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Clemson star RB Travis Etienne surprisingly passes on 2020 NFL Draft to return for senior year


Clemson’s 2020 football roster got a big boost Friday when running back Travis Etienne announced he will return for his senior season. Etienne ran for 1,614 yards and 19 touchdowns this season en route to winning his second consecutive ACC Player of the Year award.

He was also the team’s third-leading receiver with 37 receptions for 432 yards and four touchdowns.

Etienne is 45th on CBS Sports’ 2020 NFL Draft Prospect Ranking and third among running backs.

The Jennings, Louisiana native is the ACC’s career leader in total touchdowns and is a two-time winner of the conference’s player of the year award.

“When I arrived at Clemson in 2017, I was just a kid from Jennings, Louisiana, with a dream of becoming the best football player and best man I could be” Eitenee wrote. “Coach Swinney, Coach Elliott, my family, my teammates and so many others have helped me reach for that dream every single day, and I will always be thankful for their belief in me as a player and as a person.

“Speaking of dreams, I have long dreamed of competing at the highest level and getting the chance to compete in the NFL. But I’m not done dreaming here at Clemson either, which is why I’m announcing that I’ll be returning for my senior season. I look forward to earning my degree from this great university and continuing to fight with my brothers on the team to make you proud during the 2020 season.”

Just 11 players have ever surpassed 5,500 rushing yards in a college career, and Etienne could be the 12th if he posts a third consecutive 1,500-yard rushing season. His return positions the Tigers to have their top three rushers and three of their top four receivers back for quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s junior season.

Etienne combined with backup running back Lyn-J Dixon to total 2,249 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns as the duo helped fuel the Tigers’ run to a fourth national championship appearance in five years. Dixon will be a junior during the 2020 season.

Junior receiver Tee Higgins declared for the draft after leading Clemson in receiving yards and touchdowns during the 2019 season. But second and third wide receivers Justyn Ross and Amari Rodgers are expected back next season to catch passes from Lawrence, who will likely be a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate.

All that returning talent means a Clemson offense that ranked fifth in the nation with 528.7 yards per game in 2019 might be even better in 2020. 

The Tigers did lose co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott, who left to become the head coach at South Florida. But Clemson is expected to have continuity on the offensive staff with co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, who has been with head coach Dabo Swinney since 2015.





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2020 NFL Draft: RB class still talented at the top despite Travis Etienne returning to Clemson


Travis Etienne shocked the masses by deciding to return to Clemson for this senior season instead of entering the 2020 NFL Draft, but while not as tremendous now, the long-hyped running back draft class is still talented. 

After Etienne’s decision on deadline day, let’s reassess the group of ball carriers who’ll be available in April. 

Tier 1

Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin
J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State
D’Andre Swift, Georgia
Cam Akers, Florida State
Zack Moss, Utah
 

After back-to-back 2,000-plus yard campaigns at Wisconsin, Taylor made the leap from Madison to the NFL, and rightfully so. At 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds, he has ideal feature back size, outstanding vision to see blocks as they materialize, plus cutting skills and track speed down the field. The front-runner to be the first back off the board, Taylor could hear his name called in Round 1 but is most likely going to be an early second-round selection. 

Highlighted in his huge performance against Clemson in the CFP semifinal, Dobbins has the low center of gravity, power, and lateral juice to accumulate extra yardage in a variety of ways. He’s thick in his lower half and his powerful leg churn allows him to push through weak tackle attempts with good regularity. 

Swift is a jagged, flashy runner who won’t wow consistently, then will hurdle a linebacker and cut the second he lands to pull of a true highlight-reel run. He averaged over six yards per carry in each of his last two seasons at Georgia and is an efficient, decently linear runner with plus contact balance and high-end receiving skills. Despite all that, I do think it’ll take him time to become as effective in the NFL as he was in college because he’s not a truly make-you-miss back with phenomenal acceleration.

Though a touch smaller than the other backs in this group, Akers exceeded expectations not based on his big-time recruiting status but the state of the Seminoles offensive line during his time in Tallahassee. A low-center-of-gravity, powerful back with springy feet and deceptive speed down the field, Akers has fringe franchise back skills and should be a fun feature in an NFL screen game instantly. 

South Florida native Moss landed at Utah and was a bouncy battering ram who displayed impeccable patience as blocks occurred in front of him. Moss isn’t super explosive but has arguably the best jump-cut skills in the class and finishes runs as hard as anyone. He came back heroically from his torn ACL in 2019 by averaging 6.0 yards per carry with 15 scores in 2019. 

Tier 2 

Anthony McFarland, Maryland
Clyde Edwards-Helaire, LSU
Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Vanderbilt 
    

McFarland is arguably the most electric runner in the class, with instant acceleration, scary change-of-direction capabilities, and long speed you don’t see coming until he’s running past everyone down the field. Maryland’s blocking was average in 2019 but McFarland was a problem in space his past two seasons for the Terrapins. In today’s NFL, elusive, explosive backs thrive. McFarland is that type of back. Don’t be surprised when he outplays his draft position. 

