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Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson, Bryce Love among Lombardi Award candidates

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The college football season may be in the books for the 2017 season, bu there is still a piece of hardware to present to one of the sport’s top players from the most recent season. On Monday, the Lombardi Foundation unveiled a list of 21 players named as a candidate for the Lombardi Award for the 2017 season. This year, the award is open to players of any position based on performance, leadership, character and resiliency and the list of candidates includes a number of names you should be familiar with.

2017 Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield, 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, Bryce Love, Saquon Barkley, Roquan Smith, and J.T. Barrett are all among the players nominated for the award. The list of 21 candidates will be whittled down to seven finalists by a select panel of award voters this week, and four of those finalists will be invited to the Lombardi Honors presentation for the awarding of the Lombardi Award. The seven initial finalists will be announced this coming Monday, January 22.

Saquon Barkley, Penn State (RB)
J.T. Barrett, Ohio State (QB)
Bradley Chubb, N.C. State (DE)
Tyrell Crosby, Oregon (OT)
DeShon Elliott, Texas (S)
Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama (S)
Shaquem Griffin, UCF (LB)
Lamar Jackson, Louisville (QB)
Derwin James, Florida State (S)
Joel Lanning, Iowa State (LB/QB)
Bryce Love, Stanford (RB)
Hercules Mata’afa, Washington State (DE)
Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma (QB)
Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame (G)
Ed Oliver, Houston (DT)
Da’Ron Payne, Alabama (DT)
Rashaad Penny, San Diego State (RB)
Roquan Smith, Georgia (LB)
Vita Vea, Washington (DT)
James Washington, Oklahoma State (WR)
Christian Wilkins, Clemson (DT)

Alabama’s Jonathan Allen won the award for the 2016 season.

Houston QB Kyle Allen declares for NFL draft

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Didn’t see this one coming, did you?

Not long after the Houston Chronicle reported it, Kyle Allen took to Twitter to make the surprising announcement that, “after much prayer and talks with loved ones, I am excited to announce that I will be declaring for the 2018 NFL [draft].” It had previously been thought that the quarterback was a candidate to leave Houston as a graduate transfer.

Allen began his collegiate career at Texas A&M before transferring to Houston in January of 2016, sitting out that season to satisfy NCAA bylaws.  After earning the starting job to open the 2017 season, Allen was ultimately benched and replaced by Kyle Postma, who was ultimately replaced by D’Eriq King.  The true sophomore King is viewed as the future at the position, leading to the speculation that Allen could transfer for his final season of eligibility.

In 2017, the 6-3, 211-pound Allen was third on the team in attempts (105), completions (80), yards (751) and touchdowns (four).  In his two seasons at A&M, Allen completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for 3,532 yards, 33 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.

A Look Ahead: CFT’s Way-Too-Early 2018 Heisman Trophy Contenders

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We don’t really know much when it comes to the chase for the 2018 Heisman Trophy, but we do know with utter and absolute certainty that Archie Griffin‘s claim as the only back-to-back winner will hold true for yet another year.

That’s because fifth-year senior Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma claimed the 2017 version of the stiff-armed trophy and is off to the NFL.  As a matter of fact, of the Top 10 vote-getters in this year’s voting, seven of them are headed to the show — Mayfield, San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny (5th in voting) and Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph (7th) because of expired eligibility, with Louisville quarterback and 2016 winner Lamar Jackson (3rd), Penn State running back Saquon Barkley (4th), Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson (9th) and Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith (10th) opting for early entry into the draft.  And an eighth, junior Stanford running back Bryce Love (runner-up to Mayfield), is widely expected to declare for the NFL draft ahead of the Jan. 15 deadline.

That leaves just two of the Top 10 Heisman finishers who will return for the 2018 season — UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton (8th) and Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor (6th).

That would seem to bode well for Milton as, since 1986, 21 Heisman winners played quarterback.  Since 2000, it’s 15 of 18 at the position.  Working against Milton?  The fact that there hasn’t been a winner from a non-Power Five program since BYU quarterback Ty Detmer won the Heisman in 1990.

