Feed aggregator

Alabama Football: Depth Chart Analysis, Complete 2015 Preview and Predictions

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The University of Alabama football program won a title last season, two actually.

You wouldn’t know it by the way everyone has talked about the Crimson Tide since—media, fans, even students. If it was another sport, Alabama could raise banners for the Southeastern Conference’s West Division and the league championship, yet most consider 2014 to have been a down year due to the way it ended in the inaugural playoffs.

“I look at the ring every now and then, but it doesn’t feel like we even won,” senior center Ryan Kelly said. “It doesn’t. At the time it was an awesome feeling. We get the chance to play Ohio State.

“After we lost to Ohio State, I just, all that season was for nothing.”

That was rallying point throughout the offseason, with constant reminders that last year’s defense wasn’t good enough, nor the team’s finish, at least by Alabama’s standards under Nick Saban.

“We’re not allowed to have a bad season, because the fans will let you know when you’re playing badly,” senior linebacker Reggie Ragland said. “We have to have the right mindset at all times because the players that came before us instilled something that we have to keep finishing and keep going on.”

Alabama certainly has the talent to do so. Among the 85 scholarship players this summer, 18 had been rated by 247Sports to be 5-star prospects as recruits, with 47 4-star players. Combined, that’s 76 percent of the roster, meaning this team is arguably as talented and loaded as any Saban’s ever had.

 

Coaches

Saban is back for his ninth season at Alabama, which is nearly twice as long as anywhere else he’s coached, and he’ll turn 64 this fall, specifically on Halloween when the team is enjoying its bye.

Due to make more than $7 million this year, Saban’s the highest-paid coach in college football, and for once there appears to be no one looming to trying and pry him away or talk of a potential return to the National Football League.

Also back are both coordinators. Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is looking for a bounce-back season while Lane Kiffin returned for what he called his “sophomore” year under Saban.

“There’s still so many things to learn from Coach,” the offensive coordinator said.

While Alabama can no longer claim to have five coaches on the staff with head coaching experience, as linebackers coach Kevin Steele left to be LSU’s defensive coordinator, it instead added a big-time NFL presence with Mel Tucker overseeing the defensive backs.

He spent the last two seasons as the defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears and before that had the same position with the Jacksonville Jaguars (2009-12) and Cleveland Browns (2008). Saban gave him his coaching start as a graduate assistant at Michigan State (1997-98), and Tucker was his secondary coach at LSU (2000).

“Mel does a great job with the kids. He has a great demeanor. Kids really respect him. They know he’s got a lot of NFL experience,” Smart said. “When you turn on a clip of an NFL drill, eyes pop open a little more.”

Alabama’s other coaching move was to promote Tosh Lupoi to outside linebackers coach, a position he had previously held at California and Washington.

"Coach Tosh, he's energetic every day,” senior linebacker Denzel Devall said. “There's not a dull moment. He preaches on doing the right thing every play, looking at the right stuff, eyes at the right thing. Great hand placement. He's a technician. Effort, energetic guy, you know. I don't think I've ever seen him down. Just a great coach."

 

What to watch for on offense

Note: Alabama’s official offensive depth chart won’t be released until next week

Losing nine starters would mean disaster for most offenses, but Alabama’s style of play will likely lead to a bigger decrease in its statistics than the turnover in personnel.

With the quarterback competition possibly continuing into the regular season and the offensive line looking like it could be Alabama’s best in years, a bigger emphasis on ball control and the running game is expected.

“Obviously we want to be tough and physical and run the ball,” Kiffin said.

That begins with junior running back Derrick Henry, who ended up leading the Crimson Tide in rushing last season despite not being the starter.

Listed as 6’3”, 242 pounds, he’s physically similar to Eddie George when he played at Ohio State. At Yulee High School in Florida, he broke Ken Hall's 51-year-old national rushing record with 12,124 yards after rushing for 4,261 as a senior in 2012.

He’s gone from being a monster of a prospect to playing in 26 career games, for 1,372 career rushing yards (6.6 average per carry) and 17 touchdowns, with six receptions for 194 yards and three more scores.

Complementing him is senior Kenyan Drake, whom Kiffin has described as a Reggie Bush-type player. Alabama will line him up at running back and out wide to exploit mismatches in coverage.

“He has so many things that he does well,” Saban said. “He has great speed. He has very good running skills and running instincts, but he's a fantastic receiver.”

Although there’s obviously no replacing a wide receiver like Amari Cooper, who set numerous school records last season, ArDarius Stewart will be the primary wide receiver. Coaches hope that sophomore Robert Foster and junior tight end O.J. Howard have breakout seasons, but fans should also keep an eye out for promising true freshman receiver Calvin Ridley.

 

What to watch for on defense

Note: Alabama’s official defensive depth chart won’t be released until next week 

Led by its front seven, which returned nearly intact, Alabama’s defense hopes to draw comparison to the 2011 unit that led the nation in all four major statistical categories (total, scoring, rushing and pass-efficiency defense).

"That defensive line is a beast," Henry said. "You've got four or five big guys who dominate every play and give it their all every play, and that's all you can ask from the defensive line.”

Last season, Jarran Reed led the line with 55 tackles, which was the second most by a lineman during the Saban era (Wallace Gilberry in 2007). Thanks to a 15-tackle tally against LSU, which tied former middle linebacker Rolando McClain (vs. Auburn 2007 and Tulane 2008), for the most by an Alabama player under Saban, he edged out A’Shawn Robinson’s 49.

A preseason All-SEC selection, Robinson was once described by Senior Bowl director Phil Savage as a “man-child.” At the other end spot, Jonathan Allen has 49 career tackles with 14.5 tackles for loss and six sacks. An All-SEC selection by media last season, he’s already made 25 starts heading into his junior season. In 2014, he was second in team sacks with 5.5 and had seven hurries.

Meanwhile, Ragland might be the favorite for the Butkus Award after being a semifinalist last season.

“He's been one of our best playmakers on defense and been one of our most productive players,” Saban said of the unit’s anticipated leader—not just for the linebackers, but the entire defense.

Adding to Alabama’s optimism is that after having issues at cornerback during the past couple of seasons, not only does the Crimson Tide have quality starters there but depth.

Senior Cyrus Jones was named preseason All-SEC while Marlon Humphrey, Tony Brown and Minkah Fitzpatrick hope to start Alabama’s next wave of first-round draft picks among defensive backs similar to Mark Barron, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Kareem Jackson, Dre Kirkpatrick and Dee Milliner.

With coaches using converted cornerbacks Eddie Jackson and Geno Smith at safety, they figure to get a little more help on the edges as well. If so, Alabama should meet its targeted areas for improvement: turnovers, big plays and third-down defense.

  

Injury news

For the most part, Alabama emerged from training camp relatively unscathed in terms of major injuries.

Most notable were a toe injury that cost Coker three days during the heart of camp and a sprained knee to sophomore left tackle Cam Robinson.

“The injury wasn’t serious,” Robinson said. “It just scared me. It wasn’t that big of a deal.”

Although coming out of the spring the biggest concern was the health and depth of the running backs, that changed during training camp to the wide receivers. Junior Chris Black (ankle) and sophomore Robert Foster (sprained knee) both suffered camp injuries, sophomore Cam Sims (ACL) has only recently started practicing and junior Raheem Falkins (leg) is still out.

At running back, senior Kenyan Drake was already coming off last season’s fractured leg and dislocated ankle only to be limited by a hamstring issue during camp. Freshman Bo Scarbrough is coming off a spring knee injury but will be out four games anyway while serving an eligibility suspension in September.

Otherwise, coaches have been cautious with the running backs to try to keep them as fresh as possible entering the season.

At cornerback, Brown (shoulder) and Humphrey (pulled muscle) have been playing through injuries, while offensive tackles Dominick Jackson (shoulder) and Korren Kirven (sprained knee) are expected to be out a few days this week.

  

X-factor

Alabama’s pack mentality with the defense goes far beyond the players who will be listed as starters, especially with the pass rush. The Crimson Tide have 14 players who were in on a sack in 2014 and all but one of them is back looking for more.

“We have a lot of guys who can contribute,” Ragland said.

While Devall, Ryan Anderson and versatile Dillon Lee figure to be Alabama’s primary outside linebackers, behind them is a bunch of young fast “quick-twitch” players, including sophomore Rashaan Evans, redshirt freshman Christian Miller and junior Tim Williams. All could be poised for a breakout season.

“They always go out there and are always doing 110 percent, flying around, doing everything they can,” Lee said about his talented understudies. “We have people breaking on the ball really fast and are disruptive.”

Ragland believes Williams has the speed and size to top Xzavier Dickson’s nine sacks and 12.5 tackles for a loss last season and maybe even lead the nation in sacks if he’s hungry enough.

Although fans shouldn’t expect Alabama to match the numbers that Saban’s teams posted at Michigan State (for example, the 1999 team notched 60 sacks and 119 tackles for a loss), getting more pressure on the quarterback has been a priority and reflected in the latest staff additions of defensive line coach Bo Davis, Tucker and Lupoi.

Before serving as an Alabama analyst last season Lupoi was at Washington, which ranked fourth nationally in sacks per game (3.15) in 2013. One of his former players, outside linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha, led college football with 19 sacks in 2014. 

“What he brings to pass rushing and disrupting the pocket is really unbelievable,” Lee said. “Always aggressive.” 

 

2015 schedule 

 

Make-or-break games

There are two necessary elements in order to have what’s called a “trap” game: an overlooked opponent aided by timing.

Alabama doesn’t have to worry about that this season because there really aren’t any opponents to overlook. The schedule is that difficult and widely called the toughest in college football.

Going by the preseason Associated Press Poll, the Crimson Tide are slated to face seven different teams that were in the Top 25, in addition to the top two vote-getters among teams not ranked, Mississippi State and Texas A&M. Should they move up, Alabama could be looking at facing nine ranked teams plus potentially playing another in the SEC Championship Game.

Last year, Ohio State faced one ranked opponent during the regular season followed by three more at the end—in the Big Ten title game, the Sugar Bowl and the national championship. The total of four marked the fewest ranked teams a national champion had faced since Texas in 2005.

The record for most ranked opponents faced by a national champion is eight, LSU in 2007. So for Alabama to win the crown this season, it might have to accomplish something that’s never been done in the history of college football.

Nevertheless, Alabama’s schedule is so brutal that no one has to hear a player say they’re going to take it one game at a time because there’s really no other way to approach it.

Alabama opens in the marquee game of Week 1 against Wisconsin in the 2015 AdvoCare Classic at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and two weeks later gets a rematch with the only team that defeated it during the 2014 regular season, Ole Miss.

Things get tougher in October when the Crimson Tide could face four straight ranked opponents: at Georgia, Arkansas, at Texas A&M and Tennessee. November features the usual onslaught of LSU, at Mississippi State (which Alabama knocked from No. 1 last year) and finally at Auburn, which could again determine the division title.

