CFT 2015 Preseason Preview: Impact Freshmen

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Recruiting in college football is the lifeblood of a program’s success. While the majority of the Class of 2015 will see their time to lead and prove valuable on the field will come in the next few years, a select few special talents could end up playing a key role with their new programs starting this fall.

Unlike decades past, talented freshmen have a chance to become household names now. In recent years we have seen players like Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston dazzle from the start of their collegiate careers, each going on to win a Heisman Trophy as freshmen or redshirt freshmen. Last season may not have produced a young Heisman phenom, but it did have its share of young stars like LSU running back Leonard Fournette, Baylor wide receiver K.D. Cannon and Alabama defensive end Da’Shawn Hand.

So which freshmen could be names to watch this season? Here are a few.

JOSH ROSEN, QB, UCLA

Many suspect Josh Rosen will have a chance to step right into the starting job at UCLA as the Bruins look to replace Brett Hundley. And why wouldn’t he? One of the top quarterbacks in the Class of 2015, Rosen seems to be worthy of filling one of the few holes UCLA’s offense has this season. Rosen enrolled early to get a jump start on getting adjusted, and that should pay off.

KAHLIL MCKENZIE, DL, TENNESSEE

Tennessee head coach Butch Jones has done a tremendous job in bringing in talent since he took over the Vols program, but the addition of Kahlil McKenzie may be his best recruiting victory yet. McKenzie brings good size to the middle of Tennessee’s defensive line and should be a monster for opposing offensive linemen to block.

DERWIN JAMES, DB, FLORIDA STATE

Florida State has plenty of holes to fill, except in the defensive secondary. There should be a spot for Derwin James somewhere in the mix though. James proved to be a playmaker in the spring game after enrolling early. Look for James to be worked into the defensive game plan in certain situations this fall.

MARTEZ IVEY, OL, FLORIDA

New Florida head coach Jim McElwain had a relatively short time to recruit for the Gators, so locking in offensive lineman Martez Ivey was significant. The premium offensive lineman should have an impact in the trenches in a spot that has been weak for Florida in recent years. He won’t be making big plays happen but adding stability up front is always good.

MALIK JEFFERSON, LB, TEXAS

If there is one thing Charlie Strong knows what to do with Texas, it is improve the defense. The Longhorns welcome new linebacker Malik Jefferson to the fold this fall, and Jefferson should quickly become the centerpiece of Strong’s improving Longhorns defense. It will not take long for him to leave an impact this fall in Austin after enrolling early to be there for spring practices.

SOLOMON THOMAS, DL, STANFORD

Stanford is in the unusual position of having to refuel the defensive line. Sitting out the 2014 season with a redshirt should pay dividends for Solomon Thomas at Stanford. Thomas should waste little time giving opposing offensive linemen trouble this season, as he has a chance to move right into a starting gig sooner rather than later if healthy.

BYRON COWART, DE, AUBURN

Auburn’s defense is expected to improve simply with the addition of Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator, but the Tigers need a body to bring some pressure up front on the defensive line. Byron Cowart could have an impact off the edge by the time the season is over. Look for Cowart to move up the depth chart quickly at Auburn and excel under the guidance of Muschamp.

After MAC surrenders to pandemic, will other leagues follow?

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In many ways, the Mid-American Conference has little in common with Power Five leagues that first come to mind when fans think of major college football.

There are no 75,000-seat stadiums in the MAC. Million-dollar per year coaches are rare. In a typical season, NFL scouts might find one or two potential first-round draft picks playing at the 12 MAC schools that dot the Midwest. The MAC’s biggest games — #MACtion, if you will — are often played on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Its television deal with ESPN pays per year only a few million more than the $9 million Clemson pays coach Dabo Swinney.

Still, the MAC is one of 10 conferences that competes in the NCAA’s highest level of football, and Saturday it became the first of those to surrender to the coronavirus pandemic and cancel the fall sports season.

So is the MAC an anomaly, done in by its small budgets or is this a dire sign of things to come in college football?

“I won’t try to judge what other folks are doing,” MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. “I know we’re all in the same place. They all have their advisers. They’re going to make judgments based on the information they are receiving.”

