Inside Read: Behind Saban-Kiffin union, Golden unhappy?, much more

The most fascinating coaching transaction in college football this offseason united two of the sport's most polarizing figures: Alabama's Nick Saban and former USC coach Lane Kiffin.

It's a union that nearly happened in 2007, when agent Jimmy Sexton contacted Kiffin to see if he had any interest in leaving USC, where he was an assistant, to become Alabama's offensive coordinator. Kiffin listened but politely declined, and a few weeks later he took the Oakland Raiders head coaching job.

But after Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier left for Michigan in January, the Kiffin-Saban alliance finally occurred.

There's a backstory to the most compelling pairing of head coach and offensive coordinator in the country. Saban got a preview of having Kiffin around in December, when Kiffin flew to Tuscaloosa to spend eight days evaluating the Crimson Tide. In early January, before he got hired at Alabama, Kiffin went into detail with about what he learned from being ensconced in Saban's world. When asked what impressed him, Kiffin asked, "How long you got?"

On Kiffin's first night in town, he had a three-hour dinner at Saban's house. Every night after that, they'd spend 15 minutes going over their respective notes on the day. Kiffin said Saban paid for his flight and hotel room.

"It was something neat Nick did knowing I was out here doing nothing," Kiffin told in January. "It was good for both of us, and it was good for me to be around ball again."

Kiffin said the Crimson Tide had an NFL vibe. "It's an absolute machine from when you step into that building until you walk out at the end of the night," he said. "Everything from recruiting to offense to defense. Everyone in there is just working."

RIVALS100: The top college football prospects in 2014 l Full Rivals250

Kiffin's most interesting observation came from watching film of Alabama in SEC play. Kiffin coached at Tennessee in 2009 before going to USC and sees the SEC trending more toward the Pac-12's style of wide-open play.

"In watching a lot of film of their season, (the SEC is) starting to change a little bit toward the Pac-12, spread out with a running quarterback," Kiffin said. "You're seeing that with Texas A&M. The SEC is changing, which is surprising."

The organization at Alabama wasn't the only thing that looked like the NFL. The talent did, too.

"It was the first week of bowl practice and they were practicing like it was a game," Kiffin said. "They were physical and aggressive and tough practices. They've got a lot of top talent. At USC we had it, but they've got 85 scholarship players. There's a lot more of it."

The visit from Kiffin, which was not announced to the staff, left Alabama coaches on both sides of the ball confused as to why he was there, as little explanation was given. Some considered it Saban overreacting to losing to Auburn. Kiffin's visit didn't lead directly to Nussmeier leaving for Michigan, where he'll be among the country's highest-paid assistants. But no one on staff looked at it as a ringing endorsement.

Kiffin won't be making a financial windfall at Alabama, as he'll make less than high-end SEC coordinators. USC owes Kiffin more than $10 million over the next several years. Any money Alabama pays him is offset, meaning that it's subtracted from what USC owes him. So expect Kiffin's deal to be similar to the $680,000 Nussmeier made at Alabama, not the typical million-dollar salary for a high-end SEC coordinator.

Will he earn it? That's going to be the most fascinating question in 2014.


1. Meet Lincoln Riley

Lincoln Riley doesn't drink Red Bull, wear skinny jeans or obsess over pirates. On the colorful coaching tree of Washington State coach Mike Leach, which includes Dana Holgorsen (West Virginia) and Kliff Kingsbury (Texas Tech), Riley is the plainest branch. "I'm probably the most normal of all them which isn't saying a whole lot," says Riley, who turned 30 in September.

Riley will never have a stuffed pirate in his office like his old boss, but he could become his next protégé to become a head coach. That's an impressive list that includes Baylor's Art Briles, East Carolina's Ruffin McNeil and Cal's Sonny Dykes. Riley's meteoric rise as one of college football's top young offensive minds prompted overtures this offseason from Notre Dame about its offensive coordinator position.

The youngest offensive coordinator in the FBS when East Carolina hired him four years ago, Riley's offense ranked eighth nationally at 40.2 points per game last season. His philosophy has veered from Leach's Air Raid offense, as it's more up tempo, has more formations and is more committed to the ground game.

"We've got a fearless mentality," Riley says. "We've got very, very high expectations. We expect to score every time we touch the ball. You've got to have that mentality."

Riley walked on at Texas Tech in 2002. Leach noticed that Riley, a native of tiny Muleshoe, Texas (population 5,128), picked up on his offense quickly. After a year leading the scout team, Leach approached Riley about becoming a student assistant to work with the Red Raiders' young quarterbacks. Riley wanted to coach in high school someday and knew he had to accept.

