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Roster changes make Alabama and Clemson’s national title rematch a fresh affair

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Every coach at nearly every level of football will tell you that a team can be vastly different from one season to the next no matter how many players are returning to the roster. There may be no better example of that than this year’s historic rematch in the national championship game between Alabama and Clemson.

Sure, Deshuan Watson and the Tigers appear to be mostly the same group that pilled up plenty of yards and put up 40 points on Nick Saban’s defense. And you’d be correct that many of last season’s stars for the Crimson Tide like Jonathan Allen and O.J. Howard will be back again for another go around at that prestigious golden trophy. But looking a little deeper at the depth chart for both squads reveals that these are two very different teams from last year with plenty of fresh faces around heading into this title game clash in 2017.

To start with, a number of key players will be watching at home after wrapping up their rookie year in the NFL. The Crimson Tide had seven players drafted off the 2015 team — all going in the first 75 picks — that included Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, star center Ryan Kelly and stud defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson. Others like Kenyan Drake, who had a 95 yard kick return for a touchdown back in Glendale last season, also won’t be around for Monday night’s edition. All told, there will be eight new starters for Saban’s defense compared to last year’s title game and a further six on offense.

Naturally, some of those starters this time around played quite a bit in the first meeting and have developed into impressive players after 15 games this year. There are still a few however, like quarterback Jalen Hurts and right tackle Jonah Williams, who will be entering this championship bout set to play key roles after watching last year’s game as either high schoolers or early enrollees. Both have had fantastic seasons for the Tide despite their youth and should play a key role in the outcome of this one despite this being their first action in the sport’s biggest game.

The same is true on the Clemson side, which has a number of players who will play in this setting for the first time. That includes freshman right tackle Sean Pollard on offense, plus star defensive linemen Dexter Lawrence (second on the team in sacks) and Fiesta Bowl Defensive MVP Clelin Ferrell. Receiver Deon Cain was suspended for the Tigers’ postseason run in 2015 while fellow wideout Mike Williams — perhaps the best in the country at his position entering the game — was cheering on the sideline as he recovered from a terrible neck injury.

In total, Clemson had eight starters and one backup drafted off last year’s roster that won’t be around for the upcoming rematch with Alabama. Many of their experienced backups have easily slid into the starting role and will have a big impact on Monday night though, such as linebackers Dorian O’Daniel and Kendall Joseph, corner Ryan Carter, safety Jadar Johnson and left guard Taylor Hearn.

While there will be plenty of new names among the players from last year to this one, there are a few new ones on the coaching staffs. While Clemson’s changes are mostly minor and behind the scenes when it comes to analysts, Alabama’s are far more pronounced. Tide defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt was around the offices for title game prep after coming over from Georgia but took a back seat to Kirby Smart. He’s no stranger to the stage however, having won a ring at Florida State in 2013. The same is true for his new opposite number in Steve Sarkisian, who played a big run in USC’s dominance under Pete Carroll back in the day and takes over for offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin on short notice this week after serving as an analyst since August.

So when you sit down to watch Alabama and Clemson square off on Monday night in the national championship game, just know that while it may be a rematch with a number of familiar names like Saban and Watson and Howard, the two teams are not the same ones who dueled in the desert last January. We may get a game down in Tampa that plays out in similar fashion but both the Tide and the Tigers will enter Raymond James Stadium with a very different makeup in 2017.

Telly Lockette takes job at Florida State as TEs coach

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As Willie Taggart constructs his first coaching staff at Florida State, he’s added yet another familiar face.

Taggart, FSU announced earlier Thursday, has hired Telly Lockette as the Seminoles’ tight ends coach.  Lockette had spent the past three seasons as the running backs coach at Oregon State.

Prior to that, Lockette was a member of Taggart’s coaching staff at USF as running backs coach for two seasons and maintains deep ties to the fertile recruiting soil of South Florida.

“I’ve known Coach Lockette for a long time and am excited he is joining our staff at Florida State,” Taggart said. “He was an important part of my first staff at South Florida and has gained Power 5 experience with his last three seasons in the Pac-12. Coach Lockette is a tremendous recruiter and coach who does a phenomenal job developing student-athletes on and off the field. While we were at South Florida he was the primary recruiter for the Miami area and helped us sign a number of impact players, including Quinton Flowers, Khalid McGee and Deatrick Nichols. His expertise will benefit our current and future Seminoles.”