As Saban would say, “It is what it is,” but there’s no doubt that the Crimson Tide will be tested.

 

Prediction

If Alabama doesn’t have its toughest schedule in program history, it’s definitely on the short list. If it makes the SEC Championship Game, it will probably have played 10 teams that were ranked at some point.

Saban has only had one undefeated team, the 2009 national champions, and the turnover on offense paired with the uncertainly at quarterback makes another unlikely. Yet a strong defense and running game alone make Alabama a strong contender assuming it can avoid key injuries.

If Alabama can get through the regular season with just one loss, it’ll be a shoe-in for the playoffs. The guess here is that it’ll lose two but still represent the West Division in Atlanta, where a win would earn a spot in football’s version of the Final Four.

Overall record: 10-2

League record: 6-2

  

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Auburn Football: Depth-Chart Analysis, Complete 2015 Preview and Predictions

After exceeding all expectations in 2013 and making it to the national championship game, Auburn entered 2014 with a No. 6 preseason AP poll ranking and huge amounts of title hype.

Auburn fell well short of that mark, going 8-5 last season and dropping four of its last five games.

One would probably expect Auburn to start the ensuing campaign with tempered projections, especially with new starters at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, H-back, center, offensive guard, defensive tackle, defensive end, cornerback and safety.

But this is Auburn under Gus Malzahn, where average expectations are routinely ignored. 

Auburn will enter the 2015 season against Louisville in the Georgia Dome with the same No. 6 preseason ranking and some media picks to clinch a spot in the second College Football Playoff. Malzahn's explosive offense is set to take a different kind of look this fall, while the defense is making a high-profile transition to new leadership.

Less than two weeks away from the kickoff of the new season, here is Bleacher Report's complete preview of Auburn's biggest names and games for 2015.

 

Coaches

While Malzahn's offensive coaching staff stays intact for a third straight season, the major headline of the offseason was the change of command on defense.

In fact, the biggest change happened even before the Tigers closed the 2014 season. Malzahn fired Ellis Johnson and hired former Florida head coach and Auburn assistant Will Muschamp.

Since Muschamp's first full season as the defensive coordinator at Texas—the job he took right after he left Auburn—his defenses have all finished in the top 10 nationally. By comparison, Auburn's best performance in that timespan came in the national championship year of 2010, when the Tigers ranked 60th in total defense.

Needless to say, the expectations are extremely high for the fiery Muschamp.

"In my opinion, [Muschamp is] the best defensive mind in all of football, not just college football," Malzahn said at SEC media days in June. "Our defensive players have taken on his personality, which I really like."

Auburn retained Rodney Garner as associate head coach and defensive line coach after the transition to Muschamp, but the rest of his defensive staff is brand-new to the Plains this season.

Travaris Robinson, who played at Auburn from 1999 to 2002, was Muschamp's defensive backs coach at Florida. He immediately helped flip several defensive back recruits from his native South Florida and will be tasked with bringing new life to a thin secondary.

Then there's Lance Thompson, who was an ace recruiter for Nick Saban at Alabama. Thompson has ties to Muschamp from their days under Saban at LSU, and he brings a tremendous amount of experience from coaching and playing in the SEC.

"I'm very excited about our staff," Malzahn said at SEC media days, per Jim Kleinpeter of NOLA.com. "I would put this staff against any in college football, not just being great coaches, but great examples for our players, which is the most important thing for me."

 

What to watch for on offense

(Note: Both depth charts are based on the latest fall-camp projections from James Crepea of AL.com.)

While several SEC schools enter the 2015 season with uncertainty at quarterback, Auburn is supremely confident in its replacement for Nick Marshall: Jeremy Johnson, who almost beat Marshall out for the starting job back in 2013.

The 6'5" passer has had two seasons of preparation behind Marshall, and his efficiency in the limited work he's had as a freshman and sophomore has been nothing short of impressive. Johnson's career completion rate is a sparkling 73.2 percent, and he has a touchdown-to-interception ratio of nine to two.

"Yeah, he definitely is [as good as the hype]," wide receiver Ricardo Louis told Brandon Marcello of AL.com. "I've seen him make some throws that I've never seen any quarterback make, right on the money every time. He's consistent; that's what makes him better than most of the quarterbacks I've seen."

Auburn's offense will undoubtedly look different with Johnson at the helm instead of Marshall. While Johnson's rushing abilities have been undervalued heavily this offseason, his pocket presence is his best weapon, so Malzahn may go back to more of his passing roots this fall.

The Tigers have quite a fluid situation at receiver heading into the season. Star wideout D'haquille "Duke" Williams, who surprisingly stayed at Auburn after a bowl game suspension last year, missed several days of practice because of an undisclosed "discipline issue."

Williams' time away from the team—and continued practice time with the reserves as part of his punishment—could be a blessing in disguise for the rest of Auburn's wideouts. The offense needs to find a true No. 2 weapon alongside Williams out of Louis, Marcus Davis, Melvin Ray and several other reserves.

When the Tigers keep it on the ground, they'll have several highly touted players to choose from.

Auburn has had the SEC's leading rusher in back-to-back seasons. JUCO stud Jovon Robinson and star sophomore Roc Thomas look like the top candidates to take those spots for Auburn. Robinson is beginning to flash more of his elite all-around skill set after a slow start in fall camp, while Thomas has made an effort to become more of a complete north-south rusher.

The two former 5-stars will be backed up by sophomore Peyton Barber, who fits the mold of the powerful 3rd-and-short back and has the potential to be a surprise weapon this fall. Kerryon Johnson, Auburn's third straight Mr. Football winner from the state of Alabama, could be used as a speedy weapon in both the passing and rushing attacks.

The important H-back role will most likely be played by freshman Kamryn Pettway, who has received rave reviews in fall camp. The more traditional tight end is stocked with unproven youth, too, in Chandler Cod, Chris Laye and Jalen Harris.

Auburn's offensive line should be a strength once again amid all the question marks across the depth chart.

The Tigers return tackles Shon Coleman and Avery Young while welcoming back Alex Kozan to the left guard spot. The former freshman All-American missed all of 2014 after offseason back surgery.

Center will be taken by either Ole Miss transfer Austin Golson or senior Xavier Dampeer, who backed up four-year starter Reese Dismukes last season. The other guard spot will be manned by sophomore Braden Smith, whose freakish strength gave Auburn considerable depth last season.

"You can't have enough depth on the offensive line," Malzahn said last week, per Matthew Stevens of the Montgomery Advertiser. "We have as much depth, maybe more than the five previous seasons I've been here."

 

What to watch for on defense

Muschamp's first year with the Auburn defense has plenty of potential, as several veterans who have enjoyed some individual success are back for another season.

But as a whole, the Tigers have struggled mightily with limiting big plays and, especially in 2014, getting into opponents' backfields.

The latter issue will be addressed with the return of sophomore Carl Lawson, who looks stronger and faster after missing the entire 2014 season with an ACL injury and surgery. He excelled opposite Dee Ford in his true freshman season and will take over the pass-rushing specialist role in Muschamp's defense at "Buck."

"[Lawson's return] helps a lot because last year we needed some pass rush, and we didn't have that," junior defensive tackle Montravius Adams said, according to Alex Scarborough of ESPN.com. "Having everybody back, everybody pretty healthy, it's going to force people to free up somebody."

Adams will lead the traditional defensive line roles this fall. The versatile junior led all defensive linemen in tackles for loss and has the ability to line up at end. Senior DaVonte Lambert is set to take over an end spot, while redshirt freshman Dontavius Russell wowed coaches and teammates during the preseason at tackle.

Byron Cowart, one of the nation's top recruits in the class of 2015, could emerge as a starter by the middle of the season. His pass-rushing potential makes him and Lawson a dream pairing on the edges.

At linebacker, Auburn has two senior leaders in Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost. The two will enter their third straight season as starters, giving Auburn one of the best linebacking duos in the SEC.

"McKinzy and Frost will be expected to start every game and be the nucleus of a defense in transition under coordinator Will Muschamp," Crepea wrote earlier this month. "Since Muschamp is coaching the inside linebackers, there will be no group better school in his ways than his senior LBs."

The current leader for the third linebacker spot is JaViere Mitchell, as senior Justin Garrett has taken reps inside at middle linebacker during fall camp. Auburn has several bright young role players in the linebacker rotation, including sophomore Tre Williams and true freshman Jeff Holland.

The secondary is extremely top-heavy after a huge exodus of transfers during the offseason.

Jonathan Jones is an All-SEC performer at cornerback, and fellow senior Josh Holsey looks to be locked into the nickel role for the Tigers. Former All-Big Ten cornerback Blake Countess answered Auburn's call for help and will be a veteran presence as a graduate transfer.

Junior Johnathan "Rudy" Ford will man a safety spot once again as former Georgia transfer Tray Matthews becomes eligible to play for the Tigers this fall. Matthews is only a sophomore, but he was a starter for the Bulldogs before his dismissal in 2014.

The unit drops off in experience after that as Auburn will have to rely on several true freshmen to play behind Jones, Countess and Holsey. The safety positions also lack an established No. 3 option in case of injury.

Handling the lack of depth in the secondary will be paramount to Auburn's success in 2015. The Tigers' run defense and pass rush should be much improved, but cutting down those big plays through the air will be a work in progress for this defense.

 

Injury news

Auburn doesn't have nearly as many injury concerns as it did at this point last year, when both Carl Lawson and Alex Kozan were out with what would be season-ending health issues.

Even though he hasn't made a major impact in an Auburn uniform yet, T.J. Davis' absence is huge for depth purposes. Malzahn told Marcello in July the team hopes Davis can make his return from ACL surgery by October.

The only fall-camp injury of real note is the one for Matthews. The former Georgia safety has been limited this month with a nagging hamstring issue. If he isn't 100 percent by the start of the season, Auburn could move Countess to safety and line Holsey back up at cornerback—which is not the ideal situation for the secondary right now.

 

X-factor

Jason Smith transferred to Auburn from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College in order to compete for the starting quarterback job. Smith was moved to wide receiver in the spring, but he didn't let the position change keep him down.

Smith will look to use his athleticism as a playmaker out wide and on special teams, where he is competing for the starting punt returner job. According to Johnson, his former competition at quarterback could still be a breakout star this season for the Tigers.

"He’s one of the guys that we can count on as a team to make a lot of plays," Johnson told Charles Goldberg of AuburnTigers.com. "He’s tremendous when he gets the ball in his hands. He makes a lot of big plays down the field. We feel really good about him, and he made that transition for the best of him and for this team."

For a defensive X-factor, look to a nontraditional spot—the punter.

Last season, kicker Daniel Carlson pulled double duty for the Tigers by punting the ball as well. His leg wore down during the season, and fatigue started to creep into his field-goal attempts.

