Inside Read: Chuckie Keeton ready for final college season; Miami draws ire

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The career of quarterback ChuckieKeeton will come full circle on Sunday afternoon when Utah State begins its season at Tennessee as a potential darling of college football’s opening weekend. After enduring near-misses the past three seasons, Keeton and the Aggies are determined to deliver a signature upset.  

Keeton’s career has been defined as much by his high-profile heartbreak as by the staggering success that has made him the premier small-school quarterback in the nation. Keeton’s near-misses began with his debut in a 42-38 loss at Auburn to open the 2011 campaign, in which the Tigers scored two late touchdowns to escape with a victory. Keeton further burnished his reputation when Utah State missed a field goal in the final seconds of a 16-14 loss at Wisconsin in '12. Last year at USC, the Trojans edged the Aggies 17-14 in The Coliseum.

“That’s the next step for our program to take,” Utah State coach Matt Wells said. “That’s the next step for him as a starting quarterback to take. By no means did we take any moral victories out of those games.”

To judge Keeton’s career by only those games would be unfair. He is 14-5 as a starter the last two seasons with victories over Utah and nationally ranked Louisiana Tech. But for Keeton to push Utah State into the Top 25 and establish it as a contender for the Group of Five bowl slot, it needs a high-profile victory. “It just shows that you have to push that extra inch,” Keeton said.

Keeton has already come a long way. The day after Wells arrived at Utah State as an assistant in 2011, then-head coach Gary Andersen gave him a simple task: “Go to Houston tomorrow.” Wells came up with a list of high schools to visit, coaches to connect with and players to drop in on. Andersen nixed it all. “Matt, you’re going to be with Chuckie from the first thing in the morning to the last thing at night,” he said. “That’s all I care about, do you understand me?”

Andersen had his priorities in order, as Keeton turned down late interest from Rice to stick with Utah State. Since the Auburn game he has emerged as one of the defining players in program history. These days, when Wells goes to the coaching convention or sees Big 12 or SEC coaches on the road recruiting, he hears the same thing: “We had him in camp, he was right in front of us and we missed.”'s complete 2014 college football preview coverage

​Keeton’s success is just another example of the nebulous nature of recruiting quarterbacks. Keeton is 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, the type of dual-threat quarterback who has spread throughout the Big 12. “If it was an exact science, and everyone knew what they were doing, he never would have made it out of the state of Texas,” Wells said. “In my opinion he’d start for a lot of programs in the Big 12.”

However, instead of joining a power program, Keeton has forged his reputation by scaring them. He has thrown for 56 touchdowns and rushed for 14 more. Still, his final season will be viewed through the prism of how well he recovers from ACL and MCL tears that he suffered six games into last season. While there’s a legitimate question of how Keeton will respond to his first cuts and hits in live action, Wells isn’t concerned. After all, he considers Keeton’s mind his best weapon.

Wells recalls installing a double screen in camp in 2011, telling Keeton to make a specific read if the defense came with a particular pressure. The Aggies ran the play 18 practices later and Keeton saw the pressure to which Wells referred, prompting him to ignore an open player and dump the ball off for a shorter gain.

Utah State offensive line coach T.J. Woods barked: “ChuckieKeeton! Why didn’t you throw to the running back?” Keeton pointed to Wells, noting the coach’s advice.

Woods turned to Wells and said, “When did you tell him that?” Wells shrugged his shoulders and said, “About three weeks ago.”

Wells smiled as he finished telling the story: “I think that was our first indication that we had somebody special.”

A special player has a shot at a special moment on Sunday, as the Vols don’t return any starting offensive or defensive linemen from last fall. “I heard about that, too,” Keeton said. “I’m not too mad about that.”

Don’t be surprised if the Aggies pull off the upset. For Keeton and Utah State, it has been four years in the making.

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1. Miami feeling backlash after allegedly turning in Florida

For a generation of fans, Miami football was synonymous with bravado, showboating and four national championships in the 1980s and '90s. Football historian Beano Cook called the Hurricanes the “greatest dynasty since Caesar,” and the swagger of The U has been immortalized over the years.