For as eye-poppingly awesome as McFarland is moving in a straight line, Edwards-Helaire is that fun bouncing laterally to avoid tacklers behind the line or close to it. His smaller, squatty frame allows him to naturally win the leverage battle against tacklers, and he runs with an immensely hard-nosed nature. As he demonstrated often in 2019 and the national title game, Edwards-Helaire is simply not easy to corral, and he finds extra yardage in small space or when he sees a defender on the perimeter. 

A smooth, big back with fluid cutting skills and powerful legs, Vaughn was better in 2018 than he was a senior, but because of his size and experience navigating lanes on inside runs, he’ll be a feature back in the eyes of a handful of teams. While he won’t run away back defensive backs down the field, his contact balance is well above average and he has a masters degree in turning a two-yard run into a five-yarder.

Tier 3 

Eno Benjamin, Arizona State
Lamical Perine, Florida
AJ Dillon, Boston College
  

Benjamin is a super-springy, shockingly powerful smaller back with comfort in the passing game and contact balance than allows him to almost effortlessly run through tacklers at the second and third levels of the defense. Benjamin carried the ball over 500 times in the past two seasons for the Sun Devils at over five yards per tote with 26 touchdowns. NFL teams will like that he caught 77 passes in that time frame as well. Benjamin looks like a bouncy scat back with no power. He’s not. He’ll lower the boom after he makes both of your linebackers miss in space. 

Perine is the back you want if you’re more into a complete game instead of a true trump card and deficiencies in other areas. Perine runs low, with good lean and adequate bounce. He’s decently quick down the field and recognizes blocks as they pave lanes for him at the second level. He doesn’t stand out in any area but you’ll be hard pressed to find an area of his game in which he struggles. 

Dillon looked the part from the moment he stepped foot on campus at Boston College, as he ran for nearly 1,600 yards with 14 touchdowns as a true freshman in 2017. His high-volume career with the Eagles culminated with a nearly identical season the ground in 2019. At 6-foot and 250 pounds, Dillon is shaped like a fullback, and while he isn’t going to set the track on fire at the combine, he has suddenness in his cuts to run through tackle attempts. Seriously, Dillon is unfazed by the attempts by many linebackers and defensive backs to take him to the turf. 





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The Raiders Left Oakland. The 49ers Want to Take It.


SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The timing couldn’t have been any better.

After years of turmoil and losing, the San Francisco 49ers, who face the Green Bay Packers in the N.F.C. Championship game on Sunday, are one victory from returning to Super Bowl. There is no better way to drive demand for tickets, jerseys and support from a business community with cash to burn.

And one more thing — the 49ers’ bonanza is happening as their longtime rivals, the Raiders, abandon the Bay Area for Las Vegas, leaving the 49ers to reign as the lone West Coast team between Seattle and Los Angeles and in prime position to annex the East Bay, which has for years been enemy territory clad in black-and-silver.

Making inroads into Raider nation won’t be easy. Raiders fans are among the most fiercely loyal in the N.F.L., and adopting the rival next door as their home team is not in their D.N.A. There were not many Brooklyn Dodgers fans who started rooting for the Yankees in 1958 either. Some fans will follow the team in Las Vegas, even flying there to see them play. Other Raiders fans may stop watching the N.F.L. entirely.

“You’re either a Raiders fan or Niners fan, but you’re never both,” said Wayne Deboe, the president of the Oakland Raiders Booster Club and a fan since the team’s inception in 1960.

Still, the 49ers ascendancy is likely to draw some fans who just want to watch a winner. The Bay Area is filled with transplants seeking Silicon Valley riches — and maybe a local team to root for. Younger fans, even those whose parents have a proclivity for silver and black, may latch onto the rising Niners, who are delicately trying to jump on a golden opportunity.

“We would never try to convert Raiders fans,” said Alex Chang, the chief marketing officer of the 49ers, before outlining what seemed like a pretty good plan to do just that. “It’s a multigenerational play here for people who are transplants or kids who are growing up here now and won’t have the Raiders.”

There will be an expansion of 49er charities in the East Bay. The franchise will invite more East Bay school children to its science and technology programs and expand its free flag football programs. The efforts are not necessarily designed to sell tickets, but represent a kind of soft-sell to bring residents in the entire Easy Bay closer to a team more associated with the city of San Francisco and the peninsula stretching down to San Jose.

Last year, about 60,000 school children from the region visited Levi’s Stadium. The 49ers also funded free flag football leagues for 3,000 boys and girls that were hosted by the Boys & Girls Club, Police Athletic League and city recreational programs there. Children who play in these leagues all receive a Niners reversible jersey. The team will also run one-time football clinics, often with 49ers, in the East Bay. The team intends to triple that number next season by working with those organizations in the East Bay.

