NFL scouts love Marcus Mariota; UNC's secret weapon; more

Oregon QB Marcus Mariota passed for 3,665 yards and 31 TDs with just four interceptions last season.
Charles Baus/Cal Sport Media

This year's NFL draft is about uncertainty. Will Jadeveon Clowney work hard enough? Is Johnny Manziel mature enough? Can a linebacker from Buffalo -- Khalil Mack -- emerge as a franchise player?

You want a sure thing? Well, the safest draft-eligible pick will be some 3,000 miles away on Thursday night. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota decided to stay in Eugene for his redshirt junior season. Instead of sitting in the green room, he's taking piano and golf classes and playing dodgeball at the local Boys & Girls Club.

How sure of a thing is Mariota? The Houston Texans may have made him the first pick if he were available, according to an NFL official familiar with the team's thinking. That doesn't faze Mariota, who followed the path of Andrew Luck to stay in school for a fourth year over potentially being the No. 1 pick.

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"I've got no regrets whatsoever," Mariota said.

NFL scouts are intrigued by the 6-foot-4, 216-pound Mariota and one said "there's an excitement about him" as a prospect. While questions will persist about his accuracy and translation from Oregon's spread offense, there's a lot of optimism. "He's really mobile and a heck of an athlete," an NFL scout said. "He can make all the throws and is a good leader."

Said another NFL scout of Mariota: "I'd take him over [Johnny] Manziel. He's more accurate. He's bigger and I think he's faster, not as elusive, but more durable. A lot of upside there."

Mariota decided to return to school after Oregon's disappointing finish to 2013. Losses to Stanford and Arizona in a three-week stretch last November ended the Ducks' BCS title hopes and eliminated Mariota from the Heisman Trophy race. Mariota refuses to blame his injury -- he suffered a partially torn MCL in his left knee against UCLA in late October -- for the slide. It significantly limited his mobility against the Cardinal and required him to wear a bulky knee brace, which he finally shed for Oregon's 30-7 blowout of Texas in the Alamo Bowl.

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"Where I come from, you don't let excuses define you," said Mariota, a Honolulu native. "Things happen. All you can really do is learn and grow from it and hopefully become a better player from it."

How will he be more NFL-ready in a year? Statistically, it's hard to envision a major jump. He finished with 31 touchdown passes and four interceptions last season and 32 touchdowns and six interceptions in 2012. His offseason focus has been on accuracy and using his legs, not his upper body, for power.

"His strengths are leadership, size, athletic ability. He can run, he's a dual threat, he's strong-armed," one scout said. "His weakness is the accuracy part. That's got to be studied. He's a great kid and all, but can he read the defense?"

A general science major, Mariota is taking biology and anthropology this semester in addition golf and piano. However, don't expect Mariota to try out for the Ducks' golf team any time soon. When he made a par last summer, he jumped around like he had just scored a touchdown. "I can't hit the ball off the ground," Mariota said, "let alone straight."

While there will be some divisive prospects in the 2015 draft (see below), Mariota has shown no red flags. For the last three years, he has made weekly visits to the Boys & Girls Club of Emerald Valley. Mariota plays basketball, kickball and soccer with the kids, but dodgeball is the most intense. "It gets pretty competitive," Mariota said. "They tend to win."

A year from now, don't be surprised if Mariota wins the NFL draft derby and ends up in the top spot.


1. Jameis Winston, Dorial Green-Beckham's stock falling

With the NFL draft finally upon us, two of the most divisive figures who could be selected in 2015 have already emerged. Be ready for Manziel-level fatigue when discussing Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. Last month he was cited for shoplifting after leaving a grocery store without paying for $32 worth of crab legs and crawfish. The latest blemish on Winston's résumé already has some in NFL circles wondering if his continued off-field issues are worth his on-field potential.

"It's repeat behavior," said a NFL scout for a quarterback-hungry team. "He's not learning from it. That's a problem."

Even before Winston's latest incident, NFL teams had questions about him. They want to know more about his alleged sexual assault of a woman, an incident in which he was not charged. They also are curious about his past involvement in a BB gun incident that damaged windows and another in which he allegedly stole soda from a Burger King, neither of which resulted in charges. Winston has the talent to win back-to-back Heismans and be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Yet one scout said Winston is being compared to Vince Young in NFL circles.

"They both make bad decisions, that's for sure," the scout said. "It's scary."

The other player who has hurt his draft stock with off-field incidents is former Missouri star receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. Tigers coach Gary Pinkel dismissed Green-Beckham last month following an investigation into a burglary during which he allegedly forced his way into an apartment and pushed an 18-year-old woman down a flight of stairs. (She decided not to pursue charges.)

Green-Beckham's troubled history includes an arrest in January after he was a passenger in a car in which police discovered a pound of marijuana. (Another occupant admitted to owning it.) Green-Beckham was also arrested with a few teammates in 2012 for marijuana possession and later pleaded guilty to trespassing.

