In this week's edition of "As Oxford Turns," Ole Miss takes more public hits thanks to new information regarding the NCAA investigation that involves the football program under current head coach Hugh Freeze, former head coach Houston Nutt, the women's basketball program and track and field.
Lots of hits.
According to David Brandt of the Associated Press, a source close to the football program confirmed that the notice of allegations sent to the school by the NCAA last month includes 13 football-related violations of the 28 total allegations—nine of which occurred under the Freeze regime.
That's quite a jump from ESPN's report prior to national signing day, which suggested that most of the allegations involved other sports and the majority of the football-related allegations were from the Nutt era.
From a public relations standpoint, this is a killer.
The college football world piled on Ole Miss when the notice of allegations was first delivered, assuming that there had to be all kinds of nefarious activity going on to lure top-tier talent to Ole Miss—which has never won the SEC West—on a consistent basis.
This new report only will further that notion, because the potential presence of Level I violations—the most serious classification under NCAA rules—on top of the uptick in football-related allegations gives cynics enough ammunition to last for years.
Plus, you never want the NCAA turning over rocks, because they might turn over the wrong one and really open up the floodgates.
As Dan Wolken of USA Today noted, the reluctance to release some of the serious charges is concerning.
If you're waiting for the hammer to fall on Freeze and the Rebels, though, you might want to stock up on food and drinks. You probably should consider packing chargers for your electronic devices.
You're going to be waiting for awhile.
As noted by ESPN.com, four of the football-related allegations that involve the current staff were already self-reported, and include a "bump rule" violation, improper lodging (which is now legal) of a family member, improper transportation and an improper video made outside the locker room. Four others are from the Nutt era.
Taking those eight violations out of the equation, that leaves five football-related violations left in the equation that involve the current staff, which ESPN notes are related to Tunsil.
Tunsil was suspended for seven games to start the 2015 season, which means that the program knew about what was going on, took severe action and then Tunsil was reinstated by the NCAA.
"Nothing has changed from our last statement on Jan. 30." athletics director Ross Bjork told ESPN.com on national signing day. "We are still working through the process."
Don't get caught in the trap of assuming that NCAA cases are always "the school vs. the NCAA." Most of the time, it's "the school with the NCAA."
This situation appears to be the latter.
The ongoing NCAA investigation didn't prevent Freeze from reeling in a top-tier class in 2016 that included 5-star quarterback Shea Patterson, 5-star offensive tackle Greg Little, 5-star defensive tackle Benito Jones, stud wide receivers D.K. Metcalf, A.J. Brown and Tre Nixon, safety Deontay Anderson and more.
Could there be a few scholarships lost? Of course, especially if there is something that Ole Miss and the NCAA didn't discover during the process.
But Ole Miss is still loaded with talented players, Freeze has improved his win total every year and there doesn't appear to be much in the notice of allegations once you look at the numbers to suggest impending doom.
Ole Miss is here, and it isn't going anywhere.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.
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Aside from the typical drama that often accompanies national signing day, it's been a relatively quiet month for college football since the 2015 season officially came to an end.
Unlike a year ago, there haven't been any surprise returnees like Cardale Jones, any juicy graduate transfer speculation as there was with Everett Golson and Braxton Miller or even any new head coaches making a significant splash by generating publicity at their new schools. Even national signing day was relatively quiet, with the usual suspects of schools—Alabama, Florida State, LSU and Ohio State—winding up with the nation's top-ranked classes.
But if you've been following college football for the past 13 months, you knew it wouldn't be long before Jim Harbaugh made some noise.
While the Michigan head coach's name has certainly stayed in the headlines thanks to his usual antics, nothing this offseason has built a buzz like the news of Harbaugh's intentions of holding the first week of the Wolverines' spring practice in Florida.
"Our plans for spring football are to go to Florida our first week while the university here is on spring break," Harbaugh revealed on national signing day. "We'll go to Florida and have four practices down there. We're going to work hard, but we'll have fun doing it."
That news, in and of itself, was noteworthy—the revelation of an unprecedented tactic, clearly aimed at gaining a recruiting advantage in the talent-rich Sunshine State.
But while Harbaugh's spring practice plans are surely exciting for his players, they aren't as highly thought of in the SEC, where the conference has already made an attempt to block Michigan's trip to Florida from ever happening.
According to CBSSports.com's Dennis Dodd, the SEC has put in a request with the NCAA to prevent any program from holding its spring practice during spring break. Logistically, it would likely be impossible for the Wolverines to hold their spring practice anywhere except for Ann Arbor if they were forced to do so while class is in session.
"Our primary reaction [is] that, in the face of the time-demand conversations, we've got one program taking what has been 'free time' away," SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said, via Dodd. "Let's draw a line and say, ‘That's not appropriate.'"
It's not the first time Harbaugh has ruffled feathers in the South, and it likely won't be the last.
A year ago, it was the then first-year Michigan head coach's well-publicized tour of satellite camps—which included stops in Alabama, Florida and Texas—that drew the ire of the SEC's coaches. Nick Saban, Kevin Sumlin, Gus Malzahn and Dan Mullen were among those to speak out against the practice of satellite camps, which SEC teams weren't permitted to hold on their own until last spring.
Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze went as far as to admit that his stance—like that of his conference counterparts—was a selfish one, meant to protect his program's own interests and little more. If the league was worried about Harbaugh's tactics opening up the floodgates, it was with good reason, as Ohio State went on to hold a satellite camp of its own in Florida later in the summer.
And while it was actually Penn State's James Franklin who first brought the practice to prominence in 2014, Harbaugh was on the front lines of the matter a year ago, defending his right to host camps away from his home campus as if it was a constitutional freedom.
"In my America, you're allowed to cross the state borders," Harbaugh said last summer, via USA Today's George Schroeder last summer. "That's the America I know."
With the Wolverines' big summer helping them attract the nation's fifth-ranked recruiting class, it was Harbaugh 1, SEC 0—and that was before Michigan beat Florida by a score of 41-7 in the Citrus Bowl to close the 2015 season.
But while Harbaugh won his first go-round with college football's top conference, this offseason's battle might not be so successful for him, at least not in the long term. According to Dodd, a "high-ranking" source anticipates that while the Wolverines will be allowed to carry on with their plans for the spring this year, "an effort similar to Michigan's will most likely be prohibited in the near future."
It makes sense. Holding mandatory practices during a time in which all other students are on vacation seems to go against the spirit of being a "student-athlete"—even if that's not what this is really about for either the Wolverines or the SEC.
For Michigan, holding a week of spring practice at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, is likely intended to build the brand of his program on fertile recruiting ground while creating maximum exposure—which would fall right in line with Harbaugh's recruiting strategy with the Wolverines over the past year.
From last year's satellite camps to his extravagant, celebrity-aided signing day celebration, Harbaugh has had no issue keeping Michigan in the spotlight since arriving at his alma mater.
"I think it gives a chance to win on a lot of different levels," Harbaugh said of his spring practice plans.
For the SEC, it's about preventing a rising threat from doing that in its own territory, adding a second chapter to one of college football's most unique feuds.
Regardless of which side of the argument you fall on, it'd be tough to argue that these offseason spats aren't good for college football, keeping the sport in the headlines during dead periods like the current one between signing day and spring practice.
Harbaugh will always find a way to create headlines—it's in his nature, but roping coaches like Saban, Sumlin, Mullen and Freeze into the discussion only ups the ante.
When it comes to the Big Ten and the SEC, a rivalry will always be natural, given their respective histories and geographical differences. For the past few years, it's been Urban Meyer and not many others manning the battle for the Big Ten, but the Buckeyes head coach has found an unlikely—and unspoken—ally in his chief rival in Ann Arbor.
Much of it may just be fodder that leads to little or no tangible results on the field, but even that can be good for the sport this time of year. Just ask the NFL how beneficial becoming a 365-day news generator can be.
College football's not quite there yet, but Harbaugh is doing his best to change that, from innovative recruiting tactics to timely offseason tweets.
Add the SEC to the mix, and it takes the attention received to a whole new level for what is growing into college football's favorite offseason rivalry.
Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of CFBStats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.
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After a thorough study using specific scoring criteria, Bleacher Report national recruiting analysts Damon Sayles, Sanjay Kirpalani and Tyler Donohue have graded the top 100 players in the 247Sports composite rankings and provided in-depth analysis on each young athlete. Bleacher Report will run a position-by-position breakdown series of the best college football recruits in the 2017 class. Here, we present the Top Defensive Tackles.
How important are defensive tackles? The last two recruiting cycles have had defensive tackles as their No. 1 prospects, according to 247Sports' composite rankings. Trent Thompson was the top-ranked player in the 2015 class, while Rashan Gary took top honors in 2016.
An elite defensive tackle can alter a game in so many ways, and the 2017 class has its share of playmakers in the trenches. With the 2016 recruiting cycle having come and gone, college coaches are now focusing on finding defensive linemen who can shut down the run and make passing situations difficult for quarterbacks.
Here's our breakdown of the top-ranked 2017 prospects at defensive tackle. Players were assessed using various criteria, including their pass rushing, tackling, explosive strength, run defense, hands and overall motor.
Analysts around the nation are picking the Tennessee football team to be a lock for a big 2016, and quarterback Joshua Dobbs holds the key.
The senior-to-be signal-caller will be the unequivocal starter in his final season on Rocky Top, but how far the player nicknamed Rocket rises will determine how high the Volunteers can go in the rankings.
A step forward in 2015 was noticeable when Dobbs passed for 2,291 yards and 15 touchdowns against just five interceptions to go along with 671 rushing yards and another 11 scores. At times, he displayed the necessary leadership to carry the team through pivotal moments of big games.
In others, however, he was inconsistent. The 6'3", 207-pound Alpharetta, Georgia, native averaged 176 passing yards per game and completed 59.6 percent of his passes, sputtering to post passing numbers strong enough for a balanced attack against Oklahoma and Florida.