This year, JUCO punter Kevin Phillips and true freshman Ian Shannon are battling to take that job.

"They're both competing," Malzahn said, per Marcello. "I think both of them are talented enough to do it. Hopefully in the next week we can make a call on that. That's another area that we feel like it's a good thing that we feel like we have two guys that can get the job done." 

With a dedicated punter, Carlson's big leg will be able to stay fresh well into the season. And if either Phillips or Shannon can develop a knack for pinning opponents deep in Auburn's own territory, it would be a big boost for a defense going through a major transition under Muschamp.

 

Make-or-break games

Auburn's 2015 schedule could be a lot tougher—since it's an odd-numbered year, the Tigers will host both rivals Georgia and Alabama this season. 

But life in the SEC West is still difficult, as Auburn must travel to LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M in addition to a Thursday night contest at Kentucky.

The first true make-or-break game for Auburn will be against LSU in Baton Rouge. Auburn torched LSU on the Plains last season, but the Bayou Bengals haven't lost to the orange-and-blue Tigers inside Death Valley since 2000. While the afternoon time slot may take some edge off this road trip, this contest will set the tone for the SEC season.

The home game against Ole Miss on Halloween will be one of the biggest games of the entire SEC schedule, especially after the events of the Tigers' last-minute win in Oxford last season. The Rebels and a healthy Laquon Treadwell will be looking for revenge, and the Tigers will be coming off what should be a physical road matchup at Arkansas.

Finally, the Iron Bowl is as make-or-break as they come in the SEC West. The winner of this game has a streak of playing in the contest that decides the national title. If all goes according to projections for both teams, this one should determine the division champion, much like the legendary 2013 matchup.

Each of these three SEC West rivals has major question marks heading into the season, especially at quarterback. But, just like Auburn, they also have lots of potential—and they could easily turn a championship-bound season into another disappointing one on the Plains.

 

Prediction: 10-2 (6-2 SEC) 

I'm sticking with the two-loss projection for Auburn this season—with a caveat.

Auburn's offense should exceed the production of the last two seasons with Jeremy Johnson at quarterback. His arm makes Auburn a more balanced and more explosive football team, and he has the look of a leader who will cause everyone around him to play at a higher level.

I expect the running back rotation to be potent and the wide receiving corps to field a pair of breakout performers.

The defense, though, is still cause for concern. Yes, Muschamp should bring big changes from the days of Ellis Johnson, but issues at defensive back are quite alarming. While I predict Auburn will show improvement on the defensive side of the ball this fall, the matchups against teams that love to throw the ball will still be problematic.

I'm in "wait-and-see" mode when it comes to Muschamp's defense, especially with the depth of the secondary. If he can bring drastic, Malzahn-like change to the unit in year one, Auburn has the talent to run the table. Right now, a pass-happy Texas A&M and a deep Alabama are my picks for close losses.

But as the last two seasons of Auburn football have shown, this program doesn't like to stick to the script.

 

Recruiting information courtesy of 247SportsAll stats courtesy of cfbstats.com. All camp and practice observations are firsthand.

Justin Ferguson is a college football writer at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Schools to Watch After 4-Star CB Troy Warner Decommitted from Oregon

Oregon’s 2016 recruiting class suffered a major blow when 4-star corner Troy Warner announced on Monday that he will re-open his recruitment.

The 6’0”, 185-pound California native committed to Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich back in April over schools such as BYU, Notre Dame and UCLA.

As Justin Hopkins of 247Sports noted, Warner will still consider the Ducks when it comes time to make a final decision.

However, a handful of schools figure to jump back into the race for the nation’s No. 22 corner and the No. 245 player overall in the 2016 class.

Which programs are the main ones to watch in Warner’s recruitment moving forward?

Let’s take a look at a few of his primary suitors.

 

BYU

As Hopkins pointed out, BYU was the original favorite for Warner because of the fact that he has a brother currently playing for the Cougars football team.

That connection may be enough for head coach Bronco Mendenhall and his staff to pull one of the top prospects from the Golden State.

Another factor working in the Cougars' favor is the fact that they were the first program to offer Warner a scholarship back in April of 2014, as noted by Barton Simmons of 247Sports.

While it will be tough to get him away from the clutch of a few Power Five giants, the Cougars figure to play a prominent role in Warner’s recruitment in the coming months.

 

Notre Dame

Notre Dame is a school that has continued to recruit Warner even after his initial pledge to the Ducks.

He took an unofficial visit to South Bend back in May, and as Tom Loy of 247Sports detailed, he was wowed by the atmosphere on campus.

“It was new, different and full of tradition,” Warner told Loy about his experience in South Bend. “It was a real humbling experience knowing that it’s a team that really wants me to be a part of their team. Knowing that is pretty cool. It means a lot.”

As Loy noted, the Irish staff will speak with Warner soon in an effort to get him to consider returning to campus for an official visit.

If the Irish are successful in that push, they could jump atop his list of favorites.

 

Stanford

Stanford jumped in the mix for Warner when it offered him back in March.

As he told Hopkins, the offer excited him because of the school’s academic reputation.

Despite his pledge to the Ducks, Cardinal head coach David Shaw and his staff have maintained contact with Warner since the spring, as Hopkins detailed

While Stanford already has four commitments from defensive backs in its 2016 class, it appears that Shaw and his staff would make room for Warner if he decides in favor of the Cardinal.

 

USC

One school that has yet to offer Warner that could factor into his recruitment is USC.

The Trojans only have one defensive back committed thus far in their 2016 class.

But, as Loy detailed, Warner has been intrigued by USC since the beginning of his recruitment.

Until they offer, the Trojans are more of a wild card for him at this point.

The next big key to watch for in his recruitment will be monitoring which schools are able to get an official visit from him.

Regardless, it appears that Warner will be a top target for a handful of elite programs in the months leading up to signing day.

 

Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand and all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

USC's Steve Sarkisian Seeking Help, Deserves Respect for Owning Up to His Issues

Admitting you fouled up a game plan in a football game is easy. Saying you didn't prepare your team well enough during the week is easy. 

What USC head coach Steve Sarkisian did Tuesday wasn't easy at all. 

Standing before reporters, Sarkisian opened the door to his personal life. He didn't elaborate on the details, and he didn't need to. That's not for anyone else to know or judge. But he did admit he's seeking treatment for alcohol. And that's enough. 

He also admitted what everyone already knew: that he was intoxicated at the recent "Salute to Troy" rally. But then he revealed something else: Before taking the stage at the school-sponsored event, he had mixed alcohol with medications. Everybody knows that's a bad combination. 

The result, as you've likely seen, was a slurred, embarrassing speech that reportedly required athletic director Pat Haden to remove Sarkisian from the stage, as SB Nation's Avinash Kunnath reported:

It wasn't Sarkisian's finest moment, and an apology was later issued through USC. The head coach also addressed his team before answering questions from the media. Undoubtedly, there will be more questions directed toward him and USC. This is the hard part: answering for your actions, over and over again, as a result of your personal choices. 

But he is giving answers, and that's worth something. As the head coach of a prominent college football program, Sarkisian is going to be subject to a different level of exposure and criticism. That's an unfortunate part of the territory when one makes a mistake, but a part of the territory nonetheless. 

This isn't a full-fledged defense of Sarkisian. Part of his job is to solicit money from donors. Making a fool of yourself in front of people who are likely to open their checkbooks for you isn't on the list of great ideas. Still, it's not the worst thing anyone's ever done, nor is it the first time it's ever happened. It's forgivable, especially when you own up to it.  

What matters now is how Sarkisian plans to deal with this going forward. Speaking with reporters, the 41-year-old coach said he will begin receiving treatment:  

Good for him. That's the only thing that can, and should, be said. 

The context clues were there following the incident. On Monday, Scott Wolf of the Los Angeles Daily News reported that alcohol had been banned from USC's locker room. That only ignited further questions. Was alcohol actually allowed in the locker room before? Was there alcohol before? 

The head coach himself clarified that alcohol was permitted in the coaches' locker room, but not the players', via Michael Lev of the Orange County Register. Obviously, that's not the case anymore. 

All the same, this is Sarkisian's issue now, and it became abundantly clear he needed help dealing with it. There's no shame in that. There never is. What kind of help Sarkisian will receive remains to be seen, but the important part is he's doing something about it. 

This isn't the time to crush USC for its previous laissez-faire attitude toward alcohol. The policy has changed; it's over. Still, others will take the opportunity to focus on Sarkisian's history with alcohol, as Danny O'Neil of 710 ESPN Seattle did: 

At some point, we just need to be human beings about this whole thing and recognize that this is a man's life.  

We know Sarkisian went through a divorce this year. We don't know if that's what drove him to mix alcohol and medication at a school event. We don't know if that's what drove him to drink before. Maybe it was something else entirely. Whatever it was, or wasn't, we don't have the right to know, either. Whatever it is Sarkisian is dealing with, here's hoping he gets the help he needs. 

Sarkisian owned up to his mistake and took it a step further by conceding that he can't do this by himself. That's a huge step, one that will only benefit him and USC. Instead of sidestepping the issue or trying to bury it, the man took responsibility for what occurred and is now trying to fix it. 

There may have been some initial jokes at his expense, but the feeling now should be that Sarkisian is doing what many people don't have the guts to do. 

So amid all the columns about what USC or Sarkisian should do, maybe the best course of action is to stop talking altogether. Maybe the best thing we can do is listen, for a change.

Because the last thing Sarkisian, or anyone in that type of situation, needs is for someone to laugh at him. 

 

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

USC's Steve Sarkisian Seeking Help, Deserves Respect for Owning Up to His Issues

Admitting you fouled up a game plan in a football game is easy. Saying you didn't prepare your team well enough during the week is easy. What USC head coach Steve Sarkisian did Tuesday wasn't easy at all...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

USC Football: Depth Chart Analysis, Complete 2015 Preview and Predictions

It's fair to say that every college football team anxiously awaits the start of the 2015 season, but USC might be a little more eager than others to get to the games themselves—if only because it will turn the focus toward the on-field action rather than what's happening outside the lines.

The Trojans enter this fall with high expectations, both internal and in the form of high rankings in the polls—USC is eighth in the preseason Associated Press media poll and 10th in the Amway Coaches Poll. And the Pac-12 media picked them to win the conference title.

Yet that also brings extra scrutiny, something that's already high being in a major media market such as Los Angeles.

This came to a head on Saturday night when coach Steve Sarkisian was pulled off the stage during a speech at the school's Salute to Troy event after appearing intoxicated. He said Tuesday that the incident was the result of mixing alcohol and medication and that he will seek treatment for his alcohol use, per Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times.

With the core of a team that went 9-4 last season back for another year, USC has the pieces in place to contend for a national title for the first time since losing to Texas in the 2006 championship game.

