ATHENS, Ga. -- Seven pairs of black Under Armour pants and striped referee tops sit on a long table inside a meeting room at the Graduate Athens hotel Saturday. There are referee hats at the front of the room and bags of officiating goodies, complete with whistles, down markers, and yellow flags.
Today, seven ESPN personalities -- Edward Aschoff, Kevin Carter, Chris Doering, Brock Huard, Barrett Jones, Greg McElroy and Maria Taylor -- will try their unproven, inexperienced hands at officiating with an SEC crew for Georgia's spring game. It's the brainchild of SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, who wanted to create a more fan-friendly experiment with digesting a day in the life of an official -- the most enigmatic figure on a football field.
"You have to approach [officiating] as if you're serving someone," says Anthony Jeffries, a nine-year collegiate veteran (three years in the SEC) known for his quick hips and blazing backpedaling as a gazelle-like side judge. "Fans are job security. If you don't do that, get out. At the end of the day, I know half of the stadium is going to hate me."
Jeffries makes things clear: watching football is much faster and much more complicated from the ref's point of view.
Just past 8 a.m. ET, the guest officials meet James Carter's crew inside the meeting room for a massive breakfast. Jeffries lathers what seems like a gallon of syrup on two, thick pieces of pecan waffles, just before shoveling a mound of scrambled eggs on to a plate covered with buttery breakfast items. There's no counting calories here. The more fuel, the more your body will thank you later.
SEC coordinator of officials and NCAA secretary-rules editor for football Steve Shaw, who temporarily returned as referee for Saturday's shenanigans, leads the newcomers through a tutorial for officiating -- a how-to on being professional and how not to screw things up.
"The worst thing you can have as an official is an inadvertent whistle," Shaw says. "Leather on the ground, then blow your whistle."
Shaw outlines the positioning and responsibility of each official. He tells the rookies not to "go searching for penalties" and not to watch the football. He stresses communication, hustle and awareness. Don't lag and don't get lost.
In between orientation and film work, the real officials teach their shadows the ins and outs of their positions. For side judges, it's all about speed and heightened awareness. You're behind the action, so focus on an area, not just a man, and never the ball. Keep your eyes on your man at the snap (offensive player closest to the sideline), then the area closest to your man or your zone, then back to the man when the ball or the player comes near you. This is all happening while you're backpedaling or at a near-backward sprint with your body cocked toward the sideline.
"As the deep guys, we pride ourselves in not getting beat," Jeffries says.
On plays with defenders converging on an offensive player in your zone, watch the guy "swimming upstream" who could land a punishing hit. That's where targeting fouls or unsportsmanlike late hits occur.
Count the defenders on your side and then signal to the other officials with a thumbs up only when the defense has a set 11. To avoid a miscount, Jeffries counts from the opposite sideline in so that he isn't fooled by extra guys running on to the field.
"You wanna lose your credibility? Miss a count," Jeffries says. "Think down, distance, count."
Never officiate the ball, only the man, and a flag is never a toy. Call -- or don't call -- what you believe is right.
"There are two types of C.S. -- common sense and calling s---," he says. "You always win with common sense."
At 12:45 p.m., riding in vans to the stadium, anxiety and nerves creep in. Doering, a former Florida wide receiver, nervously jokes about forgetting everything Shaw went over. Jones and McElroy, former Alabama players, worry aloud about counting players while on the field.
With under an hour until kickoff, the crews jog between the hedges, sticking to Shaw's most important rule of no walking on the field, only jogging. The side judges are lightly sprinting and swiveling their hips up and down the sideline to get loose. The side judges concentrate on the movements of the receivers and the defensive backs, learning their tendencies. Does this receiver have quick, soft hands or does he bobble passes? Is this defensive back too aggressive on his pursuit?
The sun beams down, and it’s almost game time.
"You come out strong, chest up," Jeffries says. "Let people in the stadium know you're here. It's a presence, it's an attitude."
After the 2 p.m. kickoff, the real crew handles the first series of the game, but once the guest crew hits the field, things begin to blur.
Immediately, you're out of position and "down, distance, count" are long gone. You're a good 30 yards away from the line of scrimmage, 10 yards farther than you should be. You think you're counting, but with how quickly guys move on and off the sideline, you aren't sure.
The sweat mounts with every backward thrust of your legs on the first few running plays, which Jeffries and real umpire Russ Pulley love.