Those stats were solid, but the Vols struggled to maintain any consistent downfield attack throughout the year. Their ability to manufacture first downs with the run game was due largely to the pressure Dobbs' legs put on defenses.
But his arm rarely kept opponents honest.
Many are enamored with Dobbs' seemingly limitless physical capabilities and mental makeup that could make him the face of the SEC. But all that must materialize in the ability to stretch the Vols' passing threat window and ultimately produce chunk gains. He hasn't been able to do that yet.
UT finished ninth in the SEC in passing plays of more than 30 yards.
Every single player in the country needs to improve various aspects of their play, so regardless of what kind of polarizing figure Dobbs is as a nontraditional quarterback, one thing is certain: Tennessee is fortunate to have him.
That's something most will agree on, including GoVols247 reporter Wes Rucker, who reminded fans not to lose sight of what kind of special talent the Vols have at quarterback:
Dobbs will be a seasoned, supertalented star in 2016. But where should the measuring sticks show major gains in Dobbs' game next year? Let's take a look at some realistic goals for the UT signal-caller.
Goal 1: 3,800 total yards
You may think expecting a quarterback to increase his total yardage by nearly 800 yards in a single season is a bit outlandish, but Dobbs has that kind of untapped potential.
In 2015, he finished with 3,020 total yards (if you count the 58-yard reception he had against Florida). Considering that the Vols are going to retailor their receiving corps to utilize more yards-after-catch guys, speedy targets who can turn short passes into big gains, that could benefit Dobbs.
He won't have to be elite throwing 20-yard passes if he has more receivers who can turn five-yard swings and slants into big gains. That should be the case with Josh Smith, Vincent Perry, Marquez Callaway, Latrell Williams and Corey Henderson now battling for reps.
"I think anytime you look at the elite of the elite in college football, they're usually the fastest teams that are left standing at the end," UT passing game coordinator Zach Azzanni told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan. "We really tried to address our speed on the perimeter, and we're going to keep doing that."
Having those blazers in the rotation should help Dobbs, but how much?
This may wind up being the most far-fetched goal of the group through no fault of Dobbs. When you have Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara in the backfield, you simply must hand the ball off—a lot. And that will diminish Dobbs' personal touches.
But if he tunes up his passing game, this number isn't out of reach.
If Dobbs gets to 800 rushing yards (and he should), he'd have to average just over 230 passing yards per game to reach the 3,800-yard mark. That number would have put him fourth in the league this past year. There's also the possibility that the Vols could play one (or more) games than they did in 2015 (more on that later).
Goal 2: 35 total touchdowns
For all the heat first-year offensive coordinator Mike DeBord took for his conservative play-calling, the Vols offense was rather prolific.
Tennessee finished third in the SEC with an average of 35.2 points per game, trailing only Ole Miss and Arkansas. Dobbs was a huge reason for that, finishing with a combined 26 touchdowns.
With the ground-tilling triumvirate back in 2016 along with an O-line that lost only left tackle Kyler Kerbyson, those numbers should get even better. Dobbs' rushing scores shouldn't go down if the Vols are in the red zone as often as they should be.
So, if the passing game improves the way it should with a better grasp of DeBord's scheme in Year 2, finishing with nine more touchdowns shouldn't be out of the question for the signal-caller.
If Dobbs is a part of UT crossing the goal line 35 times, it's going to be a season to remember on Rocky Top. How well had he begun to grasp the concepts toward the end of the year? Check out this highlight-reel run against Northwestern in the Outback Bowl, as shared by Fox Sports Knoxville:
That was one of the best plays of the entire bowl season.
Some people want to toss around comparisons for Dobbs and use former Mississippi State star Dak Prescott as a gauge for him, but that's not fair. Dobbs won't put up the kind of numbers the former Bulldog did during his final two seasons in Starkville, nor will he be asked to.
Dobbs has tons of offensive weaponry around him. He just needs to be the one who knows which triggers to pull at what time.
Goal 3: SEC Offensive Player of the Year
The last quarterback to win the league's Player of the Year award was Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel back in 2012. Dobbs may just break that streak this coming year.
If he does, he'll have to beat out a bunch of good players, but the league isn't as stacked with top-shelf stars as usual.
Athlon.com's Steven Lassan recently rated all of the projected starting quarterbacks in the country, and Dobbs ranked 12th on his list, trailing only Ole Miss' Chad Kelly in the SEC:
Dobbs is a better all-around offensive player than Kelly, though the Rebels star holds the upper hand in passing ability. If Dobbs can approach his ceiling in the passing game, he could overtake Kelly.
Then there's the tall task of overcoming the SEC's stable of star runners, led by LSU's Leonard Fournette, Georgia's Nick Chubb and Hurd.
Beyond that, though, there are few guaranteed stat hounds. Sure, several will emerge—they always do—but Dobbs is in the top group of playmakers. If he has a big year and, more importantly, the Vols are successful, he could carry home the hardware.
Everybody is enamored with a dual-threat quarterback on top of his game. Dobbs won't have to put together a Deshaun Watson-type season to win the award, but he has a skill set that is similar to the Clemson star's abilities. He just hasn't put everything together.