The job with Taggart at USF was Lockette’s first at any level of college football.  The first 10 years of his coaching career were spent at the high school level, including a five-year stint at Miami Central from 2008-12.

Amidst Arizona State chatter, Texas Tech DC David Gibbs signs contract extension

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Almost without fail, it pays to have your name circulating through the annual churning of the coaching rumor mill.

The latest example is David Gibbs, with the Texas Tech defensive coordinator being rumored as a target for the same job with Herm Edwards at Arizona State over the past few days.  Fast-forward to Thursday night, and Tech announced that it has finalized a new two-year contract extension with Gibbs.  The coordinator is now signed through the 2019 season.

According to the school, Gibbs’ pay will be bumped from $550,000 per year to $650,000.  That number puts Gibbs right in the middle of Big 12 DC pay.

“We are fortunate to have one of the top defensive coordinators in the country in Coach Gibbs,” head coach Kliff Kingsbury said in a release. “Since the conclusion of the regular season, finalizing this new contract to keep Coach Gibbs at Texas Tech has been a priority for myself and [athletic director] Kirby [Hocutt]. We look forward to continuing to build one of the nation’s top defenses in the years to come under Coach Gibbs.”

Long a punchline, the Red Raiders’ defense has steadily improved in the three years under Gibbs.  This season, their 27 takeaways led the Big 12 and are the most in a season for the football program since 2008.  They’re also currently seventh in the country with four defensive touchdowns.

With Gibbs back, he’ll have 10 returning starters with which to work next season.

“There isn’t a better person to work for than Kliff Kingsbury, and I’m looking forward to continue building this program with him,” Gibbs said. “There is still plenty of work that needs to be done, but I’m excited about the future of our team.”

RB Justin Crawford to skip West Virginia’s bowl game, begin preparing for NFL draft

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Sometimes the personnel gods giveth, and sometimes the personnel gods taketh away.

Thursday evening, West Virginia announced that quarterback Will Grier will return to Morgantown for the 2018 season.  Not long after, the same football program confirmed that Justin Crawford has decided to eschew playing in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl.

Instead of preparing for Utah in the postseason, the senior running back will instead begin preparations for the 2018 NFL draft.

“Justin has logged a lot of miles and been a key contributor for us the past two seasons,” head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “He made a decision to not play in the bowl game based on what is best for him and his family. He came to West Virginia to further his education and be a featured back in the Big 12 and he accomplished his goals. As he starts his preparation for the NFL Draft, we wish him nothing but the best.”

Crawford has led the Mountaineers in rushing each of the past two seasons.  He’s the first WVU player to post back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons since Noel Devine in 2008-09.

After finishing third in the Big 12 this season with 1,061 yards on the ground, he was named second-team all-conference for the second straight season.  Following the 2016 season, he earned the league’s Newcomer of the Year honor.

SMU graduate assistant GJ Kinne to call plays in Frisco Bowl

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New SMU head coach Sonny Dykes has been busy assembling his staff as he prepares to jump right in the saddle to coach the Mustangs in the Frisco Bowl next week, but he will have one holdover from the previous staff to help call the shots on offense. Graduate assistant GJ Kinne will call the offensive plays for the bowl game, according to Adam Grosbard of The Dallas Morning News.

This would seem to be the most logical choice for Dykes to make in this scenario. Kinne has been working in the SMU system all season long under former head coach Chad Morris, who has moved to Arkansas with a handful of assistants. Having the most experience with the current roster and a better comfort level makes sense to have Kinne take on this responsibility so close to the bowl game. This will be a major promotion for Kinne, the former Tulsa quarterback, even if just for one game.

I certainly trust G.J. It’s going to be fun to give him an opportunity to be highly involved and it’ll be one of those things he remembers for the rest of his life,” Dykes said of the decision to have Kinne calling the offense from above. “When you’re a GA and you get to call a bowl game, it’s a pretty awesome opportunity.”

Just how smoothly this all goes is anyone’s guess. Fortunately, if things go awry, Kinne and Dykes can always just resort to going back to a chuck-it-deep mentality and see what happens.

SMU faces Louisiana Tech in the Frisco Bowl on Dec. 20.