PFLUGERVILLE, Texas -- Shock Linwood finished as the leading rusher in Baylor history, but his senior season certainly did not go as planned.
He finished No. 2 on the team in rushing behind Terence Williams, was suspended one game for “attitude issues” and elected to sit out the Bears’ Motel 6 Cactus Bowl win over Boise State.
So what happened? Linwood sat down with ESPN.com last week to discuss his rocky senior year, what he learned from it and his NFL aspirations.
What are you hoping to prove at your pro day next week?
Shock Linwood: I want to run 4.3 or low 4.4. A lot of people question my speed and breakaway speed, second-level speed. I just want to pop the eyes out on that aspect of my pro day and my cone drills, receiving drills, running back drills.
You rushed for 751 yards and two touchdowns last year after two 1,000-yard seasons. Did that bug you?
SL: Yes! How can you go from a two-time 1,000-yard leading rusher who’s All-Big 12 to he’s just not in there last year? It bothered me a lot. But then again, Coach KB (Kendal Briles) had his way of running his offense and I couldn’t do anything about it. I’ve just got to continue elevating my game.
Were you frustrated about having to compete with Terence Williams and JaMycal Hasty?
SL: He was just saying that with me having a bad attitude with him, it’s gonna affect my playing time. He’s going to play the younger guys. He didn’t care that he had a fifth-year senior. He was like, ‘If you’re not respecting me, I’m not giving you playing time. You deserve a lot of playing time, but you’re not going to get it if you don’t show me respect.’ That’s how he felt. He was saying I wasn’t being a leader, that I wasn’t holding myself accountable and putting forth the effort like I did in the past.
When you look back on last season, did you have an attitude problem?
SL: Yeah. We argued a few times. It was just the heat of the moment, all the mixed emotions going around that facility. Everybody had attitude. He was just saying my attitude affected my whole team. They were looking for me to lead and take over.
Do you feel like you have a better attitude today? Did you learn from that?
SL: Oh, yeah. Once the season was over, I just had to drop it and know it’s my own time now. I’m not on Coach (Jim) Grobe’s time. I’m not on KB’s time. I’m on Shock’s time. I’ve got a schedule and I have to hold myself accountable. I have to push myself to reach my goals and be the best.
What was it like for you guys when a 6-0 season turns into 7-6?
SL: It was terrible. Everything just went downhill. The quarterback (Seth Russell) got hurt. Freshman quarterback (Zach Smith) had to step in and play a big role. He wasn’t used to being at the college level, with all eyes on him. He has to make everything go correctly, has to look at what the defense is doing and if the offense is set up and go at that fast pace like Baylor does. He wasn’t able to get things rolling like we were before. Zach had to take that role as the next man up in a short amount of time. The other 10 guys on the field needed to step up and help him out.
Why did you skip the bowl game?
SL: The bowl game was just a personal decision for me to just enter the draft and continue to work on my craft and get an agent and move forward, since I wasn’t playing much the past six games.
Were you disappointed you weren’t invited to the NFL combine?
SL: Yeah, a lot. I know whenever I was back at home, my brothers and I were talking and discussing a few running backs that went to the combine and their style and their stats and stuff. When you compare the stats, they’re just the same. They had more carries than me, but the rushing yards and stuff are equivalent. They’re not that far from me.
What do you want to tell NFL scouts about your senior season and your career at Baylor?
SL: I mean, it’s been one hell of a career. From 2012 to 2017, I was one of the best players on that team. I have a resume that will speak for itself. I have film that speaks for itself. I have other people to speak for me. For myself, on pro day, I want to make that known.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU’s wide receivers aren’t deaf. They’ve no doubt heard the suggestions that they rank among the Tigers’ most unproven position groups.
They aren’t blind, either. They can look at a stat sheet and see that 48.5 percent of LSU’s receiving production over the past three seasons left with Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural at the end of last year.
However, they understandably prefer new offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s analysis that they are actually the nation’s top receiving corps -- a claim that Canada hollered at his quarterbacks when they were not connecting consistently enough with their wideouts at a recent practice.
“It’s a true statement,” senior receiver Russell Gage said. “We’ve got guys like Drake [Davis], Dee Anderson, D.J. [Chark] -- everyone’s seen D.J. -- myself. We are a very talented group with speed, strength, power. We have all the accolades and so what he’s trying to get everyone to understand, if we’re able to put all that together, there’s no limit to what we can do for this season.
“It’s going to be interesting. You’ll see.”
Maybe we will, but even the most optimistic LSU fan would be acting solely on blind faith to believe it at this point.
The painful fact is that only senior Chark has proven himself as an SEC-caliber receiver after posting 466 yards and averaging 17.9 yards per catch last year. Everyone else has accomplished little or nothing in an actual college game thus far.
