Star freshman Deshaun Watson is Clemson’s quarterback of the future, and even head coach Dabo Swinney isn’t shying away from the hype.
“We’ve got something special in No. 4, and that’s easy to see,” Swinney said last weekend following a 73-7 victory over South Carolina State.
But Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris have a plan to bring Watson along slowly, picking their spots to use him while giving most of the snaps to senior Cole Stoudt.
The problem, of course, is that fans and media members are enamored with Watson, who has completed 10 of 13 passes this season for 213 total yards and four touchdowns. And until Clemson officially makes the switch from Stoudt to Watson, it promises to be a lingering question Swinney will have to deal with.
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“I know y’all want a quarterback controversy … we’re not getting into that,” Swinney bristled after the South Carolina State game. “(Stoudt) threw for 302 yards today, and all y’all want to ask me about is Deshaun. That’s a shame; that really is.”
Any quarterback questions at Clemson, however, will be a far bigger deal outside the program than within.
Bruce Miller, who coached Watson at Gainesville (Ga.) High School just outside of Atlanta, told USA TODAY Sports he was 100% on board with the way Clemson’s coaching staff planned to use Watson this season and didn’t see the need to rush him into a starting position.
“They’re handling it the right way,” Miller said. “They’re moving slow, and I think that is one of the best things you can do with a player like Deshaun. Don’t get so excited and throw him to the wolves because the next one they’re facing THE wolf.”
That would be No. 1 Florida State, which hosts Clemson on Sept. 20. Though Watson is likely to get some snaps in that game, the Tigers will certainly start Stoudt, and Miller has no issue with that.
Watson has shown the ability to make NFL throws — particularly on an early touchdown drive in the opener against Georgia — but Miller said the worst thing Swinney and Morris could do is let a team like Florida State shatter his confidence.
“They know what they’re doing,” Miller said. “You have to be careful with him because I’ve seen so many young quarterbacks thrown out there before they’re ready. He’s always been calm and cool but he’s on a bigger stage now and I’m sure he’ll handle it well when they call on him.”
Mississippi rivals reaching peak?
Since 1980, Mississippi State and Ole Miss have both finished with winning records only eight times, raising the question of whether it’s possible for both schools to be in the national conversation at the same time.
About as close as they came was 1999 when Ole Miss went 8-4 while Mississippi State finished 10-2. That year, the Bulldogs started 8-0 and got into the top-10 before consecutive road losses to Alabama and Arkansas knocked them out of the race for the SEC West.
Count Louisiana-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth among those who believe this season could represent the modern-day peak in the Egg Bowl rivalry. Hudspeth, whose team plays Ole Miss on Saturday, has followed the rivalry since he was a kid in Louisville, Miss., and was an active participant in 2009 and 2010 as Mississippi State’s wide receivers coach.
“There’s been a few good years, but probably not to the extent it is right now,” said Hudspeth, whose team visits the Rebels on Saturday. “They’re both recruiting and playing at a pretty high level and in terms of being competitive at the same time, it’s probably the best that state has seen.”
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Mississippi State athletics director Scott Stricklin has often heard that it’s impossible for both schools to be really good at the same time because the state is too small and there are not enough good players to go around. But he’s always disputed that notion and wonders if both programs continuing on their current trajectory might make their annual end-of-season meeting a little less life-or-death for the people involved.
“The Auburn-Alabama game is obviously huge, but usually the team that loses that game still has a pretty good year,” Stricklin told USA TODAY Sports earlier this year. “That hasn’t often been the case here, so winning that game became even more important because that’s how you make your season. We’ve talked a lot about wanting to be consistently successful and the more consistently successful you are, the do-or-die nature of that game making your season may not be as important.”
It won’t be easy because both programs have limitations, and they both play in the brutal SEC West, but Hudspeth thinks it’s possible.
“You’ve got to protect the in-state kids and not lose a few every year to Alabama or LSU or Auburn,” Hudspeth said. “There’s a lot of talent in that state.”