That reputation has faded in the 13 years since Miami’s last national title. But while the specter of the Nevin Shapiro scandal is finally leaving the program, the 'Canes have been branded with a label unthinkable during their heyday: Snitch.

According to sources, Miami gave information to the NCAA last spring aboutthen-Florida wide receivers coach Joker Phillips committing alleged recruiting violations. That prompted an ongoing investigation into Phillips, who resigned in June for “personal reasons.”The alleged incident involved a violation of the “bump rule” with wide receiver Calvin Ridley, the Miami area’s top recruit who is committed to Alabama.​

The “bump rule” prohibits coaches from talking to a recruit in person beyond a greeting during an evaluation period. If the alleged violations involving Phillips are substantiated, Gators coach Will Muschamp could be suspended one game under a rule that makes head coaches accountable for certain transgressions of their assistants.

Violations of the “bump rule” are common but rarely reported. Miami coach Al Golden declined to comment through an athletic department spokesman.

The incident has sparked outrage among many assistants who recruit the Miami area. Three assistants, none of whom has ties to the University of Florida, said the Hurricanes have become pariahs in the recruiting world.

Defending champ Florida State leads SI preseason college football Top 25

​“It’s bull----,” said one assistant, “Miami bumps and talks to kids more than anybody. They’ve started a war. They better watch out. You started messing with livelihoods and s--- is going to get dirty.”

Said another assistant: “Nobody trusts Miami right now. You don’t even want to shake hands with them.”

Miami is widely regarded as one of the most difficult cities to navigate in recruiting because of the proliferation of opportunistic high school coaches, middlemen and agents. Miami’s attempt to clean up has made it stand out.

“There’s a lot of street people in Miami," one of the assistants said. "How do you think they feel about what the University of Miami did to Joker Phillips?”

One prominent high school coach in Miami said he believes the Hurricanes are fighting back after getting pummeled by negative recruiting following the Shapiro scandal. “They were taking a beating in recruiting and couldn’t fight back in any way,” said the coach. “What took place is they fought back. Joker could have just been collateral damage in the whole thing.”

2. John O’Korn next in line in Houston’s cradle of quarterbacks

Few schools outside the power conferences have a quarterback tradition as rich as Houston. From Andre Ware to Kevin Kolb to Case Keenum, Houston has evolved into a cradle of quarterbacks. Sophomore John O’Korn is next in line after throwing for 3,117 yards and 28 touchdowns while completing 58.1 percent of his passes as a freshman. As O’Korn torched defenses to win the American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year award last season, many have wondered how he ended up 1,000 miles from home after starring at nationally renowned St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Credit Houston coach Tony Levine for a savvy evaluation and an innovative recruiting philosophy. O’Korn didn’t become Aquinas' starter until his senior year. Levine and his staff offered before then. Levine spoke with everyone from opposing high school coaches to college assistants who frequently recruit the area before pulling the trigger. O’Korn ended up setting Aquinas single-season records for passing yards and touchdowns. “We told him that we knew what he was going to do his senior year,” Levine said. "So we extended the offer ahead of time.”

O’Korn accepted and never looked back, which highlighted Levine’s philosophy of personally recruiting every one of the Cougars’ quarterbacks. That helped Houston on two fronts. O’Korn blew up and was named MVP of the Florida Class 7A state title game, drawing offers from SEC and ACC schools, among others. The same year, Houston finished 5-7 during Levine’s first season. Even with O’Korn’s rise and Houston’s fall, he remained loyal. “John is a young man of great character,” Levine said. “He stayed committed and never wavered. The only official he took was to Houston, and he was eventually offered by in excess of 30 programs.”

Injuries to David Piland led to O’Korn becoming the starter earlier than expected, as he took over in the third week of last season. Piland emerged as a big brother to O’Korn, who also worked out once or twice a week this summer with Keenum, now a backup for the Houston Texans.

“That tradition at U of H of great quarterbacks, those guys are not just great quarterbacks, but great people coming back and giving back and sharing their experiences,” O’Korn said. “It’s been really helpful.”

O’Korn put on 25 pounds in the offseason to get up to 220. Levine said that O’Korn has a full grasp of the playbook, and he’s giddy at the prospect of O'Korn starting 40 more games as the Cougars quarterback. Houston opens the season -- and a new stadium -- on Friday night in a nationally televised game against UTSA.

