Posted on: March 6, 2012 12:54 am
Posted by Bryan Fischer
Spring football is in the air, and with our Spring Practice Primers the Eye On College Football Blog gets you up to speed on what to look for on campuses around the country this spring. Today we look at USC.
Spring Practice Starts: Wednesday, March 6.
Spring Game: Saturday, April 14.
Returning Starters: Nine on offense, eight on defense and both specialists.
Three Things To Watch For:
1. Dealing with expectations.
USC safety T.J. McDonald and quarterback Matt Barkley are easy to tell apart if you see them walking around Heritage Hall or roaming around the Coliseum but they could not be more alike on paper after a remarkable run to close out last season. Both are captains, suit up in the cardinal and gold wearing number seven, each runs half the team and, most importantly to the Trojans in 2012, Barkley and McDonald announced they would return to school for their senior seasons on back-to-back days in late December. After two years without a bowl game due to NCAA sanctions, the message both talked about was so clear that it's become the program's unofficial motto as they head into spring practice: unfinished business.
In many ways, this is about where everybody expects USC to be year-in and year-out given the program's history. A No. 6 ranking in the AP Poll to close out 2011 and, with 19 starters returning and a favorable schedule, expectations are running high for the first time since Lane Kiffin took over in Los Angeles.
"I really don't think it's expectations as much as it is being free - we kind of feel like we're being let out of prison," Kiffin said. "It's normal now. It's refreshing not to have the negative distractions. People will talk about expectations and all of that but the good thing is we have practice at dealing with that from our time here before."
USC will likely end up as the preseason No. 1 or No. 2 team in the country and despite scholarship limitations, will bring in ninth-ranked recruiting class with several five-star playmakers to supplement the group that will head out to Howard Jones field. It may be a return to normal with the national spotlight once again on Troy and Heisman candidate Barkley but for this group, it is something new. While the media will certainly be swarming like they did in the good old days and accolades and praise will come early and often, it's worth remembering that from the seniors to the freshman, this team hasn't faced anything like these expectations before. Will they play too loose or be wound too tight? It's something to keep tabs on.
"This is all about going out and preparing really well and practicing hard," Kiffin added. "It has been very refreshing to not deal with so much negativity and distractions, some of which was based on me and some on the sanctions."
2. New staff and new look.
For the first time in the Kiffin-era, the still youthful head coach has had to deal with some staff turnover. While the big stage the program provides has attracted more than it's fair share of coaches looking to boost their resume, the fact that two coaches left so close to spring practice definitely added a question mark or two to the team's outlook. Scottie Hazelton will take over as linebackers coach and was a surprise pick by many but he brings a solid resume that includes being the defensive coordinator at North Dakota State last season as they won the FCS national championship. It's not a flashy hire by any means and it will be interesting to see how Hazelton deals with the level of competition taking a leap but luckily for him he'll have most of last year's linebacking corps back.
USC hasn't had a full-time secondary coach since right before the 2011 season following the sudden departure of Willie Mack Garza due to NCAA issues. Kiffin took his time in landing a replacement but lured Marvin Sanders out West after he had just taken over as FAU's defensive coordinator. Mostly known for his time as Nebraska's secondary coach, Sanders has coached several top NFL draft picks and contributed to some very good Cornhuskers defenses. He'll take over a group that needs some development but is among the deepest on the team, especially at safety.
"It's going to be refreshing to have a spring with all these guys in place," Kiffin said. "There will be some growing pains but we'll be rolling by the time we get to the fall."
The final hire might have drawn the most press given new receivers coach Tee Martin's place in Tennessee lore. Though his group dealt with drops in his final season at Kentucky, Martin is known for being a good recruiter and helped turn Randall Cobb into an All-American the year before. He'll have the best group of wide receivers in the country to work with this spring, led by All-Americans Robert Woods and Marqise Lee to go along with former five-star George Farmer.
3. Line depth.
The biggest question marks surrounding the Trojans are centered on the trenches. Four of the five offensive linemen return but replacing a top three NFL Draft pick in Matt Kalil will be not be easy despite the unit becoming the biggest surprise of the team last year. The interior of the line is the strength with Marcus Martin and John Martinez solid at the guard spots and All-American candidate Khaled Holmes leading the way at center. Kevin Graf will get first shot at replacing Kaili at left tackle while Aundrey Walker will be on the other side. Both played those positions in high school and, with several starts under their belt already, should ease some concerns. Beyond that though, and depth is still an issue until the fall.