"My so-called college experience ended pretty quickly," Riley says. "I was living the life of a 30- or 40-year-old when I was 19."

After four years as a student assistant and graduate assistant, he was promoted to being Leach's all-important inside receivers coach. And when Leach was suspended for the 2009 Alamo Bowl amidst allegations that he abused a player, Riley called the plays in Texas Tech's 41-31 victory against Michigan State.

Less than three weeks later, McNeil left Texas Tech for East Carolina and took Riley with him. The Pirates went 10-3 last season with a win in the Beef 'O' Brady Bowl.

"I've seen a lot of different ways of doing things," Riley says with a laugh.

Riley likes to hunt, fish and grill, and he's a good enough golfer that he once birdied the 10th hole at Augusta National. Just don't expect Riley to brandish a sword, be involved in a casino controversy or write for Esquire any time soon.

2. Franklin's Presidential ambitions

James Franklin had two goals last week when he attended president Barack Obama's State of the Union address. A guest of Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.), the new Penn State coach wanted a photograph with the President to display in his office and to invite Obama and his wife, Michelle, to a Nittany Lions home game.

"I'd like to have the President on the sideline with a headset on," Franklin says, "making a third-down call."

Before Obama's speech, Franklin dined at The National Republican Club of Capitol Hill. During the address, Franklin sat in the gallery in an aisle seat. But while the President spoke about hot-button topics such as minimum wage, immigration reform and unemployment, Franklin's focus was on Obama's delivery.

Franklin says he's not political, but took mental notes on the President's presence, body language, command and how the crowd responded to him. "The thing that to me is so powerful is how confident and relaxed he is or at least he comes off that way," says Franklin, who was hired last month to replace Bill O'Brien. "How he's able to not only make his points, but also able to have some fun and humor mixed in there on the biggest stage. That was great just to see somebody in that position do it all it in a very, very genuine authentic way. It came off very, very natural. It's impressive."

Even before and after Obama's speech, Franklin carefully surveyed the room, particularly how the crowd interacted. "I have always been fascinated by people," says Franklin, who has a bachelor's degree in psychology from East Stroudsburg (Pa.) University. "I am attracted to great leaders and what makes them tick. I'm not political, but I love studying leadership and body language."

Initially, Franklin wasn't sure if he should accept Thompson's invitation to the State of the Union. He felt guilty sacrificing a night of recruiting just eight days before Signing Day for his inaugural Penn State recruiting class, but was finally convinced by his staff to attend.

No regrets. Franklin has a new recruiting pitch.

"Me and the President," he says with a laugh, "are now best friends."

3. Is Al Golden unhappy at Miami?

Although Al Golden won the most games (nine) of his difficult three-year tenure at Miami last season, questions continue to swirl about how content he is with the Hurricanes.

Golden didn't help himself by remaining silent about his interest in Penn State, his alma matter, until it was clear that he had been passed over for the job. Even then, Golden issued an uninspiring statement through the athletic department indicating he was not a candidate for another job.

Al Golden has done a terrific job in three seasons at Miami, but some say the Penn State alum has had his eye on the Nittany Lions job.

But a source close to the program says Golden seemed disappointed that he wasn't hired at Penn State. "It wasn't the same Al," the source says. "The guy who had all this enthusiasm when he got here."

Golden could not be reached for comment, but a source close to him insists that he's never wavered on Miami, citing the Hurricanes' current recruiting class, which could end up ranked among the nation's top five.

"Until somebody else was named at Penn State, the speculation was going to go on," the source says. "Al Golden never missed a day of work."

Commitment lists for every team in the nation

Golden didn't find out until eight months after arriving at Miami that he was inheriting a program about to get hit with NCAA sanctions from the Nevin Shapiro scandal. Yet Golden soldiered on, saying all the right things about his dedication to guiding the Hurricanes through the storm.

Golden doesn't have a pass from Miami supporters anymore, as the Shapiro sanctions came out in October and were relatively benign. At the time the Hurricanes were 7-0 and ranked No. 7 in the AP Poll.

Miami then went into a tailspin, losing four of its final six, punctuated by an embarrassing 36-9 defeat to Louisville in the Russell Athletic Bowl. During the struggles, players called former Hurricanes assistants for answers, according to a source.

"I don't think he's got it back on track," another source says of Golden. "It's all too up and down.

