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Ohio State Football: Checking in on Progress of Buckeyes' Top Freshmen

This year will be different.

That was the vow that Urban Meyer made on national signing day—and again on the first day of Ohio State's fall camp—while simultaneously lamenting the lack of immediate production that he received from the Buckeyes' 2013 class. The 2014 crop of freshmen wouldn't be that way, Meyer insisted, but through the first two games of the season, that's beginning to look like a broken promise.

In Ohio State's opener against Navy and subsequent loss to Virginia Tech, a total of four true freshmen played, with the majority of their playing time being spent on special teams. Meyer said this week that there were other first-year players who were pushing for playing time, but as we've learned in his three years in Columbus, that should be taken with a grain of salt until we actually see the players on the field.

With a loss already on the Buckeyes' record and tomorrow's game against Kent State expected to be a lopsided one, this weekend should give us a good idea of who's going to contribute and who could be headed for a redshirt for the remainder of the year. Until then, here's a look at how Ohio State's top freshmen have progressed thus far.

 

Curtis Samuel

Raved about more than any other OSU freshman in fall camp, Curtis Samuel came to Columbus expected to play wide receiver, but he now finds himself listed as one of three starting running backs on the Buckeyes depth chart.

A 4-star prospect by way of Brooklyn, New York, Samuel is the lone member of the 2014 class to see extended playing time on the Ohio State offense, which shouldn't be all that surprising given Meyer's comments about him in the summer.

“I love that kid, and man oh man, does he go hard," Meyer said. “He’s talented, and he will play this year."

So far, that's one promise that Meyer has made good on, although circumstances have made it so that Samuel hasn't played as much as most have expected him to. In two games, Samuel has taken 12 carries for a total of 71 yards, adding one reception for four yards to his stat line.

Those numbers, however, don't tell the entire story of Samuel, who has shown the most impressive burst of anybody in the Buckeyes backfield in the first two games of the season. As Ohio State running backs coach Stan Drayton explained, the 5'11", 196-pounder sure doesn't play like a true freshmen, which has made him the Buckeye staff's go-to first-year player thus far.

“You do feel comfortable putting him in the game, really in pretty much any situation," Drayton said. "He’s got some toughness to him, he’ll block a linebacker in the A-gap, and he can definitely do some dynamic things with the football when he gets in space. So, there’s no hesitation about putting him in the game.”

Against Virginia Tech, the Hokies' 46 Bear defense didn't allow Ohio State to get much going in the run game, which is why Samuel only received five carries—one of which he took for 16 yards. Unlike his other classmates—at least so far—Samuel has been given the chance to shine in his freshman campaign, an opportunity that he seems to have made the most of.

 

Raekwon McMillan

Arguably the most heralded member of the Buckeyes freshmen, Raekwon McMillan arrived on campus in January as a 5-star prospect and the top-ranked inside linebacker in the 2014 class. And given Ohio State's inefficiency at linebacker a year ago, the 6'2", 240-pounder was expected to immediately push senior Curtis Grant for his starting spot at middle linebacker.

McMillan did that, spending the Buckeyes' spring game alongside Ohio State's two other starting linebackers, Joshua Perry and Darron Lee. But at the end of fall camp, it was Grant who was still atop the Buckeyes depth chart and taking most of the reps in the season opener.

McMillan, meanwhile, was relegated to kickoff coverage duty, although he did see some action in Ohio State's base defense when Grant briefly left the game against Virginia Tech with an injury. The lone tackle of his college career thus far was an impressive one, as he downed Hokies wide receiver Isaiah Ford for a three-yard loss on a reverse.

Although Grant seems to have a firm hold on Ohio State's middle linebacker job—he leads the Buckeyes with 20 tackles on the year—don't be surprised if McMillan begins to get more runs as the season wears on. Although his playing time has been limited, McMillan has already shown flashes, but he will need more opportunities to live up to substantial hype that accompanied him from Hinesville, Georgia.

 

Erick Smith

While his more highly touted high school teammate, 4-star cornerback Marshon Lattimore, redshirts due to a hamstring injury, Erick Smith has been one of the few Ohio State freshmen to play in the first two games of the season, although all of his playing time has come on special teams.

A 4-star prospect from Cleveland Glenville, Smith is listed as a third-stringer on the Ohio State depth chart at safety, where he currently sits behind Tyvis Powell and Ron Tanner. But Meyer described the 6'0", 198-pounder as nipping at the heels of the Buckeyes starters throughout the preseason, and Smith could play if an injury necessitated so.

Although his playing time thus far has been limited to special teams, it's telling that of all of the players in Ohio State's freshmen class, he's one of the few who's been trusted enough to have already been put on the field. That shows that the Buckeyes staff believes that he'll be contributing sooner rather than later, as the hard-hitting safety's duties could be expanding in the near future.

 

Johnnie Dixon

He's yet to take a snap in his college career, but given the ineffectiveness of the Ohio State wide receiving corps thus far, it shouldn't be long until Johnnie Dixon finds himself on the field. In fact, Meyer hinted at as much on Wednesday when asked if his six-man receiver rotation—which didn't previously feature Dixon—was set in stone.

"I'll tell you, Johnnie Dixon and Noah Brown are very close to getting involved in this thing," Meyer said of the two freshman wide receivers.

While playing time could be harder to find for Brown, who's listed behind Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall at H-back on the OSU depth chart, it could quickly become readily available for Dixon.

With both Corey Smith and Evan Spencer—the two players ahead of Dixon on the wide receiver depth chart—struggling in the Buckeyes' loss to the Hokies, the former 4-star prospect could be the next man up should their issues persist.

Given the way that Virginia Tech's dare-you-to-throw defense neutralized Ohio State last Saturday, it's clear that Meyer is now eyeing all of his options in the Buckeyes passing game. That includes Ohio State's true freshmen, where Dixon stood out during the preseason, but has yet to translate that into playing time in the regular season.

 

Sean Nuernberger

The title of Ohio State's most impactful freshman so far this season belongs to kicker Sean Nuernberger, and that's not necessarily a good thing. After connecting on his two field-goal attempts against Navy—including one from 46 yards—Nuernberger struggled against the Hokies, missing each of his two field-goal attempts, including a chip shot from 27 yards.

Nuernberger's shoddy showing obviously didn't sit well with Meyer, who has placed an extra emphasis on special teams since arriving in Columbus.

“The two field goals were major, especially when it was a young player who did really good the first game,” Meyer said. “That’s big, to come away with those drives with nothing.”

With backup kicker Kyle Clinton having issues of his own on kickoffs—he's kicked two out of bounds in two games—the Buckeyes will likely ride with Nuernberger when it comes to place-kicking duties for the remainder of the season. After following his first impressive outing with an ugly one, it will be worth watching how the 6'1", 230-pounder bounces back this weekend.

 

Other Freshmen To Keep An Eye On

  • Linebacker Dante Booker was listed on each of Ohio State's first two depth charts but suffered a cut on his foot in the first week before falling ill in the second.
  • In addition to Dixon, Brown and Smith, Sam Hubbard has also been mentioned by Meyer as a first-year player on the cusp of receiving playing time, although it's still unclear whether the Buckeyes will use the Cincinnati product at tight end or linebacker.
  • After the departure of Chad Lindsay caused a reshuffling on Ohio State's second-team offensive line, Jamarco Jones found himself listed as Taylor Decker's backup at left tackle. Meyer said that the former 4-star product had been dealing with a sprained ankle in fall camp, but he is now full-go and could be called on at a moment's notice.
  • Meyer also noted that freshman guard Demetrius Knox had a good week of practice in the days leading up to the Buckeyes' matchup with Kent State, and could soon be pushing for playing time on an offensive line that has thus far been ineffective.

 

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

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College Football Week 3: Previews and Predictions for the Top 5 Games

Week 3 of the 2014 college football season will be headlined by an SEC East Division rivalry game between Georgia and South Carolina. 

The Dawgs and Gamecocks will battle it out in Columbia in a game that could determine who represents the division in the SEC Championship Game in December. Tennessee will also be out to prove it’s capable of competing in the SEC when it travels for a Saturday night nonconference game at No. 4 Oklahoma.

Brett Hundley and the UCLA Bruins will hope to finally put a solid performance together against Texas in Arlington, while Penn State will play its first game as a bowl eligible team since 2011 against Rutgers.  

As we look forward to another week of the college football season, here are the top five games to watch on Saturday.

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Notre Dame Football: A Year of Change for Amir Carlisle

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — In just one year Amir Carlisle has gone from an oft-used running back to a seldom-used running back to an intriguing slot receiver.

It was just this time last year—heading into a Week 3 matchup with Purdue—that the then-junior sat in front of the media and fielded questions about the running back rotation and about opposing his father, Duane, Purdue’s director of sports performance and the head strength and conditioning coach for the football squad.

But after falling out of the rotation last season following the win over the Boilermakers and switching positions in the spring, Carlisle finds himself with a new opportunity this year.

“It is different,” Carlisle said. “It’s just another opportunity to go out there and get a win for the team. I’m approaching it the same way I always approach things.”

For the ever-positive and detail-oriented Carlisle, that means striving for excellence and focusing on his practice habits. It’s that sort of focus, he says, that has allowed him to make the shift from running back to slot receiver.

Carlisle had announced his presence emphatically last season as a running back, galloping 45 yards on Notre Dame’s first play from scrimmage in the season opener against Temple. Carlisle averaged roughly 12 touches in each of the first three games last season. But he coughed up a fourth-quarter fumble against the Boilermakers, and Carlisle had just 17 more touches the rest of the season—never more than three in a game.