"Man, they might not beat you on the pass, but you'll never see a run with how far back you are," Pulley says with a bellowing laugh.
Despite moving closer, it’s easy to get lost watching players fly out of the zone. When the side judge forgets to relay the football to the umpire on plays outside the hash marks, it gives Huard, the head linesman, more work.
"Don't worry, I've got you all day," Huard says both playfully and sarcastically, as Pulley and Jeffries snicker.
The side judges aren’t challenged, until Jacob Eason heaves a 47-yard bomb to Javon Wims down the sideline to begin the second quarter. Fortunately, there is enough cushion to watch the ball once Wims catches it and muscles through the defender and on to the ground for a tremendous catch at the 7-yard line.
That play provides a confidence boost and some rhythm. You still ball watch (as Jeffries points out), but not as much. You're perfectly positioned on most field goals and extra points, and you learn that once the ball is between the 25-yard line and the 7, that's your goal line. One resounding blemish is missing a blatant hold in the second half on a run, which Huard calls.
Once 3:45 arrives, the day is done and it's off to the replay booth to debrief. On the way up, the guest refs all sort of sigh, none knowing a thing that happened in the game, let alone the score.
"That's faster than it looks," Carter says.
All and all, this rag-tag group didn't ruin Georgia's spring game and found newfound respect for officiating, but no urge to peer farther down the rabbit hole.
"Remember, that was just half-speed," Shaw says.
Yeah, so let the pros handle it.
It has also ended the perceived gap between the Jim Harbaugh/Andrew Luck years, when many people believed Stanford’s success would stop after the departure of running back Toby Gerhart, then Harbaugh, then Luck. Now, when high school recruits view Stanford, it’s as an elite football school. “I haven’t seen Stanford be a losing team,” Wilson said. “I only know them as a winning program.”
This the one I've worked the hardest for. This the one they said I couldn't get. This the one that took more than football to obtain. Thanks— Jalen Hall (@FutureOfFig) February 25, 2017
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CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Mark Richt sits in his office, near the windows that overlook the weight room downstairs, planning to discuss his second spring as Miami head coach. Just before he begins, a loud cheer rises from eager young students gathered near the leg machines.
“Don’t mind them,” Richt says, waving his hand. “They’re on a tour. One of them spotted me sitting in here earlier and decided they had to get my attention.”
Nobody can really blame them. The excitement Richt brought with him when he became Miami head coach last year has ratcheted up exponentially. Fresh off a 9-4 season that included the program’s first bowl win in a decade, Miami is ESPN FPI’s preseason favorite to win the ACC Coastal Division and a near slam-dunk to enter the preseason top 25, ranked for the first time since 2010.
Richt has the No. 1 recruiting class in the country in the first ESPN rankings for the class of 2018. Meanwhile, groundbreaking is set to begin May 4 on an indoor facility that has been years in the making.
Momentum has engulfed the Miami program for the first time in nearly two decades, and that is something Richt and his staff have clearly harnessed with their efforts on the recruiting trail, along with fundraising to get the indoor built.
But the excitement also has ratcheted up expectations, too, for a fan base that already expects its team to compete for championships in good times and bad.
“You want everybody to want that. But they may or may not be expecting it,” Richt said recently. “There’s a difference between expectation and what you hope to happen. Do they expect it to happen? Maybe they do. We don’t even know who our quarterback is going to be yet.”
Championship expectations trail every coach at Miami. And every year Miami gets further away from its most recent championship season, discussions and debates rage about when and/or if “The U” will make its triumphant return. There have been some false alarms, notably 2013 -- when Miami was the preseason media choice to win the Coastal, got as high as No. 7 in the rankings and then lost four of its final five games.
Richt is no stranger to dealing with heightened expectations after spending 15 years at Georgia, where he put together top-rated recruiting classes and had teams ranked nearly annually in the preseason top 10. His past track record alone has buoyed hopes among the Miami faithful that he is the right coach to get the national championship train rolling again.
But that track record also includes seasons that ended in disappointment after high expectations. Toward the end of his career there, Georgia had no reliable starting quarterback. And that is a prospect Miami is facing with spring practice wrapped up.
