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10 Most NFL-Ready Players in the SEC

The SEC has owned college football over the past decade. So, it's no real surprise the league also stamped its insignia all over the NFL as well.

According to NFL.com's Mike Huguenin, 49 SEC players were selected in the 2014 draft, the most among any conference for the eighth consecutive season. The SEC also had 11 first-rounders (the most from any conference), and every team had at least one player selected, led by LSU's nine.

The league could take a significant hit on star power in 2014, but it's still rife with talent that will suit up in the NFL in the not-so-distant future.

Even though there are dynamic, game-changing stars all over the SEC, a few stand out among the pro prospects. These are the players who could make an immediate impact on an NFL roster today, and some aren't even eligible to enter the draft yet.

These players were chosen for a combination of their skill sets, level of production and how their talent and intangibles are projected to translate into the NFL game. They've not only displayed immense skill but also shown enough polish that they wouldn't be considered a project on the next level.

Here (in alphabetical order) are 10 of the SEC players who are already prepared to play on Sundays and will do so when their college days are done.

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Best Third-Down Weapons in College Football for 2014

Every down in a college football game is important, but that does not mean they are weighted equally. First- and second-down success can make or break an offense, but most of that is only with regard to how well it sets up down No. 3.

Unlike first and second down, third down is supremely important unto itself. It decides whether the drive will continue with a clean, safe first down, or whether the offense will have to punt, kick a field goal or risk screwing over its defense by going for it on fourth down.

Accordingly, players who thrive on third down hold added value over players who might not. Their ability to keep the chains moving with so much at stake can alter the course of a drive, a game or a season.

So, looking back on last year's numbers, but also accounting for some film study, measurables and context, let's take a look at some of the best third-down weapons in the country for 2014.

Their defenses are lucky to have them.

 

Short-Yardage Quarterback: Chuckie Keeton, Utah State

Before tearing his ACL and MCL against BYU last season, Chuckie Keeton was almost unfair in his 3rd-and-short efficiency.

The sample was small—only 24 total pass attempts—but he had a 203.9 passer rating on 3rd-and-3-or-less and a 203.0 passer rating on 3rd-and-4, -5 and -6. He completed 22 of those 24 passes, and even though none went for 20 yards, 18 went for first downs.

Keeton also picked up three first downs on eight attempts with his legs, which is an underrated but important part of short-yardage quarterbacking. Here he is on the first drive of Utah State's season last year, picking up an important 3rd-and-3 against rival Utah:

Keeton was even better at this in his last full season, 2012, when he took seven of 12 rushing attempts on 3rd-and-4, -5 and -6 for a first down. Breaking contain to keep the drive alive on these types of plays is about the most crippling thing one can do to a defense.

Here Keeton is doing precisely that against Southern Utah:

Really, though, it's the combination of throwing and passing that makes Keeton so good. Others such as BYU's Taysom Hill, for example, do a better job converting 3rd-and-shorts on the ground, but Keeton uses his legs equally well in both facets of the position.

Here's a good example from last year's USC game. The Trojans had a top-five defense in the country, per Football Outsiders' F/+ ratings, and finished first in red-zone defense with just 27 scores allowed on 43 possessions. A high percentage of those scores were touchdowns, but even their 51.16 percent TD rate was top-15 nationally.

Here, leading by seven points in the second quarter, they've forced Utah State into a 3rd-and-1 at the 10-yard line. An unbalanced rush provides pressure from the blind side, but Keeton feels it coming and extends the play to his right. As he rolls, receiver Travis Reynolds moves in the opposite direction, finds a hole in the zone, reels in Keeton's pass and darts forward for a game-tying touchdown:

Keeton might never be able to run the same 40-yard-dash time after his horrific knee injury, but he won't necessarily have to. Top-end speed helped him, but it was never his most important skill.

The thing Keeton does best is keep his eyes down the field when he's moving, even if he's moving in a fast jog instead of a slow sprint.

And on that front, he should be fine.

"We’re trying to be smart about this," Keeton told Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer in early May. "But I feel good about my knee and the doctors feel really good about where we are right now."

Tennessee better be ready when the Aggies come to visit August 31.

