Iman Marshall hasn't said much when it comes to recruiting, constantly maintaining that he is wide open to the process and without any favorites. On Thursday, the No. 8 overall prospect and No.1 player in the West region took a significant step toward shedding some light on his recruiting situation, tweeting out the schools he will officially visit before making his decision. Of course, as always with recruiting, Marshall still provided for some grey area.

After announcing that he'd be listing his five official visits, Marshall tweeted six schools, as Florida State, LSU, Michigan, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Texas all made the list. The five-star prospect offered a little clarity, saying he is town between Oklahoma and Texas, then asked the fan bases of those two schools to help him decide which to see for his fifth visit.
video

Cary Chow and Chris Low look at why Oregon's Marcus Mariota was named to the preseason All-American team and reigning Heisman winner Jameis Winston was not.

Preseason All-ACC team

August, 21, 2014
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Presenting the 2014 ESPN.com preseason All-ACC team:

Offense

WR: Jamison Crowder, Duke. One of the most dynamic receivers in the ACC, Crowder has had consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and gets the nod over Louisville receiver DeVante Parker in a close call. Given Crowder's past production in the offense, he should be in line to break school receiving records this season.

WR: Rashad Greene, Florida State. Perhaps one of the most underrated receivers in the country, Greene is a virtual lock to catch every pass that comes his way. He is the picture of consistency, and as the top returning target for Jameis Winston, should reach 1,000 yards again.

TE: Nick O'Leary, Florida State. One of the best tight ends in the country, O'Leary had 33 receptions for 557 yards and seven touchdowns last season. He should improve on all those numbers this season.

T: Cameron Erving, Florida State. Erving thought about leaving school early last season for the NFL draft but decided to return, and he now anchors the best offensive line in the country.

T: Sean Hickey, Syracuse. Hickey is going into his third season as a starter and has developed into one of the best tackles in the league. He also may be the strongest player in the ACC, too.

C: Andy Gallik, Boston College. Gallik helped spearhead a Boston College run game last season that averaged 212.5 yards on the ground. As a three-year starter, Gallik has grown into the best center in the league.

G: Tre' Jackson, Florida State. One of the best guards in the country, Jackson also opted to return to school for his senior year. He and Erving are the best players on that line.

G: Laken Tomlinson, Duke. A first-team All-ACC player a year ago, Tomlinson will be relied upon even more to lead an offensive line that has to replace two of its best players. If he has another stellar season, Tomlinson could be one of the first guards taken in next year's draft.

QB: Jameis Winston, Florida State. The returning Heisman Trophy winner had a rough season off-the-field but there is no questioning his credentials on the field. After throwing for more than 4,000 yards a year ago, the expectation is he will be even better this year.

RB: Duke Johnson, Miami. Johnson is one of the best backs in the country, averaging 6.6 yards every time he touches the ball. If he can stay healthy for the entire season, he's a virtual lock to gain 1,000 yards.

RB: Kevin Parks, Virginia. Parks is the only returning 1,000-yard back in the ACC and is hoping for more in 2014. Tough call here between Parks and Karlos Williams, the next two best backs in the league behind Johnson.

Defense

DE: Vic Beasley, Clemson. Beasley finished last season with 13 sacks (tops in ACC) and 23 TFL (4th in nation). He’s a preseason All-American and the biggest star on one of the country's top defensive fronts.

DE: Mario Edwards Jr., Florida State. The No. 1 overall recruit in the nation three years ago, Edwards is poised to come into his own in 2014. He was a critical piece of Florida State’s run-stuffing defense a year ago, finishing with 9.5 TFL and 3.5 sacks.

DT: Luther Maddy, Virginia Tech. No returning interior lineman in the ACC had more TFL last year than Maddy’s 13.5, and he was a key for the Hokies' dominant defense. This season, he'll be the centerpiece of a new-look D line.

DT: Grady Jarrett, Clemson. Dabo Swinney calls Jarrett one of the best defenders in the nation, even if he hasn’t gotten much national acclaim. He finished last season with 59 tackles, including 10.5 for a loss, and should be the foundation for a dominant defensive line at Clemson this season.

LB: Denzel Perryman, Miami. Perryman is Miami’s most productive defender, finishing with 108 tackles last season (fifth in the ACC). He’s the lone ACC defender returning for 2014 to have recorded at least 60 tackles in each of the previous three seasons.

LB: Stephone Anthony, Clemson. His 15 TFL last season ranked eighth in the ACC, and no returning linebacker in the conference had more. He added 86 tackles and 4.5 sacks to boot.

CB: Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech. One of the top freshman defenders in the nation last season, Fuller picked off six passes as part of Virginia Tech's exceptional secondary. His 17 passes defended tied for eighth nationally.

CB: P.J. Williams, Florida State. Williams racked up three interceptions and was dominant in coverage for Florida State, which finished with the best pass defense in the nation. He also won defensive MVP honors in the BCS national championship.