The outlook at defensive line is not so rosy, with three starters gone and the Pac-12 leader in sacks impressing everybody at the NFL Combine. Pencil in Wes Horton and Devon Kennard at the end spot but depth behind them and who takes over at tackle will be the reason Ed Orgeron is up late at night (and not just the Red Bull). Those inside the program expect a lot out of sophomore George Uko.
"I'm really looking at seeing how well these tackles, Aundrey and Kevin do," Kiffin said. "I also really want to seeing the continued development of our defense with so much experience coming back and with two new coaches. I really want to be a dominant defensive team like (USC in) '02 or '03. Big five turnover or seven sack games, the type where you have just a suffocating defense."
If the Trojans are going to live up to expectations, figuring things out along the lines will be paramount this spring.
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Tags: Aundrey Walker, Bryan Fischer, Devon Kennard, Ed Orgeron, FAU, FCS, George Farmer, George Uko, Heisman Trophy, John Martinez, Kentucky, Kevin Graf, Khaled Holmes, Lane Kiffin, Marcus Martin, Marqise Lee, Marvin Sanders, Matt Barkley, Matt Kalil, NCAA, Nebraska, NFL, North Dakota State, Pac-12, Randall Cobb, Robert Woods, Scottie Hazelton, Spring Practice, Spring Practice Primer, Spring Practice Primer 2012, Spring Practice Primers, T.J. McDonald, Tee Martin, Tennessee, USC, Wes Horton, Willie Mack Garza
Posted on: September 1, 2011 4:40 pm
Edited on: September 1, 2011 5:56 pm
Posted by Jerry Hinnen
Each Thursday we demand the SEC give us answers to its most pressing questions. Here those are:
Steve Spurrier: are you really going to voluntarily saddle his team with a full-blown quarterback controversy? The Ol' Ball Coach has always done things his way, and it's safe to say very few other coaches' ways would include telling a fourth-year senior starter he's going to share snaps in a potentially challenging season opener, threatening to bench him if his competition outplays in said opener, and publicly declaring said competiton has outplayed him in preseason scrimmages.
Stephen Garcia has seen and heard it all from his head coach before, of course, and given his off-field history, it makes a certain amount of sense for Spurrier to keep Connor Shaw's confidence and focus at its highest possible point at all times. If the Gamecock schedule gave the team a few weeks' worth of breathers, it would make sense to keep Shaw engaged and Garcia on his toes.
But Spurrier doesn't have that luxury; East Carolina isn't Western Carolina, and the Gamecocks' critical trip to Georgia arrives right on its heels in Week 2. If Shaw (pictured) plays well enough Saturday to force another week's worth of Spurrier waffling, Carolina is going to enter the single most important game of its entire season with a colossal question mark still hanging over the team's collective head. And though we're not Steve Spurrier, we retain serious doubts as to whether that's the best way for it to prepare.
Jarrett Lee: can you avoid making the killer turnover? We won't hide from it: when we wrote in this space not long ago that Les Miles had failed his LSU team by not finding a better replacement for Jordan Jefferson than Zach Mettenberger in his first year out of JUCO or fifth-year senior Lee, yes, that was a knock against Lee. To this point, Lee's career -- a 53.5 career completion percentage, those nation-leading 16 picks in 2008 -- is the sort which, frankly, has to be knocked.
But if Lee has matured into the kind of under-control, safety-first game manager that always seems to be under center at LSU's rivals at Alabama, there's nothing stopping the Tigers from being, well, Alabama; the overpowering line, breakout running back (we see you, Spencer Ware), and lockdown defense are all in place.
Now we just have to find out about Lee, and fortunately, we won't have to wait long. Oregon forced 37 turnovers a year ago, the second-highest total in the nation; even without Cliff Harris, if Lee is loose with the ball, the Ducks are going to take it the other way.
Georgia: how comfortable are you in Todd Grantham's 3-4 defense? Much of the pregame chatter regarding Georgia's chances against Boise State have revolved around whether Isaiah Crowell can live up to his considerable hype, and there's no question Crowell's potential impact would give the Dawsg a huge boost.
