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USC Football: Practice Philosophy Sets Tone for Sarkisian Era

USC opened its 2014 fall camp Monday with a new take on past Trojans traditions. "It reminded me of back in the day, coming out here as a kid," linebacker Hayes Pullard told Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times ...

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Michigan Football: 5 Best QBs Wolverines Will Face in 2014

Michigan will spend a lot of time devising game plans for its quarterback Devin Gardner. 

Conversely, the Wolverines will also clock several hours developing strategies to combat opposing signal-callers. 

With a schedule that features road tests at Michigan State and Ohio State, Team 135 will not only face two of the Big Ten's best, but they'll square off against two of the country's best: The Buckeyes' Braxton Miller is considered one of the game's most athletic, while Connor Cook, the Spartans' Rose Bowl MVP, has been name-dropped in Heisman chatter (h/t Tom Dienhart of BTN.com). 

Of course, Connor and Miller aren't the only ones that Greg Mattison's defense must defend against. Notre Dame and Penn State also have talented signal-callers who could pose problems come game day. 

This slideshow will highlight, analyze and rank the five best arms that the Wolverines will battle in 2014. 

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Michigan Football: Team Hungry to Succeed After Offseason Changes

Michigan flamed out at the end of last season, dropping five out of its last six games to finish a mediocre 7-6. That isn’t what Michigan fans expected from Brady Hoke. The disappointing record drove Hoke to hire a new offensive coordinator and reshuffle his defensive staff.

The changes have transformed a team that was dispirited and broken after last season into a group eager to face a difficult road schedule that sends the Wolverines to play at Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State.

“The temperament of the team is different,” said defensive back Blake Countess. “The team is hungry, this is the hungriest I’ve seen a team since I’ve been here.”

The defensive changes spurred intense competition during spring practice, and even Countess, an All-Big Ten first-team selection last season (six interceptions, 46 tackles, one interception return for a touchdown) felt pressure to earn his position every day in practice.

Countess specifically mentioned both Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling as players who’ve made tremendous strides this spring.

“Those guys came in as freshmen last year running around with their heads on fire. Both guys had tremendous talent but didn’t understand what they were being asked to do last season.”

Countess’ work has paid off, earning him the right to wear the No. 2 jersey made famous by Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson. The jersey does not currently carry a legends designation but that’s just a formality delayed by Woodson’s NFL career. It’s still an incredible honor for a player lining up in the Michigan defensive backfield.

“It’s been a goal of mine since I committed,” said Countess. “I look up to guys like Charles Woodson and Deion Sanders, and they both wore No. 2 in college.”

Top defensive recruit Jabrill Peppers, who has said he hopes to be better than Woodson, will have to wait for the number—Countess has two seasons of eligibility remaining.

Michigan needs its defense to be stout—especially early in the season while its offense gets on track, adjusting to a new scheme and integrating new players on the offensive line and at wide receiver.

Could Michigan be poised for another surprise run like its 2011 campaign in which it won 11 games?

For that to happen, the team’s newfound hunger needs to translate into a lockdown defense, and Countess will need to earn the No. 2 jersey on every play.


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

All season statistics from mgoblue.com, official University of Michigan athletic department web site.

Follow @PSCallihan

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Georgia Football 2014: Preview and Prediction

The Georgia Bulldogs' 2013 season was derailed by injuries to several critical players. In 2014, Mark Richt's squad hopes to bounce back.

Do the Bulldogs have what it takes to contend in the SEC?

Watch to see what the Bleacher Report experts think about Georgia's team this season.

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10 Most NFL-Ready Players in the ACC

The 2014 college football season hasn't quite started yet, so it's only logical that we take a look at what will be coming at least one season from now.  That's right, the 2015 NFL draft is sooner than you'd think and farther away than you'd like.

The ACC is full of NFL-caliber talent on both sides of the ball as seen by Florida State's run to the national title last year, but there's elite talent outside of Tallahassee as well.  

The players listed here will be eligible for next year's draft and have polished their games enough to make immediate impacts at the next level as well as have the potential to further develop into game changers.  Look for these names to rise on mock draft boards as the season progresses.

From Miami to the Carolinas to newcomer Louisville, here are the 10 most NFL-ready players in the ACC.

 

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LSU Football: 5 Best QBs Tigers Will Face in 2014

The SEC in 2013 will be remembered as "The Year of the Quarterback." 

