Texas A&M's unique pass-catching tandem leads first Punt, Pass & Pork
Welcome to the debut edition of Punt, Pass & Pork. Once college football teams start playing games this week, this will be the place where all questions are answered by Monday morning. OK, so maybe I won’t have all the answers. But I will have analysis of the most important stories, plays and players from each weekend. We’ll also recap some of my culinary adventures as I traverse the college football landscape. If it’s smoked slow or deep fried or wrapped in bacon -- or maybe all three -- you can count on me to find and devour it.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Offenses work best when they can present a defense with something it simply cannot counter. For the past two seasons at Texas A&M, that something was Johnny Manziel. So, what happens now that Johnny Football is off to the NFL and the SEC office has decided the Aggies will open the season on Thursday night against a veteran-heavy South Carolina team that hasn’t lost at home since 2011? They have to find something else for which defenses have no answer.
Texas A&M coaches hope new starting quarterback Kenny Hill can run and throw at a level near Manziel’s. But even if Hill can’t replicate the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, the Aggies have two large offensive wrinkles that could fluster opposing defensive coordinators.
One of those wrinkles is tight end Cam Clear, who stands at 6-foot-6, weighs 277 pounds and runs and catches like someone 40 pounds lighter. The other is H receiver Ricky Seals-Jones, who is 6-5, 235 pounds and was last spotted in a game outrunning the Rice secondary for a 71-yard touchdown. From an NFL arbitrator’s standpoint, both players would be considered tight ends. From a defensive coordinator’s standpoint, they might be considered nightmares.Duke game, a threat in the passing game,” Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. Indeed, in the Aggies’ 52-48 Chick-fil-A Bowl win over the Blue Devils, Texas A&M faced third-and-three from its own 49-yard line midway through the third quarter. From an attached formation, Clear released down the field. A Duke safety covered him well, but he was boxed out by Clear’s bulk. Clear caught the ball and, by the time two Blue Devils dragged him down, gained 30 yards. It was one of only two catches on the night, but it offered a glimpse of what Clear might be able to do if coaches make him a more integral part of the passing game.
Seals-Jones, meanwhile, came to Texas A&M in 2013 as a traditional wide receiver. To the untrained eye, he seemed the heir apparent to Mike Evans, the 6-5, 225-pound burner who was selected No. 7 overall in last May’s NFL draft. In his first college game, Seals-Jones showed a flash of similarity to Evans, catching a Matt Joeckel pass over the middle and outrunning the Rice defense.
But Seals-Jones played only one more game and redshirted following a knee injury. Seals-Jones’ weight has held steady, but Sumlin can see him reaching 250 pounds. Coaches knew he was physically different than Evans, so they knew a conversation about Seals-Jones’ role could be coming. What’s interesting is that Seals-Jones initiated that conversation this spring. Clear missed a few practices after a hit to the head, and Seals-Jones approached offensive coordinator Jake Spavital and tight ends coach Jeff Banks about playing more like a tight end. Coaches were happy, because they knew Seals-Jones was going to have to turn into a weight-watcher if he stayed at a regular receiver position. This way, he won’t have to struggle to keep the pounds off. “Just let your body go to where it’s going to go,” Banks said. “Don’t try to lose weight. Don’t try to gain weight. Just eat well and lift and see what happens.”
Like everyone else in the game, Seals-Jones has been captivated by how the New Orleans Saints use Jimmy Graham. There is a bright future for a 250-pounder who can run, catch and block just well enough to keep defenses honest. “He can be a willing blocker in the box and do it effectively,” Banks said of Seals-Jones. “He’s not going to crush people like Cam could if he gets the right matchup, but he’s willing. And that’s the first part. When you get a receiver and you move him into the box, there’s a lot of stuff going on. Ricky is willing to put his face in there.”