“I feel a hundred times ahead of where I was last year,” O’Korn said. “There were times last year where I was just going out there and just honestly playing backyard football.” 

As O’Korn’s career takes off, the groundwork has already been laid for his likely successor. Houston landed a commitment from Ben Hicks, a four-star passer from Waco, Texas, before anyone had heard of him. Hicks went to the prestigious Elite 11 Camp in July and gained recognition, earning the distinction of being the second-ranked quarterback at the camp. Hicks stuck with Houston after signing a financial aid agreement last week.

His arrival in January is another affirmation of Levine’s personal quarterback recruiting philosophy. It's also a sign that the rich lineage of Cougars quarterbacks will keep on rolling.

Michael Chang/Getty Images

Michael Chang/Getty Images

3. South Alabama’s Brandon Bridge turning heads

The Manning Passing Academy has evolved into a must-stop event for elite college quarterbacks. It has also turned into a venue where small-school quarterbacks can earn NFL credibility by outperforming the competition.

South Alabama’s Brandon Bridge made a name for himself this summer by reaching the final of the Air-It-Out Challenge, which requires hitting a moving golf cart at 10- and 20-yard distances, as well as deep down the sideline. He beat out more than three dozen college quarterbacks, including Oregon's Marcus Mariota, Baylor’s Bryce Petty and BYU’s Taysom Hill.

Bridge received a pep talk from Eli Manning before facing Oregon State’s Sean Mannion in the final: “Go win this thing and shock the world,” Manning told him.

The 6-5, 235-pound Bridge ended up losing, but his arm strength and accuracy amid the cluster of top talent prompted some to wonder: “Where did he come from?” He's from Canada, where Bridge played 12-man football and eventually earned a scholarship to Alcorn State. “It’s been a crazy ride,” Bridge said, “but I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

Bridge began his journey some 30 minutes outside his native Toronto, where he led St. Marcellinus Secondary School to back-to-back provincial championships. In Canadian high school football, there are 12 players on the field per team and exponentially more pre-snap movement, making nearly every play a dizzying array of bodies and motion. “It’s a total different game,” Bridge said.

The rules make it difficult for American coaches to evaluate quarterbacks. During Bridge’s junior season in 2008, he caught the eye of then-Buffalo offensive coordinator Danny Barrett. But Bridge’s scholarship opportunity disappeared when Buffalo head coach Turner Gill left for Kansas in December '09. Akron expressed interest in Bridge playing a different position, but he insisted on remaining a quarterback. He even considered playing college football in Canada.

Alcorn State finally offered him after he linked up with former Northern Illinois defensive end Curtis Crossley, a recruiting service consultant who saw Bridge’s highlight tape on YouTube and contacted him via Facebook. All Bridge knew about the FCS school was that it produced former NFL quarterback Steve “Air” McNair.

After racking up 2,687 yards of total offense as a freshman in 2010, Bridge earned his own nickname: “Air Canada.” There was a coaching change that offseason, but Bridge elected to stay. He started the first five games the following year, but decided to transfer after an injury. He eventually got a call from then-Mississippi State offensive coordinator Les Koenning, now wide receivers coach at Texas.

The Bulldogs were interested in Bridge, but coach Dan Mullen ultimately didn’t offer him. Koenning wanted to help Bridge and put him in touch with South Alabama, where Koenning had been offensive coordinator in 2008. Jaguars coach Joey Jones thought Bridge might be better off at wide receiver. Still, he took him. Bridge redshirted in '12 and was the backup quarterback last season.

All the while, Bridge has overhauled his throwing motion and honed his footwork. Now, the redshirt senior is a starter for a team entering its second season in the Sun Belt and as a full FBS member. “He’s got to go out there and get it done, but there’s no doubt he’s got the abilities to do so,” Jones said. “It’s fun to watch a young man that’s improved just a hundredfold.”

There’s never been a question about Bridge’s physical skills. The right-hander can throw the ball 70 to 75 yards and can split the uprights while throwing from midfield on his knees. He can also throw more than 30 yards with his left hand.

