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Inside Read: FSU's Winston gets hand from Charlie Ward, Iowa's stud, more

Photo: Gary Bogdon for Sports Illustrated

As defending national champion Florida State kicked off fall practice on Monday, Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston began his redshirt sophomore season as college football’s most fascinating, polarizing and exciting player. Winston won the Heisman Trophy and national title in his first year as a starter last season, dominating from his 25-for-27 debut against Pitt to the touchdown pass with 13 seconds left that beat Auburn in the BCS title game.

Winston has made as many headlines off the field in his first two seasons at FSU. None carried more significance than the sexual assault allegations that hung over Florida State’s season last year. The New York Times also reported in April that a second woman sought counseling, but didn’t press charges, after a sexual encounter with Winston. His career has been filled with immature transgressions that range from stealing (soda and crab legs) to a confrontation with police for carrying a pellet gun. Police didn’t charge Winston in the sexual assault case, but the graphic police report and criticism of how law enforcement mishandled the investigation failed to fully clear him in the court of public opinion.

So Winston begins this season in a grey area. Is he a transcendent talent who needs to grow up? Or is he a troublemaker with enough questions about his past that he’s destined to implode? Those questions make him the perfect lightning rod for college football’s incessant 24-hour news cycle. Just like Johnny Manziel last year.

On the field, Winston’s task is clear. His Seminoles are the clear favorite to go from Arlington to Arlington, as they begin their season against Oklahoma State at Jerry World in Arlington, Texas, on Aug. 30 and could well end it there in the first title game of the College Football Playoff era. Winston is also the heavy favorite to win back-to-back Heisman Trophies, a feat only accomplished by Ohio State’s Archie Griffin in 1974 and '75.

With the stakes so high, Winston has sought counsel from one of the few people who understands the microscope he's under in Tallahassee -- former Seminoles Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward. Winston and Ward talk several times a month and routinely text. In late January, Ward, a devout Christian, became the head football coach at Booker T. Washington High in Pensacola, Fla., less than a three-hour drive from Tallahassee.

“The one thing I admire about him is he’s willing to listen,” Ward said of Winston. “I feel like he’s willing to listen to people that can help him. He’s a great kid. Everybody wants to magnify his negatives, but there are a lot of positives about the kid. He’s smart.”

During an appearance at last month’s annual Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux, La., Winston spoke highly of Ward and his relationship with him. “He just tells me to be myself and do what I do,” Winston said. “He tells me just lay low and lead the Seminoles.”

That’s easier than it sounds, and it’s advice Winston has struggled to follow. Winston and Ward first met two years ago in Austin, Texas, at a USA Football Under-19 team game. Winston didn’t play because of injury, but still made the trip and spent much of it listening to Ward, an assistant coach for the team. Ward stressed the importance of what was ahead.

“You will have an opportunity to be a big man on campus and with that comes major responsibility,” Ward told Winston. “You’ll have an opportunity to make your mark as one of the best quarterbacks in FSU history if you make good decisions and choices. There have been quarterbacks there before that were great players, however, they chose not to make good decisions.”

Specifically, Ward preached to Winston about respecting women. Ward said that he struggled with sexual immorality, including pornography, during his college career. Ward still agonizes over the “scars” of those experiences. His message to Winston about the opposite sex was simple: Treat women like they are your mom or sister, and there are certain things you don’t do to your mom or sister.

“Some of the things that I shared with him, he didn’t quite grasp and got him into hot water,” Ward said. “It was an experience for him, for us to be able to revisit that conversation again.”

Until the rape accusation against Winston became public last fall, Ward was unaware of the incident. But after learning of the allegation, Ward texted Winston, rekindling their relationship. Ward told Winston to stay grounded.

“The goal is not to lash out or do anything, but to be humble in your approach,” Ward told Winston. “The truth will set you free.”

In June, Winston spoke at the Charlie Ward Mentor Leadership Camp, featuring kids in grades 1-8. He calmly took photos and signed autographs for children while mingling with parents. Ward described Winston as a much different person than when they first met.