Green-Beckham is reportedly headed to Eastern Illinois next season, and he's eligible for the 2015 NFL draft. But one NFL scout said his team will no longer even consider drafting him.

"He's done for us," said the scout. "He's done for most teams."

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The 6-6, 225-pound Green-Beckham was likely a first-round pick draft before the latest incident. His plummeting stock could be reflective of a changing NFL culture, according to the scout.

"It's just not going to be the way it used to be, that's for sure," the scout said.

2. North Carolina's Ryan Switzer poised for breakout season

When you meet North Carolina return specialist Ryan Switzer, it becomes immediately apparent that he has boundless confidence. He is sure that he'll break NCAA records for punt returns in a season this fall, and he projects himself as one of the great players in Tar Heels history. Switzer bristles at comparisons to Wes Welker. (He prefers Tavon Austin.)

If you've never heard of Switzer -- no relation to Barry Switzer -- file his name away. The sophomore is poised to become one of college football's breakout players in 2014. "Next year, I can easily go over five," he said of punt returns for touchdowns. "I didn't return a punt [for a touchdown] until our [seventh] game of the season. Given the opportunities, with what we've got coming back, that'll be a no-brainer."

Switzer's confidence isn't unfounded. Coming out of high school in Charleston, W.V., he was a Parade All-American and chose the Tar Heels over Florida State and Penn State. With his 4.41 speed, the 5-9, 175-pounder could be one of the most exciting players over the next three seasons.

North Carolina's Ryan Switzer (3) returned 24 punts for 502 yards and five TDs last season.
Dannie Walls/Icon SMI

"By the time I leave Carolina, I could be one of the best players to come out of Carolina -- and that's the vision that coach Fedora and those guys had for me when they recruited me here," Switzer said. "Now I see that I can do it."

It's important to note that Switzer's comments come off as more endearing than cocksure. And it's not bragging if it's true, which is why teammates have nearly as much confidence in Switzer as he has in himself. This spring, North Carolina coaches worked to expand his role as an A-back, the hybrid receiver and running back position in Fedora's up-tempo offense. "He can take it the distance any time he gets the ball in his hands" Fedora said.

Switzer announced himself to the ACC on Nov. 16, when he returned a pair of punts for touchdowns -- 65 and 61 yards, respectively -- against Pittsburgh. The latter return proved the game-winner with 4:46 remaining in North Carolina's 34-27 victory.

"I don't think anyone will ever question his height or weight again," Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. "He was the difference in our game, with his speed, quickness, elusiveness and vision. He's just a heck of a football player."

Fedora attributed Switzer's late-season rise to settling into the Tar Heels' schemes. Fedora coaches the punt return unit, the only one he coaches exclusively. He said Switzer's learning curve began with him essentially saying, "Oh, we actually have plays."

Fedora said it took Switzer until midway through the season to catch on, learning when to fair catch and how to best use his blockers. But by season's end, Switzer was clearly comfortable, as he returned a kick 64 yards for a touchdown against Old Dominion and another 86 yards for a score against Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl to tie the NCAA record with five returns for touchdowns. The NCAA career record of eight, held by Welker and Oklahoma's Antonio Perkins, appears well within reach.

"I'll just put it like this," Fedora said, "if the season had been flipped around he probably would have brought back three or four more for touchdowns."

Switzer credits his late-season dominance, in part, to his favorite player growing up. Switzer prefers to be compared to Austin over Welker, as he said the latter comparison is often made because both are white. Switzer badly wanted to follow Austin's path at West Virginia, where he said his father started taking him to games as a two-year old. Switzer planned to commit to the Mountaineers after attending a camp there following his sophomore year, as he expected coach Dana Holgorsen to offer. (Switzer said he "tore up" the camp.) But in a meeting in Holgorsen's office, Switzer said the offer never came, which surprised him because Penn State and Marshall had already extended offers. Switzer said Holgorsen told him that West Virginia didn't offer players until following their junior year.

The Mountaineers did offer eventually, but it was too late. Soon after Fedora got the North Carolina job prior to the 2012 season, Switzer quickly became a priority. It didn't hurt that Switzer's junior highlight tape was so ridiculous that Fedora asked his staff, "Is this real?"

Typical of most freshmen, Switzer had a rocky first few weeks. After the Tar Heels lost at Virginia Tech on Oct. 5, Switzer phoned Austin and said he wasn't sure if Carolina was the right fit. Austin told him to be patient. "I kid you not, I can't lie about this, he said, 'By the seventh or eighth game you'll start making your impact,'" Switzer said. "I don't know if he was just BS-ing me or what, but he helped me a lot, man. He essentially stopped me from going over the cliff."

Switzer scored his first touchdown against Boston College in the seventh game, and his season rocketed from there. By the end of the campaign, he was fitting in just as Austin predicted. Expect that trend to continue through 2014.

"From the first six games to the last six games, I was a completely different person and completely different player," he said. "That's when you started to see the things I could do on the football field."