Below is our in-depth look at the Trojans heading into the 2015 campaign:

 

Coaches

USC's staff is still on the new side from an overall standpoint, as Sarkisian overhauled the roster with his own people when he took over the program in December 2013. Only offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Clay Helton and receivers coach/passing game coordinator Tee Martin remain from the previous regime, but that makes sense since the Trojans have been a pro-style team since the Pete Carroll days and continue to operate the same offense under Sarkisian.

The only staff change for 2015 was the hiring of Bob Connelly to coach the offensive line and coordinate USC's ground game. Connelly—who replaces Tim Drevno, now offensive coordinator and line coach at Michigan—spent last season coaching Oklahoma State's line, and he has previous stops at Arizona State, UTEP, UCLA, Alabama, Washington State and San Jose State.

Sarkisian, defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, assistants Keith Heyward, Johnny Nansen, Peter Sirmon and Marques Tuisasosopo and strength coach Ivan Lewis have all been together since Sarkisian's tenure as Washington head coach. Their collective familiarity should be a major bonus for USC this season.

 

What to watch for on offense

With eight returning starters, expect USC to look and operate very much the same as it did in 2014 when that unit averaged 457.5 yards and 35.8 points per game. And as long as Cody Kessler is at quarterback, the Trojans can expect to be one of the most efficient teams in the country.

Last year Kessler completed 69.7 percent of his passes for 3,826 yards and 39 touchdowns, with just five interceptions on 452 attempts.

The fifth-year senior is the latest in a string of prolific passers for USC, dating back to Heisman winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart in the early 2000s, and he also finds himself in Heisman contention with 12-to-1 odds according to OddsShark.com. However, last year he was only an honorable mention on the Pac-12's all-conference team because of Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley.

The Trojans did lose their top running back (Javorius Allen) and No. 1 receiver (Nelson Agholor), but neither position is thin in terms of available talent. JuJu Smith had a strong season as a true freshman, catching 54 passes for 724 yards and five TDs, and appears ready to take over as Kessler's top target, while Adoree' Jackson will see time at receiver in addition to his duties on defense and in the return game.

The running back situation isn't as clear, as either junior Justin Davis or senior Tre Madden will serve as the starter. Davis ran for 595 yards and five TDs as Allen's main backup last year, while Madden missed all of 2014 with a toe injury. True freshmen Dominic Davis and Ronald Jones, part of USC's second-ranked 2015 recruiting class, are also likely to see action early and often this fall.

USC returns its entire starting offensive line from a year ago, a group that was very young in 2014 with three freshmen but now is considered mature and experienced after holding up well together. The line is anchored by senior center Max Tuerk, who has also played guard and tackle in his Trojans career.

The only major question mark for USC's offense is at tight end, where the graduation of Randall Telfer, Bryce Dixon's dismissal and a second straight season with junior Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick sitting out to focus on academics means it could end up starting walk-on Connor Spears. Another candidate is Taylor McNamara, a graduate transfer from Oklahoma who has one career reception.

Dixon, who caught four TD passes as a freshman last year, was expelled from USC in May for violating the school's sexual conduct policy but reinstated in early August. He hoped to return to the Trojans for 2015 but on Monday a Los Angeles Superior Court judge denied his request to hold the school in contempt for keeping him off the team, per Scott Wolf of the Los Angeles Daily News.

 

What to watch for on defense

USC ranked 78th in total defense last year, giving up 407.9 yards per game, but on a game-by-game basis the results were all over the place. The Trojans held Stanford to 10 points on the road, then a week later allowed Boston College to rush for 452 yards in an upset loss. Strong performances against Arizona State and Arizona's ground games were offset by lackluster pass defense, which enabled the Sun Devils to score three touchdowns in the final four minutes including on a horribly defended Hail Mary pass in another befuddling defeat.

Explosive defensive lineman Leonard Williams is no longer in the trenches for the Trojans, having turned pro after his junior year and going sixth overall to the New York Jets in the 2015 NFL draft. He is one of four starters that USC has to replace, along with leading tackler Hayes Pullard at linebacker and safety Gerald Bowman.

But USC still has its best all-around defender to lean on in junior Su'a Cravens. The former safety has made the full transition to outside linebacker, and last season he had team highs in tackles for loss (17) and interceptions (three). A potential high draft pick if he decides to leave school after this season, Cravens is instead focused on becoming more of a leader than what his pro future holds.

"I'm taking on the leadership by not focusing on just my game, but also on those around me, especially the young ones," Cravens said last month at Pac-12 Media Days in Burbank, California (h/t Julian Lopez of SB Nation). "Last year we were a young defense. This year, we are big on finishing, so when we get to the fourth quarter, we have to finish."

The Trojans defensive line will miss Williams' dynamic play, but senior tackles Delvon Simmons and Antwaun Woods are a strong core to build around while several veterans are ready to step in at the end positions.

USC's secondary has been boosted by newcomers, including 5-star cornerback Iman Marshall and 4-star safety Marvell Tell, to go with established starters in corners Adoree' Jackson and Kevon Seymour and safety John Plattenburg. Depth on the back line will make it possible for Jackson to spend more time on offense.

 

What to watch for on special teams

Sophomore Matthew Boermeester and junior walk-on Alex Wood are battling to replace longtime kicker Andre Heidari, who handled USC's field-goal and point-after duties from 2011 to 2014. He finished his career with 49 field goals and is the Pac-12's all-time leader in extra points with 187.

Punter Kris Albarado averaged 41.4 yards per attempt last season, up from 37.9 as a sophomore in 2013, and is set to handle that job for a third straight year.

Adoree' Jackson will be the main return man on both punts and kickoffs, after handling mostly kickoffs in 2014. He ranked fifth in FBS with a 29.7 average on kick returns, with two TDs. 

 

Injury news

USC has been fortunate to this point in that it hasn't suffered any significant injuries during training camp that will result in players missing extended time. Several key contributors have had minor bumps and bruises along the way, including running back Justin Davis (ribs), linebacker Lamar Dawson (ribs), safety Ykili Ross (shoulder) and offensive tackle Chad Wheeler (knee/head), but they're all expected to be available for the Trojans season opener.

The only notable player unlikely to be ready to go on Sept. 5 is senior defensive end Claude Pelon, who sprained a knee on Aug. 19 and underwent surgery. 

 

X-factor

USC is one of the more straightforward teams in the country in terms of its scheme—as close to a pro-style gameplan on both sides of the ball as any program around. The exception would be Adoree' Jackson, the multi-way threat who figures to be used all over this fall after showing what he was capable of last season.

The 5'11", 185-pounder started 10 games at cornerback, once at wide receiver—starting both ways against Notre Dame—and handling most of the Trojans kickoffs. He finished the year with five TDs, three via the pass and two on kickoff returns, while also registering 49 tackles and four tackles for loss.

According to Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times, Jackson also apparently made a field goal during a practice this month, adding to his growing legend. 

Though his primary responsibility will be to cover some of the best wide receivers in the Pac-12, Jackson figures to get even more looks on offense than a year ago while remaining one of the most dangerous return threats in the country.

 

2015 schedule

USC gets the benefit of playing its first three games at home, but Sun Belt schools Arkansas State and Idaho don't figure to provide enough competition to have it battle-tested for the Sept. 19 conference opener against Stanford. A win in Palo Alto last year during Week 2 was supposed to be an early momentum-builder, but a week later the Trojans laid a stinker at Boston College to set the tone for an up-and-down season.

The first road game of 2015 will be a major challenge in that Arizona State is loaded on offense and defense and has the confidence that came from last year's comeback win in Los Angeles to feed off of. That outcome will either send USC into its lone bye week riding a high or looking to regroup.

The remaining schedule sets up as very winnable at home through October and early November but rigorous on the road. Visits to Notre Dame on Oct. 17 and a Halloween trip to California are both potential pitfalls, as is the Nov. 21 game at Oregon which could serve as a preview of the Pac-12 title game two weeks later in Santa Clara, California.

The Trojans end with the annual crosstown clash against UCLA, this time at the Los Angeles Coliseum. The Bruins have won three straight in the series for the first time since a streak of eight consecutive wins from 1991 to 1998, and this meeting could determine the South Division crown.

 

Prediction

There's no question the talent is there for USC to have a big year, which is why it's ranked so high and the division and conference predictions favor the Trojans. But the 2014 team was the same way, and it stumbled far too often to be considered a legitimate contender. That brought back talk of coach Steve Sarkisian's reputation for not being able to win big games.

Sarkisian went 35-29 in his five years at Washington, peaking at nine wins in his final season with a team that had three eventual first- or second-round NFL draft picks on defense. He's got even more talent with USC, but last season's results didn't match what the Trojans were capable of.

The coach's recent alcohol-fueled incident has suddenly added more concern over whether he was the right pick to take over the program following the Lane Kiffin/Ed Orgeron-led 2013 season, but ultimately he'll be judged on the wins and losses starting with those that occur this fall.

The veteran presence of Cody Kessler on offense and Su'a Cravens on defense will keep USC from slipping in most games, but the schedule is too daunting to expect perfection. Assuming the Trojans lose a few times, who those setbacks are to and when they happen will determine if they can land a playoff bid.

 

Overall record: 10-2

Conference record: 6-2

 

All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports. All statistics provided by CFBStats.com.

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

USC Football: Depth Chart Analysis, Complete 2015 Preview and Predictions

It's fair to say that every college football team anxiously awaits the start of the 2015 season, but USC might be a little more eager than others to get to the games themselves—if ...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

Dear Football: The 2015 Elite 11 Story | Ep. 8

Uninterrupted is a platform that allows personalities to connect with fans on a much deeper level, with insight and content not fit for other platforms, media outlets or channels.

Interested fans get a unique perspective that brings them closer than ever to the personalities they care about.

The Elite 11 camp brings together the top high school senior quarterbacks in the country in search of the best 11.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Kyle Flood Under Investigation for Impermissible Faculty Contact

Rutgers University is investigating head football coach Kyle Flood for having impermissible contact with a school faculty member regarding the status of a player on the team.   

According to Keith Sargeant of NJ Advance Media, citing two sources, Flood could be facing a fine or a suspension for the incident:

The university's office of general counsel is investigating the severity of the alleged violation, which, the sources said, is focused on an email Flood allegedly sent from a personal account to a faculty member at the university's Mason Gross School of Arts regarding the status of Nadir Barnwell. The junior cornerback is reportedly in danger of being deemed academically ineligible.

Sargeant noted that if Flood is found to not be in compliance with school rules by trying to provide illegal benefits to a student-athlete, the discipline can range from a public reprimand to his contract being terminated. 

The report does note it's unclear if Flood is in violation of an NCAA or a Big Ten rule for having contact with a player's professor, though a Rutgers official added "the university's athletics compliance department prohibits coaches from communicating with instructors..."

