Over the past three-plus weeks, I attended four of the Power 5 conference media days, starting at the SEC in Hoover, Ala., before visits to the Big 12 in Frisco, Texas, the Big Ten in Chicago and then the Pac-12 in L.A. There was a lot of interesting stuff mixed in as we all gear up for the 2017 season. The following are some of the things that resonated with me from what I’d heard and saw this month.
1. David Blough’s speech: I’ve known Blough since he was a high school quarterback in Texas. I interviewed probably nine or ten dozen quarterbacks—in various stages of their careers—for my book The QB. None were more impressive than Blough was: He’s far from the biggest quarterback, but his character and his maturity—especially for a high schooler at the time—stood out. Folks in Big Ten country learned that last week when the Purdue QB had the honor of being the featured speaker at the Big Ten’s annual Kickoff Luncheon, which is attended by all of the league’s head coaches, athletic directors, star players and another 1,000 or so fans and dignitaries.
Blough’s five-minute speech ranged from his five trips with his classmates to South Africa to his Big Ten–leading 21 interceptions in 2016, but more than anything it wove together the virtues of football through its bond of diversity, love and understanding that culminated with a standing ovation.
“To me, what makes football the greatest game in the world, is that it teaches us to love one another,” Blough said. “A college football locker room consists of roughly 105 members. Black, white, Hispanic and Asian. Rich, poor and from the middle class. Christian, Muslim, Jew and atheist. We’ve had players from Sweden; Compton, California; Miami, Florida; Paris; right here in Chicago, Illinois; small town Indiana and just about everywhere in between. We even have players who affiliate with different political parties. And you know what? That’s the beauty of life.
“On this stage with me are 14 of the finest football coaches in the country, who come from 10 different states and were born over the course of four decades. Each with a number of experiences that have placed them in the seats they are in today. Each, the leader of a team as diverse as any organization the United States has to offer.
“In this room, there are fans that bleed blue, despise The Team Up North. Others that say ‘On Wisconsin’ or ‘Go Hawkeyes,’ all brought together by football. I believe football teaches life to those who play it. However, it doesn’t have to stop there. Our country could learn from football because diversity is also what makes the United States special, there should be unity rather than division. Football taught me that it starts with looking past the differences of the people around you, and loving them for who they are. That’s the beauty of life.”
Blough told me he wrote a rough draft in four or five hours over two nights that was the byproduct of, among other things, a lot of conversations with the chaplain at Purdue, and the Boilermakers’ new coach of player development. "After I wrote the rough draft, I shared it with people who I really respect—a couple pastors, coaches, mom, girlfriend,” he said. “They helped with wording a couple of changes.”
Oh, and Blough delivered the whole thing without a teleprompter or notes. He didn’t set out to memorize the whole thing, but simply through practice and having typed every word he started remembering it. “One of the Purdue video guys taped me and I watched that a ton,” he says. “By saying it and reading it, I think it just became memorized. I messed up the first sentence on the stage trying to read it, so I just went without it.”
2. Derrius Guice’s energy: This year’s media days often felt like they were almost about who wasn’t there as much as who was. There was no Saquon Barkley or Luke Falk or Josh Rosen or Jalen Hurts, but LSU brought its stud tailback and his mega-watt personality. SEC Media Days is the biggest whirlwind setup of any of these gatherings, with players and coaches being shuttled from room to room, often with a backpedaling cadre of cameramen in tow. Guice was amped for all of it. More memorable than any sound bite was watching him goof around for live TV news-show teases back in his native Louisiana at the end of a loooooong day. Guice seemed as fresh as he did six hours earlier, before the whole gauntlet began.
3. Joel Lanning’s selflessness: It’s rare to see two-way players in major college football these days. It’s even rarer when the combination is a middle linebacker/quarterback, but Lanning is pretty special. The 6' 2", 230-pounder was Iowa State’s starting QB for most of the 2016 season, but he welcomed the chance to become the team’s starting middle ’backer after the coaching staff suggested the move in order to make the team better. Lanning will still see some action at QB in certain situations.
“He is a really talented football player,” ISU head coach Matt Campbell says. “He’s exactly what you want in your program. He’s the reason why we made the improvement we had last year, just because of his toughness and his will. He’s special, a really unique kid.
“This has the potential to be a really neat story.”
4. Nick Saban’s new motto: Losing the national title game to Clemson obviously didn’t sit well with Saban, and the way he’s using that defeat is probably on its way to becoming a coaching motto around the sports world. Saban repeatedly said, “I don’t wanna waste the failure,” referencing the lessons he hopes his program has learned from the loss as well as the lack of accountability that he feels led to it. That should be a scary thought for other SEC programs—so is Saban noting that this is the first time Alabama has had a returning starter at quarterback since 2013. The Tide have gone 40–4 since then.
5. Josh Rosen’s evolution: Rosen, UCLA’s talented junior quarterback, wasn’t at Pac-12 media days last week, but he was the most talked-about subject among the Bruins in attendance. The program is coming off a 4–8 season, and Rosen missed much of last season with a shoulder injury. In the spring, he’d told us how being sidelined from football had provided him with perspective that will make him a better QB. His coach Jim Mora went into greater detail on that point.
