TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Like any good quarterback, Blake Barnett has plenty of confidence. And why not? He’s 6-foot-5, 205 pounds, has a great head of hair and says he can throw the ball about 70 yards. He has the honor of being ESPN’s No. 1-rated pocket passer, and he’s even got some dual-threat in him, too, having rushed for 479 yards and seven touchdowns as a high school senior.
In short, the kid is the total package. So why not enroll early, dive head-long into the offense and take a shot at the starting job as a true freshman? That’s what Barnett did.
Of course, the rookie said the right things on signing day, pointing out how his focus was "getting down with the playbook, getting stronger, and preparing myself for the season ... as much as possible." But even as he ever so diplomatically explained that, "The depth chart is something I’m not completely worried about," you could feel his confidence tugging at him. When asked point-blank whether his goal was to start right away, he couldn’t say no.
"My main goal is to compete for a spot," Barnett said, "but right now that’s big-picture things. The small picture I’m focusing on right now is to get the playbook down and take it step by step. I think that’s a while away from here.
"I don’t want to say anything, make any statements right now."
And neither will his coach, Nick Saban, who said he wouldn’t rule out playing a true freshman at quarterback.
"I wouldn’t rule that out at all," he said. "If he’s the best player, why would we not play him? That’s like saying a guy is from California, so we should not play him because he’s from California."
Barnett, just so we’re clear, is from California.
But does all that mean a West Coast kid will be running Saban’s pro-style offense? In spite of Barnett’s confidence and Saban’s let-the-best-man-win attitude, that seems unlikely. Not only would he have to pass Cooper Bateman, Jake Coker, David Cornwell, and Alec Morris on the depth chart, he’d have to hurdle history, too.
Saban, for all his talk, has never fully handed over the reins of his offense to a true freshman. He didn’t at Toledo when sophomore Kevin Meger was his quarterback. He didn’t at Michigan State when he went from sophomore Tony Banks to junior Todd Schultz to junior Billy Burke. He was close at LSU, starting Jamarcus Russell four games as a redshirt freshman in 2004, but otherwise it was junior Josh Booty, senior Rohan Davey, sophomore Marcus Randall, and junior Matt Mauk.
Since arriving at Alabama in 2007, Saban has continued to side with experience, going from junior John Parker Wilson to junior Greg McElroy to redshirt sophomore AJ McCarron to fifth-year senior Blake Sims.
In what will be Saban’s 20th season coaching the college game, can we really expect him to change his stripes? Is Barnett good enough to convince him that a rookie can handle the responsibility?
If anything, Barnett has the tools to pull off the upset. He talks a pretty good game, too.
Now all he has to do is get his coach to have confidence in him.
When the Ultimate ESPN 300 was released on Monday, there were some noticeable surprises. Some players shot to near the top of the list early on in their careers, while other players weren’t ranked high coming out of college but now appear on this prestigious list. Here’s a closer look at some of the top surprises in the SEC.
He will be a steal wherever he goes. Teams will get him and say that the all-day running back is dead, the guys that could take 30 carries and catch three, four passes. The idea of that guy no longer being needed, he will allow people to think, ‘Well, if you want to you can.’ That’s what’s going to make him a great steal because he will open up the coaches’ eyes wherever he goes to that, ‘You know what? We can use this guy all day and in any situation.’
2. No, Mike Debord was not what you'd call a "sexy" hire at Tennessee. He's 59 years old and hasn't coached in two years. But it's hard to shake the feeling that this was the right hire by coach Butch Jones. After all, the roots of Jones' offense come from Debord. And it's that intimate understanding that should make the fit work out so well. With an established system, an emerging QB and a solid set of skill players, Debord needs only to "enhance" the offense and add a few "wrinkles" to help get the Vols over the hump and competing for the SEC East crown.
3. Derek Mason is taking a "going back to genesis" approach toward the start of spring practice at Vanderbilt. Sounds intense, right? But after a 3-9 campaign last season, it may take more than 40 days and 40 nights to get the Commodores back on track. With an overhauled coaching staff and no clear answer at quarterback, something has to get Vanderbilt headed in the right direction again. After all, it was only a few years ago that James Franklin put together back-to-back nine-win seasons.
Around the SEC
- After a rookie season ruined by shoulder problems, Cincinnati QB and Alabama alumnus AJ McCarron is changing his throwing mechanics thanks to the help of a former MLB pitcher.
