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LSU Football: 5 Things That Must Change for the Tigers to Improve in 2015

LSU fans are not pleased, and head coach Les Miles knows it. 

The Tigers went 8-5 last season, which was the first time they failed to win at least 10 games in a season since 2009. This is not acceptable for the standards Miles has set for himself in Baton Rouge. 

A double-digit win total will not be easy. The SEC is deep, particularly in the West division. The Tigers must improve in all facets of the game if they want to reach the SEC Championship Game. 

Here are a few areas the Tigers must improve to take a step forward next season.

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Texas Football: 5 Things That Must Change for the Longhorns to Improve in 2015

The Texas Longhorns' improvement in 2015 will depend almost exclusively on the development of their offense and the quarterback that leads them.

Head coach Charlie Strong's defense can't do much better than it did last season. It led the Big 12 in passing yards per attempt and sacks while allowing 3.9 yards per carry on the ground. The defense in 2015 may not be as stout as it was this past year, but there's no reason to doubt what Strong and his staff are doing on this side of the ball.

The offense is another story, as the Horns were below average in just about every category. Of course, the quarterback position remains an issue, but more changes must be made for this team to improve on its 6-7 record.

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UCLA Football: 5 Things That Must Change for Bruins to Improve in 2015

At the conclusion of each season, every college football staff has a self-reflection period to gauge the current state of their respective programs. 

As for Jim Mora and the UCLA football program, an introspective look will likely lead to the realization that there are areas within the team in need of improvement.

This piece will take a look at five specific things that could stand to see refinement.

Two of these principles deal strictly with scheme. One delves into a specific position unit, and the last two items speak about a collective mindset within the squad.

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UCLA Football: 5 Things That Must Change for Bruins to Improve in 2015

At the conclusion of each season, every college football staff has a self-reflection period to gauge the current state of their respective programs...

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Oregon Football: 5 Things That Must Change for the Ducks to Improve in 2015

While Oregon’s 2014 season came to a disappointing end in the national title game against Ohio State, it was still a season of firsts for the Ducks.

Oregon came away from 2014 with its first Heisman Trophy winner, Marcus Mariota, a spot in the first-ever College Football Playoff, a win in the first CFP game ever played and a trip to the first CFP title game.

All in all, it was a memorable season. Now, the Ducks must turn their attention to 2015.

The Ducks are, and should be, recognized as one of the finest programs in the country. They have to be considered a College Football Playoff threat from here on out. Moreover, the program should be expected to win the Pac-12 title and earn a spot into the playoff every year.

Yes, the Ducks lose their best player in Mariota. However, they will still likely be heavily favored to win the Pac-12 North and the Pac-12 title.

In order to do so and get back to the CFP National Championship, the Ducks must improve in a variety of ways.

It all starts with what they lacked in the national title game: toughness.

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Oregon Football: 5 Things That Must Change for the Ducks to Improve in 2015

While Oregon’s 2014 season came to a disappointing end in the national title game against Ohio State, it was still a season of firsts for the Ducks...

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Michigan Football: Who Will Be Wolverines' Top Offensive Playmakers for 2015?

The transformation of Michigan’s coaching staff gives reason to believe that several players could emerge this fall for the new-look, Jim Harbaugh-charged Wolverines offense.

But there will be a transition period, as Harbaugh has to replace receiver Devin Funchess, a 6’5”, 235-pound prototypical No. 1 target, and Devin Gardner, the team’s most experienced quarterback.

Despite a lukewarm junior year, Funchess showed enough on the field to command attention from the NFL, which is why he’s skipping his senior season to enter the upcoming draft. But he would certainly be of use this fall for the Wolverines, who have bodies at the position but lack meaningful experience.

Gardner could be difficult to replace as well. Due to unbalanced circumstances and injury, he wasn’t able to reach anticipated heights, but he had his highlight-worthy moments and could make things happen.

That said, Harbaugh is starting his coaching tenure with Shane Morris, a sophomore with two starts (including the 2014 Buffalo Wilds Wing Bowl), redshirt freshman Wilton Speight and incoming frosh Alex Malzone, who will make his membership official on national signing day.

Redshirt sophomore Amara Darboh leads the way with 36 of the team’s returning 127 receptions. Jake Butt, a sophomore tight end, is second with 14, and redshirt sophomore Jehu Chesson rounds out the top three with 11.

Spring ball will provide better clues, but a few returning players stand out today as likely contributors this fall.

 

Run It Back

Sophomores De’Veon Smith and Derrick Green will have company in 2015, as USC transfer Ty Isaac is now eligible to suit up on game day. That’s good news for a backfield that remains in pursuit of an identity.

The story is the same for Green and Smith: They’ve yet to really gain traction, but they have shown signs of progression—especially Green, who was derailed after breaking his clavicle Oct. 4 versus Rutgers. Prior to the season-ending injury, he was well on his way to becoming the No. 1 back.

Isaac is the unknown factor in the equation. He was buried in the Trojans depth chart, so there aren’t a lot of previous games to judge. But offensive coordinator Tim Drevno, also formerly of USC, could combine with running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley and turn the 6’3”, 225-pounder into a mainstay.

Together, Drevno and Wheatley symbolize a recommitment to the ground attack. Drevno is known for strong lines and effective backs. Wheatley played behind great lines while running his way into Michigan’s record books in the early 1990s.

They could revitalize Green and Smith, too. It’s been said in the past, but it stands today: Michigan, on paper, has a good backfield. Surprisingly enough, the Wolverines averaged 4.6 yards per carry in 2014. That’s not a garbage average, either. Green led the charge with 5.7 per touch, and Smith followed with 4.8.

There is potential; it never left. But all of that goes back to the performance of the offensive line.