“If you’re always going at a fast pace, you’re going to normally do the first thing that comes up or say the first thing that comes out of your mouth,” Ward said. “I think he’s learned to channel all that energy. He’s still got it, but I think he’s learned how to channel that and kind of be a mellow good guy.”

Ward said Winston is still a work in progress. He doesn’t want Winston to change his outgoing personality, but he's told him to be cautious in what he says and does. In the meantime, the spotlight will become brighter in the coming months. Winston’s father said publicly in June that his son would return for two more seasons at Florida State. That’s the right thing to say, but there’s a better chance of Manziel giving up trips to Las Vegas than Winston returning to FSU for his redshirt junior year.

The NFL will be watching closely, wondering whether Winston is a knucklehead or if he’s truly changed and learned from his past.      

“When things happen, the character of a man is if he tries to lie about it and tries to cover up for it, then that’s where you’ve got to say he’s a knucklehead,” Ward said. “But if he’s willing to own up to his mistakes and continues to refine and develop and correct some of those things like we all have and do, then I say he’s a guy who is maturing.”


Three-and-out

1. Iowa T Brandon Scherff moving up draft board

Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP
Get used to hearing the name of Iowa left tackle Brandon Scherff. He’s emerged, with Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, USC defensive tackle Leonard Williams and Texas A&M left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi as a strong candidate to become the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. “I do believe he’s the best player, best offensive lineman in college football,” Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz said.

The dominance shows up on the field and in the weight room, where the 6-foot-5, 320-pound Scherff’s numbers have blown away NFL personnel. He recently did three hang clean reps at 443 pounds. He can also squat at least 700 pounds, single-leg Bulgarian squat 300 pounds and single dumbbell snatch 150 pounds.

Iowa isn’t a program known for hype. Brian Ferentz and his father, Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz, are both former assistants of notoriously tight-lipped Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “I don’t like to speak very highly of guys period because I feel that’s really in a lot of ways counterproductive of what we’re trying to do,” Brian Ferentz said. “At this point, Brandon’s earned all that praise.”

Before Scherff arrived at Iowa, he actually played quarterback in Denison, Iowa (population 8,298), until senior year before moving to tight end. He also played basketball and threw the shot put (his best was 65 feet). Scherff redshirted as a freshman and saw time at left guard the following year. He started at left tackle in 2012 before he broke his right leg and dislocated his ankle, forcing him to miss the final five games of the season.

After Scherff’s All-Big Ten campaign last season, Brian Ferentz said NFL teams indicated that Scherff would have been a first-rounder in this past NFL draft, even though five tackles ended up being picked in the first round. “He is just a different kind of kid," Ferentz said. "He really likes being a college football player. He’s going to be a great pro, but I think he enjoys the experience he has right now.”

Ferentz likes to recall how former Ohio State linebacker and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Ryan Shazier, a first-round pick in May’s NFL draft, used his speed to avoid Scherff on the field. “Literally turning his body running away,” Ferentz said.

And then there’s Scherff’s punt-catching skills. At the end of practices, he fields punts and Ferentz insists he has never seen Scherff drop one. Ferentz has such confidence in Scherff’s skill that he calls him the team’s “most natural punt catcher” and wouldn’t hesitate to use Scherff if a game were to be decided by fielding a 50-yard punt.  “He’s almost become like Paul Bunyan to our team,” Ferentz said. “He’s kind of the guy they look to. Nobody teases him too much because he’s a lot bigger than everybody else.”

2. Boise State RB Jay Ajayi has love of football

Boise State running back Jay Ajayi was torn between soccer forward Thierry Henry and NFL running back LaDainian Tomlinson. A London native, Ajayi grew up wanting to be the next Henry, a star for Ajayi’s beloved Arsenal Football Club. But upon moving to the U.S. in 2000, Ajayi became hooked on American football and quickly began to idolize Tomlinson.