S: Anthony Harris, Virginia. Led the nation with eight interceptions last season for Virginia, including picking off at least one pass in five straight games in conference play in October and November.

S: Jalen Ramsey, Florida State. The first true freshman to start at cornerback for Florida State since Deion Sanders, Ramsey made the transition to safety midseason and didn’t miss a beat, finishing with 49 tackles and an INT.

S: Jeremy Cash, Duke. Cash finished last season second in the ACC in tackles (121), fifth in interceptions (4) and recorded 9.5 TFL, tops in the conference among defensive backs.

Specialists

K: Roberto Aguayo, Florida State. The Lou Groza Award winner in 2013, Aguayo broke the national record for points by a kicker in a season with 157 points. He is virtually automatic every time he steps onto the field, missing just one field goal attempt and zero extra points last season.

P: A.J. Hughes, Virginia Tech. A second-team All-ACC selection a year ago, Hughes averaged 44.1 yards per punt. He placed 24 inside the 20, and had 22 punts of 50 yards or longer.

KR: Kermit Whitfield, Florida State. Whitfield led the nation last year in kickoffs, with an average of 36.4 yards per return. His speed makes him extremely difficult to stop, let alone slow down.

PR: Ryan Switzer, North Carolina. Teams have probably learned to kick away from Switzer at all times. Last season, he had five returns for touchdowns, tying an NCAA record.
With the news that Ohio State lost quarterback Braxton Miller for the season, USA Today wondered what the effect might be of a major injury on a few of the other top College Football Playoff candidates, including Florida State.

[+] EnlargeSean Maguire
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsEven with second-stringer Sean Maguire at quarterback, Florida State would be an ACC favorite. But maybe not a national favorite.
According to the story, a switch from Jameis Winston to Sean Maguire at QB would mean roughly 10 fewer points per game and two fewer wins for FSU.
Substitute Maguire for Winston and the Noles still win the ACC championship, but without Winston they only average 33.9 points per game and win 9.4 games on average.

The Orlando Sentinel digs a bit deeper, looking at what the ramifications of a Winston injury might be for the Seminoles.

I didn’t crunch any serious numbers, as USA Today did, or dig too deep into the roster the way the Sentinel did, but if I was putting together a list of the ACC’s most irreplaceable players, it’d probably look something like this:

1. Winston — for obvious reasons, as discussed above.

2. Duke Johnson — We saw what happened last year when he went down. Miami was 7-0 with him healthy, 2-4 when he wasn’t on the field the whole game. Not to mention the Hurricanes' rushing average was cut in half.

3. Jamison Crowder - The guy was targeted 174 times last year (40 more than Sammy Watkins) and that was before Duke lost Braxton Deaver and Brandon Connette.

4. Eli Harold - The guy averaged 24 more snaps per game than All-American Vic Beasley did, and Virginia’s defense is predicated on penetrating the line of scrimmage.

5. Jacoby Brissett — OK, NC State might not do much this year even with Brissett, but what’s the option if he goes down? The Pack’s hopes for 2014 are riding almost entirely on his shoulders, and unlike last year, there’s actually some reason for optimism.

Beyond that top five, Mario Edwards Jr., Luther Maddy, Norkeithus Otis and Tyler Boyd come to mind, too.

Of course, there’s surely a few more players left off the list that warrant discussion. So, who’d we miss?

A few more links:

  • The (Syracuse) Post-Standard has Virginia’s Mike London as the ACC’s only coach on the hot seat this season. One reason London is on the hot seat: a lack of production in spite of talent. Virginia is 18-31 under London. Only eight other teams have performed worse during the past four years, and of that group, only Cal has signed more four-star and five-star recruits than the 19 signed by London, according to ESPN’s rankings. (Of note: Kentucky has signed 16, but 14 have come in the last two years since Mark Stoops was hired as head coach. The other six programs with worse records than Virginia during that stretch have signed just 30 four-star or five-star recruits.)
  • The Wall Street Journal took a look at how each Power 5 conference coach has done against top-25 opposition in his career. The Louisville Courier-Journal followed up with a deeper look at Bobby Petrino’s credentials as well as a look at the individual ACC coaches.
  • There are still plenty of starting jobs up for grabs on the Virginia Tech offensive depth chart, as The Roanoke Times points out.
  • For years, Jim Grobe avoided playing true freshmen at Wake Forest. In the first season under Dave Clawson, it appears as many as nine will get a chance to play in this year’s opener, the Winston-Salem Journal writes.
  • And on related notes, earlier this week Matt Fortuna wrote a bit about Clawson’s journey to Wake Forest, and Jared Shanker looked at the programs most apt to play true freshmen.
  • Duke certainly projects to have a speedy secondary, which has earned the unit a unique nickname, writes the Charlotte Observer.
  • Steven Daniels is in line to be the next great middle linebacker at Boston College, writes the Boston Herald.
  • And lastly, if you don’t hear from me for the next 10 days, it’s because FXX is marathoning every “The Simpsons” episode ever, starting today. Here’s the full schedule if you’re portioning out your time to the most important episodes (“Marge vs. the Monorail is tomorrow at 9 p.m.) and here’s your requisite Simpsons gif to showcase my feelings about the event.