With that as a backdrop, here’s a look at a handful of players who should be contenders for the 2018 version of the trophy, listed in order from the favorite on down — we had Mayfield No. 2, behind USC quarterback Sam Darnold, last year at this time.  And Jackson No. 4.  Just saying, is all.

(Writer’s note: class designation is based on what the player will be for the 2018 season.)

(Writer’s note, the sequel: If Love doesn’t declare, put him at the very top of the list of favorites.)

J.K. Dobbins, OHIO STATE, RUNNING BACK, SOPHOMORE
Going against Dobbins is, one, he doesn’t play quarterback and, two, true sophomores winning the Heisman are a relative rarity — only Lamar Jackson (2016), Mark Ingram (2009) and Tim Tebow (2007) have done it.  Outweighing those disadvantages is the fact that, with J.T. Barrett gone, the Buckeyes will lean even more heavily on a player who ran for 1,403 yards (7.2 ypc) as a true freshman as they break in a new starter under center.  And, the fact that the Buckeyes will take part in a handful of high-profile games, starting with TCU in Arlington Week 3, and should be in the thick of the College Football Playoff hunt throughout won’t hurt the Texas native either.

KHALIL TATE, ARIZONA, QUARTERBACK, JUNIOR
The dual-threat extraordinaire ran for 1,411 yards, passed for another 1,591 and accounted for 26 touchdowns (14 passing, 12 rushing) — and he wasn’t named the starter until the first week of October.  He set the single-game FBS record for a quarterback with 327 yards rushing vs. Colorado, and ran for 200-plus yards on two other occasions.  While the abrupt firing of Rich Rodriguez would give some pause as to Tate’s future, if Kevin Sumlin, he of Johnny Football Heisman fame, is hired as the replacement, all bets are off and Tate will be in the thick of the stiff-armed discussion throughout the season — provided voters on the East Coast can stay up to witness his greatness, that is.

JONATHAN TAYLOR, WISCONSIN, RUNNING BACK, SOPHOMORE
Breaking the great Adrian Peterson‘s all-time FBS freshman rushing record and finishing sixth in the Heisman voting your first year out of the box earns you a lofty spot on any way-too-early list of this type; hell, it arguably earns you the top spot.  As long as Bryce Love doesn’t return to Stanford, Taylor will be the highest-returning vote-getter in 2018.  Add that to the Badgers being a run-first, run-in-the-middle, run-last offense, and Taylor being the bell-cow of that offense, expect the rising sophomore to be a part of the Heisman talk throughout.

NICK BOSA, OHIO STATE, DEFENSIVE END, JUNIOR
Surprise!  Yes, this is likely way, way too high for any defensive player, but there is a confluence of events that could play out that would at least allow Bosa to earn a mid-December trip to the Big Apple.  One, he already had and still has name recognition thanks in part to big brother Joey Bosa, an OSU All-American taken third overall in the 2016 NFL draft, and is decidedly on the media’s radar.  Two, he’s highly disruptive and productive in his own right — 16 tackles for loss, 8½ sacks s a true sophomore this past season.  Three, the Buckeyes are one of the highest-profile programs in the country.  If any defense-only player is to finally claim the Heisman, Bosa could have the best shot of anyone given his situation — especially if he has big games in marquee matchups.

KELLY BRYANT, CLEMSON, QUARTERBACK, SENIOR
Fun fact: in the 83-year history of the Heisman Trophy, no player from Clemson has ever taken home the award.  If Deshaun Watson, the most decorated Tiger of all, couldn’t win one, what chance does Bryant have to be the first?  That’s a damn good question, one that doesn’t have a ready answer.  In his first year as a starter, Bryant put up solid numbers, passing for just over 2,800 yards and rushing for another 665.  He added 24 total touchdowns for good measure — 13 passing, 11 rushing.  Maybe because he was still playing in Watson’s immense shadow, there was just never that “wow!” moment, even in a season that ended with another playoff appearance.  Perhaps another year removed from Watson will allow Bryant to blossom in what is his last year at this level.