Perhaps that is why Richt mentions the quarterbacks when he is asked about the rising expectations. In Year 1 with the Hurricanes, Richt had a ready-made quarterback in Brad Kaaya, helping ease the program transition. Kaaya started three years at Miami and among the illustrious quarterbacks who have come through the program in the past, it is Kaaya who stands as the school’s all-time leading passer. Kaaya may not have been flashy, but he was consistent and a good leader, and those are two qualities that are at the top of the priority list with current co-No. 1s Malik Rosier and Evan Shirreffs. Freshman N’Kosi Perry will get his shot in the fall.
It might be easy to overlook what Kaaya accomplished, but let’s not forget he was Miami’s best quarterback since Ken Dorsey departed the program in 2002. All of this underscores why Miami is still a bit of a mystery.
Because nearly everything else appears to be in place. The defense returns every starter on its two deep in the front seven, and has one of the best and deepest defensive lines in the country.
On offense, 1,000-yard running back Mark Walton returns, along with freshman All-American receiver Ahmmon Richards. True freshman offensive lineman Navaughn Donaldson is poised to become a freshman All-American after just 15 spring practices.
The schedule also is favorable. Beyond a Week 3 game at Florida State, Miami gets Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech at home, Syracuse as its rotating crossover opponent and has its bye week positioned nearly halfway through the season.
Coaches also have seen a mentality shift in their players, too.
“After the bowl game, there was a pride in the way that we finished the year and doing things that had not been done in a while,” defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “There was not a, ‘Hey, this is what it’s all about.’ There was an immediate, ‘We should push on from here because there’s more out there.’”
That is why the quarterback uncertainty will loom over the program into the offseason.
No matter who ends up starting, Miami coaches and players believe they have an opportunity to win with defense. Just three years ago, the idea that Miami could win with defense was almost laughable. Now, it’s the reason optimism and excitement are so high. And why Miami has everyone’s attention.
Plenty was on the line Saturday during Washington's spring game -- winners got burgers from a local Seattle drive-thru while the losers weren't allowed to shower after the game.
Fans were treated to whatever postgame meal and shower length they might've wanted, but most important (depending on your priorities), they got a glimpse of the team -- through drills and live play -- they haven't seen since the College Football Playoff. Here are a three takeaways from the Huskies' spring:
Jake Browning is going to be fine: Yes, he only attempted 10 passes Saturday. But for the anxious Huskies fan that was wondering what would become of the star quarterback after undergoing surgery on his throwing shoulder in January, 10 passes was enough of a vote of confidence. Browning told The Seattle Times last week that his rehab is going as it should, which should also make Huskies feel good about their 2017 prospects.
"It feels good, feels exactly how it's supposed to, and it's going exactly how it's supposed to," Browning said in the article. "Our training staff does a good job. Coach Pete, Coach Smith, they've been on top of it. I've been on top of it. It's going how it's supposed to go. I probably could've gone even a little bit sooner, but you want to take those things slow and not rush it."
The Washington secondary has players in place to reload: With Sidney Jones, Kevin King and Budda Baker departed, the Huskies wanted to use this spring to get as many different guys as many reps as possible. Coming out of the spring two players seem to have separated themselves at cornerback -- Jordan Miller and Byron Murphy.
"Obviously, we lost three really good players out of that secondary but we have some really good young talent -- Byron being one of them. So I was really pleased with him. It was awesome to see him, not just today but all the practices. Every practice he showed up. We're really pleased with his progress," coach Chris Petersen said Saturday.
Heading into summer conditioning both Murphy and Miller seem to have the inner lane to starting spots, but keep an eye out for 2017 signees Elijah Molden and Keith Taylor. Molden has the athleticism and football IQ that could help him see the field immediately, but Taylor -- at 6-foot-3 -- brings a length to the secondary that will be missed now that King is gone.
It's not going to be a 1:1 fit in filling John Ross' shoes: Both Dante Pettis (who's spending the offseason competing for the Washington track team) and Chico McClatcher return in 2017. McClatcher didn't play Saturday, but that just meant there were a few other catches to be had and routes to be run by other players, which are some names to note. Brayden Lenius, who was suspended last season (then redshirted), had a good spring for the Huskies. Redshirt freshman Jordan Chin had the catch of the day Saturday (though it was ultimately -- and incorrectly -- ruled incomplete).
— UW Football (@UW_Football) April 22, 2017
Running back Myles Gaskin could potentially be involved more in the pass game next season as well. Wide receiver coach Matt Lubick, who comes to Seattle via Oregon, often lobbied to get the backs more involved with the Ducks' pass game, so he could try to incorporate more of that into the Huskies' game plan, too.
