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Michigan Football: What Will Be Justice Hayes' Role in 2014 Offense?

Justice Hayes wasn’t supposed to get lost in the shuffle.

But for one reason or another, the redshirt junior has yet to make a true impact for Michigan, much less earn a prominent role on the field.

Credit him, though. His somewhat slow start with the Wolverines hasn’t been due to a lack of effort. As a whole, the program has been in a slump. Personnel use has been a team-wide issue, not a Hayes-specific problem.

Regardless of his team’s disposition, the 5’10,” 190-pound former Grand Blanc star running back earns constant praise for his work ethic, attitude and performance during practice.

But that’s practice, not the game.

If those weekday and spring snaps fail to yield wins and production on Saturday, all of the “practice praise” in the world means nothing. Hayes is far too athletic to be handcuffed and limited to cameos. He’s so much more than a No. 3 or 4 back on the depth chart, far more valuable than a part-time shift worker.

That’s the common perception.

But the reality is this: He is a No. 3 or 4 backfield option—and he’s behind a pair of sophomores, at that. He is a part-timer, to no fault of his own.

In all likelihood, he’s waiting to show off the speed and agility that earned 4-star status from Rivals in 2010 (No. 3 RB). That same bejeweled skill set attracted attention from Notre Dame, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Tennessee and Iowa, among others.

And that same tell-your-neighbor playmaking ability continues to rule discussion when breaking down the potential of Hayes, who originally pledged to the Irish before opting for Ann Arbor.

The following is Rivals analyst Barry Every’s scouting report on Hayes:

On the Hoof: Hayes is built like a big cornerback. He has wide shoulders and is very well proportioned. I also think he has the ability to gain another 15 pounds. His body structure is reminiscent of Notre Dame running back Theo Riddick. 

Needs Improvement: He will need to add some more strength and size in order to make yards after contact at the next level. He could work on his balance. He needs to keep his feet moving, making it harder to bring him down. 

Most Impressive: Very, very quick back with good speed and ball skills. Hayes is very versatile and could player defensive back, wide receiver or running back at the next level. He is a high-character kid that possesses serious leadership skills. 

Conclusion: This kid will work hard and learn the playbook before most other incoming freshmen in his class. He has the ability to be a punt returner and a gunner on all kicks. He adds instant speed and will be hard to keep off the field.

In hindsight, Every's analysis holds true today...all except the "will be hard to keep him off the field" part. That's been easy for Brady Hoke. Keeping Hayes on the field is the challenge. 

 

Absence of Reps

Recruiting cycles have put Hayes further behind schedule. At one time, he was viewed as a potential No. 1 back. Then Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith arrived. Drake Johnson came to town. The field got blurry.

And in some cases, the same happened to judgment. Instead of using Hayes, Michigan continued to rely upon flawed logic and stale legs. 

Through it all, Hayes has remained on the quest for a major role. Once again raved about during the offseason, this year could be his year. The Wolverines just granted release to Thomas Rawls, lightening the huddle by one, and Johnson is coming off an ACL injury. 

And honestly, Green and Smith have done just enough to earn favorite status.

Doug Nussmeier is the new sheriff in town, taking over for Al Borges, who didn't quite have a grasp on Hayes 101. Nussmeier runs a true pro-set, but it's doubtful that he'll deny capable bodies. Hayes can run with anyone on his team. 

Nussmeier could be on the hunt for fresh faces.

Reps are seemingly ripe for the picking. 

 

Reps, How? 

Unless Green and Smith fail miserably, there is little chance of Hayes overtaking one or both of them in the backfield. The sophomores showed the downhill style that'll lead the Wolverines to the promised land.

Hayes simply isn't physical enough to be an every-down back in a traditional setup. 

That's why he'll be moved around on a constant basis. One play at the slot, and the next in some weird flex thing. Hayes is in line to gain yards in just about every way possible—except that of a prototype Michigan runner. 

Hayes can catch. Tally a few there. He has experience doing so; he played the X-factor while tearing up high school fields in Michigan. He'd run for a few touchdowns, catch a couple, possibly return a kick and call it a night.

He truly dominated Flint-area prep competition for a solid two years. It's a wonder that he hasn't done the same thus far in college. 

 

Scenarios

Nussmeier is a run-it-down-your-throat kind of guy. Of course, that was much easier to do with NFL, Jr. O-liners blocking for Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon. Michigan's offensive front is in the midst of change, looking to replace two bookend tackles and plug in a center. 

Porous lines don't promote running the ball up the middle, at least not at Nussmeiers' former rate in Tuscaloosa. That being said, Hayes could come in handy as a trick-back, finding a niche as a bubble-screen option or toss candidate. 

Hayes runs a 4.4-second 40-yard dash. The wings on the line just have to learn to hold blocks for more than a second or two. Michigan needs a sustained push in the trenches. The toss play fits the bill either way. 

Why? 

Here's why: The toss/sweep caters to Hayes' quickness. It can be used as a safety net for lines struggling to hold their own. Conversely, the play produces much better results when given time to develop. 

Six one way, half of a dozen the other. Give the ball to Hayes on a 3rd-and-short. Trick the defense by showing a short-run look with Green or Smith before dumping off the ball to him. 

He's fast. Pick up on that yet?

Returns?

He's a bigger Dennis Norfleet with better hands.

Norfleet may have a slight edge in the wheels department, but Hayes flies. Norfleet was criticized for bobbling punts in 2013. Hayes has always been a slot option. Michigan should use his hands in some capacity instead of designating him for a position he rarely mans. 

Sounds good, right?

It's a little different on Saturdays, though. 

 

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Under-the-Radar 2014 NFL Draft Prospects

The 2014 NFL Draft is growing closer and closer. The biggest names are endlessly talked about, and athletes are excited to attend and walk across that stage when their names are called May 8.

On this day, however, only 32 names will be called. As excited as everyone is to see who their favorite teams take on that first day, what is even more important are those next six rounds featuring 224 more players who can help build the teams of the NFL.

Every year there are hidden gems in the middle rounds who make huge impacts. Do I have to be the millionth person to bring up when Tom Brady was selected? No? Good, you get it. Now, let’s take a look at a few of the gems who will be hiding in this year’s class.