Goal 4: National champion quarterback
Finally, Dobbs' biggest goal is the ultimate team goal, but a selfless player would want it that way.
In the end, the Vols can't attain their wildest expectations without a dynamite finale by Dobbs. Make no mistake, this team is talented enough to win it all, as crazy as that may sound to some.
The biggest goal for Dobbs should be playing better against top-tier competition. Though he improved considerably in that regard in 2015, he's still never beaten Florida or Alabama. He'll have to go on the road to play Georgia, Texas A&M and South Carolina next year, too.
An early-season tilt at the Battle at Bristol against Virginia Tech will be a litmus test as well.
If Dobbs shows out in those games, the Vols will be in the SEC Championship Game. If they get there and win, the College Football Playoff could be close behind.
It's a leap to think a team can go from 9-4 to contending for a national title, but the Vols aren't that far away. They lost four games by a combined 17 points in '15, and Dobbs was mediocre in three of those contests. They held fourth-quarter leads in all but one game.
Elevating his play will lead to big wins in important games.
Dobbs has to get better against the best. If he does, Tennessee will find itself among the best at season's end.
All quotes and information gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information gathered from 247Sports unless otherwise noted. All individual stats gathered from UTSports.com and conference stats gathered from cfbstats.com unless otherwise noted.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.
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The NCAA charged Ole Miss with a slew of rules violations on Jan. 29, per Yahoo Sports' Pat Forde, and a new report from the Associated Press' David Brandt on Tuesday shed light on the distribution and severity of the infractions.
Citing an anonymous source, Brandt reported 13 of the 28 violations were committed by the football team, with nine of them coming since the Rebels hired head coach Hugh Freeze prior to the 2012 season.
Those numbers appear to deviate from a previous report from ESPN.com's Chris Low that indicated a majority of the violations occurred under former head football coach Houston Nutt.
Prized Ole Miss recruit and highly touted NFL draft prospect Laremy Tunsil had reportedly been a focal point of the NCAA's investigation after the left tackle was suspended seven games for taking improper benefits, including three separate loaner vehicles without pay.
The Associated Press report also noted Ole Miss has self-reported violations involving the football team between 2011-14, as "a 'representative of athletics interests' provided transportation for potential recruits on six different occasions."
Ole Miss' infractions also reportedly involve the track and field and women's basketball teams.
According to Brandt, the school previously imposed a one-year postseason ban on its women's basketball team after discovering former head coach Adrian Wiggins and two of his assistants were involved in recruiting and academic misconduct.
Ole Miss reportedly has 90 days to respond to the new allegations.
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The Houston Cougars football program is coming off a 13-1 season that saw them win the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl and the American Athletic Conference, but they received some unfortunate news Tuesday.
According to Mark Berman of Fox 26 in Houston, citing a spokesman from the Cougars athletic department, running back Javin Webb was "dismissed for violating undisclosed team rules.”
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The 2016 NFL draft is now the full focus of teams and fans alike. Evaluating players for their on-field prowess and traits is one of the most important facets of an organization. Successfully acquiring and utilizing talent is what Super Bowl champions do best.
There is an off-field aspect to talent evaluation as well. Football character matters as teams decide who to invest in. The NFL will only deal with so much off-field drama before it decides enough is enough and cuts the cord.
Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche is the latest high-profile prospect that will go through the draft process with intense scrutiny. He has both on-field and off-field concerns that he will have to face and address. We'll dig into the red flags that hint he has significant bust potential.
But Nkemdiche is a supremely talented human being on the football field to counter the concerns. After breaking down his film from 2014 and 2015, he is a player worth the risk to draft because of his considerable upside to be a great NFL defensive tackle or end.
Without intimate knowledge of who Nkemdiche is as a person, we can only look at what has been reported and what we see on the field. His character concerns stem from his alleged use of synthetic marijuana and a subsequent fall from a hotel room window, according to Clay Travis of Fox Sports. His brother, Denzel Nkemdiche, has also reportedly struggled with drug use recently.
Who Robert Nkemdiche is surrounded by is a massive question mark at this time. To stick in the NFL, Nkemdiche must be focused on his craft and stay away from temptations. We've seen players like Johnny Manziel, Joseph Randle, Josh Gordon, Ray Rice and Greg Hardy affected by their off-field issues just in the last few years.
Character matters, and the NFL is surely going to dig deep into his past and motivation to achieve greatness. Fringe players that do not exhibit high-end potential end up being washed out of the league quickly.
Nkemdiche has the upside worth investing into if his background checks out with teams.
The former No. 1 overall recruit led a terrific 2013 recruiting class with a perfect 1.00 rating from 247Sports for a reason. His blend of elite athleticism and disruption ability gives him rare value. Pass-rushing interior defensive linemen that can play in a 3-4 or 4-3 front come along once every few years.
At 6'4" and 296 pounds, Nkemdiche has shown dedication in the weight room to get bigger for the NFL. As a sophomore, he was listed at 275 pounds. That raised concerns about his long-term position fit since he was playing much lighter than he'd need to be in the NFL. Adding 21 pounds in one offseason quelled that concern and was highly encouraging.