Early Offer: The chase for Campbell 

August, 20, 2014
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The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting news across the country. Today’s offerings: Five-star George Campbell has committed and decommitted from Michigan and listed Florida and LSU as teams he’s really high on. But as he gets closer to his decision, don’t be surprised if another team emerges. Plus, ESPN Grade could be a positive recruiting tool for Alabama, UCLA, Ohio State and Stanford, and we continue our tour of the top recruiting happenings on social media.


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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Preseason camp has come to a close at Florida State, and coach Jimbo Fisher says the Seminoles will begin game preparations for Oklahoma State on Thursday. That means it is time for the fifth-year coach to start making final decisions with the season opener a little more than a week away.

“We’ll have to put [a depth chart] up and say who’s first team, second team, third team or in that rotation because we have to start making scout teams,” Fisher said. “We have to start making decisions.”

Rarely this camp was Fisher visibly displeased with his team’s effort and performance, unlike during the spring. While it certainly does not guarantee an undefeated season, it should offer some comfort the Nick Saban disciple has not nitpicked much over the course of the last two weeks as the Seminoles prepare to defend a national championship.

[+] EnlargeRashad Greene
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreRashad Greene returns after a stellar junior season, but FSU still is looking for a candidate to break out opposite Greene.
There are apparent holes in the starting lineup left by the departures of pivotal pieces to Florida State’s 2013 title run, but Fisher expressed no concerns about a starting 22 or depth. While a depth chart is still not set in stone, Fisher is happy he has “two or three guys that are pretty close you feel comfortable playing in a game.”

For the future-conscious Florida State fans, the No. 2 receiver has been one of the biggest question marks since Kelvin Benjamin declared for the NFL draft with two years of eligibility remaining. Fisher said senior Christian Green would likely be the starter opposite senior All-American candidate Rashad Greene, but he made it clear he sees viable options in the underclassmen. Sophomore Levonte Whitfield and Jesus Wilson are the most likely slot options, although Wilson is working to get back in the staff’s good graces after stealing a scooter. Freshmen Ja'Vonn Harrison, Ermon Lane and Travis Rudolph were all ESPN 300 recruits and could play extensively with sophomore Isaiah Jones academically ineligible. Senior Jarred Haggins is also healthy after missing 2013.

Returning Heisman winner Jameis Winston impressed during a Tuesday scrimmage. Fisher previously said Winston has looked average in camp at times, but the positive review Tuesday might indicate the redshirt sophomore is close to building the necessary rapport with the inexperienced targets. The first scrimmage, the offense was relegated to underneath passes to the tight ends and running backs, but Fisher said the downfield attack was on display on Tuesday.

“I feel very comfortable with eight guys in that rotation right now, I really do,” Fisher said. “I'd feel very comfortable if they had to go in the football game. The last three or four days, we've really thrown and caught the football extremely well. … Guys were really understanding routes and how to set holes and get open."

It has been debated how the defensive front seven would fare without Timmy Jernigan, Christian Jones or Telvin Smith, but when asked where the team made the most progress during camp, Fisher said the linebackers and the defensive line depth. With new leaders and a first-year defensive coordinator, the unit will still need to build a cohesion that often can only be produced in games. However, concerns should be assuaged to a degree considering Fisher is upbeat about the defense.

Florida State has used the hashtag #DallasToDallas as it opens the season in AT&T Stadium, home to the Dallas Cowboys, and hopes to end it there. They have to begin with the Oklahoma State Cowboys, though, and while official game prep begins Thursday, Fisher said he already has begun scouting Mike Gundy’s squad.

No Power Five school returns fewer starters than Oklahoma State, but Fisher said there’s still enough on film from 2013 to build a preliminary scouting report based on coordinator tendencies and backups.

“You have notes that you’ve taken on them, so when you pull them back out you have a starting point,” Fisher said. “And you put things in in camp and you say, ‘That’s going to be good these first three or four games so we better add these two or three things to what we’re doing.’”

INJURY NOTES: The left side of the offensive line was a little banged up toward the end of camp, but Fisher said he is not worried about the unit, which consists of five seniors, missing any time against Oklahoma State. … Running back Ryan Green is still sidelined, but freshman running back Dalvin Cook rid himself of the blue non-contact jersey Tuesday. Cook received high praise after the scrimmage. Cornerbacks P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby are being held for precautionary reasons, but Fisher is not worried about them missing the opener. … Sophomore linebacker and former five-star Matthew Thomas continues to rehab from an ankle injury suffered last week.