3. Utah State's Chuckie Keeton ready for comeback

From Boise State's Kellen Moore to Hawaii's Colt Brennan to Houston's Case Keenum, a player from a smaller school can sneak into the Heisman Trophy race every few years with a simple formula: produce a signature victory over a brand-name team and put up outlandish statistics.

Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton appeared poised to join that group last year, as the Aggies won 11 games in 2012 and faced Utah, USC and Boise State early in the season. There was a website, Twitter account and Facebook page that all promoted him for the Heisman. But his candidacy fizzled after September losses to Utah and USC by a combined seven points. Keeton's campaign bottomed out on Oct. 4, when he suffered season-ending ACL and MCL tears in his left knee in a loss to BYU. Utah State rebounded without him to win six of its last eight games, including a bowl victory over Northern Illinois.

Keeton was recently cleared for the upcoming season. He has embraced the injury as a positive and sees opportunity in a schedule that opens at Tennessee. "Utah State is a team that needs to be known," Keeton said. "This program is on a pretty good track."

As a sophomore in 2012, Keeton threw for 3,373 yards with 27 touchdowns with nine interceptions. He became a mid-major darling by leading the Aggies to upsets of Utah and No. 20 Louisiana Tech. He also had two gigantic near misses, as Utah State lost 16-14 at Wisconsin in '12 and 42-38 at defending national champion Auburn to open the '11 season.

To return to form, Keeton channeled his competitiveness as he rehabbed in the offseason. He packed seven pounds of muscle on his lithe body to bulk up to 202, and he hopes to get to 215 pounds before the season. Keeton was supposed to miss all of Utah State's spring practice, but ended up participating in some passing drills, most notably 7-on-7. He has also been sprinting since February and started making cuts last month. "I'm feeling really good," he said.

Keeton is also focused in the classroom. A management information systems major scheduled to graduate next May, Keeton posted a 3.3 GPA last semester. He is particularly proud of a project he did in an introduction to marketing class, in which he compared the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. (He thinks the PlayStation 4 is the better gaming system.)

Keeton realizes that coming off an injury, the focus on him won't be nearly as bright this season. But all that can change against Tennessee in Knoxville on Aug. 31. "I guess I got to reiterate the way I play and lead my team," Keeton said.

While Keeton's website and Facebook page for the Heisman haven't been updated in months, the Twitter account is still active. The account's wallpaper features two words: "Believe it."

UCLA's Myles Jack played linebacker and running back in 2013 and rushed for seven touchdowns.
Louis Lopez/Cal Sport Media

UCLA's Myles Jack bigger, stronger, more determined

UCLA's Myles Jack was the Pac-12's Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year last season, but the unprecedented start to his collegiate career was just the beginning. Jack arrived in Westwood as a highly touted linebacker, but turned into a two-way star after emerging as a dynamic tailback. As he heads into 2014 with Heisman buzz, Jack has a scary admission about his freshman season. "It was a rough transition," Jack said. "I was just out there playing."

Jack leaned on Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley to direct him to run left or right on most offensive plays. And despite not being able to name a single Bruins offensive play, Jack finished with 267 yards and seven touchdowns on 38 carries last season.

On defense, Jack's epiphany that he needed to get stronger came last November when USC tight end Xavier Grimble threw him down during an attempted spin move and then lay on top of him. Jack also got manhandled by Stanford's NFL-ready offensive line and bounced off Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas in the Sun Bowl.

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"All right, enough is enough," Jack recalls thinking. "I've got to get in the weight room this offseason. This will never happen again."

One rep at a time, Jack has worked so that his football acumen and physical strength matches his transcendent talent. He came to UCLA only being able to bench 230 pounds once. He now works out with 280. Thanks in part to morning workouts with his UCLA teammates and extra sessions at the John Wooden Center with regular students, Jack can now squat 435 pounds. His weight has jumped to 230 after dipping to 218 last year. "The progression I've made in the weight room," he said, "I can't even believe it."

It's hard to believe that Jack didn't record a sack last season, especially after his 75 tackles, 11 pass deflections and two interceptions. He's focused on pass rushing this off-season, working on Tuesdays and Thursdays against sophomore offensive lineman Caleb Benenoc.

And Jack has studied enough film to know how avoid a toss like Grimble gave him last year. Now instead of trying to spin against a tight end, he's learned he needs to fight across the face and use his strength. "My ability got me on the field and allowed me to make plays, but technique-wise I was absolutely terrible," Jack said. "I was playing off of high school, what they taught me that week and what I could remember. It was really bad."

Injuries at tailback forced Jack into the offensive backfield last season. While the Bruins have a healthy stable of tailbacks, led by Jordon James, coach Jim Mora has said the Bruins still plan to use Jack on offense this fall. New Bruins running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu continues to push for Jack to play offense full time and believes he could be a 2,000-yard rusher. Jack admits it's tempting to move to running back, but insists his focus is on defense.