Not long after the MAC announced it would explore second-semester seasons for all fall sports, including soccer and volleyball, the Big Ten made its own announcement that seemed ominous given the timing.

Tapping the brakes on football’s preseason, the Big Ten told its schools that until further notice full contact practices cannot begin. All teams will remain in the first two days of what is known as the “acclimatization period,” working out in just helmets. The first Big Ten games of the season are scheduled for Sept. 5.

“As we have consistently stated, we will continue to evaluate daily, while relying on our medical experts, to make the best decisions possible for the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes,” the Big Ten said in a statement.

The MAC’s schools were facing a significant financial burden by trying to maintain costly COVID-19 protocols, while also dealing with the uncertainty that campuses can be opened safely.

A move to the spring, however, could also be budget-buster if it means less revenue from the ESPN deal, which pays each school about $1 million per year, and football ticket sales. The MAC also shares about $90 million per year in College Football Playoff money with four other conferences.

“It would be naive to say that you don’t give thought and consideration to what the financial ramifications of any decision are, but this was a health and well-being decision first and foremost,” Steinbrecher said. “As we sit here today we don’t know what this will mean financially and how the rest of the fall plays out.”

Steinbrecher said the decision effects only fall sports, not basketball or others that begin in the second semester such as baseball, softball and lacrosse.

He added the decision was unanimous among the membership. Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier, supported by NIU President Lisa Freeman, has been a vocal advocate of delaying the season.

“No one wants to have football or sports more than me,” said Frazier, who played football at Alabama in the late 1980s. “Football gave me all the opportunities I have today, but I can’t do it at the expense of people’s lives.”

Eastern Michigan athletic director Scott Wetherbee said he has been feeling a sense of inevitability for two weeks about the MAC canceling fall football, but can’t predict whether this decision trickles up to other conferences.

“Could it? Certainly. There’s certainly a narrative out there that could happen,” Wetherbee said. “No, it wouldn’t shock me if some followed suit. In fact, it would shock me if some didn’t.”

NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline made clear that even though plans for the football season have been adjusted to accommodate potential COVID-19 disruptions like the ones Major League Baseball has had, they are all still aspirational.

“Almost everything would have to be perfectly aligned to continue moving forward,” Hainline said Friday during the NCAA’s weekly video chat on social media.

As the Power Five conferences re-worked their schedules to play exclusively or mostly within their conferences, another of the MAC’s revenue streams dried up.

MAC schools, with athletic budgets in the $30 million range, rely heavily on payouts from road games against power conference teams. Kent State alone had more than $5 million in so-called guarantee games canceled. Whether they can be recouped and when is still to be determined. Without that revenue, the strain became too great of trying to keep players and staff safe during a pandemic.

“Certainly there was a cost attached to it,” Wetherbee said. “But as a league we were prepared to do it.”

The move to try spring football has already been going on in the second tier of Division I.

Nine of 13 conferences that play in the Championship Subdivision, have postponed fall football seasons. The first was the Ivy League in early July.

Now it’s the MAC, which was among the first conferences to limit fan access to its basketball tournament in March as concerns for the virus began to soar across the country. On March 12, the MAC was among many conferences to call off their tournaments hours before the NCAA canceled all of March Madness.

“If you told me in March we’d be here today,” Steinbrecher said, “I’d never have believed it”

Colorado State pauses football after allegations of racism

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FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Colorado State is pausing all football activities after an investigation started by the president of the university into the program’s handling of COVID-19 cases uncovered allegations of racism and verbal abuse toward athletes.

Athletic director Joe Parker said he asked President Joyce McConnell to expand the investigation she announced Tuesday to include a comprehensive review of the athletic department and football program.

“Today, we learned of some extremely troubling allegations of racism and verbal abuse from CSU’s athletic administration generally and in the football program specifically,” Parke said.

Parker’s statement did not mention any particular member of the coaching staff or athletic department. Steve Addazio is in his first season as head coach of the Rams.

McConnell announced the investigation Tuesday after an article published in the Coloradoan that quoted unidentified football players and members of the athletic staff saying coaches told them not to report coronavirus symptoms and threatened players with reduced playing time should they quarantine.