He balanced both sports until they conflicted so much that he faced a critical decision after his sophomore football season at Liberty High in Frisco, Texas. He could return to England to pursue soccer, and possibly get a shot with the Nigerian national team (his father is a Nigerian citizen), or remain in the U.S. and only play football. “I fell in love with America,” Ajayi said. “I fell in love with Texas. I fell in love with the people. It would have been weird for me to just drop everything and leave again. I just didn’t want to leave.”

It appears Ajayi made the right decision after breaking out last season with 1,425 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns on 249 carries. It's been a long path to stardom, as Ajayi has been arrested for shoplifting, tore his ACL and received more fame for guzzling pickle juice than scoring touchdowns. “I’ve been looked down on my whole life,” Ajayi said. “This season is really [a] money season for me. I’m motivated by everything.”

The 6-foot, 216-pound Ajayi still vividly recalls his first season at Liberty High after he focused on football. After rushing for 1,627 yards and 20 touchdowns, he learned at his team’s postseason banquet that he had failed make first-team all-district. After pledging that he would be the district’s most valuable player the following season, he rushed for more than 2,300 yards. Still, major schools overlooked him, so he chose Boise State.

As a freshman, Ajayi was caught stealing several pairs of sweatpants at the local Wal-Mart a little more than a month into the 2011 season and later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft. Ajayi feared then-Broncos coach Chris Petersen would kick him off the team. But Ajayi was allowed to remain on the condition that he redshirt. Nearly a week later, he tore his ACL during practice. “I was probably in the worst spot I’ve ever been in mentally and emotionally,” Ajayi said. “I was just in a really bad place.”

Ajayi began to question whether he would ever play a down of college football and if Boise State was the right place for him. He also began to wonder whether he should have chosen soccer. Ajayi came back in time for the 2012 season, leaning on his Christian faith, family, friends and teammates. He was the team’s second-leading rusher and set the school single-season record for yards per carry (6.68) in 2013. But for all of Ajayi’s success last season, he is perhaps best known for being shown on national television drinking a massive jar of pickle juice while sitting on the bench. He tried it at the recommendation of a teammate after experiencing leg cramps.

“I had no idea it was going to blow up so big,” Ajayi said.

The phenomenon spread on Twitter, where Ajayi’s handle of @Slick27_PomE was inundated with pickle-related hashtags, photos of people pretending to drink pickle juice, and even a video clip in which a character from The Little Rascals talks about a pickle before it shows Ajayi eating one from a jar.

Ajayi plans to keep drinking the pickle juice this season, but not so visibly. “It works,” Ajayi said. “It keeps me on the field, which is the most important thing.”

3. Alabama WR Amari Cooper ready to rebound       

Nagging injuries caused the production of star Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper to dip last season, but he’s still as feared as any player in the SEC. One league assistant puts the 6-1, 210-pound junior in the same class as Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins. Cooper is expected to join the trio as an NFL first-round pick after this season. “They’re all different, but he’s that type of player,” the assistant said. “He’s pretty special. He’s right up there with the best of the best.”

Cooper once again drew rave reviews this past offseason and is seemingly healthy after reeling in 45 catches for 736 yards and four touchdowns last season, a subpar campaign by his standards. In 2012, he set freshman school records with 59 receptions for 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Off the field, Cooper has always been held in high esteem. “He’s the best guy you will ever meet,” said the league assistant, who recruited Cooper. “He’s got no issues. He’s like an old man. He’d rather sit on the porch and watch cars go by.”


The Blitz

Photo: CSM/Landov

* Oregon suffered a devastating blow in April when top returning receiver Bralon Addison tore the ACL in his left knee. Without the electrifying Addison, who had 61 catches for 890 yards and seven touchdowns last season, there’s a huge void at wide receiver for star quarterback Marcus Mariota. But Mariota is optimistic the junior wideout will still be able to play this season. “His goal is Michigan State,” Mariota said.

