Week Ahead: TCU, Stanford, Texas Tech, Cincinnati to open spring practices

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TCU will be opening spring practices this week looking to set the tone for taking the next step toward being recognized as college football royalty. Horned Frogs head coach Gary Patterson made note the teams selected to play in the College Football Playoff ahead of his TCU program as well as Baylor were each considered among college football royalty. Patterson had a realistic view of the college football landscape and knows TCU is not considered among those upper echelon programs, but it is working to prove it belongs.

In all likelihood, TCU will not miss a beat transitioning from 2014 to 2015. The Horned Frogs put together a dominant performance in the Peach Bowl in a blowout of Ole Miss and Patterson’s program returns 14 starters including quarterback and potential Heisman Trophy candidate Trevone Boykin at quarterback. The focus this spring should be on the defensive side of the football with TCU in need of filling some key roles at linebacker and in the secondary. Odds are pretty decent Patterson will find something that works.

TCU is not the only Big 12 school opening spring practice this week. Texas Tech will also get started, with much more to work on than the Horned Frogs. Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury has plenty of room for improvement with his squad of Red Raiders, on offense and defense.

Stanford enters a rather interesting spring as well. Senior cornerback Wayne Lyons is expected to transfer to Michigan, where he will now play for former Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh after his mother was hired by Michigan. Stanford has been a tough contender in the Pac-12 race in recent seasons, but the 2014 season saw the Cardinal fall back a bit. Oregon still figures to be the top program in the Pac-12 North, while the balance of power may be starting to shift to the south with USC and UCLA doing well and Arizona State and Arizona likely to remain competitive. If Stanford can prove to have another strong defense and the offense can get on track early on, then the Cardinal should again be a factor in the Pac-12 in 2015. Like TCU, addressing needs on the defense will be critical for Stanford starting this spring, especially with some coaching turnover.

One potential team to follow in the Group of Five conversation also opens spring practice this week; Cincinnati. The BearCats open spring practices on Friday. Cincinnati will be among the favorites in the AAC in 2015, with a shot to play in a New Years Six bowl game if all goes well. A chance to host the first AAC championship game in newly renovated Nippert Stadium would be a nice goal, and it is certainly one that should be within reach for Cincinnati. Before Cincinnati gets a chance to open the spring schedule, fellow AAC school USF will get started. The Bulls open spring practice on Monday, with much to get started on for what could be a critical season for head coach Willie Taggart. Taggart has coached USF to a record of 6-18 in his first two seasons on the job, with a 5-11 mark in conference games.

Here is a list of schools scheduled to open spring practices this week.

American Athletic Conference

USF, February 23

Cincinnati, February 27

Big 12

TCU, February 28

Texas Tech, February 28

Conference USA

Old Dominion, February 28

Pac-12

Stanford, February 23

Stanford adds linebackers coach with NFL experience

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Stanford added a new coach to the program on Monday with the hiring of Eric Sanders. Sanders was named Stanford’s assistant coach for inside linebackers.

Sanders comes to Stanford following a season with the NFL’s New York Jets. Prior to his brief stint with the Jets, Sanders was a defensive assistant for three seasons with the Cleveland Browns. Sanders has also coached with the Oakland Raiders.

This is a return to Stanford for Sanders. Sanders coached with the program in 2015 as a defensive assistant.

“Eric was with us for our 2015 Rose Bowl Championship season and he was so smart, energetic and detailed that I knew someday we’d bring him back,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said in a released statement. “Eric has great comprehensive knowledge having worked with the defensive line, linebackers and defensive backs throughout his career, and he’s spent the last three years with Gregg Williams who is one of the best defensive minds in the NFL.”

Sanders has also held college coaching jobs with his alma mater, UC Davis, and Utah State in addition to Stanford.

Wisconsin TE Luke Benzschawel medically retires after fourth knee surgery

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Wisconsin redshirt senior tight end Luke Benzschawel is calling it a career. The senior announced he is medically retiring from the sport of football following his fourth knee surgery.