 

Right Guy for Left Tackle

Left tackle is one of the most important positions in the game, and it’s held in high regard at smashmouth schools such as Michigan.

As a freshman in 2014, Mason Cole demonstrated great resolve by continuously learning from his mistakes. By year’s end, the 6’5”, near-300-pounder looked like quite comfortable at his perch.

The line, the line, the line—that’s been the talk for three years. Cole is a cornerstone, and his progression could impact the running and passing games.

 

Breezy, Baby!

Jabrill Peppers is healthy and ready to work on boosting Michigan’s secondary, which really excites program great Marcus Ray.

An incredibly versatile athlete, Peppers could—with “could” being the operative word—do a thing or two on offense.

He’ll primarily play defense, but it’s fun to think about Peppers as a running back and/or receiver. Please, by all means, take a moment to think of the options—bubble screens, sweeps, stretches, whatever comes to mind.

All of that, though, may have to wait. But again, there’s nothing wrong with a little wild speculation for entertainment’s sake.

 

Catches to be Made

At 6’6” and 250 pounds, Butt is an obvious choice. He’s been hampered by knee/tendon injuries, but he’s a great deep threat when healthy. He may not have Funchess' hops, but Butt can extend for the circus grabs too.

There is a lot to like about Chesson, who always came across as a diligent worker during media availability. Instead of self-promoting, he often chose to talk about team-wide improvement. He’s had to overcome foot injuries, but 2015 could be a memorable go for the 6’3”, 197-pounder.

Darboh has had foot issues too, but his upside makes the 6’2,” 211-pounder worthy of discussion. See his six-catch, 88-yard performance versus Miami (Ohio) and his nine-catch, 107-yard romp versus Indiana, both 34-10 wins for the Wolverines.

Freddy Canteen was “Freddy Footwork” this past spring. He was supposed to be the next sure-handed speedster. But again, inconsistencies on offense wouldn’t allow for developmental reps, so Canteen didn’t play as much as he should have.

The 6’1”, 176-pound freshman finished the year with five catches for 22 yards and a touchdown.

 

The Quarterback

He needs a lot of work and more reps, but Morris has already proved capable of improvisation. The 6’3”, 203-pound lefty has enough arm strength to make the necessary throws, but his ability to pick up a few yards by foot deserves consideration.

He has a set of respectable wheels.

Speight is 6’6” and 234 pounds. He probably won’t run often, but he’s far from immobile. However, going aerial is his best bet. That’s where he has the most potential to make an impact. He has a cannon, and it’s only getting better. He regularly threw great balls during pregame warm-ups.

Yes, it’s come down to gauging guys on pregame performance. Michigan hasn’t developed its youth, so each year is essentially a reset.

At 6’1.5” and 220 pounds, Malzone doesn’t have the natural benefit of seeing over everyone like Speight does. However, the former Birmingham Brother Rice star didn’t win three state titles and complete 65 percent of his passes in 2014 by accident.

He has great vision and decent mobility.

It doesn’t matter who leads—Morris, Speight or Malzone—but a quarterback must take charge this fall. Headlining quarterbacks are staples of Harbaugh teams, so expecting one to emerge this year is relatively easy.

 

Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and references were obtained firsthand by the writer via press conference, press release or other media availability.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Marcus Mariota's Draft Stock: What Flaws Concern Scouts Most

Marcus Mariota is one of the top two quarterback prospects in the NFL draft and a strong candidate to be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' selection with the No. 1 pick.

But just like any prospect coming out of college, there are some concerns about his game. Mariota is not the next Andrew Luck, and he's far from a flawless prospect.

So what aspects of his game raise the biggest red flags?

This article isn't meant to disparage Mariota in any way, but let's focus on the negatives for a moment to better understand what his limitations may be at the next level and what concerns could cause him to slide on some draft boards.

 

Reading the Defense

Mariota clearly has a strong grasp on Oregon's playbook—a fact that is a positive check mark on his resume— but little is asked of him in terms of reading the opposing defense.

This is one of the first points brought up by his detractors, and it is true—to an extent.

Mariota does read the defense before the snap, as do all quarterbacks. Even in an offense that is described by some as gimmicky, he needs to see how the defense is lined up so he is prepared for blitzes and coverages. He clearly does this and even audibles at times to adjust to the defensive formation.

Where he is lacking in his defensive fluency, however, is after the snap.

On certain plays, such as the read option, Mariota is proficient at making strong decisions based on defensive movement. But his experience reading defenses from the pocket is limited. 

In the NFL, Mariota will face defenses that do a much more efficient job of disguising their blitzes and coverages, forcing him to make adjustments after the snap. Oregon's offense hasn't adequately prepared him for this due to the high percentage of quick throws designed to hit open receivers within one or two seconds of the snap.

It's certainly reasonable to expect Mariota to develop these skills at the next level, but it is a concern teams will have about his NFL-readiness as a rookie.

 

Deep Accuracy

Mariota has a quick release and frequently fires strikes to his receivers in Oregon's fast-paced passing attack. However, things tend to fall apart when he's asked to hit receivers further down the field.

The clip below shows him overthrowing an open receiver from a perfectly clean pocket. 

This is an issue that shows up throughout Mariota's film, and it is somewhat concerning because it's difficult to pinpoint a reason why he struggles. 

If a quarterback struggles with accuracy but displays inconsistent footwork or a quirky release, a coach can reasonably expect to fix the issue. Mariota, however, shows consistent mechanics, making it more difficult to address this concern from a coaching perspective.

 

Durability

Mariota played through an MCL injury during the 2013 season, demonstrating his toughness. And he's managed to avoid any serious injuries throughout his career.