Golden has taken plenty of criticism, especially about his embattled defensive coordinator and close friend Mark D'Onofrio, whose unit gave up nearly 42 points per game in the Hurricanes' losses last season and ranked fifth-to-last nationally in total defense. Yet Golden has said he will not make changes to his coaching staff.

Top five uncommitted recruits

A look at five of the nation's top uncommitted 2014 recruits expected to announce their decisions on Signing Day.

Malachi Dupre, WR, New Orleans: The John Curtis High star took his final official visit to UCLA last weekend, but the Bruins are seemingly too late and too far away. All signs point to LSU. He wants to stay close to home, has a close relationship with LSU running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Frank Wilson and wants to play early.

Rashaan Evans, OLB, Auburn, Ala.: Auburn High has the nation's top linebacker for the second straight year, but this big hitter should stay close to home, unlike Reuben Foster, a surprising flip to Alabama just before Signing Day last year. Evans is enthralled by Tigers offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee's deft pitch of being an dynamic difference-maker right away.

Adoree' Jackson, ATH, Gardena, Calif.: USC remains the team to beat for California's top recruit, who could play wide receiver and/or cornerback. Last weekend, the speedster visited the Trojans and UCLA, an indication that Florida is likely out of the picture. USC wide receivers/passing game coordinator Tee Martin continues to be influential with Jackson, who attends Junipero Serra High, a pipeline for the Trojans in recent years.

Malik McDowell, DE, Detroit: It's become a soap opera for this elite pass-rusher whose parents publicly said this week they want him to go out-of-state, not to Michigan State. McDowell's mother became turned off by the Spartans after she overheard her son have a conversation with current players about not going to class, according to a source close to the situation. McDowell took an official visit to Ohio State last weekend, but if he makes his own decision, Michigan State is still very much in the hunt. Should McDowell's parents have the final say, watch out for the Florida State, which believes it has won over both mom and dad.

Damian Prince, OT, District Heights, Md.: Even though Prince took an official visit to Florida last weekend, Maryland has had him locked up since late last season thanks to offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Locksley. A run-blocking specialist, Prince wants to stay close to home so his family can see him play. He also has an underdog mentality, ideal for the Terrapins' jump to the Big Ten next season.

Larry Johnson (center) spent 19 years at Penn State before accepting a job with Ohio State last month.
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Q&A with Ohio State assistant Larry Johnson

The biggest flip of the 2014 recruiting season didn't come from a five-star recruit. It came in mid-January, when Ohio State hired longtime Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson, who coached seven first-team All-Americas on the defensive line and was Penn State's best recruiter. In his first interview since taking the Ohio State job, Johnson talks about his first impression of Urban Meyer, his first phone call from Joe Paterno and what he'll do with nearly two decades of Penn State gear. You have strong relationships with two defensive linemen on your new team, Noah Spence and Tommy Schutt. Has it been fun to reconnect with them?

Johnson: When we met for the first time that week, those guys grabbed me and gave me a big hug. Those guys know who I am from the recruiting process, so when I walked in the room I wasn't a stranger. Those guys did a great job bridging the gap for me when guys said, "What can you tell me about Coach J?" You were a high school coach and then a vice principal in the D.C. area before going to Penn State. How did you end up there?

Johnson: It's an interesting question. I had just got out of coaching to watch my boys play. I took a vice principal job at La Plata (Md.) High School. I got a phone call saying Joe Paterno is looking for someone for his coaching staff. I'd worked his camps and sent two players there. I get a call that night from him saying, "Come up here, and we'll sit down and talk." The rest is history. We never talked about X's and O's. It reaffirmed to me that coaching is not about X's and O's. It's about people. You were at Penn State for almost 20 years. What will you do with all that gear?

Johnson: I've got a whole closet full of Penn State stuff to find something to do with. (Laughs.) We'll find a way to move it, maybe the Salvation Army. When do you get used to putting on Ohio State gear after so many years at Penn State?

Johnson: You have to move on, and that's where I am right now. I had some great memories and great times in my years at Penn State. It's a new challenge and new adventure for me at this time in my career. Coach Meyer has been outstanding in the sense of me being here and supporting me. I've got on the red and look forward to wearing it moving forward. What are your feelings toward Penn State? You obviously were interested in the job when it opened twice in the past few years.