“We want kids to be 49ers fans, but it’s not like we want someone not to be a Raiders fan,” said Hannah Gordon, the team’s chief administrative officer.

Sports leagues have tried in the past to create boundaries so that neighboring teams do not encroach on each other’s markets. In the N.F.L., a team’s territory was a 75-mile radius from its home city. Because San Francisco and Oakland are just 10 miles apart, the 49ers and Raiders have informally stayed out of their each other’s cities — no billboards, instance.

But the growth of social media has made lines on a map obsolete, and now the Raiders are gone altogether.

Winning the hearts of abandoned fans is not easy. The Mets were created in 1962 five years after the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants moved to California. The Chargers, who abandoned San Diego three seasons ago, are struggling to gain traction in Los Angeles.

The Kansas City Chiefs have moved eastward across Missouri to St. Louis, which lost the Rams in 2016. Mark Donovan, the Chiefs president, said the team acknowledged that Rams fans may still be angry about the decision to move, but he said ticket sales and sponsorships from that part of the state are on the rise. There is a lot more Chiefs programming on local radio affiliates, too.

The Chiefs’ success — they play in their second consecutive A.F.C. title game on Sunday — has also won over skeptical Rams fans. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce drew a big round of applause when they attended a Blues playoff game last year.

“I don’t think the rivalry between the teams was so bad that people wouldn’t root for the Chiefs,” said Randy Karraker, a talk-show host on 101 ESPN in St. Louis.

That may not be the case in the Bay Area, where the Raiders and 49ers have different identities dating back decades — the 49ers have long been the team of the elite, while the Raiders were the team of the working class. Still, success changes the calculus. Sales of 49ers merchandise have been the strongest in the East Bay — from San Leandro to Oakland to Fremont — this season, up 250 percent compared with last year, according to Fanatics, the largest online seller of licensed merchandise.

“The Bay Area is very provincial,” said Andy Dolich, who worked as a business executive for the Oakland A’s, Golden State Warriors, and, from 2007 to 2010, the 49ers. “But this Niners team has been able to jump the county barriers.”



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Dabo Swinney must be a wizard to convince Travis Etienne to skip NFL Draft


Clemson running back Travis Etienne is returning to school for his senior year and will bypass the 2020 NFL Draft, but can he be a first-rounder in 2021?

Clemson is going to be pretty good next year.

Dabo Swinney won’t have a bigger recruit this year than convincing running back Travis Etienne to return for his senior season. Etienne made the announcement he’ll return for his final season on Twitter, on the deadline day for underclassmen to declare for the draft.

It seemed like a foregone conclusion that Etienne would skip his senior season and enter the draft after all he’d accomplished in his three years. Etienne broke Raymond Priester‘s Clemson record for career rushing yards in the National Championship Game loss to LSU and was viewed as a likely second round pick in April’s draft.

Now, he’ll be spending his spring getting ready to win a second national championship instead of preparing for the combine, pro day and which suit to wear to the draft when a team makes him an instant multi-millionaire.

Etienne’s return to Clemson doesn’t do a whole lot to improve Clemson’s odds of winning the national championship. It’s not a slight on Etienne, it’s just that Clemson is already the favorite to win the title, so his return makes them a stronger bet to win their second title in three years and third in five years.

Quarterback Trevor Lawrence is already returning since he’s only going to be a rising junior and still a year away from being draft-eligible. Clemson enters the 2020 season with the unquestioned top backfield in college football and two of the leading candidates to win the Heisman Trophy.

Don’t be surprised if Clemson does what Ohio State did last year and have two teammates who are at the Heisman ceremony in New York in early December.

Etienne ran for 1,614 yards and had 19 touchdowns as a junior. He had 1,658 and a nation’s best 24 touchdowns as a sophomore in Clemson’s national championship season in 2018.

He has 4,038 career rushing yards and 56 touchdowns.

Etienne’s decision is obviously great news for Clemson fans. But it’s a puzzling decision considering what he had accomplished and the short shelf life for running backs. Etienne joins Alabama’s Najee Harris as likely Day 2 picks who returned to school rather than cash in and join the NFL now. But Etienne isn’t a finished product either.

The return to school may boost Etienne into the first round in 2021 if he shows he can be a bigger factor in the passing game, both as a receiver and in pass protection. If he can’t be a weapon out of the backfield or in the slot as a receiver and he can’t pick up blitzes and pass block, he won’t be a three-down back in the NFL and therefore will limit his draft value.

Etienne did make a big improvement as a receiver as a junior, catching 37 passes for 432 yards and four touchdowns. This was a massive increase in production from his 12 catches for 78 yards and two scores as a sophomore. If Etienne can make another similar improvement in this phase of the game, it might be enough to crack the first round, despite the added mileage on his body.