However, due to his relatively slight frame (he's listed at 6'4", 214 pounds) and the fact that he is a weapon on the run, there are legitimate reasons to be concerned about his ability to hold up in the NFL.

Phil Savage: "I'm concerned about Mariota's durability long term, since he is a running QB."

— 975TheFanatic (@975TheFanatic) January 17, 2015

This area of concern is more of an unknown, and one that's unlikely to dramatically influence his place on a team's draft board, but it is a red flag teams will have to consider.

These are likely to be the three primary areas of concern teams will address with Mariota when they first meet with him at the NFL scouting combine. He is clearly an intelligent player on and off the field, so he will likely say all the right things when he's asked.

But these concerns will linger over his draft stock and will be the primary areas of focus for the coaching staff that ends up with him after April's draft.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Marcus Mariota's Draft Stock: What Flaws Concern Scouts Most

Marcus Mariota is one of the top two quarterback prospects in the NFL draft and a strong candidate to be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' selection with the No. 1 pick...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

10 College Football Teams That Are Happy to Put 2014 Behind Them

Most college football teams exit the season having failed to check off the box next to every preseason goal.

Unless you're Urban Meyer and Ohio State, there were some moments during the 2014 season that left you shaking your head and wishing you could skip to the next chapter. Heck, even the Buckeyes suffered an inexcusable home loss to Virginia Tech back in November, though that will simply go down as an odd footnote in the history books.

The list of programs that are happy to put 2014 behind them is a long one. The obvious candidates to make the list are the bottom-dwellers in each conference—the teams that only won a couple games during the season.

But you also have to look at those who entered the year with massive expectations and failed to deliver. Finally, some schools put together a strong showing, but the future is so bright that they can't help but be eager to turn the page. Neither Tennessee nor Arkansas made the list, but I imagine fans of each program can't wait to get to 2015.

Let's take a look at 10 college football teams that are ready to put 2014 in the rearview mirror and begin the process of making 2015 special.

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Tennessee Football: Offseason Goals for Volunteers Offense

With Thursday's news that offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian is parting ways with the Tennessee football program, question marks suddenly became abundant for the Volunteers offense.

Bajakian's departure—first reported by FoxSports.com's Bruce Feldman—leaves UT without a clear direction two weeks before national signing day and two months before the start of spring practice.

Head coach Butch Jones needs to make the right hire to facilitate his offensive philosophy into a brighter, more talent-laden era in Tennessee football.

But with plenty of playmakers in place, the goals for this Vols offense don't stop with the new hire. As a matter of fact, the person whom Jones brings in will be charged with the task of doing much better than Bajakian's two rocky seasons on Rocky Top.

With potential stars in place such as quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd, the foundation is there for this group to make a major step forward.

Yes, the hire will be vital, but it's also exciting to think of who UT could lure because of all the elite players on campus.

Between the promise of some new play-calling chops (despite the swirling uncertainty) and the brimming pool of prospects ready to break out, this offseason could be a springboard.

Let's take a look at some important steps the unit must take before a 2015 season that will carry elevated expectations with it.

 

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Kris Boyd Tweets Top 2 Schools: Does Texas or Texas A&M Need 4-Star More?

The recruitment of Kris Boyd appears headed for a Lone Star State shootout, as the 4-star defensive back has narrowed his list down to two in-state schools. He made this announcement Thursday afternoon via Twitter:

Boyd, a 5'11.5", 185-pound cornerback from Gilmer, Texas, had previously included Texas and Texas A&M among his top four, along with Alabama and Baylor. He is coming off a visit to Texas last weekend and has a trip to A&M scheduled for Friday.

A planned trip to Baylor was canceled earlier this week, per Brian Ethridge of 247Sports.

Rated as the No. 98 overall player in the 2015 class and the 11th-best corner in the country, according to 247Sports, Boyd had two interceptions and 43 tackles as a senior while also amassing 1,860 all-purpose yards and 31 touchdowns as a running back and receiver for Gilmer. He helped the Buckeyes go 16-0 in the fall en route to winning Texas' 4A Division II state title.

"There are things you see from Boyd as a running back that project very well to corner," wrote Jamie Uyeyama of SonOfACoach.com. "He catches the ball very well out of the backfield and has the speed to run away from defenders. His overall athleticism that he shows with the ball in his hands really stand out."

Boyd would be the highest-rated defensive back for either Texas or A&M for 2015, depending on where he ends up landing. His value to each school is different, though, based more on what they already have on the roster.

A&M graduated cornerback Deshazor Everett, but that opening could end up going to Nick Harvey, a 4-star signee from 2014 who played in all 13 games last season while logging 14 tackles. Other reserves who figure to challenge for that spot include Victor Davis and Tavares Garner.

At Texas, the departure of seniors Quandre Diggs and Mykkele Thompson (who started at safety but also played corner in nickel packages) leaves more of a hole to fill. The Longhorns also have fewer likely replacements on the roster. The top candidates would be Bryson Echols, who had 18 tackles as a sophomore last year, sophomore-to-be Antwuan Davis or Jermaine Roberts, a 3-star prospect from the 2014 class who redshirted.

Though he's been targeted as a defensive back in college, if Boyd has any ambitions of being able to contribute on offense as well, then Texas becomes even more enticing. Unlike A&M, which seems to be overflowing with skill-position talent, the Longhorns are short on wideouts and thus are going hard at receiving prospects in this recruiting class.

247Sports' crystal ball predictions have Texas as the favorite, with a 66 percent chance to grab Boyd. Of the last 19 experts to weigh in, 17 have picked the Longhorns as his future team.

 

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Texas Should Worry That 4-Star QB Zach Gentry Is Visiting Michigan

A visit from 5-star Texas A&M commit Kyler Murray may have fired up Longhorns fans Wednesday, but he isn't the only quarterback who warrants attention moving forward. 