But just as key -- if not moreso -- will be how the Bulldog defense handles a Bronco offense that's going to come out guns blazing. Chris Petersen and his staff have always been at their best with extra time to prepare, and if the Bulldogs haven't shored up what was an improved-but-hardly-airtight defense from 2010, Kellen Moore and Doug Martin are going to punish those leaks with a quickness. Some of the Dawgs' personnel issues with the 3-4 have been resolved (starting with the ascension of nose tackle Kwame Geathers and the shift of hard-hitting safety Alec Ogletree to inside linebacker), but that doesn't mean all the kinks are ironed out just yet.
And if there's one or two too many kinks remaining, the Broncos could be up big before the Dawgs even know what hit them, much as Virginia Tech discovered a year ago. The Hokies were able to mount a full comeback behind Tyrod Taylor, but with an angry Dawg crowd "behind" a psychologially-fragile 6-7 team, Mark Richt may not be so lucky. Grantham's unit had best be prepared.
Also worth asking: What can Ole Miss accomplish in the air, either offensively or defensively? (Some measure of competence from Barry Brunetti and the rebuilt Rebel secondary would go a long way towards SEC competitiveness.) Does Kentucky have any offensive playmakers? (No Randall Cobb, no Derrick Locke, no Mike Hartline, no Chris Matthews. What's left?) Quarterbacks: how do they look? (In addition to Ole Miss and LSU, there's some level of uncertainty at Auburn, Alabama, Florida, Vanderbilt ... the number of teams in the league that know what they're getting from under center are vastly outnumbered by the ones that don't.)
Tags: Alabama, Alabama, Alec Ogletree, Auburn, Barry Brunetti, Boise State, Chris Matthews, Chris Petersen, Cliff Harris, Connor Shaw, Derrick Locke, Doug Martin, East Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Isaiah Crowell, Jerry Hinnen, Jordan Jefferson, Kellen Moore, Kentucky, Kwame Geathers, LSU, Mark Richt, Mike Hartline, Ole Miss, Oregon, Randall Cobb, SEC, South Carolina, Spencer Ware, Stephen Garcia, Steve Spurrier, Todd Grantham, Tyrod Taylor, Vanderbilt, Western Carolina, Zach Mettenberger
Posted on: July 21, 2011 10:38 am
Edited on: July 21, 2011 10:40 am
Posted by Chip Patterson
Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips was the first to take the microphone on Day 2 of SEC Media Days in Birmingham. One question offered to pretty much every coach on the podium so far has been their reaction to Mike Slive's proposed changes from Wednesday. Phillips, who played wide receiver at Kentucky from 1981-1984, quickly voiced his support for the discussion of player benefits.
"It's great that we are having dialogue about paying players, or compensating players," Phillips said. "There's a lot of factors involved, I understand that. Having this dialogue has gotten us to the fact-finding phase of this thing. As we continue to find out the facts, and come up with some answers that might fit. We have to understand the answers are not just about football and basketball, but all sports involved. We have to take care of everybody, not just men's football and men's basketball. Whatever solution we come up with, I'll be for."
Here are some more highlights from Phillips' comments to the media Thursday morning:
-The second-year head coach enters the 2011 season returning only 15 starters from 2010's squad, and will be looking to replace starting quarterback Mike Hartline, leading rusher Derrick Locke and Mr. Everything Randall Cobb. But with 9 of those starters on defense and a lot of confidence in the next group he still thinks they should be competitive in the upcoming season. Their theme this year is "RISE" and that is his challenge to the players. With so much production, particularly on offense, gone - new stars need to rise to the occasion for the Wildcats to succeed.
- Although last year did finish with a bowl berth, Phillips pointed out that the 6-7 finish was a drop-off from two straight 8-5 seasons. His goal for the Wildcats is to be able to hang in the SEC East race as long as possible. When asked about how close they were to "getting over the wall," Phillips believes that his squad is approaching that level.
"We're very, very close," Phillips responded. "We lost a lot of close games. Things that will get us over the hump will be being the most disciplined team, being the most physical team, and having mental toughness."
- Several mentions were made to the Wildcats strength and conditioning program under Rock Oliver. He wants the team to be attacking, aggressive, and display the aforementioned mental and physical toughness. He thinks this team has done well in the two years under Oliver in offseason preparation, and the squad looks leaner and stronger than they have in a while. Phillips also praised new co-defensive coordinator Rick Minter, who actually got to to work with the team for the 15-16 practices leading up to the BBVA Compass Bowl on Jan. 8 in Birmingham.