Georgia's Aaron Murray, Alabama's A.J. McCarron, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, LSU's Zach Mettenberger and Missouri's James Franklin were all phenomenal last season. All five of those sharp gunslingers have now moved on to the NFL. 

But that does not mean the conference will be weak at the game's most important position in 2014. LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis knows there is talent returning under center and will need to have his defense prepared. 

LSU's pass defense was not as dominant in 2013 as in years past. The Tigers accumulated 18 interceptions in 2011 and 2012, but only had 11 last season. They allowed over 229 yards per game against conference opponents, which is the worst mark in the Chavis era by nearly 10 yards.

The group should be improved as sophomore cornerbacks Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson are projected to be stars. If they perform at a high level, expect the secondary to be dominant yet again.

Here are the top five quarterbacks LSU will have to defend next season. 

 

*Rankings and stats provided by cfbstats.com, sports-reference.com and 247Sports.com

  

Begin Slideshow

Ohio State Football: Will Back-to-Back Losses Help or Haunt Buckeyes in 2014?

When the Ohio State football team reported for fall camp on Monday, head coach Urban Meyer gathered his players at midfield and addressed the Buckeyes' disastrous finish to the 2013 season with two simple questions.

"The past?" Meyer asked, according to Bleacher Report's Ben Axelrod. "Who gives a s--t?"

The memories of devastating back-to-back losses should be fresh in the mind of every Buckeyes player. Just nine short months ago, Ohio State was one victory away from punching its ticket to Pasadena, California, for a spot in the national title game. 

Michigan State dashed those hopes with a 34-24 upset win in the Big Ten Championship Game. A month later, the Buckeyes were pushed further down their road of despair with a 40-35 loss to Clemson in the Orange Bowl.

Those losses came on the heels of a historic win streak. With Meyer at the helm, Ohio State had won a school-record 24 consecutive games before running into the Spartans in Indianapolis. 

Will the Buckeyes bounce back this season?

 

Embracing A Fresh Start

Following Ohio State's loss to Clemson, Meyer spoke bluntly about the pain of coming up short.

"It's going to sting for a while, probably a long while because we didn't finish," Meyer said, according to Steven Wine of The New York Times. "It was right there."

Falling short of a national title can create aftershocks that effect the following season. Ohio State experienced that firsthand in 2007 after its devastating 41-14 loss to Florida in the title game.

Searching for ways to get past the crippling defeat and focus his team for the upcoming season, then-head coach Jim Tressel tried to morph disappointment into motivation. He changed the door code to Ohio State's workout facilities to "4114" to serve as a daily reminder for his Buckeyes squad.

That strategy seemed to be working. Despite a November hiccup against Illinois, the Buckeyes worked their way back to the national title game—this time against LSU.

The memories of their implosion against the Gators hadn't faded, though. Instead of fueling the Buckeyes, it rattled them. They fell to the Tigers in convincing fashion.

"We feel like we're a lot better than what we played tonight," safety Anderson Russell said, according to The Associated Press (via CSTV.com). "I'm not really sure what it was, if we were nervous or what."

"We should have learned from our mistakes," defensive end Vernon Gholston added. "Came back here, kind of almost had the same results, so the blame's on us."

Meyer is trying to steer his team away from a similar fate.

 

Finding the Fuel

Meyer's best teams were angry about something.

In January of 2007, it was Meyer coaching the angry Gators that bulldozed Ohio State in the national championship. He came to Columbus with the mission of installing that same attitude, and in year one, it worked.

The Buckeyes were coming off a 6-7 campaign when Meyer took over in 2012. On the first day of fall camp, he laid the ground work.

"You're the Ohio State Buckeyes," Meyer said in a speech to his team, televised by ESPN. "You're an angry football team, and you've got an angry staff. You've got a bunch of guys who are getting ready to start a journey. You're a hungry football team, and I'm proud to be your coach."

That team went on to record just the sixth undefeated season in school history, but because of a bowl ban, the Buckeyes were shut out of postseason play.

The 2013 Ohio State team picked up right where the 2012 squad left off, but it all fell apart once postseason play arrived. Since then, the coaching staff has been trying to find the right way to motivate their team.

According to Doug Lesmerises of The Plain DealerMeyer's last message to his team after the Orange Bowl was short and sweet.  

"Harness this feeling and use it to your advantage.”

At Big Ten media days last week, Meyer's message evolved.

"Every coach's dream is to coach a hungry, angry team," Meyer said, according to Patrick Maks of Eleven Warriors

But how does a team use its past failures as motivation without having a crippling effect?

