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12 College Football Fall Camp Battles We Can't Wait to See

Conference media days are upon us, marking the second-to-last major checkpoint before the start of the season. After this, there is fall practice and then there is real, live football.

Now that we have reached this part of the offseason, looking ahead to next year gets upgraded from being "way too early" to simply being "too early." Likewise, looking ahead to fall camp gets upgraded from being "too early" to being "the appropriate time."

So to celebrate this appropriateness, let's look ahead to the position battles we can't wait to see this fall. Now that all of the incoming freshmen—and not just the early enrollees—are participating, the competitions for playing time can get started in earnest.

A number of factors were taken into consideration for this list. It tried to focus on the nationally relevant teams with questions at a certain position. If that team is introducing a blue-chip newcomer to the ranks and allowing him to compete for the job—even better.

Also, we limited ourselves to five quarterback battles, even though there are plenty other good ones out there. Those battles were added based on how close they are (Notre Dame, for example, was left off since Everett Golson is a heavy favorite to start over Malik Zaire) and on how important they are to the national narrative (what happens at LSU will have a bigger impact than what happens at Ball State).

Perhaps at some point in the coming weeks we'll rank how excited we are for all of the FBS quarterback battles. Obviously, there are more than just these five worth keeping an eye on, and there is plenty of time before fall camp to thoroughly preview it.

But at least now we are close enough to start!

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Breaking Down 247Sports' Updated 2015 Recruiting Rankings

Members of the 2015 recruiting class are just weeks away from beginning their senior seasons on high school football fields across America. Many of the marquee prospects have stayed busy this summer by participating in high-profile camps and showcases, including The Opening, an annual congregation of the country's top college recruits that took place last week at Nike's world headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon.

These events provide analysts to dissect the skill set of athletes in a detailed manner since it's so difficult to hide deficiencies while competing against the best of your peers. Bleacher Report had an up-close view of all The Opening action, joined on the sideline by several well-respected recruiting services.

The collection of reporters at 247Sports quickly reassessed scouting reports for top-rated players, issuing new grades Wednesday based on evidence gathered this summer. Other websites have also updated their ratings, resulting in a revised edition of 247Sports' composite rankings.

This list is created courtesy of an algorithm that includes the assessment of several major media outlets, providing a comprehensive and multi-sourced look at the current class.

We reviewed the updated rankings, noting several impactful alterations. Here's a rundown of how the landscape has changed less than seven months shy of national signing day.

 

Josh Sweat Surges to Top Spot

Superb production, measurements and athleticism add up to create a special prospect in Josh Sweat, the nation's new No. 1 recruit. He tallied 94 tackles and 22 sacks in 2013, looking like the top defensive end on game film at Oscar Smith High School in Virginia.

The 6'4.5", 240-pound playmaker argubaly exceeded expectations at The Opening, running the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds and finishing second in national SPARQ finals. Comparisons to No. 1 NFL draft pick Jadeveon Clowney quickly grew from whispers to roars, and it goes far beyond their similar hair styles.

Sweat is elite in every sense of the word, displaying agility normally shown by wide receivers while he chases down quarterbacks and dismantles blocking schemes. Despite dealing with a slight hip ailment in Oregon, he managed to take on the nation's most dominant offensive linemen and routinely win battles.

"You have to be perfect against him," 5-star offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt said. "Otherwise you're done. It's definitely a big challenge."

Martez Ivey, the top-ranked offensive lineman in composite rankings, echoed those sentiments.

"Josh is just a freak," he said. "I think we split our matchups (at The Opening), and he forces you to bring your best. That's the only way you can keep up with a player like him."

The pass-rushing menace remains uncommitted and is likely to stay that way entering his senior campaign. Several teams appear to be in the hunt, including Ohio State, Georgia, Virginia Tech and Florida State.

 

A Pair of Passers Enter 5-Star Territory

Before The Opening began, 19 quarterbacks assembled in Oregon for the Elite 11 finals. The competition annually features phenomenal prospects, and past participants include Andrew Luck, Tim Tebow and Matthew Stafford.

Blake Barnett and Jarrett Stidham rose to the occasion early and often during Elite 11 action, carrying momentum into 7-on-7 showdowns at The Opening. As a result, both passers are newly anointed 5-stars.

Barnett, who hails from Santiago High School in Southern California, was named Elite 11 MVP and led his squad to the 7on-7 championship. We bumped him ahead of fellow Golden State 5-star Ricky Town in our post-Elite 11 ratings, and the composite rankings also reflect that jump.

The 6'4.5", 200-pound Alabama pledge picked apart defenses with precision and outstanding deep-ball touch. When you factor in his mobility (695 yards and 13 scores on the ground in 2013), Barnett is a rare quarterback.

"When a play breaks down and the pocket starts to close in, I can make things happen," he said in Oregon.

B/R's Michael Felder focused on his performance during video evaluations at The Opening:

Stidham, a Texas Tech commit, is equally impressive as an athlete. He transitioned from receiver to quarterback as a junior at Stephenville High School in Texas, dazzling with 3,400 total yards and 44 touchdowns.

The 6'3.5", 190-pound passer flashed elite accuracy and above-average velocity in Oregon. His footwork was extremely solid and suggests he's worked diligently at his craft since switching positions.

"I feel more comfortable right now than ever before," Stidham said after an Elite 11 session.

It showed, and he's now the top-ranked dual-threat passer in this class.

Stidham and Barnett join Town, Josh Rosen (California) and Kyler Murray (Texas) in the 5-star echelon.

 

Receivers Rise After Impressive Efforts

Barnett didn't do damage alone at The Opening. He had plenty of help from fellow Alabama commit Calvin Ridley, a Florida standout who secured his fifth star.

The 6'0", 170-pound Pompano Beach High School playmaker caught two touchdowns in the 7-on-7 title game and earned overall MVP honors during closing ceremonies in Oregon. He rapidly formed a rapport with his future quarterback in the process.