 

Long-Yardage Quarterback: Jameis Winston, Florida State

Jameis Winston did a lot of things well last season.

He excelled in almost every scenario, leading the nation with an overall quarterback rating of 184.85 that was more than 10 points higher than the second-place finisher, Bryce Petty (174.29).

Nowhere did he excel more, however, than on long third downs, where his numbers were so good that they almost had to be an outlier. But 24 pass attempts on 3rd-and-10-or-longer is not that small of a sample, which gives reason to believe that they weren't.

On those 24 attempts, Winston completed 17 passes for 346 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions (QB rating: 246.93). Crazier still, 16 of those 17 completions went for a first down. If you somehow managed to throw Florida State's offense off schedule and force it into a 3rd-and-10-or-longer, but then you allowed Winston to get a pass off, the Seminoles converted 67 percent of the time.

Sixty-seven percent of the time!

Let's look at a few examples from FSU's signature performance of the season, a 51-14 romp over Clemson at Memorial Stadium.

The Tigers defense was actually quite good in 2013, ranking No. 13 in the overall F/+ defensive ratings. It was especially efficient on third downs, too, allowing the opponent to convert just 30.8 percent of the time, the fifth-lowest rate in the country.

But Winston and the Seminoles shredded Clemson with a series of long third downs at the end of the second quarter and start of the third quarter that iced the game away with almost 30 minutes left.

Here's Winston breaking the pocket and throwing against his body to find Rashad Greene for 13 yards on 3rd-and-9:

Later in the same drive, Winston stands in against pressure, takes a hit and lofts a 19-yard completion to Kenny Shaw on 3rd-and-10:

Clemson forced Florida State into a field goal on that drive and appeared to come out with energy when the Seminoles got the ball to start the second half. After being forced into a 3rd-and-12, however, Winston deflated that energy by calmly reading the defense and delivering a 27-yard strike to Kelvin Benjamin:

Then, as a coup de grace, Winston dumped a screen to Greene on 3rd-and-10 from the 17-yard line for a kill-shot touchdown:

Ball game.

 

Short-Yardage Running Back: Malcolm Brown, Texas

For the sake of full disclosure, it should be mentioned that most of the best 3rd-and-short running backs in college football last year are gone. Stanford's Tyler Gaffney, Washington's Bishop Sankey, Auburn's Tre Mason and Colorado State's Kapri Bibbs all would have made the cut over our 2014 choice, Texas' Malcolm Brown.

Still, it wouldn't be crazy for Brown to surpass those players' production this season. Despite barely touching the ball behind Johnathan Gray at the start of 2013, Brown came on late and finished with 20-plus carries in seven of his final eight games.

On the whole last season, Brown had 20 carries on 3rd-and-3-or-less and converted 14 of them into first downs. He also took his one reception under those parameters for a 74-yard touchdown.

More importantly, Brown did all this behind a poor first-surge offensive line. Despite Brown's efficient conversion numbers, the Longhorns unit up front finished No. 95 in power success rate, per SB Nation's Football Study Hall, which measures how well a line fares in short-yardage rushing situations. 

Here is how Brown's numbers stack up with Gray's:

Texas' offensive line was good on the whole last season, so it's not like Brown was doing everything on his own in short-yardage situations. But it also wasn't like his numbers got inflated by a dominant unit up front (something that could probably have been said about Mason).

Brown used good vision and his 6'0", 228-pound frame to bowl up the middle even when the defense knew he was coming. Here he is fighting for extra yards on the first possession of the Oklahoma game last year, converting on 3rd-and-2 to help set up a field goal:

Later in the game, Brown kept another drive moving with a patient cutback and strong burst on a 3rd-and-1 in Texas territory:

Texas connected on a 59-yard touchdown pass three plays later, extending its lead to 24-10 before eventually blowing out the rival Sooners in what amounted to the highlight of its season.

Brown had nine carries on downs with six yards or less to go, and he converted eight of them for first downs. The one time he didn't, which came on a meaningless 2nd-and-4 as Texas salted away the game, he followed it up with a two-yard gain on 3rd-and-1.

Oh, and it doesn't hurt that Brown was a 5-star recruit back in the day. His power has been well-documented since high school.

