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A.J. Epenesa to Iowa: Hawkeyes Land 5-Star DE Prospect

Class of 2016 defensive end prospect A.J. Epenesa announced on Twitter that he has committed to the University of Iowa on Sunday.  

Per 247Sports, Epenesa is the No. 1 rated strong-side defensive end in the nation.

Coming out of Edwardsville, Illinois, Epenesa is also the top prospect in his state as well as the 13th-ranked recruit in the nation. 

At 6'5", 230 pounds, the high school senior already has the stature of a fully grown man. His physique creates a hulking presence on the defensive line, and he uses it to his advantage. 

Epenesa isn't the quickest defensive end out there, but he makes up for it with superior strength and athleticism. He is able to shed blocks with ease and has shown the kind of football sense needed to diagnose plays early. 

Iowa gets its second defensive end commit in Epenesa along with 3-star in-state recruit Coy Kirkpatrick. Epenesa is the Hawkeyes' fifth 2017 commit so far, per 247Sports. But Epenesa is Iowa's greatest prize so far, as the other four are 3-star recruits. 

HawkeyeNation.com's Rob Howe liked what he saw from Epenesa:

2015 was quite a season for the Hawkeyes, who rose through the ranks of college football and enjoyed a brief spell as a top-four team. They had a chance to compete for a national championship in the College Football Playoff but fell one win short in the Big Ten title game to Michigan State. 

Getting 5-star-caliber players like Epenesa will ensure that the Hawkeyes continue to build on the momentum they gained last year as they try to take that next step toward a national championship.

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2016 NFL Draft: Why Jalen Ramsey Is the Next Eric Berry

The NFL features many of the best athletes in the world competing on the highest level of professional football. The standard for playing certain positions is higher than others based on the supply of elite playmakers.

Quarterback and safety are two positions that stand out the most as lacking quality.

Rarely do teams have the chance to acquire a top-end talent at safety. The last elite free safety prospects to come out of college were University of Tennessee's Eric Berry in 2010, when he was selected fifth overall by the Kansas City Chiefs and Earl Thomas out of the University of Texas at Austin, who went 14th overall to the Seattle Seahawks.

Florida State Seminoles defensive back Jalen Ramsey has the ability to be as good as either of those players.

The versatile playmaker has experience at safety, outside cornerback and nickel cornerback. Ramsey spent a majority of his time as a safety and nickel cornerback in 2014 then moved to cornerback full time in 2015.

The Seminoles desperately needed a talent boost there. Ramsey sacrificed for the team to make the switch and responded to the move as well as any player could.

It can take years for a cornerback to master the proper footwork, timing and feel for the position, if it ever comes. Patrick Peterson of the Arizona Cardinals is a good example of an athlete who mastered his body control and fulfilled his potential at the cornerback position. 

Ramsey was a terrific athlete playing cornerback throughout 2015 and would probably be a first-round prospect if teams look at him there.

But Ramsey should be viewed as a coverage safety, the value of which is so much higher than that of an outside cornerback. The chasm of talent at free safety is enormous, with most starters either being average or less. There is a small handful of great, impactful players at the position who defenses can morph around.

Ramsey has that ability, even if he’s often been more of a switchblade for Florida State. He spent 2014 playing the star position, which is a hybrid safety and slot cornerback role, and it showed off his skill repertoire and athleticism.

Similar to Berry, Ramsey is a quality player no matter the task he’s asked to perform. Berry has been a top-five NFL free safety since entering the league, largely because of his coverage talent and efficiency as a run defender. Kansas City doesn’t ask him to be a playmaker in the run game because of its other talent, but Berry was that type of player in his first three seasons.

Evaluating the single-high capability of a safety comes with the limitation of television broadcast angles. The NFL offers NFL Game Pass, so it is much easier to see how well cornerbacks and safeties perform. Collegiate games do not offer such an outlet, so we have to put a premium on plays the defensive backs are involved in.

What makes Ramsey so great as a prospect was encapsulated in his 2014 performance against the Miami Hurricanes Although it was just one game, I’ve seen only one better single performance in five years of draft analysis, and that was by University of Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack (now with the Oakland Raiders) against Ohio State in 2013.

Ramsey tallied three tackles, one interception, four passes defensed and one forced fumble in that game against Miami. Most impressively, he understood when to be aggressive. Knowing the perfect timing to play the ball or stick your nose into a running play comes from instinct and body control.

It’s usually not hard to find the best few players on the field. Ramsey is quite often one of those few, despite being in the defensive backfield. He is a tremendous athlete, with fluidity, quick feet and speed despite being 6’1”, 205 pounds. Take a look at this near-interception and defensed pass below.

Ramsey gives Miami tight end Clive Walford a two-year advantage on his cut inside, but Ramsey is never in danger of allowing a big completion. He shows impressive acceleration to close on the ball and should have secured it for the interception. His length and speed were paramount on this play and will continue to be a major asset in man coverage opportunities.

