Inside Read: Oregon-MSU takes on added importance; Coker's magic
HOUSTON – When No. 8 Michigan State travels to No. 3 Oregon on Saturday night, the blockbuster game will double as an intriguing harbinger for how teams are viewed through the prism of college football’s new postseason format. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany deemed the game “disproportionately important” for perception in the playoff era, much the same way LSU's 28-24 win over Wisconsin on Saturday night will be viewed.
The ramifications of the result from Eugene will transcend what Oregon’s Marcus Mariota or Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun do on the field, as the season’s marquee non-conference game provides precious data points in comparing the Big Ten and the Pac-12. With a selection committee choosing the four playoff participants for the first time, the amplification of importance of these types of non-conference games is not lost on Delany and Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott.
“I don’t downplay the game, it takes on an added dimension,” Delany said in a phone interview on Sunday afternoon. “I think all the emphasis on these games is merited. They’re potential pivot points for the decision making.”
The most intriguing part about the playoff is that no one is certain how the selection process will unfold. How can an SEC team be compared to a Pac-12 team when no teams from the leagues play each other this season? Is a close loss to a Top 10 team on the road more valuable than a blowout of an FCS Jacksonville State?
“We won’t really know how the committee will view certain nuances until there’s a large enough sample size to distinguish their preferences,” Delany said.
But everyone is certain that winning Saturday’s showdown will be good for the victor and that program’s league brethren. Scott said he’s embracing the Michigan State-Oregon hype because the Ducks’ performance will inevitably set the agenda for how the conference is viewed.
“It’s a tent pole barometer game that helps establish the narrative,” Scott said. “It’s good for college football to have big-time regular season games to establish the barometer.”
With just two national titles since 1970, the Big Ten has been tagged by fans and media as the league most likely to get left out of the playoff. With four slots available for the five power leagues, the theme of exclusion will ultimately become a major storyline as the season passes.
The perception of the Big Ten as the league most likely to get left out spiked in late August when Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller was lost for the season with a shoulder injury. Miller was the conference’s Player of the Year the past two years, leaving the Buckeyes and the league without their defining star. Delany read the Big Ten obituaries that accompanied Miller’s injury.
“My reaction was that it was an overreaction,” he said. “The conference is really counting on one player? I think that’s probably not the most useful way to see it.”
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said he didn’t waste a minute wondering how Miller’s injury would impact the Big Ten. “It’s not on the top, front, back or middle of my mind,” Meyer said. “I think the Big Ten has come a long way in two years. I think there’s some excellent teams in this conference. I think we’re better than we were two years ago. I don’t think, I know.”
If Wisconsin had won on Saturday, it would have presented the committee a fascinating test case. The Badgers would boast a marquee victory against a brand name SEC program, but don’t appear to have another opportunity to gain one the rest of the season. Thanks to expansion, Wisconsin plays a diet Big Ten schedule, missing Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State. No. 22 Nebraska is the only Top 25 team on its remaining schedule. Conversely, it will be debated how good of a victory this is for LSU if Wisconsin doesn’t have any quality wins.
Then there’s the tricky matter of quality losses, something no one is quite sure how the committee will view. “If you lose and lose well it should be considered an enhancement of your resume,” Delany said. “If you don’t play a quality opponent, it should be a negative. If the committee manages it that way, there should be more [marquee non-conference games] and it will be good for the game.”
What virtually everyone can agree on is that the playoff era has prompted a scheduling windfall of juicy games that’s made the opening weekends of college football much more intriguing. Delany reiterated Sunday that he’d like to see teams shy away from scheduling FCS opponents. Upcoming games like Virginia Tech-Ohio State (Saturday), UCLA-Texas (Sept. 13) and Miami-Nebraska (Sept. 20) are good for everyone. Their importance will be analyzed and dissected for months to come.
“In college basketball you have 30 data points and 18 conference games,” Delany said. “In college football there’s a lot more competition to judge and connect the dots with far fewer data points. Each data point takes on more meaning in these [non-conference] games and will be drawn upon in a disproportionate way by the committee.”
So let the “disproportionately important” games begin. And let them continue to be played for years to come.
1. Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford changes for the better
Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford can recite all the reasons he has changed positions in college. The once overlooked recruit initially got moved from running back to the secondary after his redshirt year because the Spartans needed cornerbacks. He resented the change because he wanted to score touchdowns.