 

Long-Yardage Running Back: Kevin Parks, Virginia

Kevin Parks is one of the hidden gems in college football—an undersized (5'8") but talented player who is stuck on a cruddy team. Bleacher Report's Michael Felder was early on the Parks bandwagon, ranking him a top-150 player in the country before his sophomore year in 2012, and Parks has only gotten better since then.

Some expected blue-chip freshman Taquan Mizzell to cut into Parks' workload in 2013, but Parks responded to the challenge and had the best season of his career (despite the 2-10 tire-fire slowly igniting around him). Especially on third downs—both short and long—he was often the best thing Virginia's offense had going for it.

Park did well rushing the ball on 3rd-and-3-or-less, converting 14 of his 22 carries for first downs, but he was even more valuable as a pass-catcher on 3rd-and-long. He took nine receptions on 3rd-and-7-or-more for a total of four first-down conversions, highlighted by a trio of 15-plus-yard gains on 3rd-and-10-or-longer.

He's got a flair for the dramatic, too.

Here Parks is on a 3rd-and-7 against Duke, balancing a checkdown pass against his hamstring while he's running, then flipping into the end zone through four defenders for a 13-yard touchdown:

As a pass-blocker, Parks faces the obvious deficiencies of any 5'8" player but has gotten better each season. Now entering his senior year, he can be counted on to protect the QB on third down.

According to Jamie Oakes of 247Sports, Parks said "he takes great pride in his blocking ability and not letting his quarterbacks get killed" during a moderated panel at ACC media days. 

Suffice it to say that's the right attitude for a third-down back.

Suffice it to say Parks is a great one.

 

Short-Yardage Receiver: Tommy Shuler, Marshall

Tommy Shuler was a menace in the slot last season and might be the best short and intermediate receiving weapon in the country.

Standing only 5'7", he has quick feet, an advanced route tree and a preternatural rapport with quarterback Rakeem Cato that allows him to get open and gain the necessary yardage on third down.

On 3rd-and-1, -2 and -3 last season, Shuler took all six of his receptions for a first down despite never gaining more than 11 yards on a single catch. On 3rd-and-4, -5 and -6, he took all seven of his receptions for a first down despite never breaking off a 20-yard catch.

He did exactly what he needed to keep the chains moving.

Shuler came up big in this regard when the Thundering Herd most needed it, too. Trailing Maryland by three points, 20-17, in the fourth quarter of the Military Bowl, Marshall faced a 3rd-and-4 in the red zone, and Cato hit Shuler on a quick out for the first down:

Earlier in the season against Virginia Tech, Shuler upped his range and converted a number of third downs from longer than six yards. Considering the talent level of the Hokies' defensive backfield, his 10 catches for 120 yards in that game were remarkable.

Here Shuler is on 3rd-and-8, adjusting to a lofted back-foot pass to haul in a 13-yard reception…plus the foul:

Three plays later, facing another 3rd-and-8, Shuler beat safety Kyshoen Jarrett to the sideline and made a sliding eight-yard catch:

And three plays after that, facing a 3rd-and-9, Shuler saw Cato leave the pocket, used some nifty footwork to adjust, lost his defender in man coverage and kept the drive alive with a 13-yard gain:

Unfittingly, this drive ended with a Cato interception, and Marshall ended up blowing its seven-point lead and losing in triple overtime. But the statement Shuler made against one of the nation's top secondaries was clear: Don't cover me with a safety.

Otherwise, you're in for a long afternoon.

 

Long-Yardage Receiver: Antwan Goodley, Baylor

Call him a "product of the offense" if you want, but Antwan Goodley's speed made defenses pay for cheating on shorter routes.

He had 19 receptions on 3rd-and-7-or-longer, 12 of which went for first downs, and he took those 19 receptions for 304 yards and three touchdowns, ripping off four separate gains of 25-plus yards.

Here he is on 3rd-and-10 against Louisiana-Monroe, taking the top off the defense with a streak for a 65-yard touchdown:

It wasn't all boom or bust for long gains, either.

According to Football Study Hall (see: the attached spreadsheet), Goodley was efficient on all passing downs, hauling in 28 of his 43 targets (65 percent) for an average of 12.9 yards per target.