"We really found a rhythm together," Barnett said following a 7-on-7 victory. "He's such a talented receiver, and it's big that we have a chance to build some chemistry before we both arrive at Alabama."

Ridley also put on a show in one-on-one drills while competing against the county's best defensive backs. His one-handed catch during opening day action was a top highlight of the week.

He broke down the ridiculous reception during a discussion with Bleacher Report:

Ridley now ranks 16th overall in the 2015 class, nine spots ahead of New Orleans receiver Tyron Johnson. The latest standout Louisiana pass-catcher was smooth when breaking in and out of routes throughout The Opening and regularly slipped into space downfield.

Johnson, a 6'1", 191-pound prospect from Warren Easton High School, caught 87 passes for 1,433 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Texas Tech is currently the favorite for the 5-star's commitment, but Georgia, LSU and Oklahoma State are among teams that will challenge before signing day.

Florida product Deon Cain may be a quarterback at Tampa Bay Tech, but that didn't stop 247Sports from vaulting him to No. 1 nationally among receivers. That leap sends him to 45th overall in composite rankings, where he remains a 4-star prospect.

Cain was sensational in Oregon, appearing far more polished than many of his peers who've started at the position for multiple seasons. The scintillating athlete will move to receiver when he arrives at Clemson next year and could follow in the footsteps of Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins toward stardom as a Tiger.

 

Defensive Tackles Maintain Dominance

What we saw at The Opening only confirmed our belief that this is the strongest crop of interior defensive linemen of the decade.

There are six 5-star defensive tackle recruits in 2015 composite rankings. That amount really stands out when you factor in the fact that only 13 players earned 5-star status at the position from 2010 through 2014.

Georgia tackle Trent Thompson, who held the No. 1 spot before Sweat, didn't attend The Opening but still sits at No. 2 nationally on the composite list. He could face a challenge atop positional rankings from new Tennessee commit Kahlil McKenzie (California), who is now the second-highest-rated overall player in 247Sports' rankings.

McKenzie is one of just two committed recruits in the 5-star bunch, joining Texas A&M pledge Daylon Mack (Texas). Thompson has yet to announce a decision, along with Rasheem Green (California), Shy Tuttle (North Carolina) and Daron Payne (Alabama).

Keep an eye on Hawaii native Breiden Fehoko, a 4-star prospect who was relentless in Oregon. The Texas Tech commit is now ranked No. 7 nationally among defensive tackles and collected 24 sacks in 2013.

"I came out here to prove myself as a top prospect, and I think I did that against some great linemen," Fehoko said on the final day of action in Oregon.

 

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

5 Issues We Would Love Wisconsin's Gary Andersen to Address at B1G Media Days

On July 28 and 29, the media circus moves to Chicago for the Big Ten Media Days.  After last season's 9-4 campaign in head coach Gary Andersen's first season at the helm, Andersen will look to build off of that as he begins implementing his own system and his own recruits get pushed into the fold.

Andersen has proved himself very earnest and open with the media, and let's hope that continues during media day as he fields questions about how he can continue the recent success of Badger football despite losing a number of players from last year's team, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.

Without further ado, let's take a look at the five biggest issues Gary Andersen should address at the Big Ten media days.

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Notre Dame Football: Cornerbacks Will Set the Tone for Irish's Defense in 2014

When freshly minted Notre Dame football defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder ushered in a new defense, much of the focus was on the alignment. Would the Irish switch to a 4-3? Would there still be remnants of the 3-4?

While those questions were and are certainly relevant, VanGorder has stressed the defense will be “multiple,” and Irish head coach Brian Kelly has always been quick to diminish the buzz surrounding a 4-3.

Rather, VanGorder has emphasized the importance of cornerback play in his aggressive, attacking defense.

And in 2014, it will be Notre Dame’s corners who set the tone for the defense.

One of the simplest overgeneralizations of former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s defense was that it was a bend-but-don’t-break structure. One could argue that Notre Dame, especially in its secondary, focused on keeping plays in front of it. The Irish defense allowed the fewest plays (34) of 20 or more yards to opponents in 2013, per CFBStats.com.

In turn, however, Notre Dame’s defense forced few turnovers. The Irish ranked tied for 103rd (of 125 teams) with just 17 turnovers forced—four fumbles recovered and 13 interceptions—according to CFBStats.com.

To be sure, turnovers aren’t the sole definitive measure of a defense’s aggressiveness and success. Pressure comes in different forms, as Kelly noted during the spring. But the Irish will look to ramp up the pressure, especially in the secondary.

“The new system that we’re under right now is just something that we want to challenge all routes,” defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks said during the spring. “We want to be on attack mode. And the whole philosophy is that we don’t want the offense to dictate how we play defense.”

That philosophy starts with the cornerbacks. Junior KeiVarae Russell returns for his third season starting on the perimeter, and the talented and loquacious corner could set the tone for the entire defense as well.

Behind Russell, the Irish have one of their most impressive collections of talent and depth in recent years. Cole Luke and Cody Riggs will likely compete for the other starting role. Matthias Farley can be a key piece used in sub-packages, and Devin Butler and Nick Watkins have the talent to crack the rotation.

Combining that sort of depth and ability with an attacking mindset should position the cornerbacks as the tone-setters of the defense.

“Everything that we do...we’re aggressive, we’re competing, we’re physical, and that whole mindset of challenge every route, challenge every route,” Cooks said. “So just being more aggressive when the ball is in the air, being more aggressive when you’re engaged in a blocker, being more aggressive flying through the ball.”

In theory, more aggressive cornerback play should have a trickle-down effect for the entire defense—more turnovers, more energy. And the cornerbacks could lift up the rest of the defense, which is inexperienced along the defensive line and facing injury questions at linebacker.

Instead of being a reactive, preventative group, Notre Dame’s cornerbacks can propel a new-look defense in 2014.