Johnson: I'm not bitter about anything. Maybe the best guy got the job, and that's OK. I had a decision to make and made the best decision for my family and where I was. I don't have anything but gratitude for Penn State. I had a great career there. I impacted a lot of young men, and they impacted me, also. I'm happy to be in the opportunity I'm in and have a chance to move on in my career. You can't think about what could have happened. I don't live that way and never have. What's one distinct first impression Urban Meyer has made on you?

Johnson: What really impressed me is what a great recruiter he is. He cares about players and their families. He's really involved in all phases of these kids' lives. It has been very impressive to go in home visits with him and see him work. You recruited the D.C. area and Pennsylvania for a long time. How does Maryland and Rutgers coming to the Big Ten change recruiting dynamics?

Johnson: It's great to get back into those areas that I've recruited for so long. It's going to help me. And Rutgers and Maryland coming to the Big Ten is going to open more doors.

0:21 | Sports Illustrated
Michigan State's Kyler Elsworth

Breakdown: Michigan State's game-saving defensive stand

When Michigan State backup linebacker Kyler Elsworth made a game-saving, midair tackle against Stanford to preserve the Spartans' 24-20 win in the Rose Bowl, it was just how Spartans defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi drew it up.

During practice the day before, Narduzzi had made his "Spartan" personnel group, which is for short-yardage and goal-line situations, a point of emphasis. Narduzzi knew the group would be especially crucial against the Cardinal's smashmouth offense, which is predicated on a hulking offensive line that often uses six linemen in their "Jumbo" formations.

Inevitably, his defense would be faced with a critical down where Stanford would run the ball in the "A" gap (between the center and the left or right guard) or the "B" gap (between the left or right guard and left or right tackle). So during that New Year's Eve practice, Narduzzi had his troops prepare for such a play with Elsworth, a former walk-on, jumping over the top if needed.

"That's really the only way you can stop it," says Narduzzi, Michigan State's defensive coordinator since 2007.

MANDEL: Top recruits better prepared for playing time than ever before

With Stanford needing a touchdown with 1:46 remaining and facing a fourth-and-one at its own 34-yard line, Michigan State called timeout after the Cardinal lined up in their "Jumbo" package.

Narduzzi wanted to match Stanford's size with his "Spartan" personnel, but initially sent two different personnel groups onto the field just in case the Cardinal changed their scheme.

"We didn't really talk about leaping over," says Narduzzi. "That's something you just know to do."

When Narduzzi verified Stanford was still in "Jumbo", "Spartan" stayed on and the other personnel group ran off the field, setting up Elsworth's heroics of stopping Cardinal fullback Ryan Hewitt for no gain.

"There's never a perfect call, because you still have to execute it," Narduzzi says. "But that was as close as you're going to get."

Front seven

1. Georgia lost four assistant coaches in less than a month, but the Bulldogs are expected to sign a top-10 recruiting class in no small part because of one of the coaches that stayed: Running backs coach Bryan McClendon. He recruited eight of the 18 players in the class, including two of the nation's top running backs in Sony Michel from Plantation, Fla., and Nick Chubb of Cedartown, Ga. He could end up claiming the title as the nation's top recruiter for this class if Norcross, Ga., defensive end Lorenzo Carter signs with the Bulldogs as expected on Wednesday.

The 30-year-old McClendon's success in recruiting Atlanta and Tampa has gotten the attention of colleagues at other schools, as has his work with the Bulldogs running backs the past two seasons. When he assumed his current job in 2009 after being a graduate assistant for the Bulldogs, that position was a minus for the team. "He's changed that 180 degrees," says one assistant coach. "He knows specifically what kind of back he wants. He builds great relationships with recruits. They all like him."

McClendon is believed to be content for now at Georgia, where played wide receiver from 2002-05, but his $265,000 annual salary is one of the lowest on the staff. He figures to become an even hotter commodity especially as Atlanta becomes more of a national recruiting target.

2. Wisconsin assistant Ben Strickland hardly stands out when he visits high schools. The 28-year-old cornerbacks coach, a former Badgers walk-on who is just 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds, is often difficult to spot. "All the kids in high school are taller than me," says Strickland. "I kind of blend in. Normally, you've got the coaches that have played football before like myself, but they look a lot different than I do. Walking through the halls, I can kind of get lost amongst the crowd."

In just his second year as a full-time assistant, Strickland has established himself as perhaps the nation's best young recruiter with a haul this class of nine of the Badgers' 26 commitments. Strickland is the Badgers' primary recruiter in Minnesota, Wisconsin and southern Ohio. "I've never tried to be somebody I'm not or try to pretend like I am more important than I actually am," says Strickland, one of Wisconsin's team captains as a senior in 2007.

