blowout could very well happen if Marshall doesn't do his best to match the points that FSU will inevitably put on the board.

Marshall's numbers through the air were far worse than Winston's, but his exploits on the ground were unmatched by every quarterback in the country.

Nobody is asking Marshall to go out there and pass for four touchdowns, but Marshall will need to take advantage of his opportunities through the air. Wide receiver Sammie Coates has big-play potential, but Marshall will need to get him the ball over the top of FSU's defense when it stuffs the box to stop the run.

Marshall is, perhaps, the biggest key to this game for both teams. If he's on, then FSU will have a lot to handle. If he struggles, then Winston might just get that blowout he's looking for.

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Notre Dame Football: How Tuitt's Departure Affects the Irish Defensive Line

During the Brian Kelly era, Notre Dame has come out on the right side of many of its players' decisions regarding whether or not to leave school early for the NFL draft.

Over the past two years, Tyler Eifert, Michael Floyd, Louis Nix and Manti Te'o all chose to return for fourth seasons in South Bend. Without Eifert and Te'o in 2012, the Fighting Irish's 12-0 regular season never would have happened.

The law of averages kicked in Sunday night, however, as star defensive end Stephon Tuitt declared for the NFL draft after just three seasons, becoming the first Irish player since Kyle Rudolph following the 2010 season to turn pro after just three years.

The story was first reported by SI.com. Tuitt later offered a goodbye on Twitter to Notre Dame teammates and fans.

Nix, who had the option of returning in 2014 due to a redshirt year in 2010, graduated last month and is headed to the NFL as well. That leaves Notre Dame with rising junior Sheldon Day as its only returning starter on the defensive line, a unit that struggled with injuries for much of 2013's 9-4 season.

As preparations for 2014 begin, Notre Dame will be without all three of the defensive line starters from its 2012 BCS Championship Game team (Nix, Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore).

If the Irish hope to compete for one of four spots in the College Football Playoff which debuts next year, shoring up the line of scrimmage is a must.

Day, who was limited by a nagging ankle injury in 2013, is a lock to start at one of the defensive end positions. Sophomore Isaac Rochell, a Georgia native like Tuitt, saw significant snaps as a freshman and likely has the inside track for the other end position heading into spring practice.

The wild card is Chase Hounshell, a 2011 signee who has missed each of the past two seasons with injuries. His shoulder injury, suffered in March, healed well enough to allow him to work with the scout team late this season. He is expected to be a full participant in spring practice and, if he can stay healthy, could push Rochell.

No other Irish defensive end has played a game. The Ishaq Williams-to-defensive-end debate will likely continue, but the Cat linebacker has just one season of eligibility remaining.

New defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, whose background is with a 4-3 defense, could tweak the Irish's schemes, but remaining multiple—as they were under Bob Diaco—is most likely. Barring a complete overhaul by VanGorder, Williams will likely remain at Cat. 

247Sports.com indicates that Notre Dame currently has five defensive end commitments, as well as 2013 signee Jacob Matuska, who redshirted this past season.

Justin Utupo is eligible for a fifth year and may now be asked to return in order to avoid having a player with no experience in the two-deep. Notre Dame generally does not announce its fifth-year players until just before the start of spring practice.

Replacing Nix at nose guard will be senior Tony Springmann and junior Jarron Jones.

Springmann is limited athletically, but held up well when filling in for Nix in 2012. He missed 2013 with a knee injury and is expected to be limited through the spring.

It has taken awhile for the light to come on for Jones, but he appeared to turn a corner late last season and will be counted on heavily in the fall.

Notre Dame fans still cringe when they hear the name Eddie Vanderdoes, but reality is that the 2013 Irish signee who transferred to UCLA before ever enrolling at Notre Dame has left the Irish in a significant conundrum. A Day-Vanderdoes duo would have given Notre Dame a great base with which to work, with Vanderdoes having the flexibility to move inside at times.

Hypotheticals are worthless, however. Tuitt and Vanderdoes won't be around, and a unit that Kelly focused so much of his recruiting on early in his Notre Dame tenure is back to being a major question mark heading into 2014.

Expect the 2014 defensive line to look more like the 2010 unit from Brian Kelly's first year that featured Ian Williams at nose guard and Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson at defensive end.

It should be good enough to get by, but isn't going to win games on its own like in 2012 and last year against USC.

Players leaving early for the NFL isn't a bad thing. It means a program is producing elite talent. It just so happens that Tuitt's departure comes at a position where the sophomore and junior classes are perilously thin.

For Kelly and VanGorder, much of the next eight months will be spent attempting to mesh the limited ability of Notre Dame's defensive line veterans with the limited experience of its underclassmen to produce a unit with which the Irish can threaten to be a top-four team.

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