His conversations with Mora have centered on him becoming not just a better linebacker, but also the team's defensive leader. "I'm a linebacker," Jack said. "Running back is just kind of like the side job that I do."

Meet Zach Gentry

High school coaches are notorious for adding inches, weight and stretching statistics to help players get recruited. For the class of 2015's most unusual quarterback prospect -- 6-7 Eldorado (N.M.) quarterback Zach Gentry -- it's perhaps fitting that his high school coach is actually trying to shrink him.

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"I like to call him 6-6," Eldorado coach Charlie Dotson said. "Other people like to say he's 6-7, but sometimes when quarterbacks are that tall they get the stigma in college and the pros that they can't move."

Movement isn't a problem for Gentry. While more comfortable as a pocket passer, Gentry can run a 4.68 in the 40. He's rocketed up the rankings to become one of the country's top 10 pro-style quarterback recruits. Gentry said in a phone interview last week that he'll likely choose between Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma State and Tennessee by early summer. He's visited all of those four schools unofficially. By the time he leaves Albuquerque, he'll be considered one of the most sought after recruits in state history.

"Texas just doesn't come in and offer a quarterback from New Mexico," Dotson said. "Neither does Alabama and Penn State. That's pretty prestigious stuff. Our high school team doesn't even travel out of the city [for] a game this year."

New Mexico is the Land of Enchantment, but that's more for tourists than football recruiters. After Brian Urlacher, Jim Everett and Timmy Smith (Super Bowl XXII MVP), the list of famous football players from New Mexico is short. It's a stigma that Gentry said he's had to overcome, and he credits technology like the recruiting website for helping with exposure.

"A whole lot of people and recruiting websites assumed I was at a lower level being from here," Gentry said. "I think there's a little chip on my shoulder in those terms."

Gentry's first offer came from San Diego State after his freshman year, as Aztecs coach Rocky Long knew of him from his time as the head coach at New Mexico. Things heated up by the end of his sophomore season, as everyone from Oregon State to Penn State to Louisville extended offers.

Coaches have been pouring into Albuquerque to visit Eldorado, where they are normally treated to a breakfast burrito with green chili from a local joint called Golden Pride. "I've bought them all a burrito, except Coach Watson didn't get one (this week) because I ran out of money," Dotson said of Texas assistant head coach Shawn Watson. "He'll be back, though, and I'll buy him one next time he comes."

Gentry's size makes him look almost cartoonish on his high school films. It helps him on the basketball court, where he averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds for Eldorado this season. Gentry has no interest in playing hoops in college, as he said becoming a college quarterback has been "the biggest goal in my life growing up." That can be linked, in part, to his grandfather, Bill Gentry, a legendary high school coach who retired with 305 wins, then the most in New Mexico history (he's now No. 3 all-time). "He's the person that got me interested in football," Zach Gentry said, "and he's been with me every step of the way."

His next step will continue to be the subject of sizable intrigue until he chooses a school.

The Blitz

• There were days this spring when Arkansas State didn't pick up a first down all practice in new coach Blake Anderson's up-tempo offense. On some formations, the Red Wolves spread four wide receivers out to one side. The biggest difference during Anderson's first spring came when the players attempted to sprint off the field. "You would look at their legs and feet," Anderson said, "and it would look like they were carrying cement blocks."

Keep in mind that many of Anderson's players have experience in an up-tempo system from Gus Malzahn, who was coach of Arkansas State in 2012. But Anderson wants to be even quicker with a goal of snapping the ball every eight to 12 seconds. "We'll play as fast as we can possibly play," Anderson said. "We have the goal to operate as fast or faster than anybody in the country."

It's all part of Anderson's "Building a Monster" mantra at Arkansas State. "We want to be the best non-AQ team in the country," Anderson said.

It's a campaign designed around stability after Arkansas State churned through five coaches in the past five seasons. The previous three -- Hugh Freeze (Ole Miss), Malzahn (Auburn) and Bryan Harsin (Boise State) -- all left for better jobs after one year.

Anderson's $3 million buyout during the first two years of his contract will likely make sure that he doesn't leave soon. And Anderson has a bold vision for an offense featuring dual-threat quarterback Fredi Knighten, speedy running back Michael Gordon and all-purpose star wide receiver J.D. McKissic. "We'll look a little bit more like Oregon," he said, "than we have in the past."

After waiting his turn, USC tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick is ready to showcase his skills and athleticism.
Jose Marin/MarinMedia/Cal Sport Media

• New USC tight ends coach Marques Tuiasosopo purposely didn't watch film of the Trojans from last season. "I wanted the guys to feel like there's a clean slate and that the past didn't matter," Tuiasosopo said.

Even if Tuiasosopo had watched anything, he wouldn't have seen much of tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, who only had one catch last season playing behind Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer. But the 6-4, 255-pound junior finally showed his potential this spring with Grimble gone to the NFL and Telfer out due to injury. Cope-Fitzpatrick earned the praise of new Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian, whose offense has a history of utilizing tight ends, which wasn't a priority during the Lane Kiffin era. Tuiasosopo knows that firsthand having previously worked for Sarkisian at Washington.

