UNC assistant's ties to agent at center of NCAA probe

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Less than four weeks before the start of the 2010 season, it’s uncertain whether or not All-American candidate Marvin Austin will suit up in a North Carolina uniform for a regular-season game.  After the latest investigative report from Yahoo! Sports, the uncertainty swirling around the defensive tackle is growing.

According to writers Charles Robinson and Bryan Fischer, and citing three sources close to an investigation into the Tar Heels football program, NCAA investigators have focused their attention on UNC assistant coach John Blake and his relationship with agent and long-time friend Gary Wichard.

The sources said the NCAA’s inquiry into Blake has focused on his one-time position as vice president of football operations for Pro Tect Management – an agency founded and run by Wichard since 1979. Blake is now a defensive line coach for the Tar Heels, and oversees All-ACC tackle Marvin Austin, who is also facing NCAA scrutiny.

The sources said the NCAA is investigating trips Austin took to Florida, as well as his travel and training in California in the summer of 2009, when he worked out at Proactive Sports Performance with former Tar Heel and current Wichard client Kentwan Balmer. …

A training firm for a wide array of athletes, Proactive Sports is located in Thousand Oaks, Calif., less than two miles from Pro Tect Management offices. The website for Proactive boasts 12 clients who are currently signed with Pro Tect Management, and has trained many of Wichard’s draft picks since 2005.

The tentacles of the probe that began at North Carolina has subsequently spread to South Carolina, Alabama, Pittsburgh and Georgia.  A total of nine schools — including Florida, Clemson and East Carolina — have seen NCAA investigators on their campuses since June for a variety of reasons.

 As for the UNC portion of the investigation, Wichard, as expected, has denied any impropriety between he and Blake.  In fact, Wichard hopes that the sole issue the NCAA has with Austin is his relationship with Blake.

“If the center of this controversy is my relationship with John, there’s really no controversy,” Wichard said. “If that’s what [the NCAA] is investigating, I think it’s just absurd. … I hope – I really, truly hope – that Marvin Austin’s whole case is based on me and John Blake. I hope that for Marvin Austin’s sake. At the end of the day, there’s nothing to investigate.”

Later on in the outstanding piece by Robinson and Fischer, there’s an interesting — and, on the surface, damning — exchange that takes place between the writers and Wichard.

Wichard was asked if Blake, the former Oklahoma head coach who met the agent in 1985, had ever been a Pro Tect employee.  Wichard left no gray area in his response, telling Yahoo! in no uncertain terms that “no, no, no, no… He hasn’t worked for me at all.”

When informed that Yahoo! had a Pro Tect brochure listing Blake as “Vice President/Football Operations”, Wichard likely pulled a hammy as he quickly flipped the switch to full spin mode.

“The brochure is [from] like 1997 or whatever,” Wichard said. “He was on the brochure for whatever, dealing with football-related situations. But it has nothing to do with anything. He was not working as a coach at that time. The relevance to me is ridiculous. … It doesn’t prove a thing. It’s absolutely meaningless.”

(If it was so meaningless and irrelevant, why lie when asked about it the first time?)

A couple other key points have been gleaned from the article.  First, Wichard stated that he has not spoken to the NCAA regarding the investigation.  Secondly, Wichard once again stated he has only spoken to Austin on one occasion, and that was to tell the then-junior to remain in school and not enter this past April’s NFL draft.

If the story as a whole is as Wichard has painted it, there are likely no worries on Austin’s end.  

If, which seems more realistic, it’s not?  North Carolina will have a decision to make — if the NCAA hasn’t issued any rulings or given any indications by then — before they pop the top on the 2010 season: go ahead and play Austin, knowing full well that there’s a chance he could be ruled retroactively ineligible.  Or, sit one of their best players on either side of the ball given the fact that he could be declared retroactively ineligible.

Either way, this seems to be a situation that is not going away at any point in the near future.

Texas LB Malik Jefferson’s status for bowl game still up in the air

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As Texas prepares to play in the Texas Bowl against former Big 12 foe Missouri, it remains unknown whether or not linebacker Malik Jefferson will play.

Jefferson was reportedly diagnosed with a case of turf toe recently and is said to be considered day-to-day. Nick Moyle of the San Antonio Express-News reported the medical update via Twitter, and he also notes Jefferson still has not made a definitive decision on whether to leave for the NFL or not.

Jefferson would be considered a solid draft pick option at linebacker in the event he decides to leave Texas a year early to pursue a chance to play in the NFL. How this injury might impact that decision is nothing but speculation. However, players deciding to take to the NFL Draft the following spring have increasingly made the trendy decision to forgo their senior season and skip the bowl game when injuries play a factor. If Jefferson is to go to the NFL, it would not be a stunner to see him decide to skip out on the bowl game as well.

Jefferson is Texas’ leader in tackles this season with 110, including 79 solo tackles.

Lane Kiffin’s biggest recruit to FAU may be Snoop Dogg

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There is no denying the allegiance Snoop Dogg has for his beloved USC Trojans, but Lane Kiffin has managed to find some room in Snoop’s rooting interests to bring him aboard the Lane Train. With Kiffin preparing FAU for their upcoming bowl game in the Boa Raton Bowl this week, Kiffin managed to bring Snoop Dogg and Luther Campbell out to a practice.

Campbell, of course, is a Miami fan, but FAU has become a bit of a popular secondary team with Kiffin to lead the charge. Getting Uncle Luke to suit up in FAU gear and pose for a picture with Snoop Dogg deserves an automatic retweet of Kiffin’s account on Twitter.