ACC morning links

August, 20, 2014
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Wake Forest received some encouraging news following a scary situation over the weekend, as tight end Zach Gordon is responding to treatment and improving after leaving Sunday's scrimmage on a stretcher and being taken to the hospital.

Team physician Dr. David Martin and head athletic trainer Nick Richey released a statement saying that Gordon's injury is non-life threatening.

From the statement, per the Star News' Brett Friedlander:
“During Sunday’s scrimmage, Zach Gordon sustained a serious, non-life threatening spinal injury,” the statement said. “All of our structural testing thus far has been favorable. He remains hospitalized at Wake Forest Baptist Health. Zach is improving and based on all indications, we expect him to continue to improve. We do not yet have a firm timeline for his return to activity.”

Gordon was expected to play a big role this season for the Demon Deacons after being limited to a special teams role last season, when he played in all 12 games. The 6-foot-5, 245-pounder from Carrollton, Georgia, was in line for a starting job. Obviously, football takes a backseat at this moment, as the status of his playing future remains up in the air. But the news from Wake's medical staff certainly comes as a sigh of relief.

In other, seemingly minor injury news from earlier this week, Syracuse took a big hit offensively as top tight end Josh Parris suffered a knee injury that will require surgery Wednesday and places his status in doubt for the beginning of the season, and possibly more. In the meantime, the Orange will be forced to turn to Kendall Moore and Tyler Provo moving forward.

Elsewhere in the ACC ...
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Kirk Herbstreit and David Pollack give their most overvalued and undervalued teams and which unknown player will become a household name.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Walking off the Doak Campbell Stadium field, Mario Edwards Jr. held his helmet in his left hand. The relentless Florida sun reflected off the helmet’s base, which was only now visible through the scratches and scrapes that rubbed the gold paint off.

This wasn’t after a Clemson, Florida or Miami game. Florida State just finished up its first preseason intrasquad scrimmage.

The only players whose helmets might look similar? “Maybe the offensive linemen,” Edwards said, because those are the unfortunate ones the physically imposing junior defensive end bludgeons on a daily basis.

[+] EnlargeMario Edwards
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsSack totals don't explain the impact of Mario Edwards Jr. for the Seminoles.
Edwards’ job along the defensive line is often an unenviable one, as his helmet that will require a retouching every week indicates. It’s also a position where Edwards doesn’t get the same recognition as his Florida State predecessors, such as Cornellius Carradine, Brandon Jenkins or Bjoern Werner, who each had the liberty of focusing on rushing the passer from the edge more than Edwards, who is shifted all over the defensive line.

Last week, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher was asked about Edwards and whether he should be in line for more than the 3.5 sacks he tallied as a sophomore in 2013. Once the reporter mentioned the word “sacks,” it set Fisher off and he challenged the logic of the query.

“Sacks don’t equate to greatness. You better watch that film. That guy’s a heck of a football player. You watch when the draft comes around,” said Fisher, pointing to Edwards' role on the country's top-scoring defense. “He’s as athletic and dominant as any defensive tackle we’ve ever had.”

The question set in motion a 10-minute coach's clinic session from Fisher, who broke down all of the responsibilities Edwards has, and there were many.

Edwards said he probably missed a few sacks last season because he didn’t understand the entire playbook, and it is easy to see why. As a first-year starter, Edwards was shifted from end to tackle and asked to line up in gaps, heads up with a lineman or shaded to a shoulder. The difference could be a matter of a few inches, but it completely alters the landscape of a defensive scheme. First-year defensive coordinator Charles Kelly said this season Edwards might edge rush one play then drop into coverage on the next because he’s “very powerful but at the same time he’s athletic.”

Fisher likes to call upon the time he witnessed Edwards do a standing back flip … in full pads. If that’s not impressive enough, consider the 20-year-old stands 6-foot-3 and tips the scales at a Twinkie shy of 300 pounds. And while the weight was a concern early in his career, Edwards dedicated himself this offseason, reshaping his body and turning much of the weight into muscle to prepare for the increased attention he’ll see with Timmy Jernigan off to the NFL.

“Talking with Timmy and talking to other guys, I realized it’s back on me now. I’m an upperclassman and we have to carry the tradition,” Edwards said. “I took my workouts serious. I lifted, ran, tried to watch what I ate.”

That has opposing offensive coordinators on heightened alert, especially after observing Edwards chase down speedy Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall in the national championship game. While many offenses are switching to uptempo speeds predicated on spreading the defense out, the philosophy of running the football between the tackles remains largely unchanged. However, the scheme forces defenses to eliminate players from the box and substitute a lineman or linebacker for a smaller defensive back.

The rise of the spread formation has made linemen with Edwards’ athletic ability all the more vital.