Last season the Huskies' Austin Seferian-Jenkins won the John Mackey Award as the nation's top tight end. "It was a great spring for Jalen's maturation process," Tuiasosopo said. "He's put himself in a great position."

During his first two seasons, Cope-Fitzpatrick mainly played special teams. For his career, he has just three catches for 16 yards.

Tuiasosopo was an assistant at UCLA when the highly touted Cope-Fitzpatrick chose USC two years ago. Tuiasosopo recalls marveling at Cope-Fitzpatrick's physical tools and now has the opportunity to mold them. "He can be the full package," Tuiasosopo said. "I think he wants it. It's just consistency. If you want to be a big-time player in the Pac-12 or on the national scene, you've got to do it every day. If he stays focused on the things that matter, he can be that guy."

• Arizona State coach Todd Graham recently celebrated his one-year anniversary of not eating red meat. He did so at the encouragement of his physician, and Graham has lost 30 pounds. There is a history of heart disease in his family and the oldest of his grandparents only lived to 63.

"It's like sacrilegious to be from Texas and not eat red meat," said Graham, a Dallas area native, who has an 18-9 record in his first two seasons at Arizona State.

After making the change, Graham struggled early on with a lack of energy and only lost a couple of pounds. But in the third month he lost 21 pounds. "It has helped me," Graham said. "I do feel better."

Graham hasn't gone vegetarian. He eats pork, poultry and fish and admits he still craves red meat.

What Texas treat does he miss most? A cheeseburger from Whataburger.

Mississippi St. linebacker Benardrick McKinney will be one of the top defensive players in the SEC.
John Korduner/Icon SMI

• When Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen reflects back on the 2013 season, the moment that stands out came in the Bulldogs' loss at Auburn. "We had Auburn beat until the last 10 seconds of the game," Mullen said of the 24-20 loss in September. "And they go on and play for the national championship."

There's a quiet confidence brimming from Starkville this spring, as the core of the team that won three straight to close the season returns. Can the Bulldogs (7-6 in 2013) close the gap in the brutal SEC West? Chances seem better than most years, as they played both Auburn and Alabama tough last season.

The optimism, Mullen said, stems from returning 19 of 22 players on their defensive two-deep. And defense will be the Bulldogs identity in 2014, a departure for Mullen, who made his name coaching quarterbacks Alex Smith at Utah and Tim Tebow at Florida.

But Mississippi State has undeniable star power on defense, as junior linebacker Benardrick McKinney is one of the SEC's most productive returning defensive players. He led the Bulldogs in tackles (71), sacks (3.5) and tackles for loss (7). He tied for the tackle for loss lead with Chris Jones, a blue chip defensive end living up to his billing. Jones came to Starkville as the country's No. 2 defensive end and starred in spurts as a freshman. He had the type of spring necessary to propel him to stardom.

"He got a lot of pub as a freshman," Mullen said. "He looks like he has a lot of physical tools. But he's constantly working on his technique, he's not just an athlete out there making plays."

Mullen has stabilized the program by leading it to four consecutive bowl games and compiling the best winning percentage in Starkville since Darrell Royal coached there in the 1950s. If the Bulldogs are going to take the next step and make a move in the SEC West, they may just have the defense to do it.

• Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez doesn't have a returning starter at quarterback or running back, but he has plenty of depth at receiver. "We're like seven or eight deep at wideout," Rodriguez said. "I've never been this deep."

That's almost sacrilegious for Rodriguez's traditionally run-heavy, fast-paced spread offense. The best of the group is redshirt senior Austin Hill, who caught 81 passes for 1,364 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2012. He's back to full strength after missing all of last season due to an ACL injury.

That forced Rodriguez to play three freshmen wide receivers last season, the most impressive of which was speedy Nate Phillips (51 catches, 696 yards and seven touchdowns, all team highs). Add in transfers Davonte Neal (Notre Dame) and Cayleb Jones (Texas), who are both eligible after sitting out last season, and Rodriguez may have one of the best receiving corps in the country. "It's going to be fun to watch and see who emerges," Rodriguez said.

Now all Rodriguez has to do is figure out who will throw the ball to his receivers. Good luck, as six quarterbacks took snaps during Arizona's spring game last month.

• UCLA's Myles Jack will be the country's most celebrated two-way player this season, but across the county at Pittsburgh, the Panthers will boast the nation's most unusual two-way player -- sophomore tailback/defensive end James Conner. Panthers coach Paul Chryst said he plans to use Conner in cameo appearances as a rush end next season. Conner ran for 229 yards in Pitt's Little Caesars Bowl win over Bowling Green, breaking Tony Dorsett's Pitt bowl record for a tailback. Conner is 6-2, 230 pounds and perhaps the most impressive part of his MVP bowl performance was taking 10 snaps at rush defensive end. He didn't register any defensive statistics, but it did get Chryst's creative juices flowing.