“I learned from that,” Carlisle said of the fumble. “It was a learning experience and I put it in the past.”

In the same way he’s been tested by ankle and collarbone injuries since transferring to Notre Dame from USC, Carlisle was tried by the lack of the playing time.

“Throughout the injuries there was times I could’ve gotten down, and last season didn’t really go how I planned for it go, but I really got on my Bible and prayed about things and talked to my mom,” Carlisle said. “I have to be positive and approach everything with excellence.”

On-field, in-game excellence started to ooze through for Carlisle on Saturday against Michigan, when the 5’10”, 190-pounder snatched seven receptions for 61 yards and two touchdowns. Carlisle’s first two touchdowns in an Irish uniform were solid, but his standout play came five snaps before the second touchdown.

Carlisle nimbly toe-tapped his way along the sideline and grabbed a 21-yard strike from Everett Golson, looking like anything but a converted running back who had never played wide receiver before, save for a couple plays in high school.

“I thought this was a statement game for him,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said afterward.

Carlisle showed an ability to produce from the slot, a position typified by more questions than answers since Kelly took over.

“I think really what put him over the top was his concentration on catching the football with his hands,” Kelly said Tuesday. “Once that really became something that he felt comfortable doing, I think it really allowed him to progress quickly.”

Back at home during the offseason, Carlisle worked with Mike Johnson, a former NFL and collegiate assistant coach who is now the head coach at Carlisle’s high school, The King’s Academy, in Sunnyvale, California. Together, Carlisle and Johnson did a lot of cone work, focusing on accelerating in and out of breaks. They discussed how to attack various coverages.

“He did an awesome job of really just teaching me the finer details of the wide receiver position,” Carlisle said.

Carlisle has continued to focus on those same areas with Irish offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock. For Carlisle, it’s a daily process of feeling increasingly comfortable as a wide receiver.

It also helps when aspects of the running back position overlap with working in the slot. Take Carlisle’s second touchdown against Michigan, for example. Kelly dialed up a tunnel screen to the left side for Carlisle.

“When the call came in from the sideline, my eyes lit up,” Carlisle said.

“Screens just give me the opportunity to get in space, and I like to think that I operate well in space, and it’s just really fun when you can catch the ball and you have a whole bunch of blockers and a whole bunch of green grass out in front of you,” he added.

Carlisle breezed untouched into the end zone from 12 yards out to make it 28-0.

“I just had to run straight, basically,” Carlisle said of the score.

Not much else about Carlisle’s path has been straightforward.

 

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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

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4-Star WR Drake Davis Giving Up Football to Focus on Soccer

Coveted wide receiver prospect Drake Davis has elected to invest his talents in another sport.

The 4-star 2016 recruit who holds offers from the likes of Alabama, Miami, Virginia Tech and Florida State is focused on furthering his soccer career and won't play football this fall, according to Ryan Bartow of 247Sports.

Davis, a Louisiana native who attends Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia, is rated 10th nationally among 2016 receivers in 247Sports' composite rankings. Despite lofty expectations in football, he's opted to follow a different path that will certainly surprise several college coaches across the country.

“This is a decision he made in the spring, and he’s stuck with it,” Fork Union football coach Brian Hurlocker told Bartow.

You won't see Davis running routes this autumn, but he flashed evidence of his impressive skill set during a successful underclassman career.

Davis was a 2013 Louisiana Sports Writers Association Class 2A All-State honorable mention last season. He played for Dunham High School in Baton Rouge and also gained accolades following performances in camp settings.

It didn't take long for Davis to gain a reputation as one of the true athletic freaks in his class. He broke down those abilities during an August conversation with Mark Clements of NOLA.com: "I honestly don't think there's anyone like me. No one. I can do a whole bunch of things. There aren't many 6'5" receivers that run a 4.35. I'm very fast and agile. I can play any position, really. There's not many receivers that can do that."

Davis certainly has the talent to still pursue a career in college football, and with another year of high school ahead of him it would be foolish to rule out a possible return next fall. However, his opportunities won't exactly dwindle if he sticks with soccer.

He is also viewed as a Division I soccer recruit, per Bartow.

Though his attention is currently turned away from the gridiron, don't be shocked if Davis does indeed end up signing with a college football program in February 2016. You can be sure recruiting departments will continue to keep tabs on him, and new scholarship offers could arrive despite his absence from the field.

For now, the elite receiver has decided he doesn't need to use his hands in order to excel in athletics.

 

Recruit ratings courtesy of 247Sports.

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Alabama vs. Southern Miss: 9 Years Later, Tyrone Prothro's Catch Still Lives on

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. —  If you’ve ever lived in this town or spent any amount of time here, chances are, you’ve seen this picture around town.

At Rama Jama’s—a pseudo-Alabama football museum/diner across the street from the stadium—it hangs the back, by the registers, just above the sweet tea dispenser and a picture of Joe Namath. At the Houndstooth bar, it’s on the far left wall, above a booth and next to a pool table. At the Waysider, it’s on the back wall, just below the TV.

“The Catch,” as it’s come to be known locally, is just as much a part of Alabama lore as “The Goal-Line Stand” or “The Kick” or “The Drive” or any other article-prefaced piece of Crimson Tide history.

As Alabama gets ready to take the field against Southern Miss for the first time since Tyrone Prothro’s 42-yard, behind-the-back catch from Brodie Croyle nine years ago in 2005, The Catch still very much lives on. And it's come to represent both the best and worst of what college football can be.

The play was 989, All-Go.

It was 4th and 12 and the Alabama 43, and the Crimson Tide were down 21-10 with 29 seconds before the half. Prothro, as the slot man, had the option of either running a go or breaking off into a post.

The two deep safeties ran with Alabama receivers D.J. Hall and Keith Brown on the outside, leaving Prothro one-on-one with cornerback Jasper Faulk. Croyle noticed the coverage and threw it up.

The rest was instinct.

“It was just seeing the ball in the air,” Prothro said in a phone interview Bleacher Report on Thursday. “Once it got there, I just kind of stuck my hand out as if he wasn’t there, and it just happened the way it did.”

At that point, Prothro didn’t exactly realize what had happened. He knew he had a catch. The referee signaled touchdown.

The play went under review, the first year instant replay was available in college football. The catch stood, but he was ruled down at the one.

“If you could see my face,” Prothro said. “I was kind of mad. But then I realized the fact that we still had the ball on the one-yard line.”

Alabama scored on the next play. It came back and won the game 30-21, keeping an undefeated season that started with so much hype alive, for the time being.

Prothro knew he had made a great play, but not necessarily how big.

After head coach Mike Shula made his post-game speech in the locker room, Croyle found Prothro and said “Daniel Moore is probably gonna be painting that.”

Moore has made a career out of putting famous Alabama and Auburn plays on canvas and selling them to fans and collectors. Croyle’s prediction was spot-on. “The Catch” hangs in just about every local establishment in Tuscaloosa, in homes and in some fans’ dedicated “Bama rooms,” as Prothro’s been told, immortalizing the play forever.

One night, Prothro was at a friend’s house and went to use his bathroom. The picture was in there, hanging on one of the walls.

Prothro didn’t see a replay of his catch until he got home. It was the No. 1 play on SportsCenter that night.

“It looked just about how it felt on the field,” Prothro said. “Just how big the play felt.”

The play was named Pontiac’s game-changing play of the week and later of the year at the end of the season. It won the 2006 ESPY for Play of the Year.

Fans usually tell him that they remember where they were when the play happened.

One of his best friends left the stadium right before, upset at the game that was playing out. As he was walking back to his apartment, he heard a roar from the crowd and had to wait for the replay on TV.

The play elevated Prothro to near-legend status in Tuscaloosa.

“Sometimes it feels like it’s every day (that I hear about it)," he said. "I at least hear about it once a week. It seems like it’s every day.”

Alabama rose to as high as No. 3 in the polls that year before falling to LSU and Auburn to end what started off as a promising season. Prothro’s season ended even earlier.

Leading 31-3 in the fourth quarter against Florida three weeks later, Croyle lofted a pass to Prothro in the end zone. Prothro landed awkwardly on his left leg, breaking it in two places, in a gruesome injury that still haunts Alabama fans to this day.

He told the Associated Press (via ESPN.com) he had 10 surgeries on that leg. Prothro never saw the field again. Alabama made $110,000 from Pontiac for the game-changing performances. Pontiac ran the play over and over again in an advertising campaign for the car-maker.

Because of NCAA rules, Prothro never saw any of that money, either.

Over the summer, Prothro testified in the high-profile Ed O’Bannon lawsuit that revolved around college athletes being able to profit off of their image and likeness.

He is the counter to the if-you’re-good-enough-you’ll-get-paid-eventually argument against paying players.

Prothro was plenty good enough to earn an NFL living. But his injury prevented him from ever doing so.

He made an amazing play that a lot of people made money off of while he was in school, except for him. Prothro had to take out $10,000 in student loans while he played to cover living expenses in addition to his scholarship, loans he’s still paying back now.

"I felt like I was good enough to make it to the next level and I could pay it back six months after I graduated," Prothro said at the trial, per the AP. "I figured that if I made it to the NFL it would be easy to pay it back."

Prothro graduated in 2008 with a general studies degree and hasn’t left Tuscaloosa since, working as a banker at the on-campus Regions and now as an account manager at Coca-Cola.

All he has to show for the play is around $9,000 that came from a private signing he did with Moore shortly after graduation.