This is new territory for Sumlin, Spavital and Banks. Sumlin didn’t use the tight end in the passing game much during his four-year tenure in Houston. “In Houston,” Sumlin said, “we couldn’t recruit that guy.” In 2009, that guy showed up in the form of Fendi Onobun, a 6-6, 249-pound Houston native who had spent the previous four years playing basketball at Arizona. But Onobun, who is currently on waivers and will likely land on injured reserve for the Jacksonville Jaguars, was just learning the sport. Seals-Jones was recruited to play football.
Clear, meanwhile, was originally recruited by Tennessee. He played there in 2011, but was dismissed from the team in May ‘12 after he was arrested and accused of stealing another student’s laptop. After pleading guilty to a charge of misdemeanor theft, Clear went to Arizona Western Community College for the ‘12 season. He joined the Aggies last year, but with Manziel, Evans and a host of other weapons, he wasn’t needed much in the passing game. He scored a touchdown in a 49-42 loss to Alabama, but that long catch against Duke accounted for 71 percent of his receiving yardage.
This year Texas A&M coaches believe Clear can help the Aggies in the air and on the ground. “It makes us very multiple in the run and the pass, and that’s the big part of it,” Banks said. “You want to get a guy that’s as big and skilled athletically as Cam in the open field for people to have to make tackles on, but you also want to maximize the run boxes.”
Clear will have to prove he can catch the ball consistently. If he doesn’t, his football future is likely on the offensive line. His height, length and quickness would allow him to pack on 20 or 30 more pounds and become a prototypical offensive tackle. But Clear wants to keep playing tight end. “I think Cam is a little worried about that,” Banks said. “He doesn’t want to play tackle. That’s our carrot with him to motivate him. He’s got to be productive in the pass game.”
Banks worked this offseason to figure out how to better coach his two versions of the tight end. Because the players must hone their receiving and blocking skills and work in tandem with the receivers and the offensive linemen, arranging practices is a challenge. Banks attended Saints OTAs to see how Graham’s practices were set up. Later, he attended Chicago Bears OTAs to see how those coaches handled the 6-6, 265-pound Martellus Bennett, who is more physically similar to Clear.
Banks has also found himself watching more high school defensive ends. If the Aggies succeed in expanding the passing game with their tight ends, they’ll want more players like Seals-Jones and Clear. Unfortunately, those players aren’t easy to find -- even in a talent-rich, spread offense-heavy state such as Texas. Banks estimates there are between three and five players in Texas each year with the unique skill set to fill all the roles Clear and Seals-Jones must fill and the athleticism to play in the SEC, Big 12 or Pac-12. “Especially in the state of Texas, it’s hard to find an attached tight end in high school,” Banks said. “They’re either playing defensive end or receiver.”
If Clear and Seals-Jones can help expand the passing game, Banks knows those three to five players will put Texas A&M atop their recruiting lists. But first, the Aggies’ two jumbo pass-catchers have to produce.
Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples and Zac Ellis analyze the SEC entering the 2014 season.
Unlimited food, possibilities for Sooners' Byrd
NCAA deregulation has Tiffany Byrd working harder than ever. Byrd, a registered dietitian who joined Oklahoma’s staff in the spring of 2013, has had her creativity -- and her PB&J-making skills -- stretched since the NCAA legislative council voted in April to allow schools to provide unlimited food to student-athletes. Working in an area just off the Oklahoma football locker room on Thursday, Byrd had just put the finishing touches on 80 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (half grape and half strawberry) for pre-practice snacks. As an assistant made turkey wraps, Byrd explained how much easier (no more red tape) and more difficult (more work) deregulation has made her job.
Now, Byrd can provide nutritional guidance for whenever Sooners players eat. They won’t always listen to her and may still devour the occasional sack of fast-food burgers, but they have no excuse for not eating healthier. “I can give them late-night snack boxes now,” Byrd said. And she does. After dinner, Oklahoma players can grab a take-home box that should satisfy any late-night cravings. A sample box includes a lean-meat (chicken or turkey) sandwich on whole-wheat bread, a fruit cup, baked chips and a Rice Krispies Treat.
