CFT 2014 Preseason Preview: Heisman Watch List

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And now we come to one of the most fruitless and frustrating portions of preview season: the preseason Heisman watch list.

Last year around this time, Johnny Manziel, fresh off becoming the first freshman to ever claim the Heisman, was being viewed as the co-favorite to become just the second-ever to stake his claim to a pair of stiff-armed trophies. AJ McCarron, still basking in the glow of becoming the first starting quarterback with back-to-back BCS title-game wins, was viewed as a potential challenger to Johnny Football. So too were Braxton Miller, Jadeveon Clowney, Teddy Bridgewater and a whole host of other players.

And then, of course, Jameis Winston happened. A 35-1 longshot last August, Winston went on to claim the 2013 Heisman in near-record fashion, joining Manziel as the only freshmen to win the award.

Winston, as you can expect, will be the favorite heading into the 2014 season. Is there, though, another Jameis out there this year? Let’s take a snapshot look at the reigning winner as well as 20 players, in alphabetical order so as not to (gasp!) offend anyone, who could snatch the trophy from the preseason front-runner.

JAMEIS WINSTON, FLORIDA STATE, QB
2013 STAT LINE: 257-of-384 passing (66.9%) for 4,057 yards, 40 touchdowns, 10 interceptions; 88 carries for 219 yards (2.8 yards per carry) and four touchdowns
QUICK HIT: There’s really not much to say here that hasn’t already been said.  Winston was the best player in college football last season, and also happened to play on the best team for good measure.  He’s lost a couple of weapons, but twice as many returned to go along with the obligatory growth of some of the younger skill players who should see their roles expand in 2014.  Also remember that Winston was in his first year as a starter; if his skill-set makes even a nominal jump, look out Archie Griffin… especially if he can avoid the negative off-field headlines.

AMEER ABDULLAH, NEBRASKA, RB
2013 STAT LINE: 281 carries for 1,690 yards (6.0 ypc) and nine touchdowns; 26 receptions for 232 yards and two touchdowns
QUICK HIT: Unbeknownst to quite a number of people I’d suspect, Abdullah, not Melvin Gordon (see below) or anyone else, led the Big Ten in rushing last season.  As you can see by his receiving numbers, he’s quite adept at coming out of the backfield as well.  If you’re looking for a Heisman darkhorse, you could do worse than focusing on Abdullah as he will be the focal point of the Cornhuskers’ offense yet again..

RAKEEM CATO, MARSHALL, QB
2013 STAT LINE: 298-of-499 passing (59.7 %) for 3,916 yards, 39 touchdowns, nine interceptions; 99 carries for 294 yards (3.0 ypc) and six touchdowns
QUICK HIT: The first of two players on this list from non-Power Five conferences, and the one who has the best chance of crashing the December New York City Heisman party as a finalist.  The 2013 stats speak for themselves, and should do nothing but improve in 2014.  What separates Cato from the rest of the “have-not” pack is his team: there’s a very good chance that Cato and the Herd roll through the regular season unbeaten, and do so very, very easily.  Will the fact that exactly zero of the 12 opponents come from Power Five conferences impact Cato’s chances?  Possibly, but if the quarterback jabs voters in the face with a left-right combo of stats and team success, they won’t have a choice but to pay attention.

MIKE DAVIS, SOUTH CAROLINA, QB
2013 STAT LINE: 203 carries for 1,183 yards (5.8 ypc) and 11 touchdowns; 34 receptions for 352 yards
QUICK HIT: One of the most underrated players in the country at any position, Davis will get the opportunity, especially early on, to carry more of the offensive workload as Dylan Thompson establishes his footing as the full-time starter for the first time.  As with Abdullah, his work in the passing game is an overlooked facet that provides an extra dimension for his offense — and another consideration for voters.

MELVIN GORDON, WISCONSIN, RB
2013 STAT LINE: 206 carries for 1,609 yards (7.8 ypc) and 12 touchdowns; one reception for 10 yards
QUICK HIT: Gordon may not have led his conference in rushing as mentioned earlier, but he did lead the country in yards per carry for those backs with at least 200 carries.  In fact, he was one of just two running backs in the country who had 200-plus carries and averaged over seven yards a carry, with the other being Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde (7.3).  With running mate James White (1,444 yards, 13 touchdowns) off to the NFL, the path is cleared for Gordon to double-up on his 2013 production — and I’m only slightly exaggerating.

