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MSU recruit Malik McDowell in limbo, NCAA investigating Baylor, more

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Malik McDowell committed to Michigan State, but his mother has refused to sign his letter-of-intent.

Nearly a month after signing day, the recruiting saga of Malik McDowell, one of the Class of 2014's top recruits, remains unsettled. The latest from McDowell's camp came from his grandmother, Dorothy McDowell, who told SI.com that her grandson informed her on Sunday that he's still planning to attend Michigan State. "Everything's so confusing," she said.

Last month, the 6-6, 292-pound defensive end from Southfield (Mich.) High announced that he had chosen Michigan State. Yet McDowell still has not submitted a letter-of-intent to the Spartans. That's in part because his mother, Joya Crowe, refuses to sign it.

"There's some fishy stuff going on," said a source familiar with the matter. "When is the NCAA going to step in and say, 'What's going on?'"

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Crowe, McDowell and McDowell's father, Greg McDowell, did not return several messages seeking comment.

In the days leading up to signing day, Crowe and the elder McDowell, who are divorced, both publicly said they did not want their son to attend Michigan State, citing the school's social scene. Crowe said her son could attend Michigan, but she and the elder McDowell also said they preferred Malik play out of state, either for Ohio State or Florida State.

According to the source, the elder McDowell has since changed his mind and now supports his son's decision to attend Michigan State. He won't sign a letter of intent, however, as he fears it could jeopardize his relationship with another child he has with Crowe.

If McDowell does not submit a letter-of-intent by April 1 or a Big Ten tender, neither of which are required, Michigan State will have to wait until after the first day of fall classes to put him on scholarship.

Three-and-out

1. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon back for an encore

Much like the Yankees' payroll and Syracuse's 2-3 zone, it's become one of the certainties in sports that Wisconsin will have a yard-eating tailback. Instead of being the best draft-eligible tailback at the NFL Combine last week, Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon was back in Madison taking part in 6:30 a.m. winter workouts.

STEWART MANDEL: Big Ten spring football primer

The 6-1, 207-pound Gordon averaged 7.8 yards per carry last season and rushed for 12 touchdowns. But the redshirt junior turned down the lure of NFL millions to return to Madison. "This is Tailback U," said Thomas Brown, Wisconsin's new running backs coach. "I don't know if there's another place you'd want to be in America."

With no running back drafted in the first round last year and none projected this season, Gordon is best positioned to break that hex in 2015. He'll also be on most preseason Heisman Trophy and All-America lists. Gordon said that he thought long and hard about the NFL this year, but he returned to Wisconsin to lead the Badgers to a Big Ten title and beyond. He also posted a picture of the new College Football Playoff logo on the wall of his apartment.

Photo: AP

Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, who averaged 7.8 yards per carry and scored 12 TDs last season, will be one of the nation's top backs in 2014.

"My No. 1 goal right now is to help my team get to the playoff," Gordon said by phone last week. "I keep that for motivation."

Gordon also returned to work on some of the nuances of his game. He has just three career receptions and admits that he needs work on his blitz protection. Gordon will have plenty of support in front of him. Wisconsin returns five offensive linemen who've started a combined 74 games. As tradition dictates, they're huge and hulking, averaging 319.6 pounds.

Wisconsin's identity will need to revolve around its line, as it has a solid but unspectacular quarterback in Joel Stave and little proven talent at receiver. (The Badgers also lost six of their front seven on defense, which makes a ball control offense even more important). Right tackle Rob Havenstein, who is 6-8 and weighs 327 pounds, has 28 career starts. Right guard Kyle Costigan, who checks in at 6-5 and 315, has 21 starts. Look for the Badgers to go student body right a lot.

"There's as much pressure to come to Wisconsin as a lineman as there is a running back," Gordon said. "You've got to come here and hold it down for the guys who've been here."

When asked if he's taken his linemen out to dinner, Gordon laughed. "I need to," he said. "I have to get my money right first. Those boys can eat."

2. NCAA investigating Baylor for possible recruiting violation

The NCAA is looking into whether Baylor assistant coach Kendal Briles committed a violation by visiting highly touted Class of 2015 recruit J.W. Ketchum during a non-contact period last fall.