But here we are with a Twitter account poking fun at LSU football for having to cancel its spring game before time expired because there was lightning in the area. As soon as the folks in Gainesville got wind of Tigers' misfortunes, the Gators came for LSU.
— Gators Football (@GatorsFB) April 23, 2017
Just so disrespectful.
But we really shouldn't be surprised by any of this. These two programs have had a strained relationship since all drama that surrounding the postponement of last season's meeting. If you'll recall, the Florida-LSU game originally scheduled to be played in Gainesville on Oct. 8 was postponed because of the threat of Hurricane Matthew. The schools went back and forth, and eventually, the game was moved to Baton Rouge on Nov. 19.
However, before getting to that point, both sides had words about the other. First, with Florida refusing to play the game on Sunday or Monday or in Baton Rouge any of the early days following the original scheduled date, the narrative was that Florida was ducking LSU. Tigers athletic director Joe Alleva insinuated as much through email and made it very clear that LSU wasn't sacrificing a November home game for the Florida Gators. He pretty much drew a line in the sand, aiming to force the hands of people at Florida and at the SEC.
Well, after the SEC discovered that the rules state that a division winner must play the required eight conference games, former Florida AD Jeremy Foley gave into Alleva's demands and bought out Florida's Nov. 19 home game with Presbyterian to travel to the Bayou. But Foley wasn't just going to give up all his home-game revenue and force a hostile road trip on his staff and players without something in return. Foley got this season's game at LSU moved to Gainesville, giving Florida two consecutive home games against the Tigers (2017-18). To cap it off, Foley saw his injury-riddled Gators win the SEC East at Tiger Stadium with a buzzer-beating, 16-10 win on a goal-line stop.
We just can't wait to see what else these schools have to say about each other in the coming months.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban has already made it crystal clear, in vintage Saban fashion, that Alabama won’t be more of a ball-control offense under new coordinator Brian Daboll.
But that doesn’t mean the Crimson Tide won’t have a different look offensively in 2017. Saban wants to shift back to more of a pro-style base while still incorporating quarterback Jalen Hurts' talents as a runner. And most importantly, Saban wants to place a heavier emphasis on more fully developing the passing game.
“I felt like we moved further and further away from what I wanted to do last year,” Saban told ESPN this week. “I think the first two years [under Lane Kiffin] we did what the quarterback could do. It was what we needed to do from a quarterback standpoint, but we still philosophically were doing the things I wanted to do in terms of balance and utilizing all of our skill players. And last year, and this is no criticism of Lane or anybody, but having a freshman quarterback [Hurts] and trying to accommodate his skill set, we got to where we weren’t very effective passing the ball.
“Some of it was him being a freshman and us protecting him probably too much, but I wanted to get back to where we could utilize the skill guys we have on offense and still do some of the things that are difficult to defend. The point is that we had Calvin Ridley and O.J. Howard, but they had very little impact on most games.”
Daboll, most recently the New England Patriots’ tight ends coach, also had three stints in the NFL as an offensive coordinator with the Kansas City Chiefs (2012), Miami Dolphins (2011) and Cleveland Browns (2009-10). Daboll replaces Kiffin, who tutored three different first-year starting quarterbacks at Alabama in his three seasons as offensive coordinator and brought more of a spread, uptempo approach to the Tide’s offense.
Saban parted ways with Kiffin, who was juggling Florida Atlantic head-coaching duties and Alabama offensive coordinator duties, after the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl win over Washington in the College Football Playoff semifinal last season. Steve Sarkisian, who spent most of last season as an offensive analyst for the Tide, was promoted to offensive coordinator and called plays in the 35-31 loss to Clemson in the national championship game. But Sarkisian left a month later for the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator job.
Hurts, who was 13-1 as a true freshman, accounted for a school-record 36 total touchdowns (23 passing and 13 rushing) and finished second in single-season total offense with 3,734 yards (2,780 passing and 954 rushing). But Alabama’s passing game, most notably the deep passing game, was inconsistent and lacked punch in the postseason. Hurts was just 13-of-31 for 131 yards in the loss to Clemson, and much of that came on a 68-yard touchdown pass to Howard in which Howard was left wide open down the sideline.