Meyer and the Buckeyes are searching for that balance now.

 

David Regimbal covers Ohio State football for Bleacher Report. 
Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412

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Alabama Football 2014: Complete Preview of Crimson Tide Offense

The Alabama Crimson Tide offense is in a state of transition after the departure of four-year starting quarterback AJ McCarron.

How will running back T.J. Yeldon and the Tide offense fare with a new signal-caller?

Watch as Bleacher Report's experts break down Alabama's chances this season.

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How Clemson's Dabo Swinney Can Quiet South Carolina's Steve Spurrier

Back and forth. Back and forth. It is seemingly unending, fueled only by ego and the value of a good one-liner.

Over the last five years, Dabo Swinney and Steve Spurrier have developed one of the best rivalries in college football, fueled by constantly wagging tongues on and off the field.

Sometimes Spurrier, South Carolina’s acid-tongued head coach, starts the barb volley.
Sometimes Swinney, Clemson’s confident head coach, just can’t help himself.

Last month, Swinney started the latest round by telling reporters at ACC media days of Spurrier, per USA Today Sports, that “He's from Pluto and I’m from Mars.”

Spurrier countered, per ESPN's Brett McMurphy: “Dabo still thinks there are nine planets out there.”

And so it goes, back and forth. Spurrier always seemingly has the last laugh, which is exactly how the rivalry has unfolded on the field over the last five seasons. After beating South Carolina in what would be his final game as Clemson’s interim head coach in 2008, Swinney has gone 0-5 against the Gamecocks, the longest streak of futility against USC in the teams’ 111-game rivalry.

Until the Tigers break through on the field, Swinney can’t do a thing about Spurrier’s mouth.

So how does Swinney quiet Spurrier? Just win, baby. To do so, the Tigers must improve in a number of areas across the board. Here’s a look at exactly what that entails.

There’s no questioning how important beating South Carolina is to Clemson.

Swinney’s staff has long had a countdown clock in Memorial Stadium’s WestZone that ticks down each week towards that particular week’s opponent—standard college football decor.

This winter, however, Clemson coaches installed a countdown clock that ticks towards the South Carolina game, set for Nov. 29 in Memorial Stadium. Swinney said at ACC media days that the clock was the coaching staff’s idea, per ASAP Sports.

[W]e have a countdown clock for always the next opponent, and the coaches wanted to put one in for that particular game, and it's really just based on the fact that when you walk in our team room every day and you look at our team goals, we've hit every team goal on there in the past five years with the exception of winning our state championship.  So it's obviously something we've got to‑‑ it's a high priority.  We want to get it done.

How does that happen? First thing's first: Control the ball.

Over the last three years, Clemson has scored almost at will against most opponents while employing Chad Morris’ hurry-up, no-huddle offense. In the last two seasons, the Tigers are one of five FBS teams to average over 40 points and 500 yards of total offense per game.

But they haven’t solved South Carolina’s defense. In three meetings, Morris’ Clemson offenses are averaging 15.3 points per game and haven’t held the ball longer than 22 minutes and 43 seconds in any of the three games.

There’s hope this fall, as the Gamecocks are retooling a defense that yielded 20.3 points per game last fall, No. 12 nationally. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is in Houston as the No. 1 overall  NFL draft pick, and defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles (9.5 sacks a year ago) is gone, too. South Carolina’s secondary has questions, with senior corner/safety Brison Williams the only returning starter.

That said, Clemson’s offense has questions, too. The Tigers are replacing the ACC’s all-time passing touchdowns leader and No. 2 all-time passer (quarterback Tajh Boyd), their all-time receptions and receiving yards leader (top-five NFL draft pick Sammy Watkins), a 1,000-yard rusher in Rod McDowell and another NFL draft pick in deep-threat receiver Martavis Bryant.

Swinney and Co. have expressed confidence in upperclassmen Adam Humphries and Charone Peake and talented sophomore Mike Williams, as well as a trio of highly touted early enrollee freshmen in Demarre Kitt, Kyrin Priester and Artavis Scott.

Senior quarterback Cole Stoudt, Boyd’s backup the past three seasons, has the respect of his teammates, and Swinney told ASAP Sports: “[W]e couldn’t have a guy more prepared to be the starter in the first game (against Georgia) than Cole Stoudt.”

But he must prove it on the field and hold off talented freshman Deshaun Watson, who threw for more than 13,000 yards and passed for more than 4,000 in his Georgia prep career. And while three offensive linemen return from a year ago, a backfield by committee must find bigger holes behind them.