NCAA investigators have been in touch with officials at Ketchum's school, Marshall High in Missouri City, Texas, about the alleged visit. Investigators are expected to talk with the rising junior dual-threat quarterback in the next several weeks, according to a source familiar with Ketchum's recruitment.

Under NCAA rules, coaches cannot have any in-person contact with junior prospects or their parents off-campus.

A message left for Kendal Briles was not immediately returned, but his father, Baylor head coach Art Briles, said there are no NCAA issues involving his son.

When reached by phone and asked if Kendal Briles visited him last semester, Ketchum said, "Ummm, I don't know." He hung up as a reporter asked if he had been contacted by the NCAA. An official at Ketchum's high school confirmed that Kendal Briles visited last semester.

Briles, 31, is in his sixth season as a Baylor assistant and serves as receivers coach, pass game coordinator and offensive recruiting coordinator.

Under the new NCAA enforcement structure, if Kendal Briles did have impermissible contact with Ketchum, he could face a wide range of punishment that includes a one-game suspension. His father could also be suspended a game under NCAA rules that make head coaches accountable for certain transgressions of their assistants. The Baylor staff could also be restricted from recruiting Ketchum for a certain period of time. The NCAA does not comment on current, pending or potential investigations.

The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Ketchum is ranked among the state's top prospects for 2015 according to recruiting services. Last season, he rushed for 1,172 yards and passed for 603 yards, with a combined 24 touchdowns.

In addition to Baylor, he has scholarship offers from LSU, Oklahoma and Texas, among others, but could play another position besides quarterback in college.

The younger Briles has emerged as a dynamic recruiter in Texas. In Baylor's last recruiting class, which was ranked as high as No. 23 by one service, he reeled in the Bears' top two recruits, wide receiver KD Cannon of Mount Pleasant, Texas, and athlete Davion Hall of Texarkana, Texas.

3. Boise State in good hands with Harsin

When new Boise State coach Bryan Harsin and his wife met with the builders about the plans for their new house last week, a dancing man greeted the couple.

"We got our offense," the man sang. "We got our offense."

The man turned out to be former Boise State equipment manager Joel Cano, now an accomplished roofer. Over the next 20 minutes, the man told story after story to Harsin, his wife and the builders.

"It was amazing what he remembered and the detail of it, especially to where we are now," Harsin said. "It kind of put everything in perspective a little. I was sitting there and was like, 'Yeah, that all did happen didn't it?' It was good."

Harsin attended Capital High in Boise, played for Boise State and as offensive coordinator in 2009 called the legendary "Statue" play in the Broncos' Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma. Harsin, who was the head coach at Arkansas State last season, came home after his old boss, Chris Petersen, left for Washington.

"I hope some of things that we've been able to create in the past, we're able to do those again, maybe on bigger stages and do it better and maybe more often," Harsin said.

Boise went 8-5 last season, the worst record of Petersen's eight-year tenure, after jumping from the WAC to the Mountain West. But as Boise starts spring practice this week, Harsin inherits 14 returning starters, including star tailback Jay Ajayi and cornerback Donte Deayon.

For much of Harsin's staff, it is also a homecoming of sorts. Only five of the 18 staff members hired or retained by Harsin did not play or previously coach at Boise State. Combined, the staff has 58 years of playing experience at the school and another 49 years coaching or working with the Broncos football program.

"The Boise State tree has grown," Harsin said. "We've got a lot of good coaches out there."

MARTIN RICKMAN: ACC spring football primer

That includes offensive coordinator Mike Sanford, who had been quarterbacks coach at Stanford. Sanford played at Boise State from 2000 to '04 and Harsin tried to hire him at Arkansas State. "I thought Mike was a little dumber than he was," Harsin said with a laugh.

Harsin had his wife, Kes, do some recruiting to snag defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, who had previously been co-defensive coordinator at Texas A&M and has combined 13 years of playing and coaching experience at Boise State. Kes Harsin called Yates' wife, who is from Boise, and sold her on the job.

"Your wife is already coming," Harsin recalls telling Yates. "I don't know what you're going to do."

Harsin's house should be ready in August or September, but he's plenty busy building Boise State's new foundation. He hopes the results allow his old friend Cano to keep on dancing.

"You don't quite know what've you got," Harsin said, "until it's gone."