That arm strength shined through at the Manning Camp. He got his invite to the annual event from his personal quarterback coach David Morris (Eli Manning’s backup at Ole Miss), but wasn’t in awe of the star power. “I just thought to myself, I’m the best guy in here,” Bridge said. “I had that mindset I’m going to show these guys that I can play at their school or I can be better than them.”

Bridge will get a few more chances this season with games against Mississippi State and at South Carolina. In the meantime, agents have been calling him since his impressive showing.

Bridge hopes to gain the attention of Drake, another Toronto product who was once an unknown. He listens to the rapper so much that some of his teammates call him Drake.

“I want to be that icon for Canada as well,” Bridge said.

Bridge started from the bottom but now his opportunity is finally here.

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The blitz​

• We’re in a golden age for top academic schools in college football. Stanford is regularly in the thick of the national title hunt. Vanderbilt and Northwestern have turned into annual bowl contenders. Duke won the ACC Coastal Division last year. But Wake Forest is an exception. The Demon Deacons won the ACC title in 2006 and beat Florida State three consecutive times from '06 to '08, but coach Jim Grobe resigned last December after five straight losing seasons, leaving first-year coach Dave Clawson with the job of turning things around.

Why the uptick in success at top academic schools? Clawson points to the raising of NCAA minimum eligibility standards, which has made recruits more academically aware. Increased access to information also allows prospects and their parents to make more thoughtful choices. “They truly look at it more like a 40-year decision than a four-year decision,” Clawson said.

With his Williams College degree and 14 years of experience as a head coach, Clawson has the background to help Wake Forest rebuild. He has won big at schools with rigorous academic standards -- Fordham and Richmond -- and also led Bowling Green to its first MAC title since 1992 last season. Clawson’s success at different levels, with different styles, gives him an ideal background as Wake Forest tries to claw back into the ACC conversation.

In the macro sense, Clawson is figuring out his style of play and recruiting footprint, the two biggest factors that will ultimately determine his success. Outside of the obvious local areas, Clawson said that Wake Forest will have a heavy recruiting presence in Florida, Texas and the Northeast and will leverage the school’s strong academic reputation. So far it's working, as Wake is No. 31 in's recruiting rankings, an astounding number considering its average recruiting class was ranked No. 65 the last five seasons. As for style, Clawson said he’ll do what he has done at every stop -- adapt to the personnel he is able to recruit -- as he has run spread and pro-style offenses.

In the micro sense, the changes Clawson brought to Wake can be summed up by the stick roller in the corner of his office this spring. Clawson jumped in a game of dodgeball with his players, the type of team-building activity that breaks up the monotony of offseason workouts. Clawson whipped a ball, backpedaled and pulled his hamstring while attempting to avoid being hit by a ball. Did he go see the trainer? “Oh no,” he said with a laugh. “But that was out of pride.” Instead, he massaged the hamstring with the stick roller daily to alleviate the pain.

Clawson, 46, brings a direct approach that comes through in more than dodgeball. Players have noticed his presence in the day-to-day operation of the program.

Wake Forest is doing plenty to support Clawson, as the school starts a much-needed upgrade to its football facilities this month. A new $21 million facility should open by the end of 2015. “We’re almost a little bit of a hidden gem,” Clawson said. “When players visit us, they’re always shocked by what we have.”

Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner has a new buzzword: consistency. Gardner is quick to point out his inconsistency last season, citing his 97 passing yards in a 24-21 victory at Connecticut and his school-record 503 passing yards in a 63-47 win over Indiana. When Michigan opens against Appalachian State on Saturday, the difference that new Wolverines offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has made will become apparent. Nussmeier spent the last two years working for Nick Saban at Alabama, so it’s no surprise that he is meticulous. It has rubbed off on Gardner, who gushes about the Wolverines’ new coordinator.

“He demands perfection,” Gardner said. “Not only does he know a lot and he’s a people guy, but he knows how to relate it. He knows how to get the best out of his players.” That goes back to consistency for Gardner. Nussmeier has tried to instill more of it in his signal-caller by having the offense practice faster and teaching him how to read defenses better before the snap. It has made Gardner more comfortable than he has ever been at Michigan.