TODD GURLEY, GEORGIA, RB
2013 STAT LINE: 165 carries for 989 yards (6.0 ypc) and 10 touchdowns; 37 receptions for 441 yards and six touchdowns
QUICK HIT: An injury cost this Bulldog three games in the month of October.  When healthy — and he’s expected to be just that to start the season — he’s arguably the most talented back in the country.  Add in Georgia being one of a handful of SEC teams breaking in new quarterbacks, and Gurley should be at or near the top of most Heisman watch lists throughout the season.

CHRISTIAN HACKENBERG, PENN STATE, QB
2013 STAT LINE: 231-of-392 passing (58.9%) for 2,955 yards, 20 touchdowns, 10 interceptions; 49 carries for -68 yards (-1.9 ypc) and four touchdowns
QUICK HIT: One of just two true sophomores on this list, Hackenberg flourished under QB guru Bill O’Brien.  With O’Brien off to the NFL, how will Hackenberg handle new head coach James Franklin and an entirely different offensive system?  Based on watching a kid who just oozes talent and confidence, I’m guessing he’ll adapt just fine, thank you very much.

BRETT HUNDLEY, UCLA, QB
2013 STAT LINE: 248-of-369 passing (67.2%) for 3,071 yards, 24 touchdowns, nine interceptions; 160 carries for 748 yards (4.7 ypc) and 11 touchdowns; one reception for seven yards and a touchdown
QUICK HIT: All Hundley has done in two seasons as the Bruins’ starter is throw for over 6,800 yards and 53 touchdowns, all while completing a ridiculous 67-percent of his passes (nearly).  Oh, and he’s added more than 1,100 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns on the ground for good measure.  If he’d have been putting up those numbers for a team that played in a conference east of the Mississippi, you could be looking at the biggest challenger to Winston’s crown.  Instead, you’re looking at a player still fighting for the respect he richly deserves.  Hopefully voters look west and beyond their narrow focus on a certain Duck if Hundley continues to put up the numbers he has.

MYLES JACK, UCLA, LB/RB
2013 STAT LINE: 75 tackles, 11 passes defensed, two interceptions, one return touchdown; 38 carries for 269 yards (7.0 ypc) and seven touchdowns
QUICK HIT: Jack is the other of the two true sophomores.  As a true freshman, he was a two-way highlight machine, finishing fifth on the Bruins in tackles while landing behind only Hundley in rushing touchdowns.  If Jack goes both ways again this year — and that appears to be the plan — and does it all season, there’s little doubt he’ll be on the tip of many a Heisman voter’s tongue come November.

DUKE JOHNSON, MIAMI, RB
2013 STAT LINE: 145 carries for 920 yards (6.3 ypc) and six touchdowns; four receptions for 77 yards; 14 kick returns for 396 yards (28.3 yards per return)
QUICK HIT: A devastating ankle injury cost Johnson the final five games of last season and sidelined him for all of spring practice as well.  Johnson, at 100-percent, can put scores on the board rushing, receiving and in the kick-return game.  A healthy Johnson will be a factor in both the ACC and Heisman races, especially given the very unsettled nature of The U’s quarterback situation.

CHUCKIE KEETON, UTAH STATE, QB
2013 STAT LINE: 136-of-196 passing (69.4%) for 1,388 yards, 18 touchdowns, two interceptions; 55 carries for 241 yards (4.4 ypc) and two touchdowns
QUICK HIT: The second of just two non-Power Five conference players on the list.  Also one of the ones coming off a significant injury, one suffered in the sixth game of the year that cost the Aggie senior more than half the season.  If he can get back to the form he displayed in 2012… if USU can maintain its presence as a 10-win(ish) mid-major… if he can put on a show in Knoxville against Tennessee in the opener… if those three things take place, you never know.  Watching a potential mid-major between Keeton and Cato develop would be fascinating, though.