Conner's snaps in the bowl game came out of necessity, but Chryst said there's no plans to stop the experiment. "Right now, we're planning on doing it," he said. The plan will be for Conner to play about 10 to 12 situational snaps per game, with down-and-distance as the guide as opposed to a specific series.

Conner's two-way talents lead an impressive youth movement at Pitt, as every point in its 30-27 bowl win came from either a freshman or redshirt freshman. Conner finished the season with 799 rushing yards. Receiver Tyler Boyd broke Larry Fitzgerald's freshman receiving record with 1,174 yards. Rising sophomore Chad Voytik, a former blue chip recruit expected to start at quarterback this season, gives Pitt a solid young core to build around. "Our challenge is to not let youth be an excuse," Chryst said. He added: "There's good energy being around these guys and I like the pressure of trying to develop them."

• At 6-3, 287 pounds, Wisconsin nose tackle Warren Herring is one of his team's best dancers. When the Badgers held a dance competition last year, he won it by doing The Dougie and then jumping into the air and landing in the splits. He's also proficient in the Nae Nae.

"He's got all the moves to the latest dance," Wisconsin defensive line coach Chad Kauha'aha'a said. "He can dance his behind off."

But when a crowd starts to watch Herring dance, he tends to become shy. So much that he turns down requests from coeds for him to dance when he goes out with teammates. Wisconsin can't afford for Herring to be tentative this season as he anchors the line for a defense that will be among the most inexperienced in the Big Ten. The redshirt senior is the team's returning sack leader after racking up four last season playing behind departed starter Beau Allen. Most of that damage came during a two-week stretch in September, highlighted by a two-sack performance at Ohio State. But the rest of the season he struggled with consistency in his first year in moving to nose guard in a 3-4 set from defensive tackle in a 4-3.

This spring Herring was practically unblockable at nose tackle and also in spot duty at defensive end, where he will also get some snaps this season. This offseason, Herring has slimmed down about six pounds, which has helped enhance his greatest strength: his athleticism. "He can flip his hips and burst to the quarterback," Kauha'aha'a said. "He can really bend. The guy can turn and run on an edge like a defensive end."

Herring has also made improvements with his hands. Kauha'aha'a, who coached Star Lotulelei at Utah, is high on Herring's NFL future. "Warren's a different cat now," Kauha'aha'a said. "He should have a monster season."

One that Kauha'aha'a hopes has Herring dancing in front of crowds -- after sacks.

Meet Arizona State's Mike Norvell

Arizona State deputy head coach Mike Norvell's dedication to football has long been apparent. When he played Pop Warner, he stayed with his coach a couple nights during game weeks to make sure he knew the plays and then tried to draw up new ones. He also did the same while playing for Mike Barber, a former Houston Oilers tight end, at Grace Prep High in the Dallas area. He even delayed going to college a year after graduating at the age of 16 so he could coach Grace's junior high team. He also worked as the offensive coordinator of the high school's junior varsity.

"I always knew I wanted to be a coach," said Norvell. "I loved it."

Norvell, 32, is regarded as one of college football's hottest young coaches and brightest offensive minds. His up-tempo run-and-gun offense last season ranked 10th nationally (39.7 points per game). That type of scoring firepower has prompted Auburn, Notre Dame and Florida to call him about their respective offensive coordinator positions during his two seasons at Arizona State.

It also got him his first interview for a college head coaching job (Arkansas State) in December, the same month he got a massive raise that pushes his annual compensation to over $1 million. He's also the deputy head coach, which is essentially head coach-in-waiting.

"Mike is the best assistant football coach I've ever had," Arizona State head coach Todd Graham said. "He's the total package when it comes to understanding offense, defense and then recruiting. He's just off the charts."

That's high praise coming from Graham, whose former assistants include Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris and former Texas offensive coordinator Major Applewhite. Graham considers Norvell the best offensive coordinator in the country and thinks he will only leave for a "major" head-coaching job.

Unlike Malzahn and Morris, who were more regarded as Xs and Os gurus early on, Norvell has shown he has recruiting juice. Just last week, he landed one of the nation's top 2015 pro-style quarterbacks in Brady White (Santa Clarita, Calif.), the highest rated quarterback for the Sun Devils in more than a decade. Norvell has extensive experience recruiting in talent-rich areas: Southern California, the Dallas area and Louisiana. He prides himself on his own evaluations of recruits.

"[That's] how I got the job that I have," Norvell said. "I love to recruit."

Norvell still likes to spend time with Graham outside of football and he's even the executor of Graham's will. He and Graham take annual trips together that sometimes last for weeks, including Italy, Paris and Mexico.

The two try not to talk football during the trips, but Norvell inevitably ends up drawing up a play, just like he always has.