“He’s made practice so rigorous and so up-tempo it feels like I’ve already played a game,” Gardner said of Nussmeier. “He’s amazing.”


Arkansas set the gold standard for loaded backfields several years ago with Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis. As the Razorbacks look to recover from Bret Bielema’s 3-9 debut, they’ll again turn to the ground.

Alex Collins is Arkansas’ leader after rushing for 1,026 yards on 190 carries as a freshman last season. Junior Jonathan Williams finished with 900 yards on 150 carries, giving the Razorbacks two potential 1,000-yard rushers. Jitterbug sophomore Korliss Marshall (586 all-purpose yards in '13) is a third option.

With that type of production, look for the Hogs to boast a smashmouth rushing attack reminiscent of the ones Bielema used at Wisconsin to win three consecutive Big Ten titles. “We feel like we can make that work here as well,” running backs coach Joel Thomas said.

Collins (5-11, 215 pounds) should be a more patient runner as a sophomore. He is more trusting of the holes created for him, using his speed to burst through them instead of quickly bouncing outside. Thomas credits the free-spirited Collins for maturing since being suspended from the team for a week in February for an unspecified offense. “He loves life and people and being social,” Thomas said with a laugh. “Not everybody always has his best interests at heart.”

Williams (6-0, 225) has gotten faster and better with his pad leverage. He is also more familiar with Arkansas’ overall scheme and had a 4.0 GPA in summer school. “When he’s laser focused, it’s pretty cool how on point he is and how things really roll together for him,” Thomas said.

The 6-foot, 205-pound Marshall continues to impress with his burst after also playing safety last season. “He’s pretty salty, too,” Thomas said.

We’ll get a good idea how competitive Arkansas’ trio of backs will be soon. The Razorbacks open at Auburn and play Texas Tech two weeks later.

• USC quarterback Cody Kessler quickly saw the impact of new Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian’s up-tempo shotgun offense this spring. It left his defensive teammates doubled over, gasping for air with their hands on their knees. “It gave us an advantage,” Kessler said. “It helps me out a lot more, too.”

Kessler is ready to see opposing defenses feel the way the Trojans did in practice, beginning with Fresno State on Saturday. But outside of the offense’s pace and shotgun alignment, the concepts are similar to last season’s scheme under LaneKiffin. “[It’s] nice for me because I’m still reading the same stuff,” Kessler said.

Entering his second year as the Trojans’ starter has also helped the redshirt junior, who threw for 2,968 yards with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions last fall. He is now more decisive on the field. “I just feel more confident,” he said. “I know what it takes to make plays and what you have to do to win games from last year.”

Kessler is also energized by his teammates’ new mindset under Sarkisian, who demanded and earned their respect. Players didn’t miss workouts over the summer, something that was a problem in the past. “Guys have bought into his system,” Kessler said of Sarkisian. “He’s been great for this team. I can’t stress enough how hard it is for what he had to do.”

• The buzz is picking up about Ohio State freshman tailback Curtis Samuel. With quarterback Braxton Miller out for the season, Samuel’s importance to the Buckeyes’ offense will only increase. Coach Urban Meyer has always been infatuated with speed and explosiveness. In a scrimmage last week Samuel dropped jaws by going 70 yards untouched for a score. Buckeyes running backs coach Stan Drayton said he has never coached a back with Samuel’s combination of speed and power. The best comparison he could come up with is Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon. “He’s not as thick right now, but he has the same body type and physical capabilities,” Drayton said. “He’s a very explosive and physical kid.”

Two factors that determine if freshman backs see the field are ball security and pass blocking. Drayton said Samuel has fumbled just once during camp and had a defining pass-blocking moment when he stuffed linebacker Josh Perry in a recent scrimmage. "That right there told me the kid is ready to play,” Drayton said.

Drayton jokes that his backfield always needs a “pair and a spare.” He has two strong returners in sophomore starter Ezekiel Elliott and solid senior Rod Smith. What has potentially been most impressive about Samuel is how he has ingratiated himself with those two, mimicking their work habits and learning from them.

“They’ve done a wonderful job with him,” Drayton said.