3. LSU running backs coach/recruiting coordinator Frank Wilson has traditionally owned the talent-rich New Orleans area, but there's now increased competition. Texas A&M wide receivers coach David Beaty plucked wide receiver and Wilson's distant cousin Speedy Noil from Edna Karr High. Wilson also lost out on Noil's teammate, defensive end Gerald Willis III, whose brother Landon Collins also infamously snubbed LSU for Alabama two years ago.

But Wilson came away with the biggest prize, St. Augustine High tailback Leonard Fournette, the top-rated recruit in this recruiting class who has drawn rare comparisons to Adrian Peterson. To land Fournette, Wilson, a St. Augustine alum himself, beat out two other St. Augustine alums, Florida tight ends coach Derek Lewis and Alabama running backs coach Burton Burns, who also coached Wilson at the school. "My relationship with coach Frank was better than coach Burns," Fournette says. "He just checked on me every single day. Not a lot of coaches do that."

4. One of UCLA's biggest recruiting victories over rival USC involved a coach and not a player. According to a source, Bruins assistant Adrian Klemm accepted an offer in mid-December from new USC coach Steve Sarkisian to become the Trojans' offensive line coach. But UCLA coach Jim Mora convinced Klemm to change his mind after the Bruins raised his salary to be around $700,000, the highest on the staff, and added associate head coach to his existing title of running game coordinator/offensive line coach.

He is so revered as a recruiter that several coaches interested in the USC job contacted Klemm, hoping to use the fact he would be on board as one of their assistants as a selling point for their candidacy. Don't be surprised if USC or another program makes a run at Klemm again in the future.

GLICKSMAN: An informal introduction to the recruiting class of 2014

5. Last spring, Texas A&M coach Terry Price had two hours to kill before speaking at a coaching clinic in San Antonio. It was then that a graduate assistant taught the 45-year-old Price how to tweet. Price already had a Twitter account he used to get information, but rarely tweeted. "It was that new to me," says Price. "I didn't know much about it."

Now Price is as active on Twitter with hashtags such as #dlinecookout and #swagjet as he is on Instagram and Vine. His followers have increased from fewer than 25 to more than 5,000.

It's made a drastic difference for Price, who has emerged as one of the country's hottest recruiters. He has landed five defensive line recruits, highlighted by the nation's top weakside defensive end, Myles Garrett of Arlington, Texas, a much-needed position for a Texas A&M defense that ranked last in the SEC and 109th nationally last season.

"Now, it's about putting stuff out on Twitter," says Price. "It's a lot more important than just writing letters. You write letters still. That part's never going to change, but this is how kids respond. This is what they read. There's not a better way to get your message out there than Twitter."

Or to become known as a dancing phenom, as Price learned when his celebration after Texas A&M's win in the Chick-fil-A Bowl made college fans ponder if he was indeed twerking when a video of his moves went viral.

Says Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin, "Miley Cyrus has nothing on coach Price."

6. How did Florida Atlantic land star junior running back Jordan Scarlett over the likes of Alabama, Florida State and Miami? The answer lies in a miniature Zen garden Florida Atlantic coach Charlie Partridge saw on Roger Harriott's desk eight years ago.

Harriott was the coach at University School in Fort Lauderdale and Partridge listened carefully as Harriott talked about "forces," essentially karma, and keeping them in the proper balance (translation: treating people correctly).

Over the years, the two talked for hours in Harriott's office and when they did, Partridge often ran the garden's tiny rake through its white sand. "He has a very unique thought process," Partridge says of Harriott.

Partridge hired Harriott as his running backs coach and assistant head coach in late December. Hours later, Scarlett, the star junior running back who played for Harriott at University School, stunningly committed to Florida Atlantic. One of the class of 2015's top tailbacks, Scarlett would be the highest-rated recruit to ever sign with Florida Atlantic, which began playing football in 2001 and is entering its second season in Conference USA.

Scarlett's pledge gives Partridge, a reputed South Florida recruiter, and his staff much needed credibility just over two months after former Owls coach Carl Pelini was fired amid allegations of drug use.

"We want people to come over here and see what's going on," Partridge says. "It's become cool to go to FAU."

7. Virginia coach Mike London's future in Charlottesville is shaky. But that didn't stop him from landing the country's top safety prospect, Quin Blanding, and an elite defensive tackle, Andrew Brown. Blanding said he's heard over and over that his unwavering commitment to London and the Cavs helped save London's job. "He always tells me I'm his No. 1 draft pick," says Blanding.