Nadir Barnwell's status has been uncertain, as the junior told Sargeant on August 16 he couldn't discuss his eligibility: "Right now I really can't comment on that. Right now I'm just focusing on myself, just getting my body right to be honest with you, taking it day-by-day just trying to win every day.''

Barnwell has appeared in 17 games over the past two seasons, recording 64 total tackles and seven passes defended. 

Flood took over as head football coach at Rutgers in 2012 after Greg Schiano moved to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He has kept the program at a steady level in his three seasons, winning at least eight games two times and playing in three bowl games. 

Rutgers will open the 2015 season on September 5 with a home game against Norfolk State. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Which College Football Coaches Are on the Hot Seat Heading into 2015 Season?

The 2015 college football season is almost underway and that means there are some people on the hot seat who need their units to excel on the field. Bleacher Report's college football analysts Barrett Sallee and Adam Kramer discuss how these coaches can get back to bringing the heat to the gridiron.  

Which coach is on the hottest seat? Tell us in the comment section below.  

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Ohio State Football: Depth Chart Analysis, Complete 2015 Preview and Predictions

COLUMBUS, Ohio — What a difference a year makes.

After Braxton Miller went down with a season-ending injury two weeks prior to the start of the 2014 campaign, it was hard to find anything but doom and gloom in Columbus. Coming off of consecutive losses to end the 2013 season, Ohio State had just lost its Heisman Trophy-candidate quarterback and found itself relying on an offense with no shortage of question marks and a defense installing a new scheme after a disappointing end to the previous season.

One year later, Miller is now a wide receiver, his former backups are entrenched in an unprecedented quarterback competition and the Buckeyes are the defending national champions. Bringing back a roster that includes 15 returning starters and an abundance of potential first-round picks on both sides of the ball, there may not be a team in college football history that's been as hyped as this 2015 Ohio State squad, which on Sunday was named the first unanimous preseason No. 1 team in the history of the Associated Press Top 25.

Hype, however, will only take a team so far. Despite all of the certainties this Buckeyes team appears to possess, plenty of question marks still remain.

What follows is a complete guide to Ohio State's 2015 season as the Buckeyes look to keep a stranglehold on the College Football Playoff championship.

 

Coaches

After keeping his original Ohio State staff intact for his first two seasons in Columbus, head coach Urban Meyer finds himself replacing two assistants for the second consecutive year.

Gone are offensive coordinator Tom Herman, now the head coach at Houston, and running backs coach Stan Drayton, now with the Chicago Bears, yet Meyer has managed to keep some semblance of continuity on his staff. The three-time national champion head coach promoted offensive line coach Ed Warinner to run the Buckeyes offense and brought in Tony Alford from Notre Dame to replace Drayton, who took off for the NFL after national signing day.

Another addition to the Buckeyes staff this season comes in the form of Tim Beck, who will take over Herman's role as OSU's quarterbacks coach after having served at Nebraska in the same role. Beck has already hit the ground running in Columbus, as he now finds himself overseeing the most-talked-about quarterback competition in college football between Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett.

"This will be it, there's no question," Beck answered when asked about the biggest quarterback battles he's dealt with in his coaching career. "This magnitude? Not to this level. Both of them have won, both of them are very intelligent, both of them understand the offense, both of them are talented."

Beck, however, won't be making the final call on who starts between Jones and Barrett, as that will fall upon Meyer. But he will be asked to provide input—along with Warinner—in a decision that could very well shape Ohio State's 2015 season.

On the defensive side of the ball, Meyer managed to retain his entire staff, although that might not be easy to do for long. Co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash's quarters coverage scheme helped transform Ohio State's defense into one of the best in the nation and could make him a hot head coaching candidate come 2016.

"I think our defense the last three games was as good as I’ve ever witnessed," Meyer said of the Buckeyes' postseason run.

With Ohio State players now no longer learning, but rather perfecting Ash's scheme, that could very well continue to be the case in 2015. 

 

What to Watch For on Offense

The preseason chatter surrounding the Buckeyes has centered around the team's quarterback conundrum, which includes the reigning Big Ten Quarterback and National Freshman of the Year in Barrett and the winner of all three of Ohio State's postseason games in Jones. Both players possess different playing styles—Barrett is the more efficient passer and is shiftier in the run game while Jones has a stronger arm and is more of a power runner—but have each shown to be proficient in running Meyer's spread offense.

According to Meyer, he won't reveal his starter ahead of the Buckeyes' Sept. 7 opener against Virginia Tech, but ultimately, whether it's Barrett or Jones behind center for the Buckeyes may not matter.

That's because Ohio State just may possess the most potent running attack in the nation, spearheaded by Heisman Trophy front-runner Ezekiel Elliott. The now-junior rushed for 696 yards and eight touchdowns in the Buckeyes' three postseason games in 2014 and should only be better now that the injured wrist that he played through a year ago has fully healed.

"Last year playing with one hand helped me develop my game a little bit differently," Elliott said. "I had to be creative with how to break tackles and how to torque my body different ways. I think last year I was able to develop those ways and this year I can add a little more to my repertoire."

Adding to the promise of Elliott's upcoming campaign is the return of four of five starters from an offensive line that may have been the best in country by the end of the 2014 season. Three-year starter Taylor Decker will serve as the unit's anchor at left tackle, with preseason All-American guard Pat Elflein, guard Billy Price and center Jacoby Boren providing experience inside.

The only new starter comes at right tackle, where fifth-year senior Chase Farris locked down the job during the spring after providing depth for the Buckeyes for the past few years.

Aside from the question of who will start at quarterback, Ohio State's biggest offensive concerns come at wide receiver, where the Buckeyes lost NFL draft picks Devin Smith and Evan Spencer from last season's team. But the Buckeyes return their leader in receptions from a season ago in Michael Thomas, as well as talented H-Backs Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson, the latter two of which will miss the season opener due to suspension, along with wideout Corey Smith.

But between Noah Brown, Curtis Samuel, Johnnie Dixon, Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin and Torrance Gibson, Meyer likes the depth in Ohio State's wide receivers room, which now also includes Miller.

With his shoulder not healed in time to make the Buckeyes' quarterback competition a three-man race, Miller opted to make the move from pass-thrower to pass-catcher earlier this summer. With his freakish athleticism, Miller's new position seems like a natural fit for the 6'2", 215-pounder, although hamstring issues have hampered the two-time Big Ten MVP through his first few weeks of fall camp.

Just how much of an impact Miller will be able to make when the season comes around remains to be seen, but with or without him, Ohio State's offense has the talent to once again be one of the best in the nation. It may just be a matter of how the Buckeyes get the job done and whether it's Barrett or Jones running the show.

 

What to Watch For on Defense

With seven starters returning from a season ago, Ohio State should enjoy plenty of continuity on the defense that Meyer said was one of the best he's ever seen by the end of last year.

The headliner of the group comes in the form of All-American defensive end Joey Bosa, who will also miss the Buckeyes' season opener against Virginia Tech due to suspension.

But once the Buckeyes get Bosa back, their defensive line could be as good as any in recent memory. Not only is Bosa a potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft, but defensive tackle Adolphus Washington also has first-round potential. The OSU staff has also raved about the offseason work of the defensive line's two new starters: defensive end Tyquan Lewis and tackle Tommy Schutt.

"He's really handled himself the right way," Meyer said of Schutt. "He's had a really good camp."

Working in on the line, especially in the absence of Bosa, will be a pair of highly touted second-year players in defensive ends Sam Hubbard and Jalyn Holmes. Michael Hill and Donovan Munger should provide depth at tackle, as should fifth-year senior Joel Hale, who heads back to the defensive side of the ball after spending last season on the offensive line.

After enduring a period of inconsistency upon Meyer's arrival in Columbus in 2012, the Buckeyes linebackers suddenly find themselves a strength on not just the defense, but the entire team. Senior Joshua Perry was a second-team All-Big Ten selection a season ago after racking up 124 tackles, while Darron Lee was the Sugar Bowl MVP and emerged as one of the nation's best players at his position during a breakout freshman campaign.

The key to the Ohio State defense, however, might be middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan, who saw significant snaps playing behind Curtis Grant a year ago, but will now be charged with quarterbacking the "Silver Bullets" all on his own.

"My biggest goal for me is to be the captain of the defense, to be out there when guys can trust me and look at me when we’re in hard times," McMillan said. "That’s one of my goals. One of my goals isn’t to be the best linebacker in the world, it’s together for our defense to be the best in the nation."

Much like the two units in front of it, the Buckeyes secondary possesses plenty of talent and upside. Tyvis Powell is steady and Vonn Bell has the ability to be the best safety in the country, while cornerback Eli Apple came on strong as a redshirt freshman during Ohio State's run to the national title.

The only new starter in the Buckeyes defensive backfield is cornerback Gareon Conley, a redshirt sophomore who arrived at Ohio State as a 4-star prospect in 2013.

Should Conley be able to hold his own on his side of the field while replacing first-team All-Big Ten selection Doran Grant, there's no reason the Buckeyes defense shouldn't be one of the best in the country in 2015.

 

Injury News

Aside from a few minor nicks that have resulted in missed time at practice, Ohio State has been relatively fortunate when it's come to injuries this offseason. Freshman defensive end Dre'Mont Jones arrived with a torn ACL suffered in the spring that will likely result in a medical redshirt, and freshman running back Mike Weber is expected to miss 3-4 weeks due to a torn meniscus suffered in camp.

Upon his return, which should coincide with the start of the Buckeyes' Big Ten schedule, Weber could very well find himself on the field after the former 4-star prospect got off to a strong start in his first fall camp.

"Mikey's doing very well, he's walking without crutches right now. It was a meniscal tear and he had it fixed already," Meyer said. "There's a chance we won't redshirt him. He had a really good camp."

 

X-Factor

There may not be a bigger X-factor in all of the country than Miller, who has the potential to once again transform into one of the nation's most dangerous playmakers. With 3,054 career rushing yards and 32 rushing touchdowns to his credit, the former quarterback has an uncanny ability make defenders miss while taking them on in the open field.

But through the first two weeks of fall camp, Miller's transition to wide receiver remains a work in progress. The increase in his running routine has led to hamstring issues, which have already sidelined Miller for portions of practice.

Nevertheless, Meyer remains optimistic that Miller will be able to make an impact as a wide receiver/H-Back this season, and still thinks that he can wind up being a starter in the Buckeyes' season opener.

"I want him to be," Meyer said when asked about Miller's prospects as a starter at his new position. "He's really developing his routine."

In order to earn that starting spot, Miller will have to continue to get used to life as a wide receiver, which has been somewhat of an adjustment for the lifelong quarterback. But if Miller can put it all together, he'll provide another weapon to an Ohio State offense that will force opposing defenses to pick their poison trying to stop it.

 

2015 Schedule

 

Make-or-Break Games

Just like the past two years, Ohio State's postseason hopes will be determined by its matchup with Michigan State.