Q&A with Florida Offensive Coordinator Kurt Roper

Former Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper inherited one of the college football's most scrutinized jobs in December when Will Muschamp hired him to be Florida's third offensive coordinator in the last four years. Roper takes over for Brent Pease, who was fired after the Gators went 4-8 last season. Injuries, which included the loss of starting quarterback Jeff Driskel early, were a major reason Florida's offense ranked 113th in the nation. Can Roper turn things around?

SI.com: This season is likely to be a make-or-break fourth year for Will Muschamp. Do you feel the pressure?

Roper: No more than any year that I've ever coached. When you get into this profession, you understand every year stands on its own. They're all kind of your first or last as you look at it. You're held to a standard of winning. That's what ends up happening in this profession.

SI.com: Will can be especially intense. Are you sure you're ready for that?

Roper: Oh yeah. The biggest thing is he's true to himself. I think that's a great attribute. My dad (a former college football assistant) is probably the most intense guy I've ever been around ... Shoot, I understand from him what intensity is, and I got a chance to live it. My dad really cut his teeth as a coach under Johnny Majors. (Duke) coach Cutcliffe obviously did too. Coach Majors is an intense man. I think I've been in that situation quite a bit.

SI.com: At Duke, your offenses set numerous school records. For those not familiar with your offensive philosophy, how would you describe it?

Roper: We want to use the width and length of the field. We call that space. We want to try to put defensive players in space and try to create as many one-on-one tackle situations for our guys as we possibly can. We do want to play with some tempo. We do want to play fast, but we don't want to play to a tempo where it compromises execution ... Our run game is going to be a spread offense run game, but we're going to be a pro-style pass game.

SI.com: Returning starter Jeff Driskel is a key to your offense. What do you anticipate his strengths being in your offense?

Roper: I haven't had a whole lot of time with him out on the field to really make a solid evaluation of that ... Just in my limited knowledge of Jeff, he's a big, strong, really good athlete who looks like he has command of the football. We have to decide where he's best and go from there in how to really install the offense where his experience can still be used ... At the end of the day, we're going to need to use his feet. I think he's an athlete who can do that.

SI.com: What is the single most important thing you learned from David Cutcliffe?

Roper: Making practice like a game is the most important thing you can do. Really what that translates into is you've got to make everybody play at the speed at the game. You can't let them cruise along in practice and then all of the sudden the speed of the game shocks them.

SI.com: You're an avid golfer. How's your game?

Roper: If I ever win lottery, what I'll probably do is try to get on the Senior Tour. Now, I'm a long ways off from that. When I retire, my wife and I, we'll travel based on golf courses. I played Pinehurst No. 2 when I was at Duke. I would love to go to the U.S. Open there this year, but I don't know that I'll be able to make it back. I played Pebble Beach ... I would love one day, maybe you can pull strings for me, to get on at Augusta National.

Breakdown: Fresno's Fat Guy Touchdown

We've all seen endless highlights of Auburn's hat trick of miracle finishes last season, but in terms of sheer fun there was no better play in 2013 than Fresno State's "Fat Guy Touchdown" against Cal Poly in September. It even led to one of the season's best quotes, after 306-pound Fresno left tackle Austin Wentworth rumbled in for a 7-yard score on a straight-to-GIF hook-and-ladder.

"Big guys have feelings too," Wentworth told The Fresno Bee. "It should be a 'big-boned guy touchdown.'"

The play was actually called "Mustang" because Fresno offensive coordinator Dave Schramm installed it prior to playing the SMU Mustangs in the Hawaii bowl two years ago. Here's how the play went down: On a first-and-10 from the Cal Poly 13-yard line in the second quarter, Fresno quarterback Derek Carr zipped a hitch route to receiver Davante Adams, who deftly lateraled to the lumbering Wentworth, who strolled in for the touchdown.

A few nuances stuck with Fresno head coach Tim DeRuyter. He was initially skeptical that the play would "time up," meaning he didn't know if Wentworth could get to the outside fast enough. He did, and DeRuyter complimented Adams' seamless pitch. What made DeRuyter most giddy? "I loved how Austin was so nonchalant," he said, as the big man sauntered into the end zone like he'd scored twice already that day.