Keep it here at the Eye On College Football for more updates from media days from all conferences in the upcoming weeks.
Posted on: June 17, 2011 11:11 am
Edited on: June 17, 2011 11:26 am
Posted by Chip Patterson
Joker Phillips' first season at Kentucky was a bit of a roller-coaster ride, but the Wildcats were able to finish the regular season 6-6 and return to the postseason for the fifth straight year. Much of that was thanks to the work of playmakers Derrick Locke and Randall Cobb. With Locke and Cobb gone, the primary rushing responsibilities are falling on speedy sophomore Raymond Sanders. Sanders had knee surgery this week, so his preparation for his first season as the primary back will be put on hold for the time being.
UK officials confirmed to LEX18 in Lexington that Sanders had undergone arthroscopic surgery to repair cartilage on his left knee. After successful surgery, Kentucky expects Sanders to be back on the field in August when the Wildcats start practice.
Sanders rushed for 254 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman, adding to 16 receptions for 114 yards and one touchdown. With seven home games -- and no out-of-conference opponent more challenging than Louisville -- the schedule sets up well for Phillips' second year at the helm in Lexington. The surgery should not set back Sanders too much, but the expectations will be high for the 5-foot-8 speedster from Stone Mountain, GA.
Posted on: May 3, 2011 12:31 pm
By Eye on College Football Bloggers
Each week, the Eye on CFB team convenes Voltron- style to answer a pressing question regarding the wild, wide world of college football. This week's topic:
We're not NFL scouts. But we have watched most of the players taken in last weekend's draft for the past three or four years (or, in one particular high-profile case, one year). Based on what we saw during their college careers, which players do we believe were "steals" for the team that selected them? Which were "reaches" which went earlier than they should have?Tom Fornelli: I'll start with the reach because this is an easy answer to me: the very first player taken, Cam Newton.
This is not a dig on Newton personally, or the player he was at Auburn last season. The fact of the matter is that there wasn't a single quarterback in this draft class that I felt was worth a first-round pick. Yes, there were a lot of quarterbacks in this class who were good college quarterbacks, but as we have seen through many examples before, being a good college quarterback doesn't make you an good NFL quarterback. And for me, with the first overall pick -- when I have the opportunity to pick anybody I want, and have that person help my team immediately -- Newton is not the player I'd pick. I'm not saying that I don't believe it's possible that Cam can develop into a good NFL quarterback one day, but I do feel the odds of Newton becoming a Hall of Fame NFL quarterback are pretty slim. And if I'm going to take a quarterback with the first pick of the draft, he needs to give me the impression that he has that kind of potential.
As for the steal, there were a few players who I thought were really good picks for teams in later rounds. There was Green Bay getting Randall Cobb with the final pick of the second round, Da'Quan Bowers slipping to Tampa Bay in the second, and Ahmad Black going to Tampa as well in the fifth round. The biggest steal to me of all, though, was Baltimore picking up Indiana wide receiver Tandon Doss late in the fourth round. In my opinion, Doss may turn out to be one of the most dependable receivers in what was a very deep class this season. He does not have the size and wow factor that guys like A.J. Green and Julio Jones have, nor is he a burner, but he's got great hands and he's a very polished route runner. He's the type of receiver who isn't going to end up in the Hall of Fame, but should pick up a lot of big first downs, make some plays and be dependable for a lot of years. I watch Doss, and I see a player that can be what Hines Ward has been to Pittsburgh for so many years. To get that kind of player in the fourth round is the definition of a steal.
Adam Jacobi: I think to a large degree, Tom's right. I wouldn't go so far as to say there were no first-round QBs in this class, because guys like Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, and even Newton have all shown a great deal of potential. But let's be honest: this wasn't really a great draft class to begin with. I thought there were only 15-20 first round-caliber guys on the board. But the first round is still 32 picks, no matter what, and I don't think there were 32 better draft picks to make before you got to Newton (or any other quarterback).