Zach Gentry is reportedly reconsidering his commitment to Texas.

Michigan has mounted a late push for the New Mexico product, who received an in-person visit from Jim Harbaugh on Monday, per James Yodice of the Albuquerque Journal. The Wolverines' new head coach, attempting to salvage a depleted 2015 recruiting class, quickly identified Gentry as a top target.

The 4-star prospect pledged to Texas last spring, but quickly reciprocated interest from Michigan. He is suddenly set to spend this weekend on an official visit in Ann Arbor, according to Steve Lorenz of 247Sports.

Gentry—a 6'7", 230-pound Eldorado High School standout—has also provided other signals that suggest his time in the Longhorns' class is approaching a conclusion.

He cancelled an in-home visit with members of the Texas coaching staff and removed any mention of a Longhorns commitment from his Twitter bio.

Clint Brewster of 247Sports succinctly summarized the situation:

Gentry, rated eighth nationally among pro-style quarterbacks in 247Sports' composite rankings, was named New Mexico's 2014 Gatorade Player of the Year. He displays dual-threat capabilities with a physical frame that's rare for the position.

His senior campaign included 2,978 passing yards, 1,057 rushing yards and 48 touchdowns, per Gatorade. Gentry registered 38 scores on the ground as an upperclassman and tallied at least three total touchdowns in 11 of 12 games last season. 

Gentry may have been overlooked at times during this recruiting cycle due to his home state, but college scouts took notice by the end of his junior year. He's assembled an offer list that includes Alabama, Louisville, Oklahoma State and Tennessee. 

Michigan offers him an opportunity to become the only quarterback on campus recruited exclusively by the new coaching regime. Alex Malzone, a 4-star early enrollee, was one of six holdover commits from the Brady Hoke era. 

Harbaugh has compelling quarterback talent to work with in Ann Arbor, notably redshirt freshman Wilton Speight, but he inherited each of those options.

Gentry is a player he has specifically targeted. Harbaugh displayed legitimate admiration by traveling to a faraway state with no other potential Michigan prospects just to sit down for a conversation. 

It wouldn't be a surprise if Gentry became a member of the Wolverines' class this weekend before boarding his flight home.

This development puts immense pressure on Charlie Strong to identify a solution in Austin. A disastrous end to his first season at Texas put emphasis on the fact that he has substantial work to do on roster development.

Starting quarterback Tyrone Swoopes didn't win over many Longhorns supporters down the stretch. He averaged just 4.4 yards per pass attempt in losses to TCU and Arkansas, throwing five interceptions in the process.

Many foresee an eventual position change for Swoopes, but further reinforcements at quarterback are needed to facilitate that move. Strong must add legitimate alternatives on national signing day. 

Jerrod Heard was a 4-star signee last February and should step up to challenge for the job this spring. Commit Matthew Merrick, rated 57th nationally among pro-style quarterbacks, is destined for grayshirt status that would eliminate him from the equation in 2015.

Murray set social media ablaze with his Twitter post from Austin on Wednesday, but there's a vast difference between visiting a campus and flipping your commitment:

He remains entrenched as the catalyst of Texas A&M's 2015 class, which also features close friend and 5-star wide receiver Christian Kirk.

His father, Kevin Murray, was a star Aggies quarterback and eventual Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame inductee. 

You better believe Kevin Sumlin and his staff have already mounted a response to Murray's trip with their own recruiting tactics. He likely received several assurances from College Station about his future.

Simply put, it wouldn't be wise for Strong to place all of his eggs in Murray's basket. 

With Gentry inching toward the exit door less than two weeks shy of national signing day, concern should run rampant in Austin.

 

Recruit ratings courtesy of 247Sports.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

2015 Recruits Notre Dame Must Land to Get Back to the Top of College Football

Notre Dame is looking to rebound after a subpar 2014 season, and it all starts with Brian Kelly's incoming freshman class. 

Bleacher Report's Stephen Nelson sits down with Notre Dame beat writer Keith Arnold to discuss the players the Fighting Irish need to land for next season. 

Who is a must-have recruit for ND?

Watch the video and let us know! 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

4-Star WR Ryan Newsome 'Still Torn' About Texas, UCLA; Will Decide Friday

The biggest decision of Ryan Newsome's life will take place around 4 p.m. ET Friday. The 4-star wide receiver from Texas will announce at Aledo High School where he'll play college football next season.

The decision will come down to Texas and UCLA. As of Thursday, the decision is still between Texas and UCLA.

"I'm still torn," Newsome said. "I'll definitely know something by tonight."

A quick chat with Newsome will confirm that his words are not smoke and mirrors. While Newsome has a genuine passion for both programs, he knows he'll have to make a tough decision.

Both programs could use a talented athlete like Newsome. In addition to lining up in the slot receiver position, Newsome also can serve as a dependable punt returner and kickoff returner. He tied a national record with seven punt returns for touchdowns as a junior, and he chased the career punt returns record but fell just short.

Texas fans are hoping he'll join a class in need of a receiver commit or two. Florida WR talent Gilbert Johnson is committed to the Longhorns, and multifaceted in-state athlete DeAndre McNeal has a desire to play receiver at the next level. But Newsome would be a welcomed addition at a needed position.

UCLA also could use a couple of receivers. California WR L.J. Reed is committed to the Bruins, and while fellow Californian Octavius Spencer can be effective on both sides of the ball, he is projected by 247Sports to play cornerback at the next level.

Decisions, decisions for Newsome, who said everything will come down to comfort level within himself.