This may sound silly, but college football players burn thousands more calories a day than the average student. They get hungry at all hours, and it’s cheap and easy to devour an entire pizza at 11 p.m. on a college campus. Oklahoma coaches would prefer that players put better food in their bodies if they're going to eat late.
Sooners coach Bob Stoops is a believer in Byrd. Stoops and his staff noticed last year that players weren’t losing weight and strength the way they usually do over the course of the season. “I really saw the value in it a year ago in how strong we were at the end of the year,” Stoops said. “A big part of it, I believe, was because of the nutrition throughout the year. Guys were able to keep their strength and weight during the season as opposed to it diminishing little by little.”
Byrd handles the program’s macro and micro nutritional needs. She designs menus for team meals, but she also designs plans for individual players who need to either gain or lose weight. “When you have someone constantly visiting with you on that, kids do it,” Stoops said.
Projected College Football Playoff
Each week, I’ll attempt to project the four teams that will make the inaugural College Football Playoff field. With any luck, I’ll move from laughably wrong to nearly accurate as the season moves forward.
1. Florida State
The defending national champs might start nine seniors on offense. That doesn’t include the returning Heisman winner at quarterback. Jameis Winston is a redshirt sophomore.
I know I filmed a video last month in which I predicted South Carolina would emerge from the SEC and make the playoff. I have talked myself out of that and back into picking Alabama, which should benefit from improved cornerback play this season to go with a potent offense once it settles on a quarterback.
I have no idea which team in the Pac-12 is best. It could be the UCLA. It could be Oregon. It could be Stanford. Who knows? Maybe Washington will make a run under new coach Chris Petersen. But the Bruins seem like they’re on the precipice of something special. We’ll know early. They play Texas in Week 3, and they go on the road to face defending Pac-12 South champ Arizona State on Sept. 25.
4. Michigan State
The defense had to carry the offense last year, and the Spartans came one pass interference call against Notre Dame away from playing for the national title. This year the offense is polished. The defense must replace a lot, but coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s group has been elite for four years now. We’ll see exactly how elite against quarterback Marcus Mariota and Oregon in Week 2.
The poll ballot
After five years, I finally get to stop voting in the AP Poll. Large groups of 18- to 22-year-olds are notoriously difficult to predict, and I was particularly bad at preseason guessing. However, every once in a while, I still get a hankering for some rankering. So, each Monday during the season, I'll post my ballot in a random poll of my choosing. I will provide no explanation for my choices unless I feel like it.
In honor of the Every Simpsons Ever marathon, this week's ballot will feature the top 15 ancillary characters from The Simpsons. (No, I don't consider Krusty, Mr. Burns, Mrs. Krabappel, Smithers, Apu or any other semi-regulars to be ancillary.)
1. Comic Book Guy
2. Lionel Hutz
3. Kent Brockman
4. Sideshow Bob
5. Groundskeeper Willie
6. Dr. Nick Riviera
7. Troy McClure
9. Jeremy Freedman
10. Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel
11. Fat Tony
12. The Sea Captain
13. Disco Stu
15. Inanimate carbon rod
Play of the week
Each Monday I’ll break down the most important play from the previous weekend. Since there are no plays to break down at the moment, we'll just watch two of my favorite plays of all time. Circus is the hook-and-lateral play that helped Boise State send the 2007 Fiesta Bowl to overtime. Statue is the Statue of Liberty play that the Broncos used to score a two-point conversion and upset Oklahoma 43-42. Statue is also the American Dream wrapped up in one down of football. Run the ultimate backyard play to lead the underdog past the established powerhouse, then fall to one knee and propose to a cheerleader on the sideline.
Big Ugly of the week
Every Monday this season we’ll highlight an offensive or defensive lineman who earned his unlimited food the previous weekend. But the season hasn’t started yet. So today, we’ll honor an offensive lineman-turned-coach whose timeless style should inspire all of his players. Your Big Ugly of the Week is former Utah center Gary Andersen, who now coaches a little college football team in Madison, Wis.
