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Notre Dame Football: Who Will Man Middle of Irish Linebacking Corps?

It has begun abundantly clear that Brian VanGorder's defense will look very different than the one Bob Diaco played. But for all the schematic tweaks and pressure packages, there remains one universal truth: The Irish need a building block in the middle of their defense. 

As spring reveals new contenders for starting jobs and emerging players make their cases for a rebuilt coaching staff, the inside linebacker position still seems to be the one most in flux. After having Manti Te'o, Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese essentially lock down the position for the Brian Kelly era, the Irish head coach is taking a wait and see approach as the contenders for playing time sort themselves out. 

"I really think it is really too early to tell where we are at that position," Kelly said last week. "I think to use the spring to determine who the middle linebacker is with a lot of new things going in is not something that we’re concerned with at this point. 

"It’ll take time to round itself out. That includes dipping into freshmen that will come in in the fall as well. I think this is a question that is not going to be answered until we move ourselves into the preseason."

Let's try to make some sense out of a position that remains one of the biggest question marks on the Irish roster. 

 

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

 

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South Carolina Football: Spring Practice Position Battle Tracker

South Carolina's spring football practice season is kicking it into high gear and the position battles are heating up. 

With an offense that returns a majority of its players, the bulk of the battles are occurring on the defensive side of the ball and at the line of scrimmage. 

After losing defensive linemen Jadeveon Clowney, Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles, the Gamecocks have gaps but do not lack the talent to fill them. From top to bottom, South Carolina has enough depth to the point where any player can emerge as the main person in that role. 

South Carolina needs to find options in the pass rush and interior of the defensive line. Though, one of the biggest battles is one that dates back to last spring involving the "Spur" linebacker position.

Dylan Thompson is the starting quarterback, yet the backup role is highly contested with three candidates making their claim.

The spring is young and the position battles are getting intense. Here is a look at five position battles for the South Carolina Gamecocks.   

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Top 10 College Football Players Who Went on to Have Distinguished MLB Careers

Much attention has been paid to Jameis Winston playing baseball for Florida State this spring. After leading the Seminoles to a BCS National Championship as a redshirt freshman, the Heisman Trophy winner is back for his second season on the FSU baseball team, both as a pitcher and an outfielder.

Winston has a 0.64 ERA with four saves as the closer and is hitting .182 for the top-ranked Seminoles (23-5), who are still in search of that elusive first national championship in baseball. But Winston is hardly the first big-time college football player who also stars in baseball for his school.

There have been a number of college football players who went on to productive Major League Baseball careers. We have compiled quite an All-Star list that includes a Heisman Trophy winner, a College World Series MVP and a player whose number was retired by not just one MLB team—but all of them.

Here's our list of Top 10 College Football Players Who Went on to Have Distinguished MLB Careers:

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Forget Early Signing, College Football Teams Should Offer Scholarships Later

Maryland head coach Randy Edsall has officially offered up the best recipe to silence the discussion of scholarship offers coming too early and not being upheld by coaching staffs: move the date back and put the offer in the hands of the schools. Edsall is a quiet voice—he is currently the lone voice—but his voice is one that should certainly draw the ear of those making decisions on how to handle the recruiting process.

The Columbia Tribune is just one of many outlets to point out that the NCAA is actively looking into giving college football an early signing period. The theory, of course, would be it helps athletes wrap up recruiting and guarantees their spot by inking a national letter of intent that ties them to the school of their choice and halts the recruiting process.

Coaches, in bulk, agree with the ideal as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution highlighted in the interviewing of several prominent program leaders. Although the men disagree on the implementation, it certainly makes sense that so many college head coaches agree on a move that helps make their job easier. Convince a kid to sign and then the coach is done with him until enrollment, focusing on convincing other targets, not wasting time on athletes already beholden to the school.

In theory, it is good for athletes and programs. In practice, the positives are guaranteed for the school, less work if they get proficient at convincing kids to sign on the bottom line. Meanwhile, kids are locked in despite coaching changes, of both head and position variety, better opportunity elsewhere from a system or NFL early-entrant standpoint, or simply a changed mind.

There is more harm to be done, from a student-athlete standpoint, than the positives of the limited kids schools work to push into an early signature. As has been discussed previously when the rules of engagement were headed toward open recruiting, managing the process is the best way for players to protect their interests. 

The Maryland coach's idea, as expressed to Adam Rittenberg of ESPN, not only retains the current signing structure, but it pushes offers back to make sure the offers hold more validity:

Edsall's plan calls for preventing any type of scholarship offer -- written or verbal -- until Sept. 1 of a prospect's senior year in high school. Any offers would come from admissions or financial aid offices, not football coaches.

That would mean shutting down the verbal offers to eighth-, ninth-, 10th- and 11th-graders that have become commonplace across the collegiate landscape. It would also mean the one-day camp offers that have populated the atmosphere would have to wait. Rather, coaches would get to evaluate kids, sit on their decisions and then extend offers to start September of the prospect's final season.

Of course, all pending an approval from admissions, instead of working backwards where offers are often extended with the hopes of a player meeting the requirements, eventually.

High school athletes who enter their senior season already qualified academically would draw their offers immediately from the schools with interest in their athletic skills. Players clearly on track to qualify would also likely see their offers come quickly because the path is laid out to admissions, who approves the decision.

Players at risk would have the opportunity to look at other schools where they could qualify immediately or head to community college, prep school or junior college, as is the current process. Well, the current process, without the non-committable offer, or worse—the pulled offer in the 11th hour of the recruiting process.