"The process has been long, and it gets tiresome," Newsome said. "Sometimes, your mind just wants to take a break, but it's really all about how you handle it. I'm blessed to be in the position I'm in. With all of it comes a lot of humility. When those [recruiters] call, I'm always answering."

The 247Sports Crystal Ball predictions have Newsome headed to Texas (85 percent) with only UCLA receiving 2 percent of the votes. Newsome said there's a genuine love for UCLA, as the school would give him a new start in a new environment. Plus, playing in the Pac-12 would be an opportunity for him to play in a productive offense under Jim Mora.

And speaking of Mora, Newsome said Mora's been his primary contact. He's built an outstanding relationship with Bruins receivers coach Eric Yarber, but Newsome said Mora has been the guy he hears from repeatedly—an important fact entering Friday afternoon.

With Texas, the triple threat of running backs coach Tommie Robinson, recruiting coordinator Brian Jean-Mary and new receivers coach Jay Norvell has been working on Newsome. Norvell, who recently came to Texas from Oklahoma, recruited Newsome to Oklahoma.

Jared Christopher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram provided this classic tweet:

Newsome said his decision will be difficult, but his pick will be one "steered by faith."

"I think it's whatever the best place for me. It's best place that God will lead me to," he said. "At the end of the day, a lot of people probably won't understand that, but to me, that's what it'll come down to."

 

Damon Sayles is a National Recruiting Analyst with Bleacher Report. All quotes were retrieved firsthand.

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Are Two-Way Football Stars Like Adoree Jackson, Myles Jack Wave of the Future?

A wave of two-way players in the Pac-12 Conference just might be ushering in the future of college football—and doing so with a nod to its past. 

"The history of football, you go back decades and it was almost the norm that guys were playing both [offense and defense]," USC head coach Steve Sarkisian said. "Then, that really quieted down."

Thanks to USC cornerback, wide receiver and returner Adoree' Jackson, and across town with UCLA linebacker and running back Myles Jack, buzz for two-way play is gaining volume. 

College football went almost four decades between two-way Heisman Trophy winners, from Syracuse legend Ernie Davis winning the game's top individual honor in 1961, to Charles Woodson doing so at Michigan in 1997. 

But rather than Woodson launching a new era of two-way stars, he was an outlier—or at least, ahead of his time.

Eighteen years after Woodson's exploits, Jackson is a throwback to the former Heisman winner, excelling as a cornerback, wide receiver and kick returner. And Jackson is just one in a club of burgeoning, two-way playmakers around both the conference and nation. 

UCLA-USC being the heated rivalry it is, any good Bruins fan will tell you that head coach Jim Mora beat the Trojans to the punch on two-way stars. 

Jack was already a standout on defense his freshman season, starting from Week 1 of the 2013 season and contributing as both a dynamic run-stopper and pass-rusher at linebacker. 

But he did not command national attention until he carried for 120 yards, 66 of which came on a game-sealing touchdown run at Arizona on Nov. 9, 2013. 

Jack may have indirectly opened the door for Pac-12 counterpart Shaq Thompson.

Facing a situation similar to that of UCLA in 2013, first-year Huskies head coach Chris Petersen turned to the junior linebacker, Thompson, as a ball-carrier.  

"We had some backs that were a little bit banged up," Petersen said in October. "We needed to get something going there so that’s why I did it."

All Washington got from Thompson was a three-game stretch of 98, 174 and 100 yards rushing. 

"Every situation is different and unique, depending on your team and who is playing and where you need a spark," Petersen said.

Washington needed a spark in the secondary as well as the backfield last season, and wide receiver John Ross obliged by playing cornerback. 

Coincidentally, Thompson and Ross were both recruits of Sarkisian's in his tenure at Washington. Given their success and the outstanding season Jackson had for USC, it would seem Sarkisian has an eye for such players. 

It doesn't hurt that he's seeing more of those players who are willing and able to take on offensive and defensive roles. 

"The guys in high school football are doing it more," Sarkisian said. "It makes the transition [to two-way play in college] easier." 

Indeed, among USC's committed recruits for 2015 is Ykili Ross, a 4-star wide receiver and cornerback. 

The Trojans are also pursuing Iman Marshall, a 5-star prospect from Long Beach Poly in Long Beach, California. This past season, Marshall recorded 85 tackles and 16 pass deflections as a cornerback for the Jackrabbits and 19 catches for 315 yards and eight touchdowns as a receiver, per MaxPreps.com.  

Marshall is a product of the same prep powerhouse that produced USC's second-leading receiver in 2014, John "JuJu" Smith. 

Smith ended his stellar freshman campaign not with a reception from quarterback Cody Kessler, but in pass coverage on USC's defense of a Nebraska Hail Mary attempt. 

Smith was a star safety in 2013 at Long Beach Poly, after all. 

 

Big Men on Campus (and on Offense and Defense)  

Two-way opportunities are not limited to the speedsters like Jackson, or "running backers" such as Jack and Thompson. 

UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone is fond of packages that use big bodies. Shortly after Jack's attention-grabbing performance at Arizona, Mazzone used defensive linemen Eddie Vanderdoes and Cassius Marsh in short-yardage and goal-line situations. 

Vanderdoes isn't quite a regular on the UCLA offense, but his appearances are not sporadic either. 

Football fans in the 1980s are well aware of the exploits of Chicago Bears great William “Refrigerator” Perry, the All-Pro defensive tackle who put the “jumbo” into Jumbo formation sets on the goal line.

Vanderdoes has kept the Fridge’s spirit intact—right down to a classic nickname. 

Mazzone said formations utilizing Vanderdoes are dubbed, "Big Panda."  

Vanderdoes has a touchdown carry in each of his first two seasons at UCLA. He also caught a pass from quarterback Brett Hundley against Arizona State in 2013—on fourth down, no less.