MCKENZIE MILTON, UCF, QUARTERBACK, JUNIOR
Subject A: 296.9 yards per game passing, 51.3 yards per game rushing, 3.9 touchdowns per game
Subject B: 310.5 yards per game passing, 47.2 yards per game rushing, 3.5 touchdowns per game

Subject B is Milton in 13 games this past season.  Subject A is Oregon’s Marcus Mariota in 15 games, along with the stats he put up in winning the 2014 Heisman Trophy.  And Milton’s team won the national championship while Mariota’s squad fell short.  So there’s that, too.

WILL GRIER, WEST VIRGINIA, QUARTERBACK, FIFTH-YEAR SENIOR
With Baker Mayfield and Mason Rudolph off to the NFL, Grier is the top returning quarterback in the pass-happy Big 12.  Despite missing nearly three full games because of injury, and in his first full season as the Mountaineers starter, Grier’s 3,490 yards passing were fourth in the conference and 20th nationally; in passing yards per game, he was eighth (317.3).  His 34 passing touchdowns were eighth in the country as well, again, despite missing nearly a quarter of the season.  With his top target in the passing game returning as well, Grier is poised to put up big numbers yet again for Dana Holgorsen and WVU

JARRETT STIDHAM, AUBURN, QUARTERBACK, REDSHIRT JUNIOR
To the surprise of almost no one, Stidham announced last week that he’s pushing off the NFL draft and would be returning to The Plains for at least one more season.  Like Grier in his first year as the starter at the school to which he transferred, Stidham put up solid numbers — 3,158 yards, 18 touchdowns, six interceptions and completed nearly 66 percent of his passes in finishing 20th nationally in efficiency rankings.  With two of the Tigers’ most productive running backs the past two seasons leaving early for the draft, Stidham should see his numbers rise as he shoulders more of the offensive load.  As is the case with the vast majority of the players listed, though, how well his team performs will very likely determine how deep into the Heisman discussion Stidham gets.

NICK FITZGERALD, MISSISSIPPI STATE, QUARTERBACK, FIFTH-YEAR SENIOR
This is my darkhorse(ish) Heisman selection.  Fitzgerald is a lot like Hurts, although he will have an offensive system in which he’ll be able to do more through the air now that new head coach Joe Moorehead, who turned Trace McSorley into a borderline Heisman threat at Penn State, is in Starkville.  Prior to injuring his leg in the Egg Bowl, Fitzgerald was well on his way to back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons.  With Moorehead around, Fitzgerald is a near-lock to improve on the 4,205 yards passing and 36 touchdowns he’s put up the past two seasons as the Bulldogs’ starter under center.

JUST MISSED THE CUT
Houston DT Ed Oliver: There’s one defensive player listed above, which is already one too many based on Heisman precedent.
Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa — A late entrant, the strong-armed Hawaiin could challenge the notion that a Nick Saban-coached QB can’t win the Heisman.
Missouri QB Drew Lock: The Tigers’ offensive coordinator was replaced by Derek Dooley.  Enough said.
Penn State QB Trace McSorley: Saquon Barkley‘s presence in the backfield will be McSorely missed by the entire Nittany Lions offense.
Georgia QB Jake Fromm: With the Bulldogs’ two top running backs leaving, I almost pulled the trigger on Jake from State Fromm.
Oregon QB Justin Hebert: If Willie Taggart would’ve stayed instead of bolting for Florida State, he likely would’ve nudged his way in.
Florida State RB Cam Akers: The fact that Taggart is now at FSU almost led me to opt for the rising sophomore as the darkhorse pick.
Clemson RB Travis Etienne: He averaged 7.2 ypc as a true freshman on a playoff team, but there was just no room at the Heisman Inn.
West Virginia WR David Sills: The former quarterback tied for the FBS lead with 18 touchdown receptions and gets Will Grier back.
NC State QB Ryan Finley: Out of all of the ones that just missed the cut, I have a sneaking suspicion this one I might regret the most.