So he was switched again to wide receiver the next season, except he didn’t like the aches and pains that came with the position, lasting only through spring practice. When he finally returned to his original position for the 2012 season, he realized there was a common denominator in all the position changes: his lack of consistency. “It was just mental,” Langford said.
With a more opportunistic outlook, the redshirt senior has finally blossomed into the star running back he always wanted to be, the one the Spartans will lean on heavily during Saturday’s mega-matchup at Oregon.
During his breakout campaign last year, the 6-foot-1, 208-pound Langford gained more than half of his 1,422 rushing yards after contact to go along with 18 touchdowns. The Detroit-area product’s newfound appreciation actually began when he returned to running back and backed up star Le’Veon Bell. It came not carrying the ball, but making tackles on special teams. “They still trusted me to be on the field,” Langford said. “So I took advantage.”
And when Bell left early for the NFL after the 2012 season, Langford seized the opportunity. In spring practice, he adapted a mentality of trying to score on every carry or at the very least gain four yards. It all translated to Langford's stellar year last season in which he averaged 4.8 yards per carry and had five touchdown runs in the fourth quarter, including four of more than 25 yards. “It was like a dream come true,” Langford said. “It was something I wanted to do and I was hungry to get.”
Langford no longer asks to come out of the game when his legs are sore and heavy as he would have when he was younger. He’s also more proactive about his taking care of his body. Besides constantly working with the trainers, he’s now in the cold tub four times weekly for 15 minutes at a time, including the day before games, a treatment he used to hate. “I realized your body is a temple,” Langford said.
Langford also could have left for the NFL after last season, but never considered it. He believes he’ll be even better this season with last year’s experience. Now when Langford recites his position changes, he credits them for his ability to read defenses and catch the ball. Said Langford, “I wouldn’t change anything about it."
2. USC’s Leonard Williams pulling weight of expectations
It was a sight that would have turned the stomachs of NFL executives and Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian. Williams missed all of practice this past spring while he recovered from surgery for a torn labrum in his right shoulder, an injury he suffered last season. “It was pretty cool,” said Williams of his plunge. “The splash was pretty big.”
So are expectations this season for the frizzy-haired Williams, who is being touted as a possible No. 1 pick in next spring’s NFL draft. He’s sure to draw plenty of attention Saturday in USC’s showdown at Stanford, a pivotal early-season Pac-12 matchup. Williams will go up against another All-America in Cardinal offensive tackle Andrus Peat, who has also been mentioned as a top pick in the draft.
Williams’ talent has been apparent since the Daytona Beach, Fla., product arrived at USC after spurning childhood favorite Florida on signing day in 2012. As a defensive tackle his first season, he was Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year after recording 64 tackles, including eight sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss.
Last year, he moved to defensive end, where he was also dominant (74 tackles, six sacks, 13.5 tackles for loss). “He’s one of the most talented players I’ve coached,” said Ed Orgeron, the Trojans’ interim coach last season who recruited Williams to USC.
That’s high praise considering Orgeron tutored Warren Sapp, Cortez Kennedy and Russell Maryland while defensive line coach at Miami. This season, Williams expects to receive the same treatment that trio often received from opponents: a hearty dose of double teams.
He’s well aware the statistics he put up his first two years will be much harder to achieve. In anticipation of the double teams, Williams has worked on techniques to combat them. He’s also sought out counsel from former Trojans teammate and New York Giants rookie linebacker Devon Kennard.
Physically, Williams insists his right shoulder is “good” even though he favored it enough in preseason camp that he started having pain in his other shoulder, which he also injured last season. He’s bigger this year after getting up to 315 pounds after his surgery, but has since dropped 10 pounds.
“I can still move at this weight like I could before,” Williams said. “It doesn’t hurt to have more pounds on you.”
After all, Williams is trying to make an even bigger splash this season.
3. Larry Coker has brought his magic to UTSA
In November 2006, Miami fired Larry Coker with a record of 59-15, a national championship and three years remaining on his contract. Coker was 58 at the time and couldn’t find a job for the next two years. “I talked to some people and there wasn’t really a lot of interest in me,” Coker said. “You’re damaged goods, I guess. I thought that would probably be the end of it.”
In the spring of 2009, Coker accepted the job as the first head coach at the University of Texas-San Antonio. He signed his first recruiting class with one helmet, one ball and an off-brand jersey purchased at Wal-Mart.