 

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

RB Terrence Magee Says Frosh Leonard Fournette Could Be Greatest LSU RB Ever

LSU finally took the podium at SEC Media Days and senior running back Terrence Magee had some extremely high praise for freshman phenom running back Leonard Fournette.

Watch the video as Magee discusses Fournette's place in Tigers RB history.

 

Highlights courtesy of XOSDigital

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Florida State Football: Re-Evaluating FSU's Recruiting Class After 2014 Opening

The Florida State football program has just 13 verbal commitments for the 2015 class, according to 247Sports.

That may sound like a small number, especially for the defending national champions. But it's not when taking the large number of undeclared commits that are considering FSU—or those prospects that are leaning heavily toward FSU.

"There are several uncommitted prospects right now that are more committed to FSU than a few FSU commits," writes 247Sports analyst Josh Newberg (subscription required). "I'm talking about guys like Jacques PatrickTarvarus McFadden and Da'Vante Phillips."

FSU's 2015 class is strong in the defensive backfield. The Seminoles have verbal commitments from 5-star safety Derwin James, 4-star safety Calvin Brewton, 4-star corner Tyrek Cole and 3-star safety A.J. Westbrook. Head coach Jimbo Fisher and his staff are also pursuing McFadden, a 5-star corner who is strongly leaning toward FSU in the 247Sports crystal ball.

The Seminoles will start a pair of junior corners in P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby in 2014. Both will be eligible for the NFL draft in 2015, so FSU is planning ahead and stocking up on defensive backs.

"Florida State has done a tremendous job building depth in the secondary, and that continues with commitments from Derwin James, Tyrek Cole and Calvin Brewton," Bleacher Report recruiting analyst Tyler Donohue said. "Any college coach would be happy with that group, and things could get better with Tarvarus McFadden."

Let's take a look at FSU's recruiting class at mid-July, which could also get a boost in the next few days, as Fisher and the staff hold an on-campus camp Wednesday through Friday:

FSU's top targets

The discussion of top targets should begin with defensive end Josh Sweat, who is the top player on Donohue's board. Sweat is 6'4'', 240 pounds and has the speed and athleticism to excel as a pass rusher.

"Like every team in the country, Florida State would love to land Josh Sweat," Donohue said. "Virginia Tech still appears to be in good position as an in-state option, while Georgia and Ohio State helped their chances with recent visits. He’s played his recruitment pretty close to the vest."

FSU has loaded up on tailbacks under Fisher, but he's been able to keep them all happy by spreading the carries. The Seminoles will lose just Karlos Williams after the 2014 season, so they will have Mario Pender, Ryan Green and Dalvin Cook going into 2015.

So FSU is looking at Patrick and Ray-Ray McCloud, both of whom participated at The Opening, as well as Johnny Frasier.

"Jaques Patrick and Ray-Ray McCloud both looked extremely smooth as receivers," Donohue said. "McCloud actually worked primarily at receiver, which is where several teams would prefer him to play. I don't think there’s any doubt that Patrick is a top-five rusher in this class."

FSU took two quarterbacks in the 2012 class (Jameis Winston and Sean Maguire), and it looks like Fisher could have two again in 2015. The Seminoles have a verbal commitment from De'Andre Johnson but are also pursuing Deondre Francois.

Francois, who has moved from Orlando and will now be coached by former Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke at the Bradenton (Florida) IMG Academy, was impressive at The Opening.

"Francois flashed arguably the strongest arm during Elite 11 competition," Donohue said. "He fired darts early and often, but his accuracy seemed to erode at times. As a passer, Francois may have a higher ceiling than any QB in this class."

While FSU's coaches are all active recruiters, James has been persuasive, too. James told Donohue he's focused on two prospects.

"Derwin James told me he was mainly focused on recruiting McCloud and defensive end Byron Cowart, who looked college-ready throughout The Opening," Donohue said. "Cowart would be an instant-impact pass-rusher for Florida State, but Auburn, Oregon and Florida provide serious competition."

FSU commits

Newberg told Bleacher Report after The Opening that James "simply plays at a higher level than everyone else." Donohue agreed, saying that James "validated his status as the nation's top ranked safety."

"He told me that he views himself as a balanced defensive back who can cover the run and pass at an elite level," Donohue said. "While we didn’t see much run coverage at The Opening, he clearly has the burst and tenacity to attack near the line of scrimmage. He was instinctual in downfield defense, rarely tested by opposing quarterbacks."

Johnson also displayed improved mechanics, Donohue said.

"He flashed more consistent mechanics than what showed up on his junior game tape," Donohue said. "There are still some concerns about his touch beyond intermediate passes, but the talent is there. He moves well in the pocket and puts above-average velocity on throws."

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Bob Ferrante is the Florida State Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Bob on Twitter. All recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

2014 Stat Predictions for Top 20 SEC Football Stars

SEC football media days mean the season is right around the corner.

Well, as much as mid-July can represent games approaching, anyway.

One of the great things about SEC football is that known commodities return even when numerous stars depart—players like Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray, AJ McCarron, Tre Mason and Jarvis Landry.

Now we attempt to predict the season statistics for many of the SEC’s potential stars of 2014.

We have already projected stats for each of the SEC’s new starting quarterbacks, so they won’t be included here.

Instead, we will focus mostly on stars—projected or established—who should make the biggest impact on the league in 2014.

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Oregon Football: 4 Backups Critical to Ducks' Success in 2014

Of the elements that make the Oregon Ducks contenders for the College Football Playoff in 2014, depth is among the most significant.

Oregon enters the new season stocked with enough talent on both sides of the ball for head coach Mark Helfrich to turn to his reserves without missing a beat.

Some Ducks on the second string of the depth chart will play significant roles in the team's pursuit of a fourth conference championship since 2009. 

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Oregon Football: 4 Backups Critical to Ducks' Success in 2014

Of the elements that make the Oregon Ducks contenders for the College Football Playoff in 2014, depth is among the most significant...

