While the quarterback recruiting dominoes for the Class of 2018 have been lined up and falling for well over a year, one of the nation's highest-ranked players has stood by, unaffected.
Tanner McKee, the nation's fourth-ranked pocket passer and the No. 50 recruit overall, is one of just four quarterbacks in the ESPN 300 who remains uncommitted, and he is not in a hurry to change that.
Last year, his first as the starter for Centennial High in Corona, California, McKee threw for 3,522 yards with 36 touchdowns and eight interceptions as he led the Huskies to an 11-2 record. They lost to perennial power St. John Bosco in the section playoffs but still finished the year ranked No. 8 nationally by MaxPreps.
"I'm probably going to decide after the season," McKee said. "I don't really have a specific date."
It could seem like an unorthodox approach for a quarterback in this era, but it comes with a simple explanation: A couple of weeks after McKee graduates from high school, he will set out on his two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For all intents and purposes, his football commitment will be one of the earliest from the Class of 2020 and, as a result, he will have a cloudier picture of what the potential road to playing time will look like, as compared to others who will sign this spring.
For some quarterbacks, that could be a concern, but McKee is unfazed.
"I feel like there's going to be athletes anywhere, so if you got to a good school, there's going to be multiple guys that could have the job too," he said. "So you're going to just have to compete wherever you go."
McKee's mission could take him anywhere around the world -- his father took his mission to New Zealand and his sister is currently on hers in Washington, D.C. –- and he will find out his destination a couple of months before he leaves. His football career will take a backseat to his missionary work during his time away, but McKee said he'll do what he can to come back as ready as possible to play.
"In the morning, you can get a lift in and once a week you can have P-day -– a preparation day -- where you can actually go throw a football," he said. "It's kind of like your free day."
He got a better sense of what the experience will be like for someone in his position from BYU starting quarterback Tanner Mangum, who went on his mission to Chile before joining the Cougars.
"He said you have to stay in shape the whole time," McKee said. "It's hard, obviously, because you're busy, but you're going to have to wake up really early. You're still going to come back out of shape. You're not going to be in as good of shape as when you left, but just come back ready to learn the offense."
It takes watching only a few minutes of McKee's highlights to understand why he is coveted by some of the best programs in the country. At 6-foot-6 with a strong, accurate arm, he would be a good fit in a pro-style system. But for the past two years, McKee has operated one of the most prolific spread offenses in the country at Centennial High.
"I feel like a pro-style would set you up for the NFL, but I've been running the spread for so long that I feel comfortable in the spread if I need to," he said. "I guess I would like to run a pro-style [in college] just so I could learn it and different types of offenses, but it's not a make-or-break factor."
OXNARD, Calif. -- For the last 14 years, Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten has been recognized for his success on the field (10 Pro Bowls) as well as his success off the field (2012 Walter Payton Award winner).
This year, Witten will have an award named after him at the college level.
The Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year award will be presented after the 2017 college football season to a player from the FBS level who has “demonstrated a record of leadership by exhibiting exceptional courage, integrity and sportsmanship both on and off the field.” Three finalists will be selected in November and the winner will be announced in December with a banquet at The Star in Frisco, Texas, in February.
“When you think about Walter Payton and what that is at the NFL level and then to think about transferring that over to these young student athletes in college, it’ll be great for the kids that are up for it and honored to get it,” said Witten, who played in college at Tennessee. “I was just so honored to be a part of that group. You hope how you play and go about it pays off and I guess my quest was to have a legacy like that off the field as well.”
The winner will receive a $10,000 contribution in his name to his school’s athletic scholarship fund from Witten’s SCORE Foundation, which the tight end founded with his wife, Michelle, in 2007.
“I will say it again, Jason Witten is in the top five of people that I have met -- commissioners, owners, coaches, players -- since I have been in the NFL,” Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. “He is in my top five and (the award) is very appropriate. They couldn’t miss having that award named after him for a well-deserved collegiate player.”