……Oh, and about that Tom Brady thing,

 

Shayne Skov: inside linebacker, Stanford

Shayne Skov is one of the more interesting prospects in the 2014 NFL Draft. Off the field, Frank Cooney of CBS Sports said, “What you get is a well-educated, but complicated, multi-lingual, multi-faceted guy who has described himself as ‘half-white, half-black and half Mexican.’” This is due to his white father, black mother and his Mexican football heritage.

His family moved from California to Guadalajara, Mexico when Skov was only 12 years old. At age 13 Skov was on his first American football team in Mexico.

This made Skov culturally diverse, and it also made him the hard-hitting football player that he is today. Kevin Armstrong of Sports Illustrated described the football playing conditions for Skov as such,

Without resources for upkeep, the practice field had no grass and was hardened into compact dirt littered with shards of glass and pebbles. Reflective of the macho culture, coaches encouraged hitting. ‘Those were the hardest practices I've been through,’ said Shayne.

Skov would have likely been a first-round pick in last year’s NFL Draft had it not been for an unfortunate knee injury that sidelined him for the 2011 season.

Shayne has appeared to have lost a step in his game since then and, despite rebounding strong in 2013 from a not-so-great 2012 season, his draft stock has taken a hit. Many experts are projecting Shayne will be a third or fourth round pick.

He may have lost a step as far as chasing down plays along the edges, but he could still be an ideal 3-4 middle linebacker in the NFL. He is one of the smartest and most instinctive players in this year’s class.

Skov is strong and reacts very quickly to the direction a play is developing. He tends to be upright and could use some coaching with his block-shedding technique, but he has the potential to be a dangerous pass-rusher.

One more aspect of Skov’s that he could clean up is at the point of attack. He is a great tackler but will sometimes take the wrong angle and has, on too many occasions, had to make tackles with one arm.

 

As, Bleacher Report’s own Matt Miller says in the video above, Skov draws comparisons to a player such as Jon Beason. With the right system, Shayne Skov could make an immediate impact for an NFL team.

 

Colt Lyerla: tight end, Notre Dame

Colt Lyerla is a tremendously athletic tight end and one of the most talented players in the draft. He is so good, in fact, that last April, Chris Burk of Sports Illustrated had him in the first round of his mock draft.

Unfortunately talent will only bring you so far if you are unable to accept your responsibilities, which Colt failed to do in 2013. It was a very bad year for the young man, and his life appeared to be on a downwards spiral.

The issues began in April when Lyerla took to Twitter, defending conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting.

Next he began to have troubles with his team. According to an ESPN report, he missed Oregon's game against Tennessee due to an illness, then was suspended when the team faced Colorado. Ultimately Lyerla decided to quit the team in early October.

Later that month he was arrested for unlawful possession of cocaine and interfering with a police officer.

Lyerla found his biggest problems in college, but even in high school there were signs that his mind was not always in the right place. According to Aaron Fentress of the Oregonian, “Sometime he partied too much. At times his priorities were out of whack. It was a struggle to stay focused when he had virtual free rein at home. His grades suffered. He missed weeks of school at a time.”

There is no excuse for the offenses Lyerla committed, and this has caused his draft stock to plummet. This, like so many athletes who come from troubled backgrounds, is Lyerla’s last opportunity to turn things around and make something of himself.

Has Colt Lyerla learned his lesson? It at least sounds like it. In a quote from Sports Illustrated, Lyerla said,

As much as I hate to say it, I think some of the mishaps that happened and me getting in trouble probably is the best thing that’s happened to me. Because it really put me at a point in place and gave me time to self-reflect, and just helped me realize exactly what I want out of life and what I need to do to get it.

 

If we can pick up Colt Lyerla in a late round, Chicago will fall in love with him. Played with him. Tone setter, great hands, freak athlete

— Kyle Long (@Ky1eLong) February 6, 2014

 

Lyerla has current NFL stars backing him, as seen in the above Tweet. He is a tremendous talent but holds in a lot of pain from his past. Some of us need everything to be on the line in order for us to see what we want out of life. Everything is now on the line for Lyerla. As a potential day three selection, provided that he stays out of trouble, Lyerla will be an absolute steal.

 

Garrett Gilbert: quarterback, Southern Methodist

Garrett Gilbert is a name that may sound familiar. You know, THE Garrett Gilbert. He led the National Championship game in passing during the 2009 season. Still nothing? Do you call yourself a football fan?

Alright, I am kidding. Not about him leading the game in passing, but that his performance was memorable. He really only threw for 186 yards, two touchdowns, and four interceptions. To his credit, he was a freshman, playing the most he ever had in a college game—and it was in the National Championship against Alabama.

Garrett Gilbert was one of the top quarterbacks in the country coming out of high school. He decided to go to the University of Texas, where he would back up Colt McCoy during his freshman year and jump into the driver’s seat as a sophomore.

On January 7, 2010 McCoy had led the Longhorns to the National Championship against the Crimson Tide. In the first quarter, however, after McCoy had thrown only two passes, he was struck by Marcell Dareus. He injured his right shoulder on the play, and the driver’s seat became Gilbert’s long before he was ready. 

The Texas Longhorns lost that game 21-37. Despite Gilbert’s rough game, the expectations for him began to grow rapidly. He was one of the preseason Heisman Trophy candidates going into his sophomore season. He even ranked ahead of current NFL QB’s Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, Christian Ponder and Matt Barkley.

Unfortunately, he disappointed during his sophomore year, throwing only 10 touchdowns along with 17 interceptions. He was on the team for a third year but in October, 2011 he was released from his scholarship and transferred to Southern Methodist University.

Another disappointing season awaited him in 2012 with SMU, but there was progress. This time he was a bit more balanced, throwing 15 touchdowns as well as 15 interceptions.

I suppose no one should be breaking out four years after they played in the national championship, but this was the case for Gilbert in 2013. His passer rating this season was 136.2; he threw for 21 touchdowns and only seven interceptions.