Wisconsin players were treated during camp to a look at Andersen rocking a blonde mullet and shorts that barely extend halfway down his thighs. Since Andersen played at Utah in the mid-1980s, we can assume these were not ironic choices. We can also assume that no one in the Beehive State rocked harder. (We checked. Jim McMahon finished at BYU in ‘81.)
1. Alabama’s season begins on Saturday, and we still don’t know who will start at quarterback for the Crimson Tide. It’s possible coach Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin know whether senior Blake Sims or Florida State transfer Jacob Coker will start and just won't announce it publicly. But Saban certainly sounded as if he hasn’t made a decision when he spoke to reporters late last week. Both passers could play significant snaps against West Virginia as coaches look for separation.
2. I was surprised that the NCAA didn’t allow wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham to play immediately at Oklahoma. The police report that was the final straw for Green-Beckham at Missouri was ugly, but the letter of the NCAA’s “run-off” rule seemed to give Green-Beckham a chance. Fortunately, the NCAA elected not to reward a player who was thrown off his team while punishing players who followed their teams’ rules and simply wanted a change of scenery.
Allowing Green-Beckham to play immediately would have only served to spotlight the absurdity of some of the NCAA’s transfer rules, which the schools know are absurd and will likely change within the next year. Remember, these are the same transfer rules that allowed Kansas State to hold a women’s basketball player -- who did nothing wrong except play for a coach the K-State administration decided to fire -- hostage for months. Leticia Romero’s transfer would have been far easier for her had she failed multiple drug tests, beat someone up and gotten tossed off her team. That’s why the rules need to change.
The question now for Green-Beckham is how long he’ll stay in Norman. He is eligible for the 2015 NFL draft. Will he remain with Oklahoma and practice or simply begin training for the pros?
3. It’s time for the NCAA to rule that quarterback Baker Mayfield can play immediately for the Sooners. Mayfield was a walk-on at Texas Tech last year. He’s a walk-on at Oklahoma now. Were he on scholarship at Texas Tech, Oklahoma or both, forcing him to sit out a season and lose a year of eligibility -- per Big 12 intraconference transfer rules -- might make sense. But since Mayfield and/or his parents are the ones stroking the tuition checks, he should be able to move between schools without restrictions.
5. Tanner McEvoy probably thought if he ever played a neutral-site game against LSU, it would be in Atlanta for the SEC title. McEvoy, who will reportedly start at quarterback for Wisconsin when it faces the Tigers in Houston on Saturday, originally signed with South Carolina in 2011. McEvoy was behind Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson on the Gamecocks’ depth chart entering the ‘12 campaign, and he transferred to Arizona Western after being cited on charges of speeding and driving after consuming alcohol while under 21 in July ‘12 in North Carolina.
McEvoy came to Wisconsin in ‘13, and the 6-6, 222-pounder played receiver and safety. (He made three tackles against his former team in a 34-24 Capital One Bowl loss to South Carolina on New Year’s Day.) Last week the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that McEvoy beat out incumbent Joel Stave. Unlike Stave, McEvoy is a threat to run. Badgers coach Andersen, who coached dual-threat star Chuckie Keeton at Utah State before coming to Wisconsin, should find plenty of ways to utilize McEvoy’s skill set.
6. Colorado State’s online roster includes a 4-1, 53-pound running back. His name is Jack Miller, and the 9-year-old has been fighting brain tumors for the past six years. Miller’s online bio also includes this quote from Colorado State coach Jim McElwain: “Jack is a big part of our family, and we all are honored that he chose us to be his teammates. Part of this whole deal in life is understanding what it takes and what it is to give of yourself to somebody else. I can’t tell you how enjoyable it is, after a game, to see Jack in the locker room wearing his Rams jersey, and that smile on his face. He has taught all of us so much about toughness, determination and embracing life.”