The financial aid and admissions office having control over the offers would not eliminate the use of a sliding scale. Rather, it would ensure that all parties were on the same page with respect to where prospective student-athletes stand and their likelihood of qualifying for the coming school year. Tougher on coaches and athletes up front, but less heartache for both parties on the back end, thanks to some transparency.

This initiative would force coaches to only hand out real offers, after doing some serious evaluation, instead of the current pressure to be first with offers for early athletes. Where football is concerned, more time to evaluate is a plus.

And, because all offers—written and verbal—would have to come on, or after, September 1, every school would get to watch as much pre-senior-year footage as possible. Including the ever increasing 7-on-7 circuit tape and the always-critical one-day camp video shot on campus, in addition to previous seasons' game footage.

Edsall's change is a move worth considering, especially on a landscape where each team, yearly, casts a wider net to corral the 25 high school athletes it wants to get into its fold. Slowing down the offer process to improve the evaluation process is a trade-off in the best interest of both sides of the collegiate equation.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Tennessee Football: Why Butch Jones Should Wait Until Summer to Name Starting QB

Tennessee's spring football practice is careening toward a conclusion with no end in sight to the Volunteers' four-man quarterback free-for-all.

That's not necessarily a bad thing for head coach Butch Jones either.

UT would love for a quarterback—or more—to emerge from the competition and begin to assert himself as a leader who consistently makes plays without catastrophic, drive-ending mistakes.

Even if that happens, though, Jones should keep his preference close to the vest and the Vols should wait out the offseason before narrowing the race.

With rising senior Justin Worley being the most experienced signal-caller, coupled with his gradual improvement before a season-ending injury suffered against Alabama, you have to believe he'd be one of the top two.

Decreasing the practice repetitions for either sophomore Joshua Dobbs or redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson could cause one of the talented duo to bolt for a clearer path to playing time.

The worst resolution to this race for the Vols would be to have one of their two promising young quarterbacks transfer out of the program.

While Dobbs would be less likely to leave due to his aerospace engineering major not being offered everywhere, he is talented enough to play somewhere now. He was committed to Arizona State for months before flipping to UT on national signing day in 2013.

After an injury forced him to redshirt last season, Ferguson must be chomping at the bit to get on the field. He told Volquest.com (subscription required) about his progress this week:

Yeah, (the game is) slowing down a lot. Learning the playbook's the main thing. And that's what I feel like I have a really good grasp on now. Learning defenses, because there's a checklist we have to go through within that first 10 seconds and it's a lot of things to go through. So we just have to keep practicing them and that's the main thing we've been working on in practice and things like that.  Everything's starting to slow down now.

Ferguson obviously believes a light is coming on for him, and if he isn't firmly in the mix to play this year, it could be a blow to his confidence.

Neither Dobbs nor Ferguson have ever even hinted at the possibility of a transfer, but both obviously want to play.

Both have the potential for bright futures and Jones wants to keep them around longer to see which one blossoms into a star. The best way to do that is to continue the competition through offseason workouts and into the fall.

However, the coaching staff faces a conundrum in doing that.

While competition is healthy at any position, splitting reps among four quarterbacks isn't desirable. Not only can the participants struggle to get into a throwing rhythm, but the supporting cast may not build the same rapport that it would with a secure starter.

That may be the chief reason nobody has separated from the pack.

"Everyone has flashed," UT offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian told The Daily Times' Grant Ramey. "The word we keep emphasizing is consistency. We don't have the consistency we want, frankly at any position, but particularly at the quarterback position."

Quarterback battles are the norm, and this spring in the SEC, they're everywhere as teams try to replace star signal-callers departed for the NFL draft.

Case in point: Once Florida State transfer Jacob Coker gets to Tuscaloosa, Alabama will have a six-man race to replace A.J. McCarron. That war won't wind down until near the beginning of the season. As such, the competition in Knoxville is nothing out of the ordinary.

In a perfect world, Ferguson and Dobbs would both begin to get more comfortable with the offense this spring and enter fall camp believing they have a legitimate possibility to start.

If that happens, the loser of the derby would still be compelled to stick around and fight for reps.

Right now, even beat reporters who cover the Vols are guessing who will take the reins against Utah State:

So, while Tennessee's quarterback battle certainly needs leaders to step forward, perhaps giving everybody a lengthy, fair shot is the reason Jones showed no urgency prior to spring practice in naming a starter.

He explained his approach during a press conference in early March:

That person will emerge. I don't know if it's the second week of spring, I don't know if it's after the conclusion of the Orange & White Game, I don't know if it's a week prior to Utah State. That will take care of itself. But, right now, they have to worry about making themselves better each and every day, being a leader and proving they can win at Tennessee.

Nobody in the cluster has proven yet that he can lead a winning football team. If waiting a little while longer to name a starter saves one of the young guns from leaving, it's worth the risk for the Vols.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Texas Football: Kent Perkins' Injury Hurts Longhorns in Most Vulnerable Spot

Though injuries are an unfortunate part of any team's spring practices, Texas is dealing with one where it can least afford it. 

On Tuesday, Texas head athletic trainer Anthony Pass confirmed that sophomore offensive lineman Kent Perkins underwent arthroscopic knee surgery on Friday and will miss the rest of spring practice. (H/T Chris Hummer of The Dallas Morning News.)

Head coach Charlie Strong previously mentioned that Perkins had sustained his knee injury toward the beginning of spring practices, though the extent of it wasn't immediately known. 

The silver lining, of course, is that Perkins should be back in time for fall camp. Depending on his recovery time, he may even be back for voluntary summer workouts. With Perkins out, Strong said that Darius James will receive more reps at tackle. 