Prothro told Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated after the trial that when he approached UA about getting some photos of the play for a book he was writing, he was told he would have to buy them for $10 on the school’s website.

Prothro insists that there are no hard feelings between him and the school. He's still active in the community and the University. Still, it’s rightfully frustrating to come up essentially empty-handed from such a major play.

He said he received plenty of support from fans and the community after testifying.

“People saying they have my back, they’re behind me 100 percent,” he said. “Not just me, but that all players should have some sort of say so in their own image. It’s messed up that I made such a big play like that, and I don’t have any kind of say so in the image.”

But through it all, The Catch lives on.

“It’s one of those things that I pride myself in,” Prothro said. “It’s a play you don’t see often. It’s a play that sticks with people.”

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Mark Blaudschun's Blitz: Despite Struggles, Big Ten Racking Up Long-Term Wins

On Saturday, the Big Ten will officially open its Eastern front when Penn State visits Rutgers in the Big Ten opener for both teams and the Big Ten inaugural for Rutgers, which joins the conference (along with Maryland) this season.   

Adding a pair of teams that combined to go 13-13 last season may not offer much of a boost to a conference whose national standing has taken some substantial hits in recent years but does promise to significantly expand the Big Ten's financial portfolio.   

Expected to pull in $27 million per school this year (minus Nebraska, which will not get a full share until its sixth season in the conference), according to a report in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, the Big Ten is projecting that share to rise to $44.5 million for every school (minus this year's additions) by 2017-18, the first year of a new TV-rights deal.  

"Our goal is to be relevant [in the region]" Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany tells Bleacher Report in a call from the conference's New York offices. "We're not going to be dominant. There are too many other factors involved. That's for the Yankees and the Redskins and all the other franchises that have been around for years."

Indeed, the conference doesn't anticipate that adding Rutgers is going to make the Northeast a Big Ten hub. But, with Maryland, Delany believes that the Big Ten is now entrenched in the "most competitive corridor in the world—in everything," Delany says. "Maybe that stretch of real estate is as important real estate as exists in the world."

That matters for a conference that Forbes reported is taking in $250 million from its television contracts but faces competition for dollars from the newly formed SEC Network and for headlines from a host of power conferences that all but saw their playoff hopes dashed by Week 2.

"We still believe on a collegiate level in athletics and academics, we're still the gold standard," Delany says.

That gleam has not been so easy to see in recent years.

The conference hasn't produced a national champion in the last 11 years and recorded a middling 12-14 mark in BCS bowl games.

And last week saw Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State all lose while Nebraska had to come from behind in the last few seconds to beat FCS school McNeese State.

Delany says the success on the field or on the basketball court is only part of the overall picture the Big Ten has had in expanding its footprint now and in recent years.

"A lot of the shaping [of the Big Ten] has been tied to the growth of the conferences," said Delany, who has been the Big Ten commissioner since 1989. "Penn State leaned East and that was good, but we sat there for 20 years with what we had.

"But then there were other changes. The ACC, the SEC, the Pac-12. All of those other conferences were going into second regions. If we didn't take the opportunity to do something, we felt we would be disadvantaged. We were happy with 11 teams and OK with 12 (Nebraska). But then when the ACC started to make more moves and then went to Notre Dame, we felt we needed to grow a bit."

Expansion in all areas was researched, but potential new additions had to be what Delany called "peer" institutions with the existing Big Ten schools. Delany said the Big Ten also looked into the expanding into the Sun Belt region.

"But there had to be a mutuality of interest. Rutgers and Maryland both fit the profile we wanted," he said.

"Maryland has had a history of broad-based success in the ACC," said Delany, a North Carolina graduate. "Rutgers was emulating Bucknell more than Penn State. They didn't have the history of conference affiliation or an iconic coach, but they have good athletes, they have good students. With the Big Ten structure and Big Ten resources in academics and athletics, it gives them a chance. The idea is that we all talk the same language."

For now, Delany, 66, thinks expansion has stopped.

"I don't see anything on the horizon," he says. "I think now is a time for a period of quiet reflection about what has happened. But who knows what will happen?  A lot of it is out of our control."

 

Same Teams, New Roles in SEC

There is nothing like a solid bit of role reversal to spice things up in the Southeastern Conference race.

Take this week in the SEC East, where No. 6 Georgia visits No. 24 South Carolina. Only two weeks ago in the AP preseason poll, South Carolina was No. 9, Georgia was No. 12. The Gamecocks were a consensus choice as the favorites in the SEC East, and the Dawgs stood as a solid second choice.

But a Week 1 blowout loss to Texas A&M bounced the Gamecocks and a solid win by Georgia over Clemson in its opener flip-flopped the two teams.

Maybe South Carolina was overrated. Maybe Georgia, led by running back Todd Gurley, who looked a Heisman front-runner against Clemson, was ready to move into the SEC driver's seat earlier than anticipated.

Just how good are the Dawgs? They were supposed to take a hit when quarterback Aaron Murray and an assortment of talent departed, leaving the signal-caller chores to senior Hutson Mason, who took a redshirt season two years ago so he would have this opportunity.  In Game 1, Mason was good enough, throwing for a modest 131 yards but connecting on 69 percent of his throws and not turning the ball over. And Gurley was otherworldly, rushing for 198 yards and three scores.

The showdown with South Carolina is intriguing not only because it will offer a test of Georgia's credentials as a contender, but also because it promises to heat up some of the bad blood these two share.

South Carolina, which, ironically, has 27 players from Georgia on the roster, enters the game as an underdog, something that likely will fuel South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier's already-strong drive to punish Georgia.

How much does the Ol' Ball Coach like to beat the Dawgs?

According to SEC insiders, Spurrier's drive to stop Georgia began 48 years ago, when, in the middle of a Heisman Trophy-winning season at Florida, Spurrier wanted to cap his career with a victory against the Dawgs in their annual skirmish in Jacksonville, Florida.

Spurrier brought his Gators team into the game with a 7-0 record and a chance to clinch a share of Florida's first SEC championship.

Final score: Georgia 27, Florida 10 as Spurrier threw three interceptions.

Spurrier has faced the Dawgs 21 times since as a coach at Florida and South Carolina and has walked away with a win in 15 of those games.

The Gamecocks have won three of their last four meetings with Georgia, which has scored seven, six, 14 and 18 points, respectively, in those games. That sort of output doesn't seem as if it will be nearly enough to beat Spurrier and Co., who are now in a desperate situation. Starting 0-2 in conference play would mean the dreams of winning the SEC East will be gone before the end of September.

"We've got to play 10 more [games]," Spurrier said on the SEC media call this week. "We've got to try to get our guys to a higher level. We've got to find out where we are."

A loss will put them nowhere in the ever-changing SEC.

 

A Rivalry Renewed

Rutgers' Big Ten debut this weekend will be the school's third different conference opener in three years. Two years ago, the Scarlet Knights opened the final season of Big East football; last season they were part of the first season of the newly formed American Athletic Conference; and this season they will make their Big Ten debut against an old and familiar rival.

"First Big Ten Conference game for Rutgers in school history," said Penn State coach James Franklin at his weekly media conference this week. "I think it's good for New Jersey and I think it's good for the Big Ten and I think it's good for both institutions. I think it's going to be a fun game and we're looking forward to playing it."

Despite the new conference backdrop, Penn State and Rutgers share a history that dates back almost 100 years, with the Nittany Lions holding a 22-2 edge in the series. (Though few, at least the Rutgers victories are well spaced, coming in 1918 and 1988.) 

The two almost became conference-mates about four decades ago, when former Penn State coach Joe Paterno envisioned turning the Eastern block of football schools—Penn State, Rutgers, Syracuse, Boston College, Pittsburgh into an Eastern football league. Throw in nearby schools such as Temple, UConn, Maryland and West Virginia, and the plan made more than a little sense: a geographically tight, rivalry-driven conference where football and basketball could thrive at the national level.

The first move was made in 1982, when the Big East, still in its infancy, explored the idea of adding football, with Penn State as the cornerstone. The basketball side of the family—primarily Georgetown and St. John's—shot the idea down, which was the beginning of a simmering Big East family feud between the basketball-dominated side and the schools that played Division I football.

Paterno almost left for the conference on his own when, in 1984, former New York Jets owner, and Rutgers alum, "Sonny" Werblin, who was instrumental in getting the sports complex in the New Jersey Meadowlands built and who enticed Alabama quarterback Joe Namath with a $400,000 contract, reportedly offered Paterno the Rutgers coaching job for $1 million a year, which would have made Joe Pa the highest-paid coach in college football. Paterno pondered the offer for a week before turning it down.

Penn State eventually turned its focus west and in 1990 became the 11th member of the Big Ten. When the Big Ten's longtime flirtation with Notre Dame ended, Nebraska jumped from the Big 12, and then last year, Maryland and Rutgers made their moves from the ACC and American Athletic Conference as Big Ten members 13 and 14.

Now Penn State and Rutgers will be united at last, commencing with the Nittany Lions first visit to the Scarlet Knights' campus since 1955.

"Rutgers vs. Penn State in the Big Ten?'' said former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese with a laugh. "If you would have told me 20 years ago that was going to happen, I would have said you were absolutely nuts.''