New recruiting rules will allow recruits to sign their national letter of intent during a three-day window starting Dec. 20, which has some prospects excited and some still leery of the ramifications of signing early.
Prior to this rule, the first Wednesday in February was the earliest recruits could sign with their schools, which has traditionally made the end of December and the entire month of January a free-for-all, a mad dash to the finish line with decommitments and flips as coaches try to fill their classes.
In the 2016 class, from Dec. 20 through the month of January before signing day, 224 FBS recruits either decommitted or flipped their commitments to other schools. In the 2017 class, during the same time period, 238 prospects changed their commitment status.
This new rule could alter that number drastically depending on how many recruits sign in December, which would lock them in to schools.
I spoke to 76 recruits ranked in the top 150 of the ESPN 300 rankings, and 44 said they had plans to sign in December. With four months until that signing period begins, these opinions could change.
“My personal opinion about that is the recruits that actually sign early like me, in December, are the mature recruits because they don’t want all the recruiting games and they know where they’re going and want to lock that in,” Thomas, a Clemson commit, said. “But then again, there are some recruits who actually don’t know where they’re going, which is why they wouldn’t sign early. Most know where they’re going, but want all the recruiting hype and fun, so they play around with it. So for the recruits signing early, it shows they are real commits and not entertaining any other schools.”
Of the five-stars who said they are planning on enrolling early, all but Marshall are currently committed. That is a big part of the equation as to who is planning on enrolling early and why.
“I’m making sure the coaches stay intact before I put my name on paper,” uncommitted ESPN 300 prospect Tommy Bush said. “No sir, I’m signing in February.”
Bush shares the sentiment with quite a few other uncommitted prospects who have concerns about signing early.
Coaches have concerns of their own, but are going to have to learn to navigate this new rule quickly. Penn State coach James Franklin believes there should be some modifications to the rule and says he is worried that the NCAA is looking for the perfect system that isn’t there.
“The model I love from the beginning for the official visits and the early signing is you only early sign the kid that doesn’t want to go on any other visits,” Franklin said. “That’s saying, I’m going to Penn State, I was always going to Penn State, I want to sign and I don’t need official visits to do it. To me, that helps everybody out because now school X isn’t wasting their time recruiting the kid that’s always coming to Penn State.
“I think that was a really good model, but it didn’t happen. That would have been a good way to do it for early signing.”
This class is somewhat of a guinea pig with the new rule as each side is exploring how it will work. With every new rule change, there are bound to be pitfalls. Coaches and recruits still have concerns and questions, but the date is rapidly approaching.
With 57 percent of the top recruits who responded saying they plan on enrolling early, there could be a ton of action in the new signing period.
UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen wants the focus back on football.
Speaking publicly for the first time since his comments about the difficult relationship between college football players and academics were published last week, Rosen had no interest in rehashing the interview he gave to Bleacher Report or the reaction to it.
“I mean, Coach [Jim] Mora kind of addressed the whole thing,” Rosen said, “but at this point I’m kind of just talking about camp.”
In the wide-ranging interview with Bleacher Report conducted in the spring, Rosen touched on several topics, but what he said about academics drew national attention.
"Look, football and school don't go together," Rosen said. "They just don't. Trying to do both is like trying to do two full-time jobs."
"Human beings don't belong in school with our schedules," he continued. "No one in their right mind should have a football player's schedule and go to school. It's not that some players shouldn't be in school; it's just that universities should help them more -- instead of just finding ways to keep them eligible."
Asked Tuesday if he had any solutions to help solve the perceived incompatibility between football players and their academic pursuits, Rosen said, “We’ll see.”
In his two-plus years at UCLA, Rosen has earned a reputation for being willing to speak his mind. Two subjects he has addressed in the past: then-presidential candidate Donald Trump (Rosen said it was “cowardly to run a campaign based on demagoguery and bigotry”) and UCLA’s $280 million apparel deal with Under Armour ("We're still amateurs though...” he wrote on Instagram).