Ideally, though, Texas needs Perkins. Texas needs as many bodies to be available along the O-line, for that matter. 

Offensive line is the biggest question mark facing the Longhorns—not just on offense, but in general. Gone are seniors Donald Hawkins, Trey Hopkins and Mason Walters. So, too, is former starting tackle Josh Cochran, who decided to end his career earlier this year because of a chronic shoulder injury. 

That's most of Texas' starting offensive line from a year ago. Obviously, there's a lot to replace. Dominic Espinosa returns as a veteran center to anchor the line, but the Horns' coaching staff will be plugging in newer guys around him. 

There are some quality candidates, but not a lot of depth at tackle. Kennedy Estelle should slide into one of the tackle spots opposite Perkins. Sedrick Flowers is a veteran with playing experience. He should fill in one of the guard spots. 

Offensive line is like no other group on the field in that it truly is the sum of its parts. The line works closely together in tight quarters to make the entire offense work. The more an O-line can practice together as a cohesive unit, the better. 

While Perkins' injury isn't a worst-case scenario, it is, like so many other spring injuries, a missed opportunity to get better and grow as part of a unit. And Texas desperately needs to get better along the O-line. 

Perkins is considered one of the up-and-comers in the program. As a true freshman in 2013, he played in six games and started one. Oftentimes, you'll see a coach prefer to redshirt incoming offensive linemen since there's so much room to mature physically.

At 6'5" and 310 pounds, Perkins was already at that stage and good enough to play. That's a rare combination for such a young player at that position. Here's what Perkins had to say about the possibility of early playing time last May (via Jason Suchomel of Orangebloods.com). 

The coaches tell me play their best offensive linemen. If you're the best athlete offensive line wise, they're going to play you. They said you may end playing guard or tackle, but most likely I'll end up playing tackle. I'm just excited about going down there, playing hard and competing for a spot.

As Texas moves forward in spring practice, there's no doubt it will miss one of its brightest young stars at a position with the most room to grow.

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Georgia Football: Why Jonathon Rumph Will Be the Dawgs' X-Factor on Offense

 

Georgia did not open spring practice in search of a weapon at the receiver position.  That spot seemed pretty well covered.

While both Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley are still battling back from injuries, a host of playmakers with extensive pass-catching experience is slated to be back on the field in 2014. With such notables as Chris Conley and Michael Bennett (both with over 1,200 career receiving yards) expected to continue stellar play, the options available to new full-time starting quarterback Hutson Mason will be vast.

And yet, a new star has emerged within the receiving corps. Rising senior Jonathon Rumph is now establishing himself as the X-factor in Georgia’s already potent offense.

 

Road to Relevance

Rumph began his collegiate career at Holmes Community College where he racked up 1,345 receiving yards on 87 catches over a two-year period. His production along with his elite size—Rumph stands 6'5"—put him on everyone’s recruiting radar as a part of the 2013 recruiting class.

According to 247Sports, the 4-star Rumph received scholarship offers from some of the nation’s most prominent programs, including Alabama, LSU and Florida. Ultimately, he committed early to the Bulldogs and enrolled last January.

After battling injuries for the majority of the 2013 season, Rumph finally saw playing time against Florida in Georgia’s eighth game of the season. In his next outing, he showed flashes of what made him such a celebrated recruit.

With the Dawgs protecting a healthy lead, then-starter Aaron Murray found his way to the sideline and Mason came under-center in the fourth quarter. Mason’s first pass attempt went for a 24 yard gain. Rumph was on the receiving in.

Mason found Rumph again on his second drive, this time for 21 yards. On Mason’s final drive he found Rumph two more times for pickups of 16 and 37 yards.

The chemistry between the two consummate backups was undeniable. Mason’s confidence in the seldom-used Rumph was evident and Rumph’s ability to capitalize on opportunities propelled him up the depth chart.

 

Strides Forward

 

It will take more than the situational bond between two players rising up the ranks together for Rumph to make an impact in 2014. In other words, he won’t be able to ride Mason’s coattails into the starting lineup. Mason, a fifth-year senior, was for better or worse the obvious choice to replace Murray after graduation.  Rumph, on the other hand, enters his final season as a Bulldog surrounded by more established competition at his own position.

That being said, Rumph has focused on a number of areas—both mental and physical—as he fights for a spot in the rotation. As he told Gentry Estes of 247Sports (Paid Access):

Where I feel like I’m better is being more flexible, understanding the plays, understanding the concepts of the offense, understanding the defense. Being a receiver ain’t just about playing offense. It’s about recognizing defense too. I feel like my knowledge is getting better. My technique is getting better, but I’ve still got a lot to work on.

According to Mason, Rumph’s preparations are paying off in a big way. The starting signal-caller told Marc Weiszer of the Athens Banner-Herald that Rumph could be the MVP of the receiving unit this spring. He added:

It’s just night and day from last spring. He’s always been that big-bodied guy that you thought you could just throw up to and he’d get it. He’s just flat out making more plays this spring than he was last spring, and it’s great to see a guy who’s that big of a target that you can have that mismatch.

 

X-Factor Potential

If Rumph comes on strong this season, his story as a big, athletic receiver blooming late as a Dawg won’t be tremendously unique.

In 2012, former Bulldog (and current Baltimore Raven) Marlon Brown had a similarly timed breakout season. After arriving in Athens as a highly-touted recruit, Brown struggled to stay on the field during his first three seasons. Prior to his senior campaign he accounted for a meager 28 catches.

