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Jimbo Fisher on Deondre Francois: He is a big-time player, he can lead

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It has been a few years since Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher has had reason to feel comfortable with his starting quarterback position in the spring. After Heisman Trophy-winning Jameis Winston moved on to the NFL, Florida State has had options at the position but never felt it had a sure-fire answer to plug in. That seems to be a bit different this spring in Tallahassee as Deondre Francois has already taken control of the position and gained the confidence in Fisher along the way.

He is a big-time player,” said Fisher of Francois, according to the Associated Press. ”He can lead. He is tough, accurate and can throw the ball.”

Anyone who watched Florida State last year would agree. Francois can definitely throw the football. He opened the season by throwing for 419 yards and two touchdowns against Ole Miss to get things rolling. Ole Miss didn’t know what hit them.

Francois played in all 13 games for the Seminoles last season as a freshman. In those 13 games, Francois completed 58.8 percent of his passes for 3,350 yards and 20 touchdowns with seven interceptions. He also rushed for 196 yards and five more touchdowns, proving capable of helping out on the ground when needed without being labeled a dual-threat. Francois proved he could be a reliable player to lead the offense last fall by completing 12 percent more of his passes in the second half (although his third quarters were much more efficient than his fourth quarters), and 15 red zone touchdown passes without a single interception inside the opponent’s 40-yard line all season long.

“I’ve been focusing on consistency and doing a better job of managing the game and situations,” Francois said. ”I feel like I have gotten a lot better from experience. I made some mistakes last year and this spring I am getting the opportunity to improve.”

Francois may not have ended the season on a great personal note in the Orange Bowl by completing just nine of his 27 passes against a very stingy Michigan defense, but he clearly took some lumps as a freshman that can be used as teaching tools moving forward.

Louisville WR Jaylen Smith out for spring, and what Petrino wants Lamar Jackson to improve

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One of Louisville’s top returning wide receivers will be out for the spring. Jaylen Smith was one of two wide receivers ruled out for the spring by head coach Bobby Petrino on Monday.

Smith underwent surgery for a stress fracture in his foot. The timetable for his return to the team is unknown at this time, but it does not appear to be something Petrino is concerned about at this time with so much time before the start of the new season. It is not as though Smith had much to prove this spring anyway.

Smith caught 27 passes last season for 599 yards and six touchdowns. With seniors James Quick and Jamari Staples moving on, it is expected Smith will see a more significant role in the offense in 2017. The absence of Smith for the spring will leave room for other receivers to have some more passes thrown their way this spring, which is always a benefit to having a key player injured.

As for the man throwing those footballs to receivers, 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson is not without some things to work on this spring either according to Petrino. One area Petrino wants Jackson to focus on is taking negative yardage. Jackson did run for 1,571 yards and 21 touchdowns last season, so it is not as though things will not balance out in Louisville’s favor in 2017, but Jackson was limited to 33 rushing yards in two of his final three games against Houston and LSU. Houston sacked Jackson 11 times and LSU brought him down eight times in the Citrus Bowl.

Just think how dangerous Jackson will be if he does improve on what he did last season.

Miami confirms mother of RB Mark Walton has passed away

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Unfortunately, there’s sad and heartbreaking news coming out of South Florida Friday.

Rumors began swirling in the early morning hours that the mother of Miami running back Mark Walton, Kimberly Rogers, had died.  Early this afternoon, Susan Miller Degnan of the Miami Herald confirmed through Walton’s high school football coach that the rising junior’s mom died Thursday night.

Not long after, the football program confirmed the passing.

At this time, there is no word on the cause of death. This is the second tragedy involving a parent Walton has had to endure in his young life as his father, Mark Walton Sr., was murdered a little over a decade ago.

“He was stabbed in the heart by his girlfriend,” Walton, whose parents by that time were separated, said back in January of 2015. “It affected me big time. I knew he wanted me to do the right things in life and keep my head focused.

“That’s my motivation in life, make my mom happy, the way she treats me. She broke her back for me. I want to make her happy at the end of the day.

Our thoughts, prayers and condolences go out to Mark Walton and all of those impacted by Kimberly Rogers’ passing.

Report: Former Pitt RB James Conner given clean bill of health

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James Conner will head to next week’s Combine with a clean bill of health, according to a report Thursday from ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

“Pitt RB James Conner, who missed most of 2015 with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, received a clean scan today, a week prior to combine, per source,” Schefter tweeted.

Conner led the ACC in rushing in 2014, rushing for 1,765 yards and 5.92 yards per carry with 26 touchdowns in 2014, before a Hodgkin’s Lymphoma diagnosis caused him to miss all but one game of the 2015 campaign. (And in that one game, Conner still rushed for nearly 10 yards per carry and two touchdowns.)

He battled back to return to the field in 2016, again leading the Panthers with 216 carries for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns while finishing third on the club with 21 grabs for 302 yards and four touchdowns.

Conner will compete at the Combine for draft positioning with fellow running backs Leonard FournetteDalvin Cook and D'Onta Foreman, among others.

Pitt hires veteran OC Shawn Watson as Matt Canada’s replacement

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Veteran offensive coordinator Shawn Watson has been hired to become Pittsburgh’s next offensive coordinator, the Panthers announced Thursday evening.

Watson replaces Matt Canada, who followed a trail of Benjamin Franklins to take the same post at LSU.

“Shawn Watson was one of my first mentors in this business,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said in a statement. “He sat me down as a young coach and taught me how to work with wide receivers in my first full-time job at Miami in the early 1990s. Ever since that time, we have always talked about being able to reunite on the same staff again. I’m really thrilled that the time has finally arrived and he’ll be joining us at Pitt as our new offensive coordinator.

“Shawn is, first and foremost, a wonderful person and father,” Narduzzi added. “As a football coach, he is extremely knowledgeable, an excellent recruiter and will be a tremendous strength in the quarterback room and offensive staff room. I’m really looking forward to having Shawn and his wife Anita join us in Pittsburgh.”

Watson has previous coordinator experience at Colorado, Nebraska, Louisville and Texas, but was demoted after one game in the 2015 season in Austin and pushed off Charlie Strong‘s staff at the conclusion of that season. He spent the 2016 campaign as a quality control assistant at Indiana.

“I am tremendously honored and excited to join the staff at Pitt and be part of what Pat Narduzzi is building there,” Watson said. “Pat is one of my closest and dearest friends. I’ve known him for a very long time and have always admired the passion and energy he brings to coaching and teaching. Pat and his staff have accomplished so much in such a short period of time at Pitt. I can’t wait to join them, meet our players and get ready for spring ball.”

He inherits an offense that was one of the most improved nationally, as the Panthers jumped from 56th nationally to 13th in yards per play and 68th to 10th in scoring from 2015-16. That success led Canada to become a Broyles Award finalist as one of the nation’s best assistants and to the LSU job.

But the Panthers are likely due to take a step back in ’17 no matter who calls the plays. Starting quarterback Nathan Peterman graduated, leading rusher James Conner left for the NFL Draft and most of the offensive line leaves the roster as well.

Watson should gel with Narduzzi in terms of tempo. The Panthers have averaged around 65 plays per game over the past two seasons — generally good for around 90th nationally — which is slightly below the 68 snaps Watson averaged in his last two full seasons as a play-caller at Louisville and Texas.