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Hits and Misses from 2014 Preseason All-Big 12 Team

The 2014 Preseason All-Big 12 Football Team, as voted by conference media members, was released Wednesday afternoon, providing yet another (much welcomed) sign that college football is nearly upon us.

The list was headlined by seven Baylor Bears, including Preseason Offensive Player of the Year Bryce Petty, the top projected top quarterback in the conference. Kansas State checked in second with five players, and reigning champion Oklahoma checked in third with four. Texas and TCU both trailed them with three.

Nine of the 10 teams in the conference had at least one player included, and the one team that didn't—as we'll discuss in a bit—was a bit surprising. But for the most part, the list seems to make sense.

Except when it didn't.

But, hey...at least that gives us something to talk about!

 

Note: All recruiting info refers to the 247Sports Composite Rankings.

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Notre Dame Football: What If Jeff Samardzija Had Kept Playing Football?

Tuesday night, Jeff Samardzija took part in his first All-Star Game.

Kind of. 

The right-handed pitcher, who was traded from the Chicago Cubs to the Oakland A's after being named to the National League roster, was ineligible to play in the game. But his early season efforts—a 2.83 ERA and 103 strikeouts in 17 starts with Chicago—were enough to send him to Minneapolis to take part in the Midsummer Classic, even if he was a man technically without a team. 

For Samardzija, the 2014 season has cemented his reputation as one of baseball's best young pitchers. The 6'5", 225-pounder out of Notre Dame took a while to get there, though, spending six seasons in Wrigleyville before becoming the ace former general manager Jim Hendry thought he signed to a major league contract in January 2007, just weeks after Samardzija played wide receiver for Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. 

The Cubs had taken a flier on Samardzija, drafting him in the fifth round just months after he was a consensus All-American wide receiver for the Irish. And after back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons made him one of the highest-profile receivers in the country, a five-year, $10 million guaranteed contract made him walk away from football.  

With Samardzija in Oakland as GM Billy Beane makes another unlikely push to the postseason, what better time to look back and wonder what would've happened had the former Irish All-American chosen to play in the NFL?

 

NFL Draft Stock

How difficult of a decision was it for Samardzija to give up football? Consider that while he didn't come off the board until the fifth round in baseball's draft, he entered 2006 with just about everybody thinking he was a lock for the NFL draft's first round. 

He was in Mel Kiper's top 10 picks (subscription required) on his big board. Former college teammate Tom Zbikowksi, after playing half a decade in the NFL, told Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune that Samardzija was "a cross between Plaxico Burress and Keyshawn Johnson—with a mix of Ed McCaffrey just because he’s white."

Samardzija was a two-time Biletnikoff Award finalist, and at 6'5", he had the height that NFL teams covet and the speed and athleticism that helped him score 28 touchdowns over his final two seasons. 

"It was clear to everybody that he was going to be a first-round pick if he'd have stayed with football," college teammate Ryan Harris told me. "If you look at any of the games we played, he was a dominant, dominant receiver for us."

Looking at the 2007 NFL draft, Calvin Johnson stood out as the dominant receiver available. But a look at the receivers that went in the first two rounds and it isn't hard to think that Samardzija not only would've been taken before most of them, but he'd have likely put up better numbers as well.

After contacting Notre Dame, the school wasn't able to find any official testing numbers, putting Samardzija's true speed and jumping ability into question. So while we're left to wonder just how impressive he would've been in spandex, it likely wouldn't have done anything to hurt his work in shoulder pads

 

An Accidental Baseball Star

In Samardzija's first two years in South Bend, he looked like a much better baseball player than football player. With Tyrone Willingham as the Irish head coach, Samardzija put up just 24 catches for 327 yards in his freshman and sophomore seasons, failing to get into the end zone.

But he showed promise on the mound, and after being named a Freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball and leading the pitching staff in wins as a sophomore—even while taking part in Charlie Weis' first spring football practices—former Irish baseball coach Paul Mainieri knew he had something special.

But Samardzija's breakout 2005 football season made it difficult for the Irish baseball coach to pry his ace away from Weis. In a profile for Fox Sports, Sam Gardner talked with Mainieri, now the head coach at LSU, about some bartering he did for Samardzija's services with Weis:

Mainieri approached Weis about allowing Samardzija to focus on baseball that spring instead of football. However, the immediate response from Weis, who had  led the Irish to the Fiesta Bowl in his first season in South Bend, was not necessarily favorable.

"Charlie looked at me like I had three eyes and said, ‘Why would I want to do that?'" said Mainieri, now the coach at LSU. "And I said, 'Because I think you owe it to this kid to give him the chance to be the very best baseball player that he can be, to find out what he can do in baseball.'

"Because if he’s running pass patterns and getting beat up in spring football practice and then we’re asking him to go out there and pitch on the weekends when he’s not able to do all of the proper side work and preparation, like a true pitcher would be doing, he’s never going to fulfill his true potential. So I thought we needed to let (Jeff) find out if he was good enough to compete at the highest level."

Samardzija made 15 starts in his junior year, making the transition from thrower to pitcher as he went 8-2 for the Irish. The Irish head coach also went out on a ledge with one of his best friends in baseball, then-Cubs GM Jim Hendry, and told him to take a chance on Samardzija. 

"I told Jim that this kid was the greatest athlete I’d ever coached and more than that—I don’t know how you define the word 'it' but he has it,” Mainieri told Fox Sports.

"I had so much faith in this kid that I told my best friend that he’s worth taking the risk on, and so Jim did it. The other clubs probably thought Jim was crazy. Nobody wanted to draft Jeff because nobody believed that Jeff was willing to skip going to the NFL and the big money to go through the minor league system. But I knew this kid, and I knew that he was willing to do it."

 

A Decision Worth Making

Notre Dame's 2006 team was one of the more talented squads of the post-Lou Holtz era. Brady Quinn survived a draft slide and still went in the first round. Defensive end Victor Abiamiri was selected in the second round. Ryan Harris was taken in the third. Derek Landri, Dan Santucci, and Chinedum Ndukwe were late-round picks. John Carlson, Trevor Laws, Tommy Zbikowski and John Sullivan were taken in 2008.   