In his final year, however, the 6'4" Brown broke out of the shadow of his own potential. Before suffering a season-ending knee injury in Georgia’s ninth game, Brown was magnificent. Three times he registered 100-yard games and all three came against SEC competition. In his final season donning the red and black, Brown hauled in 27 passes for 469 yards (17.4 yards per catch) and four touchdowns.

That’s the kind of season Rumph wants in 2014 and if he continues to heed the advice of Brown (with whom he has a close relationship) such aspirations are not far-fetched.

Rumph told Estes that Brown consistently offers advice to him. In particular, the older receiver encourages him to listen to his coaches and focus on leverage.

“He’s telling me ‘Work on the little things. You’re a big receiver. You’ve got to get low.’ He gives me tips like that, but mostly he just tells me to go out there and just play ball,” Rumph recounted.

If he masters the little things, Rumph will indeed be playing a lot of ball this fall. And that’s good news for Georgia’s offense.

Rumph adds a big-play dimension that even Georgia's most talented receivers cannot account for.  He will be particularly useful in the red zone where his elite size and large hands will make him an ideal target for Georgia's beloved fade and corner routes.

Furthermore, with tight end Jay Rome still recovering from a foot injury, the onus of mid-range crossing routes in traffic may fall on the large frame of Rumph—at least early in the season.

Rumph is still fighting hard to crack the rotation permanently.  But once he does, count on big things from the big receiver.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Washington Coach Chris Petersen Pranks His Players with Awful Uniforms

The unveiling of new uniform looks can be either exciting or a major letdown—especially if they're a part of an April Fools' gag.

New Washington coach Chris Petersen has yet to coach his team in a game, but he is already showing that he isn't afraid to have a little fun.

On Tuesday, Petersen gathered his players to reveal a fresh set of uniforms that paid tribute to the university. Luckily, he was just messing with the team.

[Washington Husky Football, h/t Coaching Search]

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Auburn Football: Shon Coleman's Incredible Cancer Comeback Story

Four years after faxing his national letter of intent to the Plains, Shon Coleman is getting his first shot at a starting job for Auburn.

He is locked in a position battle with rising junior Patrick Miller to be the first-team left tackle for the Tigers, who are looking to replace potential top-five NFL draft pick Greg Robinson.

Although the former 4-star offensive lineman from Olive Branch, Miss., will graduate from school in May, Coleman will enter Auburn's upcoming season as a redshirt sophomore—the mark of a battle that dwarfs one for the top spot on a depth chart.

Four years before the start of Auburn's current spring camp, Coleman was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

The life-threatening disease kept the Class of 2010 signee from enrolling at Auburn until January 2011 and away from football for two full years.

But toward the end of spring practices in 2012, Coleman was cleared by his doctors at St. Jude Children's Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., to practice for the first time as an Auburn Tiger.

He still had to work back up to the size and strength that made him one of the nation's most prized offensive line prospects over the next year-and-a-half, but he finished the Tigers' 2013 fall camp as Robinson's backup at left tackle.

In Auburn's game against Arkansas State last September, Coleman's three-and-a-half year journey from cancer patient to active college football player was complete when he stepped onto the field for his first in-game action.

“It’s great to see a guy that’s battled cancer come back and have a shot to start in the SEC,” Auburn left guard Alex Kozan said. “He’s been through some real hard stuff, and to come back and be able to do the things he’s done is impressive.”

But the 6'6", 310-pound Coleman is more than just an inspiration to Kozan and the rest of his teammates on Auburn's offensive line. He is now a serious contender for a position on one of the most experienced units in the SEC.

“The thing about Shon is he’s got really long arms, which help him out a lot,” Kozan said. “He can make a mistake, but even with that, because of his athleticism and his body, it allows him to catch up on that. So it’s great playing next to him, for sure.”

After several appearances in Auburn's SEC championship season and a golden opportunity to take over a starting job, Coleman has his eyes on more milestones—a return to the national championship and a career in the NFL.

"I have a dream that I work to every day, and I just work toward that goal," Coleman said. "If I’m blessed enough to get in that position, then it’ll happen."

Coleman says he wants to follow in the footsteps of the run-block specialist Robinson, who dazzled scouts when he bench-pressed 225 pounds 32 times and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.84 seconds in this year's NFL combine.

However, some of Coleman's teammates say the redshirt sophomore is better than Robinson in some physical aspects of offensive line play.

"Shon is one of the toughest run-setters I’ve ever seen in my life," defensive tackle Gabe Wright said. "It’s like hitting a brick wall with a hammer. If you ever thought Greg was strong, Shon is probably two times stronger than Greg."

Although Auburn coaches and players say the race between Coleman and Miller for Robinson's old spot is still even through the first two weeks of practice, Coleman seems to have made a major impression on the Tigers so far this spring.

"He did a solid job for us when he got in last year," Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. "Now, he's fighting for a starting position. You can see the urgency's there. He definitely looks like the guy that we recruited four years ago, when he was healthy."

Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Meet Marshall QB Rakeem Cato, College Football's Most Underrated Player

It’s Rakeem Cato’s 22nd birthday, and he’s decided to spend it with Tom Brady, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson.

Instead of joining his favorite quarterbacks at a nightclub or swanky restaurant, however, Cato is having them over to his place. Only they’re not actually there and it’s not a party, unless you consider another film session of some of the game’s greatest quarterbacks—one in a growing, repetitive series—a party.

“I’m going to watch film,” Cato said when pressed about his birthday plans. “We’ve got practice early tomorrow, too.”