Next: 50 best college football uniforms

For more NCAA football news, analysis, opinion and unique coverage by FanSided, including Heisman Trophy and College Football Playoff rankings, be sure to bookmark these pages.

 





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2020 NFL Draft: LSU TE Thaddeus Moss, son of NFL legend Randy Moss, declares for pros


Another member of the Moss family will be aiming to make a name for himself in the NFL, and this one is coming off a stellar performance on college football’s biggest stage. LSU tight end Thaddeus Moss, son of NFL legend Randy Moss, announced on Twitter on Friday that he will forgo his final season of eligibility and enter the 2020 NFL Draft

Moss caught five passes for 36 yards and two touchdowns in LSU’s 42-25 win over Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship on Monday night in New Orleans. He hauled in 47 passes for 570 yards and four touchdowns during his junior season in Baton Rouge.

“I am blessed and humbled to address this to you,” he wrote. “This season has been an amazing experience. Memories have been created to last a lifetime with a team of individuals I will never forget. Thankful for my teammates, my brothers, for giving their all beside me. The ride we’ve shared since August has been a dream come true.”

Moss is the ninth member of LSU’s championship team to declare early for the NFL draft. He joins running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, offensive linemen Lloyd Cushenberry and Saahdiq Charles, wide receiver Justin Jefferson, linebackers, K’Lavon ChaissonPatrick Queen and Jacob Phillips and defensive back Grant Delpit as players who intend to go through the draft process this winter. 

The 6-foot-3, 240-pounder from Charlotte, North Carolina, isn’t currently listed among the top five tight end prospects on the latest CBS 2020 NFL Draft prospect rankings. But his stellar performance in the national title game coupled with athleticism that will impress NFL scouts could make him one of the prospects who shoots up the draft boards during the pre-draft process.





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John Harbaugh laments not playing more Ravens starters in Week 17, stands by quarterback Lamar Jackson


To bench, or not to bench? 

That’s the question some NFL head coaches face when their teams have nothing to play for (in terms of playoff positioning — with seeding already locked in) entering the final game of the regular season. Some coaches elect to bench some of their starters to give them an extra week of rest while also ensuing their availability for the playoffs. Conversely, some coaches play their starters and risk the consequences that come with their decision. 

The majority of coaches traditionally go with the former and rest some of their starters, which is what Ravens head coach John Harbaugh elected to do ahead of Baltimore’s Week 17 game against Pittsburgh, a game the Ravens won despite resting several starters that included quarterback Lamar Jackson, running back Mark Ingram, tight end Mark Andrews, offensive lineman Marshal Yanda, defensive lineman Brandon Williams, and safety Earl Thomas

Harbaugh, speaking to reporters less than a week after his team’s upset loss to the Titans in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs, was asked if he would still bench several of his starters for Week 17 given the benefit of hindsight. 

“Right now, if I had to do it today and we’re in the same situation, I’ll probably go the other way,” Harbaugh said, via ESPN’s Jamison Hensley. “Now, when that comes up and you’re blasting me for risking our guys, I won’t second-guess it then either.”

Harbaugh, whose team had already locked up the AFC’s No. 1 seed ahead of their regular season finale, admitted during the week of the game that deciding whether or not to play each of his starters was not an easy decision

“It’s a strong case to be made either way,” Harbaugh said, via the team’s official website. “I recognize the other side of it. It’s two good choices. We’re going to have to practice really well. The guys who aren’t playing are going to have to practice. We want to win this game. After that, we want to be the very best team we can be coming into the divisional game.”

While he amassed an astounding 508 all-purpose yards, Jackson, who will likely be named the league’s MVP during the league’s annual awards show next month, came out flat last Saturday after not playing in an NFL game since Baltimore’s Week 16 win over Cleveland. After completing 66.1% of his throws during the regular season, Jackson completed just 52.5% of his throws against the Titans. Jackson also threw two interceptions (he threw just six during the regular season) and was sacked four times in his team’s 28-12 loss. 

A narrative has now surfaced suggesting Jackson can’t win in the postseason, as he is now 0-2 in postseason play after Baltimore fell at home to the Chargers in last year’s wild-card playoff round. Harbaugh, who has won just one playoff game since leading the Ravens to victory in Super Bowl XLVII, stood by his quarterback on Friday. 

“He was in my office for a good while (earlier this week). I asked him, ‘What do you need to do to get better?’ We talked about a couple of different areas,” Harbaugh said of Jackson, who this season set an NFL record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a single season. “Without getting into what they are specifically, he nailed them. The priority list in the exact same order that Greg and I nailed the priority list when we were talking on Monday. So it’s not a secret. The things he needs to work on, like any young quarterback, he’ll say everything and it’s true. And then you prioritize what’s the order and what’s the plan going to be going forward to work on those things, and he’s really smart about that. He’s really self critical. He really understands where he needs to improve in order for us to keep taking steps as an offense.