Five years later, a timeline not even the most wide-eyed optimist could have envisioned, Coker led UTSA to a dominating 27-7 win at Houston last Friday to open the program’s fourth season. The victory announced the Roadrunners as a threat to win Conference USA and provided a reminder to the college football world that Coker remains one of the game’s sharpest minds. In a career that’s spanned from coaching high schools in Oklahoma to leading Miami to two national title games – and being one late pass interference penalty from winning both – Coker doesn’t hesitate when categorizing what building UTSA from scratch has meant.
“It’s probably the most rewarding thing I’ve been involved with as far as coaching is concerned,” he said.
Houston entered the game as a favorite to win the American Athletic Conference, a threat to go undefeated and perhaps even play in a New Year’s Day bowl game. The Cougars left humiliated as their new stadium unveiling resembled a restaurant opening where everyone got food poisoning. Houston gained 73 yards the first three quarters and turned the ball over six times.
The most striking part of UTSA’s win came from the difficulty to pick out a single standout performer. The Roadrunners have 37 seniors, 18 of whom came in that first class. Those players practiced the first year of the program in 2010 with hand-me-down equipment from UTEP.
Sports Illustrated's Zac Ellis breaks down the top storylines from Week 1 of college football action.
“When we signed our scholarship [papers], we blindfolded ourselves and stepped to a ledge and we jumped because we were told it would all be worth it at the bottom,” said senior center Nate Leonard, who has started every game in school history. “What we found when we jumped was that we didn’t land at the bottom. We landed at the top.”
UTSA debuted in 2011 and made the quickest ever jump to the FBS level. The Roadrunners played in the WAC in 2012 and then leapt to Conference USA last year. And they’ve climbed with grace, as UTSA went 8-4 last season, 6-2 in Conference USA. If the performance against Houston is any indication, they should reach the postseason in their first season of bowl eligibility.
“We have 18 guys who started this program who are seniors,” Coker said. “I’d kill to have an opportunity to see those guys play in a bowl game.”
Coker, 66, gives off a grandfatherly vibe with his few remaining wisps of hair and aw-shucks twang. In a tunnel outside the Houston locker room late Friday, Coker sat down with The Inside Read for a few minutes and invited athletic director Lynn Hickey to join the conversation. The scene was classic Coker, deflecting attention and going out of his way to bring a spotlight to Hickey’s leadership that’s allowed UTSA to grow so fast. “We need to tone down our athletic director’s expectation of winning too much too quick,” Coker joked.
“I had given him three years to win a national championship and he didn’t meet that,” Hickey jabbed back.
While the program still has a few decades to go before there are any of those types of conversations, Coker didn’t rule out the possibility. He met with former Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger after taking the UTSA job for advice on how to build a program and noted that Miami and UTSA have similarities in terms of market, available local talent and the culture of football. “There’s a lot of parallels,” he said.
There’s a long way to go, but UTSA has come a long way already. “Did I think it would happen this quick?” Coker said. “No way.”
[tile:college football week 1 highlights ]Just ask the 37 seniors who came with nothing more than a promise and could well end up in a bowl this season. “We were a group that nobody one wanted,” Leonard said. “And when we play people now, the teams that didn’t want us want no more of us.”
But for the first time in 21 years, the boisterous Cajun wasn’t coaching on college football’s opening weekend. Instead, he was at home in Mandeville, La. The last time Orgeron was out of football was when he missed the 1993 season while ironing out personal problems. This time, he’s once again out after USC broke his heart and passed him over to hire Steve Sarkisian.
The 53-year-old Orgeron had a 6-2 record last season after being promoted from defensive line coach to the Trojans’ interim coach following Lane Kiffin’s firing. “I miss it,” Orgeron said of coaching. “I have to keep my mind busy.”
Orgeron was plenty active Saturday. After breakfast and his daily prayer session, he took his son, Parker, a junior wide receiver at Mandeville High, to an 8 a.m. film session. The elder Orgeron then hit the gym (doing six sets of squats at 315 pounds) before running in a downpour for an hour. Afterward, he ate jambalaya and ribs with his family.
By mid-afternoon, Orgeron had different games on four televisions (he was frustrated the Alabama-West Virginia game was not available in his area). He liked the defensive game plan of Virginia in its loss to UCLA and was proud of North Carolina State coach and close friend Dave Doeren’s comeback win against Georgia Southern.