That would be Oregon’s second game of the season, Sept. 6 at home, a contest with early playoff ramifications. It would also be just less than five months after the 5-10, 190-pound Addison suffered the injury. In comparison, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson’s comeback from a similar injury in 2011 took nine months and is considered to be the quickest in recent major sports.

Addison continues to rehab and recently started jogging, according to Mariota. “He looks good,” Mariota said. “I’m excited.  Hopefully he gets ready for that second game.”

* Louisiana-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth isn’t shy when it comes to tailbacks Alonzo Harris and Elijah McGuire. “We have the best two running backs in the country,” Hudspeth said. “Do your homework on them. We’ve got a one-two punch that anybody would like to have.”

They keyed his team’s 9-4 record and New Orleans Bowl win last season, feats both accomplished for the third consecutive year. The Ragin' Cajuns also claimed a share of the Sun Belt championship for the first time since 2005.

The tackle-breaking 6-1, 220-pound Harris had 942 yards and 14 touchdowns on 199 carries last season. The senior stays primarily between the tackles and his specialty is exhausting opponents with his bruising running style.

“He gets better as the game goes on,” Hudspeth said. “Defenses get tired of tackling him. It wears you out after a while.”

McGuire (5-11, 185) is the exact opposite, a shifty runner who runs outside and has breakaway speed. He was a freshman All-America last season after rushing for 863 yards and eight touchdowns on just 103 carries. He only ended up at ULL after a mixup on his high school transcript made schools think he was a junior when he was actually a senior. ULL knew better. They kept his commitment so quiet that they didn’t disclose it until after he had signed his letter-of-intent. This past year when recruiters visiting McGuire’s high school asked where he was, they all got the same answer from his coach: “You’ll have to go up the road and ask Mark Hudspeth, because he’s playing for him.”

Hudspeth laughs while retelling the story of McGuire’s recruitment. He also gives McGuire the ultimate compliment in Louisiana.

“He ought to be the starting running back at LSU," Hudspeth said. "He’s that good.”

* No player in FBS history has ever cracked 1,000 yards in both rushing and receiving in a single season. Only two have ever done it in the NFL (Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk). But Arizona State coach Todd Graham believes speedy junior running back D.J. Foster is capable of not just breaking the barrier, but shattering it. He’ll have plenty of opportunities as the Sun Devils’ starting tailback is an explosive offense sure to score plenty of points this season.

“He’s unbelievable,” Graham said. “If you’ve got a sleeper category for a guy that can jump on the national stage, he could be a 1,500-yard-plus rusher and he could be 1,000-yard receiver, I mean, real easily.  He’s a guy that is going to do dynamic things for us.”

For most of last season, Foster backed up departed starter Marion Grice, but still rushed for 501 yards and six touchdowns on just 93 carries. He also led the nation in receiving yards by a running back with 653 yards on 63 receptions and scored four touchdowns. The 5-11, 203-pound Foster dazzled starting for an injured Grice the final three games of last season. His versatility was on display during Arizona State’s loss to Stanford in the Pac-12 title game when he reeled off a 51-yard touchdown run in the first quarter and a 65-yard touchdown reception less than 15 minutes later.

“He is a one-play, big-time hitter,” Graham said. “I mean he breaks, he’s gone.”

Photo: Steve Jones/SI

* Here's an interesting tidbit uncovered while researching Texas coach Charlie Strong’s life for an SI story that ran in July. One afternoon in Luxora, Ark., proved particularly memorable. That’s the blink-and-you'll-miss-it town of 1,154 where Strong’s father, Charles Strong, taught high school history and served as the head basketball coach at Luxora High for nearly 20 years. (Charlie grew up with his mother in Batesville, Ark., two hours east but spent parts of summers in Luxora with his dad).

Charles Strong Sr. died in June 1995, but his legacy lives on in Luxora. The Charles Strong Community Center hosts after-school and summer programs for kids. There is a beautiful basketball court straight out of the set of Hoosiers, a boxing room, computer lab and weight room. It would be an ideal facility in any tiny American town, but considering that Luxora doesn’t even have a restaurant, it’s even more impressive.