He has been one of the lower rated quarterbacks by most draft analysts but with an impressive pro day, he has people turning the tape back on. Gil Brandt of NFL Media had the following to say, “When all is said and done, I think he'll end up being a mid-round draft pick, maybe even as early as the third round.”

He is a bit raw as a passer, but he has ideal size at 6’4”, 220 pounds. He is also a great athlete who can extend a pocket or break through gaps when a play opens up. Pocket presence is the best attribute I have seen in Gilbert, and that is extremely important at the next level.

He would be an ideal candidate to back up one of the veterans in the league such as Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Drew Brees. If that situation does play out, let us only hope that Gilbert’s first experience as an NFL QB is not in a Super Bowl.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Michigan Football: Exclusive Tour of $9 Million Renovation to Schembechler Hall

The University of Michigan recently finished a $9 million renovation to Schembechler Hall, which was originally approved and described in 2012 , per a University of Michigan press release

The project added approximately 7,000 square feet to the home of Michigan football and renovated approximately 7,000 square feet of the facility.

The exterior was updated to match the facade at Glick Field House—the team's indoor practice facility. The interior included an overhaul of the Towsley Museum, adding an area to honor the Michigan Football Legends, as well as new exhibit, office and recruiting spaces.

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Complete Scouting Report for 5-Star CB Iman Marshall

Iman Marshall belongs in any discussion about the best collegiate cornerback prospects we've seen in recent years. The Long Beach, Calif., product dominates at the position and is being recruited accordingly.

His scholarship offer list covers coast-to-coast conference powers. Florida State, Oregon, LSU, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Stanford are just a few of many programs clamoring for a commitment from the 6'1", 190-pound junior.

He has already spent significant time on campus at nearby USC and UCLA.

Marshall made highlight plays throughout a journey to the Southern California semifinals last season. He starred at wide receiver and cornerback, collecting 64 tackles and an interception, but his most impressive accomplishment didn't show up in the stat sheet.

The Long Beach Poly High School standout didn't surrender a single reception against league opponents, earning area defensive player of the year honors in the process. The team featured a dominant secondary with 5-star 2014 USC signee John Smith also lined up in the defensive backfield.

Marshall is a player college football fans need to know due to his potential to contribute immediately on campus. His high-profile recruitment will continue to command attention until he nails down a final decision.

We broke down the game film to analyze elements that make Marshall such an impressive prospect, providing a closer look at his skill set and strengths.

Positives

Marshall is adaptable to various defensive schemes, displaying superior athleticism and a legitimate understanding of how offensive plays develop. The downfield awareness he regularly shows off is well beyond his years and takes pressure of the safeties behind him.

His backpedal is precise and smooth, enabling Marshall to fluidly react and attack near the line of scrimmage. He drops downfield with effortless strides and shadows his target in coverage.

Marshall may surrender space to larger receivers, but this simply serves as bait. He dares the quarterback to challenge his closing speed and ability to acrobatically adjust in mid-air.

There isn't a matchup "type" that truly scares you when Marshall is charged with the task. He's rangy and physical enough to withstand the pressures of contending with taller pass targets while exhibiting elite agility that enables him to mirror even the slipperiest receivers.

While his explosiveness stands out on tape, patience is perhaps the separating factor when you measure Marshall against America's other top-rated defensive backs.

He appears nuanced in his approach to intermediate pass coverage and refuses to wear down even when a play is designed to take him out of the equation.

He simply shuts down his side of the field in pass coverage. From snap to whistle, Marshall makes it a point to blanket his target with no signs of undisciplined play.

His game is balanced because of an ability to dissect and dismantle rushing lanes. Marshall is a willing run defender who fires toward the football and finishes tackles through the torso.

He doesn't get swallowed up by blocks like several of his cornerback contemporaries. Instead, Marshall maintains low pad level and fights to disengage during his pursuit.

 

Negatives

Finding issues in the approach of a player like Marshall requires some serious nitpicking. He's such a nuanced defender and leaves little room from major refinement at the next level.

There are times when he walks a fine line between providing physical coverage and drawing a penalty. It's not that he'll have to sacrifice more space in college, but it may be a matter of Marshall being more succinct with hand placement at the line of scrimmage and limiting slight grabs downfield.

You'd hate for Marshall to inhibit his aggressiveness, but his tenacity does sometimes create unwanted separation when a receiver pulls off a polished double move. Still, he stands to be even more consistent in deep coverage by scaling back just slightly in his quest to cut off routes.

 

Projection

Marshall is a plug-and-play prospect who should compete for significant playing time as a true freshman in 2015. The necessary size, speed and skills are in place to provide rapid ascension on whichever college depth chart he encounters.

There's also a strong chance he'll draw serious looks on special teams as a kick returner and cover man.

He has plenty of options to consider before signing day, but give a slight edge to USC. Marshall has a strong rapport with the program and could reunite with Long Beach teammate John Smith as a Trojan.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Big Ten Football Players Who Had Best Pro Days in 2014

It's expected—or at least hoped—to be a bounce-back draft class from the Big Ten this season, one year removed from 2013, when no one was selected until the Dallas Cowboys took Wisconsin center Travis Frederick at No. 31.

And even that was considered reaching at the time.

One of the biggest steps in restoring the league's good name was the pro-day circuit, and a number of Big Ten players did well to improve their stock in these semi-private workouts.

Whether that was much-needed or icing on the cake might vary, but it was helpful in every single case.

Who did the most to boost their value?

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What to Expect from Charlie Strong's Texas Spring Game Debut

Texas fans will get their first real visual of the Charlie Strong era on Saturday during the Longhorns spring game. 

While no one is sure how the team will look, one thing seems more certain: There's going to be a lot more intensity. 

Like most storylines, the focus starts on offense. Earlier this week, Texas announced in an email statement that quarterback David Ash suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot and would miss the rest of spring. Though Strong hasn't been ready to name Ash the starter, he's still the presumed front-runner. 

That is, unless sophomore Tyrone Swoopes can show up in a big way on Saturday. Here's what Strong had to say about Swoopes earlier this week, via B/R's Taylor Gaspar

I told Tyrone: 'The key for you is all about confidence. It is all about doing everything we ask you to do and playing within yourself. I said, 'Now that you are the quarterback, just take the field and know this is your team and it is up to you to go lead it.'