“The front guys that are big and agile are so much more critical now than they’ve ever been because the game is spread so they’re getting isolated more,” Fisher said. “… He’s as strong and naturally powerful as anyone I’ve been around.”
Bobby Bowden, Matthew McConaugheyMCT via Getty Images, AP PhotoBobby Bowden said some have pegged Matthew McConaughey to play him on the big screen.

On Monday morning, legendary Florida State coach Bobby Bowden allowed fans to "ask me anything" via a Reddit.com chat. Here is the best of what we learned about Bowden during his hour-long conversation.

On who would play him in a movie about his life: There were some people that came to see me about making a movie, but they didn't end up doing it. They talked about, dadgummit, about the guy that played Jack Lengyel in We Are Marshall. Yea, Matthew McConaughey!

On his most memorable season: My memorable season was 1977. It was my second year at Florida State. Now the year before we had our only losing season and before that we had an 0-11 season. In 1977 we played in our first bowl game in about 5 years, we were nationally rank for the first time in about 5 years, and we beat Texas Tech in the Citrus Bowl. It finally turned our program around.

On Jameis Winston being best ever FSU QB: Let me say this. He's got the best start no doubt about it. And he could definitely end up the best, but let's see how his career goes. A lot of things can happen. People forget Chris Weinke took us to the NCG 3 straight times. How many quarterbacks have ever done that?

On peanuts in soda: Well you know, I always did that. I'd get an orange drink and put peanuts in it, or any cold drink. I think Jimbo does that too. It's an old country habit. That's just like lunch to me, boy.

On best player he ever coached: I think the best athlete I ever coached was Deion Sanders. We had other players who were good in their own way. But, I don't think we ever had anyone with as much natural talent.

On what he orders at Taco Bell: Wooh. Gosh, seldom do I eat at Taco Bell, I'm not sure. I don't know. I guess I'd look to see what the most expensive thing was and go ahead and buy it. Hoping that they know what they're talking about.

Steve Spurrier
AP Photo/Dave MartinBobby Bowden said he was a big fan of his rivalry with Steve Spurrier, especially the games he beat the Ol' Ball Coach.
On player unionization: I don't think that will go over. I think it's best that it doesn't go over. When a kid starts getting his own lawyer to tell you and the university how much to pay him, that's going too far.

On rivalry with Steve Spurrier: That was always a great motivating ballgame with Spurrier. The reason is, he was kind of an offensive genius so I always liked it when we'd outscore him, which we did a lot. He's one of the greatest coaches there has ever been though. Those were great matchups.

On the College Football Playoff and committee invite: I was not invited to join, but there were some rumors. I'm interested to see how that comes out. How do you keep your prejudices out of it? If you're a graduate of Oklahoma and it comes time to vote, are you really going to pick Oklahoma State?

I kind of liked it the way it was. They always got 1 vs. 2 right. Who cares about 3 or 4?

And the best answer of the day:

On what he would do if his statue on campus came to life: I wouldn't want to stop it. Keep raging.

ACC's biggest battles: Nos. 1 & 2

August, 19, 2014
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The 2014 college football season starts in just nine days. We’re getting you ready by counting down the ACC’s 10 biggest battles of the fall. Today, we’re wrapping things up with the two games most likely to define the season for the ACC.

No. 2

The matchup: Clemson vs. Georgia

Date/Location: Aug. 30, Sanford Stadium, Athens, Georgia (5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Last meeting: The rivalry was reignited last season, when Clemson out-gunned Georgia, 38-35, in the season opener in Death Valley. The two starting QBs combined for nearly 600 yards passing, but neither will be back for this year’s game.

Why it matters: Much like Virginia Tech’s season-opening date with Ohio State, FSU’s date with Oklahoma State and Miami’s Sept. 20 showdown with Nebraska, this is a chance for the ACC's upper echelon to establish the conference’s standing against top-tier non-conference foes. Georgia has plenty of buzz entering the season and projects as a possible SEC East favorite. Clemson is clearly in the shadows of FSU in the ACC. But a win on the road for the Tigers would certainly put Dabo Swinney's crew back into the conversation for the College Football Playoff and, just as importantly, give the ACC a marquee non-conference win as ammunition when the selection committee decides who's in and who's out at year's end.

No. 1

The matchup: Clemson vs. Florida State

Date/Location: Sept. 20, Doak Campbell Stadium, Tallahassee, Florida

Last meeting: The game was billed as the biggest of the year in the ACC last season, too, but it took all of 12 minutes for Jameis Winston and Florida State to take all the air out of the building in Death Valley. The Seminoles led by 20 at the half and cruised to a dominant 51-14 win behind 444 yards passing from Winston.