“I think it’s really interesting to look at Lamar Jackson. Look at the progress he made in last year, because the same question, I think you asked it last year, how is gonna get better going forward and he did a good job, right? He’s 23-years-old. He’s younger than Joe Burrow, OK? So he’s got a pretty good head start right now. He’s along the way. The Manning brothers had five losses in their first five playoff games before they won one. Montana, Young, and Favre didn’t start a playoff game until their third season. Brees and Aikman until their fourth season and Rodgers until his fifth season. Interesting. Everybody’s different, right? But I’m really confident in Lamar and him understanding the things he needs to do to get better.” 

Jackson certainly did improve by leaps and bounds following his rookie season, when the former Heisman Trophy winner was thrust into the lineup after Baltimore won just four of their first nine games. But with Jackson under center, the Ravens won six of their final seven games en route to their first division title since 2012. But while Jackson’s rookie success was mostly on the strength of his running ability, Jackson saw rapid improvement as a passer in 2019, as he led the NFL with 36 touchdown passes. 

Before he delves into another offseason, Jackson’s 2019 season is not done yet. On Friday, it was announced that Jackson will take part in this year’s Pro Bowl, as Jackson will look to end his season on a positive note before preparing for the 2020 campaign. 





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A Rival’s Advice Put the 49ers on a Super Bowl Path


Carmen Policy, a high-ranking executive on the 49ers’ last four Super Bowl-winning teams, said Lynch and Shanahan had reconnected the team to its halcyon days. He likened the franchise to a beloved relative who had become sick, one that still evoked warm feelings even as people figured it was best to keep their distance.

“And all of a sudden, these great doctors and scientists came up with these various cures and medications, and that relative bounces out of the hospital and he’s right back to where you remember him,” Policy said. “And in some ways, because you haven’t experienced it in a while, he’s even more fun than he used to be.”

In fostering a more positive environment, Shanahan and Lynch valued candor and authenticity. Players felt as comfortable addressing them by their first names as they did discussing their contract status. Coming from Seattle, where he enjoyed playing for another impressive general manager-coach tandem in John Schneider and Pete Carroll, linebacker Brock Coyle said he appreciated how Lynch would speak to the team on occasion.

“It was almost like having two head coaches,” Coyle, one of the first free agents Lynch signed in 2017, said in a telephone interview. Lynch’s playing pedigree — nine Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl title as a hard-hitting safety — gave him authority. “When you have a coach who you respect and a G.M. who you respect, and they respect you and what you’re doing on the field, that breeds confidence, that breeds camaraderie, that breeds trust.”

In assembling their current team, Shanahan and Lynch took risks that rivaled the audacity shown by 49ers ownership when, after firing coaches in three consecutive years, it installed two unproven men in critical leadership positions and allowed them to learn on the job.

In a pass-oriented league, the 49ers handed the richest contract for a fullback in league history to Kyle Juszczyk, so San Francisco could run the ball — or evince the impression it was running — regardless of what the defense presented. Then they loaded up on speedy backs — Raheem Mostert, Matt Breida, Tevin Coleman — whom Shanahan could maximize in open space.



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Mike Vrabel is proving different than other Belichick disciples


Mike Vrabel played the bulk of his NFL career with the New England Patriots, but we’d be doing him a disservice to say he’s truly a Bill Belichick disciple.

Mike Vrabel is different.

He coaches the Tennessee Titans with the same ferocious energy he used to play 14 years in the NFL with three different franchises, most notably the New England Patriots. Vrabel won three Super Bowls in New England playing linebacker for Bill Belichick, earning his only career trip to the Pro Bowl during the near-undefeated season of 2007.

So one would think Vrabel is undoubtedly a steadfast disciple of the Belichick coaching tree, a tree that has not been as fruitful as its once-promising branches had led us to believe. While Vrabel gets ready for the biggest game of his newfound coaching life, we need to remind ourselves that he’s no Bill O’Brien, no Josh McDaniels, no Romeo Crennel, no Charlie Weis. He’s better.

People tend to forget this because they assume Vrabel was on one of Belichick’s coaching staffs at some point. Nope. In fact, Vrabel was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs along with backup quarterback Matt Cassel after the 2008 season. Vrabel played his final two years for the franchise he’ll face in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday afternoon.

Once Vrabel retired after the 2010 season, he went back to college, joining Luke Fickell’s staff on the Ohio State Buckeyes. A year later, Urban Meyer came out of retirement to coach Ohio State. Vrabel grew as a defensive line coach for two years before going back to the NFL.

In 2014, Vrabel joined O’Brien’s first Houston Texans staff as the linebackers coach. He held the position for three years before taking over as defensive coordinator in 2017. It didn’t last long, as Vrabel was picked to replace Mike Mularkey as the next head coach of the Titans in 2018. Two years later, his plucky football team one win away from the Super Bowl.