All that leads to one of the most anticipated debuts in college football when Ohio State plays Navy on Saturday.

• Looking for an endearing underdog story this fall? There’s a good one brewing at Miami (Ohio), which went 0-12 last season. Fifth-year transfer Andrew Hendrix, who came from Notre Dame with first-year coach Chuck Martin, will be the RedHawks’ starting quarterback. Depending on how things go, his season could provide a launching point to the NFL or medical school.

Hendrix graduated from Notre Dame with a 3.1 GPA in science pre-professional studies, which is essentially pre-med. “I think I’d like to be a surgeon,” Hendrix said. “That’s a lot of carryover from being a quarterback to being a surgeon. I think that’s something that I could potentially do.”

But first, Hendrix is going to give football a full-time shot this fall. While at Notre Dame, Hendrix backed up Tommy Rees and Everett Golson. He admitted that his lab classes took priority over watching game tape.

“I told [the coaches] that academics were my focus at Notre Dame, but this year at Miami I really want to play ball and I really want to see how good I can get if I give all of myself to it,” he said. “It’s been paying off and I think it’s going to continue to pay off.”

Hendrix is taking just nine credits this fall. While he is not taking yoga or ballroom dancing, he has an academic schedule that will allow him to concentrate on football. He’ll need to focus, as Miami was awful last season. The RedHawks lost by an average of 25.9 points and are riding a 16-game losing streak. Hendrix transferred in with teammates Lo Wood and Alex Welch and said they have been pleased with what they’ve seen.

“From the second we got here, talent was not the issue,” Hendrix said. “It was the way people were going about their business. Either people knew what they were doing or they didn’t know that they didn’t know.”

Martin is a spitfire coach who has already begun to turn around the culture. He should prove to be a savvy hire for athletic director David Sayler, who honed in on Martin’s 74-7 record and two national titles as the head coach at Grand Valley State. But it will take time for the RedHawks to be competitive again in the MAC. How they fare this season will determine Hendrix’s career path.

“Whatever this season holds I’d like to pursue [football] further,” he said. “But I’m going to apply to med school in January.” 

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Four in (and one out)

Making some early College Football Playoff predictions.

​1. Oregon: A healthy Marcus Mariota should help the Ducks fly back atop the Pac-12.

2. South Carolina: After three consecutive 11-win seasons, the Gamecocks could finally shift the balance of SEC power back to the East.

3. Oklahoma: Bob Stoops regained his big-game mojo when the Sooners thrashed Alabama in last season's Sugar Bowl.

4. Florida State: 10 of the 26 players on ESPN’s All-ACC first team are Seminoles.

5. Michigan State: One can’t overstate how important Michigan State’s Week 2 trip to Eugene, Ore., is, for the Spartans and the Big Ten.

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Q&A with Toledo coach Matt Campbell


When he was born, Toledo coach Matt Campbell received a football at the hospital nursery, a Massillon, Ohio, tradition that set his path into the game. Campbell, 34, is the son of a high school coach, won five combined Division III national titles as a player and coach at Mount Union and is the second youngest coach in major college football. He has established himself as one of the bright young minds in the sport and will have a chance to make himself a household name in Week 2, when Missouri visits Toledo. He spent a few minutes with this week discussing #MACtion, the Rockets and why he named his son Rudy.

What can we expect from quarterback Phillip Ely? He obviously got a lot of buzz coming from Alabama.

Phillip is a kid who we recruited out of high school. It’s ironic, he blew up going into his senior year in camp and next thing you know he’s got all these SEC offers. But we’ve got a great relationship with his high school coach and you’re really talking about one of the premier high school football programs in the country (Tampa’s Plant High). Knowing the success he had there and the coaching he had there, it’s been good to have a guy like that here.

The Mount Union Division III dynasty is one of the most fascinating things in sports. What are one or two reasons that can explain it?

I think number one is Larry Kehres … just the consistency of him. He had the one unique ability to get the most out of his players and coaches and knew what made them tick. I think it was his understanding of what motivated them. He’s really special at that, he knew how to demand the most out of each player and each coach.

What was Pierre Garcon like at Mount Union?