 

Countdown to Football Final Four Playoffs

(Teams eliminated from consideration)

Week 1

1. UCF; 2. Virginia; 3. Navy; 4. Western Michigan; 5. Troy; 6. Ga. Southern; 7. UMass; 8. West Virginia; 9. Miami (Ohio); 10. Rice; 11. Florida Atlantic; 12. Arkansas; 13. Kent State; 14. Louisiana Tech; 15. FIU; 16. So. Miss.; 17. Fresno State; 18. New Mexico; 19. North Texas; 20. Wake Forest; 21. Boise State; 22. Tulane; 23. Washington State; 24. Vanderbilt; 25 UConn; 26. Bowling Green; 27. Colorado; 28. Houston; 29. UNLV; 30. Hawaii; 31. SMU; 32. Appalachian State; 33. Northwestern; 34. Utah State; 35. Miami (Fla.); 36. Iowa State.

Week 2

1. UTSA; 2. Boston College; 3. Tulsa; 4. Buffalo; 5.Toledo; 6. Arkansas State; 7. Akron; 8. Purdue; 9. Temple; 10. Georgia State 11. UAB; 12. Middle Tennessee; 13. Ohio; 14. South Florida; 15. Ball State; 16. Eastern Michigan; 17. Old Dominion; 18. East Carolina; 19.San Jose State; 20. Louisiana-Lafayette; 21. Texas; 22. Michigan; 23. San Diego State; 24. Idaho; 25. Memphis; 26. Colorado State; 27. Air Force; 28. UTEP; 29. Western Kentucky

Total teams: 128

Eliminated this week: 29

Total eliminated: 65

Remaining: 63

 

You've Got to Be Kidding

1. In a 13-10 loss to USC last week, Stanford coach David Shaw punted from the USC 29- and 32-yard line.  I didn't know that Rush Limbaugh had taken over as Stanford's offensive coordinator.

2. Selected scores from last week

Texas A&M 73, Lamar 3
North Texas 43, SMU 6.
Baylor 70, Northwestern State 6.
BYU 41, Texas 7 

That's a combined total of 186-15 for three Texas schools that the University of Texas has dominated over the years. Granted, the level of competition is far different for Texas, but the context is not good for the Longhorns, who must deal with No. 4 Oklahoma, No. 8 Baylor and No. 12 UCLA in the next month.

On a related note, SMU has been outscored 88-6 in its first two games, and coach June Jones announced his resignation this week, citing personal reasons.

They do not do things in little ways in Texas.

3. In the coaches' poll this week, Ohio State (1-1) was ranked No. 18. Virginia Tech (2-0) was ranked No. 19. Final score from Saturday night in Columbus, Ohio: Virginia Tech 35, Ohio State 21. And these guys had a say as to who should play for the BCS title for 16 years?

 

Quotes of the Week

1. "This is an embarrassment to this program and to this university."

— Texas coach Charlie Strong following the Longhorns' 41-7 home loss to BYU last week. It was the worst defeat suffered by a Texas team since a 66-3 loss to UCLA in 1997.

2. "In the best interests of our team and our coaches, I will stay off the sidelines for our next two games."

— USC athletic director Pat Haden in a statement after he came down from the press box and argued with officials on the field during the Trojans' 13-10 win over Stanford.

As a member of the college football selection committee, Haden also drew extra attention to himself for his actions. His actions led to a $25,000 fine from the Pac-12.

 

Extra Points

• For what's it worth, the Atlantic Coast Conference went 11-0 in nonconference games last week, the most nonconference wins in the league's history. It should be noted that it wasn't a heavy-lifting weekend in the ACC. FSU beat The Citadel, Clemson beat South Carolina State, Louisville beat Murray State, N.C. State beat Old Dominion, Wake Forest beat Gardner-Webb, Miami beat Florida A&M, Duke beat Troy and Virginia beat Richmond. Only North Carolina's win over San Diego State, Georgia Tech's win over Tulane and certainly Virginia Tech's upset of Ohio State could be labeled as anything but expected.

• Talk about student-athletes: All five of the starting offensive linemen at Boston College have received their undergraduate degrees.

• It will be interesting to see just how much better Tennessee is this season after last season's 5-7 wipeout. The Vols are 2-0 after impressive home wins over Utah State and Arkansas State. Next up: a trip to unbeaten and No. 4-ranked Oklahoma. In case you didn't notice, the SEC had the Nos. 3, 5, 6, 7 and 10 ranked teams in Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Texas A&M and LSU, respectively.  Ole Miss (14), Missouri (20) and South Carolina (24) rounded out the Top 25.

 

Game of the Week

Tennessee at Oklahoma: Big 12 vs. SEC showdown. OU coach Bob Stoops talked about how the SEC wasn't all that big a deal this summer. Now he can prove it. Tennessee is not part of the power elite of the SEC East, but it can certainly screw up the Big 12 with a win over the Sooners.

The pick: Oklahoma 42, Tennessee 21

 

Mark Blaudschun covers college football as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has more than three decades of experience covering sports at a variety of newspapers in New Jersey, the Dallas Morning News and the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter @blauds.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Penn State Coach James Franklin Uses Twitter to Make Sure Player Gets to Class

Getting to an 8 a.m. class can be a struggle, but first-year Penn State coach James Franklin expects his players to show up to class on time, regardless of when it starts.

Early Friday morning, Nittany Lions freshman offensive lineman Chance Sorrell tweeted out that he was tight on time. Coach Franklin responded with a tweet of his own to let his player know what the priority should be.

There has not been another tweet from Sorrell to give us an update on the situation, but for his sake, hopefully he made it on time.

[Chance Sorrell, James Franklin; h/t Twitter]

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LSU WR Travin Dural Has Been Tigers' MVP Through 2 Games

LSU wide receiver Travin Dural has been the Tigers' best player in 2014. 

Dural has caught six passes for 291 yards and four touchdowns in only two games. Last season, Dural only caught seven passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns. 

But in Dural's defense, passes were not thrown to him for good reason. 

Former Tigers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. were arguably the two best receivers in the Les Miles era. Landry and Beckham Jr. were the third duo in SEC history to each eclipse 1,000 yards in a season. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger rarely had to throw the ball to anyone else. 

The pair of pass-catchers shredded SEC secondaries in 2013. Dural was the No. 3 receiver, but he was mainly a non-factor. He never had more than one catch in a game.

Dural rarely created separation from defensive backs last season. Most, if not all, of his catches were a byproduct of pinpoint passes from Mettenberger and the opposition's respect for Landry and Beckham Jr.

Dural's most memorable catch was a 49-yard game-winning score against Arkansas. He got the glory, but Landry called the play and created the opportunity, per the Daily Reveille.  

Now Dural is making plays with defenses knowing he is the No. 1 option. LSU's first touchdown against Sam Houston State was a record-breaking 94-yard touchdown catch. He would go on to catch two more passes, both for touchdowns.

Wisconsin had no answer for Dural either. His 151 yards in the season opener were more yards than what he accumulated in all of 2013. 

Dural's 291 receiving yards this season have come on only six receptions, which averages out to 48.5 yards per catch. That is more than 21 yards better than any other receiver in the SEC.

LSU has not played an elite secondary yet. But Dural's numbers thus far are representative of how dangerous he has been on deep passes. This will force safeties to respect his ability to make game-breaking plays, which will open up more options for LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. 

Dural has had some help. Freshmen John Diarse, Trey Quinn and Malachi Dupre have all shown flashes of brilliance. Expect those four to continue to grow as a unit no matter if Brandon Harris or Anthony Jennings is at quarterback. 

LSU's receivers need to continue their high level of play to keep pace with the rest of the SEC. Auburn's Sammie Coates and D'Haquille Williams, Alabama's Amari Cooper and Ole Miss' Laquon Treadwell are just a few of the fantastic playmakers out wide in the division. 

The only thing stopping Dural could be himself. He was at fault in a car accident last Sunday that required him to have stitches on his forehead, per The Advocate. Miles said his star receiver "should be fine" to play on Saturday against UL-Monroe. 

If the super sophomore can remain healthy, he could be on his way to a first-team All-SEC season. This would be an impressive feat considering he did not make preseason third-team All-SEC in either the coaches or media polls, per SECSports.com. 

It is hard to predict how Dural finishes the season. But as of right now, he has unquestionably been LSU's Most Valuable Player. 

 

Stats, rankings and additional information provided by cfbstats.com and LSU Sports Information. Recruiting ratings courtesy of 247Sports. Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow me on Twitter@CarterthePower

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Nebraska Football: What Randy Gregory's Return Means for Huskers Moving Forward

After an old injury resurfaced for defensive end Randy Gregory in Nebraska's season opener, fans were worried. With so much hype around the junior, losing him so early in the season was a reason for concern.

The positive side was that Bo Pelini didn't feel it would be an injury that would sideline him long. In fact, Pelini believed Gregory could have continued to play against Florida Atlantic, per ESPN.com's Mitch Sherman.

Instead, the Huskers chose to be cautious with Gregory and give him time to properly heal. That meant he sat out against McNeese State. After an extra week to recover, Gregory was back to practice and is expected to play against Fresno State, per the Journal Star's Steven M. Sipple.

With this news, what does it mean for Nebraska moving forward?

First and foremost, it brings a significant leader back to the Husker defense. In his absence, the Huskers struggled a bit against McNeese State. Key players were expected to step up, from defensive end Jack Gangwish to defensive end Greg McMullen and linebacker Marcus Newby.

For Gangwish, the McNeese State game was not what he expected. He struggled against the Cowboys' Antoine Everett, an FCS All-American candidate. He still had some shining moments, but it was clear that something was missing.

It was true for the entire defensive line, in fact. After the McNeese State game, defensive coordinator John Papuchis was honest that the Huskers had some tackling issues in the second half.