The 21-year-old still has room to continue to mature as his body changes. As NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein noted, his physique is a major positive moving forward. "Exceptional build. Carries no bad weight and has outstanding thickness and power through his rear, thighs and calves." If Nkemdiche shows up to the NFL combine in this type of shape, he will be one of the big winners of the event.
His size is important because of his film. Nkemdiche is one of the biggest flashers in the country when it comes to burst and closing ability. He explodes off the line and quickly puts his blocker into a compromising position.
His ability to convert speed into power forces tackles and guards alike to be technically sound and A-plus athletes. He doesn't have a go-to counter move right now, but he can sell inside moves effectively because he has the speed to work the outside shoulder as well. Here is an example of Nkemdiche winning on an inside move, and later he sold a strong inside step to go outside shoulder on the same tackle.
Sequences like that show football intelligence and awareness on top of excellent athleticism. Few NFL linemen meet these criteria regularly, which have contributed to the rising value of disruptive defensive tackles.
Nkemdiche's ability to be a great penetrator showed against top competition. While he may have not had consistent effort against lesser teams, his dominant effort against Alabama, Mississippi State and Auburn in 2015 showed what he can be when the lights are on.
Coaches that think they can maximize effort will pay special attention to these performances because they mattered more than games against Tennessee-Martin, for example.
Of course we cannot forget about Nkemdiche's natural power. He plays low and shows excellent leg drive when he aligns as a 3-technique in a 4-3 front. He gets inside of guards so quickly they cannot properly anchor and are forced to reset their feet almost instantly.
NFL guards are more equipped to handle bull rushes than collegiate guards, but the mix of power and threat of Nkemdiche's outside speed will be challenging to withstand. Even against the run Nkemdiche shows a powerful base, strong hands and the ability to shed blockers. This was an area of massive improvement from 2014 to 2015.
There are noticeable weaknesses in Nkemdiche's game that haven't changed since he walked onto Ole Miss' campus. His brilliant athleticism allows him to produce despite the lack of nuance to his game in college, but it will hinder him more in the NFL. He must learn how to use his hands to make him a more complete player.
The importance of hand activity and placement is significant. Defenders that have powerful mitts can disrupt the balance of their blocker to create advantageous angles to attack. Angles are extremely important to those who create and have the athleticism to capitalize on them.
There are too many examples of Nkemdiche playing nonchalantly and forgetting his hands exist. While he was clearly more engaged against better teams, he can't afford to take games off in the NFL. Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Nick Fairley flashed similar talent at Auburn, but his engine runs cold too often, and he hasn't worked to improve his game like he needed to.
Another cause for concern was Nkemdiche's lack of statistical production. While he immediately jumps off the screen when watching Ole Miss because of his ability to disrupt offenses, he doesn't finish plays especially well. He finished his career with just six sacks and 16 tackles for loss in 29 games played.January 30, 2016
While statistics don't necessarily predict NFL success, they are a helpful barometer with historical precedence. Jim Cobern of Draft Cobern compared Nkemdiche's market share solo tackles, sacks and tackles for loss against NFL standout tackles. Nkemdiche's production pales in the side-by-side graphic above.
Ole Miss didn't always have Nkemdiche in a good position to produce. Far too often it would ask him to stunt, which is a mistake for two reasons. The first is that Nkemdiche is more linear of an athlete than he is lateral. His explosive first step is taken away on stunts.
The other is Ole Miss didn't have a proper gap eater to leave Nkemdiche one-on-one. Neither Woodrow Hamilton nor Breeland Speaks demanded the center's attention on stunts, so opponents would swallow the two attackers with three blockers. These snaps were wasted and took Nkemdiche out of his best element to be disruptive, which is counterintuitive for your best defensive player.
The effort angle is certainly more disturbing than schematic misuse or his lack of technical nuance. A crafty veteran and good position coach can help Nkemdiche with his hand usage if he's willing to learn. But taking plays off for large stretches may be a warning that he wasn't just coasting until he entered the draft.
That being said, he was playing for "free," was a No. 1 recruit and was by far the most athletic player on the field every Saturday except for his teammate Laremy Tunsil. There are explanations for why he'd coast in non-prime-time games. Interviews will help teams determine whether Nkemdiche is the next Mario Edwards Jr. or Fairley.
Strictly based off what Nkemdiche has put on film, I'd be comfortable using a first-round pick on his talent. Situations with a standout veteran tackle that he can learn from and work next to are even more attractive destinations. Teams like the Miami Dolphins, Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills, Houston Texans and Washington Redskins are solid fits.
Some may argue that Nkemdiche is the type of player that will get a staff fired. That's a cliche line that really doesn't exist for any position besides quarterback. Even the best general managers miss on first-round picks because the draft is an investment into a human first and foremost. Humans are unpredictable, and it's very difficult to project how they'll react to certain situations.
If Nkemdiche knocks his interviews out of the park at the combine and his pro day, expect his name to rise as teams feel more confident that he will be committed to football. The risk-reward complex with Nkemdiche is as high as anyone's in the 2016 class. But if he is ready to put in the work to deliver on his upside, he can be an All-Pro talent.