That said, yes, Cam Newton was a reach. Right now, Carolina is not a team that has the tools to let a quarterback succeed. They have needs all over the place, and if all they do is give up on Jimmy Clausen after one year so they can plug in Cam Newton instead ... well, they're still a team that doesn't have the tools to let the quarterback succeed. (It's like the Detroit Lions drafting Chuck Long and Andre Ware as first-rounders 20-25 years ago. You really think their failures had nothing to do with the crappy players surrounding them?) I'm of the philosophy that the No. 1 overall pick should be spent on a player with the best odds of making a high-level contribution immediately and repeatedly. That means wide receivers and all but the most experienced, productive quarterbacks are out, as are safeties, guards and centers. That's why I would have preferred to see a guy like Texas A&M's Von Miller go first.
As for steals, I'm going to say Nick Fairley dropping all the way to Detroit, where he can be paired with Ndamukong Suh on the interior defensive line. There isn't an NFC North team left that isn't going to have to dramatically retool its blocking strategy now because of that setup, and even that might not be enough to avoid a franchise quarterback getting broken in half this season. How in the world does Fairley fall to No. 13, past Christian Ponder, the real reach of the first round? Fairley didn't dominate the NFL combine, but you know what? Freakish combine measurements don't really matter for defensive tackles. It's whether they can shed blocks reliably and repeatedly at the next level, and based on the way Fairley performed not only during the season but especially in Auburn's biggest games, he's got the ability to do that. If there's a character concern, you know what? Let the rest of the locker room take care of that. That's where the veteran teammates are supposed to step in, not the scouts.
Outside of the first round, I really like the Sam Acho pick in the fourth round by the Cardinals. At 6'2" and 260, Acho's sort of an OLB/DE tweener as size goes, and he's going to be playing OLB in the Cards' 3-4 system after lining up at end at Texas. But he's fast and disruptive, and was plenty productive with the Longhorns, so he could definitely end up being a James Harrison- type terror for the Cardinals in a year or two.
TF: Not to get too far off the subject, but Adam brought up something that drives me crazy when it comes to the NFL and the way teams draft. All too often it seems like NFL teams become enamored with how a player performs in the combine while wearing shorts and a t-shirt. That's the reason Ponder got taken so early; without linemen closing in on him, he's really good at throwing a football. But it seems like they forget about what these players did while they were actually on a football field.
For instance, look at Acho. NFL teams see his size and they're not entirely sure what to do with him. They don't seem to pay as much attention to the fact that Acho was a kid that did his job on the field at Texas and did it well. He made plays. It's why I think Tampa got a steal in Florida's Black. For the last few years, Black was one of my favorite players to watch because he just had that knack for making things happen. However, all NFL scouts seemed to see was that he didn't have top-notch speed. Nevermind the fact that he played in the SEC -- which I believe is the home of that ESS EEE SEEE SPEEEED -- and played well.
Jerry Hinnen: I agree that the draft over-rewards potential and underrates production, which is why I never thought I'd see the day when an NFL team reached for the occasionally erratic run-first quarterback out of the gimmicky option offense, and stole the rifle-armed pocket statue with a former NFL play-caller for a coach. But as the draft day fates of Colin Kaepernick and Ryan Mallett illustrate, there's a first time for everything.
Let me first say this about Kaepernick: as a college quarterback, he was under appreciated, having accumulated an incredible 10,000 yards passing and 4,000 yards rushing over his four years at Nevada, the only quarterback in FBS history to do so. In 2011, he joined Tim Tebow and Newton as the only players in FBS history to run and pass for 20 touchdowns in a season. Kaepernick was, simply, one of the most exciting, most fun, best college football players of his era.
But having watched him ever since he exploded onto the scene against Boise State in 2007's overtime classic, I can't say I ever saw him as a blue-chip NFL prospect. Kaepernick was always a substantially greater threat on the hoof than in the pocket, where his awkward throwing motion and come-and-go accuracy led to outings like his 12-for-23, 149-yard, two-interception clunker to open the 2009 season at Notre Dame, or the 14-for-26, 159-yard, four-turnover debacle at Hawaii that led to the Wolf Pack's only loss of 2011. The greatest strengths of Kaepernick's unique skill set -- his ball-fake jujitsu within the pistol, his surprising speed and agility as a ball-carrier, his ability to throw outside the pocket -- won't do much to make an already difficult transition from the pistol to an NFL offense any easier. Jim Harbaugh's right pinky knows more about quarterbacking in the NFL than I ever will, obviously, but I remain stunned Kaepernick went as a high second-rounder rather than a late-round flyer. (Which brings me to an aside in response to Tom: we can debate Newton all day, but if Kaepernick is the 36th overall pick, Newton -- in a different class athletically, more polished as a passer, proven in SEC competition -- is something akin to the negative-17th pick.)