No player who averaged as many yards per target had more total targets, the closest being San Jose State's Chandler Jones (40). Among returning players with 15-plus targets from a power-five conference, the only one who bested Goodley's average was Nebraska's Jordan Westerkamp…and he needed a Hail Mary pass to get there!

That is impressive efficiency for someone who's been labeled a big-play threat, and even though that label is fitting, it does not wholly encapsulate what Goodley is capable of. There is more to what he does than sprinting untouched down the field for six points.

Take, for example, this touchdown catch against Texas, which might have been the most important play of Baylor's season.

With the Big 12 title on the line and the game tied 3-3 in the third quarter, Baylor faced a 3rd-and-9 at the Longhorns' 11-yard line. Knowing that a touchdown would help break the game open, Petty looked to Goodley, who shook cornerback Duke Thomas with a slant route, reached out with one hand to catch a bad pass, kept his balance, broke a tackle and walked into the end zone:

That catch did, in fact, break the game open, and Baylor went on to win 30-10, securing its first Big 12 title in school history. 

Goodley and Petty are back to defend that title in 2014.

 

Note: Unless otherwise cited, all third-down stats courtesy of cfbstats.com, and all recruiting info refers to the 247Sports composite rankings

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Ohio State Football 2014: Complete Preview of Buckeyes Offense

With quarterback Braxton Miller back in the fold, the Ohio State offense is poised to be one of the best in the Big Ten.

Watch as B/R's experts weigh in on Miller and the rest of the Buckeyes offense ahead of the 2014 campaign.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Michigan Football 2014: Complete Preview of Wolverine Offense

In 2013, the Michigan offense ranked 47th in the country in points scored at 32.2 per game.

Entering 2014, the Wolverines have a new offensive coordinator on board in Doug Nussmeier.

Watch as Bleacher Report's experts weigh in on Michigan's offensive outlook ahead of the 2014 season.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

USC Football 2014: Complete Preview of Trojan Offense and Defense

In 2013, the USC offense ranked 61st in the country in points scored at 29.7 per game, while the defense was 16th best in the nation, allowing 21.2 per contest.

Now, with Steve Sarkisian on board as the new head coach, expectations are high to improve on last year’s forgettable 10-4 campaign.

Watch as Bleacher Report's experts weigh in on the Trojans outlook ahead of the 2014 season.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

USC Football 2014: Complete Preview of Trojan Offense and Defense

In 2013, the USC offense ranked 61st in the country in points scored at 29.7 per game, while the defense was 16th best in the nation, allowing 21.2 per contest...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

Kentucky DT Cory Johnson's Weight Is Flexible Because He Frequents the Bathroom

Kentucky defensive tackle Cory Johnson knows why his weight fluctuates so much, and he isn't afraid to tell the world the reason.

[YouTube, h/t The Big Lead]

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Wisconsin Coach Gary Andersen Surprises Walk-on with Scholarship During Trivia

Wisconsin redshirt sophomore long snapper Connor Udelhoven entered a team meeting as a walk-on, but he left the room as a player on scholarship.

Badgers coach Gary Andersen put Udelhoven on the spot during bucket hat trivia. It turned out to be a great moment, even though he answered the question incorrectly.

When Andersen awarded Udelhoven a scholarship, the Badgers players showed their teammate some love.

Some Wisconsin players received a bucket hat for answering a question correctly, but there is no doubt that Udelhoven was the biggest winner. 

[Wisconsin Badgers, h/t Dr. Saturday]

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Ohio State Football: Freshmen Will Define Urban Meyer's 2014 Season

Taking the podium for the first time following the start of Ohio State's fall camp session for the 2014 season, Urban Meyer could have addressed anything. Braxton Miller's health, the implementation of Chris Ash's new defensive scheme, how the Buckeyes plan on replacing Carlos Hyde.

The Ohio State head coach chose to talk about his freshmen.

"Just the body types of Dante Booker, Kyle Berger, Sam Hubbard, all the way to the long receivers like Noah Brown and Parris Campbell. Just long athletes. Then you've got Marshon Lattimore and Erick Smith," Meyer said unsolicited. "We're going to try to get those guys ready to play. It was a really good first day with the young guys."