But unlike 2014, where the Buckeyes beat the Spartans by a score of 49-37 in East Lansing, Ohio State will have the benefit of home-field advantage when Michigan State comes to town on Nov. 21. That also happens to be the second-to-last week of the regular season, making the Buckeyes-Spartans showdown a likely unofficial Big Ten East Championship Game.

The season opener with the Hokies could also be seen as a cause for concern in Columbus, especially with the game being played at night and under the lights of Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Virginia. Factor in that Virginia Tech was the only team to top Ohio State a season ago and that the Buckeyes will be dealing with suspensions to four key players, and it's certainly understandable why there will be plenty of eyeballs on Ohio State's first game of the year.

But as we learned a year ago, the Buckeyes can survive an early-season loss and still recover in time to make the Big Ten title game—and subsequently, the College Football Playoff. In order to do that, Ohio State will have to once again beat Michigan State, who Meyer holds a 2-1 record against as the Buckeyes head coach.

 

Prediction

It's so hard to go undefeated in a season, especially coming off of a long winning streak—the Buckeyes' currently stands at 13—but looking at Ohio State's schedule, it's hard to see where a loss would come from.

The suspensions for the Virginia Tech game won't help, but that opener has all of the makings of a Meyer revenge game against the only team to beat the Buckeyes in 2014. After that, Michigan State poses the biggest threat to Ohio State making the playoff for a second consecutive year, but it's hard to imagine the Buckeyes losing a game to their new rival that late in the year, especially in Columbus.

The first matchup between Meyer and Jim Harbaugh at Michigan will be interesting, but Ohio State's talent advantage should be enough to push the Buckeyes' winning streak over their primary rival to four consecutive games. Ultimately, there's a reason why Ohio State could be double-digit favorites in every game in the regular season, and it's hard to imagine the Buckeyes not repeating as Big Ten champions against a weaker representative from the West Division.

But as we learned a year ago, the College Football Playoff doesn't necessarily favor the season's best team, but rather its hottest one at the end of the year. That just might not be the Buckeyes this season, despite all of the talent it returns from last year's title team.

Without being able to tell who else would be joining Ohio State in the playoff, however, it's hard to bet against the Buckeyes this season. Meyer has three national titles and two additional undefeated seasons on his resume, but never has he had a year where he accomplished both.

I expect that to change this year, with the Buckeyes running the table and putting together a perfect season en route to capturing their second consecutive College Football Playoff championship.

Overall Record: 15-0

Conference Record: 8-0

 

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.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

4-Star Jared Mayden Solid in Oregon Pledge, Wants to Recruit Others to Ducks

As a player committed to a college, it's never easy to hear about a future college teammate decommitting.

In a little over a week, 4-star cornerback Jared Mayden has seen two potential teammates part ways with the Ducks. On Aug. 16, 4-star wide receiver Theo Howard reopened his recruiting process. On Monday, 4-star cornerback Troy Warner—who many thought would play opposite Mayden—decided to weigh all of his options once again.

Oregon now sits at a dozen commitments, and with Howard's decommitment, Mayden currently is the team's top-ranked recruit. As the nation's No. 11 cornerback, Mayden takes two things specifically from the recent transactions.

No. 1, the Sachse, Texas, standout wants every uncommitted player to make sure a verbal commitment to Oregon is solid.

No. 2, and perhaps more importantly, he wants the Oregon fanbase to know he's not going anywhere.

"I'm pretty solid in my commitment," Mayden said Monday night. "They have nothing to worry about with me."

Mayden's words are huge for a program that lost a top-20 receiver and a top-25 cornerback nationally in Howard and Warner, respectively. Mayden hates for the Ducks to lose commits, but he said he's using the situations as an opportunity to be a lead player recruiter and an ambassador for the 2016 class.

It all starts with what he does on the field and in the classroom. Mayden is preparing for a senior year where he will be a leader on Sachse's defense as a physical shutdown cornerback. Mayden's overall skill set earned him more than 40 offers before ultimately choosing the Ducks while at The Opening last month in Beaverton, Oregon.

Mayden said he isn't targeting anyone in particular at the present time, but he is keeping his eyes open for athletes nationwide who can be major contributors for Oregon in the near future.

"I'm trying to see what recruits are interested and let the coaches know," he said. "If you take your visit, you'll fall in love."

Mayden's mother, Katrina Salles, in July said the family made multiple visits around the country to be sure a final decision remained final. She said Oregon offered a "peace-of-mind element" that involved great relationships with head coach Mark Helfrich, secondary coach John Neal and defensive coordinator Don Pellum.

"For Jared and for us," Salles said in July, "it was all about finding someone who you were equally yoked to, somebody you can be a confidant to and someone who's going to help you grow mentally, physically and spiritually into the next sector of your life.

"We did a lot of traveling and had a lot of conversations with a lot of good coaching staffs to find that right fit for Jared. It was important to him and to us."

Mayden said he was "surprised" but not upset with Howard and Warner's decisions. He understands that with the recruiting process it's all about finding the right fit.

He did, however, have a message for the athletes considering playing for the Ducks—that short list including 5-star safety Brandon Jones and the 4-star trio of cornerback Nigel Knott, tight end/defensive end Devin Asiasi and defensive end Connor Murphy.

That message: Oregon is more than what is portrayed, way more than state-of-the-art uniforms and a trendy, high-octane offense.

"Honestly, I feel that more kids don't commit to Oregon because they fear people will say the only reason that they committed was for the uniforms and gear," Mayden said. "In actuality, we win out the Pac-12 almost every year. We make it [to] and win bowl games. So if they're not scared to make a great leap in a great program, they should not listen to people who only see Oregon for the gear."

Mayden said he is a lock for the Ducks. And along with being a leader for Sachse this season, he also will take it upon himself to be a leader in improving the Oregon 2016 class.

 

Damon Sayles is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand. All player ratings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings. Follow Damon via Twitter: @DamonSayles

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Where Will No. 1 Tight End Isaac Nauta Take His 5th Official Visit?

Top-rated 2016 tight end recruit Isaac Nauta spent eight months committed to Florida State but enters his senior season still searching for the right college fit.

He plans to take all five official visits before making a final decision following a late July decommitment from the Seminoles. Nauta announced four of those campus trips earlier this month, leaving the fifth and final destination undetermined.

It appears the 5-star IMG Academy (Bradenton, Florida) senior is ironing out that detail.

Nauta discussed possibilities with Jeff Sentell of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He identified Alabama, Oregon, Oklahoma State and Ole Miss as programs under strong consideration for a closer look. 

The 6'4", 237-pound prospect is already scheduled to attend four games this season while examining potential collegiate landing spots. Georgia, Michigan, TCU and USC will welcome him during a whirlwind tour.

Nauta, who holds more than 40 scholarship offers, is the No. 1 overall pass target in composite rankings. He's listed 12th overall among high school seniors and dominated this summer at The Opening, an invite-only player showcase held at Nike's world headquarters in Oregon.

His size, athleticism and polished skill set as a receiver set the stage for Nauta to make an instant impact within a college offensive scheme. He could compete for significant snaps as a true freshman and eventually challenge for John Mackey Award consideration if his trajectory remains on track.

Naturally, a number of teams are still vying for his attention. It seems eight schools stand above the rest, with four already locking in official visits and the rest still hoping to separate from a crowded pack of contenders.

Among interested programs, Alabama emerges as a squad that's relatively new to the party. Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban and his staff came on strong during the final stretch of summer.

“Alabama is a school that really didn’t recruit me while I was committed. But since I decommitted they have been all over me," Nauta told Sentell. "[Offensive coordinator Lane] Kiffin hits me up all the time on Twitter so they are definitely a school that is going to be contender for that fifth spot.”

The Crimson Tide carry the components of a dynamic attack in coming years with 5-star 2015 signee Blake Barnett and 4-star 2016 commit Jalen Hurts presenting promise at quarterback. Alabama signed the top-ranked wide receiver and running back last cycle and holds three pledges from premier rushers in its 2016 and 2017 classes.

Nauta would further solidify this group by immediately bolstering an outstanding tight end depth chart in Tuscaloosa. His advanced blocking ability and precise route-running approach make him a candidate to carve out a role at Alabama from his first day of training camp.

Another intriguing opportunity for Nauta is found in Oxford, Mississippi. IMG Academy teammate and 5-star quarterback Shea Patterson pledged to Ole Miss last winter, becoming the face of an impressive Rebels recruiting class that continues to improve.

The Elite 11 MVP would love to add Nauta to a 2016 Ole Miss offensive haul that also includes top in-state wide receiver DeKaylin Metcalf and 4-star running back Justin Connor. Though Nauta and Patterson are playing together for the first time this fall, there's a longstanding relationship between him and the Rebels.

“It's a school where I could come in right away and make an impact. That’s a school that was in my Top 4 when I originally committed," he told Sentell.

The history of mutual interest bodes well for Ole Miss, currently rated seventh nationally in composite class rankings.

Ultimately, we expect another SEC team to enter the equation for Nauta's official visit outlook. Expect Alabama or Ole Miss to claim that final spot, with Patterson potentially providing the Rebels with a pivotal edge.

 

Tyler Donohue is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. All player ratings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings. Follow Tyler via Twitter: @TDsTake.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Georgia Football: Justin Scott-Wesley's Injury Puts Pressure on WR Terry Godwin

"I'm not sure if we'll see Justin for a while, if at all."

Georgia head coach Mark Richt provided a little cryptic foreshadowing on Saturday afternoon on the knee injury that has prevented 5'11", 201-pound senior Justin Scott-Wesley from practicing during the latter stages of fall camp. 

Now the receiver himself has added fuel to the fire, hinting that his playing days might be over.

While there hasn't been any official confirmation on the extent of Scott-Wesley's injury and what his future holds, it's safe to connect some dots and assume that whether he's out for a few games or the season, something's up.

If Scott-Wesley can't go for part or all of the season, that will put enormous pressure on true freshman Terry Godwin.

The 5'11", 174-pounder from Hogansville, Georgia, may seem like a prototypical slot receiver based on his stature, but the former 5-star prospect in the most recent recruiting class has been impressing the coaches during his first fall camp.

"Terry is obviously a terrific playmaker, he’s a guy that’s picked up the system really well, pretty fast," offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said, according to Jason Butt of the Macon Telegraph. "We’re asking him to do quite a bit, moving him around in different spots, which is a compliment to him. He’s been attacking the playbook in the classroom and being able to put it on the field."

That's enormous, because he's going to be a big piece of the Bulldogs' receiving puzzle whether he's ready or not.

Senior Malcolm Mitchell is the only known commodity in the receiving corps. The Valdosta, Georgia, native caught 31 passes for 248 yards and three touchdowns last season, and, when healthy, is a bona fide top-tier receiver. 