But as Robert Klemko of Sports Illustrated points out, from Samardzija's draft class, only Harris is still playing football (and after speaking with Harris on Tuesday, even his future is uncertain):

Seven Notre Dame players were drafted in 2007. Samardzija would have made it eight had he not signed a five-year, $7.25-million deal with the Cubs in 2006. Of those seven, only one is still in football (Texans tackle Ryan Harris) and five of the other six had their careers shortened or ended by injury. First-rounder QB Brady Quinn missed three weeks with a concussion in 2012 when he was with the Chiefs. Second-round defensive end Victor Abiamari tore his Achilles with the Eagles in 2011 and hasn’t played since. Fifth-round defensive tackle Derek Landri missed part of 2013 with the Bucs with a sprained MCL and hasn’t found a home since being released in February. Seventh-rounder Dan Santucci’s injury-plagued career effectively ended when he went down with a foot injury for the Bengals during the 2009 preseason. And seventh-round safety Chinedum Ndukwe hasn’t played since re-injuring his knee as a Raider in 2011.

As Samardzija played his senior season on the football field, he knew he had to make a decision when the year was finished. But he didn't let it become a distraction to the team, something Harris said was a credit to Samardzija as a teammate.

"He was a great teammate. A fierce competitor," Harris remembers. "Everybody that played with him—either baseball or football—is just really happy for him."

After some struggles in the minor leagues and early in his days with Chicago, Samardzija has become the pitcher Mainieri and Hendry envisioned. He's also made a lot of money. According to Baseball-Reference, Samardzija has made just shy of $23 million as a ballplayer, including $5.3 million this season.

He's going to make a lot more.

Samardzija reportedly turned down a five-year offer from the Cubs that would've paid somewhere in the range of $75-$80 million.  

That kind of money made the decision to play baseball easy. 

"If Jeff had to make that decision 10 times, every football player will tell you to play baseball 10 times out of 10," Harris said with a laugh. "You can play baseball quite a long time, and it's all guaranteed." 

We'll likely never see Samardzija play football on Sundays. So while we're forced to wonder what could have been, at least there's still YouTube

 

*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter.  

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

How Charlie Strong and Texas Should Define Success in 2014

Success in college football is almost always defined by wins and championships. Often times, the many steps it takes to get there—the minor milestones, the lesser barriers broken—are unappreciated, dwarfed by the bigger picture.

We are consumed by numbers, highlights and trophies. Anything less than perfection—especially when it involves resource-rich schools such as Texas—is viewed as a failure. Given the mind-boggling financial advantages it has over the majority of the football programs it competes against, perhaps this is not far from the truth.

For at least one season, however, all win-based, trophy-centric assessments of the Longhorns should be put on ice. Charlie Strong's first season is not about his team's record or what bowl game it can reach; it's about the little things and paving the way for something more.

This is the University of Texas, a place where nothing is small: the money, the enrollment, the facilities, the talent, the salaries, (the steaks); all of it has been constructed with and for enormous appetites. And while fans will silently circle double-digit wins as an ideal starting point under new leadership, 2014 should be about reestablishing a football foundation that has been lost over the past four seasons.

A program built on mass will struggle to stomach this strategy. Thankfully, the team's new head coach is all about the little things. It's why he's in this position in the first place.

One of Strong's first duties as head coach was to provide some unexpected (but honest) thoughts on the season ahead. Speaking with Brian Davis of the Austin American-Statesman earlier this offseason, he crushed all pipe dreams of a national championship in year one before they even started.

We have everything available, and I don't know why we can't be successful. There's no reason for us not to be. Now, I can't tell you how soon it’s going to be. Don't hold me to that. Don't say, 'Ooh, coach said next year we'll be in the national...' We will not be in the national championship game.

Of course, this means very little. While no one, including the most optimism-charged Texas fan, is ready to debate him on this, the Longhorns could run the table in the Big 12 behind a healthy David Ash at quarterback, a defense that quietly improved in the second half of last season and a solid core of running backs.

Then again, such a dream scenario—this one likely coming after a bottle of Merlot and a minimum of four Benadryl—is unlikely for a team with obvious weaknesses. The fact that the head coach is already bracing a fanbase for the obvious speaks volumes early on.

It's not shocking, but different. It's also refreshing to see the plan laid out for the world to see.

The schedule for Texas is by no means a cakewalk. It includes an out-of-conference game against a potential Top 25 team in BYU and a likely Top 10 team in UCLA. Also on the docket are Baylor, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and road games against Kansas State and Texas Tech in back-to-back weeks.

There are more difficult schedules out there, but this doesn't have a sneak-up-on-10-wins feel to it. That season, especially now, will have been earned.

The team will feature both familiar faces and new parts. With three starters from last year's squad gone, the offensive line will be a position to watch come fall practice. The same can be said about the defensive line, which will have to replace Jackson Jeffcoat and Chris Whaley for starters.

It's worth pointing out that defensive line and linebacker were positions of strength in the spring, although new defensive coordinator Vance Bedford will gladly keep all scheme and personnel news quiet until the cameras begin to roll.

Returning will be perhaps the deepest stables of running backs in the country—at least when this group is healthy. Johnathan Gray returns from an Achilles injury, which came when his potential was finally being realized. He will be joined by Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron, which will make this group, regardless of the questions up front, one to watch.

Texas will also get back Quandre Diggs, one of the nation's most experienced (and talented) cornerbacks. Playing a schedule ripe with proficient passing teams, his presence is almost as significant as anyone's on the team.

The "almost" comes in the form of the obvious. Quarterback, of course, will dictate the Longhorns' season one way or another, and David Ash will be coming off yet another injury. Ash, who showed promise before dealing with concussion symptoms followed by a broken foot this spring, could be the answer at the position. The truth is, given the sample size and his turbulent history, we don't know.