Kiffin coached FAU to the Conference USA championship in his first season as the head coach of the Owls. With a good blend of JUCO transfers and new offensive mindset, FAU soared under Kiffin as he rebuilt his coaching pedigree. Kiffin remains one of the names to watch in the coaching carousel, although this year’s cycle may have gone through the motions without Kiffin getting a chance somewhere else. But if Kiffin is successful in Year 2, the Lane Train may be leaving the Boca Raton station for another destination soon enough.

Middle Tennessee holds on to win the bizarre (and turnover-filled) Camellia Bowl over Arkansas State

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Middle Tennessee State entered the Camellia Bowl 121st in the country in turnover margin and had lost the battle in nine of their 12 games this season. Arkansas State was only a little bit better in the same category, ranking 81st in turnover margin in 2017. Predictably those kinds of statistics came into play on Saturday night in the Camellia Bowl as the two sides played a bit of hot potato — six giveaways — before MTSU hung on for a 35-30 win to cap off the first day of bowl season in college football.

Blue Raiders quarterback Brent Stockstill had a game that could have been a nightmare for a veteran quarterback but ended up being alright thanks to his defense continually picking him on a night where chunk plays were hard to come by. The signal-caller threw the first of his three interceptions on the night on the first drive of the game but bounced back over the final three quarters, throwing for 232 yards and a pair of touchdown passes. That kind of performance, which included several big throws in the second half, helped secure the first bowl victory of his career and give him the rare distinction of being able to win a postseason game with his father Rick as head coach.

It wasn’t all about the Stockstill combo for MTSU however as their run game produced a pair of touchdowns behind tailbacks Terelle West and Tavares Thomas, and the team’s defense had one of their best outings of the season to limit the Sun Belt’s highest scoring offense to well below all their season averages. Linebacker Darius Harris led the way when his unit was on the field, flying from sideline-to-sideline and racking up 12 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a two pass break ups. His running mate at linebacker, D.J. Sanders, was equally productive with seven tackles and a 54 yard fumble return for a touchdown just before halftime.

The Red Wolves did what they could to threaten to make things interesting down the stretch but never could get over the hill. The team ran a fake punt to open fourth quarter, resulting in a 21 yard strike from the punter to gunner Chris Murray along the sidelines and appeared to seize momentum after a subsequent  touchdown to Warren Wand. However the defense failed to get a stop and then Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year Justice Hansen (337 yards, 3TD, 1 INT) threw a fourth down pass out of the end zone to all but seal a rather lackluster loss for a team that had won six of the last eight coming into the bowl.

Arkansas State also came up a bit short in the record books on the defensive side of the ball as well. In addition to allowing 35 points to MTSU, conference player of the year Ja’Von Rolland-Jones failed to record a sack and thus couldn’t break the NCAA career record (held by former Arizona State and current Baltimore Ravens star Terrell Suggs) of 44 career sacks after entering the game just shy of the mark with 43.5. While the pass rusher did manage to sack Stockstill in the game, the play was negated by a penalty to keep him from taking over on the all-time list.

The victory pushed Middle Tennessee over the .500 mark for the fifth time in six seasons and likely meant a little bit more to the program given how many key injuries the team suffered over the course of 2017 before capturing their first bowl win in eight years. Arkansas State did their best to prevent that from happening as they dropped to 7-5 on the season after a rather bizarre Camellia Bowl that had a little bit of everything.

Defense comes up big to help Middle Tennessee grab Camellia Bowl lead at halftime over Arkansas State

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Middle Tennessee State started off the Camellia Bowl on Saturday night in about the worst way possible with a pair of first quarter interceptions but leaned heavily on their stout defense to manage their way to a 21-10 lead over Arkansas State at halftime in a somewhat low-scoring affair few could have seen coming between these high-scoring offenses.

Blue Raiders quarterback Brent Stockstill tossed an interception on the team’s opening drive of the game but managed to bounce back and throw for  80 yards and a touchdown after another slow start for the veteran signal-caller. Luckily the team’s defense pitched a goal line stand after his first pick and proved to be similarly stout after his second to keep the team in things after such a rough start against the Sun Belt power.

Mistakes proved to be costly for the Red Wolves throughout the night on both sides of the ball as a roughing the punter ruined a potential stop early and led to MTSU tailback Terelle West running right off his left guard for a 45 yard touchdown and a quick lead for the Conference USA squad who wasn’t doing much to move the ball outside of that big play.

The wildest sequence of the bowl season (so far) happened in the closing minutes of the first quarter however, leaving fans, officials and coaches all confused at what exactly just happened. Stockstill appeared to find a receiver over the middle and on the door step of the end zone but ASU’s Justin Clifton had other ideas — stripping the ball and appearing to run it back (with help) for a touchdown. The call went through a lengthy review process that wound up giving Clifton an interception and his offense the ball back at their 18 yard line instead but they ended up punting it away for 61 yards to cap off a truly bizarre few minutes.

Arkansas State quarterback Justice Hansen had some decent numbers (151 yards passing, one rushing TD) but things just weren’t clicking for what had been the Sun Belt’s most prolific offense during the regular season. The signal-caller fumbled shortly before halftime, which allowed D.J. Sanders to rumble 54 yards with a fumble recovery touchdown that extended MTSU’s lead. The Red Wolves did manage to mount a scoring drive on the next possession to get right back in the game but they’ll need to show more down the stretch if they want to reach the eight win mark for the sixth time in seven seasons.

It’s had a few strange moments but the conclusion to the first Saturday of the bowl season is shaping up rather nicely down in Montgomery, Alabama. However both sides in this one will be sure to focus on correcting a bunch of mistakes after that somewhat whacky first half.