But where Kaepernick never struck me as meant for NFL stardom (or even starterdom), Mallett is the sort of prospect whose very double-helixes probably unwind to spell out "PROFESSIONAL QUARTERBACK" under the microscope. 6'7", possessor of likely the strongest arm in college football, with his two years under former NFL head coach Bobby Petrino yielding better than 7,400 passing yards, better than 9 yards an attempt, and a 62-to-19 touchdown-to-interception ratio, Mallett couldn't have looked the part of a future NFL signal-caller any better either on the field or on paper. But of course he looked like something else in the headlines and gossip factories, thanks to those pesky drug admissions and work ethic rumors. But the facts are that Mallett was arrested just once at Arkansas (for public intoxication), was never suspended, and by all accounts enjoyed the respect of his teammates. Yes, he's a character risk, but so were plenty of players who went in the first and second rounds.
Were I in a quarterback-needy NFL team's shoes, I'd worry more about his penchant for forcing the spectacular throw when the easy one would do--but that's not the kind of worry that would have caused me to pass him up twice.
AJ: I can't say New England taking Mallett is a steal. He's on a spectrum where the high end is Drew Bledsoe and the low is Ryan Leaf, and nowhere in-between is a Super Bowl ring.
Chip Patterson: I'm not sure if it was one of the biggest "steals" of the draft, but seeing how highly rated Robert Quinn was on many boards, the Rams had to have been happy to grab him at No. 14. Quinn just got things going at North Carolina before he was suspended for his junior season during the NCAA investigation of the football program; he'd finished second in the ACC Defensive Player of the Year voting as a sophomore in 2009, just two years after battling back from brain surgery to remove a tumor. Quinn continued to impress throughout different stages of the process, but according to reports he was not cleared by several team doctors. Many teams were likely on the edge about Quinn because of the off-field activity at North Carolina, and may have just needed one more reason to bypass the budding defensive end. Battling back from brain surgery to all-conference honors seems more like a positive intangible than a negative one to me, but I'm not the one making the million dollar moves. (Yet.)
My colleagues have covered a fair share of the quarterbacks, so I'll point out the very next pick in the draft: Mike Pouncey. The Dolphins didn't want this pick, and in fact they tried desperately to trade down. Pouncey addresses a need and will likely be an immediate starter, but there's little about Pouncey's performance at Florida that makes him seem like a No. 15 pick. He was the highest drafted center since 1993, the kind of accolade that's usually placed on a uniquely talented individual. Pouncey will help the Dolphins' running game, especially with his experience as a pulling guard, but he does not stand out to me as a "unique talent." The Dolphins didn't make a huge mistake by drafting him, but it just doesn't seem like the best talent for the pick.
JH: See, I tend to think the point of a mid-first-round pick is to simply not make that "huge mistake," so I thought drafting a solid future pro (if not a future Pro Bowler) like Pouncey was a smart move. But looking back over this discussion, we're clearly all haters of one stripe or another.
Tags: A, Ahmad Black, Andre Ware, Arizona Cardinals, Auburn, Blaine Gabbert, Bobby Petrino, Boise State, Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers, Christian Ponder, Chuck Long, Colin Kaepernick, Da'Quan Bowers, Detroit Lions, Drew Bledsoe, Eye on CFB Roundtable, Florida, Green Bay, Hawaii, Hines Ward, Indiana, J. Green, Jake Locker, James Harrison, Jim Harbaugh, Jimmy Clausen, Julio Jones, Miami Dolphins, Mike Pouncey, Ndamukong Suh, NFL Draft, NFL Draft, Nick Fairley, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Randall Cobb, Robert Quinn, Ryan Leaf, Ryan Mallett, Sam Ocho, San Francisco 49ers, Tampa Bay, Tandon Doss, Texas, Texas A&M, Von Miller
Posted on: March 30, 2011 6:56 pm
Posted by Jerry Hinnen
College Football has no offseason. Every coach knows that the preparation for September begins now, in Spring Practice . So we here at the Eye on College Football will get you ready as teams open spring ball with our Spring Practice Primers . Today, we look at Kentucky, which started spring practice last week.