While this potential introduction to Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato may not seem all that exciting, consider this a favor: At some point in the 2014 season—perhaps when the Thundering Herd are still undefeated, destroying Conference USA teams like traffic cones that wandered into the express lane—you will know his name.

What’s most shocking, however, is that one of college football’s most productive passers—and a legitimate Heisman dark horse, no matter what he tells you—is not a household name already.

Perhaps it’s because he was under-recruited despite playing in the heart of recruiting country. Or maybe it’s his overall lack of size, a break from the traditional QB mold that serves as a prerequisite on our respect checklist. Or maybe it’s a Marshall thing, another example of our inability to appreciate greatness that doesn’t fit that template.

“If we continue to put in the work and continue to win, eventually people recognize us,” Cato said. “We still have a lot more work to do. But when that time comes, we’ll be ready for it.”

What’s immediately striking about Cato is his natural ability to remove the spotlight from himself. He doesn’t sidestep questions or tiptoe around answers, but instead brings the bigger picture into focus when he can. He’d gladly stay underrated—or not rated at all—when it comes to individual success and solo achievements.

When the talk shifts to Marshall, the coaches or the players—oftentimes on his own accord—the tune changes. His tone shifts, expectations unfold and a mindset comes into focus.

“My main goal since I stepped on campus was to bring a championship to Marshall,” Cato said. “My focus is all on this season and trying to win that championship.”

While that might seem unrealistic to the big-brand buyer, don’t dismiss this as propaganda. Marshall’s first three losses last season came by a combined 13 points, and one of those losses came to Virginia Tech in triple overtime.

There’s momentum in the program and familiarity within a potent offensive attack, and head coach Doc Holliday is proving to have much more than a name built for a business card.

“It’s a different vibe for everyone on our team,” Cato said. “We’re riding a wave right now, playing with a lot of confidence.”

Such confidence was evident in the team’s 31-20 win over Maryland in the Military Bowl, giving Marshall its first 10-win season since 2002. Looking over the schedule this season, there is a distinct possibility that this team could finish without a blemish.

In fact, according to Cato, anything less would be a disappointment.

“I think we have a great opportunity to go undefeated,” Cato said. “We have all the pieces in place, a great coaching staff and a great group of players.”

Again, as he often does, Cato failed to mention the most important ingredient when it comes to an unbeaten season: the quarterback. And while he might not dwell on what he’s accomplished, we certainly will.

Over the past two seasons, Cato has accounted for 83 touchdowns and thrown for more than 8,100 yards. He's also thrown a touchdown pass in 32 consecutive games, a streak that will continue on this fall.

For comparison’s sake, former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel accounted for 93 scores and threw for just a shade over 7,800 yards in his past two seasons.

That’s not meant to put Cato on the Johnny Football path. In fact, he’d much prefer if you just let him be. But when you look at the magnificent production stacked up against some of the other great quarterbacks in recent years—the Manziels, the Bridgewaters, the Boyds—it becomes apparent that he warrants a seat at the table. At the very least, access to the club.

Being overlooked, however, is nothing new to the Florida native. In fact, in a way, this is where his comfort zone lies. 

Coming out of high school, 247Sports rated Cato at No. 1,308 in his class overall and the No. 32 dual-threat quarterback in the country. Although he played his high school ball at Miami Central—a school that naturally garners eyeballs and interest from Florida programs—the buzz never got loud enough.

Cato instead wound up at Marshall, a decision that has panned out favorably for both parties. And while he’s happy with where he landed, he also doesn’t forget the quiet phones and empty mailboxes.

“I do all the time,” Cato said when asked about playing with a chip on his shoulder. “I remember those times when I was overlooked. I use it as motivation. But I don’t dwell on it and I don’t regret anything.”

Part of the reason Cato was overlooked by programs is his size. Listed at just 6’0” and 188 pounds on his official Marshall bio, he’s a breakaway from your create-a-player build.

The NFL buzz hasn’t started, and it may never start. But as much as size is discussed or perceived as limiting, Cato doesn’t look his physical makeup.

“As long as you know what you’re doing and you’re making plays, size really isn’t a factor at all,” Cato said. “For me, personally, it’s 100 percent heart. If you’ve got heart, everything else will take care of itself.”

For Cato, everything else has taken care of itself thus far. And as good as he’s looked over the past few seasons, over the course of more than 10,000 yards passing, there’s still room for growth in his eyes.

“I want to be more efficient in the passing game and complete more passes, especially with my deep ball,” Cato said on his goals for this season. “I also want to become a bigger leader and help out those who need it.”

The transition to team leader hasn’t come overnight for Cato, and it’s still an item needing fine-tuning on the spring checklist—at least according to him. Thankfully, he’s had some help along the way.

Former Marshall defensive end Vinny Curry and wideout Aaron Dobson are two of the players Cato credits in helping him mature as a leader. He’s also received guidance from one of the greatest players in school history, a guy who knows a little bit about efficient quarterback play.

“I talk to Chad Pennington a whole bunch,” Cato noted. “He showed me the path and the right way of how to do things on and off the football field.”

All of the guidance, reps, doubt and birthday film sessions have put Cato in a position to thrive for the 2014 season. It’s also started the slow churn of Heisman hype, even for a player who has struggled to garner any hype at all.

Yet, when pressed about the possibility of winning college football’s most prestigious award, Marshall’s undersized and under-recruited quarterback refused to break character.

“I’m not thinking about the Heisman,” Cato said. “I’m thinking about our team and focusing on getting better.”