Words like that are enough to excite any Buckeyes fan, especially the ones who already had their eyes on what was 247Sports' third-ranked recruiting class for the 2014 cycle. But the Ohio State faithful also has reason to question the sincerity of Meyer's claims, as it was just a year ago that he was making similar proclamations about the Buckeyes' 2013 crop of freshmen.

"That '06 [class], they injected a bunch of speed and playmakers into that 2006 team," Meyer said of his first national championship squad's freshmen, which included stars Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin. "I see very similar qualities [in the 2013 class]."

Only Meyer's prophecy never came to fruition, with few freshmen outside of defensive end Joey Bosa and punter Cameron Johnston making immediate impacts at Ohio State in 2013. Running back Dontre Wilson received more preseason hype than any other player in his class but failed to contribute as more than a kick returner and offensive decoy in his freshman campaign.

More alarmingly for the Buckeyes, a number of highly touted prospects found themselves sitting out the season, including wide receiver Jalin Marshall, cornerback Gareon Conley, tight end Marcus Baugh and linebacker Mike Mitchell, who ultimately transferred to Texas Tech in the offseason. When all was said and done, 17 scholarship freshmen in a 24-man recruiting class found themselves redshirting in 2013 for various reasons.

The lack of impact from the Buckeyes' 2013 class was apparent in the team's two losses to close the season, as veterans made notable mistakes in the Big Ten Championship Game against Michigan State and in the Orange Bowl against Clemson. At Big Ten media days in Chicago last week, Meyer expressed regret—and took blame—for not allowing last season's freshmen to see significant playing time at OSU.

"That's my fault. I'm going to really push our coaches to get them ready," Meyer said. "Theres a tendency of an assistant coach of, 'I'm going to play this [veteran] because he knows what he's doing and that [freshman] doesn't know what he's doing yet.' So what I'm going to do is walk over and put that [freshman] in the game and practice, and that forces the coach to play him. On defense, I was disappointed—especially on defense."

That's why it's not a coincidence that of the freshmen that Meyer singled out in his opening remarks, the first three were linebackers and the last two were defensive backs. But it was more than Meyer's words that showed a change in philosophy from the third-year Ohio State head coach, as his actions sent an even louder message on Monday.

While other freshmen and first-year players were relegated to a separate practice session at the start of the day, two fresh faces found themselves mixing it up with the Buckeyes veterans in the team's afternoon session. Linebacker Raekwon McMillan and wide receiver Johnnie Dixon may be true freshmen in status, but each were permitted to practice with the older players on their first day of fall camp in an occurrence that Meyer admitted was rare.

"They also made Champions' Club. I don't know if we've really ever had freshmen make Champions' Club," Meyer said, referring to the group of Ohio State's top offseason performers. "They're just guys who are over 3.0 students, take care of their business, they act like pros. They act like grown men, so we let them practice with the grown men today."

While McMillan—a former 247Sports 5-star prospect—will attempt to overtake senior Curtis Grant at the Buckeyes' middle linebacker spot, Dixon will strive to earn playing time in a wide receiver corps that has little proven production behind senior Devin Smith. Both early enrollees already being treated like veterans before either has played a game in their college careers only bodes well for McMillan and Dixon in their respective position battles.

But it will take more than just impressive play from two players for this year's freshman class in Columbus to outdo last year's. And with playing time readily available at a number of positions, Ohio State's 2014 freshmen will receive ample opportunity to do just that and help prove that their head coach has learned from last season's admitted mistakes. 

"This is an early evaluation," Meyer admitted. "But I'm really impressed with our freshman class."

 

*All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.

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Texas A&M Football: 5 Best QBs Aggies Will Face in 2014

The Texas A&M football team will face a typically daunting SEC schedule in 2014. It will go up against a number of top-notch quarterbacks who can take over games by themselves. 

When you play in the SEC, you face the top talent in the nation on a weekly basis. That holds true for the quarterback position also. 

Quarterbacks touch the ball on every possession on offense. They have a greater impact on the game than any other position. It is impossible to consistently win football games with a poor quarterback under center. 

There are a number of teams on the Texas A&M schedule who have question marks at the quarterback position right now. However, the Aggies will face a number of quarterbacks who can single-handedly beat them.