Spring Practice Question: Can the 'Cats find a passing game?
When all was said and done, the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats were about what the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats were supposed to be: good enough to scrape to a low-level bowl game (the Birmingham-based BBVA Compass Bowl) , good enough for one major upset (against South Carolina) and a couple of scares, but not good enough to make any real noise even in a watered-down SEC East (2-6 conference record), and not nearly good enough to regain the momentum and top-25 attention from the Andre Woodson glory years. Around .500 was where the Wildcats were expected to finish, and around .500 -- 6-7 following the bowl loss to Pitt, specifically -- was where they wound up.
But that doesn't mean there wasn't something of a major surprise in how the Wildcats got to "around .500" in the first year of the Joker Phillips era. The first couple of seasons following Woodson's departure, Kentucky relied heavily on their ground game as an experienced offensive line, talented rushers like Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke, and iffy quarterbacking made that the 'Cats best option. Thanks to Cobb's dynamism and versatility, the Wildcat frequently became the offense's most effective form of attack.
With Cobb and Locke still around and the inefficient Mike Hartline still under center, not many expected that plan to change coming into 2010. But a strong fall camp from Hartline -- which he needed simply to keep the job away from sophomore Morgan Newton -- led to a stunningly good season; the senior increased his yards per-attempt by nearly two full yards and improved his touchdown-to-interception ratio from 6-to-7 to an impressive 23-to-9. The end result? The second-leading passing offense in the SEC at 269 yards a game and the 31st-best team quarterbacking rating in the country.
Of course, Hartline didn't manage it alone. There was Cobb, for starters, who made multiple All-American teams as an all-purpose player but spent most of his time at wideout and wound up with 1,017 receiving yards. He was followed closely by 6'5" Chris Matthews, who blossomed after a ho-hum junior season with 925 yards of his own. Even Locke chipped in with 318 yards out of the backfield.
So the good news for Kentucky is that after years of relying on one aspect or the other, their offense finally gained some semblance of balance. The bad news is that all the key players who made that balance possible are gone: Hartline, Matthews, and Locke have all graduated, and Cobb elected to turn pro a year early.
What's left is, on paper, less-than-inspiring. Newton will take over at quarterback after completing just 58 percent of his 43 passes in 2010 without a touchdown; he threw 135 times in 2009 but completed just 55 percent of those for a meager 5.2 yards per-attempt. But Kentucky won't have many other options, with Phillips citing grayshirted true freshman Max Smith as Newton's only competition at the moment. (Smith and Newton are, in fact, the 'Cats only scholarship quarterbacks.)
That doesn't mean there's not hope, though. Phillips is the same coach who coaxed the massive year-to-year improvement out of Hartline; who's to say he can't do the same with the athletic Newton? And if Newton won't get that big of a boost from his receivers, he ought to get plenty of one from his running game, one led by an offensive line with four retunring starters including all-conference junior guard Larry Warford. Then there's Phillips himself, who's guided the Kentucky offense for years and has consistently produced quality results.
But this is likely his biggest challenge yet. Without a functional passing game, even this line likely wouldn't be able to generate a game-winning rushing attack all on its own, and certainly not without the likes of Cobb or Locke. The Wildcat defense should improve, but if Phillips can't use this spring to rebuild some measure of last year's aerial success, Kentucky's school-record bowl streak may not make it to 2012.
Posted on: January 13, 2011 1:13 pm
Posted by Tom Fornelli
Randall Cobb is one of those football players who, if he went to a school that got more national attention than Kentucky does, would widely be considered one of the best players in college football. He's already one of the most versatile. Maybe now that he'll be playing on Sundays, people will start to notice.
Cobb announced on Thursday that he'll be foregoing his final season at Kentucky and enter the NFL draft this spring. Losing Cobb, along with running back Derrick Locke, will leave a large void in the Kentucky offense as Cobb did just about everything for the Wildcats. Cobb finishes the season with 84 catches for 1,017 yards and 17 touchdowns. Of course, that was just when he lined up as a receiver.
Cobb has also rushed for 405 yards with another two touchdowns, thrown for three touchdowns, and has picked up 955 yards on kick and punt returns, along with another touchdown. I'm pretty sure he teaches a chemistry class in Lexington as well.