The Tigers must also take better care of the ball. Over the last three seasons, South Carolina owns a 9-1 turnover margin against Clemson, including last season, when the Tigers coughed the ball up six times in Columbia in a 31-17 defeat.

The game was tied at 17 entering the fourth quarter, but the Tigers’ final three drives ended in turnovers as the Gamecocks outscored them 14-0 to win the game.

This fall, Clemson’s offense might need some more slack, but its defense is ready to carry its share of the load.

Defensive coordinator Brent Venables returns seven starters from a unit that held opponents to 22.2 points per game (No. 24 nationally) and ranked No. 1 nationally in tackles for loss per game, No. 5 in third-down conversion percentage and No. 13 in sacks per game.

The entire defensive line two-deep returns, led by senior All-America defensive end Vic Beasley. Senior middle linebacker Stephone Anthony is a nasty anchor for the linebacker corps, and the secondary should be just fine despite losing two starters, thanks to the likely emergence of redshirt freshman cornerback Mackensie Alexander, a star in waiting.

If Clemson’s defense can keep South Carolina’s offense off the field (something that didn’t happen much the past three seasons) and open up some opportunities for the Tigers offense, Swinney and Co. stand a good chance at quieting Spurrier.

Well, at least for a little while.

And you’d better believe that would mean plenty to the Tigers program.

“That's certainly something that has really been a painful part of our program for the last five years,” Swinney said, per ASAP Sports. “From an in‑state standpoint but also nationally.”

 

Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace

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Georgia Football: Meet Amarlo Herrera, the Dawgs' Most Underrated Star

For a guy who's done so much, Georgia Bulldogs linebacker Amarlo Herrera sure is forgettable.  At least that was the message this summer.

The rising senior's 30 career starts at linebacker, 219 tackles and a slew of other impressive statistics haven't merited much attention this preseason.  

At SEC media days last month, fellow Georgia inside linebacker Ramik Wilson garnered first-team All-SEC honors; Herrera did not.  Jordan Jenkins, an outside linebacker for the Dawgs, came in with the second team; Herrera did not.  College football guru Phil Steele placed another Bulldog linebacker, Leonard Floyd, on the third team of his preseason All-American team.  Noticeably absent was Herrera.

While it's strange in and of itself for the senior leader of such a strong position group to be altogether shunned of recognition while the rest of the unit racks up accolades, the oddity is further confounded by Herrera's tenured history of production.  The statistics tell part of the story and the numbers don't lie, but the man has been a beast ever since he arrived in Athens in 2011.

As a true freshman and relatively unheralded member of Georgia's "Dream Team" recruiting class, Herrera immediately asserted himself into the Bulldogs lineup.  He didn't start in the 2011 season opener against Boise State, but he played and performed well enough to move into the starting lineup by the second week.  He went on to start eight games as a true freshman.

By 2012, he was a staple of one of the nation's most talented defenses.  He never became a full-time starter, but he played in all 14 contests and finished fifth on the team in total tackles.  The four players ahead of him—Alec Ogletree, Shawn Williams, Jarvis Jones and Bacarri Rambo—are now entering their second NFL season.  Even on a team laced with professional talent, Herrera earned his keep.

Last season, when the defense seemed to crumble around him, Herrera remained a rock.  While racking up 112 total tackles (second in the SEC only to teammate Wilson), Herrera proved invaluable in stopping the run and demonstrated a knack for big plays.  None was bigger than his forced fumble in the second half of the South Carolina game, which halted a Gamecock drive at the Georgia 34-yard line with the score tied.

With such an impressive three-year career, the lack of outside respect is bothersome—except to Herrera, who uses the non-mentions as motivation.  When addressing the subject to Radi Nabulsi of 11alive.com, Herrera made it clear that he takes note of media votes and distinctions but is much more focused on improving as a football player:

I didn't care but I felt disrespected. I felt disrespected about the way I played over all the years and just being left off the list. The list doesn't mean anything; it is just their opinion. And me being left off, I really felt disrespected. I'm going to do what I've done every year, get better and better. I'm playing better every year. Specifically I'm working on better footwork, better technique, just [being] a better football player this year.

Other stars on the Georgia defense are expecting the same old, ever-improving Herrera on the field. Jenkins confessed to Marc Weiszer of the Athens Banner-Herald that he didn't know why Herrera wasn't receiving preseason accolades, adding, "I feel like that's only going to make him so much better because he's going to play with a chip on his shoulder."