The Blitz

• Consider this your first opportunity to hop on the Marshall bandwagon. No team in college football appears to have a better chance to go undefeated next season. The Thundering Herd went 10-4 in 2013, with two of losses coming by a field goal or less and another a triple-overtime defeat at Virginia Tech. Marshall coach Doc Holliday returns nine starters on defense and nine on offense, none more important than star quarterback Rakeem Cato.

Cato, a senior from Miami Central High, finished last season with 39 touchdowns and nine interceptions. The only returning player in college football who threw for more touchdowns was Florida State's Jameis Winston. In his career, Cato has 91 touchdowns and 31 interceptions. He's thrown touchdown passes in 32 consecutive games, which puts him on track to break Russell Wilson's FBS record of 38. He could break the record at FIU, in his hometown of Miami on Oct. 18. He's also on track to break a slew of Marshall career quarterback records, no small feat considering Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich both starred there.

"He is maybe the most competitive player I've been around," said Marshall coach Doc Holliday. "That includes all the kids at Florida and West Virginia I coached."

The schedule sets up well for Cato and Marshall as the Herd doesn't play any teams from the Big Five conferences. Marshall's non-league schedule features road games at Miami (Ohio) and Akron and home games against Rhode Island and Ohio. Defending Conference USA champion Rice comes to Huntington, W.V.

When Cato arrived at Marshall he was about 150 pounds and Holliday said he couldn't bench the bar. Now he's raising the bar for Marshall's program.

• South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward and his staff were in Austin last Friday, Saturday and Sunday to talk strategy with new Texas coach Charlie Strong and his defensive staff.

With the departure of defensive ends Jadeveon Clowney and Chaz Sutton, Ward is looking at using three down linemen more this season, one fewer than usual for his 4-2-5 defense.

"We're just not going to have the horses at defensive end as we have had in the past," Ward says.

Ward's visit traces back to he and Strong's long-time friendship. "Charlie's probably done as good of a job as anybody we've seen in the three-down, but still use a lot of that four-down personnel," Ward says.

• New Michigan offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who jumped from Alabama after Brady Hoke fired Al Borges, has energized the program. Nussmeier has stood out with his relentless energy and attention to detail, hallmarks of his former boss, Nick Saban as the Wolverines started spring practice last week. "He's got an aura about him that relates to players," said Michigan wide receivers coach Jeff Hecklinski. "The players relate to everything that he's doing right now."

The arrival of Nussmeier, 43, who left Alabama in early January, comes at a critical time for Hoke. In each of three seasons, Michigan's win total has declined. Nussmeier's work will start with Michigan's run game, which ranked 102nd nationally (125.7 ypg). Highly touted tailback Derrick Green, who struggled with his conditioning and injuries as a freshman last season, fits that tough-nosed mold Michigan is trying to develop. De'Veon Smith, another sophomore tailback, will also get a long look this spring.

"The players have got a different bounce in their step," Hecklinski said. "They're ready to go."

• Ohio State lost four starting offensive linemen and bruising power back Carlos Hyde. So as the Buckeyes re-make themselves into a more balanced offense this spring, the key player to watch will be the Buckeyes' most talented wide receiver from last season, Corey Smith. Who? The 6-1, 191-pound Smith, a junior college transfer from East Mississippi Community College, redshirted last year; he's the first JUCO Ohio State took since Larry Grant in 2006.

Playing on the scout team last fall, Smith held his own against Bradley Roby, OSU's star corner and potential first-round pick. When spring ball starts Tuesday, OSU's coaches need Smith's flashes of brilliance to transition to stretches of consistency.

"We'll see how he is when the lights come on," said OSU receivers coach Zach Smith. "This spring is going to be the introductory chapter to the book of his career at Ohio State. It will be the most critical five weeks of his college football career."

Ohio State will try to open up the passing game, something senior quarterback Braxton Miller is eager to do. (Miller is expected to miss all of spring ball after minor shoulder surgery). There seems to be more playmakers as well. The Buckeyes have a proven tight end in Jeff Heuerman and Zach Smith raves about the potential of young sophomore receivers Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall and early enrollee Johnnie Dixon. All three have thrived in off-season conditioning, even leading drills at times.

But Corey Smith is perhaps the most intriguing prospect, as Zach Smith said he's as talented as any player he coached, including New England wideout Aaron Dobson (Marshall) and Raiders receiver Rod Streater (Temple). OSU coaches just need to see more, on and off the field.