TAYLOR KELLY, ARIZONA STATE, QB
2013 STAT LINE: 302-of-484 (63.4%) for 3,635 yards, 28 touchdowns, 12 interceptions; 173 carries for 608 yards (3.5 ypc) and nine touchdowns
QUICK HIT: If I were a gambling man, I’d bet you I’d put a little bit of money on Mr. Kelly and his 100/1 odds for the 2014 Heisman.  Call it a hunch.  Kelly has been flying underneath the national radar the last two seasons; entering his third year as a starter, he’s ready to break out and become a household name.  Again, a hunch.

TREVOR KNIGHT, OKLAHOMA, QB
2013 STAT LINE: 79-of-134 passing (59%) for 819 yards, nine touchdowns, five interceptions; 67 carries for 445 yards (6.6 ypc) and two touchdowns
QUICK HIT: This one may be the first real stretch in the group, so much so that I think I just felt something pop.  Which Knight will show up this year, the one who had issues hanging on to the job in his first season as a starter or the one that torched Alabama for 348 yards passing and four touchdowns in the Sugar Bowl?  From this vantage point, I’ll say somewhere in between, with a big jump the deeper we get into 2014 and on into the 2015 season.

SEAN MANNION, OREGON STATE, QB
2013 STAT LINE:
QUICK HIT: One of the most prolific quarterbacks in the country statistically in 2013, Mannion was hamstrung by one simple fact — his seven-win Beavers were just a fair-to-middling squad.  If OSU can get closer to 10 wins than five, and Mannion can put up similar numbers — won’t be easy with the loss of Brandin Cooks — he should be on the radar through October and on into November.

MARCUS MARIOTA, OREGON, QB
2013 STAT LINE: 245-of-386 passing (63.5%) for 3,665 yards, 31 touchdowns; four interceptions; 96 carries for 715 yards (7.4 ypc) and nine touchdowns
QUICK HIT: Simply put, Mariota is one of the best — THE best in my opinion — quarterbacks in college football.  You’ve heard all of the well-deserved superlatives, so there’s no need for me to drop to my knees as well.  He’ll be a factor in the Heisman race from Game 1 through Game 12 and on into the Ducks’ (expected) appearance in the Pac-12 championship game.

NICK MARSHALL, AUBURN, QB
2013 STAT LINE: 142-of-239 passing (59.4%) for 1,976 yards, 14 touchdowns, six interceptions; 172 carries for 1,068 yards (6.2 ypc) and 12 touchdowns; one reception for 35 yards
QUICK HIT: Marshall’s first season as a starter wasn’t statistically overwhelming, but it was deadly in its efficiency.  Marijuana citation aside, Marshall is said to have had a very good offseason, improving his throwing mechanics and becoming more and more comfortable in Gus Malzahn‘s offense.  If true, and if the passing aspect of his game improves, that could prove to be bad news for the SEC in general and the West specifically.

BRAXTON MILLER, OHIO STATE, QB
2013 STAT LINE: 162-of-255 passing (63.5%) for 2,094 yards, 24 touchdowns, seven interceptions; 171 carries for 1,068 yards (6.2 ypc) and 12 touchdowns
QUICK HIT: Miller improved in nearly every statistical category in his third season as a starter.  Entering his fourth year, it’s time for the 2013 preseason Heisman favorite to take the next step, which means becoming more of a passing quarterback and less of a running one.  A greater threat in the passing game while maintaining the “holy crap, he may take off” aspect of his run threat would prove to be a lethal combination that not many quarterback’s possess — and not many coordinators would stand a chance of counteracting.

TY MONTGOMERY, STANFORD, WR
2013 STAT LINE: 61 receptions for 958 yards (15.7 ypc) and 10 touchdowns; 36 kick returns for 1,091 yards (30.3 ypr)
QUICK HIT: Montgomery’s long-shot candidacy may have suffered a fatal blow before it even started as shoulder surgery leaves him questionable for the first two games of the year.  One missed game would all but end the candidacy; two missed games would kill it for a receiver.  Still, I felt, given the immense two-way talent Montgomery is, he at least deserved a mention.