The coolest part about the center is how a crew of Charles Strong's former players and students have kept his legacy alive by serving on the community center’s board. Freddy Ware, a state police officer, and former Luxora High players Randy Porter and Robert Hooks are among the board members who run events, find funding and operate the center that serves as little Luxora’s heartbeat. 

“People still talk about him to this day,” Ware said of Strong Sr. “He was well respected and liked.

So much that when he passed, the board members and citizens re-named the Luxora Recreation Center the Charles Strong Recreation Center.

In the summer of 2013, Charlie Strong came back to the center for Kids Day, an annual summer celebration. Before he left, he asked Ware what projects the board had in mind for the center named after his father. Ware said an update of the bathroom was next on tap, and he soon found himself faxing estimates to Strong’s office at Louisville. Without any fanfare, Strong donated the $10,000 to fund the job. Needless to say, there’s plenty of new Texas fans in Luxora these days as they see a lot of similarities in father and son. 

“Charlie brings back memories,” Porter said. “Just the way he carries himself. Charlie is the same way as his dad, kind of quiet until things get heated.”

* There’s been plenty of preseason buzz about Nebraska star tailback Ameer Abdullah. And for good reason considering the 5-9, 195-pound senior is the FBS’ top returning rusher (1,690 yards and nine touchdowns on 281 carries last season). He will once again be the face of a deep Cornhuskers’ rushing attack this season that could be reminiscent of Big Red glory days.

“He’s as good as I’ve been around,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “Not only is he a great talent, but he’s got a tremendous work ethic. As good a player as he is, he’s an even better kid. He’s a good man. He’s about all the right things every single day in every regard. He’s just the kind of guy you want leading your program.”

That’s high praise from Pelini, who puts Abdullah in the same company as Jerry Rice. Pelini saw the legendary Hall of Fame wideout up close from 1994-96 as defensive backs coach for the San Francisco 49ers. “I’m not comparing Ameer to Jerry Rice, but Jerry’s work ethic and how the rest of the team took on his makeup, that’s what kind of guy that Ameer is,” Pelini said. “People respond to him. Without having to say a heck of a lot, he can kind of raise the play of the guys around him.”

* Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez isn’t trying to be coy about who will be his starting quarterback this season. “I honestly don’t know who the hell it will be,” Rodriguez said.

The third-year Wildcats’ coach will choose from three redshirt transfers -- sophomore Connor Brewer (Texas), junior Jerrard Randall (LSU) and senior Jesse Scroggins (USC) -- and redshirt freshman Anu Solomon. Arizona is one of only two teams in the Pac-12 that doesn’t return a starting quarterback (the other is Washington). But it has perhaps the deepest wide receivers corps in the league and maybe even the country, led by standout Austin Hill, who missed last season with an ACL injury.

Rodriguez plans to narrow the race to three quarterbacks early this week. Unlike most coaches, he would prefer to play two of those signal-callers rather than one in his team’s opener on Aug. 29 against UNLV. “I’m hoping it’s so damn close I can’t pick between them,” Rodriguez said. “That’d mean I feel like I’ve got two I can win with.”

Rodriguez has a history of starting with two quarterbacks when he was at West Virginia (Pat White and Adam Bednarik) and Michigan (Denard Robinson and Tate Forcier). “I don’t worry about it,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t treat it any different than any other position. I don’t want them worrying about going out there making mistakes and getting yanked. It usually sorts itself out.”


Photo: Russ Isabella/USA TODAY Sports

Q&A with Utah State coach Matt Wells

The Mountain West Conference has been a launching pad for some of the sport’s most successful coaches since its inception in 1999. Will Utah State’s Matt Wells be the next Urban Meyer, Gary Andersen or Chris Petersen? It’s too early to say. But with apologies to Boise State, Fresno or Colorado State, anyone not picking Utah State to win the Mountain West is going off reputation over reality. Utah State has one of the most intriguing openers, playing at Tennessee in primetime on Aug. 31. We caught up with Wells, 40, who will introduce himself to the nation soon enough.