"He's making progress," Zach Smith said, "but he's not there yet."

• The Senior Bowl may switch up its traditional practice schedule. Officials are considering the elimination of a day of practice, meaning player weigh-ins and the first practice would be on Tuesday instead of the usual Monday, according to Senior Bowl spokesman Rob Lehocky. Practices would also continue to be held Wednesday and Thursday leading up to Saturday's game. Personnel from NFL teams scouting for the NFL draft attend the game's practices early in the week, but most typically leave Wednesday under the current schedule. Next year's game will be played Jan. 24.

• It's an eternal spring practice storyline, the replacement of a transcendent star. But it's hard to imagine a more daunting transition this spring than the one Fresno State faces at quarterback. Outgoing senior Derek Carr threw for 50 touchdowns, 5,082 yards and completed 68.7 percent of his passes last year. What's next?

"I told our guys, 'We're not the Fighting Derek Carrs," said coach Tim DeRuyter. "We're the Fighting Fresno State Bulldogs."

DeRutyer expects a three-way battle this spring that will stretch into the summer. He said that Brian Burrell, a 6-4 redshirt junior, has a "leg up" in the competition over redshirt sophomore Myles Carr (no relation) and redshirt freshman Zack Greenlee. There's a lot of buzz about Greenlee, a former Elite 11 quarterback who has worked with former Bulldog Trent Dilfer.

"It's going to be interesting to see who steps up," DeRuyter said. "It'll probably go two weeks into fall camp."

• Another program with a giant void at quarterback is Virginia Tech, as Logan Thomas' big arm, elite athleticism and tantalizing talent are off to the NFL -- along with his inconsistency.

The leader to replace Thomas is Mark Leal (6-1, 217), a fifth-year senior who has waited his turn. He could end up being pushed by Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer, who chose Virginia Tech over Kentucky as a fifth-year graduate transfer. Leal's pinch-hit performance in the Sun Bowl went poorly, as he completed just 12-of-25 passes for 130 yards and two interceptions in a blowout loss to UCLA.

There are two promising Tech true freshmen quarterbacks, early enrollee Andrew Ford and June-enrollee Chris Durkin. Both are four-star prospects. Durkin is the quarterback with the most upside, but Ford is considered more accurate and will have the edge of spring ball.

• When Ellis Johnson arrived at Auburn to be the defensive coordinator a year ago, he wasn't sure what to expect. Two years removed from a national title, the Tigers were coming off a 3-9 season that led to the firing of Gene Chizik. But what Johnson found was the most depth on a team in his 30-plus years of coaching.

"I had never seen as many healthy bodies on a spring practice field on a college level since the new scholarship rules," Johnson said. "It was unbelievable."

Johnson said the depth allowed Auburn to be more physical in their practices last season. This year, he said the Tigers aren't as deep and will be without seven players rehabbing from injuries when they start spring practice on March 18.

The latest causality is senior defensive end LaDarius Owens, who broke a bone in his foot two weeks ago during off-season drills. He had been expected to compete in the two-deep. "We'll have to be a little less physical in our practice routine," Johnson said. "Maybe not as much live scrimmaging going on."

Meet Canton Kaumatule

Canton Kaumatule, the nation's most promising defensive line recruit in the Class of 2015, will soon be stalking quarterbacks on one of college football's biggest stages. The 6-7, 280-pound defensive end has received a gamut of offers from Alabama to Notre Dame to Stanford, where his brother Luke plays.

But in Honolulu at Punahou School, whose most famous alum is Barack Obama, Kaumatule is best known for a different type of stage work. He founded the Punahou Polynesian Club, which performs traditional dances like Haka and hula at birthdays, graduations and even the wedding of football coach Kale Ane's daughter. Kaumatule also auditioned for a role in the school's rendition of Guys and Dolls this spring, earning the part of Benny Southstreet, a rough-and-tumble gambling sidekick.

"I love performing for others," Kaumatule said. "I thought I'd mix it up a bit."

Photo: Courtesy of Punahou School

Canton Kaumatule

Kaumatule also delivered impressive performances on the field last season during Punahou's state title run by overcoming injury. He played a majority of the season with a torn right labrum and then tore his right patella in the second quarter of the state semifinal. He played through the pain, had surgery on both in the offseason and should be training full speed in April.