Those topics intersected Monday when Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank announced he would leave President Trump’s manufacturing council.
With an Under Armour logo next to a UCLA logo behind him, Rosen was asked about Plank’s decision.
With the exception of one weird, single-digit, rough-and-tumble game against LSU on Nov. 5, 2011, Alabama doesn’t make a habit out of losing by virtue of defense and running the football. Rather, the losses come almost exclusively as the result of quality quarterback play.
Think of all-conference talents such as Deshaun Watson, Chad Kelly, Johnny Manziel and Cam Newton carving up Nick Saban’s defense. Or recall career-type performances from Cardale Jones, Trevor Knight, Bo Wallace and Stephen Garcia.
Since 2010, quarterbacks who have beaten Alabama have averaged 243.8 yards per game, 64.9 percent completions and a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 5.2 to 1. By comparison, losing quarterbacks average 174.1 yards per game, 51.5 percent completions and throw far more interceptions (105) than touchdowns (64).
What may seem like a fairly obvious observation could tell us something, though. Last season -- and really the season before, too -- Alabama reached the playoff feasting on mostly subpar quarterbacks. Remember, Sam Darnold wasn’t yet the starter at USC during the season-opener and if not for an unheard of three non-offensive touchdowns, Kelly would have beaten Bama for the second time in a row. During the playoff, the Tide successfully tied Washington's Jake Browning in knots, but let Watson run roughshod during the national title game.
The message is simple: To have a shot against Bama, you must have a difference-maker at quarterback. And therein lies the possible answer for how everyone’s preseason No. 1 team might be knocked off its perch atop college football this season.
It has been proclaimed on this site and others that this is the Year of the Quarterback in college football, and though Alabama has one of its own to feel good about in sophomore Jalen Hurts, the Tide’s schedule is a reflection of the rise in talent at the position around the country. With the likes of Deondre Francois and Jarrett Stidham featured, it could be the best group of quarterbacks Saban’s defense has faced in quite some time.
Francois might have gotten knocked around a bunch as a redshirt freshman at Florida State last season, but he still threw for 3,350 yards. What’s more, his ability to escape pressure with his feet could give Alabama’s defense fits during the season-opener in Atlanta.
Stidham, on the other hand, is garnering Heisman Trophy buzz during his first season at Auburn. The former Baylor transfer has all the tools to thrive in Gus Malzahn’s offense, and he’ll have the benefit of a good group of receivers (see: Nate Craig-Myers, Kyle Davis) and an even better tandem at running back (see: Kamryn Pettway, Kerryon Johnson).
But it’s much more than those two passers whom Alabama has to be concerned about. Up and down the schedule, there are playmakers at the position.
Across the state, Mississippi State brings back Nick Fitzgerald, who was the most productive quarterback in the league in terms of total yards in his first season as a starter.
Austin Allen, who threw for 400 yards against Alabama last season, is back at Arkansas for his second year as a starter.
Going a step further, if Alabama reaches the SEC Championship Game for the third year in a row, the defense might not get another Treon Harris or Austin Appleby to toy around with. Rather, Florida likes what it has in redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks and Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire, and if Georgia reaches the title game, it will bring Jacob Eason, whom many regard as a first-round NFL talent.
Saban might have the best defensive back in college football in Minkah Fitzpatrick and one of the hardest hitters in the SEC in safety Ronnie Harrison. Getting veteran corner Anthony Averett back helps, too. But with an overhauled front seven and so many good quarterbacks to face, it's not going to be easy.
It won't be one or two good quarterbacks standing in Alabama's way to reach the playoff this time around. Instead, it will be more like a handful ready to try their hand against the vaunted Tide defense.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Jeremy Pruitt stood in front of the media on Saturday for the first and only time this season, and said almost nothing. Alabama’s 43-year-old defensive coordinator did so smiling, with the poise of a seasoned head coach.