I consider myself fortunate to have been part of the Wisconsin football program for the past four years. I have not been as fortunate when it comes to my health,” Benzschawel said in a statement shared on his Twitter account on Monday. “However, after undergoing a fourth procedure on my knee, and despite giving everything I have to get back on the field, my doctors and I have decided that the time has come for me to step away from the game.

Benzschawel played in 15 games during his injury-plagued college career with the Badgers. Benzschawel is the younger brother of former Wisconsin offensive lineman Beau Benzschawel. Benzschawel injured his knee during fall camp last August and did not see the playing field during the 2019 season as a result.

Alabama strength coach Scott Cochran leaving Tide for new on-field coaching role at Georgia

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One of Alabama’s most recognized sideline personalities appears to be heading to another SEC program. Alabama strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran, a man whose identity has become as well known as any strength coach can possibly be over the last few years, is reportedly heading to Georgia to take on a brand new role.

There have been many reasons for Alabama’s overall success with Nick Saban as the head coach. Having Cochran on his staff has certainly been one of the key reasons because he has been recognized as one of the nation’s top strength and conditioning coach (he’s won the award for top strength coach twice). And it may not be much of a coincidence that Cochran has been one of the only assistants on the staff for each of Saban’s national championship seasons between Alabama and LSU. His voice and energy seen on the field in warmups and on the sidelines has become a draw for television cameras in more recent years and he has been one of the leaders in the movement to recognize more strength and conditioning coaches during gamedays.

It should come as little surprise Cochran would be an attractive option for Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, a former Alabama defensive coordinator who worked alongside Cochran in Tuscaloosa. What role Cochran will be taking on remains to be confirmed, however, as reports say he will not be Georgia’s strength and conditioning coach. That role is currently held by Scott Sinclair in Athens.

No matter what role Cochran takes at Georgia, and how that ultimately pans out for the Bulldogs, this is a notable loss for Saban and Alabama. Granted, Alabama should be able to find a more-than-qualified strength and conditioning coach to take over the very lucrative (and high-paying) job, so it’s not like this will turn Alabama football into a doormat (much to the dismay of Alabama haters around the SEC and beyond).

UPDATE (6:38 p.m. ET): Alabama head coach Nick Saban has issued a statement regarding the departure of his longtime strength coach:

Ole Miss QB John Rhys Plumlee, RB Jerrion Early also starting for Rebels’ baseball team

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John Rhys Plumlee and Jerrion Early were two of the best athletes on Ole Miss’s football team in 2019. The pair, both true freshmen, led the club in rushing; Plumlee rushed for 1,023 yards and 12 touchdowns while also throwing for 910 yards and four touchdowns, and Early ran for 722 yards and six scores on nearly seven yards per carry.

But it’s actually an understatement to limit the backfield mates’ athletic ability to just the football team. They’re two of the best athletes at the school, period.

The Rebels’ baseball team, ranked No. 13 in the country by Baseball America, is off to a 6-1 start with both Plumlee and Early contributing.

Early, a 31st round selection by the Arizona Diamondbacks out of Jackson Prep in Walnut Grove, Miss., has appeared in five games with three starts at center field. He’s 1-of-8 with four walks, three runs scored and three stolen bases in as many attempts.

Plumlee has appeared in four games to date, starting Saturday’s win over Xavier in left field. He’s struggled at the plate thus far, going 0-for-7 with five strikeouts, though he has scored one run and stole a base in his only attempt.

The Hattiesburg native is not only juggling college classes while playing two sports, but he’s also in the midst of a quarterback battle with fellow rising sophomore Matt Corral while learning a new offense under new head coach Lane Kiffin and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby.

Both players are giving it a go on the diamond, but their new head coach has made it clear where their bread is buttered.

“We want that to be (Plumlee’s) first priority, because if you’re going to be in something, I just think you go with it, and whatever time he has left he’ll come to us,” Kiffin told OM Spirit.

“I talked about it with baseball…let’s see how it goes,. They’re (Plumlee and Ealy) all in right now on baseball, and then let’ see. If they’re having a significant role, they’ll stay in there. If they’re not, then they’ll probably come back and do more football,” said Kiffin.