He might not want you to remember the name Rakeem Cato, but trust me, you’re better off not forgetting it. Soon enough, you won’t have a choice.

 

Adam Kramer is the College Football National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand.

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Malik McDowell Finally Signs with Michigan State: 5-Star Set to Dominate Big Ten

It took nearly two months longer than expected but Malik McDowell is officially a member of Michigan State's 2014 recruiting class. The 5-star defensive lineman, who dealt with resistance from family following his signing day decision, sent a completed letter of intent to East Lansing late Tuesday evening:

The Southfield High School senior has been at the center of a recruiting firestorm since declaring his intentions to attend the university Feb. 5. The 6'7", 290-pound prospect put himself on the map with strong play and a powerful frame, but recent events have kept McDowell in the spotlight for much different reasons.

McDowell visited Ohio State and Michigan State during the final week of January, heightening speculation of where he would end up at the next level. The process featured several programs, including Florida State, LSU and Florida.

Signs of a house divided were evident during the final stretch toward signing day. Greg McDowell, Malik McDowell's father, told 247Sports writer Steve Wiltfong shortly before signing day: 

We’re basically at the same point, his mother and I, as long as he gets away from Michigan we don’t care where he goes...I want him out of Michigan. I don’t care if that’s Ohio State or Florida State.

Still, when Malik McDowell's announcement occurred and he settled on Michigan State, his father willingly co-signed the presumed letter of intent. His mother, Joya Crowe, took a different approach.

She didn't attend his signing day ceremony at school and refused to approve the decision, which is paramount because of her reported role as a sole-custody parent. NCAA regulations require a signature from Crowe, setting the stage for a dramatic stretch that sparked rampant speculation.

Crowe told MLive.com:

No one knows what we as a family are going through at all, no one. They are just guessing, everyone is making accusations that aren't even true. One thing they are out there hollering about, (that) I'm offered money, that's not true.

The drama lasted eight weeks, with the coveted prospect's collegiate future hanging in the balance. One way or another, Malik McDowell is now seemingly signed, sealed and delivered to the Spartans.

Michigan State understands he's worth the wait.

There were never expectations of Malik McDowell enrolling on campus early, so he hasn't lost any ground on fellow 2014 signees set to arrive in East Lansing this summer. Amid recent rumors and confusion, his skill set has been a secondary story.

Malik McDowell is rated No. 3 nationally among 2014 strong-side defensive ends in 247Sports' composite rankings, which also lists him as the top prospect in Michigan. He totaled 89 tackles, seven sacks and three forced fumbles during his senior season.

Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio quickly took to Twitter to formally welcome his newest addition. He also shared a video produced by Michigan State that's been waiting to reach its audience for far longer than the program would've preferred:

The Spartans welcome a top-level talent who displays enough versatility to become a factor in a variety of roles. Malik McDowell is a massive specimen who can hold down the outside edge with authority or rotate inside to provide a presence up the middle.

From a physical standpoint, he is strong enough to command immediate consideration for playing time in a defense that ranked among the nation's best last season. An early rotational role could quickly lead to Malik McDowell's emergence as a mainstay along the Michigan State front.

Big Ten opponents Ohio State and Michigan made strong efforts to secure a signature from the disruptive defender, but instead must contend with him during autumns ahead. Malik McDowell already played with intensity but should be further fueled by the events that occurred in the aftermath of his commitment.

It would surprise no one if he arrives on campus with a chip on his shoulder, intent on legitimizing his steadfast devotion to the Spartans. A strong career at Michigan State would help make this stunning saga a distant memory.

Coach Dantonio and his staff can also move forward, knowing they've finally landed a long-established recruiting target. Now that they have him, the Spartans won't waste time implementing Malik McDowell into future defensive plans.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Texas Football: Expect David Ash to Start, Max Wittek Not 'Savior' for Longhorns

The Texas quarterback battle is heating up, with USC QB Max Wittek visiting Austin recently. Wittek plans on transferring after he graduates from USC this spring and should compete for the starting job at Texas, if he chooses the Longhorns. 

Wittek would join David Ash, Tyrone Swoopes and incoming freshman Jerrod Heard in an intense QB battle. Does Wittek have what it takes to win the starting job in Austin? Will David Ash's injury concerns affect his chances at starting in 2014?

Brian Davis of the Austin American-Statesman broke down Wittek's current situation and what a QB battle at Texas would look like if Wittek joined the Longhorns. 

 

Highlights courtesy of XOs Digital

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10 College Football Teams and Players Primed for Huge Bounceback Years in 2014

With spring football in full swing across the nation, another spring tradition is also well underway.

Each college football season brings surprises and disappointments, good and bad, yin and yang.

Spring brings hope that last fall’s mistakes and downfalls can be erased, replaced by hope and progress toward success that lies just over the bend.

Coaches and players are positive. Everything is in front of them. This is the year.

And why not believe it? Spring is all about renewal and fresh excitement.

For various reasons, these players and programs suffered through disappointing 2013 seasons. But they believe that this fall will be different.

Here are 10 players and programs primed for huge bounceback years in 2014.

 

 Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace

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Texas A&M Doesn't Need Texas on Its Schedule, but Longhorns Need the Aggies

Remember when Texas toppled Texas A&M on a 40-yard field goal as time expired to beat the Aggies 27-25 on Thanksgiving night in 2011?

That memory is going to have to last a while.

According to ESPN.com's Max Olson, a rekindling of the rivalry with Texas A&M isn't at the top of new Texas athletic director Steve Patterson's priority list. That list apparently includes international games, including a football game in Mexico City and a sporting event in Dubai.