“The thing that hurt us the most defensively is that our tackling was poor," Papuchis said, per Rich Kaipust of the Omaha World-Herald. "That’s the No. 1 thing that bothered me in the whole football game defensively was the poor tackling.”

Gregory's return will help. According to Kaipust, he's been taking the first week back at practice easy. However, once he is out on the field against Fresno State, that will change.

“If I’m going to play, I’m going to go out there and play every play,” Gregory said, per Kaipust.

The benefit of Gregory is that he is a strength for the defensive line on so many levels. BTN.com's senior writer Tom Dienhart commented on just how significant his impact is: "He is arguably the top pass rusher in the Big Ten. He also can stuff the run, knock down passes at the line and run down plays from the backside. Offenses always have to know where he is. The guy is projected by some to be a top-5 NFL draft pick. That’s all you need to know."

In 2013, Gregory boasted 10.5 sacks, 19 tackles for loss and one interception, per Huskers.com. His numbers on the field earned him plenty of honors, including First-Team All-Big Ten (Coaches, Media and Big Ten Network).

Going forward, Gregory's return to the field can only mean good things for the Huskers. As Kaipust, Sam McKewon and Jon Nyatawa reported, Papuchis is ready for his return and his potential, too:

Anytime you can add a player of his ability back into the mix it makes you better. It’s good to have him back. He didn’t do a lot of stuff today, but he was out there moving around really well. If he goes out and plays the way he’s capable of, he’s one of the better defensive players in the country.

From his talent to his leadership, having Gregory back on the field definitely benefits Nebraska. As Big Ten conference play gets closer, knowing the star defensive end will be around to lead the group has to have fans feeling better.

It likely has the coaches and team feeling better, too.

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2015 Recruits Whose Stocks Are Rising so Far

Recruiting has become a process that operates at warp speed in recent years, with many of the nation’s top seniors already having made verbal commitments long before the final year of their prep career began.

However, a handful of recruits still have plenty to gain during their last year on the prep level.

Whether its underrated players fighting to earn offers or late-bloomers who catch the attention of powerhouse programs, the first three weeks of the 2014 season have seen a few players start off with a flurry. 

Which 2015 recruits are seeing increased interest thus far?

*Players are listed in alphabetical order.

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College Football Rankings 2014: Updated Outlook Before Week 3 Saturday Games

After two weeks filled with an eclectic mix of elite Top 25 matchups and cupcake mashings, the third Saturday of the 2014 college football season lands decidedly on the latter.

There are—by my rough assessment and assuming there are no catastrophic upsets—a handful of games worth giving a good damn about: Georgia at South Carolina, UCLA at Texas, East Carolina at Virginia Tech, UCF at Missouri and Louisville at Virginia.

Those are the only five games involving Top 25 teams wherein the spread is 10 points or fewer as of publication, per Odds Shark. None of those games have a spread of fewer than seven points, and some are only separated by the relatively thin margin due to the better team (UCLA, Georgia, Louisville) being away from home.

The other 12 remaining games? Prepare for stink bomb nation. Including Friday's game between Baylor and Buffalo, those contests average a spread of 30.3 points. There are as many games expected to be decided by more than six touchdowns as there are contests projected to be decided by one (two).

The point being: If there is any week in which you would like to spend time with family during the weekend of football season, this Saturday is for you. Conference play starts ramping up a week from Saturday, and with that comes a deluge of matchups featuring the elite of the elite.

Next week, college football becomes a rightful obsession; this week, it might be better to go to Pottery Barn or take a jazz step class or go on a date or, you know, step outside and enjoy the last few nice days of the year before the frigidity of winter engulfs you into a hermetic lifestyle. Winter, my friends, is (unfortunately) coming.

For those still satisfied with spending one of those precious last few days indoors—or those of you like myself who live in an area where it'll be 60 degrees, rainy and dreary all Saturday—there will nonetheless still be enough college football on to get you through the day. 

Beginning our pentagon of relevance is a trio of semi-interesting games beginning on or around the noon hour. 

Undefeated but still with healthy doses of skepticism, Virginia Tech and Missouri will look to alleviate concerns with blowout victories. 

The 17th-ranked Hokies host East Carolina on Saturday seven days removed from their shocking defeat of then-No. 8 Ohio State. Michael Brewer threw for 199 yards and two touchdowns, but the real star of the show was the defense. Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett tossed three interceptions in the second half, including a 63-yard touchdown return by Donovan Riley that capped off the 35-21 upset.

“When you watch TV and stuff, everybody is like, ‘You know Bud’s going to come up with something crazy for this,’ and you get to see it first,” senior linebacker Derek DiNardo told Mark Giannotto of TheWashington Post. “It’s like Christmas coming in on Tuesdays.”

Frank Beamer's program has gone back-to-back seasons without finishing in the Top 25 for the first time in two decades. Saturday's win vaulted the Hokies from also-ran status in the ACC to right within the national conversation—a conversation East Carolina would like to abruptly end.

The Pirates nearly went on the road and upset South Carolina last week behind 321 yards passing from Shane Carden, but they sputtered down the stretch. With a more shaky offense to face this week, their plans of an upset aren't entirely out of the question.

In the meantime, the Gamecocks will go about exacting an upset of their own when they host Georgia. The first two weeks of 2014 have been nothing short of an unmitigated mess for Steve Spurrier's team, descending from a possible playoff contender to nearly out of the Top 25.

At the root of the problem has been the Gamecocks' typically brilliant defense. Kenny "Trill" Hill was born on the opening Saturday of the season with a 52-point explosion in Columbia, South Carolina, and East Carolina may have pulled off an upset if it weren't for turnovers. 

Georgia, for what it's worth, has proved itself something of a pretty decent offensive football team. Todd Gurley looked like God in shoulder pads in the team's Week 1 thumping of Clemson. The verdict is still out on whether quarterback Hutson Mason can lead an elite college offense, but we'll find out Saturday. Look for South Carolina to load the box and dare Mason to beat it over the top. 

Missouri will be going head-to-head with a UCF team without much in terms of known quantities. The Knights lost their opening game two weeks ago to Penn State, but it's hard to discern much from a game played halfway around the world. Sophomore Justin Holman will also be making his first career start Saturday after being leaps and bounds better than Pete DiNovo against the Nittany Lions.

Missouri has had no such positional issues, but it is getting its first real test of 2014. The Tigers basically had walkover wins their first two weeks, defeating South Dakota State and Toledo a combined 87-42. Maty Mauk should have success against a UCF secondary that allowed Penn State's Christian Hackenberg to throw for more than 300 yards.

The day's other two notable games are special for entirely different reasons. At 12:30 p.m. ET, Louisville will be in Charlottesville to take on Virginia. For Louisville, though, this will mark the dawning of a new era—its first road game as a member of the ACC. The Cardinals have opened with wins over Miami and Murray State to kick off the post-Charlie Strong era. 

Virginia is 1-1 on the season, but its loss came in a surprisingly close game against UCLA. 

Capping off the night is a matchup of two teams inherently linked to the aforementioned Cavaliers and Cardinals. Strong's new team, Texas, will host the same Bruins team that escaped a Virginia upset. The Longhor—wait, am I really trying to hype up a game featuring a team that lost 41-7 last week to BYU?

Please, for the love of your family and friends, go outside this week. Next week's rankings are probably just going to be a copy-and-paste anyway.

 

Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter

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Florida State Football: Whitfield, Wilson Growing into Expanded Role for 'Noles

Florida State has resolved one of its biggest concerns going into the 2014 season: the lack of consistent receiving options after senior Rashad Greene.

It's no surprise that Greene leads the team with 15 receptions and 283 yards. Or that tight end Nick O'Leary is second on the Seminoles with eight catches for 79 yards.

But sophomores Kermit Whitfield and Jesus "Bobo" Wilson have developed into complementary targets. While both are relatively short (Whitfield is 5'7" and Wilson is 5'9"), they have above-average speed and are good route-runners.

Whitfield has four receptions for 37 yards. Wilson, in his first game back following a one-game suspension, had three catches for 35 yards and a touchdown in the win over The Citadel.

They are providing quarterback Jameis Winston with two more passing options, and that's a good thing as No. 1 FSU (2-0) prepares for its Sept. 20 game at home against No. 23 Clemson (1-1).

"It's good to have a guy like [Wilson] and Kermit out on the field," Winston said. "You can give them the ball, and they can make something happen."

Both sophomores, Whitfield and Wilson are just beginning to show a glimpse of their talents.

 

Whitfield more than a returner

Ever since he sprinted 100 yards untouched to the end zone in the fourth quarter of the national championship game, Whitfield's life has changed.

There were more than 200 texts and 800 friend requests on Instagram. His kickoff return with four minutes and 31 seconds left against Auburn didn't necessarily win the game—Kelvin Benjamin's touchdown grab from Winston with 13 seconds left sealed the 34-31 win—but Whitfield's return became one of the most memorable moments from FSU's victory.

Whitfield, however, has been working to be known as more than a return man.

"I don't want to just be known as a special teams guy, no one-play guy," Whitfield said. "I want to be known for multiple plays."

Whitfield is known for that play, and he sees it daily when the kickoff return shows up on the iPad that sits above his locker. The highlight is what he hopes is the first of many.

While a hamstring injury prevented him from running track this spring for the Seminoles, Whitfield is healthy again, and his speed has been a challenge for FSU's defensive backs in practice.