All stats used are from sports-reference.com.
Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
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The good news is your college football team managed to produce a projected first-round NFL draft pick, maybe more. The bad news is it has to replace those future pros.
It's part of the annual life cycle in the sport—saying goodbye to great ones and hoping those who take their place can be nearly as good. It's an unfair expectation placed on these replacements but one we've become used to making, especially during the long period between the end of one season and the start of the next.
Using Bleacher Report NFL draft expert Matt Miller's latest 2016 mock draft as a guide, we have identified the most likely successor to every projected first-round pick. Some may be existing starters who are moving to a new position, while others are reserves whose experience this past season should help them take on a greater role. And a few are newcomers who will be thrown right into the fire.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Shawn Jennings is a bit of an aberration on the University of Alabama football team, and it’s not because he doesn’t really have a position yet.
Jennings has an older brother on the roster, Anfernee, a defensive end who redshirted last season. Just like they used to play together at Dadeville High School they’ll now do the same for the Crimson Tide.
"It's something you dream about since playing in the yard when you were kids,” he said “To grow up to play college ball together is just a dream come true."
Nevertheless, among Alabama’s eight early enrollees from the recruiting class of 2016, Jennings and wide receiver T.J. Simmons are the only in-state products. The rest hail from California, Georgia, New York and Texas.
Having such a diverse group geographically is something that head coach Nick Saban has had to sort of balance as the Crimson Tide became a national power again. Alabama will recruit anyone who might help the team regardless of where he might be from (like Australian defensive lineman Jesse Williams a few years ago) but has also managed to land nearly every top in-state prospect as well.
Overall, Alabama considers anything within a five-hour drive of Tuscaloosa to be in its prime recruiting territory, which basically means Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and the panhandle of Florida.
As a result, last year’s national championship team could have been divided pretty equally into three groups based on where everyone was from: in-state, the five-hour radius and everyone else.
"We weren't worried about perspective,” Saban said. “We like getting good players who can go out on the field and play good. Perception doesn't win any games for us around here, but good players do.”
Saban made that comment when talking about linebackers Ben Davis and Lyndell Wilson, both 5-star products, according to the 247Sports composite rankings, who had the added bonus of being from in-state.
“We thought they were outstanding players,” he added.
With them in tow, the makeup of this latest signing class follows suit. The 25 total players hailed from 12 different states and Washington, D.C. Seven were from Alabama. Another six were from the five-hour radius, including three from Mississippi where Saban hadn’t been having much luck recently.
“Because of the quality of programs that they have in their own state, it’s been a little more difficult lately to get guys to leave their own state,” Saban said after signing cornerback Nigel Knott, defensive tackle Raekwon Davis and tackle Scott Lashley, all considered 4-star prospects.
“Bo Davis did a really good job recruiting them,” he added about the Crimson Tide’s defensive line coach, who has Mississippi as part of his recruiting territory.
Meanwhile, Alabama has managed to keep its vice grip on its own state, which has to remain at the heart of its recruiting efforts.
Since 2008, there have been 19 players in the state of Alabama listed as a 5-star recruit by 247Sports. Of them, Saban signed 15. Of the 72 4-star players, 38 landed with the Crimson Tide.
In comparison, rival Auburn successfully recruited two of the 5-star players and 20 of the 4-star talents (and the discrepancy is even greater with 247’s own evaluations that contributed to the composite rankings that average ratings from numerous recruiting sites). During that time span, it’s had two head coaching changes, but also won a national championship.
Here’s a quick year-by-year look at the in-state recruiting:
2008: Saban’s first full recruiting class included 15 of the state’s top 21 prospects, including the top three of Julio Jones, Tyler Love and B.J. Scott, who were all considered 5-star prospects (Jones became a star, Love never started and Scott transferred). It also landed Tuscaloosa-area products John Michael Boswell and Brad Smelley.
2009: Alabama signed the top eight in-state prospects including 5-star players Dre Kirkpatrick, Nico Johnson and D.J. Fluker. The top-rated player to leave the state was No. 13, linebacker D.T. Shackelford to Ole Miss.
2010: Alabama signed the state's only 5-star player, cornerback Dee Milliner, and the next two top prospects, linebacker C.J. Mosley and safety Jarrick Williams. Auburn was able to snare defensive end LaDarius Owens, while the top prospect to bolt from the state was Mobile-area wide receiver Solomon Patton to Florida.
2011: It was considered down year for in-state talent, and Alabama focused more on players from beyond the state border. It still signed No. 1 Marvin Shinn, No. 3 Brent Calloway and No. 6 Danny Woodson, but none of them made much of a mark at the Capstone. One player who did was No. 10 Christion Jones.
2012: The biggest in-state departure during the Saban era was quarterback Jameis Winston, who instead went to Florida State and won both a Heisman Trophy and national championship. Going with him was the second-highest rated prospect, wide receiver Chris Casher.
Outside of the top 10 players, Louisville and Mississippi State hit the state hard and signed six of the next eight prospects.