And covering a large amount of space quickly is critical for free safeties.

The ability to foresee how a play will develop and reach the catch point before the completion is the rarest of skills. Ramsey has enough examples of closing speed and instinct throughout his film to convince NFL teams that he will be able to execute that role in the pros.

Ramsey showed an incredible knack for finding the football throughout his college career. He had just three total interceptions, but he forced four fumbles. His blitzing acumen led to five sacks and played a part in his 22 passes defensed.

When flying in from the secondary, Ramsey has distinct skill at clogging passing lanes. His length and timing force quarterbacks to second-guess their passing attempts and throw off the designed play. These types of plays don’t always result in a statistic but can greatly affect the outcome of games.

Ramsey’s physicality has stood out many times. He’s a solid tackler who is willing to challenge bigger ball-carriers around the line of scrimmage. I’d like to see him be a little more aggressive working through blockers, but this was a bigger issue at cornerback than safety.

He certainly has the ability to set the edge and dictate where a running back can go. He plays well within team defense—even filtering the ball-carrier back inside to his teammates on occasion. Again, this is a team-defense function and not something that shows up in the stats. Nonetheless, it is impressive.

While some teams that play Cover 3 press schemes may view Ramsey as a cornerback—and he is no slouch at the position—he is a much better safety prospect. He is a rare playmaker at a position that desperately needs more like him in the NFL. His great athleticism, feel for the game and impact on the field make him a clear top-five pick.

It is important for teams selecting high in the 2016 NFL draft to stockpile as much elite talent as possible to hasten the rebuild. Filling needs is nice but often causes teams to pass on more impactful talent. The supply and demand of certain positions must also be a factor for each selection.

Obtaining the next Eric Berry will likely cost a top-five selection, but Ramsey is a premium talent. He’s a fit for any system and will be well worth the investment.

 

All stats used are from sports-reference.com.

Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. 

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Brady Hoke Named Oregon Defensive Coordinator: Latest Contract Details, Reaction

Former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke was named Oregon's new defensive coordinator Saturday, the school announced

"We are extremely excited to welcome Coach Hoke to the Oregon family," Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich said, according to the school's press release. "He's passionate, knowledgeable and tough, and has an outstanding track record of success from a defensive standpoint."

Hoke's four-year stint with the Maize and Blue ended in 2014 after Michigan went 5-7 following three straight winning seasons. 

Before moving to Ann Arbor in 2011, Hoke spent six years as Ball State's head coach before he was hired by San Diego State in the same position. The 57-year-old also has ties to the Pacific Northwest after serving as an assistant coach at Oregon State from 1989 to 1994. 

As Oregon's press release noted, Hoke was renowned for turning around a fledgling Michigan defense. During the 2014 season, the Wolverines ranked 10th with 311 yards allowed per game and a respectable 28th in opponents' scoring (22.4 points per game). 

According to Sporting News' Lisa Horne, Hoke should help an Oregon defense that allowed a 114th-ranked 36.8 points per game in 2015: 

However, Bleacher Report's Bryan Fischer noted the move was a bit strange for one glaring reason: 

While Hoke's lack of experience as a defensive coordinator is concerning to a degree, he shouldn't be hard-pressed to help the Ducks improve at least modestly on that side of the ball. Oregon ranked 116th last season by allowing 480 yards per game—more than 300 of which came through the air.

Hoke won't turn the Ducks defense around instantly, but his time at Michigan suggests Oregon stands to benefit from his presence on the sidelines. 

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Jonathan Allen Returning to Alabama: Latest Comments and Reaction

Alabama Crimson Tide defensive lineman Jonathan Allen will return to the school for his senior season, according to Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman on Saturday.

Allen led the Crimson Tide with 12 sacks, tied for sixth in the nation overall, as part of a vaunted defensive line. He also led the team in tackles for loss with 14.5.

At 6'3", 272 pounds, Allen showed off his arsenal in 2015, displaying dynamic speed that provided an explosive first step off the snap along with a strength that allowed him to power his way through the interior of the trenches. 

He put those skills on display during the Tide's national semifinal game against Michigan State, as NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah highlighted:

His versatility allows him to choose where on the offensive line he's going to attack. He's been successful rushing from both the inside and the outside, which gives pass protectors a difficult time deciphering where he is going to charge from. 

Allen certainly has impressed ESPN's Adam Rittenberg this season:

Walter Football had him slated as a mid-first-round selection, and ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. ranked him fifth among all defensive ends, per Saturday Down South

Alabama receives a huge defensive boost with Allen returning for his senior season. The Tide are already losing senior defensive players like linemen Jarran Reed and D.J. Pettway and linebacker Reggie Ragland.