“If you watch the film, we had guys running wide open all over the place, and we didn’t get them the ball,” Saban said. “It wasn’t just Jalen. It was a lot of things. It’s frustrating. That hurts you on third down. It hurts you in making explosive plays.”
With Hurts’ ability to create, Saban said the Crimson Tide would still use some of the spread element on offense, especially with the rules surrounding the run-pass option in college football being such a huge advantage for the offense.
“You’ve got guys blocking downfield when you throw a pass. How much better does it get for the offense?” Saban said. “You’ve got to do some of that stuff, but I also thought we needed to go back and make sure we were coaching the passing game like we needed to do it to be able to develop a quarterback so we could have more balance in what we were doing. We threw a lot of passes last year (an average of 27.8 per game), but they were the kind of passes Jalen could deal with, but really not the kind of passes that took advantage of the skill players that we had.”
Saban said it’s “still a work in progress” for Hurts, but the coach is pleased with the strides Hurts has made this spring under Daboll in adapting to the direction the Tide want to go with the offense. It also helps that Alabama is deep at running back, with the likes of Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris, B.J. Emmons, Josh Jacobs and prized newcomer Najee Harris.
“We want our quarterback to be able to make plays with his feet, but we also don’t want to have to count on a lot of quarterback runs to make our offense go,” Saban said. “We’ve done a lot of good things on offense the last few years. Don’t get me wrong, but I think Brian’s experience in the NFL will help us get back to where we want to be.”
"The defense say they know what we're going to do, but then we watch film and we just make fun of them because they go one way and the ball's going the other way," left tackle K.J. Malone cracked earlier this week.
If that's happening, then all is going according to plan for new offensive coordinator Matt Canada, whose scheme is built around misdirection and creating confusion with pre-snap shifts.
Saturday's scrimmage (8 p.m. ET, SEC Network) will be the 15th and final spring practice for Canada and his offensive players to work together, and the first actual glimpse outsiders will get of the Tigers' new-look attack.
Just don't expect to see the full arsenal Canada has installed over the past several weeks.
"We had that discussion [about keeping it basic on offense Saturday], but you know, we want to play, too," LSU coach Ed Orgeron said Thursday. "So there's going to be a mix there of things that we feel that people know already on tape. There will be a mixture of things that we will do and there'll be some things that we won't."
Fans should expect to see a highly competitive first half, though. Orgeron said the starting offense will go against the starting defense because he wants the scrimmage to simulate a real game atmosphere.
"I want to see us get after it," Orgeron said. "I want to see us compete in a game-type atmosphere, I want our guys to walk down Tiger Walk, put themselves in a situation just like a preseason game. I want to see them perform under pressure, see what they can do, play hard, compete, have fun, have energy."
In scrimmages so far this spring, LSU players have indicated that the offense has generally gotten the better of a defense that is without eight starters from last season.
"We've done great during the scrimmages we've had, like 500 yards each scrimmage and that just fires us up," Malone said. "Because in the past, last year, it would be, 'All right, the defense won today.' But now it's like, 'The offense won today.' Even if we give up like one series, we're all fired up to go back out there and score a touchdown."
For that reason alone, expect to see some feistiness from Tigers defenders.
"We definitely have a chip on our shoulder," senior safety John Battle said. "It's going to be fun Saturday. I can't wait for it. I'm excited and just ready to get after it."
All of that said, Saturday will still look like a garden-variety spring game from the stands and on television. Maybe it will be more competitive than normal for a half before the Tigers play with a running clock after intermission, but we should still expect relatively simple game plans on offense and defense and extremely limited special-teams play.
Putting on a show is great, but the Tigers still want to be as healthy as possible once they reach the summer months.
"This will be my fourth or fifth spring game now, so it's really just pretty vanilla," senior quarterback Danny Etling predicted. "You just go out there and try and have some fun and play with your teammates some and enjoy the atmosphere of having people there watching you and kind of the culmination of all the work you put in this spring, and go out there and just kind of show it and have some fun doing it."
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CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Miami has garnered widespread praise throughout the offseason as a team poised to possibly win its first Coastal Division title.
Asked about the growing outside expectations, coach Mark Richt offers this, "We don’t even know who our quarterback is going to be yet."
No matter what happens in the final spring scrimmage Saturday, that will not change. Since signing day, Richt has maintained that he wants to wait until EPSPN 300 prospect N'Kosi Perry arrives on campus in May before making any decisions about who should replace three-year starter Brad Kaaya.