"A great motor is not something you associate with someone who is 6-7 and 280 pounds," Ane said. "Usually guys who are 6-foot have great motors. He doesn't need a motor with his talent, but he's just wired that way."

Ane said that Punahou coaches didn't track official defensive statistics from last season, but to gauge Kaumatule's effectiveness, Ane pointed to the opposition's play calling. "What I can tell you is that when Canton was in the game," Ane said, "they only ran his way once and then everything else was away from him."

On campus, however, students gravitate to Kaumatule. In about a year, 80 students have joined the Polynesian Club. About half of students dance and perform, and the others take care of logistics or just enjoy the camaraderie and culture. Rehearsals start soon for the performance of Guys and Dolls later this spring, and Kaumatule is looking forward to singing a duet.

"What a lot of people don't know is that he's into drama and musical theatre," said Punahou campus Dean James Kakos. "He's a great ambassador for the school."

The next school Kaumatule chooses to attend will be the focus of much speculation in the next 11 months. He plans on taking his visits this fall and said he won't decide until after the season. Kaumatule openly talks about the opportunity to play with his brother at Stanford, noting the importance of family in his culture and calling the chance a "dream." But he quickly adds: "I'm not limiting myself. I'm flexible. I'm looking for schools with high athletics as well as high education, like Stanford or Punahou."

Kaumatule declined to give a list of his preferred schools, not wanting to slight any. His offer list keeps growing and it reads like a Who's Who of college football elite with Oregon, LSU, USC, Florida, Florida State, Oklahoma, Georgia and Texas A&M among those who have also offered.

As those recruiters pour into Punahou over the next year, don't be surprised if they get caught craning their necks. So-called "little" brother Noah, who is in seventh grade, has already grown to 6-3. He goes by his middle name "Falcon," and no one will be surprised if he eventually soars to join his bigger brothers on the biggest stage.

Photo: Jeffrey Vest/Icon SMI

South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward has engineered consecutive top 20 defenses and has helped lure some of the nation's top recruits to Columbia.

Meet Lorenzo Ward

After leading South Carolina to back-to-back top 20 defenses and recruiting star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward is drawing comparisons to Texas coach Charlie Strong. From 1999 through 2001, Strong served as the Gamecock's defensive coordinator.

"Lorenzo is certainly similar," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. "He'll get his opportunity as a head coach someday soon."

Ward, 46, has overcome a lot to get to this point. He was raised in rural Greensboro, Ala., by his maternal grandmother, Mamie Ward. He and his two brothers used a wooden outhouse until he was 11, as the family survived on food stamps and Social Security.

When the Wards finally got indoor plumbing, it meant they no longer needed to heat water on the stove for baths. Stove-cooked cornbread provided sustenance. "We were poor," Ward said, "but we didn't know we were poor."

Mamie Ward, who died in 1999 at the age of 90, was plenty rich with life advice. "You can accomplish anything you want to do," Ward recalls his grandmother telling him. "Don't let where you come from affect where you want to go."

Ward is forever indebted to Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who he succeeded as the Gamecocks' defensive coordinator in December 2011 when Johnson was named coach at Southern Miss. Ward employs a 4-2-5 scheme, which he learned from Johnson. But he's taken so much more from him. Ward's senior year at Alabama in 1990, Johnson was his linebackers coach. He served as a graduate assistant the next year, but left to become a high school coach. Ward had no plans to return to college, but came back to the Tide staff after Johnson was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease a year later. He helped with the Tide linebackers while Johnson underwent chemotherapy.

They ate lunch daily and discussed practice plans, along the way forming the foundation of Ward's coaching career. In 1994, Ward got his first full-time collegiate job at Tennessee-Chattanooga and then hopscotched to Virginia Tech, the Oakland Raiders and Arkansas before reuniting with Johnson at South Carolina in 2009.

Ward closed the deal in the recruitment of Clowney, cementing his reputation as an elite recruiter. He's also become a force in Atlanta, signing 17 players the last four years, including star tailback Mike Davis.

Ward is so respected in Atlanta that Georgia State offered him its head coaching job in 2012 without even interviewing him. He declined.