The biggest issue for Mitchell, though, is the injury bug. According to John Taylor of CollegeFootballTalk.com, he tore his ACL in the season opener in 2013, sat out spring 2014 with a leg injury suffered in the first practice and had his knee scoped last August, which kept him out of the first month of the season.

Behind him, though, there's slot receiver Isaiah McKenzie (who's back after missing some time with a pulled hamstring this month), juniors Reggie Davis and Kenneth Towns and a few other role players who have limited playing time. Combined, receivers other than Mitchell and Scott-Wesley had a total of 28 catches a year ago for Richt's crew.

Simply put, Godwin needs to be one of the stars right away for the Bulldogs.

He has the most upside of any receiver on the roster, is much more physical than his 174-pound frame suggests and already looks the part of a reliable option for the Bulldogs, as Radi Nabulsi of UGASports.com indicated with this video from practice on Friday.

Wide receivers aren't going to be the focal point of the Georgia offense.

That responsibility falls on the capable shoulders of stud running back Nick Chubb, and tight ends Jeb Blazevich and Jay Rome will certainly help in the passing game up the seam. But outside, somebody has to step up alongside Mitchell and in case the injury bug bites Mitchell yet again.

Godwin isn't that guy yet, but if he becomes that guy and helps put stress on opposing secondaries, it'll take pressure off of Chubb and the eventual winner of the three-man quarterback battle taking place among Faton Bauta, Brice Ramsey and Greyson Lambert.

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports. Statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com

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.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

15 College Football Players Who Will Make Names for Themselves in 2015

While the upcoming college football season looks to have plenty of returning star power, from quarterbacks such as Trevone Boykin and Cody Kessler to defensive greats Joey Bosa and Scooby Wright, new stars are destined to break out this fall.

With the constant turnover of college rosters, rising players are always asked to step up into starting roles. Others who are coming off good debut seasons are looking to take the next step and become household names in 2015.

This season, a pair of college football playoff contenders will turn to established backups with loads of potential at quarterback. Down south, several defensive backs are primed to become breakout stars for their respective powerhouses. Others across the country look to live up to their growing hype out wide or in the trenches.

Here are 15 players who look ready to become stars this college football season based on their projected roles, previous successes on the field and reports from those who have covered them in fall practices.

These athletes aren't completely unknown quantities, but they aren't mentioned in the same breath as those who dot All-American teams—at least not yet.

Begin Slideshow

Tennessee Football Recruiting: Vols 2017 Class off to Hot Start

One day after landing 5-star quarterback Hunter Johnson, Tennessee’s 2017 recruiting class added another major piece when 4-star receiver Tee Higgins announced his commitment to the Vols on Monday.

With two prospects who rate among the nation’s top 50 overall prospects in the 2017 class already bound for Knoxville, Volunteers head coach Butch Jones and his staff are clearly making a splash in the early phases of next year’s cycle.

Considering the Vols had yet to secure a commitment from any rising juniors as of last week, the two newest commits represent a huge surge for Tennessee on the recruiting trail. 

With the dynamic pass-catch duo in the fold, what’s the outlook for the remainder of the Vols 2017 class? 

There’s still a long way to go, but Jones and his staff have a strong foundation to build off with Johnson and Higgins.

Higgins—who represents the top prospect from Tennessee in 2017—chose the Vols over offers from powers such as Alabama, Clemson, Florida State, Georgia, LSU and Ohio State, among others. 

According to Ryan Callahan of GoVols247, Jones was ecstatic when Higgins told him he wanted to commit to the Volunteers. 

“I just felt like it was right,” Higgins told Callahan. “Me and my mom have been talking about it for a while, and I decided I wanted to do it today. I had no clue I was going to do it this early. I just felt like it was time.”

The 2017 flurry hasn’t come out of nowhere. Instead, it’s the continuation of a theme of growing optimism surrounding the future of the Vols program under Jones.

Jones signed the No. 4 class in the nation in February, and the Vols 2016 class is currently sitting at No. 15 in the nation—with plenty of elite prospects who are heavily considering Tennessee left on the board.

If Tennessee finds success on the field this fall, where they are expected to contend for the SEC’s Eastern Division crown, the fruits are likely to be found in future recruiting classes.

As Steve Wiltfong of 247Sports details, Johnson’s pledge is likely to resonate with other top 2017 prospects who have Tennessee high on their respective lists.

Higgins leads a deep in-state crop for 2017, with nationally elite talents such as 4-star athlete Maleik Gray, 4-star running backs Ty Chandler and Cordarrian Richardson and 4-star defensive end Isaiah Stokes among the homegrown standouts that Tennessee is hoping to keep close to home.

With the momentum the Vols are building on the recruiting trail, Jones and his staff have Tennessee primed to land another loaded class in 2017.

 

Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand and all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Steve Sarkisian Will Enter Treatment for Drinking After Salute to Troy Event

USC head football coach Steve Sarkisian once again apologized for his actions at Saturday night's Salute to Troy gathering and announced Tuesday he's seeking treatment in the wake of the incident.  

Brett McMurphy of ESPN.com noted the 41-year-old coach, who's heading into his second season leading the Trojans, isn't sure whether he has a drinking problem: "I don't believe so, but I'm going to find that out. I'm going to treatment."

Sarkisian admitted his actions over the weekend were completely out of line and hopes the treatment can help him avoid similar problems in the future, per McMurphy: "The way I acted was irresponsible. There are things we're going to work on for me, moving forward."

He also provided some further details about the reason for his actions: "The moral of the story is if you mix meds w alcohol, you say things or do things you regret," per Stewart Mandel of Fox Sports on Twitter.

Sarkisian previously apologized for the situation Sunday when reports began to surface of a speech where he slurred words and used profanity, according to Dan Wolken of USA Today. The report notes both the coach and athletic director Pat Haden confirmed they spoke about the situation afterward.

Quarterback Cody Kessler said Sarkisian accepted punishment from the players, doing a series of up-downs, per Mandel. The quarterback believes the situation could actually help the team in the long run, as reported by McMurphy: "He apologized to us as a man. He earned more respect. It brought us closer together as a team. We support him 100 percent."

Sarkisian deserves credit for addressing the situation swiftly and starting the process of getting the consultation he needs to ensure this issue isn't repeated. It should help the team move past the incident so it can focus on the new season.

He didn't say whether he would be forced to miss any coaching duties as a result of the upcoming treatment, and he returned to the practice field to resume business as usual after meeting with the media.

USC is set to open the 2015 campaign against Arkansas State on Sept. 5.

 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Steve Sarkisian Will Enter Treatment for Drinking After Salute to Troy Event

USC head football coach Steve Sarkisian once again apologized for his actions at Saturday night's Salute to Troy gathering and announced Tuesday he's seeking treatment in the wake of the incident...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

Cyrus Fagan Names Leaders: Which Program Is Best Fit for 4-Star DB?

Standout Florida defensive back Cyrus Fagan is focused on a pair of college football programs that contend for championships on a perennial basis.

The 4-star safety identified Alabama and Florida State as front-runners for his commitment during a discussion with Ryan Bartow of 247Sports. His decision, however, won't arrive for at least another 16 months.

Fagan, a junior at Mainland High School in Daytona Beach, doesn't intend to announce collegiate plans until after the 2017 Under Armour All-American Game. This approach allots him two full football seasons to weigh a list of scholarship options that includes more than 20 universities.

The 6'0", 170-pound prospect picked up offers from the Seminoles, South Carolina, Clemson, West Virginia, USC and Wisconsin last winter. Alabama entered the race shortly after his sophomore year.

Fagan, rated fifth nationally among safeties in 2017 composite rankings, collected 83 tackles and five interceptions in 2014. He also tallied three touchdowns for the Sunshine State powerhouse.

The Seminoles have been an outright favorite in this recruitment for quite some time. It was a school he eyed earlier in this process, even prior to a Florida State offer. 

"I like them a lot and that's where my mom wants me to go," Fagan told Chris Hays of the Orlando Sentinel in January.

His affinity for Florida State continues to develop, as the Seminoles have been a publicly declared leader for months.

“It’s right down the road from the home, great program, I like how Jimbo [Fisher] coaches, and I grew up loving them," he told Luke Stampini of 247Sports this summer.

Former high school teammate A.J. Westbrook is a freshman defensive back at Florida State. The duo dominated together at Mainland and could reconnect in Tallahassee.

"He's like a big brother to me and he took me to a couple of FSU games with him so I can get that experience early," Fagan told Hays.

He expects to visit the Seminoles at least once this season. Fagan aims to attend Florida State's Oct. 17 game against Louisville, per Bartow.

Florida State enjoys significant depth in the defensive backfield, highlighted by 5-star 2015 signees Derwin James and Tarvarus McFadden. The Seminoles claim commitments from several secondary standouts in the 2016 cycle, including top-ranked cornerback Levonta Taylor.

Fagan would also encounter a crowded depth chart in Tuscaloosa after Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban signed eight 4- or 5-star defensive backs during the past two cycles. Alabama already holds six commitments in its 2017 class, which sits atop SEC class rankings.

Alabama extended a scholarship in late May and immediately captured Fagan's attention. He traveled to the university this summer for a camp and told Bartow the school is his second option behind Florida State.

"It's just wonderful there," Fagan said. "It's all about Alabama. It is a football state."

If Fagan lands in the SEC, Alabama appears to be the likely destination. Expect Crimson Tide conference rivals Florida and LSU to continue chasing the coveted safety.

Fagan, who rates 75th overall in 2017 composite rankings, firmly looks like a Florida State lean at this stage. The Seminoles present an outstanding match when it comes to defensive schematics and program familiarity.

Seemingly destined for a lengthy recruiting process, Fagan may factor in other emerging contenders moving forward. For now, Florida State is the prohibitive favorite and an excellent fit for the in-state ball hawk.

 

Tyler Donohue is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. All player ratings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings. Follow Tyler via Twitter: @TDsTake.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Urban Meyer's Secret Weapon

COLUMBUS, Ohio — With a combined 38-3 record in the three seasons since he arrived at Ohio State, Urban Meyer has the Buckeyes sitting atop the college football world. And as his team enters the 2015 season as the first-ever unanimous preseason No. 1 team in the Associated Press Top 25, that's not something that figures to be changing for Ohio State anytime soon.

But while Meyer serves as the face of the Buckeyes program—and to a degree, college football—the three-time national champion head coach credits a large portion of his success to a confidant, friend and right-hand man whom he's known for nearly 30 years. 

And while Mickey Marotti is rarely seen or heard from publicly, the stories about him have already become the stuff of legend in Columbus. That's why he was the first call Meyer made when he took the Ohio State job nearly four years ago, as Marotti has become the secret weapon for college football's budding dynasty.

 

"That’s When It Happened"

When Jalyn Holmes committed to Ohio State in the summer of 2013, he was the embodiment of what Meyer looks for in a recruit.