While watching, Orgeron was on his laptop making some teaching cutups for drill videos and studying the zone-read option. He was also texting advice to several coaches during their games; for them to read afterward, he insists. One instance involved explaining to a defensive line coach the opposition’s blocking scheme.
But the highlight of Orgeron’s day was the revelation that his other twin son, Cody, intends to play football next season. He’s also a junior at Mandeville High, where he’s a two-time state tennis champion. Orgeron and his wife have tried to convince Cody to play quarterback since he quit football in seventh grade. Orgeron’s sabbatical has allowed him to watch both his sons play their respective sports, which he wasn’t able to do once last year.
After his USC letdown, Orgeron had other job opportunities, but decided he needed to step away from coaching. Besides spending more time with his family, it’s also given him the chance to evaluate his career and become a better coach. He plans to return to college football next season and hopes he gets a shot at a head job, but knows he’ll likely be back as an assistant. “I feel recharged and ready to go,” Orgeron said. “It’s one of the best decisions I ever made.”
Late Saturday night, Orgeron was watching and texting about the LSU-Wisconsin game. His son, Tyler, is a student assistant for the Tigers. There’s no sign of the elder Orgeron slowing down. “It must be the hot sauce in that jambalaya,” he said.• As Todd Gurley began to burst down the middle of the field Saturday on a kickoff return, Herschel Walker rose from his seat at Georgia’s Sanford Stadium. So did most of the 92,745 fans in attendance. As Walker screamed while watching Gurley race 100 yards untouched for a touchdown, the deafening noise brought back a flood of memories.
It was the same frenzied sound the former running back remembered from his record-breaking days at Georgia, where he won the Heisman Trophy in 1982. “Every time he touches the ball,” Walker said, “you’re looking for something to happen.”
Walker didn’t get a chance to talk with Gurley after Georgia’s 45-21 victory over Clemson on Saturday, a game in which he set a school record with 293 all-purpose yards and scored four touchdowns. But Walker said Gurley knows “how special he is to me.”
“Todd is the best running back in college football,” Walker said. “Right now, you can’t argue that point.”
• Over the past two seasons, Notre Dame’s defensive line has served as the backbone of the program. Nose guard Louis Nix and defensive end Stephon Tuitt, both of whom ended up drafted in the first three rounds, anchored the line. Thanks to junior defensive end Sheldon Day, the line could remain part of Notre Dame’s defensive identity. With four defensive players suspended, including lineman Ishaq Williams, Notre Dame needs to lean on Day.
“Sheldon Day can be the best lineman that we’ve had here,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said in a phone interview last week. “He’s going to have to play a whole season and prove it on the field and stay healthy, but I believe he can be the best defensive lineman I’ve had here.”
The 6-2, 285-pound Day registered six tackles, including one for a loss, against Rice on Saturday. Notre Dame started the game in 4-3 defensive front under new coordinator Brian VanGorder and played multiple fronts during the game. Day’s most impressive moment may have been picking up a Rice tailback on a wheel route in the third quarter. Day covered him well enough that the quarterback didn’t throw on him, and it prompted a teasing text from Nix that he didn’t know Day could run that fast. Day is playing this year five pounds lighter, as ankle issues cost him two games last season.
Day’s strength has always been his motor. Temple coach Matt Rhule said no Notre Dame lineman played harder on every down than Day when the teams played last season.
“He’s disruptive and athletic and has great work ethic,” Kelly said. “He can play every snap. That wasn’t the case with either Nix or Tuitt, who were great players in their own right. But they did not have the same work volume that Sheldon has.”
He eventually got one from then-FCS member Old Dominion after his personal trainer met one of the school’s administrators on a LaGuardia Airport shuttle bus. Throughout it all, Brett Heinicke encouraged his son, just as he did while teaching him to be a quarterback as a child.
Taylor, now a star senior quarterback, would give anything for his father to watch him lead newly full-fledged FBS member Old Dominion on Saturday at North Carolina State, one of the schools where he attended camp. But Brett Heinicke died unexpectedly of a heart attack nearly three years ago at age 50.
Heinicke became concerned after his father never texted him back with flight information for his trip home for Christmas break. “It’s one of the saddest things you’ll ever hear,” Old Dominion coach Bobby Wilder said.