If Ash's injury streak continues, Tyrone Swoopes will likely hear his name called (something Texas would have loved to hear last season). And if Swoopes struggles, promising young freshman Jerrod Heard—the No. 2 dual-threat quarterback in the 2014 class, according to 247Sports—could see time.

The roster is not without talent. In fact, this might be the most promise the defense has had in years. If the group can avoid injury—something that has been a tall order in recent seasons—perhaps this can start to look like a Charlie Strong-coached football team earlier than expected.

That, more than anything, should be how we consume Texas football in 2014. We'll focus in on the obvious: UCLA, Baylor and Oklahoma will all serve as perceived measuring sticks. The reality, however, is that one victory out of these three games should be considered a positive early step.

Taking that notion one step further, let's drift away from all accolade-driven means to measure.

Is the defensive line finally showing gap integrity? Is there hope, or better yet, stability at quarterback? Is the rebuilt offensive line getting the push we've been anxiously waiting to see? Are the future stars of the program contributing in ways that can only lead to optimism?

The in-tune football fan can seek out these things and embrace the satisfaction of seeing change. Given the development track record of the Longhorns' new football professor, it's safe to assume that the progress throughout the season will be evident.

Such progress may not translate to more wins or a bowl closer to January 1, at least not right away. But over the course of time, the items addressed in year one could serve as a turning point in a program looking to distance itself from a sudden rush of mediocrity.

And it all starts with, you guessed it, the little things.

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Alabama vs. USC Announced for 2016 Cowboys Classic in Dallas

The Cowboys Classic at AT&T Stadium has become one of college football's marquee regular-season games. As announced Wednesday, the 2016 version will feature two of the most storied programs in the sport.    

According to ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough, the Alabama Crimson Tide and USC Trojans will clash in the opening-weekend affair in two years:

The announcement piqued the interest of many within the college football realm. It isn't often that two elite programs meet on one of the biggest stages in the sport, but that is precisely what will happen in 2016.

NFL Network's Albert Breer was particularly impressed by the upcoming matchup:

Bleacher Report's Matt Miller echoed those sentiments:

With that said, not everyone is convinced that it was the best course of action. Bryan Fischer of NFL.com is looking forward to the encounter, but would have preferred a multi-game agreement between the schools:

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has brought some huge events to his state-of-the-art facility since it first opened in 2009, but it can be argued that Alabama vs. USC rivals anything that has come before it.

This particular game was first rumored back in May, per Andrew Gribble of AL.com, but Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban refused to reveal any potential details.

"We're always looking but not anything I can share with you right now," Saban said. "I don't think we want to create speculation."

Now that it is official, though, anyone and everyone involved with college football will likely be talking about it for the next two years.

The hope among neutral fans has to be that the Trojans regain their footing as a top-ranked team. Alabama has been the toast of college football over the past several years and seems poised to remain in the spot. USC has had its ups and downs, but the potential for greatness is always present.

If the 2016 Cowboys Classic turns out to be a battle between two of the best teams in the country, then it may go down as one of the most highly anticipated regular-season games ever.

Whatever the case, there is no denying the fact that this announcement is great for college football.

 

Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter

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Auburn Football: Tigers Offense Promises More Explosiveness Through Balance

HOOVER, Ala. — Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn's hurry-up, no-huddle offense returned to the Plains last season with a bang.

A huge bang.

The Tigers transformed from a toothless offense in 2012 to one that finished in the top 10 nationally in yards per play, total yardage, total points and plays of 30 yards or more.

Explosiveness was definitely not an issue for the defending SEC champions, but they are not completely satisfied with their production in one specific area.

"We led the country in rushing last year," Malzahn said at SEC media days. "When you do that, defenses have to take some chances. We've got to do a better job this year of making them pay when they do take their chances."

There were some bright spots in Auburn's passing offense last season—quarterback Nick Marshall was the nation's highest-rated passer in the final eight games of 2013, and wide receiver Sammie Coates finished third nationally in yards per catch—but the Tigers' run to the national title was that: a run.

Malzahn's patented offensive scheme has always emphasized a strong rushing attack, but his 2013 Auburn team was the run-heaviest of his collegiate coaching career:

Auburn's reliance on the run game mostly fell on Marshall, who was more effective on the ground than he was through the air for most of 2013.

Although Marshall's passing improved throughout the season, the coaching staff decided to base the offense on the backfield's rushing abilities with a read-option foundation that took the country by storm.

"I think as you're building your strengths around [your quarterback], you find out a lot about your team," Malzahn said. "Last year was a completely different deal because we were learning every single play in every single game until probably halfway through the year."

In addition to what the coaches hope will be a more accurate arm, Auburn's offense will look to Marshall's legs and leadership as he becomes the first returning starter at quarterback for Malzahn at the college level.

"Nick is vocal," senior center Reese Dismukes said. "At first he wasn’t, but now that he’s been here over a year, he’s gotten comfortable. He'll be a leader as well."

Now that Marshall and the bounce-back Tigers will not be able to take anyone in the SEC by surprise this season, Malzahn is adjusting his offense once again for a potential title defense.

"[Offensive coordinator Rhett] Lashlee and the offensive staff worked extremely hard in the spring," Malzahn said. "We feel like we have some receivers that can stretch the field and make some plays."

Coates will be the unit's leader once again and looks to have more of an impact in Malzahn's offense. Although the big-play receiver finished near the front of the pack in yards per catch, his 42 grabs were outside of the top 100 nationally in 2013.

Former No. 1 junior college recruit D'haquille "Duke" Williams, a standout from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, will be another go-to target for Auburn. He wasted no time in introducing himself to the Jordan-Hare faithful this spring by coming down with several impressive catches at the annual A-Day Game.

Georgia game hero Marcus Davis, experienced senior Quan Bray and the sure-handed Marcus Davis will also be expected to lead a receiving corps that did not lose a single player from 2013.