Why it matters: The easy answer here is the winner of this game has gone on to win the ACC's Atlantic in each of the past four years, and that'll be Step 1 in the road to a national championship. But, of course, both Clemson and FSU have significant non-conference games that will already be in the books by the time this one's played, and if both emerge from those Week 1 battles with a 'W,' it could mean this game has as much national cache as any in the nation this year -- and certainly any that kick off before the weather gets cold. Clemson will be a much bigger underdog this year after last season's thrashing, but Swinney insisted then that his team was more evenly matched with FSU than the score reflected. He'll get a chance to back up his words in Tallahassee for what, once again, promises to be the best game the ACC has to offer on its schedule.

ACC preseason recruiting report card 

August, 19, 2014
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Of the more than 1,500 prospects that have committed to FBS programs, 239 are headed to the ACC, including 37 members of the ESPN 300. In the months of June and July alone, 21 four-star prospects -- including 17 members of the ESPN 300 -- have committed to ACC programs. The impressive summer doesn’t just begin and end with the class of 2015. In the class of 2016, eight members of the ESPNJr 300 pledged to ACC schools during June and July, giving the conference 11 members of the prestigious group to date. After having seven conference teams finish in the RecruitingNation Top 40 class rankings in 2014, there are again seven in the Top 40 in 2015 led by No. 2 Clemson, which is working on a historic recruiting class.


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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- When Jimbo Fisher is asked about his 2014 class -- and he’s been asked a lot -- he smiles and cracks a joke, one that has become part of the fifth-year Florida State coach’s preseason vernacular.

“I'll put it this way: We may get caught by the game warden for having our [fishing] live well too full,” he cracks, “but I'm not throwing any of them back.”

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY Sports"That's the kind of guys you want here, guys who want to get on the field quickly," Jimbo Fisher said.
Maybe he’s just happy this offseason he’s being asked about newcomers instead of a quarterback competition or whether the Seminoles are “back.” Or maybe it is possible Fisher really does expect greatness out of this 2014 class, which RecruitingNation ranked No. 3 in February.

Through summer workouts and the first two weeks of preseason camp, Fisher said this class is far along as physically as he has ever seen. That is due in large part to 13 linemen Fisher signed, seven of whom tip the scales at 290 pounds or more. While linemen are usually relegated to a redshirt season upon arrival, Fisher said he sees a use for several of the newcomers to play early. Over the course of the last three classes, nine freshman linemen have been letterwinners, and Fisher has played junior college transfers immediately, as well.

Mentally, however, this group of 28 is as far along as any of the five classes Fisher’s recruited. There wasn’t a single academic casualty among the signees, and the 2014 signees began studying the playbook as soon as possible. The coaching staff has commended the Seminoles’ upperclassmen throughout camp for tutoring the younger players, too.

“All of those guys have been very coachable and they’re willing to learn. That’s been huge,” first-year defensive coordinator Charles Kelly said. “The whole class in general, size speed and athleticism has been very impressive.

Expect some of the 2014 praise to subside as fall camp ends and preparations for Oklahoma State begin, but there should be more than a handful of freshmen who make significant contributions as freshmen. Receivers Ermon Lane and Travis Rudolph were in the top six among receivers nationally in the 2014 class, and in practices freshman defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi has been “that dude,” according to end Mario Edwards Jr.

Over the last three seasons, 29 freshmen have earned letters and 14 were named to at least one freshmen All-America team. Those numbers should continue to grow in 2014. Sophomore Jalen Ramsey, a Thorpe Award watch list member in 2014, said Florida State embraces its freshmen like few programs, and there is rarely a grudge if a younger player earns a starting job from an upperclassman.

“As a team, we want the best people on the field beside us. When you have the best people on the field, you don’t have to worry about doing extra roles,” Ramsey said. “If they’re the best, then definitely play them.”

Ramsey said he entered his freshman season with a mindset that he was not going to be outworked and would secure at least a spot in the defensive backfield’s rotation. He ended up starting every game.

“It inspires [the freshmen],” Fisher said. “That’s the kind of guys you want here, guys who want to get on the field quickly.”

Group efforts in ACC backfields

August, 19, 2014
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There's a certain order to the chaos at the line of scrimmage, and after a few hits, tailbacks begin to make some sense of it, Virginia's Kevin Parks said. It's usually a game of trial and error. A few hits, a few near-misses, and then it becomes clear.

In other words, ask most running backs what they need to break a big run, and the answer is simple: Just a few more touches.

"Once you get out there and the ball in your hands, it's natural," said Parks, who racked up 1,031 yards on 227 carries last year, both tops among returning ACC tailbacks. "You're getting in the flow of the game. You're taking your hits and get stronger as the game goes on. Some guys are like that."

SportsNation

Which team has the best RB tandem in the ACC?

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    44%
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    34%
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    10%
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Discuss (Total votes: 3,627)

Of course, some guys aren't. In fact, finding a true every-down back is a rarity these days, even at the NFL level. The position has become more specialized, and as that's happened, the need for a deep and diverse stable of backs has grown.