"He definitely does catch a lot of balls in practice because it's hard to guard him," cornerback P.J. Williams said in August. "He's real fast. Speed kills. It's difficult to cover him."

 

Bobo learns from mistake

Wilson was suspended for FSU's opener by coach Jimbo Fisher after the receiver reached a plea deal stemming from his theft of a motor scooter in June. Fisher wanted Wilson to make the trip to Arlington, Texas, for the Oklahoma State game, but he also wanted him to feel the pain of not being able to play, so Wilson was forced to be a spectator.

That was a motivator for Wilson, who had been able to practice with the team in the preseason. Wilson caught three passes in The Citadel game, including a 12-yard touchdown run.

"Coach didn't sit me out for the worse; he sat me out for the better," Wilson said. "He wants what's best for me and I learned from that."

It was a tough but necessary lesson. Wilson admitted that he needs to make better decisions, but he's thankful for the support of Fisher and his teammates.

"It's great to be back with the team," Wilson said. "I'm very blessed."

Wilson and Whitfield won't make FSU fans forget about Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw, two receivers who left FSU with a combined 3,425 receiving yards and 33 touchdowns.

With Wilson, Whitfield and some contributions from true freshmen, FSU's passing attack looks strong. Defenses may still focus attention on Greene and O'Leary, but they also need to be aware that the Seminoles' strength is in having so many options.

"We want to show the country that we can spread the ball to anyone," Winston said. "…I'm comfortable with everybody. We try to give everybody the ball."

 

Bob Ferrante is the Florida State Lead Writer for Bleacher Report, all quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics are courtesy of Seminoles.com. Follow Bob on Twitter. All recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.

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Every College Football Playoff Contender's Biggest Strength and Weakness

As we prepare for the third week of the 2014 college football season, the good and the not-so-good qualities of the contenders for the inaugural College Football Playoff are coming into focus.

With the exception of Cincinnati (which bizarrely won’t start its season until Saturday) every FBS team has played at least one game, giving us a chance to examine its positives and negatives.

Through two weeks, the Associated Press Top 25 poll has shuffled, with five teams in this week’s Top 10 that weren’t there in the preseason poll.

It’s the perfect time to examine each contender’s biggest assets and liabilities. We took a look at the strengths and weaknesses for each of the top 12 teams in this week’s AP Top 25. If your team isn’t listed here, that doesn’t mean your squad isn't a contender. It just means your favorite players have a little bit more work to do (or, in some cases, a loss to overcome) to join the playoff party come December.

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FSU Insider Buzz: Which Freshman Will Have Huge Impact for Seminoles vs. Clemson

The Florida State Seminoles are looking ahead to their first ACC matchup of the 2014 season.

Bleacher Report's Stephen Nelson talks to The Associated Press' Kareem Copeland about the freshmen who will make an impact in the weeks to come.

Which freshmen do you think will have the biggest impact in 2014?

Watch the video and let us know! 

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Meet Quan Bray, the Auburn Tigers' Best Special Teams Weapon

AUBURN, Ala. — One of the biggest questions for Auburn this offseason was how to replace Chris Davis, the man who ran his way into college football history with a game-winning, 100-plus-yard return against Alabama.

The Tigers might have found the answer in the man Davis replaced in 2013.

After leading the team in punt returns as a true freshman and a sophomore, Quan Bray lost the starting job to Davis in his first season under head coach Gus Malzahn.

He received a few chances as a punt returner last season, but he did little with them:

But, two games into the 2014 season, Bray looks like a brand new player on special teams.

Following a pair of solid returns against Arkansas, the senior recorded his first career punt-return touchdown against San Jose State, a 55-yard highlight-reel play that included several broken tackles:

"When the punter kicked it, I saw one of the guys was already down," Bray said. "I knew [true freshman safety Stephen] Roberts was going to hold the other guy off of me. Once the first man missed me, it was off to the races."

The touchdown was a special moment for Bray, who had recorded only three other all-purpose touchdowns in his Auburn career before his return against San Jose State, and his teammates were proud.

"If Coach Malzahn hadn't grabbed me, I would have been the first one off the sideline, just knowing his struggles like me," senior cornerback Trovon Reed told the team's official website. "I'm so proud of him. I kissed [him] on his forehead and told him, 'I love you, man.'"

Bray and Reed, highly rated players out of high school, both lost their mothers in tragic circumstances before coming to Auburn. 

Bray's mother was murdered by his father two months before the start of his freshman season, and Reed's mother died of stomach cancer while he was a high school junior.

The two have developed a strong bond over their tough few seasons at Auburn. Last Saturday night, they both took advantage of their chances to shine.

"It’s really crazy," Bray said. "I texted him before the game. I said, ‘You know who is watching. Let’s go out and have fun and just make plays.’ God works in mysterious ways. He caught an interception and I ran a punt back. Give credit to the man above."

Both players struggled to live up to their lofty expectations as wide receivers, but they are making the most out of their final seasons away from the offense.

While Bray is still in the rotation at wideout, he is getting most of spotlight at special teams.

"When guys are seniors they raise their level...and I believe that he is definitely doing that," Malzahn said after the San Jose State game. "We have gotten a little better around all the specialists too. I’m very happy for Quan, he’s very confident right now."

Bray didn't always have that level of confidence as a punt returner.

Before last Saturday, his best performance came in 2012 against Alabama A&M, when he had three returns for a total of 48 yards.

Now, he ranks third nationally with an average of 28.7 yards per return, and he is one of only 14 players in the country who have taken a punt back for six points.

Bray's teammates alongside him on special teams attribute that difference to being more decisive with his first step after catching the ball instead of "dancing around" like he was prone to do in seasons past.

"You know, last year, he was doing a great job catching the ball, but he was making bad decisions on the ball," senior running back and kick returner Corey Grant said Thursday night. "Coming into fall camp and through these first two weeks, he's done a great job with his decision-making."

His low level of production on returns last season—and the two seasons before—meant Bray would have to battle to get the starting job back this season, even though he was a senior with plenty of in-game experience.

In fall camp, Bray won the position over a host of athletes, young and old:

When Bray was named the starting punt returner ahead of the season opener against Arkansas, Malzahn said his experience was a factor, but he "definitely won the job" over the rest of the pack.

"I trust him with the ball," Malzahn said. "He can do a lot of different things...he’s a senior. He gives us a lot of versatility."

A cloud of mystery and suspense that once hung over the special teams unit throughout the spring and summer has now faded for Auburn.

With redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson excelling early as a do-it-all specialist and Bray picking up where Davis left off in the return game, the tradition of solid special teams play on The Plains looks like it will last, even after a year of complete turnover.

"Our special teams are very important," Bray said. "We have playmakers that will make big plays. They are contributors, especially the punt return team. We want to be the best in the nation."

 

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.

Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU.

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Texas Football: What the Longhorns Must Do to Control UCLA Star QB Brett Hundley

The Longhorns failed in their practice run at UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley, giving up three touchdowns to BYU's Taysom Hill in last week's 41-7 defeat.

To prevent Hundley from putting up an equal or greater performance, the Horns will have to be much more effective on both sides of the ball.

A week after jump-starting Hill's Heisman campaign, Texas will have to slow down the Bruins' more advanced version. Like Hill, Hundley is a load in the open field at 6'3", 226 pounds, but he brings more true dual-threat ability than the BYU playmaker.

Coming off a 396-yard performance against Memphis, the junior has thrown for almost 7,500 through two-plus seasons as the starter. Looking at his 66.8 career completion percentage, it's obvious why many consider him to be an early pick in a loaded 2015 quarterback class.

On Saturday, Texas can expect former coaching candidate Jim Mora to let Hundley run wild. For the Longhorns to prevent him from turning in his own Heisman moment, they will have to keep him in the pocket and use their offense to keep the ball out of his hands.

 

Keep Him Inside the Pocket

Texas' defensive strength is its front four. UCLA's offensive weakness is its front line. After what happened last week, it would behoove Texas to exploit its advantage in the trenches. 

The Longhorn defensive line has a major advantage in this game, as noted by ESPN.com's Max Olson:

Since 2012, when Jim Mora Jr.'s staff took over, UCLA quarterbacks have been sacked 97 times, tied second-most in FBS. Hundley has already been sacked a nation-leading nine times this season and gets hurried or knocked down on nearly 25 percent of his snaps. Even more damning, he's been sacked 51 times in his career on plays in which a defense sent four pass-rushers or fewer.

That should be music to the ears of Charlie Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford. Their defensive linemen alone have already recorded eight sacks this season, and that's with star defensive end Cedric Reed contributing just 0.5 quarterback takedowns thus far.

This was the only position group that looked good against the Cougars, and it figures to be the driving force for whatever success the Horns enjoy on Saturday. These guys sacked Hill five times in Week 2, led by 2.5 from tackle Malcom Brown in a breakout performance, and stayed after him throughout the game.

But when Hill was able to break contain, he was off to the races. Texas' back seven could not handle him once he hit the open field, and Hundley will be no easier to handle once he gets outside the tackles.

For Texas to prevent this from happening, ends Reed and Shiro Davis must keep Hundley in the pocket and give Brown a chance to dominate from the inside again. They'll need help from outside linebackers Jordan Hicks and Peter Jinkens, but the task of slowing Hundley will primarily belong to the defensive linemen.

 

Move the Ball on Offense

It's easier said than done with a patchwork offensive line, but Texas has to find a way to move the ball to give its defense a breather. Otherwise, Hundley will wear down the Longhorns just as Hill did in Week 2.