Nick Saban would have been proud.
After seven non-consecutive seasons under the often media-averse Saban — one as defensive coordinator, three as a position coach and three as support staffer — Pruitt knows the deal. When he spoke to reporters last weekend, the Tide had been through only two days of practice. So while he was able to say that the weeks leading up to the season were an “exciting time”, he wasn’t ready to say much more.
Would Alabama blitz as much as it did last year? That would depend on the quality of the secondary, which was still to be determined, Pruitt said.
What about Terrell Lewis, who looks like the heir apparent to former star pass-rushers Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson? Pruitt wasn’t ready to single him out, instead mentioning Christian Miller and Anfernee Jennings as other options at outside linebacker.
“Coach [Saban] has what he calls a rep chart,” he said. “There is no depth chart.”
Someone might call that a distinction without a difference. Another person -- an athletic director, perhaps -- might see it as a coordinator wise enough to follow the direction of arguably the best college football coach of his generation.
Jeremy Pruitt might not be a household name yet, but he’s about to be. He’s already being thrown around as a candidate at Ole Miss, and you can expect to hear his name attached to other vacant head-coaching jobs as the year continues.
While learning at the feet of Saban alone makes him an attractive candidate, he has the added bonus of having proven himself elsewhere. He left Alabama to become defensive coordinator at Florida State under Jimbo Fisher in 2013, and after winning a national championship there, spent two seasons as defensive coordinator at Georgia under Mark Richt. When it comes to references, it doesn’t get much better than that.
Although Michigan and UCLA were both interested in talking to him following the 2015 season, Saban ultimately brought him back to Tuscaloosa, calling the decision a "no-brainer." In his four seasons as a defensive coordinator, Pruitt's defenses have finished no worse than 17th in yards per game.
And if you doubt his ambition to further his career beyond that of an assistant -- a $1.3 million assistant at that -- remember that he recently hired agent Jimmy Sexton, who reps many of college football’s top coaches, including Saban.
Everything is lined up for Pruitt to lead his own program, but he must first keep up the pace at Alabama.
Some coaches are lucky enough to coach three first-round picks over the course of their careers; Pruitt sent three to the NFL in the last year alone.
Still, he shrugged off the challenge of replacing so many high-quality players.
“In this profession, it happens every year,” he said. “… It’s something we had to do the year before, and it’s been done for a while.”
A total of six starters are gone from last season’s defense, but plenty of talent remains. Minkah Fitzpatrick is one of the most versatile defensive backs in college football, Ronnie Harrison is a heavy hitter at safety, and Anthony Averett is rock solid at corner. Shaun Dion Hamilton is back from knee surgery at middle linebacker, and the uber-athletic Rashaan Evans should start alongside him. The defensive line takes a hit, but returning nose guard Da'Ron Payne is as underappreciated as any player in the SEC. Defensive end Da’Shawn Hand has the talent to be a first-round pick if he can stay on the straight and narrow.
The good news is we’ll get a feel for the caliber of this defense right away when Alabama opens the season against Florida State. The Seminoles, ranked third in the coaches poll, return starting quarterback Deondre Francois, who threw for 3,350 yards as a redshirt freshman last season.
Pruitt, for his part, didn’t seem especially eager to take a walk down memory lane when asked about his former team.
“I worked a year at Florida State and was very thankful for the opportunity,” he said. “It was a great year, we had an opportunity to win the national championship and I have a tremendous amount of respect for what they do and what they have done.
“But really, right now, we’re kind of focused on us, and that’s what we’ll continue to focus on for the next few weeks.”
Pruitt spared us the “one day at a time” coach-speak, but he’s clearly taking that path as he enters a pivotal year for his career.
He knows he doesn’t need to say anything clever or reinvent the wheel. The talent and the process are all in place at Alabama.