UCLA welcomes doubts
The good news is that UCLA is 2-0, having topped Virginia and Memphis to remain undefeated heading into the final game of the nonconference season.
The bad news is that UCLA has looked far from impressive, bearing the Cavaliers only after scoring three defensive touchdowns and edging past the Tigers by only a touchdown.
Undefeated, true, but inconsistent. It’s a “bittersweet” feeling, wide receiver Jordan Payton said this week.
“I think it goes both ways,” he said. “I think you’re always happy to get wins. In this game, it’s definitely hard to come by. But the good thing is that we can sit here and say we have to get better at this, we have to get better at this, and still be 2-0.
“The bad thing, obviously, is that we’re not playing as well as we should be. We just try to get better each week.”
Added Bruins coach Jim Mora, “We feel like we’re kind of back to where we want to be — people are doubting us,” Mora said. “There’s a reason for that, and we’re OK with it. It’s up to us to prove we’re a competitive, good football team to be reckoned with. In the first two weeks, we haven’t necessarily done that.”
Though the Bruins have lost some of that preseason goodwill — they were pegged as a College Football Playoff dark horse — the team remains focused on its next opponent, Texas, and not its upcoming Pac-12 schedule.
“Every game we try to make improvements based on what we have next,” linebacker Eric Kendricks said. “We hold ourselves to a high standard. I wouldn’t change that for anything. I believe that me and my teammates are going to keep working hard to maintain that standard.”
Maybe it’s about the time zones. UCLA was sluggish on Eastern Time against Virginia, sloppy back on the Pacific clock against Memphis. The Bruins’ move into Central Time might be the third bowl of porridge: not too early, not too late, but just right.
Hopefully, Payton said. “This is where we’re expecting to put it all together.”
Dee Hart reaches his destination
As a recruit, Dee Hart flipped his verbal commitment from Michigan to Alabama within a month of national signing day, giving Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide yet another five-star talent to add to a loaded backfield.
Things never panned out: Hart was stymied by knee injuries during his three seasons at Alabama, redshirting in 2011 and accounting for just 166 yards during two years of action, and then was arrested for marijuana possession in February.
Colorado State coach Jim McElwain recruited Hart, as well as former Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, out of Central Florida while the Tide’s offensive coordinator. That made CSU a logical landing spot for Hart, who graduated from Alabama in time to gain immediate eligibility with the Rams upon his arrival during the offseason.
“Really, it’s no different than life,” McElwain said. “Life is about building relationships.
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“He’s one of those guys who has overcome a lot in his life. Graduated high school in three and a half years. Gradated college in three and a half years, three years, I guess. And a first-generation college student.”
Hart wasn’t guaranteed a starting spot, but quickly moved to the top of the Rams’ depth chart by the end of fall camp. He gained 139 yards and scored twice in CSU’s season-opening win against rival Colorado before struggling — as did the offense as a whole — in a 37-24 loss to Boise State.
“The only thing I told him, as I tell all recruits, look, I’m going to guarantee you one thing, and that’s going to be an education that’ll help you for the rest of your life once your playing days are over,” McElwain said. “I guess I feel good about the fact that he felt really comfortable that I’d take care of him. We’re really excited that he chose to come on and work on his graduate degree and be part of the Ram family.”
Freeman the Phenom
Royce Freeman is listed as one of three co-starters at running back on Oregon’s depth chart, with Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner. Against Michigan State, he was on the receiving end of a shovel pass from Marcus Mariota — a third-and-long conversion that led to a critical touchdown — and scored on runs of 38 and 14 yards in the fourth quarter.
Oregon running backs coach Gary Campbell said he knew Freeman could play immediately when he first laid eyes on him during a recruiting visit to Imperial, Calif. He drew raves during preseason practices, but since they were closed, no one was certain what to expect. In the first two games, Freeman has 197 all-purpose yards (164 rushing). The 5-11, 229-pounder has provided a physical presence in the run game.