That chip combined with an extensive knowledge of Georgia's personnel and schemes, could render Herrera the best player on the defensive side of the ball by season's end.  But that might not be anything new.

Last year, it was Herrera who was named Defensive Player of the Year for the Bulldogs despite Wilson's first-team All-SEC validation.  Georgia head coach Mark Richt explained Herrera's merits thusly to Seth Emerson of Macon's Telegraph:

Ramik obviously had more tackles, and Ramik statistically had a better year. Not by a lot, but I think that’s part of the reason why Ramik was first team All-SEC. Amarlo is the signal caller, and he has a lot of responsibility to get guys lined up and communicate a lot of things. He led well, so that’s part of it, too. Because of Amarlo’s extra responsibilities and the way he played and the way he led in the summer, that was a big part of it, as well.

Those close to the Georgia program know Herrera's value, and that's as good of a testimony to his play as any.

For this Georgia defense to be successful, the front seven must be dominant.  The secondary is still very much a work in progress under the new defensive coordinator, but with the aforementioned host of talented linebackers and a collection of returning linemen, the strength for this defense will be up front.

Look for Herrera once again to serve as the proverbial point guard of the Bulldog defense.  He'll rack up tackles, break up passes and hopefully improve in pass coverage (a skill he emphasized specifically to Nabulsi).  But much of Herrera's most valuable work will be done before the ball is even snapped.  As Georgia rolls out varying defensive packages under Jeremy Pruitt, Herrera and his extensive knowledge and wealth of experience will come into play as he directs traffic from his middle linebacker spot.

Expect a huge season out of this underrated star—even if no one else notices.

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand and all statistics courtesy of Sports-Reference.com.

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Florida Football: What Gators Must Do to Reach 2014 SEC Championship

It’s become quite clear that the Florida Gators expect a major turnaround after last season’s 4-8 disaster. From their overwhelming confidence during SEC media days to the way some of the fans boast in the comment section, Florida clearly doesn’t have the mindset of a team coming off its worst season in decades.

Players are also tired of talking about the improvement that’s going to be made and are ready to let their actions speak for themselves, according to Thomas Goldkamp of 247Sports.

"I really don't like to talk about what we're going to do," Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III said, "I just want to get out there and show it."

Last season, the SEC witnessed the Auburn Tigers go from worst to first in one season, winning the conference championship and coming within seconds of being crowned national champions. With the way Florida is talking, that magical turnaround has certainly popped up once or twice throughout conversations with the team.

What would the Gators have to do in order to shock the college football world and reach the SEC Championship Game?

The turnaround is quite simple and doesn’t require any magic to pull off. Get the offense to at least a respectable level. Sounds easy enough, right?

Brian Leigh of Bleacher Report brought this up in a recent article where he gave Florida a shot to compete for the conference title:

If Roper and Driskel can fix last year's offense, why shouldn't Florida contend for an SEC championship? It doesn't need to be great on that side of the ball; something in the national top 40 would do. With all the talent that returns on defense—a group highlighted by linebacker Dante Fowler and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III—and Muschamp and D.J. Durkin on the sideline, you know the Gators will make it hard for opponents to score. Plus, the SEC East is always up for grabs.

However, a top-40 offense is even asking too much for Florida to compete at the highest level.

Last season, Michigan State finished 13-1 with the second-best defense in the country and an offense that ranked 81st. Some thought the Spartans were good enough to play for a national championship. They had a defense that played at an elite level and an offense that wasn’t always pretty but scored when it needed to most.

As for the Gators, they had the eighth-ranked defense in the country, but their offense sat near the bottom at 115th. It was all-time bad, and there were points in the season when you had to question if Florida was capable of moving the ball against a high school team.

Florida doesn't need to become the next Oregon, just a team that doesn't rank 110th in passing yards and averages less than 20 points. The Gators had a top-10 defense last season, and that likely isn't going to change with seven starters returning. We've seen just how far a defense can carry a team in the SEC; it just needs a little bit of help to balance things out.

New offensive coordinator Kurt Roper is working his tail off to make dreams a reality, and a healthy Jeff Driskel at quarterback doesn't hurt. 

The Gators have a lot more talent than a 4-8 team and already have one side of the ball looking like a championship contender. If the offense can make any positive strides this season, the Gators have a shot to be the second consecutive improbable SEC champion.

Florida would have then gotten its point across on the field. 

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