Five recruits on the rise

The spring evaluation period is underway and assistants are getting close looks at recruits in the class of 2015. Coaches are allowed to evaluate through the end of the month, but the stock of these five recruits is already soaring, according to coaches.

Tevon Coney, LB, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

His play in an upset of top-ranked and undefeated Miramar in the playoffs last season got the attention of recruiters. The 6-foot, 221-pounder has had a scholarship offer from his dream school Florida since January, but the offers keep pouring in; the latest came from Alabama on Monday.

Coach's take: "He's a big physical kid that's got good lateral movement and a good nose for the ball. He could play right now."

Porter Gustin, DE/LB, Salem, Utah

There are questions about the level of competition he plays against in a state that's hardly a hotbed for football. That hasn't stopped USC, Florida State and Stanford from offering scholarships in the last month. The 6-5, 237-pounder also plays quarterback and with interest skyrocketing now plans to announce his college decision at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl next January.

Coach's take: "He's an explosive defender. The guy's long, tall and ripped up. I need to take some of the supplements he takes. He's a good looking kid and a good student, too. The competition really doesn't matter to me because he's going above and beyond what he should be doing against it."

Kingsley Keke, DE/DT, Richmond, Texas

The increased interest in the 6-3, 300-pounder can be attributed to the dearth of three-techniques in the 2015 class in Texas. His only scholarship offer until January was Tulsa, but he picked up offers from Oklahoma, Texas and Texas A&M last month to turn his recruitment upside down.

Coach's take: "He's a big-bodied and talented three-technique, but he probably doesn't play as hard as you'd like him to every snap."

Jake Pickarm, TE/DE, Millburn, N.J.

He will be back playing tight end this season, but moved to offensive right tackle last year to help his team. Recruiters love that versatility about the 6-5, 224-pounder, who picked up an offer from Nebraska last month after recent visits from Penn State and Ohio State.

Coach's take: "He's a long, tall kid that people can project at a number of different positions. There's still a lot of growth left, but people still see athleticism on tape."

Shaquery Wilson, WR, Coral Gables, Fla.

South Florida is known for producing undersized receivers. But this year's class is deep with big wideouts, including the 6-1, 189-pound Wilson. While he lacks offers from traditional powers, interest is growing. He reminds an assistant of Alabama star wide receiver Amari Cooper, another Miami-area product. The Crimson Tide, his dream school, stopped by recently.

Coach's take: "He's explosive. He's like Amari in that people knew he was a good player, but they just didn't how good. They didn't know how fast he was."

Known for a prolific offense, Tony Levine's Houston Cougars will be bolstered by a stout defense in '14.

Houston, we have a defense

Few teams appear poised to have a better defense than Houston this season. Houston? Yes, Houston. The school best known for producing prolific quarterbacks David Klingler, Andre Ware and Case Keenum cobbled together a strong defense last season. Houston finished No. 20 in scoring defense (21.8 ppg) and the Cougars return nine starters from that unit. One of Houston's new starters has created a buzz in spring ball. Defensive back William Jackson, a junior college transfer from Trinity Valley Community College, is poised to emerge as a star this season.

"Within our own program," Houston coach Tony Levine said, "he's drawn comparisons to D.J. Hayden."

That's the highest praise possible in Houston, as the Raiders picked Hayden No. 12 overall in the 2013 Draft.

Both of the Cougars' new defensive starters are corners. Houston's philosophy is to leave its corners on an island, and the Cougars have complete faith in Jackson. At 6-1, he fits the mold of the bigger, more physical corners that the NFL covets in the wake of Seattle's success.

Jackson signed with the Cougars out of Houston's Wheatley High, but NCAA Clearinghouse issues caused him to enroll in junior college. The NCAA cleared him toward the end of his first year there, which is fortunate for Houston. He'd already begun getting calls from schools such as LSU, Texas and Oklahoma.

After his one year at junior college, he stayed loyal and transferred to Houston with three years of eligibility. Last year, he finished with seven pass breakups and a 96-yard interception return. With a starting role coming as a junior, expect Jackson's numbers to increase as Houston thrives with its defense in 2014.

The Huddle

• It was shocking in late March when Union City, N.J., offensive guard Steven Gonzalez and Merrillville, Ind., inside linebacker Josh Barajas committed to Penn State on back-to-back days. The 6-4, 321-pound Gonzalez, one of the nation's best at his position and a top 70 recruit by one service, was considered a lock for Ohio State. The 6-3, 212-pound Barajas is Indiana's top player and was believed to be a lock to go to Notre Dame. Then came the news Tuesday that star Jersey City, N.J., quarterback Brandon Wimbush had also committed to Penn State. The 6-2, 208-pounder is one of the nation's best dual-threat signal-callers and had been Ohio State's top quarterback target.

There's a common denominator in each player's surprising decision. It's Ricky Rahne, the Nittany Lions quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator, who landed each of them. The 33-year-old's recruiting success is a big reason why Penn State's 2015 recruiting class is ranked second nationally behind Alabama. "There's a lot of people looking for a reason to go to Penn State," Rahne said. "There's been a lot of enthusiasm. We've been able to build some momentum."