“Colorado State University is committed to being an anti-racist university, and we will not tolerate any behavior or climate that goes against that core value,” Parker said. “Moreover, CSU Athletics is committed to the health and well-being of student-athletes above all other priorities, and this includes their mental health. We believe it is our responsibility to make sure that all student-athletes feel welcomed and valued as members of an inclusive athletics community.”

Colorado State has paused all meetings, workouts and practices.

“While we have been working hard towards playing football this fall, the holistic well-being of our student-athletes is our unequivocal top priority,” Parker said. “We must and will address these allegations before we focus on playing football.”

On Tuesday, Addazio said he welcomed the investigation into the football program’s alleged mishandling of coronavirus protocols.

McConnell announced via an email to student-athletes and department staff Thursday that Husch Blackwell, a legal firm based in Kansas City, would lead the probe into those allegations

Addazio was hired in December, replacing Mike Bobo, after spending seven seasons with Boston College.

The Rams were scheduled to open the season Sept. 19 by hosting Northern Colorado, but the Big Sky Conference voted this week to push back its football season to the spring.

Pac-12 player group ‘disappointed’ after commissioner call

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The Pac-12 players of the “WeAreUnited” movement said they were “disappointed and deeply concerned” after a recent meeting with the conference’s commissioner.

The players sent an email to Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott late Friday accusing him of not taking the issues they have raised seriously enough. The email was also shared with members of the media.

The group’s correspondence came after Scott followed their Thursday call with an email to the players that struck a very different tone, thanking them for the “passion and honesty with which you spoke yesterday evening.”

The group is pushing the conference to address their concerns about COVID-19 protocols, racial injustice in college sports and economic rights for college athletes. Players threatened opting out of practices and games if their demands aren’t addressed. Leaders of the group have said their movement has more than 400 players from around the conference supporting it.

In their email to the commissioner, the players said they were unsatisfied with Scott’s answers to question about increasing the frequency of COVID-19 testing done on athletes and the mandating of best practices across the conference.

“Without a discernible plan and mandates to ensure the health and safety of student-athletes, it is absurd, offensive, and deadly to expect a season to proceed,” they said.

When the players went public with their demands last Sunday, they reached out to the Pac-12 and requested daily meetings with conference officials. Instead, they got one call last week and a pledge from the conference for continued communication.

“You informed us we cannot have legal representation attend these meetings to assist in connection with our legal rights, nor were you willing to even have regular meetings with us to provide updates,” the players wrote to Scott.

Scott’s email addressed four topics that made up the bulk of the Thursday call with 12 players: health and safety; eligibility; COVID-19 liability waivers; and opt-out due to COVID-19 concerns.

Scott wrote the conference will attempt to provide the players an opportunity to speak with the Pac-12 medical advisory committee and keep them abreast of work being done at the NCAA level to address whether athletes who opt out of the coming season will be permitted to retain eligibility.

Scott said the conference office would ensure none of the league’s schools ask athletes to sign liability waivers and reiterated Pac-12 schools were committed to honoring scholarships of players who chose not to play this season because of COVID-19 concerns.

“We will work on gathering the information listed above and providing it to you as soon as possible,” Scott wrote.

Clemson QB Lawrence says he’s completely committed to 2020 season

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Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence said he considered opting out of this season when he was unsure what college football would look like going forward amid the coronavirus pandemic.

However, Lawrence said Friday once he understood he’d play an 11-game season with a chance for an Atlantic Coast Conference and national championships, he decided to play his junior season.

The Heisman Trophy hopeful said he’s completely committed to this season and confident in Clemson’s ability to keep himself and his teammates safe.

Lawrence, who is the likely No. 1 overall pick in the next NFL draft should he leave college early, was 25-0 as a starter until he and Clemson fell to LSU in the national title game last January. The 6-foot-6 junior, had perhaps his poorest performance in college in the 42-25 loss to LSU. He joked how after his freshman year when he led Clemson to a championship he heard how amazing he was and since the LSU defeat, he heard how much work he has to do improve.