This is a look at the top five quarterbacks the Aggies will face in 2014.  

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Notre Dame Football 2014: Complete Preview of Fighting Irish Defense

In 2013 the Notre Dame defense ranked 27th in the country in points allowed at 22.4 per game.

How will the unit fair in 2014 against the likes of Michigan, Stanford and Florida State?

Watch as Bleacher Report's experts weigh in on the Fighting Irish’s defensive outlook ahead of the 2014 season.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Is T.J. Yeldon the Most Undercover Preseason Heisman Trophy Contender Ever?

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon has always been shy when it comes to doing media appearances.

After the SEC Championship Game his freshman year in 2012, the first time he was available to the media since coming to Alabama (the SEC mandates open locker rooms after the game), Yeldon declined interviews as reporters approached him.

He couldn’t hide, though, on media day at the BCS National Championship Game later in January, and offered up this explanation: "I don't really like talking," Yeldon said, according to Don Kausler Jr. of AL.com. "I'm not really a people person, but I've got to do what I have to do."

A year later, before the Sugar Bowl last season, then-senior wide receiver Kevin Norwood joked: “He just hates the fact that y’all ask really dumb questions.”

Still, on Friday, the first day of fall camp, Yeldon trotted out to meet the assembled media. He said he’s more comfortable now, two years into his Alabama career, entering his junior and likely last season in Tuscaloosa, doing interviews. But he still comes off as shy and unassuming, seldom offering up lengthy answers.

His quiet personality makes it easy for some to overlook him, with players like Derrick Henry and Amari Cooper making noise around him and a highly publicized quarterback battle in front of him. It’s also why Yeldon, the returning No. 1 back on one of the best teams in the country with a penchant for running the ball, could be one of the most underrated preseason Heisman candidates.

“T.J., to come in and see him from the first day that I got here, all I've seen is someone that works extremely hard,” offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said. “Doesn't say very much, doesn't ever ask about how you're going to utilize me, what different plays we're going to do, just go and score. Trains extremely hard. Watched him in the offseason workouts and during the spring, and now that we're out there practicing, that guy goes as hard as anyone on our team and just wants to be great and just wants to learn.”

On the field, there’s no doubting Yeldon’s star power.

He rushed for at least 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons at Alabama. His 2,343 career rushing yards put him 1,222 away from breaking Shaun Alexander’s career record of 3,565. As the featured back last season, he showed he was capable of carrying a heavy load, particularly against LSU, where he was leaned on to put the game away.

It’s off the field, though, where he doesn’t exactly seek the spotlight.

“He’s setting an example by his actions,” quarterback Blake Sims said. “When he goes out there, he’s working hard. He’s not a very loud guy. But you can have a down day or you can be very tired and he’ll come up and tap you on your butt and be like ‘Come on, man. I need you right here, I need you right here.’ And sometimes that’s the best way to be a leader. And he understands that.”

And that’s OK, according to head coach Nick Saban.

“That's his personality,” Saban said. “I think he's sort of a quiet guy that is a hard worker. He sets a really good example in terms of how he goes about his work every day, how he practices. I think the players have a tremendous amount of respect for the example that he sets, the work ethic that he has, the kind of competitor that he is, the toughness that he plays with.

“But [he's] not a guy that does a lot of talking. And that's OK. I think you want players to be comfortable in what's natural for their personality, because otherwise it would only look contrived. He leads in a way that is effective for him.”

As far as the Heisman is concerned, Yeldon is on most preseason watch lists. Bovada lists him in a tie for 10th with Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson at 20-1 odds.

It has, recently, become a much more quarterback-driven award. But if you subscribe to the best-player-on-the-best-team mentality that the Heisman sometimes falls into, Yeldon should be right up there.

He likely won’t have as much of a featured role this season, with Henry and Kenyan Drake both talented backs with experience behind him. But the running game should be a bigger focus, at least early on, as the Crimson Tide break in a new quarterback.

Whether it’s his shy personality or the mix of other intriguing storylines around him, the steady, veteran Yeldon tends to fly under the radar.

He should be in the mix of the Heisman conversation and other individual awards at the end of the season.

Just don’t expect him to hear about it from him.

 

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

Follow on Twitter @marctorrence.

