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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.

Lane Kiffin pushed back against wearing bulletproof vest in return to Tennessee as Alabama OC

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College football, y’all.

Suffice to say, Lane Kiffin‘s departure from Rocky Top after one season as head coach at Tennessee for the same job at USC left a bad taste in the mouth of many members of Vols Nation.  How bad of a taste?  From ESPN.com in January of 2010:

But the real trick for Kiffin was figuring out a way to leave the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center late Tuesday night in one piece.

Groups of angry students and fans began surrounding the football complex after the news leaked that Kiffin had taken the USC job. Eventually, it evolved into a mob-like scene, with police moving in and barricading Johnny Majors Drive in front of the football complex.

Every time a car moved anywhere in the vicinity of the complex, the mob ran in that direction, shouting and chanting, “F— you Kiffin!

Fast-forward nearly five years, and Kiffin made his return — a triumphant, winning return as it turned out — to Neyland Stadium as the offensive coordinator at rival Alabama in October of 2014.  Ahead of that return, security was fearful for Kiffin’s life.  So fearful, in fact, that they wanted the former Volunteers head coach to wear a bulletproof vest into the famed stadium.

At least that’s what the current Florida Atlantic head coach claimed on Marty Smith‘s podcast, by way of 247Sports.com:

It’s crazy. They were literally talking about like — from the bus in — a bulletproof vest. I’m like, ‘Come on, guys. This is football.’ They said, ‘No, really.’ They had security with me the whole way, even walking on the field and stuff like that,” Kiffin said. “I’m just like ‘I’m not wearing a vest, guys. All right?’ That’s a little bit over the top. It was all in fun. There was a lot of mean words said — four-letter words. That speaks of Tennessee’s fans, just how passionate they are. I think Phillip Fulmer said it the other day, ‘We have the most passionate fans in the country.

Of course, all that angst and anger had waned by the time UT’s next search for a head coach kicked off as a small but very vocal portion of the fanbase actually wanted the one-time Knoxville pariah to replace Butch Jones late last year.  Hell, it was even reported that, in the midst of what was a circus of a search, “Lane is definitely on board if Tennessee gives him a call” about returning as head coach.

Ah, what could’ve been…

Nebraska transfer QB Patrick O’Brien officially lands at Colorado State

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In mid-April, Patrick O’Brien took to social media to announce his decision to transfer from Nebraska.  Earlier this month, the quarterback announced his new college football home.  Wednesday, said new college football home confirmed O’Brien’s addition.

In a press release, Colorado State acknowledged that O’Brien has indeed joined Mike Bobo‘s football program.  Because of NCAA transfer rules, the 6-4, 230-pound O’Brien will be forced to sit out the 2018 season.

However, beginning with the 2019 season, he will have two years of eligibility that he can use moving forward.

A four-star member of the Cornhuskers’ 2016 recruiting class, O’Brien was rated as the No. 10 pro-style quarterback that year.  It’s that pro-style of play that led him to transfer away from Scott Frost and Nebraska after the new regime’s first spring practice came to an end earlier this offseason.

As the primary backup to Tanner Lee last season, and after redshirting his true freshman season, O’Brien completed 18-of-30 passes for 192 yards and an interception.  He also ran for four yards on 14 carries.

Oregon student charged in death of former Ducks LB Fotu Leiato

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An arrest has been made in connection to the death of a former Oregon football player, the Eugene Register-Guard and The Oregonian are reporting.

Ex-Ducks linebacker Fotu Leiato was found dead early Friday morning as the result of what was described as a single-car accident. Pedro Chavarin Jr. was the driver of a vehicle that rolled over and crashed in Eugene; at the time, the 22-year-old UO student told police that he was the only occupant of the vehicle.

While Chavarin was initially charged with DUII, one count of first-degree manslaughter has since been added as Leiato’s body was found hours after the crash.  According to police, the 21-year-old Leiato had been a passenger in Chavarin’s Kia sedan at the time of the wreck.

According to The Oregonian, Chavarin faces a minimum of 10 years in prison if convicted of first-degree manslaughter.

Leiato played in 37 games the past three seasons for the Ducks.  He was dismissed from the football program in April after the second of his two arrests this offseason.

“We are saddened to learn of the passing of Fotu, and our thoughts are with his family and friends at this time,” a statement from the university at the time of Leiato’s passing began. “He will be remembered and missed by all who knew him.”

Rice’s Blain Padgett died from effects of drug designed to be elephant tranquilizer

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An already tragic story has taken an even sadder turn.

In early March, Rice defensive end Blain Padgett was found dead in his apartment after he failed to show for a football workout and a wellness check was performed.  This week, the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office determined that the 21-year-old’s death was caused by the “toxic effects of carfentanil, which is an analog of the synthetic opioid analgesic fentanyl,” KTRK-TV in Houston wrote.

From the television station’s report:

Dr. Richard Pesikoff, a Baylor College of Medicine employee, said carfentanil is a dangerous opioid that was designed to be an elephant tranquilizer.

It’s 10,000 times more potent than morphine, and 100 times more potent than fentanyl.

Dr. Pesikoff said carfentanil is deadly because it causes the brain to suppress breathing.

“It’s a dangerous recreational drug,” Dr. Pesikoff said. “Probably the most dangerous. Maybe LSD is equally as dangerous because it comes in micrograms and just the tiny bit that you touch go through the pores in your skin.

In 2016, the 6-5, 250-pound Padgett was second on the team in tackles for loss with 5½ and led all Owls defensive linemen with 41 tackles.  He played in just three games this past season, while also playing in eight games as a true freshman in 2015.

In response to the cause-of-death report, the university issued the following statement:

The Rice community was deeply saddened by the loss of Blain Padgett. Out of respect for Blain and his family, we will not discuss personal or private matters. His family, teammates and friends continue to have our deepest condolences.

The drug involved in his player’s death led head coach David Bailiff to state that “[i]t makes you evaluate again as a man is there something else you could’ve done? Is there some other outreach that we could’ve lead to?” The family’s question as it pertains to the findings is a poignant one as well.

“We would like to know how Blain got his hands on this drug that seems very difficult to get,” Mical Padgett, Blain’s father, said. “That’s our main question. How did he get it and why did he take it?