We need everyone to perform and when you do lose a quarterback, whomever you lose, someone else will have to step up. Now it is Swoopes' job to step up. 

With Ash sidelined with a concussion for most of last season, fans were anxious to see what Swoopes could do, but he only saw limited playing time behind Case McCoy. 

Texas' offense may not look exactly how it will in the fall personnel-wise. In addition to Ash, running backs Johnathan Gray (Achilles) and Joe Bergeron (personal reasons) also won't play. Even though the Horns should have one of the best backfields in the Big 12 in 2014, it won't be on display this weekend much beyond senior Malcolm Brown. 

So, like any team facing these issues, spring games are about the next guys up who can make a name for themselves. With a new-look offensive line, Strong will likely keep it simple from a play-calling perspective. You don't want to throw too much at Swoopes; at the same time, you'd like to see him show some command of the offense. 

Expect lots of running plays and easy-read passes for Swoopes. In many ways, Texas is going to have that smashmouth style of offense this fall because it caters to its strengths. 

Defensively, Strong is all about bringing intensity and edge, something that has been lacking for the Horns on that side of the ball in recent years. With three-fourths of the starting defensive line returning, expect the defense to have the edge in the trenches. 

As B/R's Michael Felder pointed out last month, there's a lot less concern about talent on defense. This is a veteran group that's been through it all, and new defensive coordinator Vance Bedford is going to reap the benefits: 

The roster boasts quality at all three levels, and the returning players bring leadership along with the ability to get on the field and make plays. That will pay dividends for Bedford's unit as he breaks down a Texas defense that was too complex, at times, for the players to run to the football and just make plays.

Ideally, fans should see a defense that's fast, that flies to the ball and tackles with a little extra attitude. Those were signature qualities for Strong's Louisville Cardinals the past two seasons. 

And, of course, Bedford wants his players to have fun doing it. 

From the moment he was hired, Strong has been bent on instilling a tougher attitude with his players. Whether it's earning the right to throw up the "Hook 'em, Horns" or restarting practice halfway through because of poor effort, he's content on whipping his team into shape. 

"They're searching for that. They want discipline," Strong told David Ubben of Fox Sports Southwest. "They've heard so much about what they haven't done. Now, they want to prove to everyone that they can do it."

They'll get their first chance to do so in front of their fans on Saturday.

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Alabama Football: Compete Spring Game Preview

With Easter on Sunday, University of Alabama fans are enjoying a sort of double-holiday weekend as the Crimson Tide will close this year’s spring practices with the annual scrimmage known as A-Day.

It’s almost as big as a home game in the fall, both in size and potential impact, as Tuscaloosa is similarly overrun. Some of the events corresponding with what happens inside Bryant-Denny Stadium are a fan fest, the walk-of-fame ceremony to honor last year’s captains, numerous autograph sessions, the third annual Chris Rogers Paintball Tournament for former players, golf tournaments, a charity basketball game with the Tuscaloosa Police Department and a whole lot of tailgating.

“This A-Day game, I look at a little bit like it's an exhibition game for our players and our team,” coach Nick Saban said. “It's an opportunity for them to go out and play a game-like circumstance, a game-like situation, and it's really your first opportunity as an individual, as a unit or as a team, to really create an identity for who you are and how you play, how you compete, the kind of effort you give, the kind of toughness you play with, the kind of discipline you have to execute. The ability to focus on the next play regardless of what happened on the last play.

“Those things are important, I think, in being able to compete through the tough circumstances and adversity that we have in our league and the tough teams and tough places to play.”

The coach is also looking for another big crowd, and although Alabama hasn’t had a six-figure turnout yet, it did reach capacity his first year at the Capstone in 2007, before the south end-zone stadium expansion was completed.

This year’s game is expected to be in the 80,000-to-90,000 range.

Before Saban, Alabama’s A-Day attendance record was 51,117, set in 1988. Only six other times had it attracted 35,000 or more fans.

However, in addition to being a big celebration for the fans, it’s also a huge recruiting tool for all of the athletic programs.

“We'll have a ton of people here that are guys we're looking at for the future, in terms of recruits, that can be very much impressed by the energy, enthusiasm and passion that we show in this game, and I think it's a tradition and something that we're very proud of and something that has helped the program tremendously,” Saban said. “I hope that we continue to show that kind of support for our team and the program. I think it's very, very beneficial.”

 

Alabama’s Biggest A-Day attendance

2011: 92,310

2007: 92,138

2010: 91,312

2009: 84,050

2012: 78,526

2013: 78,315

2008: 78,200

 

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Is Alabama Really the Best College Football Team in the State?

Either Auburn or Alabama has appeared in each of the last five BCS National Championship Games, and there is no good reason to think—now that the field has been swollen from two to four—that this year's debut of the College Football Playoff will lack both Heart of Dixie juggernauts.

But which has the better team in 2014?

Auburn won the head-to-head matchup and made it farther last season, but Alabama has a five-year sample of success that every school in the country would kill for—the Tigers included.

In fact, according to the F/+ ratings at Football Outsiders, 'Bama was still the better team in 2013—and even in 2010, when Auburn won the national title with Cam Newton:

Auburn returns more starters from last season, but that doesn't mean it returns more talent. It might have a top-three talented team in the country, but this is one of the few cases where it loses out.

The way Alabama recruits—its last four classes have been first, first, first and first in the country on the 247Sports team rankings—it will always have the talent, on paper, to beat whoever lines up across the line. The question is whether it can execute.

To that end, I think it will take time.

If Auburn and its group of seasoned, experienced players drew Alabama in the early part of the schedule, I think it could and would win. The Tide also have some guys who have played in a national title game, but the Tigers have more. And that would make the difference.

However, as the season trudges onward to the Iron Bowl, Alabama will begin to figure who its best players are and where and how often those players should play. Auburn is ahead of Alabama in this respect, but once Nick Saban deciphers the puzzle of his ranks, the Tide should restore their place atop the state of Alabama rankings.