At this point, Rosier and Shirreffs are the knowns -- at least on the practice field. But Perry remains the unknown, a tantalizing prospect with physical gifts that set him apart from every quarterback on the roster.
"He may pick everything up and be a natural and be the guy, or he might not be ready for this moment yet and maybe we can get him in here and there, maybe he has to redshirt," Richt said. "I wish he would have been here this spring, because I’d know a lot more about the quarterbacks."
Waiting until summer to get a better idea is not ideal, but Richt and his staff believe Perry could be worth the wait. Ranked No. 84 on the ESPN 300 for the class of 2017, Richt describes Perry as "super athletic. He has tremendous arm talent. There’s passers and there’s throwers. He’s got nice touch, but if he has to zing it, he can zing it as good as anybody. He’s got arm talent, and in high school people had a hard time tackling the guy."
But there also are the caveats. At 6-foot-3, Perry weighed 175 pounds in high school. Miami already has asked him to start putting on weight before he gets to campus. Richt said Perry sometimes will take a photograph of a meal he is eating and send it to prove that he is trying to put on pounds; he is up to about 180.
Once he officially joins the team, Perry will be put into the weight program and given the full playbook to learn. The big test there is figuring out what Perry will be able to pick up, and how quickly he will be able to pick it up once fall practice arrives.
"Can you put in enough offense for him without him getting confused or rattled?" Richt said. "We hope to go at a pace that he can figure it out enough to compete, because the first competition is learning what to do. If you don’t know what to do, it’s hard to compete. You’ll make mistakes, you can’t run the system. Because you’re an athlete doesn’t mean you can ad lib all day and make something happen. You can probably do that more in high school than in college. Can he learn enough to function and play winning football for us? I don’t know. We’ll find out."
Until then, Richt and his staff have one more scrimmage to watch Rosier and Shirreffs, who separated themselves with their play this spring. Though Rosier has served as the backup to Kaaya the past two seasons, Shirreffs has emerged after entering Miami as a relative unknown.
Former Hurricanes coach Al Golden was the only Power 5 coach to recruit Shirreffs, who was unrated in the ESPN Recruiting rankings. Only after signing day had come and gone in 2015 did Shirreffs get a scholarship offer from Miami.
"I waited, and I got the call they had a spot for me," Shirreffs said. "They didn’t even ask if I wanted to come. They sent the paperwork, I signed it and faxed it back. Now here I am."
Here is the twist: Shirreffs grew up about 20 minutes away from Athens, Georgia, and went to every Georgia home game growing up. The offense he ran in high school was based on what Richt ran with the Bulldogs.
What Shirreffs has shown Richt is a toughness in the pocket, something that became evident when Richt had the quarterbacks go live in a scrimmage last week.
"He’ll stand in there, throw the strikes under duress, he can get hit in the mouth pop back up and go play the next play and not be shook. He showed me a lot," Richt said.
As for Rosier, the one-time baseball/football player is working to be more consistent and a more vocal leader. Rosier is the only player on the roster who has started a collegiate game -- and that was the infamous Duke game in 2015 when Kaaya was hurt.
"These guys know I can win, but now [I need to] show them I can win every day," Rosier said. "That’s the biggest thing is showing them I can lead."
Perhaps Rosier or Shirreffs emerges with a full offseason of work. Perhaps Perry shows enough in August to win the job. There won’t be any clarity for months.
"I don’t know if N'Kosi is ready or will be ready and I’m not saying he’s going to be the guy, either," Richt said. "One of them other guys gets in there and plays lights out, N'Kosi probably has to lift weights for two years and compete when his day comes."
BATON ROUGE, La. -- John Battle had a plan in December when he and his LSU teammates made their swag run to Best Buy during bowl week.
While most of the Tigers used their $305 shopping spree at the electronics store -- a gift each player received for participating in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl -- on items you would expect teenage and 20-something college student-athletes to purchase, Battle went a different route entirely.
“Everybody else walked out with PS4s and Xbox and all that, and I walked out with a camera,” Battle said. “Everybody looked at me like, ‘Why you got a camera?’ [I said], ‘Ah, you guys’ll see.’”
Photography has become one of Battle’s hobbies for now, but the senior safety would like to someday follow the path of a fellow LSU defensive back and South Floridian once his playing days end. Travis Daniels, a starting cornerback on LSU’s 2003 BCS championship team, is now a professional photographer after spending eight seasons in the NFL.