"Sometimes we jump to get a job to say we're a head coach, and it might not be the correct one to where you can win at," Ward said. "If you don't win at it, the opportunity to do it again doesn't happen often."

Ward takes solace in the patience of Strong, who didn't get his first head-coaching job until five years ago at the age of 49.

"I'm still a big dreamer," Ward said.

Just like his grandmother always encouraged.

The Huddle

• Texas A&M is off to a fast start in recruiting thanks to offensive line coach B.J. Anderson. The Aggies, which signed a top 10 class last month, have the nation's best 2015 class according to all three major recruiting services. Five of their nine commitments have involved Anderson. The latest is Buda, Texas, offensive tackle Connor Lanfear, who flipped from Texas last Friday, another recruiting blow to new Longhorns coach Charlie Strong.

The 39-year-old Anderson has had much of his success in his native and East Texas, where he has established himself as the recruiter to beat. His prized commitments include Gladewater defensive tackle Daylon Mack and Sulphur Springs safety Larry Pryor, both among the nation's best at their respective positions. They've helped Anderson position himself as the nation's top recruiter for 2015.

A product of Van, Texas (population 2,642), Anderson has taken a circuitous path to the SEC. He didn't play football in college at Stephen F. Austin, but volunteered with the team and eventually parlayed that into being an assistant at the school. He then took a graduate assistant job at Texas A&M for three years under R.C. Slocum before stops as an assistant at Tarleton State and Sam Houston State. He caught on with Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin at Houston in 2009.

But the chase in East Texas isn't just for 2015 recruits. It's already on for a reputed 2016 class, namely Nacogdoches safety Brandon Jones, who among others has an offer from Florida State, but he appears to have Anderson and the Aggies as his front-runner.

• Who has the most daunting job this spring? It could be new West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson. After getting promoted from safeties coach, Gibson takes over a defense that finished last in total defense, pass defense and second-to-last in scoring defense in Big 12 games. The well-traveled Gibson -- last year was his fourth different job in four years -- hasn't called defensive plays since a stint at West Virginia Tech in 1999 and 2000. But Gibson sees the key for an improved defense being a healthy defense, as 17 injured defensive players accounted for 73 lost games at WVU last year.

The Mountaineers return seven starters, including bruising linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski and aggressive safety Karl Joseph. WVU has yet to compile the depth to complete its transition from Big East bully to Big 12 contender, but it's getting there. Gibson points to having 70 scholarship players healthy for spring ball, an unusually high amount. WVU showed promise early last season, as it beat Oklahoma State and played well in a 16-7 loss at Oklahoma.

The most intriguing new face at West Virginia will be Tom Bradley, the former Penn State defensive coordinator who will serve as WVU's defensive line coach and senior associate head coach. He and Gibson are old friends from the recruiting trail. Gibson will lean on Bradley and the other defensive assistants, but he knows where the pressure will lie. "The ultimate call has to come from me," he said, "with a lot of input with the other guys."

• Nebraska Coach Bo Pelini warns that people need to be nice to him this year. New Cornhuskers defensive backs coach Charlton Warren once designed weapons for drones during his time in the Air Force. "If somebody crosses me," Pelini said with a laugh, "I can always have him take them out."

Pelini hired Warren, Air Force's defensive coordinator and associate head coach, in January to replace Terry Joseph, who left for Texas A&M. The 37-year-old Warren played at the academy and then returned to coach in 2005 after his active service. But Pelini said a mutual acquaintance of the two men had been touting Warren for years.

Pelini said he was initially won over by Warren's intelligence, character and leadership, but was just as struck by his X's and O's. Since Warren's arrival, Pelini said he's been even more impressed. "He fits exactly what I was looking for," Pelini said.

Warren is expected to make a significant impact in recruiting, especially in his native Atlanta, one of the nation's hottest scenes for prospects. "He's very successful down there," Pelini said. "We're going to let him get to work."

• It's almost that time of year again for Don Pellum. The always dapper Oregon defensive coordinator will soon start his annual spring and summer shopping for his famously slick attire. "I got to continue to represent," said Pellum, 52. "Got to represent. If this means I've got to kick it up another level, I will."

