Ten Storylines of the Week
1. Apparently, Nick Saban isn’t everybody’s first choice for dinner companion. Lane Kiffin survived Saban’s withering glare from 2014-2016ish, but couldn’t keep it together through the Tide’s ill-fated Playoff run. Kiffin cited his new head-coaching duties at Florida Atlantic as reason for his abrupt departure prior to the National Championship Game against Clemson. Replacing Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian. The former Washington and USC head coach took over for Kiffin for the title bout and was expected to guide the Tide offense in 2017. Except now not so much, as Sark has jumped for the Atlanta Falcons job vacated by the 49ers-bound Kyle Shanahan.
“Obviously, [Saban] would have loved for me to stay but he was understanding,” Sarkisian said. “I know Coach Saban and the University of Alabama, they're in a good place. They'll hire a really good coordinator and they're still going to win a lot of games.”
Just who that “really good coordinator” might be has not yet been determined. The internet immediately clamored for Chip Kelly, but that probably isn’t’ happening. More realistically, 247Sports has reported that Texans assistant George Godsey (a RB coach with UCF in a past life). After trying out characters like Kiffin and Sarkisian, do not be surprised if Saban hires an unassuming name like Godsey.
2. We are still sorting through the fallout of National Signing Day, but teams are already jostling for position on the 2018 ladder. Penn State’s charmed, rocket-fueled life continues unabated, as they added a 2018 commitment from four-star stud RB Ricky Slade last weekend. Far more surprising, the Kansas Jayhawks. Head coach David Beaty and company went on the warpath, collecting commitments from a pair of four-stars in wideout Devonta Jason and corner Corione Harris. They also earned a pledge from three-star quarterback Clayton Tune, just because that’s what Kansas does now. KU is currently ranked fourth on 247Sports’ composite team rankings. Only Penn State, Miami and Florida State check in higher. A very, very flawed Big 12 which will see conference No. 1 Oklahoma lose their quarterback after this season is the perfect setting for an up-and-coming team to make a jump. We’ll see if Kansas can turn these early commitments into on-field success in due time.
In other recruiting news, the Hurricanes added to their 2018 class on Thursday in picking up a commitment from Rivals’ No. 16 overall prospect in running back Lorenzo Lingard.
3. They say that people are more afraid of speaking in public than dying, but the real question is, are you more afraid of drafting a quarterback with a top 10 pick than you are of dying? I would be more afraid of the latter (the death thing), but drafting a quarterback is scary business in its own right. On Thursday, NFL Media's Mike Mayock equivocated, saying that he would be “scared to death” to take one of UNC QB Mitch Trubisky, Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer or Clemson QB Deshaun Watson in the first 10 picks of the first round. There are enough teams who either outright need a gunslinger or are in a spot where drafting one for development would be advised (greetings to the Browns, 49ers, Bears, Chargers, Jets, Bills, Chargers, Bengals) that I wouldn’t bet on a quarterback-less top-10. We haven't had one since 2013, when the first gunslinger off the board was EJ Manuel to the Bills at No. 16.
4. You’ll never believe this, but something went wrong at Baylor this week. If there is any program, anywhere, that needs to keep its head right, it’s the Bears. Or their strength-and-conditioning coach could just get arrested for soliciting prostitution. That happened to be another, slightly less palatable option than simply turning back into a normal football team. And that’s what happened on Saturday. The program immediately moved to fire Brandon Washington, whom had come over from Temple along with new head coach Matt Rhule. There is a small echo to Oregon and co-OC David Reaves, who was arrested on DUI charges in January after tagging along with Willie Taggart from USF. Reaves stepped down this week after Oregon had started the termination process.
Rhule could use a quiet remainder to the spring as he tries to guide Baylor through the darkness.
5. Fare thee well to Gene Chizik, who has stepped aside as North Carolina defensive coordinator in order to be with his family. Chizik had been a member of Larry Fedora's staff each of the past two seasons. They haven’t exactly been smooth ones for Chizik’s defense, but the Tar Heels did a nice job against the pass this season (183.85 passing yards allowed) and held the opposition under 25 points on average after playing largely like a very shredded kite in 2015. Chizik won’t be remembered for these last two years, of course. No, his football tombstone will just say “2011,” underneath which will be an engraving of Cam Newton surrounded by hearts. It was in 2011 that Chizik won a national title with the Newton-helmed Auburn Tigers. He was fired two years later following a 2-9 season. Chizik finished out at the exact nexus of .500 as a head coach, boasting (?) a 38-38 record. He could always return to the sideline in the future, though at age 55, it’s possible that he has simply gotten what he needs out of the sport of football. Cue hearts and a picture of Cam Newton etc.