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UCLA Football: What Brett Hundley Must Do to Improve as a Passer

UCLA head coach Jim Mora was unambiguous in his description of quarterback Brett Hundley's game at last month's Pac-12 media days. 

"Brett's a passer first," Mora said. 

An all too easy, if not lazy, trap for analysts to fall into is to call Hundley a running quarterback. Mora's intent was clear. 

"It would be awful if people started to categorize Brett as a running quarterback," he said. "He's not a running quarterback, he's a quarterback who has great running ability."

Last season, situations dictated Hundley break from the pocket perhaps more often than Mora or offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone would have liked.

With 160 carries, Hundley rushed 26 times more than the next-most active Bruins ball-carrier, running back Paul Perkins. Of course, Perkins was not UCLA's feature back, which speaks to a larger issue.

Hundley has the opportunity to prove himself as a premier passer in the coming season. Central in that effort is a more effective deep ball. 

In his redshirt freshman season playing alongside reliable running back Johnathan Franklin, Hundley threw 478 passes and completed 318 for 3,740 yards. His attempts plummeted to 371 in 2013, and his total output to 3,071 yards.  

The Bruins' need for an effective run game is hardly a secret, nor is its impact on Hundley's ability to pass. 

Mora said striking a balance is crucial, but emphasized that it must be the right balance.  

"You'd like balance, but balance doesn't always mean it's 50-50," he said. "For me balance is if you have to throw the ball to win the game, you do, if you have to run it to win, you can run it to win."

The run-game inconsistencies may have had the most notable impact on Hundley's ability to connect on the long ball.

Hundley's average yards per attempt actually improved in 2013, from 7.8 to 8.3, but his accuracy on longer passes fell slightly.

His passing gains of 20, 30 and 40-plus yards all dipped from their 2012 marks in 2013. 

The positive side of that equation was evident in Hundley's last touchdown pass of the season. After establishing the run to the tune of 5.5 yards per carry against Virginia Tech in December's Sun Bowl, Hundley slammed the door on the Hokies with a 59-yard bomb to wide receiver Shaquelle Evans.

That play exemplified Hundley at his finest—a quarterback with a big arm and the awareness to put it to use. As Andy Bitter of the Roanoke Times tweeted, Hundley's connection with Evans was a professional-level play.  

But NFL.com analyst and former scout Bucky Brooks writes Hundley must be more consistent with those big-play pass attempts. 

He missed too many downfield shots on fades and go-routes down the boundary a season ago. His balls repeatedly sailed out of bounds on those throws, which prevented the Bruins from cashing in on several home-run opportunities.  

Aside from the Bruins' run-game woes, opponents could also spread their pass coverage more effectively in 2013 without tight end Joseph Fauria clogging the middle. With 46 catches in 2012, Fauria was a primary target for Hundley, and his absence was noticeable last season. 

In his second season, the 6'3", 225-pound Thomas Duarte could be the big, dependable presence Fauria provided on mid- and short-yardage situations.  

That should pack in the defense more to give potential deep threat Devin Lucien room to operate. Teammates Devin Fuller and Jordan Payton are entrenched as the top two targets with Evans gone, but Lucien's role is the potential X-factor in the Bruins' passing attack.

As UCLA fleshes out these roles, it should fulfill Mora's forecast for Hundley. 

"I can tell you unequivocally Brett Hundley is a first-round draft pick," he said. "The guy is a future star in the NFL. He's got every tangible and intangible quality you can look for."

And with the necessary adjustments, Hundely will have the big-play highlight reel to match those qualities.  

 

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

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UCLA Football: What Brett Hundley Must Do to Improve as a Passer

UCLA head coach Jim Mora was unambiguous in his description of quarterback Brett Hundley 's game at last month's Pac -12 media days. "Brett's a passer first," Mora said...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

Tennessee Football 2014: Complete Preview and Predictions

The Tennessee Volunteers suffered a disappointing 2013 season, as they finished with a 5-7 overall record and a 2-6 record within the SEC. Butch Jones enters his second year as head coach with expectations that he'll be able to guide the team to an improved record.

Watch as B/R's experts weigh in on Tennessee before the start of the 2014 campaign. 