Even Parks, one of the league's true bell cows at tailback, doesn't figure to be the only show in town for Virginia. Sophomore Taquan Mizzell, one of the Cavaliers top recruits under coach Mike London, is right behind him on the depth chart, providing a dynamic change of pace for the offense.

The same is true at Louisville and UNC and Syracuse and Pitt (which has a pair 0f 700-yard backs returning) and nearly every other program in the conference. At Florida State, where Jimbo Fisher has given a tailback 25 carries in a game just four times during his tenure, Karlos Williams is the epitome of an every-down back, but even he's being challenged by freshman Dalvin Cook and sophomore Mario Pender -- neither of whom have taken a snap at the college level.

It's really a game of probabilities, Fisher said. Depth provides alternatives, and at a position where physical punishment comes with the territory, it's best for teams to be prepared with a contingency plan.

"A running back only has so many hits in him," Fisher said. "The durability, the freshness in the fourth quarter, developing depth on your team and if guys have certain skill sets you have to put them in position to have success like that. I think it helps your team grow."

Fisher certainly has the evidence to back up his theory. During the past two seasons, only Oregon and Ohio State have averaged more yards-per-carry (excepting sacks) than Florida State's 6.40 mark. Last season, the Seminoles averaged 6.33 yards-per-carry in the second halves of games, too — the fourth-best mark in the country and an improvement of more than 1.5 yards per touch from its first-half average.

Specialization and distribution have become paramount, even for programs that have traditionally relied on a lead ball carrier.

Rod McDowell racked up 189 carries for Clemson last year, but Dabo Swinney said that was more a factor of necessity than desire. With four running backs vying for carries on this year's depth chart and coordinator Chad Morris aiming to run at least 85 plays a game, the rushing attempts figure to be portioned out in smaller doses in 2014.

"It's really become a specialized position," said Swinney, who plans to have a backfield-by-committee approach this season. "You need different flavors. You don't want all vanilla ice cream. You need some strawberry, chocolate, blueberry."

Nationally, just 15 running backs averaged 20 carries per game last season, half the number to reach that average in 2007. But including QBs, there were 36 runners who averaged 6.5 yards-per-rush or better last season, nearly double the total from 2007.

There are still a few every-down ball-carriers, but they're the exception. Andre Williams accounted for 68 percent of Boston College's rushing attempts last season and ended the year as a Heisman finalist, but Parks was the only other ACC runner to carve out more than a 40 percent share in his backfield.

Duke Johnson certainly would've eclipsed that total at Miami, but he went down with an ankle injury in Miami's eighth game and was lost for the season. Johnson figures to return to a prominent role in 2014 -- perhaps the closest thing the ACC will have to a true bell cow -- but last year's injury showcased just how crucial it is to have depth. With a healthy Johnson, Miami averaged 5.4 yards per carry and 200 yards per game on the ground. Without him, the Hurricanes mustered just 3.6 yards per carry and less than 100 yards per game rushing.

Spreading the wealth even when there's a clear No. 1 on the depth chart helps build depth that might not have been there before, NC State coach Dave Doeren said. The Wolfpack figure to give at least three — and maybe four — tailbacks a share of the pie this year, and while Doeren said he'll play the hot hand on a series-by-series basis, the knowledge that each player will get his shot while not being guaranteed anything more has had a positive effect on practice.

"When you have two or three backs, they've got to maximize their carries and put themselves in a position to get more," he said.

The game of mix-and-match tailbacks doesn't always sit well with players who, like Parks, would love a chance to get into a rhythm and take a few hits, but it's a fact of life most have gotten used to.

"It's a hard thing when you get your mojo running and you get pulled," Parks said, "but at the end of the day, you've got to be a team player. If the coaches feel you're hitting on all cylinders, they'll keep you in."

And there's an advantage for them, too. All those hits may help a tailback get a feel for the game, but they're also a lot of wear and tear on players who are hoping to still have plenty of spring in their steps when it's time to play at the NFL level.

"It means they have more tread on the tires when they get to the NFL and can truly make money," Fisher said. "But you're still getting the most out of them while you're here."
Boston College coach Steve Addazio remembers an era when players wanted to redshirt as true freshmen to better prepare them for the final four years of their college career.

"Now it's 'I want to play,' " Addazio, 55, said. "If you're talking about not playing them early, the majority are like 'What do you mean?'"

So, the ability to play or possibly even start as a true freshman has become a regular sales pitch for coaches from the Power Five to the Group of Five. It's certainly a tool in the belt for Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher. Last week, Fisher alluded to the number of freshmen All-Americans he's coached the last four seasons. Twenty-four hours later, it was on the program's official recruiting Twitter page.

"The last [four] years we've had 14 freshmen All-Americans," said Fisher, condensing multiple outlets' freshmen award teams into one, concise Florida State propaganda poster. "If you come in ready to play, we're willing to put you on the field. It's critical for guys to come in saying 'When I'm the best, I'll play.'"