2014 Group of Five preview: Which non-power league teams will thrive?

The great thing about being around Pierre, in our two years we won two national championships, and a lot of it was because of him. What was unique about him was that he had the ability every day, what you saw in a game with Pierre, you also saw every day in practice. He was a relentless blocker, he loved to get between the white lines because he practiced the way he played. I guess that’s why I wasn’t shocked that he had great success at the next level.

What’s your take on #MACtion? You’re an old defensive guy at heart. It has to kill you to see scores like 63-61, right?

I think it’s more just from the standpoint of the brand of football being played right now in our conference. Top to bottom when you look at this conference, it’s the kind of conference that anybody can beat anyone on any given Saturday, or Thursday, or Tuesday for that matter. Right now, not only is there some good coaching, but all this MACtion has let all these schools go out and define their brand and be able to sell it nationwide. That gives you a name out there on the recruiting scene today.

I bet it probably helps with trying to get a second-tier kid from Texas.

Oh, absolutely. You go to Dallas-Forth Worth, or Tampa and you talk to these other areas we go to, there’s name recognition. They’re excited about you, so at least if you’ve got an exciting brand then people will identify with you.

When people watch Toledo which one player should they look for?

I think for us it will be our middle linebacker Junior Sylvestre. He’s a preseason defensive player of the year candidate and he’s a kid that's really electric, he really runs to the football and makes a lot of plays. If you watched last year he probably popped off the TV screen because he’s a little different sometimes.

Did you name your child Rudy for any reason other than …

I know, I know … it’s actually my wife’s grandfather’s name, so that’s why. I get that a lot, it’s a football cliché. I wanted Rocky ‘cause that’s a little tougher sounding.

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Heisman five

There are few things more difficult than predicting who will win the Heisman Trophy before the season starts. Few had Jameis Winston atop their preseason lists last year. That said, here’s our early handicapping of the Heisman race.

Thamel’s list

1. Marcus Mariota, Oregon: Until the Ducks got smothered against Stanford last year, Mariota looked like he was going to win it.

2. Jameis Winston, Florida State: The only thing going against him -- other than his penchant for trouble -- is the poor track record of returning winners since Archie Griffin.

3. Nick Marshall, Auburn: What kind of magic can Gus Malzahn make with a returning quarterback?

4. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama: It’s a good assumption that a Nick Saban tailback will end up as a Heisman finalist.

5. Connor Cook, Michigan State: The buzz in East Lansing is that he has made huge strides in the offseason.

Evans’ list

1. Winston: Off-the-field issues pose his greatest threat.

2. Rakeem Cato, Marshall: Get on board before his video-game stats lead the Thundering Herd to an undefeated regular season.

3. Mariota: He'll be more deserving than Winston if he wills the Ducks to an unbeaten regular season.

4. Todd Gurley, Georgia: He is already better than the last tailback (Mark Ingram) to win the award.

5. Myles Jack, UCLA: If only the linebacker got more carries …

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Assistant huddle

Iowa State finished second-to-last in the Big 12 and 89th nationally in scoring offense last season. The Cyclones appear to be a good bet to improve after one of the offseason’s most intriguing hires. Coach Paul Rhoads brought in veteran coach and noted offensive guru Mark Mangino to take over the offense. At his stints as an assistant at Oklahoma and the head coach at Kansas, Mangino earned a reputation as one of the country’s top offensive minds.

So far he likes what he sees. “There are some talented kids here,” Mangino said. “To be successful, we need to play together in a structured and disciplined style.”

Consider the depths Kansas has hit since Mangino’s exit; it’s hard to believe that Mangino led the Jayhawks to an Orange Bowl victory in 2008. After Mangino got run out of Lawrence, he took a break from football and came back last year as an assistant at Youngstown State. Mangino also helped his wife through breast cancer treatments. The journey has made him appreciative to return.

“It’s great to be back,” he said. “This is a great challenge, and I’m enjoying every minute of it. Paul Rhoads has done everything he can to make the transition smooth. Everyone has treated me extremely well.”