2016: Alabama added four of the top six players including the only two 5-star players, Davis and Wilson. Auburn’s top get was defensive end Marlon Davidson out of the Montgomery area. His brother Ken Carter is on the Auburn staff and Gus Malzahn said the coaches considered him the top recruit in the state.
Time will tell if he’s correct, but in the meantime the versatile Jennings is getting used to Tuscaloosa and will likely take his initial snaps at safety this spring.
Although he wasn’t rated as a top prospect, 19th in the state and No. 599 nationally, he’s been surprised at how close everyone is on the team and Jennings is eager to show that he belongs.
"I don't care where I play. I just want to play," he said.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting ratings are from 247Sports.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.
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Recruiting never stops, especially at a powerhouse program such as Auburn.
In order to get a streak of top-10 classes like the one Gus Malzahn and his staff has, coaches must get started early on recruiting the stars of tomorrow far in advance.
Case in point: In the first few minutes of his signing day press conference last Wednesday—a day when the entire college football world was focused solely on the class of 2016—Malzahn mentioned he had talked to dozens of 2017 recruits that day.
"Today was a really good day," Malzahn said. "They got me on the phone with close to 50 guys coming up and I think that’s a great thing. I'm excited to recruit those guys, and I know our coaches are, too."
Now that everyone's focus has started to shift toward the 2017 cycle, let's take a look at who Auburn currently has committed and who its biggest blue-chip targets are for the next several months.
The current commitments
Compared to the likes of Ohio State, Alabama and Miami, Auburn is off to a slow start in the 2017 cycle with just three commitments so far.
But the Tigers didn't have a huge number of commitments for most of the 2016 cycle, and they still finished with yet another top-10 class. Gus Malzahn and his staff aren't new at this.
Auburn's trio of 2017 pledges are high quality, though, beginning with 5-star offensive tackle Calvin Ashley. The Orlando, Florida, native is the nation's No. 4 overall recruit and the No. 2 offensive tackle, making him one of the biggest early pledges Auburn has had in quite some time.
Ashley committed to Auburn all the way back in May of last year during "Big Cat Weekend," and he's made a pair of additional unofficial visits to the Plains since then—including last November's Iron Bowl.
In-state schools Florida and Florida State are still chasing after Ashley, who participated in The Opening last summer, but he remains "100 percent committed" to the Tigers.
"I’m 100 percent," Ashley said last month, per Hank South of 247Sports. "(Auburn) has really nice coaches; it’s a nice place to be, nice facilities … I love it. They’ll have a pretty good season next year. I mean this year there were just ups and downs, but next year it’ll be a pretty good season."
Auburn picked up a pair of offensive tackles in the 2016 class to help replace the losses of Shon Coleman and Avery Young to the NFL. The Tigers have great depth at the position for the future, but Ashley looks like he could play early and often at Auburn.
Four-star athlete Alaric Williams is Auburn's other blue-chip commitment for the 2017 class at this moment. The in-state product committed to the Tigers last July and is still receiving plenty of attention from Notre Dame, Alabama and Georgia.
Auburn is recruiting Williams to play running back, a position the Tigers will need reinforcements at starting with the 2017 season. Jovon Robinson's eligibility expires after 2016, and Auburn will have Roc Thomas, Kerryon Johnson and Malik Miller left on campus.
Williams looks like the ideal fit to join the other Alabama running backs at Auburn, but he also has the ability to play wide receiver or defensive back down the road. According to Keith Niebuhr of 247Sports, Williams could be an early enrollee in 2017.
Three-star Georgia safety Carlito Gonzalez rounds out the current commitment crop, as he pledged to the Tigers last August.
While Gonzalez remains committed to the Tigers, South Carolina is a team to watch in his recruitment. Gonzalez was recruited by Will Muschamp and Travaris Robinson at Auburn—and both of them moved onto better positions with the Gamecocks.
The Tigers would love to keep Gonzalez, as both Rudy Ford and Josh Holsey are both entering their final seasons at Auburn.
In Malzahn's first two full recruiting cycles, Auburn did a great job of not letting the bulk of the high school talent in Alabama sign with the Crimson Tide. The Tigers were able to snag a few Mr. Football award-winners and close the gap between the number of state blue-chippers heading to Tuscaloosa and Auburn.
The 2017 class currently has twice as many blue-chip recruits from the state of Alabama as the 2016 class did, with 14 players boasting 4-star ratings. The Tigers have already gotten off to a good start for several of them, setting up some big-time rivalry battles over the next few months.
Four-star outside linebacker Markail Benton is the state's No. 1 player, and Auburn has a number of factors working well in its recruitment of him.
Linebacker is a position of great need for 2017, and Benton hails from Central High School in Phenix City—which is 30 miles away from Auburn's campus. Benton, who has visited Auburn three times since last summer, was teammates in high school with Broussard.
All 12 of the Crystal Ball Predictions on 247Sports for Benton have him signing with the Tigers in this cycle, but Alabama will always be a contender for a top prospect such as this one.