At the top of Pellum's list this year are exotic shoes, specifically "skins" such as gator, ostrich and snake in different colors. He shops mostly in Los Angeles in New York, but last summer vacationed in Milan and buttressed his wardrobe. Pellum tries to add two or three suits to his wardrobe every year, along with shirts, slacks, shoes and hats. He admits he doesn't know how many suits he owns. "I have a lot of dozens," he said.

As Oregon's new defensive coordinator, his defenses will be multiple, more of a 3-4 than a 4-3. After 14 years as Oregon's linebackers coach, he's charged with overhauling a Ducks defense that returns just five starters. "You got to have attitude and got to bring some swag," Pellum said. "You got both of those, we can work."

Most importantly, the defense must improve their reads and fundamentals, Pellum said. Both were exposed during the Ducks' losses to Stanford and Arizona last season. "Those things are fixable," Pellum said.

Pellum has been studying 3-4 NFL defenses like the Pittsburgh Steelers. He's been putting together a master clip of how NFL offenses are attacking the league's 3-4 defenses and another cut-up of how those defenses handle spread offenses. His predecessor Nick Aliotti, who retired after last season and had been the Ducks' defensive coordinator for a combined 17 years, ran a hybrid 3-4. But Pellum said his defense will be more aggressive. The same way he shops.

• Brian Johnson finished his playing career at Utah with a 26-7 record, the most wins by a quarterback in school history. That included a 13-0 senior season capped by a 31-17 victory over Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. Johnson's coaching career looked to be taking a similarly impressive ascent when he took over as Utah's offensive coordinator two seasons ago at age 24, the youngest coordinator in major college football. But after being demoted to co-offensive coordinator and then quarterbacks coach, Johnson left to become the quarterbacks coach at Mississippi State.

"It was a very difficult decision," Johnson said. "I'd grown up there, met my wife there and went to school there. Almost all the experience I gained in my lifetime was there. But there's no doubt in my mind I made the right decision."

The move to Starkville reunites Johnson with Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen, his first quarterbacks coach at Utah who recruited him out of the Houston area. Johnson was Drew Tate's backup in high school at Baytown Lee and didn't play consistently until his senior year. Mullen noticed him in spring practice prior to his senior year and got his commitment before bigger schools could swoop in.

"He's off-the-wall smart," Johnson said of Mullen. "I feel like I can learn so much from him."

Johnson's biggest takeaway from his coaching stint at Utah was the ability to adapt and adjust to different situations. And it seems like he's done that well in Starkville. In less than two weeks in town, he's already dined at famed barbeque joint The Little Dooey. "It's a small town, really good community," he said. "Nice and comfortable."

• Last month, Hawaii coach Norm Chow announced that he had promoted Jordan Wynn from graduate assistant to quarterbacks coach. It was a change in title, but not in duties for the 23-year-old former Utah quarterback. Chow said that Wynn has essentially called plays for Hawaii since the second half of their fourth game last season, running them past Chow before he called them.

The Rainbow Warriors scored a total of 36 points the first three games. In the final nine games, they averaged 32.5 points. "I've called plays since 1983, so I think I've got a little feel for it, but so many times we felt the same way about calls," said Chow, who has coached three Heisman winners and won three national titles. "It's very, very impressive. I have no qualms about giving him the responsibilities. None whatsoever."

Coach's Kitchen

Tulane coach Curtis Johnson is on a diet and trying to lose 10 pounds. But the New Orleans native hasn't had much success because of his continued weekly trips to Li'l Dizzy's Café, a quaint Creole-soul restaurant in the city's Seventh Ward. "It's got the best fried chicken and gumbo in the world," Johnson said. "I love it."

Johnson swears by the $15.99 lunch buffet, which has different offerings daily. Ideally, he starts with a bowl of hot gumbo before having the lightly browned fried chicken or smothered pork chops. Sometimes he has a combination of both.

Johnson recommends the red beans, greens and cabbage as well. "It's really southern cooking," Johnson said. "Good ole home cooking."

Johnson, who is entering his third year at Tulane, has been going to Li'l Dizzy's since 2006 when he returned to the Crescent City as an assistant for the New Orleans Saints. It's popular among businessmen, politicians and increasingly tourists, Johnson said. But not with his wife, who wants him to try to eat healthier.

"I have a feeling my cholesterol is up," Johnson said. "She's going to kill me. She knows my spot now."

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