- Coaching changes can cause a stir throughout the staff, but Mark Stoops found a way to quiet the waters at Kentucky quickly after offensive coordinator Neal Brown left.
- Chase Daniel, Chase Coffman and Jeremy Maclin will join the University of Missouri Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame. It may seem like a long time ago -- you know, way back in the Big 12 days -- when Daniel was a Heisman Trophy finalist with 37 touchdowns in 2007.
The Ultimate ESPN 300 is RecruitingNation's ranking of the best prospects since we began evaluating high school athletes in 2006. That means there are many names on the list known to college football and recruiting fans since coming out of high school. The list can also provide glimpses of which states have been top producers since 2006 and which teams have done the best and worst jobs of evaluating prospects and producing players.
Here are 15 things to know about the Ultimate ESPN 300:
15. Some classes turn out better than others, and that is true of the 2009 class. There are 45 players from the class in the Ultimate ESPN 300, the most of any class, including 15 that became first-round NFL draft selections. That includes four who signed with Alabama: Trent Richardson, Dre Kirkpatrick, D.J. Fluker and Chance Warmack.
14. Bob Stoops recruited and coached 13 players on the list. Of the 13, four were first-round NFL draft selections led by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and 2008 Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford. Nine of the 13 were also members of the Sooners team that lost to Florida for the 2009 BCS National Championship.
13. The teams that played for the 2012 BCS National Championship, Alabama and LSU, were supremely talented. There are 22 players from those rosters in the Ultimate ESPN 300, including 14 for the Crimson Tide.
12. Quite possibly the most important part of the recruiting process for coaches is keeping the best at home. Well, only 137 of the Ultimate ESPN 300 stayed in state to play college football. One important aspect of this stat is that not every player on the list had the option to stay in state.
11. The teams from the 2014 BCS title game are well represented on the list. Twenty-three players from Florida State and Auburn make the list, with the Seminoles accounting for 18.
10. NCAA FBS single-game-rushing record holder Samaje Perine enters the list after a freshman season of 1,713 yards and 21 touchdowns for the Oklahoma Sooners. His 427 yards against Kansas in 2014 broke the record a week after Melvin Gordon had set a new mark.
9. The 2011 class is special. That class has 41 players in the Ultimate ESPN 300, including 12 first-round NFL draft picks with more possible, including Marcus Mariota, La'El Collins and Shane Ray. The Sunshine State led the way in the 2011 class with first-round picks: Sammy Watkins, Teddy Bridgewater, Ryan Shazier, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Kelvin Benjamin with more possible to be added to the list.
8. As expected, the state of Florida leads the way with 52 players on the list. Texas is second with 35, and California third with 28. Georgia follows with 18. Only 23 of the 52 from the Sunshine State stayed in state for college, but 19 of those players left college with national championship rings.
7. There are 15 players who signed with USC on the list, including Jarvis Jones, who would later transfer to Georgia. That's the most from a school on the list that hasn’t won a national championship since 2006. Notre Dame is second on that list with 12.
6. There are six quarterbacks from the state of Texas in the Ultimate ESPN 300, and only one was recruited heavily and offered early by the University of Texas: Matthew Stafford. The five who weren’t offered or recruited as quarterbacks by the Longhorns: Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Johnny Manziel, Ryan Mallett and J.T. Barrett.
5. There are 17 players on the list recruited by Urban Meyer. The impressive list includes Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin, along with Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott and J.T. Barrett from 2015 national champion Ohio State.
4. St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is the high school with the most players on the list with six. That includes NFL running backs Gionvani Bernard and James White, who were members of the same backfield.
3. Nick Saban has recruited 25 players to Alabama on the prestigious list. Of those 25, 11 have been first-round NFL draft selections, with that number to hit 13 in a couple of months with Amari Cooper and Landon Collins projected to be 2015 first-rounders.
2. South Florida's Dade and Broward counties are the two most talented counties in the country that neighbor each other. To illustrate that fact, 22 members of the Ultimate ESPN 300 are from the otherworldly talented counties, including five NFL first-round draft picks, with that number expected to jump to seven or eight in April. Add in Palm Beach County, which neighbors Broward, and that number jumps to 29 of the 300, including seven first-round picks, with that number sure to hit double digits in two months. If one is a Miami (Fla.) fan, time to turn away, as only four of the 22 from Dade and Broward counties played for the Hurricanes.