Virginia's class isn't ranked in the Top 25 (it's as high as No. 31 by one service), but the elite-level recruits are significant scores for a program that has endured back-to-back losing campaigns.

But Cavaliers cornerbacks coach and recruiting coordinator Chip West, a Hampton, Va., native, had already laid the foundation for this critical class. He was the recruiter for Blanding (Virginia Beach), Brown (Chesapeake), and star receiver Jamil Kamara (Virginia Beach), who all hail from the fertile Tidewater area.

"He had a majority to do with it," Blanding says.

The 43-year-old West is the primary recruiter in Virginia's talent-rich Tidewater region, which consists of Chesapeake, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk and Virginia Beach. Quietly, West has become the recruiter to beat in the area. "Chip really is a great recruiter," Blanding says. "He keeps it real with you. He's there no matter what."

Michigan commitment Jabrill Peppers can play safety, corner or linebacker and should play immediately.
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMI


Evaluating high school football players is an inexact science, but the ranking of the prospects by recruiting services is akin to spinning a roulette wheel. So, The Inside Read asked some of the nation's top recruiters for this year's most overrated and underrated prospects with the caveat they not choose their own recruits.


Dillon Bates, OLB (Tennessee): "He's a great kid, but he just can't play at the SEC level. He doesn't move at the same speed as guys that are playing at that level."

Da'Shawn Hand, DE (Alabama): "I don't see him make the same plays that all the great ones make. He'll make some plays, but he'll get lost at times."

Hootie Jones, S (Alabama): "He's the most overrated kid in the state of Louisiana. He can't tackle. He's afraid to tackle. He's a 4.8 speed guy."

Chad Thomas, DE (Miami): "I don't think he's tough and I don't think he loves football. Maybe that will change. He is physically gifted, but if you don't have that burning desire, that's a problem."

Solomon Thomas, DE (Uncommitted): "We were terribly disappointed when we saw him physically. He doesn't have the length. To me, he's just a solid guy. He gets way too much hype for what he actually does on the field."

RICKMAN: Ten ideas that could help improve National Signing Day


Jamal Adams, S (LSU): "He's the real deal. He got all the physical tools and he's got the attitude and confidence too. The stage isn't going to be too big for him as a freshman. He'll come in and play. He doesn't give a s--- who else is there."

Jamadre Cobb, LB (Arizona): "He's a freaking beast. There's not a lot of fans there for him out there, but I'm just going to tell you that sucker is cold-blooded killa. He's as physical a downhill guy as I saw on tape. I love the physicality the kid plays with. He plays angry and I love it."

Myles Garrett, DE (Texas A&M): He's the absolute best defensive line prospect in the country. Period. He's absolutely huge. He's got amazing length. His wingspan is almost 84 inches. He's got some freaky measurables. Great, great player. He's got amazing athletic ability with his explosion coming off the ball. There's no holes in his game at all. The kid is just absolutely spectacular."

Jalen Hurd, RB (Tennessee): "He's the next best back in the country next to Leonard Fournette. He's got the size, speed, vision, change of direction. He can protect, catch it and run, everything."

Jabrill Peppers, CB (Michigan): "He's probably the best overall player in the country. He can play running back, safety, cornerback, probably linebacker. There ain't nothing he can't do.

Coaches on the Hot Seat

Two years ago, 32 jobs opened in Division I college football. Last year, there were only 19. Expect that number to jump this season, as the sport grows richer, less patient and decisively less rational. Here are the jobs that agents, search firms and upwardly mobile coaches are keeping an eye on heading into 2014.

Will Muschamp, Florida: Florida is the new Texas. In 2014, the incessant job speculation shifts to Gainesville, where Muschamp appears in over his head after his injury-riddled team lost seven straight games to close out last season. Georgia Southern beat the Gators without completing a pass. New offensive coordinator Kurt Roper needs to resuscitate the country's 113th-ranked offense. Quarterback Jeff Driskel should be healthy, but the schedule is unkind. Good luck with games at Alabama and Florida State and at home against LSU.

Possible repalcements: Chip Kelly (Philadelphia Eagles), Greg Schiano (unemployed), Larry Fedora (UNC), Dan Mullen (Mississippi State) and Al Golden (Miami)

Mike London, Virginia: How do you know London's ship is sinking? When two assistant coaches leave his staff for Connecticut. Virginia brought in three big-name assistants last season -- Tom O'Brien, Steve Fairchild and Jon Tenuta -- and went 2-10 and winless in the ACC. A coaching staff buyout of more than $11 million combined with a strong recruiting year saved London in 2013. But there's a long way to go on the field, and opening with UCLA doesn't help matters.