BRYCE PETTY, BAYLOR, QB
2013 STAT LINE: 250-for-403 passing (62%) for 4,200 yards, 32 touchdowns, three interceptions; 94 carries for 209 yards (2.2 ypc) and 14 touchdowns
QUICK HIT: Along with Winston, Miller and Mariota, Petty is widely viewed as a quarter of the four-headed Heisman favorite.  While the passing yards and touchdowns certainly catch the eye, the fact that Petty threw just three picks in 403 attempts is enough to drop the jaw to the floor.  Art Briles‘ system just chugs along — at warp speed — year after year; don’t expect anything to change in Petty’s second year as the Bears’ triggerman.

KEENAN REYNOLDS, NAVY, QB
2013 STAT LINE: 68-of-128 passing (53.1%) for 1,057 yards, eight touchdowns, two interceptions; 300 carries for 1,346 yards (4.5 ypc) and 31 touchdowns
QUICK HIT: How could you not put a player like Reynolds on a list like this?  Yes, the Midshipmen have somewhat of a penchant for running the ball and utter disdain for throwing it, which means Reynolds won’t have the gaudy passing stats that catch a voter’s attention the way a set of jingling keys catches a toddler’s.  Still, any player with 31 rushing touchdowns — 31!!!!!! — in a single season deserves a shout-out.  Especially one who comes from one of our nation’s great service academies.

T.J. YELDON, ALABAMA, RB
2013 STAT LINE: 207 carries for 1,235 yards (6.0 ypc) and 14 touchdowns; 20 receptions for 183 yards
QUICK HIT: This bruising back has it all: speed, power, change of direction and surprisingly soft hands for a man his size.  He’s everything Nick Saban wants in a running back.  What he doesn’t have?  Sole ownership of the Tide’s running game load, the kind of ownership that would allow him to put up eye-catching numbers, because of the presence of Derrick Henry.  The reality is Henry is too good of a back and too much of a weapon to not utilize, which means Yeldon could still be one of the most Heisman-worthy players in the country and not have the stats to show it.  Such is life on Five-Star Island.

(Click HERE for the CFT 2014 Preseason Preview Repository)

Jim McElwain hints at playing three quarterbacks vs. Michigan

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Considering his opponent won’t so much as release a simple roster, there’s no reason whatsoever for Florida head coach Jim McElwain to say anything of consequence.

Still, it sounds as if No. 17 Florida may play all three of its quarterbacks next Saturday against No. 11 Michigan (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC).

“You’re going to see a bunch of them in there playing. The three guys have done a really good job. Not naming a starter right now,” McElwain said. “I think that there’s some things that they all bring to the table that are really good. Now the key to us is putting them in those positions that play to their strengths.

“Will all of them play? I don’t know yet. Will a couple of them play? I don’t know yet. I know we will have somebody at the position. This is not — don’t read into this that we’re not happy where they’re at. It’s really more so the competition has really brought out some good things. It’s going to be … ultimately the guy the team moves with the best, the guys that create positive plays on third down and get the ball in the end zone [that we go with].”

The three of them, by the way, are graduate transfer Malik Zaire, junior Luke Del Rio and redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks. In a world governed by the truism of “If you have two quarterbacks you don’t have any,” it’s not exactly a good sign that none of Zaire, Del Rio or Franks have separated themselves from the others.

Zaire showed flashes but was eventually benched at Notre Dame and just arrived on campus this summer. Del Rio, a 2-time transfer before arriving at Florida, was the Gators’ starter coming out of training camp last season but fought through injuries throughout the season. And Franks is a 6-foot-5 former 5-star recruit that many thought would have grabbed the job by the horns by now.

While every team turns over from one season to the next, Florida finished 105th nationally in yards per play last season while Michigan’s defense placed second. With top playmaker Antonio Callaway serving a suspension, Florida will look to put the ball in the hands of whomever can move it, even if three of them happen to play quarterback.

Tracy Claeys discusses protests that led to his firing from Minnesota

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Chances are you haven’t heard Tracy Claeys‘s name mentioned in a while. The former Minnesota interim-turned-full time head coach was let go in January and has not been picked up by a new staff in the months since.

But Minnesota released an outside report last week that defended the school’s decision to suspend 10 players amid a sexual assault investigation and pinned the subsequent team-wide threatened boycott of the Holiday Bowl on “weak leadership” of the coaching staff. The Gophers played and won that Holiday Bowl, but it wasn’t enough to save Claeys’s job.