7. Ever wondered how to do the Haka? Allow Arizona’s football team to show you.
8. Saturday’s game against Oklahoma State will be special for Florida State safety Tyler Hunter. Hunter injured his neck while making a tackle on a kickoff return in a 54-6 win over Bethune-Cookman on Sept. 21, 2013. Hunter has a condition called cervical spinal stenosis, which results in a narrower spinal canal in the neck. After the injury, doctors weren’t sure if Hunter could play again. He visited specialists in California and Illinois and learned he might still be able to play if he had surgery. So, last fall, he went to Chicago and underwent a procedure to relieve swelling in his spinal cord and to insert a plate that would make his neck stronger. Hunter watched from the sidelines as the Seminoles won a national title in January, but he’ll be back on the field next weekend as they begin their title defense.
10. Texas A&M-South Carolina won’t be the first game this season involving an FBS team. For those who crave FBS action, Georgia State opens against Abilene Christian on Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPNU.
What’s eating Andy?
With football season starting, my time spent on planes is about to increase considerably. I need something to read. I’m looking at you, George R.R. Martin. The Winds of Winter needed to drop yesterday, and now you’re saying there are days when you feel like you’re going backward?
What's Andy eating?
I probably shouldn’t write about brisket on the maiden voyage of a column called Punt, Pass & Pork. However, I was in Texas for much of last week, so the cow will horn its way into the discussion. Three years ago I visited Franklin Barbecue in Austin and declared it the best joint in America. I returned last week to see if that assessment should still stand.
When I visited in 2011, Franklin had moved into its current location from a trailer. The lines were long. I waited two hours for hunks of that tender, moist brisket seasoned with salt, pepper and magic and smoked over post oak. The pork spare ribs were juicy and pulled clean off the bone with the gentlest tug, and, though the meat didn’t need it, the espresso barbecue sauce was a treat.
The good news? Franklin still serves what might be America’s best brisket. The ribs remain strong. The espresso sauce is excellent. Franklin also now sells miniature pies from The Cake and Spoon, a bakery in Austin, and the banana bourbon can induce a bliss coma.
The bad news? Unlike most places, the lines didn’t die down after the initial surge of popularity. When I visited last week, I waited four and a half hours before eating. The brave souls in the front of the line arrived at 5:30 a.m., so they waited five and a half hours before eating. After finally getting inside and receiving my food, I performed a cost-benefit analysis as I chewed.
Yes, Franklin’s brisket is better than anyone else’s. But it’s not so much better that it is worth sacrificing four and a half hours of my life. (“That’s what interns are for,” a high muckety-muck at an Austin company told me the next day.) The brisket is nearly as good -- and the line much shorter -- at nearby la Barbecue. You could drive to Taylor, go to Louie Mueller and eat one of those beef ribs that looks like something Fred Flintstone would have delivered to his car and drive back to Austin in less time. On a Saturday morning, you could drive to Snow’s in nearby Lexington -- because it is only open on Saturdays -- and have brisket almost as good for breakfast. Snow’s opens at 8 a.m., and despite several years of Franklin-like lines, it requires only a short wait for those who arrive early.
If you haven’t been to Franklin, you should absolutely go for the brisket and the experience. Bring some friends, some lawn chairs and a stocked, rolling cooler. If -- unlike me -- you’re a brunch person, it won’t feel much different. But if you’ve already been to Franklin, you’re probably better off exploring some of the famous nearby spots. If enough people do that, maybe the lines will die down at Franklin and those of us with less time on our hands will be able to get that brisket without sacrificing so much of our precious time on earth.
As for the No. 1 ranking, it’s up for grabs again. After visiting such stars as Pecan Lodge (Dallas), Heirloom Market (Atlanta), Rodney Scott BBQ (Hemingway, S.C.) and The Skylight Inn (Ayden, N.C.), I’ve realized more careful study will be required before we can name a national champ. Maybe we should form a committee and then hold a playoff to figure it all out.