Possible repalcements: Pete Lembo (Ball State), Danny Rocco (Richmond), Rob Ambrose (Towson), Bud Foster (Virginia Tech assistant), Chad Morris (Clemson assistant), Tom Herman (Ohio State assistant) and Jeremy Pruitt (Georgia assistant)

Kyle Flood, Rutgers: It's all falling in on Flood entering year three. Blue-chip receiver Saeed Blacknall recently became the 11th player to de-commit from Rutgers, as his defection to Penn State reminded everyone again how bleak the future is in Piscataway. The knock on Flood is that he's too nice, and the program misses Schiano's iron fist. Good luck in the Big Ten, especially with an embattled athletic director, Julie Hermann, who has little experience handling football.

Possible replacements: Schiano, Lembo, Pat Narduzzi (Michigan State), Mario Cristobal (Alabama assistant), John McNulty (Titans assistant), Darren Rizzi (Dolphins assistant) and Matt Campbell (Toledo)

The blitz

• For the fourth straight year, Alabama has a recruiting class ranked No. 1 in the nation and this could be Nick Saban's best yet. "Honestly, in all my years, it's by far the most ridiculous class I've ever seen," says an SEC assistant. "It's off-the-charts. It might have the best O-line class of all time. (They) hit home runs at every need and then some. It's hard not to find a difference-maker in it." The class is highlighted by defensive end Da'Shawn Hand (Woodbridge, Va.), who is ranked by at least one recruiting service as the nation's top player.

Kyle Allen once wasn't even considering Texas A&M. Now, the nation's top quarterback is the cornerstone of an Aggies' recruiting class ranked as high as third in the nation. Allen enrolled in January as the post-Johnny Manziel era begins. Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin likes Allen's arm strength and quick release, but is especially impressed by his leadership and preparation. "When you've got a guy who's like that, but also has personality to go along with it," Sumlin says, "those guys have a higher (ceiling)."

Originally, the 6-4, 195-pound Allen, a pro-style passer from Scottsdale, Ariz., wanted to play at Ohio State. But after getting drawn into Johnny Football mania, Allen reconsidered and in June surprisingly chose the Aggies, who offered him a scholarship before the Buckeyes. Perhaps the biggest factor for Allen was his relationship with Texas A&M's 28-year-old offensive coordinator, Jake Spavital, who was promoted to the position prior to the Aggies' 52-48 comeback win over Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Allen was impressed by Spavital and Manziel's brotherly relationship. He likes that even in the heat of the moment that Spavital and Manziel could yell at each expletively without lasting repercussions. "He listens," Allen says of Spavital. "He doesn't take that as like you're trying to be bigger than him. He takes a lot from his (quarterbacks') minds. He doesn't try to put it all on himself to say, 'Do this. You do this.' I didn't want to go somewhere where I'm going to get forced around and told to do this and that."

Allen will compete for the starting job along with sophomore Kenny Hill and redshirt senior Matt Joeckel.

Joe Mixon used to envision playing for Cal. After all, the top-rated all-purpose running back lives in Oakley, Calif., less than an hour from Berkeley. But that was before the Golden Bears fired Jeff Tedford and replaced him with Sonny Dykes, who went 1-11 last season. On Wednesday, the mercurial Mixon is expected to sign with Oklahoma after committing to the Sooners during last month's U.S. Army All-American Bowl. He changed his mind about the Golden Bears after being told by Dykes that he wasn't going to change their pass-happy attack. "That offense that they're running, it's not going to work," Mixon says. "It was a turnoff. I don't see why they're not going to try something new."

• Growing up in Detroit, Damon Webb was a Michigan fan and idolized Wolverines legend Charles Woodson. But on Wednesday, Webb will sign with rival Ohio State, a monumental win for Buckeyes coach Meyer. Webb attends Cass Technical High in Detroit, a traditional pipeline for Michigan players, but the Wolverines' prowess at the football powerhouse backfired in the case of Webb, who committed to Ohio State last January. Webb is quick to recite the names of former Cass Technical teammates who chose Michigan, such as sophomore cornerback Terry Richardson, who did not play last season, and junior linebacker Royce Jenkins-Stone, who has rarely played.

"They're not getting better," Webb says. "The coaches aren't developing their talent."