How did you end up as Navy’s JV coach?

As soon as I was done playing (at Utah State), Charlie Weatherbie hired me. He was the head coach at Navy. Kenny Niumatalolo was the offensive coordinator, so I was basically Kenny’s GA … he coached the quarterbacks and I coached the fullbacks. Kenny mentored me, he’s still a friend and a mentor for me … I learned a lot from him in those five years.

More importantly, what’s your best story about longtime Navy assistant Steve Belichick (father of Bill) story?

I was a young assistant in my first year at the Naval academy and every day at about 10 o’clock an older gentleman would come into the staff room, knock on the door, open it up, and say ‘Have we scored any touchdowns today?’ And shut the door. He walked down to the next staff room, to Dick Bumpas, the defensive coordinator who’s now at TCU, he would knock and open the door: ‘Have we stopped anybody today?’ He’d shut the door, walk around the corner, grab a couple newspapers and a cup of coffee, he’d read, come out and watch practice, then leave. It would just keep going on and on, every day when he’d knock on the door he’d open it up and he had a different polo or a sweater or a ball cap, and it was Cleveland Browns, it was the New York Jets, it was the Giants, the Patriots … whoever it was. All that stuff, Bill had given him. I finally said, ‘Who’s the old man who keeps knocking on the doors?’ And they’re like ‘That’s Coach Belichick.’ And I’m like ‘Coach Belichick?’ And they said ‘Yeah, that’s the dad.’ So as I got to know him over the years; it was almost a grandfatherly type relationship to where when we would go to the AFCA convention on a yearly basis, he was the one with the little tag that said ‘Lifetime member.’ He would bring me over as a young assistant at the Naval Academy and say ‘Matt, I want you to meet Bobby Bowden.’ Or Joe Paterno, or whoever it was. That was a neat experience for me as a young assistant; it was very impressionable upon me as a young coach.

One of the great turnarounds in recent college football history was when Steve Kragthorpe was at Tulsa. You were there, how did he do it?

They were 2-21 before we got there. We went to three bowls in the four years we were there, we won the Conference USA championship in 2005, won the Liberty Bowl that year … it was a tremendous turnaround. That meant a lot to me as an in-state guy. I was one of the in-state recruiters who had Eastern Oklahoma … I was able to recruit a lot of players that had success there. They were in-state kids. So I think that was one of the fondest memories I had coming up as an assistant, and to do that meant a lot to me.

When you start talking mid-90s, late-90s, Utah State went from being a homecoming game to a fringe top-25 program. How gratifying is that for you?

It’s really gratifying. I’m an Aggie through and through, I bleed Aggie blue. Being an alum, it means a lot to me. One of the things I talk to our players about is playing for those who have come before you, play for those who are with you now -- which is the locker room and your best friends for life, and play for those that follow you -- that’s the young Aggie fans and future recruits. I spent something like 14 years at four universities before coming back, and [the Utah State game] was the first score I would check on my cell phone coming off the field. During some of those lean years, that was just as hard for me as it was for the people in Logan. To be a part of the turnaround, three straight bowl teams, for the last two years we’re one of nine teams in Division I who have won back-to-back bowl games. I have a tremendous sense of pride in that because of what we’re giving back to the valley and the community for Aggie football. That’s important to me.

Tennessee returns no offensive or defensive linemen starters from last season. Were you aware of that?

I was. It’s an interesting stat. Not that fact, but I talked to our players in our team meeting about that last Friday. There’s a lot of attrition: you have graduation, you have draft picks – for us at Utah State we had two draft picks, seven free agent kids… we lost nine NFL players off of last year’s team. So we’re replacing a lot too.