“He’s tough, determined, a fast, good-vision guy that is hard to bring down,” Campbell said. “He punishes you. There’s no question in my mind, when guys tackle him — the next time they tackle him, they’re not as anxious to do it.”
Along with Tyner, a sophomore, and Marshall, a junior, dividing the carries is a good problem for Campbell to have.
“It’s tough, because everybody thinks they’re the guy,” Campbell said. “But I think all of his peers, when he got here and they saw what he could do on the football field, there was no more doubt.”
Freeman, by the way, is among 10 true freshman who have played already for Oregon — more than usual. Others who have played key roles: Tyrell Crosby, who is scheduled to start at right tackle against Wyoming, and who was solid replacing the injured Andre Yruretagoyena against Michigan State; and wide receiver Charles Nelson, who returned a punt 50 yards for a touchdown against South Dakota.
Sarkisian: 2-0, but could be better
The best part about USC’s 13-10 win against Stanford was the win itself, Steve Sarkisian said, but there was another positive to be found in a simple truth: USC didn’t play that well.
That’s undeniable, he said. The Trojans let Stanford dictate the tempo on both sides, corralled by the Cardinal’s ferociously physical defense and run ragged by the team’s north-south offensive identity. That the Trojans won is paramount; that the team knew it had to address several issues allowed the coaching staff to attack the game tape while retaining a sense of positivity.
Sarkisian acknowledged his own mistakes when addressing the team after returning to Los Angeles. He had been flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the third quarter, for one, leading to athletics director Pat Haden’s controversial foray down to the sidelines. Sarkisian’s offense, so potent in the opener against Fresno State, was less effective on third down and, like Stanford, left points on the board inside the red zone.
“We want them to know, it’s not you, you, you and you, and I’m perfect,” he said. “No, I wasn’t perfect either. It’s if we fix x, y and z and those things, how much better can we be?
“That’s what keeps us hungry, keeps us humble. I don’t think that this team feels like we’ve made it now that we’ve won two games. They know they’ve got a lot of work to do. But what we’re capable of is pretty evident if we do it right.”
Enthusiasm at ULM
The phone of Louisiana-Monroe athletics director Brian Wickstrom doesn’t ring much these days offering million-dollar scheduling opportunities like the one his program has Saturday at No. 9 LSU.
“When you beat them, it’s harder,” Wickstrom said. “Some Power 5 schools don’t even want to play us at their place anymore.”
Few programs from outside the Power 5 conferences have done a better job in recent years making the most of their opportunities against the big boys than Louisiana-Monroe. In 2012, the Warhawks shocked Arkansas, took Auburn to overtime and lost by five points to Baylor. Then they swept a home-and-home series with Wake Forest, winning in Winston-Salem last season and opening this year with a 17-10 victory at home in front of a crowd clad in camouflage.
Though it may have been a marketing gimmick, it worked. Not only did it help ULM fill the stadium, but the combination of atmosphere and victory against Wake Forest has sparked a ticket sales boon since then, Wickstrom said.
“That’s helped our ticket sales for the game against Idaho, and now they’re hooked,” he said. “We’ve got more people that want to be a part of what we’re doing.”
Though the financial deck is stacked against programs like Louisiana-Monroe — a situation that will only be exacerbated by autonomy for the Power 5 conferences — Wickstrom is part of a wave of young athletics directors who are considered innovators in fundraising.
Wickstrom said he did more than 725 donor visits and 93 speaking engagements his first year on the job, and the result is a 20% increase in operating budget, 40% increase in football season ticket sales and 33% gain in overall ticket revenue for the department.
Those are the kinds of things Wickstrom believes will help programs like Louisiana-Monroe stay competitive in the autonomy era.
“There are people who hadn’t bought tickets or donated in years who are back engaged,” he said. “We don’t have very much, but we’re growing with what we have, which is going to give us a chance to survive.”