The Panda formation also utilizes Vanderdoes' 305-pound frame as a lead-blocking fullback. Whether it's Pac-12-leading rusher Paul Perkins or Jack following him, that's a whole lot for any defense to handle at the goal line. 

Oklahoma State featured its own such package in the Cowboys’ 30-22 Cactus Bowl win over Washington, giving the ball to defensive lineman James Castleman in critical situations. 

“It's called 'lahi,' which means big in Polynesian,” Castleman said in the postgame press conference.

Castleman's success in the Cactus Bowl is likely to spur more defensive linemen to seek offensive opportunities. Utah All-American end Nate Orchard touted his wide receiver skill set at last July's Pac-12 media days. 

"High school I went receiver and defensive end," Orchard said, launching a facetious campaign to line up as a red-zone receiver. "Catching the football's my favorite thing."

When asked how he felt seeing defensive players make plays on offense, Orchard said: "Envy." 

Orchard did not get his red-zone opportunity, but who knows? Maybe the success of Vanderdoes and Castleman on the offensive end will sway coaches for other defensive linemen looking to make an offensive splash.  

 

Benefits of Two-Way Play 

Intimately understanding the nuances of a particular position—say, linebacker—can translate to how a player approaches taking on a different position.

Like running back.  

"I play linebacker, so I have the linebacker mentality," Thompson told Pac-12 Networks after his career-high, 174-yard day against Colorado. "I was just looking at the linebackers, seeing which way they were going, and if they weren’t there, I just attack the hole."

Furthermore, the aggression typical of a linebacker can add a little something extra on a running back's stiff arm. 

Likewise, Jackson's speed allows him to keep pace with most any receiver, and that same quality poses a difficult matchup for cornerbacks. 

Two-way players can present matchup problems for which opposing offensive and defensive coordinators are not prepared. 

And even when they are, as Arizona was Jack—Wildcats head coach Rich Rodriguez recruited Jack to play running back, per ArizonaWildcats.com—the truly elite two-way stars will shine regardless. 

 

Double the Challenge

Playing two positions means shouldering two workloads, both on game day and in weekly preparation.  

"In practice, you get a lot of reps [playing two-way]," Jackson said. 

It's not just practice, but also film study where two-way players are taking on added repetition. 

"There’s a lot of sophistication to what we’re getting on both sides," Petersen said. "To just throw a guy out there without having a tremendous attention to detail is a really hard thing to do. So what meetings do you put him in? What walkthroughs do you put him in?"

Modern offenses have helped facilitate the rise of two-way players, Sarkisan explained. 

"The uptempo offense helps guys, because it’s not a bunch of verbiage," he said. "It’s a little bit more of a simplistic play-calling mechanism for everybody. That allows guys to do it a little bit more."

Once a player is up to speed, the next question a coaching staff must face when using a player on both offense and defense is how evenly is his time distributed? 

This is an internal question USC debated with Jackson. 

"I keep battling Justin Wilcox because I want him on offense," Sarkisian joked after last month's Holiday Bowl. "He probably would have scored four touchdowns if he was an offensive player tonight."

It's not that much of a battle; Jackson primarily plays cornerback because he proved to be USC's best option at the position, not surrendering a touchdown until the final game of the season.

Diverting too much of Jackson's attention away from defense would have left a hole on defense, which is precisely the care with which Mora had to handle Jack at UCLA.

"Coach Mora recruited me as a defensive player," Jack told me before the season. "He's going to make sure my offense doesn't sacrifice my defensive production."

Twice as many repetitions mean twice as much contact being sustained, and the buildup of wear on a player at two positions can render him ineffective at both.  

"It’s hard if you’re going to major in one side…especially at that running back/linebacker position," Petersen said. "That’s hard. Those running backs take such a pounding, then to go out at linebacker is tough."

There's certainly no guarantee of two-way opportunities paying off either. 

Though Jack ran wild from the outset of his time at running back, Washington's initial results with Thompson were hit-and-miss. 

Beyond a 57-yard touchdown run against Eastern Washington, Thompson's first eight carries of the season yielded just 27 yards. 

"We had a little package for him and got him a few plays," Petersen said. "Just kind of dabbled it in and got mediocre results. Shaq did some good things, but you’ve got to give guys, especially at that position, a chance to get into a rhythm."

And as Thompson found his rhythm at running back with that strong, three-game stretch, he was limited to five tackles on defense.

Using a two-way player forces coaches to strike an absolutely ideal balance—and have the ideal player with him to do it.  

"It does take a unique person, a unique player to really excel at it," Sarkisian said. 

The two-way life may not be for every college football player. But for those who fit the mold, it's a great way to pursue the ultimate goal, as described by Jack. 

"If it helps us to win games, I'm all for it," he said. 

 

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics courtesy CFBstats.com. Recruiting rankings and information via 247Sports.com

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Why Ohio State Won't Repeat as Playoff Champs Next Season

It seems almost a given that Ohio State will begin the 2015 season ranked as the No. 1 team in the country. Ending the year in that same spot isn't so certain, not in this new playoff era that we've leaped into in college football.

As good as the Buckeyes are projected to be as defending national champions, the odds are not in their favor to repeat. This isn't a prediction based on ability as much as it is circumstances, that all-encompassing word that seems like it shouldn't matter but far too often does when dealing with 18 to 22-year-old athletes competing in an increasingly professional-level sport.

Even before OSU completed their amazing run to the title earlier this month, I tabbed the Buckeyes as the most likely of the first College Football Playoff semifinalists to make a return trip to the playoffs. Nothing about that prediction has changed in the past two weeks, though now that they are champions the more pressing question is whether they can do it again.