Their development over the offseason, along with a more accurate Nick Marshall, is what Auburn's playmakers hope will be the difference in the offense this season.

"It’s going to be a lot more balanced than last year," senior tight end C.J. Uzomah said. "It’s been fun being in the mix with, in my opinion, the best group of receivers in the nation. It’s a lot of fun to have the opportunity to be in the mix with those guys."

Uzomah is also looking to make a bigger impact in his senior season. The senior's production in 2013 was sporadic at best—he had a few important catches toward the beginning of the season but also went several games without a single target.

But with the Tigers having more of an emphasis on getting the ball in the air this season, Uzomah figures to be a bigger weapon in Malzahn's constantly changing offense. 

Thanks to another vertical threat out wide in Williams, the tight end could help open Auburn's playbook even more by providing a reliable receiver in the middle for an improved Marshall.

A bigger role for Uzomah could be another advantage for Auburn against defenses that will be trying to figure out how to slow Malzahn and Co. down.

"We have so many plays under the same formation that look the exact same, so it’s really hard to game-plan for something like that," Uzomah said. "You can try your best to game-plan, and we may get stumped on certain plays on a certain drive. But Coach Malzahn will adjust, and we’ll adjust as a team."

With Marshall showcasing a more accurate arm this spring and the coaching staff intent on calling more passing plays, Uzomah believes those adjustments to the scheme will make Auburn's offense ferocious in 2014.

"That added dimension is definitely there," Uzomah said. "With the work that [Marshall] has been putting in during the offseason, it’s definitely a triple-headed monster for our offense."

 

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

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USC Football: 9 Backups Critical to the Trojans' Success in 2014

One of the recurring themes in reviewing USC's prospects for a successful season in 2014 is the lack of depth found on its roster in terms of scholarship players.

Indeed, given the ramifications of three years of scholarship reductionscourtesy of the NCAA's sanctions relative to the Reggie Bush fiascoUSC does find itself with a roster that is woefully thin in some critical areas.

Because of this, the Trojans will depend on good health in 2014 and, in addition to that good fortune, they will need steady play from the second-string players who are backing up the starters.

This slideshow will look at these important players and the role they will be counted on to fulfill as the Trojans embark on the Steve Sarkisian era.

While all of the playerswalk-ons includedare important to the success of the Trojans this year, here are some of the most critical backups for USC in 2014.

Begin Slideshow

USC Football: 9 Backups Critical to the Trojans' Success in 2014

One of the recurring themes in reviewing USC's prospects for a successful season in 2014 is the lack of depth found on its roster in terms of scholarship players...

Begin Slideshow

Texas Chalk Talk: Why Longhorn Running Game Is Key to 2014 Success

The University of Texas is looking to put its football program back on the map, and from an offensive perspective, new offensive coordinator Joe Wickline and new quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson will have to mesh their minds to put a more threatening attack on the field.

But why will the running game be essential to the Longhorns' success in 2014?

Watch as B/R college football analyst Michael Felder dives into the film to dissect what the Texas offense will look like this fall and why the running game is essential to the team's success this season.

 

Highlights courtesy of XOS Digital.

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Adidas and UCLA Unveil New 'LA Steel' Uniforms for 2014-15 Season

The UCLA Bruins will have a new fashion statement to make for a select home game during the 2014-15 season.

Last year, Adidas came up with a black "L.A. Midnight" look for the Bruins, and once again it has unveiled a fresh new look for UCLA to wear on the field this upcoming season. UCLA did not announce at which game the new uniform will debut.

For the first time in program history, the Bruins will have a grey uniform. The uniform uses TECHFIT Shockweb technology, which will make players tougher to tackle because it "clings tightly to the body."

Here's more on the "L.A. Steel" look, via UCLA Bruins:

The Bruins’ jerseys and pants are rendered in rich dark onyx grey and feature ultra-light metallic embellishments that shimmer, paying tribute to the bright lights of Los Angeles. UCLA’s famous shoulder stripes complement the city skyline that appears on the sleeves of the TECHFIT compression base layer and the UCLA script mark on the pants. The uniform numbers are inspired by UCLA’s own signature stripes.

Check out more photos of the "L.A. Steel" uniforms:

[Adidas, UCLA Athletics, h/t College Spun]

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Why Alex Ross, Not Joe Mixon, Could Be Oklahoma's Biggest Secret Weapon at RB

When all is said and done, the Oklahoma Sooners’ biggest production at running back may come from the player with the smallest expectations.

In other words: Redshirt sophomore Alex Ross is poised to surprise a lot of people in 2014.

The low expectations for the Jenks, Oklahoma, native weren’t always the case. In fact, Ross was listed as a 4-star recruit coming out of Jenks High in 2012.

An Under Armour All-American, Ross boasted all the characteristics of a top-tier running back. Not to mention he possessed lightning-quick speed, having been crowned the 2011 Oklahoma 6A state champion in the 200-meter dash (21.97 seconds).

But it would be hard to gather that much from his first two years in Norman.

After redshirting in 2012, Ross began his freshman campaign on a high note, earning top-performer honors in the August scrimmage. However, he would spend the majority of the 2013 season on special teams while only rushing for 19 yards on three carries offensively.

But that was more so a result of his lack of maturity than it was about his physical readiness.

In the season opener, Ross received his first career carry late in the fourth quarter and showcased his potential on an 8-yard rush. But that wasn’t all he showed, as he finished the play by taking a swing at an opposing defender, earning an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the process.

That didn’t sit right with head coach Bob Stoops, who promptly benched the young hothead.

In an interview earlier this month, Ross addressed his growing maturity, per ESPN’s Brandon Chatmon:

I paid my dues and waited my time. I felt like I needed time to get acclimated to everything around here. I feel like I’ve matured a little bit just in getting bigger and knowing what to do in my part.

It certainly appears that time has paid dividends.