Scandal-riddled former Baylor coach Art Briles set to speak at AFCA Coaches Convention this week

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The AFCA Coaches Convention happens every year right around the time of the national championship game and is regularly a place where coaches at every level of the game go to catch up with old friends, meet new ones, exchange ideas and (for some) find new jobs.

The 2018 edition of the convention is already underway in Charlotte, N.C. and features another fascinating set of talks by coaches around the country. Perhaps the most interesting of the bunch might be one with the rather obscure title of ‘Standing Strong / Game Management.’ Why might the average fan raise an eyebrow over such a seemingly routine subject? Well, the fact that scandal-riddled former Baylor coach Art Briles is set to address the room.

“It’s our responsibility to educate coaches,” AFCA executive director and former Louisiana Monroe head coach Todd Berry told The Athletic. “Certainly one of the things Coach Briles experienced, and one of the things I believe he’s going to share, is there are some things that happened and he can share an experience no one else can with our group, so that we can avoid issues down the road.

“While there are things you know in theory, the reality is you’re going to gain more from someone who experienced it, that knows what to look for.”

The news of Briles’ speaking engagement comes just days after there was a minor furor brought up over Houston coach Major Applewhite hiring his son Kendal Briles to be the Cougars’ new offensive coordinator. The elder Briles was reportedly involved in the coaching search at FCS Incarnate Word but has otherwise kept a fairly low profile after getting fired at Baylor in 2016 after numerous sexual assault allegations were brought against the football program.

Briles did briefly take a job in the CFL but the uproar the team faced that followed cost him the position after just a few hours.

While the Coaches Convention’s reasoning of trying to educate others may be sound, it remains puzzling why they would think inviting Briles would be a good idea after a law firm determined that the Baylor coaching staff chose not to report sexual assaults and Briles himself is at the center of several lawsuits. Either way, the normally sleepy Tuesday following the national title game will certainly be a lot more interesting up in Charlotte.

Houston hires a pair of former Art Briles assistants, including Kendal Briles as offensive coordinator

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Houston has hired Kendal Briles as associate head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and Randy Clements as run game coordinator and offensive line coach, the program announced Saturday.

It will be the pair’s second stint at Houston, after both worked there previously under Art Briles. That would be Kendal’s father and the disgraced former Baylor head coach. That Art Briles.

Briles and Clements were swept out along with the entire staff after the 2016 season, then spent 2017 in relative states of exile. Briles was the offensive coordinator at Florida Atlantic, and Clements was the offensive line coach at Southeastern University, an NAIA school in Lakeland, Fla. And both were tremendously successful this fall.

Alongside Lane Kiffin, Briles helped Florida Atlantic rank ninth nationally in total offense, sixth in rushing and eighth in scoring at just north of 40 points per game. Sophomore running back Devin Singletary finished fourth nationally with 1,920 rushing yards and set the Conference USA record with 32 rushing touchdowns, helping the Owls roll to an 11-3 season and a C-USA championship just one year removed from three straight 3-9 campaigns.

Working alongside another former Baylor assistant in Jeff Lebby, Clements help Southeastern lead all of college football with 55.1 points per game while rolling up 330 rushing yards and 557 total yards per game. Lebby has since been hired on Josh Heupel‘s staff at Central Florida.

Those moves show that while Art Briles may still be persona non grata in major college football, his former assistants aren’t.

“We are excited to welcome Kendal, Randy and their families back to Houston. They have extensive knowledge of our program and its standards, and we know they will be the right fit,” Cougars head coach Major Applewhite said in a statement. “They both have been a part of some of the nation’s top offenses with multiple programs and have shown the ability to learn and adapt while staying thoroughly tied into our state’s landscape in terms of recruiting. Throughout this process we have researched their abilities and backgrounds with several references and have received glowing praise.”

In Applewhite’s first season, Houston went 7-5, concluding with a Hawaii Bowl loss to Fresno State. The Cougars ranked 65th nationally in scoring, after placing 26th in 2016 and 10th in their AAC championship, Peach Bowl-winning campaign of 2015.