So long as he keeps doing what he has done the past few years and smiles every now and then when the camera finds him, he’ll be in position to go from one of the game’s most successful coordinators to one of the hottest commodities on the head-coaching market.
Taking shots at the SEC? That is so 2015.
ACC coaches have targeted a new conference. Welcome to a budding rivalry, Big Ten.
Over the past month, Both Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney did little to hide their disdain with the way the Big Ten was portrayed last season in conversations about conference strength.
This week, Swinney told Walt Deptula on South Carolina radio station WCCP: "Go back to last year. We're trying to figure out a way to put four Big Ten teams in the playoff. And let me tell you, if they'd have figured it out, they'd have done it. I didn't pay no attention to the Big Ten. You just kind of buy it, right?
"That's just what's out there. And then we get ready to play Ohio State and I start watching the tape, I watch every single game, and I go in and tell our guys. I'm like, 'Boys, these guys are in trouble.' I mean, I've watched the whole league. I've gone through the whole league both sides. These guys are in trouble. And that's exactly what happened. Again, that's a credit to our league."
During the ACC car wash at ESPN in July, Fisher told colleague Heather Dinich, "We get caught up in 'that league's the best league this year.' For instance, last year it was Big Ten, Big Ten. All of a sudden the ACC spanks them to death in bowl games, major games, big games. But maybe during that time of the year, [the Big Ten] was better."
Clemson and Florida State went into their postseason games against Big Ten opponents as underdogs. The Tigers overwhelmed Ohio State 31-0 in the College Football Playoff semifinal in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl before beating Alabama to win the national championship; Florida State beat Michigan 33-32 in the Capital One Orange Bowl.
Those major victories gave the ACC a 9-3 bowl record, and 6-2 mark against the Big Ten for the 2016 season. Those records should stand on their own, but you can understand why Swinney and Fisher are still irked about the talking points that widely dismissed their own schools and conference accomplishments.
They have been the leading voices in sticking up for the ACC over the past five years. There is no way they are going to back down now that the conference had its best season yet.
Taking aim at the Big Ten might be a recent development, but the antagonism has been growing. Let's face it, the Big Ten has not exactly endeared itself to coaches in the ACC, with Jim Harbaugh planting his satellite camp flag across the South and the league supporting a host of recruiting changes the ACC stands firmly against.
Plus, the Big Ten Network has created a much bigger revenue gap with the ACC, widening an already deep divide. How much the forthcoming ACC Network closes that gap remains to be seen. It should also be noted that the two conferences also feature the best lineup of coaches in the country (take your pick who's best).
Now factor in the value the College Football Playoff selection committee puts on strength of schedule, quality wins and overall conference strength. Coaches naturally have to be much more vocal about why their teams are worthy. Politicking has become a late-November ritual, whether they like it or not. Because schools and conferences are judged and compared against one another to help determine the rankings, coaches now have to do the same.
The ACC's biggest rival will always be the SEC. There's no stopping the comparisons to its closest geographic neighbor, but with the way the Big Ten has emerged as a playoff threat, ACC coaches can't help but look in that direction, too.
With fall camps up and running around the league, there’s ample optimism among ACC teams about the season to come. But there are still big questions, too, which means some key players are under the microscope. With that in mind, we’re looking at each team’s biggest wild card: the guy who might be the difference between a big season and bitter disappointment.
First up, the Atlantic Division.
Boston College: QB Anthony Brown
It isn't exactly breaking ground to suggest that BC needs to find a quarterback. That has been par for the course since Steve Addazio arrived five years ago, and the past two seasons, the Eagles rank 64th out of 65 Power 5 teams in completion percentage (49.9%) and passing TDs (22) and 63rd in Total QBR (37.9). Brown seems like the best option, simply based on upside, but an even bigger perk to his winning the job would be that it might secure the position for the Eagles for the foreseeable future. If Brown wins the job, he’d be Addazio’s eighth starting QB.