6. You might recall that earlier this offseason, Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon told a reporter that he received a first-round grade from the NFL college advisory committee. That, apparently, was an alternate fact, as it turns out that the Sooners did not even turn in the necessary paperwork to jump-start that process. Not a great look for Mixon, who is already reportedly being barred from the Combine due to his punching of a woman in 2014. Mixon’s agent offered a reasonable enough explanation for Mixon’s little Sean Spicer moment by offering a bit of Kellyanne Conway spin, saying, “Whether when he was asked the question he understood or distinguished between what it means by the committee … I believe that he was 100% telling the truth, because I’ve confirmed it with multiple teams.”
We have no idea where Mixon will be drafted and anybody who tells you that they do is probably next going to try to sling an igloo in Death Valley. My stab-in-the-dark prediction: Off the board by the end of Day 2.
7. Most coordinator hires beneath offensive and defensive coordinator are not splashy headline-grabbers, but LSU pulled off an impressive one this week in luring Tommie Armstrong over from USC. Armstrong will act as running backs coach. He previously worked with Charlie Strong at Texas from 2014-2015. Even beyond the pedigree on his resume, he is a slick asset in the recruiting game. His job is as enviable as they come. With the Tigers, Robinson will have Heisman contender Derrius Guice at his disposal in 2017. It would be a mistake to think that LSU’s offense is magically fixed with a few nice coaching hires such as those of Armstrong and OC Matt Canada, but at the very least, LSU is starting to put the pieces in place that could eventually yield consistent offensive results.
8. We will wrap up with a few notable draft tidbits involving several prominent names (non-Mike Mayock freakout division). Draft Analyst’s Tony Pauline is not convinced after watching the tape of Alabama’s Cam Robinson that he will be able to stick at left tackle. “I’m not saying Robinson won’t be a good tackle in the NFL;, I just don’t think it will be on the left side,” Pauline wrote.
He went on to explain that “Robinson looked dominant on film but he also looked stiff, displayed poor footwork and will have trouble protecting the edge on Sunday. In my opinion, it adds up to a move to right tackle or possibly guard…” One offensive lineman who isn’t drawing those concerns would be Utah’s Garrett Bolles, whom has whipped scouts into a lather. Several teams told Pauline that they view Bolles as the top left tackle prospect in the draft.
Pauline was also somewhat dismayed from what he saw on the tape of C-Rob’s teammate, O.J. Howard. The athletic-freak-of-a-tight-end put forth a dominant week of Senior Bowl practice in late January, but that kind of showing apparently wasn’t always on display on Game Day. Wrote Pauline, “The Howard I saw on film often looked uninterested in finishing blocks, seemed lackadaisical when not directly involved in the play and was not a big part of the passing offense. On film he grades as a late first- round pick with a lot of questions.”
If you’ll step into my armchair psychologist office, I have a theory. Not a particularly original theory, but you can’t win them all. Despite his prodigious physical talents, Howard was underused to the extreme at Alabama. His best receiving season yardage-wise was 602 yards this past season. He has seven touchdown catches -- for his career. That he sometimes checked out would seem to be a natural by-product of the fact that he generally had enough time between catches to finish a game or two of Solitaire.
9. One name Mike Mayock forgot in his little “scared to death” bit about the top quarterbacks in this class is Texas Tech’s Pat Mahomes. While Mahomes isn’t likely to claw his way into Mayock’s impenetrable-to-the-quarterback top 10, NFL Media insider Ian Rapoport said that several teams have Mahomes atop their quarterback board. And while we are on the subject of quarterbacks, Deshaun Watson was praised by one AFC college scouting director this week for having competitiveness on par with that of Dak Prescott and Jameis Winston. No surprise there. Watson checks all of the intangible boxes -- and if Dabo Swinney is to be believed, he also checks every box in the history of ever. It’s the on-field mechanical ones such as accuracy past the first read that will draw the scrutiny, here.
10. Pauline once more to bring it all back home, with the analyst noting that USC wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster’s first-round dreams could be on Jello-covered ground. Two separate scouts told the draft guru that they have stamped Smith-Schuster with second- or third-round grades. “They feel there is nothing special about his game; he’s not a downfield threat, he runs average routes and some contend he does not catch the ball well,” Pauline writes. Rotoworld’s Thor Nystrom is not of this mind, contending earlier this week that Smith-Schuster possesses “Dez Bryant or Brandon Marshall-upside if everything breaks right, an “X” (split end) receiver who’s strong enough to break press coverage and fast enough to get down the sideline.”