"I've got a bunch of really good players, and I love our coaching staff," Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer said the day after beating Oregon 42-20 for the title, via the Times-Picayune. "The word repeat, we'll have that conversation, certainly not today."

Meyer may want to hold off on talking about the "R" word yet, but the question is still out there, and here's our answer: Nope.

Too much has to go perfectly for that to happen, and not enough of it is completely in the control of Meyer, his staff and his talented roster.

Here are some factors that will dictate why Ohio State will not be the 2015 national champions.

 

The Florida State Factor

To determine the future, one must first look into the recent past. Florida State was the first team to get a chance to repeat as champions in the new playoff era, albeit doing so after winning a title under the old BCS format beforehand. Yet the Seminoles serve as a succinct cautionary tale for how difficult it is to do it again.

On paper, the talent and skill of the 2014 FSU team wasn't much different than the one that blazed through the 2013 season and then outlasted Auburn for the championship. Yes, there were some holes that had to be filled, but with Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston, a veteran offensive line and key defensive stars all still around, it wasn't like the Seminoles were rebuilding.

FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher tried to focus more on repeating than defending, telling 247Sports' Tim Linafelt last summer that "you're not competing against the past. You're playing against the opponent that's on the field at that time. Stay in the moment, practice in the moment, and live in the moment."

And yet, as each week went on and FSU kept winning, eventually running its win streak to 29 games, it seemed like more discussion about the Seminoles was related to what they were doing wrong—compared to the results of 2013—and how they were on the brink of failure rather than laud their accomplishments.

Ohio State should expect nothing less than this. It's an unofficial part of the package that comes with being defending champions, the assumption that the sequel has to be better than the original despite getting evaluated in a completely different light.

 

The Heat of the Spotlight

As one of the most followed programs in the country, Ohio State's players and coaches should be used to bright lights and rabid fans. But the national interest in the Buckeyes hit some of its lowest levels in years early last season after the home loss to Virginia Tech made it seem like any chance of a postseason bid was dead in the water.

The fascination with OSU's comeback and constant improvement grew as the season went along, but it paralleled the increase in confidence that the team itself showed as it kept getting better. The Buckeyes, the media and fan interest all grew together, organically, eliminating the chance that the spotlights would get too warm too quickly.

That won't be the case this time around, as those lights will be dialed up to 10 from the outset. And they'll be so bright that if any stumbles happen similar to early in the 2014 season, they will end up standing out even more as the lights reveal any and all blemishes.

 

The Quarterback Quagmire

Ohio State loses eight starters or key reserves from the 2014 team, but the biggest personnel issue involves returning players. Three of them in fact, all of whom play the same position.

Dozens of FBS programs will be trying to find a quarterback that fits into the offense they want to run this fall, while the Buckeyes have to figure out how to sort out the rare situation of having three passers who have each shown the ability to handle the job in Columbus, and done so with flying colors.

But OSU's offense isn't one where shuffling quarterbacks makes sense, so only one from the lot of senior Braxton Miller, junior Cardale Jones and sophomore J.T. Barrett will end up starting. The others will be relegated to backups or end up going elsewhere.

How Meyer handles his quarterback situation is going to be the most intriguing storyline of the offseason, writes Brian Bennett of ESPN.com: "The situation is so fascinating, and the skills of the quarterbacks are just different enough, that everyone is anxious to find out what happens."

In many ways, this is one of those "good" problems that all teams would love to deal with, at least in theory. Instead, it has the strong likelihood of becoming its own reality show, especially once Miller (shoulder) and Barrett (leg, ankle) return from the injuries that led to OSU using three quarterbacks this past season.

It will make for great copy and huge ratings, but the participants in this show aren't likely to be as excited as everything plays out.

 

The Herman Effect

Meyer is one of two FBS coaches to win national titles at two different schools, joining Alabama's Nick Saban. The head coach gets the lion's share of the credit for such feats, and deservedly so, but it's in no way a one-man effort to lead a team to a championship.

Coaches like Meyer and Saban understand the importance of having a top-notch coaching staff around them, and trying to replace those assistants when they inevitably leave for better opportunities is just as critical.

Offensive coordinator Tom Herman, who managed to make the transition between three quarterbacks seem completely seamless, is now the head coach at Houston. He's been replaced by Ed Warinner and Tim Beck, the former elevated from offensive line coach and the latter coming over from Nebraska.

Both should fare well, but past history shows that such significant changes to a staff have an impact on the ensuing season for a defending champion.

Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt left Florida State after the 2013 season and the Seminoles defense struggled to match the previous results; the same thing happened when Pruitt stepped down as Alabama's secondary coach to go to FSU after helping the Crimson Tide win the 2012 title.

 

Final Thoughts

When asked about the concept of repeating less than 24 hours after accepting the championship trophy, Meyer indicated that his players have the mindset to make it happen because of the way they've been taught. They were given a three-step process to handling what he called "missions."

At his press conference the day after the title game, Meyer said, via the Times-Picayune:"When they accomplish a mission they can celebrate, the next thing they do is learn from it and then the final thing is they look forward to the next mission that's assigned to them."

This setup makes it possible for the Buckeyes to approach defending their title in a manner that could lessen the impact of many of the factors listed above. But nothing can prepare them for the uncertainty of the unknown and the tendency in today's sports world to overanalyze and overreact to every piece of potentially bad information.

It's one of many wild cards that will prevent Ohio State from repeating as champions in 2015.

 

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

11 2016 College Football Recruits Already Piling Up Monster Offers

National signing day 2015 is less than two weeks away, which means national signing day 2016 is roughly one year and two weeks away. GET HYPE!