There are two good arguments an Auburn fan—or, really, anyone who disagrees—would make to oppose this. The first has to do with the most important player on the field: the quarterback.

Auburn has Nick Marshall, who led the Tigers to an SEC championship, nearly won a national title last year and is now listed on most preliminary Heisman boards. Alabama, on the other hand, has a four-man competition led primarily by a career backup (Blake Sims) and a transfer who has yet to step on campus (Jacob Coker).

Advantage, Auburn.

However, Auburn supporters should be wary before offering that as their chief point. Last year, after all, the Tigers entered spring camp with a four-man competition, while Alabama returned AJ McCarron: a three-time national champion who had started in two of those wins.

In that case, the preseason advantage was profoundly in Alabama's favor. But by the end of the season...well, we all saw what happened.

Quarterbacks get better with playing time, and with the aid of T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry, Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White, Chris Black and O.J. Howard, whoever wins the Alabama job will be functioning at a high level by the end of next season.

The other argument an Auburn fan might offer is the obvious one: that it beat Alabama last season.

This is also fair—but also flawed. Auburn didn't get "lucky" to beat the Tide in the 2013 Iron Bowl, but it was definitely the luckier team on the field. The broken-play touchdown to Sammie Coates and the field-goal return to end the game were both incredible feats by incredible athletes, and Auburn deserved to win the game because of them.

They just wouldn't be able to be replicated.

I'm not arguing that Alabama was leaps and bounds better than Auburn last season. I'm arguing, like the table above, that it was slightly better than Auburn last season. That if it played the Iron Bowl at Auburn 10 times, it would have won six; and if it played the Tigers on a neutral field 10 times, it would have won seven or eight. 

With the personnel losses from last year to this, I am willing to deflate that prediction by one game on each side. If this year's Alabama played Auburn in Jordan-Hare 10 times, I think the two teams would split it; if they played on a neutral field 10 times, I think the Tide would win six.

Because I think so highly of this year's Alabama team—no, I am not a homer, I promise—my saying that is intended as a compliment. The Tide, in my opinion, will come out hungry after losing two games to end last season, which is terrifying to think about.

As Saban himself said, according to Mike Herndon of AL.com:

We lost two games in a row so that's a losing streak that I'm not real proud of. I think a lot of the things that were the principles and values that the program was built on in the very beginning, a lot of the energy and enthusiasm that everybody in our state had for the program, that I think we all got a little entitled in terms of what we needed to do to continue to be successful.

These are two of the five best teams in college football, so picking between them is nitpicky. There's a good chance the Iron Bowl, once again, amounts to something of a de facto SEC semifinal—which fits nicely in the first year of the College Football Playoff.

However, at least at the current moment, the slight edge goes to the team that has proven it over a longer sample. In cases this close, the statistics nerd in me always wins.

I'll still take the Crimson.

 

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

LSU, Cam Cameron Need to Forget Zach Mettenberger and Embrace Run-1st Offense

LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has a tough task ahead of him.

LSU lost the core of its offense from 2013. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger was a 3,000-yard passer, running back Jeremy Hill was a 1,000-yard rusher and receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. both eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards.

Prolific.

Unfortunately, Cameron will basically start from scratch next season.

The Tigers will have a new quarterback. The winner of the signal-caller battle between sophomore Anthony Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris will not be determined anytime soon.

LSU's top returnee at wide receiver is Travin Dural, who only caught seven passes in 2013. The Tigers will have growing pains there as well.

The Tigers put on an uncharacteristic air raid in 2013 thanks to the talents of Mettenberger, Landry and Beckham Jr. Their timing was precise thanks to Cameron's tutelage, which created a diverse playbook.

Harris and Jennings are nowhere near Mettenberger as passers. However, they do bring a wrinkle to the offense that Mettenberger didn't, which is the ability to run. As seen in this video, Cameron practiced the read-option with the quarterbacks this spring.

No matter who lines up at quarterback, though, LSU will pound the ball early and often next season with traditional running plays.

Cameron will have to rely on LSU's experienced offensive line, which returns four of five starters, to dominate games. And that is not a problem with head coach Les Miles.

Left tackle La'el Collins, left guard Vadal Alexander, center Elliott Porter and right tackle Jerald Hawkins did not receive much attention this spring, which is good. This indicates there were no injuries and their play was fine.

New offensive line coach Jeff Grimes will have a difficult decision to make at right guard. Seniors Evan Washington and Hoko Fanaika have gone back and forth for the starters role.

"Those guys have alternated every day," Grimes said after the spring game. "They both have looked good this spring."

Miles, a former offensive lineman at Michigan, loves smashmouth football. No matter who lines up at guard, the Tigers will have three seniors, one junior and one sophomore on the line.

Miles also trusts the guys who will run behind the big uglies up front.

Terrence Magee, the likely starter for the season opener against Wisconsin, finished second on the team in rushing last season. Kenny Hilliard is an experienced back who has 21 rushing touchdowns in his college career.

Also expect to see 5-star signee Leonard Fournette, arguably the highest-profile recruit in Miles' career, to get plenty of carries early. Fournette will be the most talented back in LSU's backfield.

Miles has made no mystery of his love for Fournette. WWLTV.com reports he readjusted LSU's 2013 recruiting class for Fournette, subtweeted him during the recruiting process and 247Sports indicates that he referenced him during spring practice.

"Buga Nation" could take reign in Baton Rouge quickly.

Cameron has moved on from Mettenberger and the spectacular offense of 2013. His task to reshape the LSU passing attack will be an arduous one, so fans must be patient.

Miles will want to keep things simple next season with a run-heavy attack. With a new starting quarterback, inexperienced receivers and seasoned offensive line, the aerial attack that captivated LSU fans last season will not be the same in 2014.

Wisconsin plays smashmouth football as well. Expect an old-school slugfest even Ali-Frazier fans would envy.

Miles has won with ground-and-pound football for the majority of his career. Winning trumps everything else for college football programs—even if it is boring.