“I think that he’s progressed tremendously,” Mora said. “I think it’s a huge credit to Josh Rosen in the way that he’s matured and the way he’s approached this off-season. Just like all these young men, they get it at different times. I think a lot of things factored into Josh having the productive off-season that he’s had, certainly being injured and having football kind of removed from his life as a player at the time that he did, that affected him. Humbling himself to a certain degree and accepting coaching.
”I think he’s been asked a couple times is it helpful or hurtful that he’s on his third coordinator, quarterback coach. For some it might be hurtful. For Josh I think it’s helpful because he loves information. He loves to absorb information.”
In a conference loaded with star QBs, Rosen is the wild card. It’ll be fascinating to see he and the Bruins try and bounce back from a dismal 2016.
6. Christian Kirk’s work ethic: In his first two college seasons, the Texas A&M wideout has produced 163 catches, 1,937 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns, along with five kick return TDs. The 5' 10", 200-pound Kirk is quick and strong, but it’s his determination that coaches say makes him special. One of Kirk’s former coaches, Dave Marsh, now the offensive coordinator at Campbell University, had some terrific stories illuminating that.
From the time Kirk was four, he would wake up at 5 a.m. during the summers to go to work for his dad’s mobile detailing company. “It’d be 110° and we’d wash cars all day, and then I’d come back home around seven at night,” Christian says. “I’d do that all summer. That’s how I learned about hard work. Getting down and doing the work that not a lot of people want to do, but my dad was passionate about it. I saw that passion.”
7. P.J. Fleck’s persona: The new Minnesota coach brought his Row the Boat mantra to the Big Ten. I know some folks are skeptical, but I think he’s an excellent addition to the conference and is making the Gophers relevant. In a business that tends to be overstuffed with cliché, the 36-year-old Fleck is still hard to turn away from, even if you didn’t intend to listen in to his interview session for a few minutes. “We love the challenge,” he said. “We love the chaos. We love the dirty water, as we call it. For the people who ask why did you take this job? That is why I took this job. We love walking in a situation like that, and that is why I took this job. It fits me. I’m the King of the Toos—too small, too short, too inexperienced, too young. That’s who we are.”
8. Connor Williams’s path: The nation’s best left tackle is an honor student and plays with a mean streak that NFL scouts love. The 6' 6", 310-pound junior arrived at Texas as just a three-star recruit and had a unique perspective stemming from his days at Coppell High, in the Dallas area.
“Going to Texas, I thought everybody would be a Solomon Thomas,” Williams told me, referencing this year’s No. 3 pick in the NFL draft, a former high school teammate.
9. Tom Allen’s pitch: Taking over Indiana’s football program was always going to be an uphill climb, especially in a division that also features teams coached by Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh, James Franklin and Mark Dantonio, but give it up to the new IU head man. He was very impressive in explaining what he told his team after taking over.
“I challenged our team with this concept. When I met with our players after I took over, I wrote these three numbers on the board—I did this with our staff as well—50, 26, 10. And I asked them if they knew what those numbers represented, and they didn’t.
“So I proceeded to tell them. It’s been 50 years since we won the Big Ten; it’s been 26 years since we won a bowl game; it’s been 10 years since we had a winning season at Indiana. We’re going to accomplish all three of those, I told our team. If you don’t believe that, you need to leave. Said the same thing to our staff. I love them. I appreciate them. But I want a coaching staff, I want a football team that believes.”
My guess is Allen will end two of those long droughts sooner than later, but that Big Ten title seems like too big of a long-shot.
10. Tom Allen’s rising star: The best-kept secret in the Big Ten, and perhaps college football, is Indiana linebacker Tegray Scales. Last season, he led the nation with 23.5 tackles for loss (up from 5.5 in 2015), and he figures to snap one of the more startling droughts in major college football—the Hoosiers haven’t had any linebacker drafted since Van Waiters in 1988. If the 6' 0", 230-pound Scales doesn’t stick in the NFL, he’s got an intriguing fallback plan: MMA.
“I think that is something I could possibly go into if football doesn’t work out,” Scales, a former nationally ranked prep wrestler, told me. “As soon as I’m done with football I am going to do stuff like that for sure.”
Scales developed into a star as Allen took over the Indiana defense last season, responding to his coach’s challenge to become a leader. The Ohio native also said a big reason for his emergence was that he learned how to watch film. “I used to watch film just to watch it,” he says. “I didn’t know what to look for.”
Scales learned how to study things like what an offensive guard was doing on a given play or what the running back’s depth is. Next up is becoming more consistent and tightening up little fundamental things. “I made a lot of plays coming downhill, but I also missed a lot of one-on-one tackles that I still regret to this day,” Scales says.
11. Rich McKay’s seats: From the “It Just Means More” files of the SEC, we bring you this nugget from a visit with the Atlanta Falcons president about Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the new home of the SEC title game. McKay said the project’s mission was to change the experience for the fan because the experience from home “is pretty good, and it’s not getting worse.”
“We don’t think technology is gonna be the solution,” he told me. “There aren’t people who go to games and try to watch replays on their phones. We do think that the fan wants to be treated in a way where their experience is special and to do that you’ve got to think about food, the way they get around the building—entry and exit and the seats they sit in."
The new stadium has 21-inch seats (arm to arm), up from the 19-inch seats in the Georgia Dome and from the 14 or 15-inch seats at many college stadiums. And that’s all of the seats, not just the ones at the premium level. Hopefully, the airlines are reading this.