Sure, the Belichick connection is obvious with Vrabel. Coaches he’s worked with in O’Brien and Crennel are two of the most discussed branches of the Belichick tree. That being said, Vrabel feels like he better represents the Meyer coaching tree than he does the Belichick one. Just look at Meyer’s disciples and try to convince yourself that Vrabel isn’t having the same kind of success.

Noted Meyer disciples include Fickell, Dan Mullen, Ryan Day and Tom Herman, all of whom have had varying levels of success at the college level. In short, none of these coaches have busted once on their own as so many Belichick disciples have over the years. The really cool part is his team is giving us a fresh, but retro feel to it. The Titans want to beat you up and that’s football at its core.

Few teams in football this year were able to cultivate such a strong identity so quickly. Tennessee plays great defense at all levels, will run the football down your throat with leading rusher Derrick Henry and will design smart passing concepts off the run with offensive coordinator Arthur Smith dialing it up and quarterback Ryan Tannehill executing it.

At first glance, the Titans’ coaching style feels a tad too machismo to be sustainable in the modern NFL. Upon further inspection, you’ll find a team that is clever, willing to adjust on the fly and rarely makes mental mistakes to beat themselves. No, this is not the most talented team left in the playoffs, but there is a good chance it might be the most well-coached one.

At its core, this team feels more like a Meyer team or a Belichick offshoot twice removed than a direct branch from the Evil Empire. But if there is anything this Titans team reminds us of New England, it’s a team-first culture.

Would upsetting the Chiefs in Arrowhead be another remarkable chapter in the story that is the 2019 Titans? Without question, but the Titans don’t need to get to the Super Bowl to prove their point. They have a phenomenal up-and-coming head coach in Vrabel, a guy who will get better with every game under his belt, just like the players on the team he coaches.





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College football coaching carousel: Tracker, grades, analysis on all 2019-20 hires and changes