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Nebraska Football 2014: Complete Preview and Predictions

Nebraska enjoyed great success last season as they defeated Georgia in the Gator Bowl to complete a 9-4 record. The Cornhuskers went 5-3 within the Big Ten Conference, proving that there is still plenty of room for improvement in conference play. Will head coach Bo Pellini find continued success in his seventh year at the helm? Watch as B/R's experts weigh in on the Cornhuskers ahead of the 2014 season.

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One Freshman to Watch for on Every Pac-12 Football Team in 2014

The Pac-12 conference is filled with more stars than we can ever remember as fall camps officially get underway and the season approaches, but it's the young faces who may end up having the biggest impact on the league title race.

While everyone around the country knows about quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley, wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Ty Montgomery, linebacker Myles Jack and defensive end Leonard Williams, there are a number of recruits from the class of 2014, as well as redshirt freshmen, poised to burst onto the scene in a major way.

Of course, some positions allow for an easier high school-to-college transition. Running backs don't necessarily need an NFL build to see the field, and corners who can cover and keep up athletically will often get time early in their careers. The big fellas in the trenches, however, often need a year or two to get their bodies ready for the physical toll a season of college football will take.

All that said, no position is out of bounds as we take a look at one freshman to watch for on every Pac-12 team. Remember these names now, because everyone will know them by December.

 

All stats via cfbstats.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. All recruiting info via 247sports.com

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One Freshman to Watch for on Every Pac-12 Football Team in 2014

The Pac -12 conference is filled with more stars than we can ever remember as fall camps officially get underway and the season approaches, but it's the young faces who may end up having the biggest impact on the league title race...

Begin Slideshow

Repackaging Michigan's Brutal Schedule as an Opportunity for Greatness

Michigan enters fall camp needing to bounce back after last season’s 7-6 record and facing a brutal schedule that has it playing all three of its key rivals on the road.

The prospect of playing Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State away from Michigan Stadium (where Hoke's teams are 7-11) doesn’t bode well for a squad that is retooling its offense.

But quarterback Devin Gardner isn’t intimidated by the tough schedule. Talking last week during Big Ten media day in Chicago, he sounded eager for the challenge as he served up some bulletin-board material for Michigan’s foes in South Bend, East Lansing and Columbus.

“It’s an opportunity to do something great...beat every single rival on the road,” said Gardner. “It’s going to feel good to go in and defeat them in their own house.”

The odds are stacked against the Wolverines capturing Brady Hoke’s first Big Ten title, but Gardner dismissed those who would overlook his team.

“I don’t ever feel like an underdog,” said Gardner. “If we’re perceived as that, it’s perfectly fine. I would love for teams to come in and take us lightly...we’re going to give everybody our best game.”

The media has selected Michigan to finish third in the Big Ten East Division—well behind Ohio State and Michigan State—and no one picked the team to win the division.

According to Hoke, his team needs to embrace the challenge posed by the schedule.

“We’re going back to East Lansing—two years in a row now—so what? You’re gonna play 12 games...embrace it. If not, you’re going to make excuses, and we don’t accept excuses.”

The sentiment was echoed by his quarterback.

“Every football field is the same size,” said Gardner. “It’s not about where you play. If you let that get to you, then you psych yourself out.”

But Gardner will need more than bravado when he leads his team versus Notre Dame in South Bend for its second game of the season.

Michigan’s last visit to South Bend resulted in a stunning 13-6 loss where it turned the ball over six times in a game that caused many to question former offensive coordinator Al Borges.

Gardner played wide receiver in that loss.

Now, it will be up to him to unveil Michigan’s new offense and show the critics that he can lead Michigan to a signature victory on the road.

 

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

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South Carolina Football 2014: Complete Preview and Predictions

Steve Spurrier's South Carolina Gamecocks enjoyed a successful 2013 campaign, as they finished with an impressive 11-2 overall record and a 6-2 record within the SEC. They even topped off the campaign with a victory in the Capitol One Bowl against Wisconsin.

However, superstar defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney graduated to the NFL, which now leaves a major hole for Spurrier to fill on the defensive side of the ball.

Watch as Bleacher Report's experts preview South Carolina before the start of the 2014 season.

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