 

Statistics and rankings were provided by LSU Sports Information and 247Sports.com. Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow me on Twitter @CarterthePower

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USC Football: Max Browne Still Has a Shot to Steal QB Job from Cody Kessler

USC head coach Steve Sarkisian named Cody Kessler the Trojans' starting quarterback a few days ago. After a surprisingly strong 2013 season in which he threw for 2,967 yards and 20 touchdowns, Kessler and the Trojans hope to make a push for a Pac-12 championship.

Redshirt freshman Max Browne, the No. 1 pro-style QB of the 2013 class, will back up Kessler and should see some time, according to Scout.com's Lindsey Thiry. Can Browne eventually take over the starting role if Kessler struggles?

Thiry broke down the latest on the USC QB situation with Adam Lefkoe

 

Highlights courtesy XOS DigitalAll recruiting rankings from 247Sports.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

USC Football: Max Browne Still Has a Shot to Steal QB Job from Cody Kessler

USC head coach Steve Sarkisian named Cody Kessler the Trojans' starting quarterback a few days ago. After a surprisingly strong 2013 season in which he threw for 2,967 yards ...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

University of Washington Football Unveils New Nike Uniforms for 2014 Season

The University of Washington and Nike released a new collection of football uniforms for the 2014 season on Friday. The uniform release features three jerseys, four pants and three helmet colors that the Huskies can mix-and-match this season. 

This is the all-black alternate uniform: 

According to Nike, the number features a marking in the top left corner that is sure to upset some of the other teams in the Pacific Northwest:

The new uniform design will also introduce a customized number font that pays homage to the Pacific Northwest, with a gold facet on the NW corner of each digit asserting the school’s ownership of the territory. The numbers are the final touch on a new uniform system designed to allow the “Dawgs” to claim their position at the head of the pack.

According to Phil Hecken of uni-watch.com, the white helmet has a new texture:

Here you can see the UW players reacting to the new unis: 

[Nike]

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USC Football: New Faces, Position Changes Shaping Offensive Line

Of the many changes a new season brings to USC, one of the more significant is the restructuring of its offensive line. 

The Trojans were young and lacked depth across the front five in 2013, two traits that were readily apparent at times. USC surrendered 34 sacks on the season, 21st-most in the nation, and the unit's growing pains led to some offensive struggles in the first half of the campaign. 

The improvement of both quarterback Cody Kessler and the team as a whole coincided with improved offensive line play. However, the early departure of center Marcus Martin for the NFL draft and a rash of injuries challenged the group in the initial workouts of 2014. 

Various offensive linemen have used the vacancies this spring to develop, which should manifest in the 2014 season as some sorely needed depth. 

USC will return the injured among its offensive line ranks, including Jordan Simmons, Nico Falah and 2013 starter Aundrey Walker, and that's good news. With head coach Steve Sarkisian introducing a hurry-up, no-huddle offensive scheme, the Trojans will need as many game-ready contributors as they can muster. 

 

Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com. Recruiting rankings and information culled from 247Sports.com

Begin Slideshow

USC Football: New Faces, Position Changes Shaping Offensive Line

Of the many changes a new season brings to USC, one of the more significant is the restructuring of its offensive line. The Trojans were young and lacked depth across the front five in 2013, two traits that were readily apparent at times...

Begin Slideshow

Texas Tech, Kliff Kingsbury Will Have to Weather the QB Storm for a Year

If you were looking for the worst-kept secret in college football this spring, it was in Lubbock, Texas. 

Sophomore Davis Webb will be Texas Tech's starting quarterback this season. That much was known heading into spring practices, since Baker Mayfield and Michael Brewer opted to transfer out of the program over the past several months. 

However, only last week before the Red Raiders' spring game did head coach Kliff Kingsbury make it official. 

"It'll never be harder for him mentally than it was last year with that kind of yo-yo of starting, not starting," Kingsbury said via the Associated Press (H/T the Charlotte Observer). "That was as tough as it will ever be for him. It's downhill from here for him as far as mentally."

So while Webb's role as the starting quarterback is a sure thing, depth behind him is not. 

The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal reported Thursday that walk-on quarterbacks Tanner Tausch and Mike Richardson were leaving the program. Tausch will remain at Tech while focusing on academics; Richardson is looking for more playing time elsewhere. 

Normally, a pair of departing walk-ons is hardly news worthy. However, that means Webb is, literally, the only quarterback on Tech's roster. The Avalanche-Journal notes that a handful of walk-ons will be joining the team this summer. Still, this isn't an ideal situation to say the least. 

The good news is that the Red Raiders have entered the low-key portion of the offseason with only "voluntary" summer workouts. The No. 1 goal for Webb, not unlike the spring, is to stay healthy and wait for reinforcements. 

Momentarily, that could have been Texas A&M transfer Matt Joeckel. The redshirt senior announced on Wednesday through a university release that he would spend his final year of eligibility elsewhere. Since Joeckel graduated in December, he could play immediately. 

Tech would have been a great fit for Joeckel, who ran a similar offense at A&M under Kingsbury when he was the offensive coordinator there two years ago. However, Joeckel tweeted on Thursday that he instead was transferring to TCU. 

Instead, help for Webb will come in the form of 3-star prospect Patrick Mahomes, a two-sport athlete in football and baseball who will join the program later this summer. Immediately, Mahomes would slide into the backup spot, which could be appealing to him. 

Kingsbury has shown he can win with a true freshman if need be. He did so last year with Webb and Mayfield, both of whom had nearly identical passing stats through the regular season. What Kingsbury hasn't shown is that he can keep a roster of quarterbacks. 

This is Webb's team now, though. Barring injury or a major meltdown, the Tech offense is going to go as he does. Mahomes feels more like an emergency backup if/when he arrives.

If Webb can stay healthy for the next eight months or so, Tech could be breathing much easier in a year. Last month, 4-star dual-threat quarterback prospect Jarrett Stidham verbally committed to the Red Raiders. Not only would Stidham give Tech another badly needed body at quarterback if he signs next February, he would possibly upgrade the position as well. 

Since quarterback is officially a position of need for Kingsbury, early playing time will undoubtedly be a strong recruiting pitch he makes to quarterback prospects everywhere. (Or, to their moms. Either one.) 