Dave Aranda Matt Rhule (Carolina Panthers) The LSU defensive coordinator was connected to the UNLV job earlier in this cycle and now gets an opportunity at a Power Five school. Not only that, but Rhule leaves Aranda a program that was just starting to see the fruits of the rebuilding efforts pay off. This is a great opportunity for Aranda, who Baylor believes can keep in the mix for Big 12 championships. Grade: B Nick Rolovich Mike Leach (Mississippi State) While Rolovich isn’t tied specifically to the wide open offense the Warriors ran in 2019, seeing Cole McDonald’s production does give a glimpse into what this Air Raid roster might be able to accomplish under its new head coach. Rolovich will also bring the entertainment value to those in Pullman accustomed to good quotes from their head coach. Grade: B Mike Leach Joe Moorhead (fired) As far as name and brand recognition, there’s no denying that Mississippi State upgraded here. Leach is a name well-known throughout the college football world, and this might be the best possible hire at this stage of the year. Still, I have some concerns. Joe Moorhead was a bad fit, and I’m not convinced Leach is significantly better. I’m also concerned about Leach’s recruiting, as he’s never been the most dogged on the recruiting trail. That worked out fine at Texas Tech and Wazzu, but will a more laid-back approach talent accumulation work in the SEC? <strong>Grade: B</strong> Brady Hoke Rocky Long (retired) Well, this was certainly unexpected. Rocky Long has stepped down and plans to pursue defensive coordinator jobs elsewhere. Brady Hoke, meanwhile, returns to the helm of a program he led for two seasons, going 13-12. A 9-4 season led to Hoke going to Michigan, but it hasn’t been great since. In fact, I’d argue that the Aztecs have downgraded. Still, given the situation, I’m not going to fail them for being put in a bad spot. <strong>Grade: D</strong> Danny Gonzales Bob Davie (resigned) It’s a little more difficult to properly gauge a hire when the coach comes from the defensive side of the ball these days. It’s often the choice the coach makes in an offensive coordinator that determines their program’s ceiling. As for Gonzales, he orchestrated some great defenses at San Diego State before working under Herm Edwards at Arizona State. The 43-year-old played at New Mexico and spent the first nine years of his coaching career there. So he’s familiar with the school and knows what it will take to be successful. <strong>Grade: B</strong> Kalen DeBoer Jeff Tedford (resigned) A choice so sensible you have to wonder what took so long to make it happen. DeBoer spent two seasons as Tedford’s offensive coordinator in 2017-18, overseeing an offense that helped the Bulldogs go 22-6. Before that he won three NAIA titles at Sioux Falls. This year, as Indiana’s offensive coordinator, the Hoosiers scored six more points per game than last year and finished second in offensive yards per game in the Big Ten. <strong>Grade: A</strong> Jeff Hafley Steve Addazio (fired) Considering athletic director Martin Jarmond’s ties to Ohio State, it always felt like BC would hire somebody with a Buckeye connection, and that’s what they’ve done with Hafley. Only 40, Hafley has coached since 2001 at both the college and. NFL levels. This season — his lone as Ohio State’s DC — he helped turn around the Buckeyes defense. Now he’ll be charged with taking Boston College to the next level in the ACC. <strong>Grade: B</strong> Shawn Clark Eli Drinkwitz (Missouri) When conducting your second coaching search in as many seasons, it’s natural to gravitate toward consistency. Appalachian State has done that by promoting Shawn Clark to head coach. Clark, 44, has not only been App State’s offensive line coach the last four seasons under both Scott Satterfield and Drinkwitz, but he played in Boone. There are very few candidates out there more familiar with the program or the players. It’s a logical hire for a program looking to maintain its run of success in the Sun Belt. <strong>Grade: B+</strong> Ryan Silverfield Mike Norvell (Florida State) Continuity is a good thing. Memphis is one of the more attractive Group of Five jobs in the country thanks to the work that Justin Fuente and Norvell did there, so there were likely plenty of interested suitors, but Silverfield has been with the program since 2016. He was named interim coach after Norvell left, and he’s popular with the players in the locker room. While a lack of coordinator or head coach experience can be seen as a concern, there are plenty of recent examples of that not being an impediment to a successful tenure at the top. <strong>Grade: B</strong> Steve Addazio Mike Bobo (resigned) Addazio is 57-55 in nine seasons as a coach and was 44-44 at Boston College. This grade isn’t about that, though, it’s about my preference to see schools like Colorado State go after coaches with higher ceilings. Yes, if a coach comes in and wins a lot, they’ll probably leave. But if Addazio wins a lot, he’ll do the same. To this point, however, Addazio hasn’t shown a track record of great success, and he’s never coached west of Indiana, let alone in the Colorado region. <strong>Grade: D</strong> Willie Taggart Lane Kiffin (Ole Miss) It’s a hire that makes a lot of sense for FAU given Taggart’s history and ties in the state. It’s also a change of pace for Taggart, who has always taken over programs in need of a rebuild. FAU is move-in ready, and should allow Taggart more time than he was given at FSU. Plus, if success at FAU can land Lane Kiffin another SEC gig, it can be a path for Taggart back to the Power Five as well. Solid hire for the Owls. <strong>Grade: B+</strong> Marcus Arroyo Tony Sanchez (fired) This was a job that was more attractive to candidates than many might have realized. At one point LSU DC Dave Aranda was a candidate, and he’s making $2.5 million in Baton Rouge. Instead, the Rebels land Arroyo from Oregon, where he spent the last three seasons running the offense and grooming Justin Herbert. He was also a terrific recruiter for the Ducks, which is something UNLV hopes will continue in Las Vegas. <strong>Grade: B</strong> Jeff Scott Charlie Strong (fired) It was only a matter of time before one of Clemson’s co-offensive coordinators moved on to a head coaching gig, and Scott is the first to go. Given his experience and successes at Clemson, as well as his ability as a recruiter, this seems like a hire with a high ceiling for South Florida. There are no guarantees in coaching hires, but I’d much rather see USF go this direction than a retread. <strong>Grade: A</strong> Jeff Traylor Frank Wilson (fired) UTSA fired Wilson, who had never been a coordinator or head coach at any level thanks in large part to his work as a recruiter and his ties to area high schools. After firing Wilson, UTSA has hired Traylor, who has no head coach or coordinator experience at the college level. What he does have, however, is plenty of tie-ins at the high school level in Texas after spending 15 seasons as the head coach at Gilmer. If at first you don’t succeed … <strong>Grade: B</strong> Ricky Rahne Bobby Wilder (resigned) Rahne took over the playcalling duties at Penn State after Joe Moorhead left for Mississippi State. After averaging 41.1 points per game in 2017 under Moorhead, the PSU offense dropped to 33.8 ppg under Rahne in 2018 without Saquon Barkley. In 2019, after losing QB Trace McSorley, that number improved to 34.3. Old Dominion is hiring him because it believes he’ll be able to put points on the board. Thus far, reviews are mixed. <strong>Grade: C+</strong> Eli Drinkwitz Barry Odom (fired) Drinkwitz has been considered a rising star in the coaching world ever since he came up from the high school ranks with Gus Malzahn. He just led Appalachian State to a Sun Belt title, but it’s hard to know how much credit Drinkwitz deserves for it. He inherited a program that Satterfield built, and was only in Boone for a season, so we have no idea how Drink will perform when a program is truly his. <strong>Grade: B</strong> Sam Pittman Chad Morris (fired) It’s hard to think that Arkansas’ plan when it fired Chad Morris during his second year to hire Pittman, but here we are. Pittman was the associate head coach and offensive line coach at Georgia, but spent three seasons at Arkansas. He’s never been a coordinator, let alone a head coach at the FBS level, but is considered an excellent recruiter. It could work, but it’s hard to be excited by the move. <strong>Grade: C</strong> Mike Norvell Willie Taggart (fired) He isn’t Bob Stoops, and he might not be a household name, but Norvell has had a lot of success at Memphis. In four seasons, he went 37-15 and 24-8 in the AAC, leading Memphis to conference title and Cotton Bowl berth this season. He’s done all this despite continually having his staff raided by bigger schools. Yet, year after year, Norvell’s program has kept humming along. This is a home run hire, even if Noles fans don’t realize it. <strong>Grade: A</strong> Lane Kiffin Matt Luke (fired) How you feel about this hire likely depends on how you feel about Kiffin, who is a polarizing figure. If Ole Miss is hiring the guy who was in charge at Tennessee and USC, this probably isn’t going to work. If Ole Miss is getting the Nick Saban School for Wayward Coaches graduate, the coach who took over a dormant FAU program and won two conference titles in three years, this could work. Frankly, I don’t know how it will go. It could be great, it could be a complete disaster. Ole Miss is not an easy job, and I don’t know what better coach is out there the Rebels could have reasonably been hoping to land. So, because of that, it’s hard to give this hire anything other than an A. <strong>Grade: A</strong> Jimmy Lake Chris Petersen (resigned) Well, this will likely go down as the most unexpected and quickest change on the carousel this winter. Considering Lake’s familiarity with the program, and that he was the hand-chosen successor to Petersen, it’s hard to give this anything other than an “A.” Of course, Lake has never been a head coach before, so anything is possible, but he’s had one of the best mentors a coach could hope for, and he’s already beloved by his players. This transition should be smooth, and that helps. <strong>Grade: A</strong> Greg Schiano Chris Ash (fired) I wrote a couple of days after Rutgers fired Ash that Schiano was the logical choice to replace him, and while it took a while, Rutgers settled on the correct answer. Schiano has had more success at Rutgers than anybody else, but it’s important to remember that it came while Rutgers was in the Big East. Odds are he won’t have the same results in the Big Ten East, but this is about getting the program back to a level of respectability. If Schiano can remove the doormat status from this program, the hire will be a success. <strong>Grade: A</strong>