Seriously, though, if you think it's premature to talk about this, you've never paid attention to recruiting. 247Sports uses "247" for a reason: because the recruiting cycle never stops. A more accurate (but understandably less catchy) name would be 247365Sports.

On that note, let's look at the players drawing the most interest in the 2016 class. Eleven of the top 50 players on 247Sports' composite rankings already have 26 or more scholarship offers, which is crazy for a group of high school juniors. And that group doesn't even include the No. 1 overall player, offensive tackle Greg Little.

Sound off and let us know where you think these guys will play.

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Incoming Freshmen Running Backs Poised to Break out in 2015

The 2015 group of running backs has some big shoes to fill because the 2014 freshman class was arguably one of the best in history. 

Bleacher Report college football analysts Michael Felder, Barrett Sallee and Adam Kramer debate which RB will have the biggest impact next season.

Which incoming freshman RB will make the biggest impact?

Check out the video, and let us know! 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Does College Football Have an Academics Problem?

Does college football have an academics problem—or do academics have a college football problem? However you want to phrase it, the fact that the question could go either way indicates there's a rift in the athletics-academics marriage. 

The next question, for which there is no clear answer, is when that marriage is headed for divorce.  

Brad Wolverton of The Chronicle of Higher Education reported Wednesday that the NCAA is looking into 20 cases of potential academic misconduct, from Division I to Division III: 

The cases are at various stages, from preliminary inquiry to awaiting a hearing with the Division I Committee on Infractions, and they involve a variety of missteps, including allegations that players received impermissible assistance from professors, academic advisers, or people outside of an athletic department. Eighteen of the cases are in Division I, one is in Division II, and one is in Division III. The official declined to name any of the colleges.

Academic misconduct allegations (and violations) aren't new to college athletics. There have been several reports just in the last couple of years about academic fraud, from the scandal at North Carolina to Sports Illustrated's expose on Oklahoma State in 2013. (Oklahoma State has since responded with its own inquiry into the allegations.) 

However, Wolverton does write that such cases "are on the rise in college sports."

To be abundantly clear, there's no information in Wolverton's article suggesting that football is the primary offender. That said, football is far and away the most popular college sport, and television contracts have turned it into a multibillion dollar business. With that comes the pressure to keep the most important assets—the players—eligible. 

One of the easiest narratives to buy into, true or not, is that everyone in college football bends or otherwise breaks the rules in some form, both on and off the field. It doesn't have to be blatant either; it can be something as simple as steering a player toward an easier major with classes that fit the practice schedule. That was an accusation made by former Missouri wide receiver Sean Coffey in 2012

(Of course, schools may counter that some students aren't cut out or don't meet the requirements for certain majors.)

Or, as Wolverton notes, academic misconduct can be of the wink-wink, nudge-nudge variety: 

Coaches are also involved. In some cases, head coaches have urged members of their staff—secretaries, athletic trainers, people in the weight room—to "get this young man or woman eligible," Ms. Sulentic said.

"It’s not necessarily a directive about what to do—‘I need you to write this kid’s paper,’" she said. But she said coaches were making "proclamations" to a broad network of people, encouraging them to cheat on behalf of current players or recruits.

How much of an issue is this? It depends on your point of view.

Using the numbers provided by The Chronicle, 20 NCAA members are being investigated for academic misconduct. That's about 16.67 percent of the 120 separate cases that the NCAA is reportedly investigating. Furthermore, there are 351 Division I programs in the NCAA. About 5 percent are being investigated for academic reasons.

Without context, those numbers appear low—and, again, incidents involving football may be even lower. However, the NCAA would probably tell you that 1 percent is too high, even if such a number is unobtainable.

The irony of it all is that the schools allegedly breaking the rules, created by them, make up the NCAA. It's a classic case of "why are you hitting yourself?" 

If you're looking for an example of how the football-academics juxtaposition impacts the sport, look no further than head coach Gary Andersen's move from Wisconsin to Oregon State. According to Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports, Andersen was frustrated with Wisconsin's admissions standards, particularly in the cases of junior college transfers: 

Admissions was probably the reason the 50-year-old Andersen arguably caused the biggest stir of the coaching silly season.

"That's not Wisconsin's fault," Andersen added. "That's Wisconsin's deal ... I want to surround myself with those kids I can get in school."

None of that is to suggest that Andersen wanted to cheat, but clearly he and athletic director Barry Alvarez weren't on the same page about the school's admissions process. That brings up an entirely new conversation about the "privilege" of going to college vs. providing the opportunity for those who don't have the greatest means to go. 

There's a distinct difference. Having the grades to get into a good school could very well have as much to do with the resources provided to students as the students themselves. 

The tricky part about academics in the college athletics arena is that metrics like Academic Progress Rate and terms like "value of an education" are trumpeted by admins, but they don't tell the whole story. Athletes can just as easily get a 3.0 GPA in a major chosen for them as they can get a 2.0 GPA in a more difficult major of their choosing. 

Take Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones, who said in a nationally televised press conference last week that he 1) was staying in school and 2) wanted to be a financial planner after football. As B/R's Ohio State lead writer Ben Axelrod opined, that type of path should be encouraged. How it fits into Ohio State's APR seems far less important. 

Furthermore, the value of education can't solely be measured in a test score. Some of the most important learning in college happens outside of the classroom—in guest lectures, office hours, internships and interactions with other classmates. As a busy student-athlete, balancing practice, games, travel, homework and the like makes it easy to miss out on those opportunities. 

As long as a school gets the stats that matter, though, it won't get in trouble with the Association and risk penalties like scholarship losses, which take opportunities away from future athletes. 

In one way or another, that cheats an athlete long-term. But the business model college football has adopted is too far along now to go back. The only thing that means is that the NCAA and its members have to evolve in how they look at academics and athletics. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. 

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