Following his father’s death, the 6-foot, 213-pound Heinicke got a tattoo on his left shoulder of an angel in clouds that reads “Dad” with a quote from John 16:22. He also continues to honor him on the field by tapping that shoulder after each touchdown he scores and pointing to the sky.
“He was my best friend,” Heinicke said. “He was the father anyone would ask for.”
The season after his father’s death, Taylor threw for an FCS-record 5,076 yards and 44 touchdowns with 14 interceptions on his way to winning the Walter Payton Award, the FCS’ equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. That magical season in 2012 included an NCAA-record 791 yards of total offense (730 passing) and five touchdowns in a win over New Hampshire.
With Old Dominion’s promotion to being a full member in the FBS this season as part of Conference USA, Heinicke became the division’s active leader in numerous categories including career passing yards and touchdown passes. But he was shaky last season against FBS opponents. He had his best game in a win at Idaho (533 passing yards and five TDs) and his worst in a blowout loss at Maryland (166 passing yards, three INTs).
Since his father’s death, Heinicke has struggled each season to keep his emotions in check for the first game (he had 281 yards passing with three TDs and two INTs in Saturday’s season-opening 41-28 win over Hampton). He still fondly recalls his father saying how proud he was the last time they saw each other.
“I’m still not over it,” Heinicke said. “Not even close.”
• The drumbeat about third-year Rutgers coach Kyle Flood’s future entering this season had become increasingly louder. Last season, he finished with a disappointing 6-7 record in the top-heavy AAC. He had a stunning 13 players de-commit from February’s once-prized recruiting class, mainly because of speculation that he might be fired. Perhaps worst of all, this is the Scarlet Knights’ first season in the Big Ten, complete with a brutal slate of road games against Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan State.
But after his team’s surprising 41-38 comeback win over Washington State in Seattle last Thursday night, Flood rested easy during a nearly six-hour flight that got the team back to New Jersey around 9:30 a.m. “The only thing that matters to me is that I am the coach at Rutgers,” Flood said. “I don’t worry about it.”
In the locker room after the victory, Flood was resolute about its significance for his program. “First impressions matter in life,” Flood told his team. “This was our first opportunity as a representative of the Big Ten. We’re glad we made a good first impression, but we get another first impression at home next week (Howard) and we get to make another first impression against a Big Ten opponent (Penn State) the following week.”
Flood’s young defense still has a ways to go, but new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen’s pro-style attack piled up 496 yards against Washington State. He’s got a Big Ten-type workhorse in physical tailback Paul James, who rushed for 173 yards and three TDs, including the late go-ahead score.
Flood first tried to hire Friedgen two years ago, but the former Maryland coach turned him down because his daughter was getting married that fall. “I thought he might have just been letting me down easy,” Flood said.
Of course, Flood moved on, just like the drumbeat surely will, only it’s softened for now. “The people that count here at Rutgers understand what we’ve accomplished and the kind of people we have in the program,” Flood said. “I’ve never felt anything but support from the people here who are in the decision-making chairs.”
• After he threw 10 touchdown passes and eight interceptions as a junior last season and shuffled in and out of the starting lineup, Tennessee's Justin Worley learned about the pressures of being a starting quarterback in the SEC. He became a punching bag for Vols fans, and Worley insists the criticism has toughened him up for his role as starter this year. “I had to do some soul-searching,” he said. “Build back up my confidence.”
Worley did that and more on Sunday, throwing for 273 yards and three touchdowns as the Vols thrashed upstart Utah State, 38-7.
Last season, he started the first three games before he came off the bench to throw three interceptions in a defeat at Florida. He found rhythm as a starter later in the season in an overtime loss to Georgia and an upset of South Carolina, only to suffer a season-ending thumb injury the following game in a blowout loss to Alabama. “I’ve learned from it,” Worley said. “I’m a senior now. This is my last season. You can’t let that outside noise get to you and affect you.”
Without Worley, Tennessee lost three of its final four games last season. Suddenly, the disdain was no longer directed at him. As he watched the vitriol directed elsewhere, he began to realize it shouldn’t bother him. “You can’t worry about the fans,” Worley said. “You can’t let that beat you up.”
Four in (and one out)
1. Oregon: Nothing in the Ducks’ 62-13 victory over South Dakota would make anyone reconsider them in this spot.
2. Georgia: With Alabama and Auburn looking human, we’ll give the Fighting Gurleys a spot here. They had the most impressive victory among SEC teams.