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Football

Kevin Stefanski excited to work with Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt: Browns’ new coach expect to get more out of them


The Cleveland Browns may have been one of the league’s biggest disappointments in 2019, but their running game didn’t factor into that equation. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

Cleveland finished fourth in yards per carry (4.8) — Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt made up one of the most efficient backfield rotations in the NFL. Chubb finished second in the NFL with 1,494 yards, averaging 5.0 yards per carry and eight touchdowns. He finished third in the league with 298 carries, sixth in first downs (62) and seventh in yards per carry. Hunt had 179 rushing yards and two touchdowns (4.2 yards per carry) while adding another dimension to the Browns passing attack with 37 catches for 285 yards and a touchdown in eight games. 

Needless to say, new head coach Kevin Stefanski is excited to have the opportunity to coach both Chubb and Hunt in 2020.

“Nick Chubb, man, wow the tape is so impressive. I can’t wait to meet Nick Chubb the person because everyone is raving about him,” Stefanski said on ESPN 850 Thursday, via the Browns website. “(Hunt) is such a talented player. He’s from Ohio, so I know I’m going to get a chance to visit with him at some point.

“If we’ve got two good ones, we’ll figure it out. That’s no problem for us. That’s a good problem if it’s a problem at all. It’s our job to make sure we’ve got all these good players, let’s use them. Let’s use them in the right way.”

The Browns averaged 116.6 rushing yards per game with Hunt and Chubb in the backfield, but they could be even better in 2020 with Stefanski’s offense. In his one season as the Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator, the Vikings finished sixth with 133.3 rush yards per game. They finished sixth with 19 rushing touchdowns and fourth in attempts. 

How does that bode for Chubb and Hunt? The Browns finished just 22nd in rush attempts (393) despite ending 12th in yards (1,901) and 15th in touchdowns (15). Stefanski, who called offensive plays for the Vikings, ran the ball 49.07% percent of the time, third in the NFL behind Baltimore and San Francisco. Those numbers will certainly go up in Cleveland, especially with Chubb and Hunt in the backfield. 

Chubb has already proven he can handle the workload of a full season while Hunt will get a full offseason and training camp with the Browns after serving a multi-week suspension in 2019. Hunt led the NFL in rushing yards two seasons ago and will get his fair share of carries to keep Chubb fresh for the second half of the year. The Browns will also be more run dependent in the red zone with Chubb’s power and Hunt’s speed. 

Not only will the Browns commit to the run, but Stefanski got a career season out of Kirk Cousins thanks to the run-first philosophy. He’s expecting the same will happen with Baker Mayfield, who struggled in year two.

“That’s something you guys are going to hear me say a lot of,” Stefanski said. “I think there’s certain elements of the play-action world that are built off the run game that is ultimately a big part of what we’re going to do, and that’s very quarterback friendly.”





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