A 4-star prospect by way of Norfolk, Virginia, Holmes was a top-100 recruit and the fourth-ranked weak-side defensive end in the 2014 class. At 6'5" and 225 pounds, Holmes possessed the ideal frame for adding weight and was lauded for his size, speed and athleticism as a prep player.

One trait, however, missing from Holmes' recruiting profile was his punctuality—or more accurately, his lack thereof—which he would soon learn wouldn't fly at his new school upon arriving in Columbus.

"I came late, and right off the plane I went straight to workouts," Holmes told Bleacher Report of his first day as a college student. "And that’s when it happened."

What Holmes was referring to was an event that has become somewhat of a rite of passage for Ohio State players in the Meyer era. Because like most players who have entered the Buckeyes program in the past four years, Holmes' first workout under the direction of Marotti was certainly a memorable one—and for all the wrong reasons.

"We had to do lunges with weight I could not lift. I looked at him like, 'No, I can’t lift it,' and he made me do it, and I’m like falling on the ground," Holmes said. "And he’s like, 'You p----!'"

"I had never been called a p---- before. For a minute, I thought I was a p----."

 

"He Does It All"

Talk to any player on the Buckeyes roster, and they'll undoubtedly have a favorite Marotti story, from the still-shell-shocked freshmen to the seniors who can now manage to crack a smile while recounting them.

But perhaps nobody has more Marotti stories—anywhere—than Meyer.

With a relationship nearly 30 years in the making, Meyer has treated Marotti as his confidant, strength coach, psychiatrist and right-hand man—sometimes all at the same time. He has also made it clear that Marotti has earned every bit of his official title as Ohio State's Assistant AD of Football Sport Performance, describing his role in the Buckeyes program as more than just that of a traditional strength and conditioning coach.

"He’s not a strength coach, he does it all," Meyer said of Marotti. "Anybody who has their hands on our players, not necessarily reports to him, but they have a meeting. The trainers, the doctors, the nutritionists, the equipment guys, everybody reports to Coach Mick...he’s not just a strength coach, he’s a motivator. And he’s tremendous."

Meyer and Marotti first met in 1987, although the two were hardly best friends at the time. Each trying to launch his respective career at Ohio State, Meyer was the Buckeyes' wide receivers coach under Earle Bruce, while Marotti was serving as a graduate assistant strength coach.

"We were not close," Meyer said.

Any sort of relationship that was formed, however, would seem to have been short-lived, as Bruce's firing at the end of the 1987 season left Meyer looking for a new job before ultimately landing at Illinois State before rejoining Bruce at Colorado State in 1990.

Marotti, too, would soon find a new gig, taking over as the head strength and conditioning coach at the University of Cincinnati, following a brief stint as a strength assistant at West Virginia.

Soon, word of Marotti's intense workouts spread across the country.

Meyer, a former Bearcats defensive back, took note.

"I first started hearing about him when he was at Cincinnati. I’m an alum," Meyer said. "I would go down there, and I would just watch him."

Meyer, who took over as Notre Dame's wide receivers coach in 1996, was so impressed that he soon found himself vouching for his former co-worker. When the Fighting Irish were in need of a new director of strength and conditioning in 1998, Meyer went to his boss with a suggestion, imploring him to interview Marotti, who had just finished his ninth year at Cincinnati.

"One of our strength positions opened up, and I went to our head coach, Bob Davie, and I said, 'I know the guy we need to hire,'" Meyer recalled. "He came up to interview, and he blew it away and became our strength coach and made an immediate impact.

"And that’s where it started.”

 

Kicking and Screaming

When you get a Marotti story from a player, it usually follows the same formula: There's some profanity, a moment of weakness, more profanity, sometimes some humor and then an uplifting moment.

That was the case with Holmes, who, despite his first encounter with Marotti, soon saw the value in his new strength coach.

"Coach Mick really cares about everyone in this program, he just wants to see you do good," Holmes said. "If he feels like you’re not giving it your all, he’s going to let you know. He’s the most honest person I know. I thank him for everything."

Those were the same sentiments shared by Buckeyes quarterback Cardale Jones, who when asked to share his favorite Coach Marotti story responded with: "Do you want a good one or a bad one?"

When prompted for the latter, Jones recalled a tale from the first season of his college career, which happened to coincide with Meyer and Marotti's arrival at Ohio State.

"I hurt my knee in a drill going against Braxton [Miller]. I don’t know why they had me going against Braxton, no clue. I still won’t understand it to this day," Jones said, referring to the difference in speed between himself and the Buckeyes' quarterback-turned-wideout.

"[Marotti's] screaming at me, 'Get up!' ... All he knew was I didn’t play last year. So he was just screaming at me to get up, and I’m thinking I just broke my leg and I was so freaking hurt I was about to cry, and he’s just screaming at me, ‘Get up! You’re soft! You’re soft!’ And I’m like, 'I can’t move!'"

For Jones, who spent his share of time in Meyer's doghouse early in his career, perhaps it took a little longer to come around on Marotti. But when the 6'5", 250-pounder found himself thrust into the starting lineup as the Buckeyes were on the verge of capturing a College Football Playoff spot at the end of the 2014 season, it was Marotti who served as one of his biggest cheerleaders.

"He’s just so intense, and it’s crazy how much potential he sees in us," Jones said. "Basically saying, 'Do what you came here for. Be yourself. We believe in you, we have trust in you, so be you.'"

Jones did just that, leading Ohio State to a Big Ten title game win over Wisconsin, before defeating Alabama and Oregon en route to capturing the first-ever CFP National Championship.

With that, Meyer captured his third national championship as a head coach, each of which has come with Marotti on his sideline.

 

"The First Phone Call I Made"

Despite having known each other for nearly 30 years, Meyer can't recall a specific moment where Marotti earned his trust.

What he can do, however, is point to a two-game stretch where Marotti vindicated his belief that he is the best strength coach in college football, which occurred during their second national title run together in 2008.

Coaching a Florida team that had rebounded from an early-season loss to Ole Miss, Meyer had the Tim Tebow-led Gators on the verge of clinching what would be the Gators' second national title in three seasons. All it would take would be a win over Nick Saban and No. 1-ranked Alabama in the SEC title game, before facing Oklahoma and Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford in the BCS National Championship Game.

In essence, fourth-ranked Florida was taking part in a playoff six years before the official format came into existence.

And just like they would do in 2014, Meyer and Marotti came out on top.

Despite trailing the Crimson Tide heading into the fourth quarter, the Gators pulled out a 31-20 victory in the SEC title game, thanks in large part to a go-ahead one-yard rushing touchdown by running back Jeff Demps in the fourth quarter. A similar script would play out against the Sooners in Miami, with Florida scoring a 24-14 victory to capture the national title.

When Meyer looks back on those crucial consecutive games, it's Marotti's work that stands out the most.

"At one point we were behind in both games, and it was line-of-scrimmage games, and that's how you evaluate your strength coaches," Meyer said. "Injury No. 1—is it a healthy, fresh team? And then how's the line of scrimmage?"

The answer to those questions were self-evident, just as they were in 2006 when Florida captured its first national title under Meyer and Marotti's direction with a dominating defensive performance against Ohio State in the BCS title game.

Two years prior, the two had been reunited, their time in South Bend having come to an end after three seasons when Meyer left to take over as the head coach of Bowling Green and then Utah, programs that didn't possess enough prestige or big enough budgets to also hire away Notre Dame's strength and conditioning coach.

That changed when Meyer accepted the head coaching job in Gainesville in 2005, giving him an SEC platform to place a call to his old buddy.

"He was the first phone call I made at Florida when I was leaving Utah to go to Florida," Meyer said. "And he was the first call I made when I came here."

 

"Forged in Iron"

Although Marotti was crucial to the Gators success, he didn't seem to publicly receive the same praise that he has for helping Meyer turn around Ohio State upon their arrival in Columbus in 2012. Perhaps that's because rebuilding the Buckeyes required a more significant undertaking, as Ohio State dealt with sanctions stemming from NCAA violations committed by former coach Jim Tressel and members of the Buckeyes' 2010 team.

Getting their new team to buy into a new regime would require breaking old habits, something Ohio State players learned the hard way.

"Our first year here, our coaches kind of didn’t like us," Jones said. "They were establishing a new culture here."

Especially in the offseason, that meant plenty of work for Marotti, who routinely butted heads with established team leaders. Such was the case when then-senior fullback/linebacker Zach Boren chose to stand up to the new staff in the midst of a particularly tough 5 a.m. workout.

"Zach was yelling, 'You will not break us!'" Buckeyes defensive tackle Adolphus Washington recalled. "And Coach Mick was like, 'Oh yes we will!'"

Despite enduring its fair share of growing pains—and plenty of games that were too close for comfort—that 2012 Ohio State squad came together, putting together a perfect 12-0 record before sitting out the postseason due to the NCAA sanctions. Meyer, however, wasn't always optimistic that his debut season in Columbus would work out that way, which perhaps marked the first time he had overlooked his strength coach.

"I saw guys punking out at practice during training camp, I didn’t feel it at all. I said we’re gonna be 8-4, stay positive, we’re on a journey and not a sprint," Meyer said of 2012. "I undervalued the critical leadership. I give Mickey credit. Because it happened. That team by the end of the year was very good. That team at the beginning of the year was really bad, something happened along that journey, and Mickey was really involved in that.”

"Very involved" is a phrase that seems to go hand in hand with Ohio State and Marotti, whose fingerprints are all over the Buckeyes program. That's especially true in the offseason, where NCAA rules limit the contact coaches have with players, making the strength coach the de facto head man.

That means that from the end of spring practice until the start of fall camp, it's Marotti who's in charge—which can be either good or bad, depending on where you're standing.

"If you’re in the front two rows, you’re gonna get spit on. He does that all the time," left tackle Taylor Decker said of Marotti's yelling habits. "We’re there laying underneath him and just getting rained on—and he knows it."

But with a track record that speaks for itself, it's a small price to pay. Besides, it's not like the Buckeyes really have a choice in the matter. 

"Coach Mick is basically Coach Meyer when Coach Meyer's not around," linebacker Joshua Perry said. "He handles a lot of stuff, he's with us all the time, he gets to know the players really well. Everything he does with us is imperative to our success. He takes care of so much stuff."

And as was the case when he first exchanged unpleasantries with Holmes last summer, there always seems to be a method to his madness. Perhaps that's what appeals most to Meyer, who has found a steadying hand in what's been an unpredictable navigation through the college football landscape.

But regardless of how many reasons he has for it, Meyer's admiration for Marotti is apparent in the way he speaks of his "right-hand man."

"That one’s forged in iron. That one—he understands his value, and he’s earned the respect he has," Meyer said of his relationship with Marotti. "He's the best."

 

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.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Pages