“He takes pictures for like weddings and things like that, so I’m trying to be like him,” said Battle, a native of Hallandale, Florida, just north of Miami. “That’s where I really got my idea from. He helped me out with that.”
Battle is a long way from professional-photographer status, however, admitting he is still learning how to use the Canon Rebel he purchased on the bowl trip.
“I still don’t know what I’m doing,” Battle chuckled. “I’m just hitting buttons, and they’re just coming out pretty good.”
Even if he is just a novice, Battle has enjoyed tinkering with the technology available to modern photographers that can turn a simple picture into something that looks more artistic.
Take, for instance, his black-and-white shots of former roommate Jamal Adams before Adams threw out the first pitch at LSU’s March 18 baseball game against Georgia. Or the modeling-style pics he posted on Instagram featuring former LSU safety Rickey Jefferson.
In addition to the photos he posts on his personal Twitter account, Battle also has started an Instagram page specifically dedicated to his new hobby. The wide range of shots there includes animals he spotted on trips to the zoo, photos of downtown Miami and action pics from LSU sporting events, which Battle said he has enjoyed watching as more than a spectator.
“The way I look at the game is different now, so it’s not just like a guy just sitting back in the stands looking,” Battle said. “It’s like all the things that these guys go through that you wouldn’t even think of. So like behind the scenes with baseball and gymnastics, I was like, ‘Man, I didn’t even know gymnastics did all this stuff.’ So it was pretty cool to see that firsthand.”
He even shot during LSU’s football pro day earlier this month. Battle said he hasn't been paid for his photography before -- he would have to clear that with LSU's compliance staff -- but told his former teammates at pro day he expects payment for his services next time.
Where will photography take him? Battle isn’t sure yet. He only has been shooting for about five months, after all, and hobbies sometimes come and go.
“I’m just enjoying it. I’m just out there freelancing right now,” Battle said. “Hopefully, it can turn into something. I would like for it to, but right now, it’s just a hobby.”
Texas A&M's offseason quarterback competition, like most others around the country, will be the focal point of much attention in the coming months.
While fans will dissect and discuss ad nauseum the pros and cons that come with the three primary contenders -- senior Jake Hubenak, redshirt freshman Nick Starkel and true freshman Kellen Mond -- there's a good chance the hand-wringing might be largely unnecessary. Who starts at quarterback is important, but chances are, the Aggies are going to be a good offensive team regardless of who takes the snaps.
Based on the team's track record under coach Kevin Sumlin, getting points on the scoreboard is rarely a problem. Keeping opponents from churning up their own yards and points has been the bigger issue, and the defense is where the biggest question marks will be this fall.
Hubenak, Starkel and Mond all bring different strengths to the table, but regardless of which one of them is calling the shots, the Aggies should still be one of the better offensive teams in the SEC. Here are a few reasons why:
- They return the league's most versatile offensive player: Junior receiver Christian Kirk is a Swiss army knife. He's a great receiver (he finished in the top four in the SEC in receiving yards his first two collegiate seasons), can run the football, return kicks and punts (he's one of the nation's best punt returners, with five touchdowns in two seasons) and can line up virtually anywhere the Aggies ask him (he even lined up at quarterback a couple times last season). Having Kirk back is huge for A&M, even though the Aggies lost their other three starters at receiver. And they have plenty of young receiving talent via their past two recruiting classes to fill the void.
- They have plenty of talent and depth at running back: Few outside of the state of Texas were aware of Trayveon Williams this time last season and he turned out to have a stellar freshman campaign. He finished with 1,057 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. He's a legitimate home-run threat who will only be a sophomore this fall. Keith Ford, a transfer from Oklahoma, was a solid compliment to Williams and should be again. And beyond those two, there are several other capable backs who could figure into the rotation.
- There's talent up front: The Aggies have the tough task of replacing two starting offensive tackles from their 2016 squad, but there is a lot of offensive-line talent on the roster and a solid amount of experience. Five different Aggies O-linemen have started a game in their careers, and the interior O-line returns virtually all its talent. The unit also picked up a graduate transfer recently, Christian Daimler from Oklahoma, to add to their offensive-tackle depth. Once they figure out the bookends, the rest should fall into place.