On Wednesday, Claeys penned an essay in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that both defended his tenure as the Golden Gophers’ head coach and admitted mistakes in a saga that would have swallowed many a head coach’s career.

Last September, I suspended five players for a reported sexual assault. When law enforcement authorities the following month declined to file any charges, the university reinstated those players. At the time, I was congratulated by our athletic director for my handling of this issue and promised that I would remain the head football coach in 2017.

But university officials soon conducted their own inquiry and in December resuspended the five players and suspended five more — again, even though prosecutors had determined there was no basis for formal charges.

Members of our Football Leadership Group and others on the team felt strongly that administration officials had overstepped their authority and that the accused players were treated unfairly and denied protection under due process. To amplify their argument and shine light on what players felt was a flawed and unjust process by the university, the team voted to boycott the Holiday Bowl.

It was a decision that moved us directly into the national spotlight. Unfortunately, some misunderstood or misinterpreted the players’ decision to boycott the Holiday Bowl. They felt that our team and coaches were condoning or downplaying sexual misconduct or assault. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

In light of this new report, are there things I would have done differently? Certainly. First and foremost, I would have remained on campus with my team and coaches rather than attend a Holiday Bowl news conference in San Diego. I’m confident that my presence would have better directed the conversation with our players and that I could have steered them toward something other than a decision to boycott the game.

 I also would have refrained from using social media to state my support of the team’s decision. This was too complex and important an issue to address in a 140-character message. It generated more questions than it answered and likely created more problems than it solved.
Claeys was 11-8 in his one and a half seasons as Minnesota’s head coach, his first head coaching job. Assuming he does not get hired in the next week and a half, the 2017 season will be Claeys’s first out of the game since launching his career as a student trainer at Kansas in the early ’90’s.

Kirk Ferentz and wife donate $1 million to Iowa children’s hospital

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Kirk Ferentz may be the but of a bunch of contract-related jokes, but no one jokes about the man’s character.

And for good reason.

The University of Iowa’s Stead Family Children’s Hospital announced Wednesday that Kirk and his wife Mary have donated $1 million to create the Savvy Ferentz Program in Neonatal Research, which will aim to improve the survival rate for premature babies. The Ferentzes made the donation in honor of their granddaughter Savvy, who was born in 2014 at 22 weeks gestation.

“We knew Savvy was born too early,” Mary said in a statement. “We also knew they do extraordinary things at UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital that would give her a fighting chance. We were thankful we had that.”

The Stead Family Children’s Hospital claims higher survival rates for infants born at 24- and 25-weeks than the average U.S. hospital, and the Ferentzes hope their donation will further increase those rates.

“The University of Iowa has long been a leader in neonatal research and in providing high-level patient care, particularly to this most vulnerable population,” Iowa pediatrics professor Dr. Jeffrey L. Segar said. “This gift from the Ferentzes will help us capitalize on our strengths, advance our research, and, most important, make an impact on the lives of many Iowa children and their families, now and far into the future. We are deeply grateful for their support.”

Kirk Ferentz will begin his 19th season as Iowa’s head coach next Saturday against Wyoming (noon ET, BTN).

Texas TE Andrew Beck now out for entire 2017 season

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As it turns out, it’s much worse than originally thought for one playing member of the Texas football program.

Nearly a week ago, Andrew Beck went down during practice with what was later diagnosed to be a broken foot.  At the time, it was thought that the tight end would miss anywhere from 6-8 weeks, which would’ve put him back, at the latest, early October.

Fast-forward to Wednesday, however, and the Longhorns announced that Beck will be sidelined for the entire 2017 season because of the injury.  The senior will undergo surgery at some point this week to repair the damage.  He’s already undergone two previous foot surgeries and sat out the spring because of issues in that area.

The good news is that Beck has yet to use his redshirt season, which means he could return in 2018 as a fifth-year senior.

Beck started 13 games the past two seasons, including three in 2016.  Last season, he caught four passes for 82 yards and a pair of touchdowns.  Entering summer camp, he had been expected to be the Longhorns’ starter.

With Beck out, that onus will likely fall on Kendall Moore, a graduate transfer from Syracuse.