JOHNSON: The top 10 uncommitted recruits before Signing Day

• A few years ago, Josh Malone, a top wide receiver from Gallatin, Tenn., had fleeting interest in playing for Tennessee. The Vols were in a free fall under Kiffin and then Derek Dooley, who was fired in November 2012 going 15-21 in three seasons. "There was no appeal," Malone says. "Dooley wasn't active. It just felt like he was going through the motions and settling for average."

That changed when Butch Jones was hired and immediately made in-state recruiting a priority again, something Dooley and Kiffin neglected. The philosophy has paid off. Despite not making a bowl last season, the Volunteers have a recruiting class is ranked as high as No. 2 nationally. The group is headlined by the 6-3, 195-pound Malone, the state's top player, and running back Jalen Hurd of Hendersonville, Tenn., the state's No. 2 player. Both Malone and Hurd enrolled early last month.

"They made us a priority and they stressed that from the beginning," Malone says of Jones and his staff. "Most of the time in-state guys really didn't get recruited hard. They actually recruited us hard and didn't want anybody to leave in-state. They wanted to lock down the border. They really want to build Tennessee back up with Tennessee kids and then go out of state to bring in more talent to build on."

Many head coaches aren't the primary recruiters for recruits, but Jones was for several in this class, including Malone. "It's that personal to him," Malone says. "He puts in a lot of focus."

• Besides being the top recruit in Kansas, Braden Smith just might be this class' best horticulturist. On Wednesday, the quiet 6-6, 275-pound guard from Olathe, Kan., will decide between Auburn, TCU and Texas A&M. But he would much rather discuss the fruits and vegetables, including pumpkins, cantaloupes and watermelons, that he grows in his parents' backyard. Smith started helping his mother grow produce in fourth grade and three years later started doing it himself.

"The really hard part is all the prep work when you're planting and getting it all situated," says Smith, who recently bench-pressed 515 pounds three times. "From there out, it's not too bad. You've just got to make sure you do the right stuff."

Someday, Smith envisions himself perhaps being a pumpkin farmer. He likes to brag about a 45-pound pumpkin he once grew, but his favorite produce is watermelon. "I find it fun," Smith says of his crops.

Syracuse has lacked a definitive offensive identity since Donovan McNabb left in 1998. Greg Robinson failed miserably at installing a pro-style offense, and Doug Marrone tinkered with a bit of everything to varying degrees of success. In Scott Shafer's second season as head coach, offensive coordinator George McDonald plans to solve the identity crisis. "We're going to open it up on offense and go full-bore fast," McDonald said. "Like an Oregon, Texas A&M style of offense."

The Orange didn't have enough skill players to go full-throttle last season, but the Orange hinted at their offensive future by running 75 plays in a 21-17 Texas Bowl win over Minnesota. McDonald said there are nine offensive starters returning, including versatile quarterback Terrel Hunt, and a bumper recruiting class coming that will raise the tempo.

Syracuse adds an influx of speed, with four-star receiver K.J. Williams and three-star receiver Jamal Custis. (Three-star receiver Corey Cooper has already enrolled.) The cap was a commitment on Tuesday from North Miami Beach receiver Steve Ishmael, who picked Syracuse over Louisville, Cincinnati and Illinois.

They said it

"It's f------ nuts. It's barracudas and sharks. No f------ goldfish in this pond."

-- An SEC assistant about recruiting against fellow SEC schools

"There's nothing wrong with Michigan. I'm not worried they went 7-6 or about anything else anyone has written. The future is bright for Michigan football. Don't count us out just yet. It's Michigan for God's sake."

-- Jabrill Peppers, the nation's top 2014 cornerback, who remains committed to the Wolverines

"Marcus Mariota and Johnny Football were both three-star guys. Ooops. You look at and see that only Oregon and Memphis offered Mariota. We all messed that one up."

-- Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen on the tricky nature of recruiting quarterbacks

Coach's kitchen

When visiting Boston, Boston College coach Steve Addazio recommends a hole-in-the-wall restaurant: The Daily Catch in the city's North End. It's a Sicilian-style seafood and pasta restaurant with an open kitchen and fewer than a dozen tables. The food is served in the pan it's cooked on. Be prepared to wait in line and be seated directly next to strangers. That's all part of the charm. "It's a tiny place, no frills," Addazio said. "Not a lot of privacy. But the food is unbelievable." Addazio recommends the calamari meatball for an appetizer and the homemade pasta with seafood, "clams, mussels and all that."

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