Clemson: RB Tavien Feaster
Sure, the focus is all on the quarterbacks, but here are two key facts worth remembering: 1. No QB is going to be Deshaun Watson. Yes, production might vary from Kelly Bryant to Hunter Johnson, but neither will be reaching the epic highs Watson produced last season. 2. Even with Watson running the show, the running game was hardly a success last season. On non-QB runs, the Tigers averaged just 4.77 yards per carry, 45th in the Power 5. Now someone needs to fill the void left by Wayne Gallman, and the struggles after his concussion against NC State last season didn’t offer a rosy outlook. Feaster is the guy with the most upside, and coaches have raved about his more refined skill set this offseason.
Florida State: LT Rick Leonard
It is somewhat of a surprise that Jimbo Fisher already effectively announced Leonard as his starting left tackle, but it's a good sign that the FSU coach is comfortable with the progress Leonard has made. If the senior can hold down the left tackle job full-time, it opens real options across the rest of the line, particularly at the right tackle spot, where Derrick Kelly has gotten first-team reps and Josh Ball and Brock Ruble are also in the mix. Keeping Deondre Francois upright is the biggest wild card for FSU this season, and Leonard and the line will be tested early, with Alabama, Miami and NC State all up by Week 4.
Louisville: RB Reggie Bonnafon
The offensive line is the obvious question mark for Louisville, but there might also be a limited ceiling for that group’s improvement in just one season. Bonnafon, however, makes for a far more intriguing possibility. He moved from QB to receiver last season and mixed some highs (his red zone performance was spectacular) and lows (lots and lots of drops), enough that now he’ll shift to running back. His success could be huge for an offense that needs to find a steadying force in the backfield beyond Lamar Jackson, and his versatility as a passer, runner and receiver makes him a unique weapon. Could Bonnafon become a Quadree Henderson-type of player? The tools are there, so it’s just a matter of refining that talent and identifying the right role.
NC State: CB Nick McCloud
Yes, NC State should be very good up front on defense this year. But the back end? Well, that’s a bigger question after three of last year’s starters departed. McCloud looks to be the option to step in for Jack Tocho at corner, and his ceiling is high. He got a start last year against Vanderbilt in NC State’s bowl game, and he was one of just two true freshmen to see action on defense for the Wolfpack. With plenty of pressure coming up front, there should be opportunities for plays -- and as NC State learned against Florida State last year, someone needs to make them if the Wolfpack are going to compete for the division. (And, yes, we know a kicker would be nice, too.)
Syracuse: FS Antwan Cordy
How bad was Syracuse’s secondary last season? The Orange allowed 8.88 yards per pass (64th in Power 5) and saw 48 percent of deep balls (throws of 15-plus yards) completed (worst in Power 5), and when the defense didn’t blitz, Syracuse allowed more yards per pass than any other Power 5 team (9.23 per pass). Enter Cordy, who took a medical redshirt last season after breaking his arm in Week 2. He’s by far Syracuse’s best defensive back, and he fills a huge need at free safety. But is he enough to help erase all those ugly plays from a year ago? And is his return from injury a panacea or just a silver lining on an otherwise dark cloud? Don’t forget, in that Week 2 game when he was hurt last season, Louisville put up 62 points and Lamar Jackson seized control of the Heisman race.
Wake Forest: QB Kendall Hinton
Hinton won the starting QB job midway through the 2015 season, and two weeks later, he was injured. He threw just 50 more passes the rest of the year. He won the job again two weeks into the 2016 season. Again, he got hurt immediately and didn’t play another down. Now, we enter 2017, and Hinton is again slated to be Wake’s starter. There’s a reason Dave Clawson believes in the young QB, but the question is whether Hinton can stay on the field. If he can, Wake’s offense can be more dynamic than it was a year ago, and with myriad veterans returning, the Demon Deacons have a chance to push even the better teams in the Atlantic.