The Assistant Huddle

* There’s little argument that Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is the DC most ready to take over his own program. Narduzzi turned down the Connecticut job last year to stay at Michigan State. The Spartans rewarded Narduzzi’s loyalty by boosting his salary to $904,000, making him one of the country’s highest paid assistants.

Michigan State’s Week 2 game against Oregon will allow Narduzzi to prove his worth. Oregon’s offense ranked No. 4 in the country last season, averaging 45.5 points per game. Michigan State’s defense ranked No. 3 by allowing just 13.2 points per game. It’s the ultimate clash of wills and styles.

Asked if Michigan State changed its offseason workouts to prepare for Oregon’s speed and pace (LSU did a similar thing when it opened with the Ducks in 2011), Narduzzi said the Spartans are expecting eight of their 12 opponents to run no-huddle this year. He also said he’d likely call Indiana coach Kevin Wilson, who ran blazing offenses at Northwestern and Oklahoma, to pick his brain about the Ducks. “Kevin is a genius,”  Narduzzi said of Wilson, who worked together as graduate assistants at Miami (Ohio).

“We like to huddle up and do it the old-fashioned way,” Narduzzi  said. “But probably more than half of our opponents were no huddle last year. We’ve got a plan for no-huddle and fast tempo. Indiana is the fastest in the Big Ten, they’re as fast as Texas A&M and Oregon.”

* Call it the Jadeveon Clowney effect. But it’s been more than the star power of the former South Carolina defensive end that has helped the Gamecocks land five commitments from the top defensive ends in the 2015 class, a group sure to be among the nation's best. It’s actually the Deke Adams factor. The intense South Carolina defensive line coach has either been the primary or secondary recruiter on each of the defensive linemen.

His latest prize, star Hutchison (Kan.) Community College strongside defensive end Marquavius Lewis, boosted Adams into the top 10 of one recruiting service’s national recruiter rankings at No. 9. Adams knows his way around junior colleges after spending four seasons as an assistant at Mississippi’s Pearl River Community College from 1998 through 2001.

“I understand how those kids think and what they look for,” Adams said. “You’re dealing with kids that have been through the recruiting process. They understand it already. They’re able to see through the mess and the pipe dreams and all the different things they’re told. They have a better focus for what they’re looking for. I’m just open and honest with what our program can do.”

Lewis is the nation’s second-best junior college recruit and tops at his position, according to the recruiting service. The 6-4, 271-pound lineman from Greenwood, S.C. had 61 tackles, including 19 for loss, and 7.5 sacks last season. His commitment late last month came less than two weeks after East Mississippi Community College weakside defensive end Dante Sawyer was secured by quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus and Adams. The 6-2, 262-pound Sawyer signed with the Gamecocks in February, but failed to qualify and had reopened his recruitment. He’s ranked as the fifth-best junior college recruit and also tops at his position. Bluffton, S.C. commitment Shameik Blackshear is also among the nation’s best high school weakside defensive ends.

The trio can’t arrive fast enough for this year’s largely inexperienced South Carolina defensive line that must answer the question of how they will replace Clowney. “We know what he’s done for the program,” Adams said. “But he’s not here.”

* Stanford is attempting to keep its smashmouth identity through the coaching turnover that’s inherent to winning football games. The biggest change at Stanford this offseason came when defensive coordinator Derek Mason left to become Vanderbilt's head coach. Cardinal coach David Shaw quickly filled that position with Lance Anderson, who has coached Stanford’s defensive line, defensive tackles and linebackers since arriving on the initial staff of Jim Harbaugh in 2007. 

Anderson last served as a defensive playcaller at St. Mary’s (Calif.) in 2003, but said he feels prepared because Mason allowed him a lot of input on calling defensive fronts the past few seasons. Anderson takes over the Stanford defense at an intriguing time, as staples like linebacker Shayne Skov, end Ben Gardner and linebacker Trent Murphy are gone. For the first time Anderson’s eight seasons at Stanford, the strength of the defensive unit could come in the secondary. Senior Jordan Richards may be the nation’s best safety, and cornerback Alex Carter will be a high-end NFL prospect if he comes back healthy from a hip injury. "When we first got here, we didn’t have the depth in the secondary and were limited athletically,” Anderson said. “That’s not a position where it’s easy to find guys, but we have some pretty good players back there.”