The team also saw junior defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson declare for the draft, along with Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry. Getting Allen back ensures there will be a familiar face, and a good one at that, on the line to lead the defense and help lead a title defense next season. 

 

Stats courtesy of Sports-Reference.com

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SMU Coach Chad Morris Attempts to Dance to Celebrate New Recruiting Class

We can't decide what's worse: the so-called dance, the fact that Chad Morris was casually bumping 50 Cent like it's 2003 or that he thought it was OK to share a video of it on Twitter.

But to each his own, and what a gift this is to the Internet.

The SMU head football coach was apparently excited about the Mustangs' recruiting class, so what better way to celebrate the 18-day countdown to signing day than with a little number to "In Da Club" in your living room?

You do you, coach.

[Chad Morris]

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West Virginia Mountaineers vs. Oklahoma Sooners Betting Odds, Analysis

Two of the Big 12’s best teams not named the Kansas Jayhawks will meet in Norman on Saturday when the second-ranked Oklahoma Sooners (14-1) host the 11th-ranked West Virginia Mountaineers (15-1).

The top-ranked Jayhawks (14-2) suffered their second loss of the season at West Virginia as one-point road favorites, 74-63, on Wednesday and could be giving up their ranking to the Sooners pending this result.

Oklahoma is listed as a six-point home favorite at sportsbooks monitored by Odds Shark and will try to avoid being the next upset victim of the Mountaineers, who are a perfect 4-0 in Big 12 play.

The Sooners suffered their lone setback at Kansas in triple overtime but beat the spread as seven-point road dogs on January 4. They have won two in a row since then against the Kansas State Wildcats and Oklahoma State Cowboys, although they did not cover either game.

West Virginia’s only loss took place on the road against the Virginia Cavaliers, 70-54, as 4.5-point road dogs on December 8 of last year, with the team currently riding an eight-game winning streak and going 4-4 against the spread during that stretch.

The Mountaineers are 3-3 ATS on the road and will be trying to cover their third straight overall.

The key for West Virginia will be holding Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield in check. Hield ranks second in the country in scoring with 26.6 points per game, and he totaled 21 in each of the two meetings a year ago.

The Mountaineers won the first game between the teams, 86-65, at home as 4.5-point favorites and lost the second, 71-52, on the road as 5.5-point dogs. The Sooners had won five of the previous six meetings both straight up and ATS, according to the Odds Shark College Basketball Database.

Hield scored a career-high 46 points on 13-of-23 shooting (57 percent) in the loss to the Jayhawks, and he has stayed hot in the last two games. He scored 31 against Kansas State and had 26 versus Oklahoma State, making 21 of 31 shots from the field (68 percent), including 12-of-20 (60 percent) from beyond the three-point arc.

The over is 5-1 in Oklahoma’s last six, with Hield averaging 31 points per game.

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Derrick Henry Discusses NFL Draft Grade, Preferred Destination, More

Alabama Crimson Tide running back Derrick Henry racked up the yards, accolades and trophies during a junior season that was one for the record books.

However, according to Michael Casagrande of AL.com, the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner didn't agree with the second-round draft grade the NFL's draft advisory board handed him.

"I feel like, just because I got my grade, it doesn't mean I'm not going to be first round," Henry said. "I feel like what I do and how I test at the combine and work out. I feel like I will be first round. There's no doubt in my mind that I won't be."

After racking up 2,219 yards and 28 touchdowns—both SEC records—Henry expected a first-round grade. Yet many consider the Ohio State Buckeyes' Ezekiel Elliott to be the No. 1 back in the draft, while Henry sits at No. 2.

Even with just one running back ahead of him, CBS Sports projects the player who ran for 158 yards and three touchdowns in a national championship game win over the Clemson Tigers to go in the late first or early second round.

Henry, who told Casagrande he hopes to land with the Dallas Cowboys, will have one advantage over other backs. 

"Nobody is going to outwork me," he said. "I'm going to push and work hard every day. I feel fee like hard work pushes you over the limit and makes you who you are. I'm going to work hard every day. Nobody is going to outwork me."

However, no amount of hard work is going to land Henry with the Cowboyswho hold the No. 4 selection—in the first round unless they trade down.

One knock on Henry is that some experts feel like he benefited from a talented offensive line at Alabama. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller provided a stat that proves he ran behind talented run-blockers:

Dane Brugler of CBS Sports wrote about Henry's weaknesses:

Like most big backs, Henry needs some space to get moving. He's not nearly as powerful running east to west. He also lacks ideal balance for the position, sporting a top-heavy frame and long legs which make it easier for defenders to tackle him low. This forces Henry to lunge, on occasion, rather than drive forward.

However, Henry is confident in his abilities and is going to focus on what he can do to get better.

"No, I'm not satisfied," he said, per Casagrande. "I'm never really satisfied. But all I worry about [is] what I can control."