Kingsbury may feel good about Webb as his starting quarterback, but he nevertheless needs to get through the 2014 season unscathed. If Tech can make that happen, well, that's reason to celebrate:  

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. All recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports

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SEC Football Q&A: Top RBs, Nick Marshall's Passing Game and Vols in the East

Every Friday, we feature questions from Twitter. Do you have a question for next week's Q&A? Send it to SEC Lead Writer Barrett Sallee on Twitter at @BarrettSallee.

 

You have SEC questions, and I have SEC answers. Thank you for your questions. If I didn't get to them this week, they will be saved and used in the future.

And we're off! 

@BarrettSallee Who is the best running back in the sec? Why?

— Ben Wallace (@Bill_Braskyy) April 11, 2014

I wrote before spring practice that the best running back in the SEC is Todd Gurley, and nothing has shifted this spring to change my mind.

At 6'1", 232 pounds with track-star speed, Gurley is everything you want from a running back. He is a bruiser between the tackles, a fantastic receiver out of the backfield and a home run hitter when he gets behind the defense.

No disrespect to South Carolina's Mike Davis, Arkansas' Alex Collins or Alabama's duo of Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon, but if you're starting your college football team with a current SEC running back, I don't see how you go with anybody other than Gurley.

He dealt with a nagging ankle injury last season that cost him three games in the middle of the campaign and hampered him during the final six games. But he still managed to rush for 989 yards, adding 441 yards receiving and 16 total touchdowns for the year. 

Only two running backs have won the Heisman Trophy since 2000, and it's unlikely that one will take it home in 2014. If one does, it'll likely be Gurley.

 

@BarrettSallee do you think nick Marshall's passing game will improve enough to take some load off the running game.

— Andy Forbus (@AndyForbus) April 11, 2014

Nick Marshall's passing game will absolutely improve.

Marshall clearly has a big arm, but he struggled with consistency when he took something off on short and intermediate routes. But he did have success in those situations, including his game-winning touchdown to C.J. Uzomah against Mississippi State and his absolutely perfect pass to Marcus Davis that set up the game-winning touchdown vs. Texas A&M. He again hit Uzomah for a touchdown in the Iron Bowl.

The potential is there. He just has to be consistent. What Auburn's coaches have working for them this offseason is that they already know that Marshall is fantastic at running the zone read and hitting the deep ball, and they can focus more on what needs work. Because of that, you have to expect that he's going to become a bit more consistent in the passing game.

But does he really have to for Auburn to be successful?

Head coach Gus Malzahn has four returning starters on the offensive line and has produced 11 1,000-yard rushers in eight seasons as a college assistant. The Tigers will be able to produce an offense in 2014 similar to the one that led them to the BCS National Championship Game after last season.

If Marshall adds just a little bit of consistency in the intermediate passing game, I'm not sure how teams will stop that offense.

 

@BarrettSallee Vols chances of winning the SEC? I'll hang up and listen.....

— FWIW (@JulianBucio) April 15, 2014

Their chances are less than 15 percent. 

Tennessee's offense will be solid in 2013 with Jalen Hurd and Marlin Lane toting the rock, and Marquez North, Josh Malone and Von Pearson presenting matchup nightmares outside.

But will the Vols stop anybody? Head coach Butch Jones was disappointed in his defense's poor tackling following the spring game.

"The thing I was kind of disappointed in, in the spring game today, was the drop off from ones to twos," he said in quotes released by Tennessee. "We need to generate outs defensively and we didn't generate very many three and outs today."

If that doesn't get significantly better in a hurry, it's hard to imagine the Vols being consistent on defense. That offense will likely be able to pick up the slack no matter who wins the four-man quarterback battle among Justin Worley, Riley Ferguson, Joshua Dobbs and Nathan Peterman. But can it pick up the slack consistently?

I don't think so. Not enough to win the East, anyway.

 

Do you have a question for next week's Q&A? Send it to SEC Lead Writer Barrett Sallee on Twitter at @BarrettSallee

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Oregon Football: Week 3 Spring Practice Stock Report

Oregon's third week of spring practices was the Ducks' first without wide receiver Bralon Addison, who suffered a knee injury April 10. Reshaping the offense in his absence took center stage for Oregon, which is now more than halfway through its spring slate. 

Beat writer Andrew Greif of The Oregonian discussed replacing Addison with Bleacher Report this week: 

Of those competing to play a prominent role in Oregon's passing game, redshirt freshman Devon Allen was a standout. Allen caught touchdown passes last Friday and Monday, per Rob Moseley of GoDucks.com

Also trying to get into the mix is Johnathan Loyd, whose transition from the basketball team generated headlines a week ago. Loyd was the basketball Ducks' point guard, guiding Oregon to the third round of the NCAA tournament each of the last two seasons. 

He certainly has a learning curve, not the least of which is learning the nuances of Oregon's offense. Loyd told 247Sports' Will Rubin about some of the challenges:

I’m not really surprised. When I used to watch the games and I was looking at the sidelines and seeing all those people doing signs and stuff, I’m like ‘man that’s got to be crazy.’ I knew it was going to be tough for me, but I’m getting it down. 

Loyd is not content just to be on the team, but rather is out to make an impact. 

"I’m a competitor. I’m not coming on the team just to sit on the bench and cheer lead," he said Wednesday, per Gary Horowitz of The Statesman Journal. "I feel like I can do something out here, so I’m committed to it."

Should he find his way into the receivers rotation, it will not come as a surprise to those familiar with his abilities. Former Las Vegas Bishop Gorman teammate Jalen Grimble, now a defensive tackle at rival Oregon State, told KEZI that Loyd "most definitely" can make a splash on the gridiron. 

"I told him, 'If basketball doesn't work out...I honestly wouldn't be surprised if you stepped out on the football field,'" Grimble said. "

 

Quarterback Controversy 

A team needs contingency plans. Quarterback Marcus Mariota is entering his third year as Oregon's starter, and the redshirt junior is a favorite to compete for the Heisman Trophy. But should something sideline Mariota at any point in 2014, the Ducks need a Plan B. 

Jake Rodrigues and Jeff Lockie are competing for that role. 