1. How do you win three national championships in six years? Jimmys and Joes are where it must begin, and Alabama has the most of any school on the list with 27. More than half of the 27 have been or will be first-round draft selections after this year's draft. Both Florida and Florida State have 18 apiece on the list.
For Alabama, the baseline is New Year's. With everything already going right for Nick Saban's Crimson Tide, there are no excuses not to make one of those top six games. Read more from this series here.
Even with a giant question mark at quarterback, the offense should be fine. Derrick Henry (6-3, 240 pounds) will be among the biggest and most intimidating feature backs in America, and he'll have the benefit of the lightning quick Kenyan Drake to spell him off the bench. Pick a couple blue-chip receivers from the cupboard, throw in a senior center (Ryan Kelly), a franchise left tackle (Cam Robinson) and the return of X's and O's aficionado Lane Kiffin, and you're looking at a solid recipe for success.
But the biggest help to the defense and its ever-important battle for field position could be punter J.K. Scott, who routinely booms the football with his pendulum-like leg.
Outside of personnel, though, maybe the most compelling case for Alabama making a New Year's Six bowl is its schedule. While we don't want to venture into the territory of counting wins in February, it's worth noting that the Tide get Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU at home. And while opening against Wisconsin in Dallas, might appear like a tall task, don't forget the Badgers have a new coach and are now without their best player in Melvin Gordon.
So with so much going in its favor, it's really not as simple as reaching next year's Sugar, Fiesta, Rose or Chick-fil-A bowls for Alabama.
If anything, the mantra continues to be what it's always been: playoff or bust.
What could go wrong
Blake Sims was a nice story. The way the former running back came out of nowhere to win the starting job at quarterback as a fifth-year senior last season was an excellent story, in fact.
But you can't bank on a Blake Sims fairytale happening every year. And if we're looking at it with a critical eye, doesn't Sims winning the job reveal some flaws in the other QBs on the roster? It wasn't as if Sims had a particularly strong or accurate arm, remember?
So why did Jake Coker not beat him out? What about Cooper Bateman, Alec Morris or David Cornwell, for that matter? If they weren't good enough then, what makes us believe they'll be good enough now? The only thing that's changed since then is time and the addition of early enrollee Blake Barnett.
If experience doesn't dramatically improve the quality of Alabama's QBs or Barnett doesn't prove to be a rare exception as a rookie, the offense could be in shaky hands.
But even if you set that aside and assume the QB position will be fine, how confident should you be in the defense's ability to make stops? Because while the line is in good shape and the linebacking corps should to be fine, there's not a lot to feel good about when it comes to the secondary.
While there's plenty of talent to draw upon at DB, the same was true last season and it didn't exactly work out. Outside of cornerback Cyrus Jones, good luck figuring out who starts in 2015. Do you put a shaky Eddie Jackson back at corner? Do you bank on Tony Brown's improvement as a sophomore? Or does Marlon Humphrey come in as a redshirt freshman and set the world on fire?
Another year in the system might give guys such as Hootie Jones, Maurice Smith and Geno Smith the experience to become impact players, but that's not a sure thing. We might drool over the signing of Kendall Sheffield, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Deionte Thompson, but expecting contributions from true freshmen in Saban's complex system is a lot to ask.
If someone doesn't step up in the secondary and a quality QB doesn't emerge, Alabama could be in trouble.
Here is the latest on several Sunshine State prospects.
Eli Stove, WR
ESPN Junior 300 ranking: No. 80
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
In each of the past six years, during the offseason, I have come up with a projected top 10 of the preseason AP poll on my website. I do this by taking several different factors into account:
• Most AP voters usually look at a couple of criteria when they evaluate a team for the upcoming season. First, they look at the number of returning starters the team has coming back, particularly at the offensive skill positions. A team that returns its starting quarterback and a combination of its running backs and wide receivers, for example, is often more highly regarded than a team that loses its starting quarterback but returns its entire offensive line. Similarly, a team that returns most of its starters on offense but loses a lot of its defensive playmakers is usually more highly regarded than a team that returns a majority of its defensive starters but loses its skill-position players on offense.