Iowa State has a star tight end in E.J. Bibbs and two tailbacks Mangino considers as quick as any he’s worked with in his career: Aaron Wimberly and DeVondrick Nealy. True freshman receiver Allen Lazard, who had offers from Notre Dame and Stanford, has also lived up to his recruiting hype. “You’ll see him on the field a lot as a true freshman,” Mangino said. “He proved three or four days into camp that he wasn’t going to be redshirted. He played so well and is so intelligent.”

With an underrated cast of talent and Mangino's track record, it is a good bet that Iowa State will be much improved this season.

• It was the day after West Virginia’s first spring practice in March that defensive coordinator Tony Gibson got the call. His 39-year-old wife, Kerry, was on the phone sobbing uncontrollably. “Honey,” she told Gibson, “it’s cancer.”

The news that she had colon cancer rocked her unflappable husband of 20 years. The two met at Glenville (W.Va.) State, where Gibson played for Rich Rodriguez, and have two children, a 20-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter.

Kerry Gibson has been supportive of her husband over the years as he climbed the coaching ladder. Less than a month before her diagnosis, he had finally became a major college defensive coordinator with his promotion from safeties coach.

But suddenly fixing one of the nation’s worst defenses wasn’t his biggest priority. “It changes your life perspective,” Gibson said of his wife's diagnosis. “It was the most devastating news I’ve ever gotten.”

There were signs that something was amiss. Prior to the couple’s trip to the American Football Coaches Association national convention in January, she noticed some bleeding, as well as lumps under her armpits. After visits to numerous baffled doctors, she eventually had a colonoscopy in which a polyp was removed. A week later, she found out she had colon cancer. Following one unsuccessful surgery in April, she had a successful one in June at the Cleveland Clinic. Afterward, she was told she is cancer-free.

Two days after West Virginia’s Aug. 30 opener against Alabama, Gibson’s wife will have a routine procedure to further help her recovery. She and her husband have received an outpouring of support from Mountaineers coach DanaHolgorsen, the rest of the staff and their wives. “It’s truly been unbelievable,” Gibson said.

Kerry Gibson even felt well enough last month to make the couple’s annual summer trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C., with family and friends. “It was a scary deal,” Gibson said. “It really flips your whole world upside down. This is the best win we’ve ever had.”

• Dave Christensen forgot how much he missed calling plays. After Wyoming fired him as head coach in December, Christensen is making up for lost time as Utah’s offensive coordinator. The Utes are playing at such a rapid pace that through seven practices they had run more than 120 offensive plays than through the same period a year ago.

The increase is a reflection of coach Kyle Whittingham’s commitment to Christensen’s fast-paced, no-huddle spread scheme. Utah tried to be more up-tempo last season, but struggled with it under co-offensive coordinators Dennis Erickson (now running backs coach) and Brian Johnson (now quarterbacks coach at Mississippi State). “We want to be one of the fastest teams in the country,” Christensen said.

What makes Utah different in an era where speed rules? Quarterback Travis Wilson will snap the ball within the first 20 seconds of the play clock. Since Christensen’s arrival, the offense has practiced with a 20-second play clock instead of the traditional 40-second one. Christensen has plenty of experience with speedy offenses from his eight seasons as offensive coordinator at Missouri (2001-08). Wyoming went 27-35 in his five years and finished 22nd nationally in total offense (472.8 yards per game) when he called plays last season.

Because of that success, Christensen was in the mix for higher-profile offensive coordinator jobs. But he couldn’t say no to Whittingham, whom he got close with when they worked together at Idaho State as young assistants. “He’s been fantastic,” Christensen said of Whittingham. “It’s completely my show on offense.”

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Coach's kitchen

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has a hard time picking a favorite restaurant in Columbus. But he recommends anyone looking for a unique dining experience to try Pasqualone’sRistorante. Meyer admits he’s biased, as David Pasqualone is from his hometown of Ashtabula, Ohio. The old-school homemade Italian joint with only eight tables fits perfectly with his blue-collar hometown. “It’s the way I grew up, with the stainless steel pot on the stove with the red sauce in it and the loaf of bread next to it,” Meyer said.

Meyer recommends the pasta, red sauce and maybe a little ravioli. “It’s outstanding,” he said. “It could fit right in the North End of Boston.”