3. Oklahoma: The Sooners may not be tested until Texas on Oct. 11.
4. Florida State: The Seminoles need to look a lot sharper if they want to return to Arlington in a few months.
5. Michigan State: The good news for the Spartans is they can move up from this spot with a win at Oregon on Saturday. It’s the most important non-conference game of college football’s regular season.
Q&A with Temple coach Matt Rhule
The game was at 8:15 p.m. local time before the delay, so we spent all day watching Judge Judy and [preparing]. We have it in our protocols to pack extra food in case of lightning delay. Our academic guy and compliance guy drove to the store and got granola bars, too.
After like the third delay, I walked in the locker room and told our guys, “The game is cancelled, we’re going home.” They were like, “WHHAAAAAAT!” Then I said I was kidding. We had to wait another hour. Our kids had fun. My 9 year old was doing the Nene dancing around in the locker room. We warmed up in 30 minutes and went and played.
I walked in my house at 7 a.m. this morning. I drove to campus at 11 a.m. and our kids started class today. I saw them walking in their sweats. I don’t think many of them changed.
You guys won two games last year and then rag dolled Vanderbilt. What was the key?
I just think from the very beginning we were able to get to their quarterback. Once one guy got there, the next guy got there. We got the ball out a few times and got some turnovers. Early in the game we played six or seven defensive linemen and kept guys fresh. We had as many field goals made and interceptions as all last season. That all started with the defensive line.
Anyone who saw you guys play last year knows P.J. Walker could be an All-America someday. He was 23-for-34 with two touchdowns against Vandy. What did he do well?
I think the best thing he did [Thursday] night, he got off to a bad start and he settled down and we went to plays he knows like the back of his hand. Now, when you say to him, ‘You are trying to do too much,' he recognizes it and stops. He ran the ball well when he needed to and was great on third down. He was crucial for us.
What do you attribute the big turnaround of your team to?
I think the biggest thing was that it was for the kids. We showed them a video starting two days after our season ended last year of everything they did [in the offseason]. We did a plate pushing drill that was really, really hard. We wanted to show them that you can do things you didn’t think you could do. For them to have that culminate on Thursday, it shows it was worth all that hard work. Unfortunately, now we have to play Navy. But I’m really happy for the kids who went through last year.
1. Todd Gurley, Georgia: He finished with 293 total yards, a resplendent performance that included 198 rushing yards on 15 carries, a 100-yard kickoff return and four touchdowns.
2. Marcus Mariota, Oregon: Mariota’s three passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown were nice. But this week is his potential Heisman moment.
3. Jameis Winston, Florida State: He looked human against Oklahoma State with two interceptions. Well, human until his leap-and-juke 28-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
4. Kenny Hill, Texas A&M: His debut at South Carolina – 44 of 60 for 511 yards – is a reminder that any Kevin Sumlin quarterback should have a permanent spot in this list.
5. Everett Golson, Notre Dame: He can thank Wisconsin coaches for ignoring Melvin Gordon in the second half, allowing him to snare this spot. Golson accounted for five touchdowns in a blowout of Rice.
1. Winston: His first two-win week of the season — a victory on the field and no trouble off it.
2. Gurley: You know he’s legit when Herschel Walker shows up to watch.
3. Mariota: Will Saturday vs. Michigan State be a commercial for his candidacy or a reality television dud?
4. Rakeem Cato, Marshall: Better start racking up some style points quickly.
5. Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: Might have 1,000 rushing yards before the end of September.
Sports Illustrated's Zac Ellis breaks down the top performances from Week 1 of college football action.
The Assistant huddle
“The unique thing about this staff, there’s no weak link in recruiting here,” said Josh Gattis, Penn State’s wide receivers coach. “It’s different than any staff I’ve worked with.”
One of Penn State’s intriguing recruiting approaches is that Gattis is the offensive recruiting coordinator. Gattis also recruits Philadelphia, South Jersey. Delaware and Virginia Beach. Gattis, 30, has developed a reputation as one of the country’s bright young recruiters as he ranks No. 2 in the Big Ten’s recruiter rankings, according to one service. He was recently edged out for the No. 1 spot by Penn State running backs coach Charles Huff and is one spot ahead of Nittany Lions defensive line coach Sean Spencer.
Gattis was a two-time All-ACC safety at Wake Forest and played two years with the Bears in the NFL before transitioning into college coaching. Gattis describes recruiting on Franklin’s staff as a lifestyle. “We’re an energetic and tireless staff and we live and breathe on recruiting,” said Gattis.