• Another factor weighed heavily is the performance of the team in its bowl game, which is undoubtedly the lasting image voters carry with them during the offseason. A team coming off a huge bowl win is usually more highly regarded than a team that is coming off a bowl loss, regardless of what its schedule looks like for the upcoming season.
• Also weighed heavily is where the teams finished the previous year. Naturally, teams that finished somewhere in the rankings (top 25) have a much better chance of being preseason top 10 than a team that finished unranked last year.
Using these factors -- and a few others, such as strength of schedule -- I project the preseason AP top 10 every year at the start of February, which in most cases is six months in advance of the poll's release. Now, as you all know, a lot can happen between February and August, including injuries, suspensions and transfers. But over the past six years, I have been very successful using this method, correctly projecting 56 of 60 teams (93.3 percent), including a perfect 10-for-10 again in 2014.
Before I go into the rankings, it is important to make the point that this is NOT my preseason top 10 for next season, but rather what I am projecting the AP top 10 will look like to start the season. If you're familiar with my college football preview magazine, you will know that every year I tend to go out on a limb for a couple of teams in my top 10, and this year will be no different.
Now, let's take a look at this year¹s projected preseason AP top 10 teams.
1. Ohio State Buckeyes
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
It was another incredible year of recruiting in the SEC. More than one-third (117 prospects) of the ESPN 300 signed with SEC schools. The conference also signed 12 of the 20 five-star prospects, and 218 four-star prospects. All but two of the 14 SEC schools finished in the top 40 of the final ESPN class rankings. Here is a closer look at the 2015 recruiting cycle in review.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
2. Alabama hasn't exactly been hurting for running back help over the past few years. Actually, ever since Nick Saban took over in 2007, running the ball has been the Crimson Tide's staple. But with the Tide losing T.J. Yeldon to the NFL, Altee Tenpenny transferring and Tyren Jones being suspended, Alabama finds itself a little thin at the running back position. With that said, Saban is prepared, and now freshman Bo Scarbrough has a chance to see a bigger role immediately. He's already on campus, and don't think for a second that Saban won't give him every chance to earn his keep this spring.
3. The horrific details of the sexual assault case involving four former Vanderbilt football players cast an ugly light on the sport of college football. It was a nightmare of a situation, and SI.com's Jessica Luther took a very complex look at the incident that left two former players convicted of multiple counts of sexual battery and aggravated rape and a community reeling.
Around the SEC
- Auburn cornerback Kalvaraz Bessent has decided to leave the Tigers' football program after just one season.
- Georgia wide receivers coach Tony Ball has confirmed that he's a candidate for LSU's opening at the same position.
- The Sporting News released its list of the top 50 players returning in 2015, and yes, the SEC is well represented.
Too soon, Jon. Too soon ...
#TDSBreakingNews Job openings jump to the highest since 2001. Especially in late night cable news satire hosting.— The Daily Show (@TheDailyShow) February 11, 2015
When looking at the top prospects in the Ultimate ESPN 300, it became clear that a top-10 class doesn't guarantee success on the field. Consistently signing top-rated classes, though, can increase the chances for consistent success.
Below is a look at the 10 programs that assembled the "ultimate" classes from 2006 to 2014. These teams have not only been able to ink highly rated classes, but have also consistently developed top players while winning big. During this span these programs have accounted for eight top-rated classes and six BCS championships, as well as all four participants of the first College Football Playoff.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama has signed seven straight top-three recruiting classes and 2014 marked its third straight top-ranked class. That success on the recruiting trail has helped produce consistent success on the field over this span, including three BCS titles and a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff. The Crimson Tide's recruiting haul during this period included a Heisman Trophy winner in RB Mark Ingram as well as three other finalists in QB AJ McCarron and RB Trent Richardson, who signed in 2009, and most recently WR Amari Cooper from the 2012 class. Alabama's recruiting success also resulted in numerous All-Americans and All-SEC players. While the Tide have consistently recruited well under Nick Saban, their 2008 and 2009 classes were the most impactful. The 2008 class included Ingram, WR Julio Jones and several key defensive players like Marcel Dareus and Dont'a Hightower. McCarron, Richardson, Dre Kirkpatrick and outstanding OLs Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker were members of the 2009 class. The 2014 class delivered No. 1 OT Cameron Robinson, who became the first true freshman to start at left tackle for Alabama since Andre Smith in 2006.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
The days of waiting for youngsters to make impact in college football are over. If you're a top freshman prospect, you're expected to come in and contribute.