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Breaking Down Alabama's Depth Chart Following NFL Draft Departures

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Apparently playing in Dallas twice this season, where the University of Alabama football team won more games at AT&T Stadium than the National Football League’s Cowboys, made quite an impression on running back Derrick Henry.

When asked if there’s any NFL team in particular he’d like to play for, the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner said “the Cowboys, but any team that drafts me."

"(They’re) not my favorite team, just a team that I feel like has a great organization."

Henry hasn’t gone as far as look at any team’s roster, but even with his and A’Shawn Robinson’s departure, as the junior defensive lineman also declared himself eligible for the 2016 draft on Friday, the team they’re leaving behind remains pretty loaded as well.

Of the 85 scholarship players Nick Saban compiled for the 2015-16 season, 18 were initially considered 5-star recruits by 247Sports and another 47 were 4-star players. That worked out to 76.5 percent of the roster.

Here’s the scary part:

Of all the players leaving the program, only two were considered 5-star recruits. They just happened to be the two who just declared for the NFL draft together, Henry and Robinson.

“I didn't do a draft grade,” said Robinson, who could be the first defensive lineman selected and appears to be almost a first-round lock. “Coach Saban talked to coaches for me to see where they'd draft me.”

Heading into the weekend the Crimson Tide already know they're losing:

Seniors: Quarterback Jake Coker, linebacker Denzel Devall, running back Kenyan Drake, tight end Ty Flournoy-Smith, tackle Dominick Jackson, cornerback Cyrus Jones, center Ryan Kelly, nose guard Darren Lake, linebacker Dillon Lee, guard Isaac Luatua, safety Geno Matias-Smith, wide receiver Richard Mullaney, tight end Michael Nysewander, defensive lineman D.J. Pettway, linebacker Reggie Ragland, defensive lineman Jarran Reed, cornerback Bradley Sylve and defensive back Jabriel Washington.

Juniors declaring for the draft: Henry and Robinson.

Transfers: Quarterback Alec Morris and wide receiver Chris Black.

All indications are that defensive lineman Jonathan Allen and tight end O.J. Howard are still weighing their NFL options (and both were 5-star recruits).

Linebackers Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams have already announced their return, as has starting strong safety Eddie Jackson—who just made the move from cornerback this past season.

Players have until Monday afternoon to declare early for the draft.

“A lot of guys will step up next year,” Matias-Smith said. “Alabama will be back.”

Although playing until mid-January will delay the team’s offseason conditioning program, the next position battles will begin during spring practices sometime in March. But there may not be as many competitions as expected.

On offense there are just four. Alabama will have another quarterback competition, this time between just three players instead of last year’s five: Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Blake Barnett.

At running back, Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough are expected to form the tandem to handle the majority of snaps, while the offensive line has to replace center Ryan Kelly and right tackle Dominick Jackson. Alabama already has players who could step in tomorrow if it had a game.  

On defense, the entire starting line will need to be replaced should Allen bolt, but Alabama had a nine-man rotation, 14 if you include the linebackers serving as pass-rushers, so the losses figure to be felt more on the back end.

At linebacker it appears that Reuben Foster will return in hopes of becoming Alabama’s next great player in the interior.

“When you think about Rolando McClain, Dont’a Hightower, C.J. Mosley the next in line is Reggie Ragland, and Reuben Foster will next year be a first-round possibility,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. “I think it would be smart for him to go back and be the leader of that defense just as Reggie Ragland was.”

Williams and Rashaan Evans will try to take the next steps in their development with Anderson a natural fit to be the full-time Jack, the full-time linebacker/defensive end hybrid position in Saban’s scheme.

Meanwhile, the secondary will lose the leadership of Cyrus Jones, but Saban started restocking a couple of years ago, and the back end could be a real team strength.

All in all, with so many players getting experience this national championship season, there’s really not much retooling that has to be done, and Alabama will sign another top-notch recruiting class next month as well.

One has to wonder how many of them might eventually leave early for the NFL, which has become a pretty regular thing every year as the coaches reload the roster.

"We've had 20 guys go out early since 2009 and 13 of them have been first-round draft picks, which we're very, very proud of,” Saban said. “I think as always, every player—which was really demonstrated at the national championship game out in Phoenix this year when we had over 20 guys that were former players here that played in the NFL now—they were all on the sidelines with their team and in the locker room as if they were a part of the team.

“These guys know and it's a part of our tradition that we're very proud of their accomplishments, we're very concerned about their futures, and we're always here to support them. They're always welcome to come back to Alabama, and we certainly encourage them to come back and get their degree."

Robinson made a point of saying that he will get his degree.

“I'll miss everything,” Henry said. “This program is…just everything. I loved playing here. I loved going to school here. I'll miss everything about it. The fans, football, everything.”

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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

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