Following Damien Williams' dismissal last year, Ross stepped up and really impressed the Oklahoma coaching staff during the bowl practices, per CBS Sports’ Chip Patterson. He’s also made an impact while sharing first-unit reps with Keith Ford this spring.

Quarterback Trevor Knight talked to The Oklahoman’s Ryan Aber about Ross' development:

Nobody is going to outwork him...In the weight room, he’s a beast; in any running drill, he’s going to finish first every single time. Getting those reps especially is helping him out a lot just getting comfortable with the offense, and when he gets his shot, he’s going to make some big plays.

Ross’ speed—he can run a 4.43 40—is especially surprising given his size. After gaining 13 to 15 pounds of muscle after his freshman year, he enters 2014 at 221 pounds.

Watching Ross' running style reminds one of Arian Foster.

“He’s doing a good job of running, finding holes, doing what he’s supposed to do, fewer mistakes, those kinds of things,” Stoops said via Aber. “He’s a big powerful guy when he gets loose.”

With Williams, Roy Finch and Brennan Clay all gone, the Sooners will be without each of their top three running backs this season. That leaves a void for someone else to step in.

Ford and incoming 5-star prospect Joe Mixon both have the qualities and talent to wow fans and rack up numbers. 

However, Ross could be the freight truck that defenders don’t see coming.

 

All stats, recruiting information and rankings used in this article are courtesy of CFBStats.com and 247Sports.

For complete coverage and everything Oklahoma football, you can reach Sebastian on Twitter and via email at Sebastian.LenaBR@gmail.com.

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SEC Media Days 2014: Tracking Highlights, Comments, Twitter Reaction from Day 3

Day 3 of SEC Media Days from Hoover, Alabama, features an eclectic mix of coaches, players and officials with plenty to say about the state of college football's best conference for the 2014 season.  

Much of the focus will be on LSU head coach Les Miles, who speaks during the second session, but he is far from the only figure of note. Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel, Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema, SEC coordinator of officials Steve Shaw and many more promise to provide plenty of interesting sound bytes.

Here is a full breakdown of the most notable highlights and comments from Wednesday's SEC gathering in Alabama.

 

Day 3 Recap

SEC Media Days kicked off Wednesday with Shaw taking the podium. Officiating is always a hot-button issue in college football, and it is under the microscope in the SEC more so than perhaps any other conference.

The introduction of the "targeting rule" last season was quite controversial, so Shaw spent a great deal of time discussing it.

According to Jon Solomon of CBSSports.com, Shaw said that targeting penalties decreased significantly as the 2013 season went on:

Per John Adams of the Knoxville News Sentinel, Shaw believes that underscores the success of the rule:

One of the biggest issues fans, coaches and players alike had with the targeting rule was that the 15-yard penalty would still stand even if player ejections were reversed after video review. That will no longer be the case in 2014, according to SEC football communications director Chuck Dunlap:

There is also further emphasis on protecting quarterbacks this season with low hits resulting in personal foul penalties, per Antonya English of the Tampa Bay Times:

The SEC is going to expand one of its officiating crews to eight officials for the entire season in order to see if it is a practical change to make moving forward, according to Adams:

Shaw even made mention of a new rule regarding contrast between teams' jerseys and numbers, which could come into play considering the constantly changing state of college football uniforms:

Although Shaw wasn't necessarily viewed as a must-see speaker with so many high-profile coaches and players on Wednesday's slate, he turned in an impressive performance. Aubrey Bloom of the Bryan-College Station Eagle thought Shaw did a fine job explaining the rationale behind the rules and regulations:

Following Shaw's session, Pinkel took the podium and came out swinging against SEC Media Days.

According to Josh Kendall of The State, Pinkel poked fun at the continued growth of the event:

It didn't take long before the name of wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham came up. The troubled star transferred to Oklahoma after being dismissed by Pinkel and Mizzou.

Per ESPN's Brett McMurphy, Pinkel still believes that DGB can be great despite the issues he ran into while with the Tigers:

Missouri came from out of nowhere to get into national championship contention last season. The Tigers certainly won't sneak up on anyone this year, but Pinkel made it clear that the preseason polls don't mean much to him, according to ESPN's Alex Scarborough:

Perhaps the biggest key to Mizzou's success in 2014 is the play of freshman quarterback Maty Mauk. He was quite productive when pressed into action last season and Pinkel has strong feelings about Mauk's ability to be a big-time player:

It wasn't long ago that the Tigers were considered outsiders in SEC country, but Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com believes that Pinkel and Mizzou are being treated differently and taken more seriously at SEC Media Days this year:

Pinkel will always be linked to reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam, who famously became the first openly gay NFL player after being selected by the St. Louis Rams in the 2014 draft.

According to Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports, Pinkel admitted that Sam's decision to come out was a big deal at the time:

With that said, Pinkel is hopeful that Sam's bravery will lead to players no longer being defined by their sexual orientation in the future, per David Morrison of the Columbia Daily Tribune:

Quarterbacks are always hot commodities at SEC Media Days, so there were plenty of eyes on Mauk following Pinkel's press conference. Mauk had plenty to say about his own team, but he was questioned extensively about other teams and players as well.

Former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel is now a member of the Cleveland Browns, but his name was still brought up a number of times throughout the day. Mauk is clearly a fan and paid him the ultimate compliment, according to Brent Zwerneman of the Houston Chronicle:

Mauk also praised Johnny Football's incredible escapability, per Bloom:

There may never be another Manziel, but Mauk has some similar traits and will need to flash his dual-threat ability this season in order for the Tigers to have success.

Pinkel didn't come across as particularly enthusiastic or boisterous, but he exuded a quiet confidence regarding his team's chances in 2014. He will have to work around the losses of key players like Green-Beckham, Sam and running back Henry Josey, but there is still a great deal of talent on the roster.

The biggest challenge is the fact that the Tigers now have a target on their backs after doing so much damage in the SEC last year. If they embrace that and handle it effectively, though, they will certainly be in the mix.

 

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