So much for slacking on your training before prom.
But more and more, freshmen are proving to be up for the task of immediate playing time and immediate pressure. Coaches aren't afraid to throw these guys into the fire, and it's working out all around the country.
So who are some freshmen to keep an eye on in the SEC from the 2015 class?
Edward Aschoff: DT Trenton Thompson, Georgia
What the Bulldogs needed in this class were hefty, intimidating, athletic defensive linemen. Georgia got all of that in Thompson, a 6-foot-4, 311-pound behemoth who could see immediate playing time for a Bulldogs team in need of help at the defensive tackle spot. With only five scholarship defensive linemen returning, Thompson will have every opportunity to compete for a starting spot. The five-star was the No. 2-rated defensive tackle nationally, according to ESPN’s RecruitingNation, and was named the 2014 Maxwell Football Club’s National High School Player of the Year. Georgia needs a quality plug in the middle who can stop the run and harass quarterbacks. Thompson has everything needed to be that in 2015.
David Ching: DE Arden Key, LSU
I touched on this subject from an LSU perspective earlier this week. The first player I listed in that post was Key, ESPN’s No. 24 overall prospect and No. 6 defensive end, because he can help address an immediate need. LSU must replace starting defensive ends Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco. There is some talent returning – Tashawn Bower seems to be a leading candidate to take over one of the starting spots – but nobody has proven himself as a college player yet. LSU struggled to generate sacks last season, finishing 102nd nationally with just 19. Les Miles and his assistants believe Key can help address that issue right away.
Sam Khan Jr.: S Deionte Thompson, Alabama
The ESPN 300 prospect has good size (6-2, 180) and speed and the advantage of being an early enrollee. Thompson, the nation's No. 3 safety and the No. 65 player overall in the ESPN 300, is a versatile athlete (he was a talented high school track and field athlete) and given the departures at safety for Alabama (two graduated plus Landon Collins declared for the draft) there will be spots available. Don't be shocked if Thompson works his way into one of them and plays well.
Greg Ostendorf: S Jamal Peters, Mississippi State
Peters, ranked No. 40 in the ESPN 300, is the highest-ranked player to sign at Mississippi State since Dan Mullen took over, slightly surpassing current defensive lineman Chris Jones (No. 46). Last week, Mullen was already raving about his new toy at his signing day news conference. With Jay Hughes graduating, there’s an opening at the strong safety spot that’s perfect for Peters to come in and play right away. It’s not an easy position to play early, but Peters has the size and athletic ability to do it. The rest he can learn along the way.
Alex Scarborough: RB Damien Harris, Alabama
I'm tempted to go with Kyler Murray here because I believe he could win the job outright, but the QB position is just too hard to predict. So instead I'll turn to a position that does lend itself to making an impact early: running back. I'm going way down the list of the top players in the country to No. 36 Harris. The nation's No. 2 running back has a chance to make a significant impact from Day 1 with Alabama. T.J. Yeldon and Jalston Fowler off to the NFL, remember, and Kenyan Drake is coming off an injury, Altee Tenpenny has transferred out and Tyren Jones has a history of ending up in the doghouse. If Harris, a well-rounded back, can grasp the offense, he could be a dangerous change of pace to the bruising Derrick Henry.
Derek Tyson: DE Byron Cowart, Auburn
The Auburn defense was tied for 92nd in the FBS in sacks by getting to the quarterback only 21 times last season. That was a point of emphasis for new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, and no player was bigger than the No. 1 defensive end and No. 1 player overall, Cowart. The five-star prospect was absolutely dominant during the Under Armour All-America game week of practice. At 6-3, 258 pounds, he is already big and athletic enough to see the field early on in his career at Auburn.
Which Players Have The Most To Prove In 2015?
TBD Bowling Green Tennessee TBD Wisconsin Alabama TBD UTEP Arkansas TBD Louisville Auburn TBD New Mexico State Florida TBD Louisiana-Monroe Georgia TBD Louisiana-Lafayette Kentucky TBD McNeese State LSU TBD Southeast Missouri State Missouri TBD Tennessee-Martin Ole Miss TBD Mississippi State Southern Miss TBD Arizona State Texas A&M TBD Western Kentucky Vanderbilt