BYU ran 88 plays on the Texas defense, while the Longhorn offense only converted three of its 15 third downs. That's asking far too much of your defense, plain and simple.

A major reason the Longhorns were unable to move the ball was the Cougars' focus on running backs Johnathan Gray and Malcolm Brown. BYU held Texas' two best offensive players to just 2.3 yards per carry, daring first-time starter Tyrone Swoopes to win the game with his arm.

The Bruins figure to take a similar approach, meaning offensive coordinator Shawn Watson must figure out how to create explosive plays in the passing game. Jaxon Shipley (head) sounds like a go, and the Horns still have big-play specialist Marcus Johnson waiting to make an impact. Jacorey Warrick and Armanti Foreman also have some potential in the open field.

Simply put, the Longhorns must establish the run. But to do that, they will have to give the Bruins a reason to pull defenders off the line of scrimmage by showing they can get big chunks of yardage in the passing game.

The alternative is to hope against hope that the defense can hold its own against the dynamic Hundley. As Hill and the Cougars just taught everyone, that approach can only work for so long.

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Notre Dame Football: Expect a Slow Start vs. Purdue

On the heels of perhaps the most impressive performance of the Brian Kelly era, a 31-0 win over Michigan, Notre Dame makes the short trip to Indianapolis Saturday night to meet longtime rival Purdue.

The Boilermakers were embarrassed at home last week by Central Michigan, 38-17, falling to 2-12 in head coach Darrell Hazell's short tenure in West Lafayette.

All tangible signs point to an Irish rout in Lucas Oil Stadium. In the end, this will be a comfortable win for Notre Dame, but history suggests it won't happen without a slow start.

The Irish have struggled early in weeks after big wins. That's not just a Kelly problem, of course, as the confidence boost that comes after a well-played game can inherently leave a team vulnerable a week later.

But Notre Dame should be aware of its past heading into Saturday night, which includes a number of examples of crashes after highs. If the Michigan game was the sugar, Purdue could be the crash.

 

2010 vs. Army

The lead-up: 4-5 Notre Dame needed a win over No. 15 Utah to save a lost season, and the Irish turned in a dominant performance in routing the Utes, 28-3. It was Notre Dame's first win over a top-15 opponent since 2005.

The game: While Army was a bowl team in 2010 (its only bowl appearance since 1996), the Black Knights had been blown out by every quality team they faced. Notre Dame sleepwalked through the first quarter at Yankee Stadium, trailing 3-0 into the second quarter. The Irish rolled from then on in a 27-3 win following the flat start.

 

2011 at Pittsburgh

The lead-up: After two heartbreaking losses, Notre Dame got a much-needed home win over Michigan State. The Spartans, who would go on to win the Big Ten Legends Division title and finish 11-3, were no match for the Irish, falling 31-13.

The game: Notre Dame got a long touchdown run from Jonas Gray en route to a 7-6 lead, but an offense that played well a week earlier was lifeless for most of the day. The Irish escaped thanks to a late Tyler Eifert touchdown for a 15-12 win. The Panthers proved to be an average team at best, finishing 6-7 in Todd Graham's only season in the Steel City.

 

2012 vs. Purdue

The lead-up: Notre Dame had just returned from a game in Ireland, in which it dominated Navy, 50-10. A letdown against the Boilermakers was somewhat understandable given the quick turnaround, but the Irish struggles lasted longer than anticipated.

The game: Notre Dame led for much of the afternoon in South Bend, but a late fumble by Everett Golson allowed Purdue to tie the game at 17-17. With Golson injured on the play, Tommy Rees was tabbed as "the closer," leading a drive to set up the game-winning Kyle Brindza field goal with two seconds remaining. Boilermakers head coach Danny Hope would be fired after the season.

 

2012 vs. BYU

The lead-up: The indelible image of Notre Dame (controversially) stopping Stanford's Stepfan Taylor on fourth down in overtime will be forever ingrained in Irish fans' minds. Notre Dame became a viable national title contender that day, but it needed to regroup before facing a pesky BYU team.

The game: Despite taking a 7-0 lead, Notre Dame struggled in the first half, trailing 14-7 after 30 minutes. The defense was lights out in the second half, and while the offense could only manage 10 points, it was just enough to escape with a 17-14 win.

 

2012 vs. Pittsburgh

The lead-up: Prior to Saturday night, perhaps Notre Dame's best performance under Kelly was the 30-13 win at Oklahoma in 2012. As double-digit underdogs, the Irish played with poise, tact and fire in Norman. After conquering the Sooners, 4-4 Pittsburgh seemed like a mismatch.

The game: Quarterback play and special teams miscues looked like it would doom the Irish, as the Panthers led 20-6 deep into the fourth quarter. But the 2012 Irish dug deep once again, rallying for two touchdowns to send the game into overtime. A missed field goal by Pittsburgh (and an unspotted penalty) helped the Irish escape in triple overtime, 29-26.

 

2013 vs. Oklahoma

The lead-up: Michigan State was one of the darlings of college football last season, going 13-1 and winning both the Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl. But the Spartans couldn't survive South Bend, as Notre Dame handed Sparty its only loss of the season, 17-13. At 3-1, the Irish were back in the BCS bowl picture heading into a rematch with Oklahoma.

The game: It was 14-0 Oklahoma before you could bat an eye, as two early turnovers led to two Sooners touchdowns. Notre Dame's ground game amassed over 200 yards, but it was too much to overcome, as Oklahoma hung on for a 35-21 win at Notre Dame Stadium.

 

2013 vs. USC

The lead-up: Notre Dame was nearly a touchdown underdog against Arizona State at AT&T Stadium, but the Irish took command of the game in the second quarter and led for most of the game. A pick-six by Dan Fox late in the fourth quarter helped seal a 37-34 win for the Irish over the No. 22 Sun Devils.

The game: There was a week off before USC's visit, and the Irish displayed some rust. They were stopped on downs near the goal line on their first drive and allowed the Trojans to march right down the field to take a 7-0 lead. The Irish did rally to take a 14-10 lead just before halftime, which would hold for the entire second half in a game that set offensive football back nearly a century.

While Notre Dame fans should ultimately expect a routine victory Saturday night, a 28-0 lead early in the second quarter seems unlikely. That hasn't been the Irish way in these types of situations under Kelly.

Of course, shutting out Michigan had never once been the Irish way prior to last Saturday night.

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College Football Picks Week 3: Odds and Spread Predictions for Top 25 Teams

College football spreads can be akin to playing the lottery.

Unlike their relatively grounded professional counterparts, collegiate spreads are video game-esque in their over-the-top numbers. Oregon by 43? Sure, roll the dice, but who knows when a Wyoming will grab a garbage-time touchdown and ruin the collective lives of bettors.

Week 3 is no different, and it's worse than the first two weeks of the season, as there is just one contest between ranked teams. Most other games figure to be lopsided affairs before most teams get into the infancy of conference play.

Here is a look at the entire slate of odds for the Top 25 this week:

Note: All odds, updated as of 8 p.m. on Sept. 11, are courtesy of Odds Shark. AP poll via The Associated Press.

 

Let's start with that Oregon contest, when the Ducks welcome the 2-0 Cowboys to town. Sure, the Ducks have Marcus Mariota under center, who seems better than ever, but how long are the starters going to play? Can Oregon's backups post enough points to cover against a team that held its first two opponents (Montana and Air Force) to 13 points or less?

The same question applies to Alabama when it encounters an easy contest against Southern Miss. The spread is huge, and rightfully so, but Nick Saban is sure to rotate the duo of Blake Sims and Jacob Coker again under center.

Last time that happened, the Crimson Tide won 41-0 over Florida Atlantic, but Coker came in and only produced one score through the air.

That Oklahoma-Tennessee spread seems one to avoid at all costs. Butch Jones and the Volunteers are young, sure, but the defense is fast and the team's first two wins have been blowouts.

Even Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, who is faced with another critical SEC matchup, is well aware of the defensive speed Tennessee brings to the table that could make for a difficult test. 

“We recognize it as another big challenge, an exciting challenge,” Stoops said, per ESPNDallas.com's Jake Trotter. “I know they’ve recruited really strong in the last couple of years. When you watch them on tape, you see a lot of speed running around, you see a lot of big guys. They’ve really got a great-looking team.”

It should go without saying, then, that the massive battle between Georgia and South Carolina—easily the week's top contest—is one to ignore due to the volatile nature of both teams.

Believe it or not, this logic also applies to the Fighting Irish this week. The spread against Purdue is gargantuan, as expected, but the Boilermakers have burned bettors for years in the battle for the Shillelagh Trophy.

In 2013, a one-win Purdue team held the lead going into the fourth quarter against Notre Dame before losing. The year before that, the Boilermakers almost spoiled the Fighting Irish's perfect regular season before losing late via a field goal. Coach Brian Kelly understands the upset potential best of all, as captured by UND.com:

If you watch the film and turn it on you really see two different teams. Last year they had a game that went right down to the end against Indiana State, it was 20 17. The week before they got blown out against Cincinnati, and then they play us to obviously a tight ball game. It's just an in state rival. Just throw out all of what happened before, and they just played very, very well with a great deal of enthusiasm and emotion, and we're going to have to meet and exceed that.

That Texas A&M line, though? Go ahead and bet the farm, Johnny Manziel or not. Kenny Hill is the new superstar under center, and he led the offense to 52 points against South Carolina and another 73 against Lamar. His personal stat line through two games? A whopping 794 passing yards and seven scores.

Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer summed up the general consensus about Hill best:

A little further down the list, Stanford by almost 30 points seems a tad ridiculous for a team that is known each year for its defense. The Cardinal did post 45 against UC Davis to start the season, but Army is a better team that sits at 1-0 after posting 47 points of its own to start the year.

That Ohio State line is a bit disconcerting, too. A 34-17 win over Navy at the end of August was concerning, as was the highly publicized 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech.

Now the Buckeyes are supposed to be trusted to blow away Kent State with J.T. Barrett under center, who has thrown three touchdowns to four interceptions in place of Braxton Miller? Tread lightly there, folks.

As bettors can see, the Top 25 slate this week resembles something of a minefield. There is coin to be made, but only through a common-sense approach. Massive lines can breed massive losses, so dig deep for answers before hitting "place bet."

 

Stats and information via ESPN.com unless otherwise specified.

 

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USC's Leonard Williams Could Be the 2015 NFL Draft's Top Defensive Prospect

A high ankle sprain nearly kept Leonard Williams out of USC’s marquee Pac-12 matchup with Stanford last Saturday. It didn’t stop the Trojans junior defensive lineman, who played through the injury instead, from proving himself to be one of the best players eligible to declare for the 2015 NFL draft.

Before the start of Saturday’s game, ESPN analyst Robert Smith tweeted that Williams “looked terrible in warm-ups.”

“He'll be limited if he plays at all,” Smith said.

When Williams came off the field and sought attention from a trainer early in the game, it appeared as though Smith would be right. Yet even with an injury that was evidently inhibitive, Williams not only played the rest of the game, but stood out, as he led the Trojans with 11 total tackles, including one sack.

Williams had a game full of disruption and production that would have been impressive for any defensive lineman in any circumstance. His ability to have that performance against a high-caliber opponent without being fully healthy made it clear how spectacularly talented he is.

 

A Potential Star for Any Defensive Scheme

Williams is the type of strong, athletic and versatile defensive lineman that every NFL defensive coordinator, regardless of the scheme each runs, should want on their team.

Listed at 6’5” and 300 pounds by USC’s official athletics website, Williams has great size for an interior defensive line, and he combines that size with terrific all-around athleticism.

Williams lacks the exceptional burst that many great pass-rushers have, but he moves well upon acceleration. He had an impressive display of athleticism in the following clip against Stanford, proving he could close with speed even on an ailing ankle.

Although Williams (No. 94) wasn’t able to finish that play with a tackle, he made the 16-yard tackle for loss happen for his teammates by exploding toward Stanford receiver Ty Montgomery and forcing Montgomery to run right into the teeth of the defense at the end of a botched Wildcat play.

There aren’t many 300-pounders who could chase down Montgomery, a speedy offensive playmaker who ranked second in the Football Bowl Subdivision in yards per kickoff return in 2013, even when they are in prime condition. For Williams to be able to do so with an injury shows how well he can move for a man of his size.

Have a broken play against the USC defense, and it’s likely that Williams will make you pay.

Another example of that came last season against Utah, when Williams went right around a guard from the defensive tackle spot to chase down Utes quarterback Adam Schulz for a 15-yard loss.

Williams closes rapidly enough to be a dangerous player going downhill, as evidenced by his 27 tackles for loss in 28 career games. Where Williams stands out from an average 300-pound defensive lineman, however, is in his range to chase plays out towards the sidelines and to go downfield.

Having already accumulated 156 total tackles in his USC career, Williams has consistently shown an unusual excellence in covering ground. It’s not just his closing ability, but also his fluidity in changing directions, that enables him to make plays in space that aren’t within the typical realm of an interior lineman.

The following two clips—the first of which comes from this year’s game against Fresno State and the second taken from last year’s USC loss to Arizona—demonstrate how Williams’ region of impact is not limited to small spaces.

As much as Williams’ athletic ability stands out, he’s just as impressive, if not more so, in winning battles of leverage at the line of scrimmage. He maintains gap control effectively and consistently shuts down running plays that come his direction.

Williams rarely gets pushed off the line of scrimmage. He is skilled at sliding off of blocks laterally and making tackles himself, but he also impacts many plays outside the stat sheet by redirecting runs and occupying blockers that free up his defensive teammates to make stops.

The following example from USC’s 2013 game against Notre Dame is a textbook example of Williams stacking and shedding a guard to make a run stop around the line of scrimmage.

It’s a bit of a stretch to call Williams the next J.J. Watt, but the versatile defensive end has also shown the pass-batting ability that Watt has made famous for the Houston Texans.

In Williams’ season opener this year, he recorded three passes defensed against Fresno State, including an interception and the swat-down above. He has eight total passes defensed for his career.

Williams’ venerable set of traits and skills gives him great versatility. As he is now playing for his third defensive coordinator in as many seasons, that versatility has been on full display throughout his Trojans career.

Projecting to the next level, Williams’ frame makes him ideally cut to be a two-gap defensive end in a 3-4 defensive front.

That said, Williams’ experience and skill set could make him a very valuable asset to a 4-3 or multi-front defensive scheme. He can line up as a penetrating one-gap defensive tackle inside while he also has enough athleticism to play as an edge-defending defensive end, though he’s a bit miscast as a pass-rusher in the latter role.

 

No Weaknesses Williams Shouldn’t Be Able to Overcome

Williams must expand his repertoire of hand skills to be a regularly impactful pass-rusher at the next level. While he has the power to win as a bull-rusher and can clearly take advantage of free rush lanes, he has not demonstrated many moves that enable him to get off and around a pass-blocker once he is engaged.

Taller than many defensive tackles, Williams also gets exposed at times for playing too high, allowing guards to get into his pads and drive him off the line of scrimmage.

Technical imperfections, however, shouldn’t cause Williams’ draft stock to plummet. It’s already been evident through just two games this season that Williams has improved from last year—despite the inconsistency in coaching and schematics he has had to deal with.

At just 20 years old, Williams is a malleable talent with all the physical capabilities to suggest he can be an elite-level interior defensive lineman in the NFL.

His first-step quickness is not above average by professional standards, but he makes up for that with his agility, balance, length and strength.

The one potential red flag on Williams could be injuries, as he is currently fighting the aforementioned ankle issue while he also underwent shoulder surgery this past offseason.

It’s a great sign for Williams that he has shown, both this past Saturday and when he had a torn labrum last season, that he can play through pain and remain highly productive. Still, he will be examined closely in the predraft process for any potential long-term issues that could arise from the injuries he has dealt with.

 

Where Will Williams Be Picked if He Declares?

To this point, Williams has made no indication as to whether he will declare for the 2015 draft or return to USC for his senior year. During Pac-12 media days this summer, Williams said he doesn’t pay attention to the draft hype and was focused “on having a great season this year,” according to NFL.com’s Bryan Fischer.

That said, he could be hard-pressed to pass upon going pro if he continues to play as well as he has thus far this season, as he looks right now to be the best defensive player in college football.

According to former NFL scout and current 95.7 The Game radio host John Middlekauff, Williams had already emerged as a favorite in scouting circles before the USC-Stanford game.

Even so, TFY Draft Insider’s Tony Pauline believes the gutty performance Williams had Saturday “is one scouts will point to during the pre-draft process.”

Meanwhile, ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. cited Williams’ most recent game in his decision to elevate him to the No. 2 slot on his “Big Board” for the 2015 draft earlier this week.

He was so special against Stanford, playing through an injury with barely any drawbacks. If Williams doesn't wow you with quickness on the edge, realize he's 290-plus pounds and won't get pushed around even if he moves inside. At his size, he's a special athlete who could line up as a defensive end and drive a tackle back or line up on the outside shoulder of a guard and create problems with power and quickness, as well. He's the kind of disruptive, versatile lineman who can succeed in any system. A potential No. 1 pick.

Kiper, Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller and ESPN’s Todd McShay (subscription required) all believe Williams is the second-best prospect eligible for the 2015 draft—each of them ranks Oregon redshirt junior quarterback Marcus Mariota at No. 1—while CBS Sports’ Rob Rang puts Williams third, behind Mariota and Texas A&M senior offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi.

There’s still plenty of time for star prospects to emerge, but no other defensive prospect is held in the same regard as Williams at this point. A top-five overall draft choice looks to be warranted by Williams’ talent.

The draft trends of recent years, however, have not been good to players similar to Williams. No interior defensive lineman has been a top-10 pick since Marcell Dareus out of Alabama in 2011; the top interior defensive linemen selected in each of the past two drafts, Sheldon Richardson out of Missouri in 2013 and Aaron Donald out of Pittsburgh this past May, each went No. 13 overall.

It’s arguable that Williams, considering his strength, versatility and career production, could be a better prospect than Richardson and Donald were. That said, Richardson and Donald both possess the outstanding first-step quickness that Williams lacks.

Precedent shows that despite how impressively Williams has been playing, his draft value could be hampered slightly by playing a position that has been seemingly de-emphasized in comparison to quarterbacks, offensive linemen, exterior pass-rushers and even wide receivers and cornerbacks in recent drafts.

Williams might have enough talent, nonetheless, to buck that trend and be a very high selection in 2015 or 2016.

 

All GIFs were produced at gfycat.com, using game videos from DraftBreakdown.com and Noonkick.com. All statistics courtesy of USC's official athletics website, unless otherwise noted.

Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.

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USC's Leonard Williams Could Be the 2015 NFL Draft's Top Defensive Prospect

A high ankle sprain nearly kept Leonard Williams out of USC’s marquee Pac -12 matchup with Stanford last Saturday...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

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