Larry Scott bullish on present, future
Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott spent his first three months on the job in 2009 touring the conference, speaking with administrators, coaches and players, before formulating his five-year plan.
The plan: Change the perception of the conference. Scott has succeeded on a massive scale, bringing vastly increased revenue into the league’s coffers and increasing exposure through television deals and the creation of the Pac-12 Network — steps that begin what Scott terms a “virtuous cycle,” where increased revenue and exposure leads to better coaching hires, improved facilities and stronger recruiting, which in turn leads back to increased revenue and exposure.
“I don’t think we’ve seen the full benefits yet,” Scott said at halftime of USC’s win against Stanford. “I think over the next few years we’re entering into a pretty golden age in terms of the depth and competitiveness of the conference.”
A Pac-12 team is ranked No. 1 or 2 nationally in every sport this this fall: football (Oregon), men’s and women’s soccer (UCLA), men’s cross-country (Colorado), women’s cross-country (Oregon), volleyball and men’s water polo (Stanford).
This football growth has led the Pac-12 on a collision course with the SEC, the standard bearer for conference dominance even after losing its stranglehold on the national championship last season.
The league matches up with the SEC in terms of overall quality, Scott said, but something is missing: A Pac-12 national title.
“Certainly at the top and in terms of our depth, I don’t think there’s a conference that can say they’re stronger,” Scott said. “But I understand, until we win the national championship the bragging rights will belong somewhere else. That’s just the way that works.”
Norm Parker remembered
Few coaches embodied the Big Ten more than Norm Parker, the longtime Iowa defensive coordinator who died in January at age 72. Despite significant health problems in his later years, including diabetes that led to his right foot being amputated, Parker remained one of the league’s biggest personalities and best coaches right up until the end. Five times during his 13 years at Iowa, his defense ranked in the top 10.
Parker’s son, Jim Parker, told USA TODAY Sports he was honored to be invited this weekend to serve as an honorary captain for the Hawkeyes’ game against Iowa State.
“The years he coached at Iowa were just an incredibly special time for him,” Jim Parker said. “I’m humbled and overwhelmed in a way.”
Norm Parker, a native of Hazel Park, Mich., also had coaching stops at Vanderbilt, Michigan State, East Carolina, Illinois, Minnesota, Wake Forest and his alma mater, Eastern Michigan, during a career that started in 1968.
But there was something about his association with the Big Ten that always just seemed to fit.
“My dad was special in that he really at heart was a blue-collar guy,” Jim Parker said. “He came from hard working Midwestern values and he felt very much at home around blue collar people who appreciated that toughness and tradition that went along with Big Ten football. But as much as he was maybe a tough guy and a defensive coach and his defenses were known for being hard-hitting, smack you in the mouth, he was a person that had a twinkle in his eye. He had the ability to connect to the common man, the farm kid, as much as another kid who maybe came from the inner city of Chicago or Detroit.”
Whistles and wedding bells
Walt Hameline is in the midst of his 34th season as head coach at Wagner College, and never has he been able to attend a wedding on a Saturday during the football season.
That became something of a problem, however, when his daughter Kelly scheduled her wedding for Sept. 20 — the day Wagner, an FCS member, was scheduled to play Monmouth.
“I have no control over it — that’s obvious,” Hameline joked, explaining why his daughter scheduled the wedding during the season. “The only date she could get at this particular place on Long Island was this date, which of course was the most expensive place she was looking at. So it was them against me — I had no shot.”
After the wedding date was set, Hameline went scrambling to see if somehow he could rearrange the schedule so he wouldn’t have to miss the game. Fortunately earlier this summer, he was able to work with Monmouth’s Kevin Callahan — a close friend and former assistant— to move the game to this weekend and open up a bye date next week.
Family crisis averted.
“Thank God I’m the (athletics director) and the football coach,” Hameline said. “That maybe helped a little bit.”
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