Rahne, a Cornell graduate, came with new Nittany Lions coach James Franklin from Vanderbilt and is a former Kansas State assistant. He recruits the north part of New Jersey, northeast Pennsylvania, Chicago and national quarterbacks. Rahne and Penn State's recruiting prowess is reverberating throughout college football. Said a rival assistant: "They're making our jobs a lot harder."

• Boston College identified the offensive line as the biggest area of need during this recruiting cycle. So far, the Eagles are flush with results, having already hauled in five offensive line prospects as the foundation of another promising class. "The offensive line took precedent over everything else," said BC line coach Justin Frye.

The recruiting haul is a big step in BC's efforts to restore its reputation as O-Line U. The Eagles earned that reputation after having 13 offensive linemen drafted since 1999, including four first-round picks. In their first season at BC in 2013, coach Steve Addazio, offensive coordinator Ryan Day and Frye helped re-establish that tradition. They installed power run schemes and extra linemen packages that helped turn Andre Williams from a solid tailback into a Heisman finalist. It's not a coincidence that Addazio is an old offensive line coach. Frye, 30, is considered one of the brightest young offensive line coaches in the country. And he's got an easy sell for offensive line recruits.

"You have four eyes and two mouths seeing the same thing and [talking] the same language," Frye said of he and Addazio. "When you walk in the head coach's office and sit down, that's a huge selling point."

So far, BC has landed 6-5, 330-pound Anthony Palazzolo (Fairfield, Conn.), 6-6, 245-pound John Phillips (Syracuse, NY), 6-6, 308-pound Aaron Monteiro (Brockton, Mass.), 6-4, 236-pound Chris Lindstrom (Dudley, Mass.) and 6-2, 265-pound Wyatt Knopfke (Bradenton, Fla.). The highest rated of the bunch is Palazzolo, a four-star recruit. Knopfke also drew a lot of interest, as both Miami and Kentucky offered. Monteiro possesses requisite toughness and Lindstrom has intriguing upside, as his father, Chris Sr., played in the NFL. Frye can't comment on the prospects until they sign, but it's obvious that progress is being made. "Getting BC back to what BC is supposed to be," Frye said, "is the most gratifying part."

• Louisiana-Lafayette defensive coordinator James Willis was headed to Florida State. After just one season with the Ragin' Cajuns, he told head coach Mark Hudspeth that he had taken the job to be the Seminoles' linebackers coach. All he had to do was tell his defense during a meeting. But when Willis looked into the faces of his players that night, he was moved to tears. The next morning Willis told Hudspeth he couldn't leave.

The defensive players had done everything Willis asked. He had to stay and finish what they started. "We signed a five-star in keeping James," Hudspeth said.

And while Willis' decision to remain at Louisiana-Lafayette instead of joining the defending national champions may seem like a head-scratcher, it made plenty of sense to him. Besides getting a raise, he got to be in control of his defense as coordinator and retain the title. The latter was important to the 41-year-old Willis because he still has aspirations of being a head coach. He was seemingly on the fast track to being one as recently as a few years ago.

That was until he abruptly resigned as defensive coordinator at Texas Tech in late 2010 after one season there and later pleaded guilty to domestic assault. The season before the former NFL linebacker won a national championship in his lone year working as associate head coach and outside linebackers coach for Nick Saban at Alabama.

Before that, Willis was linebackers coach at Auburn, his alma matter, for three years. There, he worked for Florida coach Will Muschamp and Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads when both were defensive coordinators for the Tigers.

Hudspeth still believes Willis will be a head coach some day. He points out that Willis last year had just three returning starters, but his unit still finished third in total defense in the Sun Belt, a drastic improvement from the previous year.

"Florida State could have hired anybody they wanted from the NFL and college football," Hudspeth said. "That's a sign."

Coach's kitchen

Memphis coach Justin Fuente knows his home-field advantage. "You can't come here and not have the barbecue," Fuente said. "If you do, you're not doing the city justice."

So Fuente makes sure recruits eat plenty of pork ribs on their official visits, especially at his favorite restaurant, Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous. It's located in an alley in downtown Memphis and has been called the "Michael Jordan of barbecue."

The iconic barbecue joint opened in 1948, and its walls are littered with an eclectic mix of artwork, antiques and memorabilia, including photos of its famous diners. Just last week, Prince William and Prince Harry stopped by for a pre-wedding party.

It's also renowned for its hospitality. Some employees have worked there for more than 40 years. "It's got all the local flavor," Fuente said.

Fuentes is a regular, but even after three years in Memphis, he's neutral on the city's greatest debate: wet (barbecue sauce) or dry (seasoning) ribs. He always gets half of each along with the macaroni and cheese and unsweetened ice tea.

There's not a photo of Fuente up in the restaurant yet, and he thinks he knows why. "We haven't won enough games yet," he said.

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