Other top targets from the state of Alabama include Austin Troxell, a 4-star offensive tackle from Madison Academy in North Alabama. The successful program has produced recent Auburn backs Kerryon Johnson and Malik Miller, so the Tigers could pick up Troxell as well for their uptempo offense.
Troxell has visited Alabama more often than Auburn, but the Tigers were the first ones to offer him a scholarship. According to his 247Sports profile of interests, this one looks like it will be a classic Auburn-Alabama matchup on the recruiting trail.
Auburn might have a better chance for 4-star defensive end Ryan Johnson. As Niebuhr noted earlier this month, Johnson grew up an Auburn fan, and he's located right in Auburn assistant Dameyune Craig's recruiting wheelhouse of Mobile.
Johnson is listed as a 6'4", 240-pound strong-side defensive end, but he has room to grow into a future force at the defensive tackle position. While he's keeping his options open, Auburn should be a top contender for Johnson.
"I talked to Coach (Kevin Steele), Coach (Dameyune Craig) and Coach (Rodney Garner)," Johnson said, per Niebuhr. "They’re definitely showing a lot of interest in me. They definitely want us to come up here and compete."
Other in-state names to watch include 4-star quarterback Jake Bentley, who is right down the road from Auburn at Opelika. Bentley had an incredible junior season quarterbacking the Bulldogs, and he's the son of former Auburn assistant Bobby Bentley—who is also now at South Carolina.
Bentley has good mobility, but he's still a pro-style quarterback. It will be interesting to see if the Tigers continue to pursue him in this cycle after signing two dual-threats in 2016.
To the battleground states and beyond
Auburn went into its traditional pipeline of Georgia in the 2016 cycle and came out a big winner, netting three of the state's top 10 recruits.
Georgia will continue to be a high priority for Auburn in this upcoming class, with many of the Tigers' top targets hailing from the Peach State.
Five-star cornerback Deangelo Gibbs is the biggest one of those, as he's ranked as the nation's No. 9 overall recruit and No. 2 cornerback. Gibbs is from Grayson High School in Loganville, Georgia—the same school that produced Ole Miss star and former No. 1 overall recruit Robert Nkemdiche.
As Bleacher Report's Sanjay Kirpalani detailed last year, Gibbs has been one of the class of 2017's can't-miss recruits for quite some time. He won the defensive back MVP award at a Nike camp in Atlanta when he was a high school sophomore, beating out a number of eventual 5-stars from the 2015 and 2016 cycles.
Gibbs is a freakish athlete with incredibly polished skills as a defensive back, and he's picked up 33 scholarship offers so far. Georgia and Tennessee are said to be the early leaders for him, but he visited Auburn last November and is one of the Tigers' biggest priorities on defense.
Auburn is widely expected so sign 4-star athlete Tray Bishop from Dawson, Georgia. The high school quarterback will most likely play either receiver or safety at the next level, and he's visited Auburn three times in the past year.
The Tigers could snag 4-star defensive tackle Aubrey Solomon like they did with Derrick Brown and several other highly rated linemen from Georgia. The nation's No. 6 defensive tackle has garnered plenty of attention from Auburn as well as Georgia, Ohio State, Florida and Florida State.
Auburn continued to flex its newfound muscles in the state of Florida by signing several natives in the last cycle and picking up a commitment from Ashley.
Four-star inside linebacker Will Ignont could technically be classified as an Alabama recruit, but he transferred from Buckhorn High School to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Ignont is expected to become a Tiger, and Auburn would love to pick up a blue-chip from IMG for future recruiting purposes.
Other 4-star targets from Florida include running backs Colin Wilson and Devan Barrett. Auburn will have to battle the in-state Gators for these prized rushers, who could add to the great depth the Tigers love to have in the backfield.
Perhaps the biggest recruit to watch outside of the pipeline states of Alabama, Florida and Georgia has to be 4-star dual-threat quarterback Lowell Narcisse—a Louisiana native who was formerly committed to Auburn.
Narcisse committed to Auburn last July but opened his recruitment back up in January, telling Shea Dixon of 247Sports that he "rushed" his decision.
"I still plan to communicate and nurture a relationship with [Auburn]," Narcisse told Dixon. "But at this time I will open my recruitment back up. My main goal now is to continue to get my health better and be a leader and role model to my team."
Narcisse came in at No. 7 for quarterbacks in Bleacher Report's Future 100 for the class of 2017, and it's easy to see why Auburn is still pushing for him after his decommitment. He's the ideal Malzahn quarterback:
He's easily the smoothest runner on this list, which makes him an ideal fit to land in a collegiate offensive scheme that emphasizes designed rushing attempts from its quarterback, His agility is often utilized on roll-out plays that take him beyond the pocket, and he displays solid touch (17/20) that creates space for receivers to extend. Elongated passing mechanics (12/15) can be polished to add even more precision and power to passes.
Auburn doesn't have a gaping hole at quarterback for 2017, but it will lose Jeremy Johnson after this season. If the Tigers want to have strong depth there for the future, Narcisse is the way to go.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.
Justin Ferguson is a college football writer at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.
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