Gattis said there’s no magic formula for Penn State, as recruiting well consists of constantly calling coaches and connecting with recruits on Twitter and Facebook. While Penn State may struggle with depth because of the NCAA sanctions and scholarship restrictions, Franklin has an army of rabid recruiters laying the groundwork for upcoming seasons.
“We focus solely on the future,” Gattis said when asked how to overcome the specter of the Sandusky scandal. “A lot of kids see the vision and the plan, and they saw it work for us at [Vanderbilt]. It’s a diverse and young staff that can relate to guys in a lot of different ways.”
• When Chris Leak arrived at Florida a little over a decade ago as one of the nation’s most prized quarterbacks, his impact came quickly. After just four games, he made the first of what became 47 consecutive starts, a streak he punctuated his senior year by leading the Gators to the 2006 national championship. Now he’s back in Gainesville and once again on the fast track, this time as the program’s wide receivers coach after just over a year as a graduate assistant and quality control coach.
“He’s done a fantastic job,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said. “He relays the message very well and he does a good job teaching. He understands what it takes to play at the University of Florida and do it at a championship level.”
The 29-year-old Leak was promoted to his current position in June after former Florida wide receivers coach Joker Phillips resigned because of alleged recruiting violations. Last season was Leak’s first back with the Gators after several brief professional football stints and being a national college football radio host in 2012. “His quarterback perspective is really good for the receivers to hear,” Muschamp said. “It’s been a very seamless transition.”
Like all of Muschamp’s assistants, Leak will be evaluated after this season to determine whether he keeps his position. By then though, Leak will have finally had a chance to capitalize on his name recognition in what’s expected to be one of his biggest strengths: recruiting.
He’s still remembered fondly by the current era of recruits who watched him as a player. “All those kids were in middle school back then,” Muschamp said.
• Jay Graham is deeply rooted in the Carolinas. The Florida State running backs coach and special teams coordinator was a high school star in Concord, N.C. on his way to playing in the NFL for five seasons. He was also an assistant at South Carolina from 2009-11. His expertise in the two states is making the talent-rich Seminoles even richer this recruiting cycle. So far, he has just three commitments, but each hails from either state.
He’s reeled in highly touted 5-11, 200-pound Princeton, N.C., running back Johnny Frasier, the nation’s best at his position according to 24/7sports. There’s also 6-2, 310-pound East Mississippi Community College defensive tackle D.J. Jones, a Piedmont, S.C. product, who is the top junior college player at his position according to the same service.
Michael Barnett, a 6-4, 239-pound strong side defensive end from Dorchester, S.C., rounds out the trio and is ranked as the third-best player in the Palmetto State. It’s an impressive haul for the 39-year-old Graham and a reminder of defending national champion Florida State’s fast-growing recruiting reach in the southeast.
“[They] can go anywhere in the country,” an ACC assistant said. “[They’re] hot.”
Prior to Graham’s arrival in February 2013 from Tennessee, the Seminoles had not been a significant player in North Carolina or South Carolina, hotbeds that are being recruited more nationally. They had signed just one player (punter Cason Beatty) from North Carolina since 2008, but inked two players from the state in their last recruiting class. Their current drought in South Carolina dates back to 2009.
Graham’s success has him ranked among the ACC’s top recruiters and on the cusp of the top 25 recruiters nationally according to the recruiting service. He’s also gaining respect from his peers. “He’s a good young coach,” the ACC assistant said. “He’s doing a tremendous job.”
After 31 years as an assistant at Oregon, running backs coach Gary Campbell is an expert on the local cuisine. He’s seen plenty of restaurants come and go, but for those attending Saturday’s top-10 clash between the Ducks and Michigan State in Eugene, he recommends dining at Beppe & Gianni’s Trattoria.
It’s an old-style Italian restaurant located in a converted Victorian house just on the edge of campus. Campbell recommends reservations, but the dress code is casual. He always starts with a Caesar salad and usually a cabernet from the extensive wine list. As a “lasagna guy,” he naturally orders the lasagna della casa.
The dish is made with handmade pasta, layered with tomato and béchamel sauce along with beef and Italian sausage. It is topped with mozzarella and Parmesan.
“It’s beefy, cheesy,” Campbell said, “and very tasty.”