While he's not likely to be a first round pick in the draft, his overall talents make it likely that he'll be taken either late in the second round or in the third.
Posted on: January 7, 2011 1:09 pm
Posted by Jerry Hinnen
Basics: Pitt (7-5) vs. Kentucky (6-6), 12 p.m. EST, Jan. 8, Birmingham, Ala.
Why You Should Watch: It's your final chance to spend a Saturday afternoon watching college football. Isn't that reason enough? If it's not, well, frankly, a matchup between a unexciting Pitt squad of questionable motivation (following the ouster of Dave Wannstedt) and a .500 Kentucky team that slumped badly down the stretch probably won't get your pulse racing. But the Wildcats' receiver/returner/Wildcat (as in the formation) quarterback Randall Cobb is one of the most underrated and explosive players in the country, and there's also the chance that Pitt preseason All-American running back Dion Lewis could pick up where he left off in his late-season (as in, final game) breakout and go bananas again.
But mostly, as we said, it's the last-chance saloon for weekend college football. Drink up while you can.
Keys to Victory for Pitt: The first -- and probably most important one -- is simply for the Panthers to show up. Pitt has already endured one of the most disappointing seasons in the country, an insanely tumultuous offseason that's featured Wannstedt's firing, Mike Haywood's hiring, then Haywood's firing, and Wannstedt waffling until this week on whether he'd bother to come to Birmingham or not. Pitt's morale and focus probably wasn't great even before the coaching drama; though interim head coach Phil Bennett has head coaching experience and is as respected as anyone on staff, it's still anyone's guess what kind of mindset the Panthers will bring to their (admittedly lower-rent) bowl.
But if the Panthers are locked in, they've got the tools to make life very hard on the Wildcats. Offensively, Lewis appears to be back in form after his early-season struggles, receiver Jonathan Baldwin's size will present some serious matchup problems for the Kentucky corners, and the young (and often inconsistent) offensive line should benefit from the extra practice time. Defensively, though the Panthers will miss injured defensive end Jabaal Sheard, Bennett's charges finished a quiet ninth in the country in total defense, and should have little difficulty stopping a 'Cat passing attack minus starting suspended starting quarterback Mike Hartline. On paper, the Panthers ought to be the favorites.
But emotion regularly makes a hash of what "ought" to happen on paper in football, and what kind of emotion Pitt will play with is very much a question right now.
Keys to Victory for Kentucky: The Wildcat's first problem is obvious: Hartline's absence through suspension for a public intoxication arrest. That leaves sophomore Morgan Newton at the helm of the offense; while he hasn't played this season (only seven passes attempted), Newton's freshman season saw him complete 55.6 percent of his 135 passes for only 5.2 yards per attempt. He's likely to be a little sharper with another year under his belt and the extra bowl practice to prepare, but he'll also have to deal with a Pitt pass rush that's been one of the country's best the past couple of seasons (even without Sheard). Newton must play under control, and the Wildcat offensive line -- in a bit of good news for Kentucky, one that's allowed only 15 sacks all season, second-best in the SEC -- must give him time, or the Wildcat passing attack will be dead-on-arrival.
If Newton is on point and the line does give him time, the Wildcats have the weapons to put plenty of points on the board; Cobb, running back Derrick Locke, and 6'5" receiver Chris Matthews would all start for a lot of teams a lot higher-ranked than Kentucky. They may need them, since aside from revelatory first-team All-SEC linebacker Danny Trevathan (the conference's leader in tackles), few Wildcats stood out on defense this season either in rush defense -- where the 'Cats gave up 170 yards a game -- or pass defense, where the 'Cats ranked 81st by giving up 7.4 yards an attempt.
Of course, as unthreatening as Pitt's offense has been at times, the game promises to be tight and low-scoring regardless. Which is where Cobb comes in: one big special teams return or huge play out of the backfield could decide the game, and the Panthers don't appear to have a similar weapon.
The BBVA Compass Bowl is like: the small-town gas station off the Interstate that the sign says is your last opportunity to fill up for 73 miles or so. You stop because, hey, better get some gas. But maybe there's also a souvenir inside, a little Randall Cobb or Dion Lewis-shaped figurine, that you'll want to keep and remember during the long Saturday football-less road ahead.