- Noel Mazzone: The Aggies' offensive coordinator did a solid job guiding the offense last season despite some of the limitations in front of him, namely, the completion percentage of Texas A&M's 2016 starting quarterback (Trevor Knight). Last season, Knight completed only 53.3 percent of his passes, worst in the SEC among the full-time starting quarterbacks. Knight wasn't a bad player (his rushing ability made up for what he lacked in accuracy as a passer, and Knight did throw a nice deep ball, which translated into numerous big plays) but Mazzone was able to maximize what he had in the graduate-transfer quarterback enough to get an average of 36.4 points per game (third in the SEC). Against Power 5 conference competition only, the Aggies were still third-best in the SEC (31.1 points). Mazzone has guided numerous productive offenses in his career, and given the pieces he has, there's a good chance he'll get the most out of whoever takes the first snap Sept. 3 at UCLA.
Keke Coutee has a goal for his 2017 season that sounds nearly impossible.
The junior wide receiver arrived on the goal thanks to all the times he’s walked past the wall in Texas Tech’s football facility that highlights the program’s individual offensive records. He glanced at them on his way to workouts and practices. He took notice.
“My top goal right now,” Coutee said, “is to break Michael Crabtree’s record of 22 touchdowns in a season. I set my goal kind of high this year.”
“You see, Crabtree and he won the Biletnikoff two years in a row,” Coutee said. “For me, I want to be the best. I decided I want to be remembered when I leave here.”
He’s playing in the right offense to chase that school record. No team threw it around more than Texas Tech last season, at more than 54 attempts per game. Coutee quietly enjoyed a breakthrough season as a sophomore in 2016, producing 890 receiving yards and seven TDs on 55 catches, with four 100-yard games. Only Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook put up more receiving yardage during Big 12 play. Bigger things are ahead for the 5-foot-11 speedster.
At the same time, this Red Raiders offense has too many good wideouts for one guy to get 22 scores. Coutee, Jonathan Giles, Dylan Cantrell, Cameron Batson and Derrick Willies combined for 3,665 receiving yards and 38 touchdowns last fall. And they’re all back for more.
The way Texas Tech spreads it around, any of those five could end up being the team’s leading receiver by season’s end.
“Any one of them can really have a big day on any given day, based on coverage and what we’re getting offensively,” coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “Keke is definitely a guy we’re going to try to push the ball to more this year with his ability. But this is a very solid receiving corps. Any one of them can hurt you if you’re trying to take away somebody else.”
The last time the Red Raiders took the field, it was Coutee’s day. He burned Baylor for 221 yards on eight catches in a 54-35 victory, highlighted by a 35-yard touchdown grab he hauled in like an outfielder and an 80-yard spinning catch and run for another score.
“It’s a perfect offense for me. I couldn’t play in a better offense,” Coutee said. “We’ve been the best offense in the nation two years in a row. For a small guy like me to be able to run around and make guys miss, this is the perfect offense.”
Coutee is grateful he found the right fit in Lubbock. Back in the summer of 2013, before he’d even played his junior season at Lufkin High School, Coutee made an early commitment to Mack Brown at a Texas summer camp. The coaches there told him he’d be a cornerback in college. With his speed and ball skills, that might not have been a bad idea.
But when Brown and his coaches departed months later, Coutee wasn’t interested in playing for a different Texas coach and Charlie Strong’s staff wasn’t interested in taking Coutee.
“I committed there for Mack 100 percent, and once Charlie Strong came in, I didn’t have any relationship with that staff so I didn’t want to be a part of that,” he said. “I looked at it like it was over with, and the scholarship was probably taken away at that point. So I just kept weighing my options.”
He reopened his recruitment and went with Texas Tech over Oklahoma and Louisville, opting to team up with fellow East Texas natives Cantrell and Patrick Mahomes II. Kingsbury said Coutee’s biggest challenge early on was putting on weight and maintaining it. The speed and pass-catching always came easy, but the 180-pound Coutee needed more muscle to break out in the Big 12.
“We moved him around last year in different spots and we’ll be more consistent where we have him this year,” Kingsbury said. “I expect that comfort level to take his game to that next step.”
Coutee admits he kept a close eye on his stats throughout last season. He says he’s more mature now. He doesn’t plan to make the numbers his focus. Of course, that doesn’t change the fact he has some serious statistical aspirations for 2017.
“I came on a little bit at the end. I came on pretty strong,” Coutee said. “Now that I understand how things go, I think I’m up for a pretty big year.”