Photo: Courtesy of UCF Athletics Communications

Meet Brent Key

As Brent Key sat in his parents’ living room nearly 20 years ago, he was listening to exactly what he wanted to hear. The offensive line recruit already valued the virtues of discipline, accountability and responsibility that then-Georgia Tech coach George O’Leary preached to him. They were the same values that Key’s coach reinforced in him at Hewitt-Trussville High in Alabama, except there was one difference. “It was in an Irish accent instead of a southern drawl,” said Key with a laugh.

It’s the same voice that Key has been listening to ever since. First as an all-ACC right guard at Georgia Tech and now as O’Leary’s assistant head coach at Central Florida. Key, 36, has blossomed into one of the nation’s top young assistants in helping O’Leary build the Knights into a Top 25 program that won the Fiesta Bowl last season. And after turning down numerous high-profile assistant jobs over the years, don’t be surprised if Key someday succeeds O’Leary in Orlando. It’s a possibility endorsed by O’Leary, who is entering his 11th season at UCF.

“He’s become the complete coach on and off the field,” O’Leary said of Key. “He can do it all. He’s a very smart guy. He gets kids to play a notch above what’s probably their athletic ability.”

Key is in charge of the UCF’s offensive line, but has also coached tight ends, special teams and has been the recruiting coordinator. It’s all part of O’Leary’s belief that the best football coaches don’t specialize in one particular area. "It makes you an all-around coach and better prepares you to advance in the profession,” Key said.

With preseason camp underway, Key has stopped reading non-fiction Wall Street financial books -- his latest was Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys -- to resume sleeping on the cot in his office three nights a week. With that type of dedication, it’s hard to believe there was once a time when he wasn’t sure if he wanted to be a coach.

After his collegiate playing career ended in 2000, Key remained at Georgia Tech as a graduate assistant under O’Leary for two seasons. But Key left to put his business degree to work in the commercial real estate business in Atlanta, handling duties like pro forma financial statements. O’Leary warned him about his decision.

“I really think you’ve got a great opportunity to be a football coach,” O’Leary told Key. “Don’t throw it away before it’s too late.”

Tired of wearing a suit and tie and being stuck mostly in an office, Key returned to coaching as a tight ends and running backs coach at Western Carolina in 2004. He then reunited with O’Leary at UCF the following year. “Those few months away made me realize that I really love coaching,” Key said. “It’s not what I do, but who I am. It will always be who I am.”

Key has resisted overtures from higher-profile schools after listening to the advice that his grandfather, Don Martin, once gave him. “Coach O’Leary has been with you this long and you need to stay loyal to him,” Martin told Key. “If you continue to work and do a good job, good things are going to happen.”

In June, Key married his wife, Danielle, a senior administrative assistant who has worked in the Knights’ football office for five years. It’s been almost a decade now since Key came to UCF.

“You don’t fix what’s not broken,” O’Leary said of Key potentially succeeding him. “And everything right now not just from an athletic standpoint, but also academically, the players are doing very well. The program has always been built on accountability, responsibility and doing the right thing. Brent’s a great help not just at his position, but also making sure new coaches and new players understand what that culture is.”

So don’t expect Key to leave UCF anytime soon.

“When you become vested in a place like this, it becomes a part of you,” Key said, “and you don’t want to leave.”


Coach's Kitchen

The next time you are in Honolulu, check out the Side Street Inn, a favorite spot of Hawaii coach Norm Chow. He recommends the Lup Cheong fried rice, which features a sweet Chinese sausage. The Korean short ribs, known as Kal Bi, and Ahi Poke, tuna mized with seaweed, are also favorites. Chow chuckles while saying that these likely won’t be on the menu in too many SEC towns.

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