"There's a lot of great tradition with Texas A&M. At some point in time, does it make some business sense, some branding sense to play again? I don't know," Patterson told Olson.

"It's not at the top of my list. I'm really more focused on how we grow the footprint of the department."

It wasn't due to lack of effort from the Aggies.

Brent Zwerneman of the Houston Chronicle noted that former Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin famously reiterated, "anytime, anywhere" in regards to playing the Longhorns, but conceded last year that not everybody in A&M's administration shared the same feelings.

Maybe it's time for Patterson to rewrite his list and make the effort, because Texas needs Texas A&M now—not the other way around.

While it's understandable that Texas—or any high-profile program—would want to expand its visibility to an international audience, refusing to play Texas A&M has allowed the Aggies to gain a chunk of the market in its own country and state.

Four anonymous Texas high school coaches told William Wilkerson of LonghornDigest.com last month that Texas was not only behind A&M in the state pecking order, but behind Baylor.

A&M will have a new-look Kyle Field to play in once a $450 million renovation is complete prior to the 2015 season, has been in the national spotlight ever since it officially made the jump to the SEC prior to the 2012 season and has stayed in the spotlight thanks to the electric play of former quarterback Johnny Manziel, the most polarizing player in college football.

All Texas has been doing during that crucial time in the landscape of college football in the state is spinning its wheels.

Texas A&M has successfully rebranded itself to the state, regional and national audience. As I wrote in March, even in down years, that's not going to change.

Texas A&M will still be the SEC program in the talent-rich state, and that's only going to resonate further with high school and middle school kids who become more familiar with A&M's conference affiliation.

Because of that, Texas has to get Texas A&M back on the schedule. 

The Longhorns will always be a national brand and the most visible program in the state of Texas, but that hasn't been the case nationally over the last few years. A game against A&M would give the state and nation a tangible result between two national powers to gauge the strength of the two programs.

A&M isn't the "little brother" anymore. It could be Texas' cousin, but it's not the "little brother." The only way to prevent that cousin from achieving success is to knock him down every once in a while. 

Do you think this picture Manziel posted to Instagram over the weekend—which was accompanied by "Sorry Charlie...you're not part of the regime"—was a harmless joke?

Think again.

It was yet another sign that Texas A&M isn't going to take it anymore. Of course, that's not exactly breaking news. That was apparent from the moment Texas A&M announced it was jumping to the SEC.

You'd think that Patterson, an "outsider" who was announced as Texas' new athletic director on Nov. 5, 2013, would have brought a little perspective to Austin.

Apparently, he missed that memo.

 

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report.


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Mark Richt Sends Intricate, Hand-Drawn Portrait to Georgia Recruit

Update: April 2, 2014. 11:56 a.m. ET

Michael Carvell of AJC.com reports that more recruits are posting hand-drawn portraits from Richt to social media.

Rashad Roundtree of Lakeside-Evans High School tweeted an image of his portrait.

Roquan Smith of Macon County High and Chuma Edoga from McEachern High also received the hand-drawn treatment.

---End of Update---

In any other context, this could be unsettling.

In the landscape of college football, however, Mark Richt might have just broken the mold on creative recruitment.

Judging by a recent tweet from one of his recruiting targets, the University of Georgia coach is sending out hand-drawn portraits to the players he’s hoping will join his team in 2015.

D’Andre Walker, a 4-star recruit out of Fairburn, Georgia, tweeted out a picture of the freehand masterpiece Richt sent him in the mail. Mike Foss of For The Win spotted the tweet, which shows Walker wearing half a Georgia jersey.

The portrait is signed by Richt and reads “D’Andre, Red & Black looks good on you!”

This begs the question: Is Richt an artist? Has he been holding back on us all these years, drawing happy little bushes and working tirelessly under the televised tutelage of Bob Ross?

Odds are an art student or UGA staff member handled the job of drawing this detailed piece of work. Regardless, this is an outstanding effort by Georgia to keep within the rules and make an impact on a player.

It doesn’t get much more customized or personal than a hand-drawn portrait of your future with a program.

Bravo, Mark Richt. The only problem now is everyone you know will be asking you to draw them like one of your high school recruits/French girls.

 

Join me on Twitter for more sports news.

 

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Michigan Football: WR Drake Harris Suffers Hamstring Injury

After tweaking the hamstring that kept him out of his entire senior season at Grand Rapids Christian in 2013, freshman wide receiver Drake Harris has been limited in recent days at Michigan's spring practice and confirmed on Tuesday that he likely won't play for the rest of camp or in the spring game.

Harris said the following, per Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com:

It's nothing too major, I pulled it, so I think I'm probably going to sit out the rest of spring. It's nothing major. I'm just still trying to get stronger in the weight room and get back.

It's pretty frustrating, but I've played basically the whole spring (until now). I've learned a lot. So I'll stay focused and stay positive.

It's a good sign that Harris has dismissed the severity of the hamstring pull, also saying that "The way I felt it this time was a lot different from what I did in high school." If he's telling the truth, he should be a full go for fall camp and be ready for the start of the season.

That would be big for the Wolverines. Per the 247Sports composite, Harris was the No. 7 receiver, No. 67 overall player and No. 3 prospect from the state of Michigan this past cycle, ranking higher than each of Michigan's other early enrollees and second highest in the class behind 5-star athlete Jabrill Peppers.

At 6'4'', Harris has the size to become a target on the outside as immediately as his true freshman season. Especially with four of the five leading wide receivers gone from last season—chief among them Jeremy Gallon, but also including Drew Dileo, Jeremy Jackson and Joe Reynolds—there is opportunity for a player to see the field no matter his age or experience level.