Oregon's many lopsided wins—four out of 11 were decided by at least 39 points—afforded the reserves opportunities to appear in games last season. However, their production was limited to 13 pass attempts and five rushes for Lockie and six pass attempts with four rushes for Rodrigues. 

Springtime is a chance for both to take more meaningful snaps and for the coaching staff to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses.   

"Those guys did some good things in the scrimmage (and) also a couple things that they would definitely like to have back," Helfrich said, via Greif. "Jeff probably made a few more plays than Jake did overall (in Monday's scrimmage)."

Helfrich told reporters last week that the emphasis was on getting them up to the speed at which the Ducks are accustomed to playing. 

"We’re very simplified in every phase, trying to get those younger guys out there playing fast and competing," Helfrich said, via Moseley of GoDucks.com

Even if neither current backup sees any significant playing time in 2014, the competition has long-term significance. This season can set the foundation for 2015, when the Ducks will presumably be without Mariota. 

Additionally, a team always risks a transfer when a quarterback slides on the depth chart, which Oregon saw last season with the departure of Bryan Bennett. 

Bennett landed at Southeastern Louisiana, where, according to The Washington Post, he passed for 3,165 yards and 21 touchdowns and rushed for another 1,046 yards and 16 touchdowns. He led the Lions to the quarterfinals of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. 

 

Duck Food 

The NCAA enacted a major provision this week, green-lighting unlimited meals and snacks for all scholarship and walk-on athletes. The latter caveat is particularly noteworthy, as, previously, walk-ons were not allowed free training table meals. 

Oregon offensive lineman Tyler Johnstone told told Greif that the decision was long overdue:

The walk-ons put in just as much work and more work in some cases and then they'd have to go home hungry. It didn't really make a lot of sense to us. It's a huge step for them...We're excited about being able to eat with the entire team finally.

Coincidentally, those extra meals could have come in handy in the winter. A number of Ducks arrived at the first day of spring practice with considerably more weight than a season ago.  

The formula was simple.

"You can lift three times a day, but if you're not fueling your body properly you're not getting the gains out of it," sports dietitian Adam Korzun said, via Greif

 

Practice Makes Perfect 

GoDucks.com's Moseley reports that Helfrich called Oregon's practice Wednesday the team's best of the spring slate:

If that's the standard, we're going places. Every period, we competed—which they have been [doing previously]. But the give and take of spring ball took effect. The defense would win a situation, and then the offense would come back. Collectively, everybody kind of surged.

Perhaps spurring on the team's inspired play were former Duck linebackers Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay, who dropped in on workouts:

 

Recruiting Updates

Cody Creason paid a visit to Oregon this week. The 4-star offensive lineman from Folsom, Calif., tweeted high praise from his unofficial drop-in:

Kyler Murray, a 5-star recruit out of Allen, Texas, was one of two highly regarded quarterback prospects to visit Oregon this week. Murray declared Oregon one of his top five finalists in January, along with Clemson, Florida, Texas A&M and Texas Tech:

Baltimore Gilman 4-star standout Kai Locksley also swung by Eugene, Ore., for an unofficial visit. Locksley tweeted from the scene of practice Friday morning:

247Sports.com has Maryland projected as the favorite to land Locksley. His father, Mike Locksley, is the Terrapins' offensive coordinator. 

Oregon has just two verbal commitments in its 2015 class, according to 247Sports.com, but the past week proved the Ducks are in the hunt for high-quality prospects.  

 

Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted. Recruiting rankings and information culled from 247Sports.com

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Oregon Football: Week 3 Spring Practice Stock Report

Oregon's third week of spring practices was the Ducks' first without wide receiver Bralon Addison, who suffered a knee injury April 10...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

Alabama Football: Top Recruits Visiting Tide for Spring Game Weekend

Alabama head coach Nick Saban annually uses the A-Day spring football game to keep his current players competitive and his fanbase frenzied. It also serves as a tool to lure in eventual roster replacements.

The Crimson Tide annually welcome an abundance of impressive high school prospects to Tuscaloosa during this event weekend, showcasing the campus, stadium atmosphere and all those recent championship rings.

In addition, it gives visitors and their families an opportunity to build personal relationships with members of the coaching staff. It's an element to watch closely as first-year offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin acclimates to his new role.

The list of anticipated recruits on campus continues to emerge and could still grow to include more prospects as the weekend approaches. Here's a look at those expected to be en route to Tuscaloosa.

 

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

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NCAA Division I Leadership Council Proposes Transfer Policy Rule Change

The Division I Leadership Council has proposed a new rule that would alter the NCAA's transfer policy, granting players who apply to transfer because of hardship or family circumstances an extra (sixth) year of eligibility if they qualify, according to a press release from NCAA.org.

Per the release:

Council members propose that student-athletes who cannot transfer and play immediately without a waiver be allowed a sixth year to complete their four years of eligibility, if they qualify. 

The change would primarily impact student-athletes who play baseball, basketball, bowl subdivision football and men’s ice hockey as well as those in other sports who already used the one-time transfer exception.

These student-athletes would no longer be able to seek a waiver to transfer and compete immediately.

That last part is important. Previously, players who transfer in these circumstances could apply to become eligible immediately—without sitting out the otherwise mandatory year.

An example of this would be now-sophomore defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes, who asked to be released from his national letter of intent by Notre Dame in July 2013 so he could transfer to UCLA and be close to a sick family member.

Vanderdoes won his appeal and was allowed to play last season, finishing with 37 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss. Had Vanderdoes lost his appeal, he would have had to sit out last season and would have lost a year of eligibility, per Bruce Feldman of CBS Sports.

Under the new proposed rule, Vanderdoes would not have been able to play last season, but he still would have been granted five years to play four seasons rather than four years to play three.

Amy Huchthausen, chair of the Leadership Council subcommittee that examined the transfer issue, said the following, per the release:

We hope this change will encourage student-athletes who must transfer based on hardships to focus on the circumstances prompting the transfer during their first year and adjust to their new school, while giving them a season back to complete their eligibility.

The proposal will be reviewed by the Division I Board of Directors at its meeting April 24. If passed, the rule would go into effect for the 2015-16 academic year.

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