Fisher has the goods to back up his claims, even if the numbers are obviously skewed to best represent his program. But how does his résumé compare to those coaching some of the country's other top programs?

I tried to come up with a way to accurately discern which schools play the most freshmen and decided true freshmen letterwinners was the simplest and most effective way to crunch the numbers. To earn a letter, a player has to actually play consistently through the season. The disclaimer is each program can use different benchmarks when awarding letters, but there is never going to be a perfect way.

I began with Florida State's, looking back at the 2011-2013 classes. To properly quantify the data from Florida State, I decided I'd look at the five schools ranked highest in the preseason polls that have had its coach in place at least five seasons. Oregon's Mark Helfrich was offered an exemption because he was promoted from within and is in his sixth season with the Ducks. Coaches in place at least five years was the stipulation since an incoming coach might be susceptible to playing the prospects he recruited or having a number of transfers that could open up starting or rotational spots.

The criteria: Each class was looked at and the total number of signees was pared down to just those who enrolled as members of the football team in the fall. Junior college signees were excluded, as were any recruits who were academically or medically disqualified before playing a game. That explains why the total number of freshmen for our purposes might look different than what might be seen on RecruitingNation. Any true freshmen who spent a year at a post-graduate or prep school was also excluded. Redshirt freshmen were disqualified, too.

Bottom line is if the player was not a part of the football team the fall following his high school graduation, he was excluded.

Nearly all of the data was collected after poring through media guides and archives, although the communications departments at some of the schools were also helpful providing numbers and deserve recognition.

So, here is the actual data:

 

It is hardly a coincidence that Fisher and Alabama's Nick Saban, who mentored Fisher at LSU, have identical percentages of true freshmen earning a letter. Fisher and Saban arguably have been the two best recruiters over the last few cycles, and, the data shows those two are not going to keep young talent off the field simply because of age. Nearly half of the true freshmen at Alabama and Florida State lettered over the last three seasons.

Mark Dantonio has built Michigan State into a national title contender in a different manor, relying on experience. Only 12 percent of true freshmen lettered over the last three seasons. Recruiting to Michigan State is not the easy task it is at some other top-10 programs, and the Spartans are not recruiting as many ESPN 300-level players as the likes of Alabama and Florida State.

It should be noted Michigan State, Oklahoma and Oregon don't have quite the recruiting base Alabama and Florida State do.

Inquiring minds want to see how that 45 percent stacks up to some of the other top programs in the country, so even though they did not fit the criteria I looked at a few other schools with coaches in place at least five seasons and lately in the top half of the rankings. LSU was worth a look considering it's Les Miles' 10th season in Baton Rouge and, like Fisher and Saban, has recruited exceptionally well for a long period of time. Mark Richt is in his 14th season at Georgia and, like Miles, usually has a highly-regarded recruiting class. Steve Spurrier is in his 10th season at South Carolina and has steadily improved the Gamecocks' class to the point that the 2015 class is No. 5 nationally. Dabo Swinney has turned Clemson from a perennial disappointment into a two-time BCS bowl participant. And Ohio State and Texas A&M, mainly because it's worth seeing how third-year Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer fares considering he frequently voices his preference to avoid redshirting. Kevin Sumlin is also in the process of trying to build an SEC power that can compete with Alabama and LSU in the SEC West.

 

For the Buckeyes, out of the 69 true freshmen to land in Columbus, Ohio, from 2011-2013, 31 lettered -- the same 45 percent. Looking at just Meyer's two seasons, however, he is decimals ahead of Fisher and Saban at 46 percent (21 out of 46), thanks in large part to 14 freshmen letterwinners in his first season.

Georgia's Mark Richt has a percentage of nearly 50 percent, but the Bulldogs' numbers might be the most skewed. Along with South Carolina, the Bulldogs had several recruits that either did not qualify or spent time at a prep school or junior college. Also, Georgia's long list of dismissals and transfers is well documented, and all of the departures has opened up spots for freshmen to earn immediate playing time.

It is Miles, though, who plays a higher percentage of freshmen than all of the others. Twelve true freshmen lettered for LSU in both 2012 and 2013, and another nine earned a letter in 2011. There were a total of 65 applicable freshmen to enter LSU during that span and 33 of them lettered. That's a percentage of 51 percent.

Certainly the numbers will fluctuate year to year, and coaches at every single program are playing freshmen more frequently than ever before. When taking into account the timeline is over three years, LSU averages just one more freshman letterwinner per season than Alabama and Florida State. For our intents and purposes, though, the data shows which top programs consistently play the most freshmen in this new era of freshmen phenoms.

And, uh, FYI, Alabama has 19 ESPN 300 players prepping for their freshmen season this fall. LSU has 16, and Florida State isn't far off with 13 of their own.

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