In Harris' wake, even more opportunity will be afforded to fellow early enrollee Freddy Canteen, who has enjoyed a strong camp to date and is making a push for early playing time. He is shorter (6'1'') and faster than Harris, angling more to replace Dileo in the slot than Gallon on the outside, but now, at the very least, more coaching attention can be focused on Canteen's development.

New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier was never afraid to play true freshmen at Alabama—e.g. Amari Cooper in 2012.

If Harris or Canteen (or both) earn their spot on the field, they will not have to wait long before seeing it.

 

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Odds on Where 2015 No. 1 DE CeCe Jefferson Lands

The nation's No. 1 defensive end, CeCe Jefferson, is an absolute beast on the field and will make an instant impact wherever he ends up at the college level. The top programs in the country are recruiting this 6'2", 250-pound stud. 

Mark Stoops and Kentucky landed huge defensive lineman Matt Elam from the 2014 class. How will that affect CeCe Jefferson's recruitment?

Check out Adam Kramer break down the odds on where Cece Jefferson will play in 2015.  

 

Highlights courtesy of XOs Digital

Rankings and stats from 247Sports

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Malik McDowell Officially Joins Michigan State's 2014 Recruiting Class

Nearly two months after national signing day Malik McDowell is officially a member of Michigan State's 2014 recruiting class. The arrival of his paperwork ends a long and winding saga.

McDowell announced on Twitter that he submitted his letter of intent late Tuesday night, which was the final signing date for the period:

Mike Griffith of MLive.com confirms the paperwork was received by Michigan State and McDowell finally became a member of the class:

McDowell was a highly coveted recruit. The 5-star prospect ranked inside the top 40 nationally and was one of the top five strong-side defensive ends available, according to 247Sports' composite rankings. The outlet lists 20 programs as have shown interest.

Furthermore, he was the top-ranked prospect in the state of Michigan. So Michigan State seemingly landed a major piece of its class on national signing day. Instead, his letter of intent never showed up and questions were raised about his status.

It turned out his mother originally prevented him from making his commitment official. James Jahnke of the Detroit Free Press reports Joya Crowe thought her son should have chosen a different school and wouldn't sign the letter:

McDowell verbally committed to MSU on Signing Day in early February, but his mother, Joya Crowe, refused to sign his letter of intent, preferring that he attend one of his other finalists: Ohio State or Florida State. McDowell also strongly considered Michigan, especially early in his recruiting process.

The report notes it's unclear what changed that led to McDowell officially joining the Spartans.

Regardless, it's a huge boost for Michigan State after an extended period where it wasn't clear where the talented defensive lineman would land following the chaos.

McDowell is still a bit raw, but his combination of size and athleticism makes him an extremely intriguing prospect with plenty of upside. He should be ready to play a rotational role right away before moving into a more prominent role once he gains experience.

Landing with Michigan State is also good for him because of its strong defensive system. The Spartans ranked third in the nation in points against per game last season. It should allow him to showcase his potential sooner rather than later.

There were probably some tense moments over the past few months for the Michigan State staff. Now they can rest easy. McDowell is on his way.

 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Ohio State Football: TE Jeff Heuerman Out for Spring with Injury

One of the most underrated players on Ohio State's offense, senior tight end Jeff Heuerman, had successful surgery on the foot he sprained last week, which will keep him in a boot and on the sideline for the remaining portion of spring practice.

Head coach Urban Meyer confirmed the news Tuesday evening, per Kyle Rowland of Eleven Warriors:

Heuerman finished last season third on the team with 26 receptions and 466 receiving yards. All six of his 50-yard receiving games came in the second half of the season, starting with a career-high 116 yards on five catches against Purdue Nov. 2.

The absence of the senior tight end might affect the rest of the team more than Heuerman himself. Having been through this now multiple times, Heuerman doesn't need the reps as much as the younger players on the roster need a leader.

Here's what Doug Lesmerises of the Columbus Dispatch wrote before spring practice when he listed Heuerman as one of five Buckeyes "on the spot":

With quarterback Braxton Miller and receiver Evan Spencer sidelined, the only senior starters on offense who will be out there for the first day of practice are Heuerman and receiver Devin Smith.

Heuerman may never catch a ton of passes, but he has the build and skills to be a high-round NFL pick with a strong senior season.

First, he’ll have to rally the troops. Leadership was a major topic for Urban Meyer last year. If players like Heuerman and Smith on offense and Michael Bennett, Doran Grant and Curtis Grant on defense fill their senior roles, Meyer may not have to talk about it so much this year.

Nick Vannett, a junior who caught eight passes for 80 yards and a touchdown as Heuerman's backup last season, will now likely get the majority of tight end reps for the rest of fall camp and in the spring game. Also in the mix is Marcus Baugh, a top-100 recruit in the class of 2013 who redshirted last year but has been arrested for underage drinking twice since arriving last July—most recently in January 2014, according to Austin Ward of ESPN.com.

Ohio State will hold its spring game Saturday, April 12 at 1:30 ET.

 

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT

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Nebraska Football: Spring Practice Position Battle Tracker

Nebraska football fans know that one of the best parts of spring is watching position battles, trying to get an idea of who will be starting in the fall and leading the Cornhuskers (hopefully) to gridiron glory.

While the starters at some positions are relatively obvious, there are a number of ongoing battles. Make no mistake, starting jobs will be won by performances in spring and fall practice.

Here are five position battles that are still in various stages of play. 

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