“I’m pretty sure they know what’s being said, but it’s finally their shot. You wait until it’s your turn and once you get your shot, you make the most of it,” said Chark, who did not catch a single pass in his first two seasons at LSU. “When I was finally able to get my shot, I made the most of it, and I feel like we’ve got a room full of guys like that. So now it’s their shot and they’re going to make the most of it.”
By the sounds of Coach Ed Orgeron’s post-practice comments, sophomore Davis is one player who has done that this spring. He was one of LSU’s three ESPN 300 wideout signees last year -- joined by Anderson and Stephen Sullivan -- but accounted for just a single reception as a freshman.
He has already made some noise at the midway point of spring drills.
“He’s taking coaching really well,” said quarterback Danny Etling, who called Davis one of LSU’s most improved players this spring. “I think Coach Canada has really done a good job of telling the receivers what he expects from them, what he wants, and Drake is doing a great job of applying that to the field and working hard and trying to learn the offense. You can see his technique has gotten a lot better as far as what Coach Canada wants and him applying that to the field.”
Gage is another wideout making “most improved” lists, with the former cornerback looking to build off his lone productive game on offense. He had never caught a pass before he started in Dural’s place in last year’s regular-season finale against Texas A&M. But in that win over the Aggies, Gage caught five passes for 62 yards and a touchdown.
“Travin was out and I remember him giving me a talk that week before the game started, letting me know that ‘This is going to be your game’ and this is going to be me all next season,” Gage said. “So he gave me a talk and I went into the game with it on my mind. So yeah, I always knew that I prepared for it and I was capable of doing so.”
That seems to be the attitude LSU’s receivers are carrying into next season, but the passing game remains a work in progress as they adjust to Canada’s scheme and develop rapport with their quarterback.
The passing stats Orgeron offered up after this past Saturday’s scrimmage -- Etling, Justin McMillan and Lindsey Scott were a combined 11-for-19 for 235 yards and two touchdowns -- indicate as much, as do Etling’s comments before Tuesday’s practice.
“Maybe we haven’t been quite as efficient in the passing game as we want in the first seven practices, but that’s because we’re coming along,” Etling said. “We lost a ton of production from last year, getting timing as well as learning an all-new system, and I think we’ve gotten a lot better the last couple practices as far as feeling each other and throwing on time and all those things. I think it’s going to keep getting better, especially with a whole offseason of work and seven more practices to go.”
Good enough for LSU to boast the nation’s top receiving corps as their new coach predicted? That might be a tall order, but if this inexperienced group is going to set a goal, it might as well be a lofty one.
West Virginia running back Justin Crawford rushed for 331 yards in a loss to Oklahoma in November. He led the Big 12 in yards per attempt in his first season out of junior college. The league's offensive newcomer of the year, he announced in January that he would return as a senior.
None of it, though, readied Crawford for his planned future quite like the four-hour shifts that ended at 7 a.m. as a UPS package handler or the midnight-to-2 a.m. workouts at Planet Fitness in the offseason before his second year at Northwest Mississippi Community College.
You see, the hard times, with no one cheering, toughened his skin. Crawford, the 22-year-old married father of two and sometimes surrogate dad to four younger siblings whose father died in 2009, leans more on his resolve to thrive amid struggle than his milestones achieved in moving toward his "ultimate goal" of playing in the NFL.
The unrivaled leader of the Mountaineers' loaded offensive backfield, Crawford provides key experience for a Big 12 contender in its bid to improve on a 10-win, third-place league finish.
He learned his work ethic from a group of mentors and friends twice his age. Away from football, Crawford said, he rarely spends time with young people -- other than his wife, Chakeya, of course, sons Jay'Dense, 2, and 10-month-old Justin Jr.
"When everybody else is sitting at home, relaxing, you can be getting ahead," Crawford told ESPN.com on Tuesday in his first session of interviews since arriving at West Virginia last summer. "I want to do things or push myself in a certain way, so I can approach somebody else when they're not doing something right."
A graduate of Hardaway High School in Columbus, Georgia, Crawford rushed for 1,184 yards in 2016. With a family to support and after he worked briefly at Taco Bell in Morgantown before last season, Crawford surprised some observers with his decision to play a second season in the Big 12.
In fact, he said, "there was no decision." He was long determined to earn a degree. His family enjoys life in West Virginia, despite Crawford's commitments to academics and athletics that eat 90 percent of his time.
He said he feels additional responsibility to his three younger sisters and one brother who live in Georgia.
"It gets tough at times," he said. "You'll have everybody calling you for your opinion or advice."
The future, no matter its potential upgrades in lifestyle, will continue to present challenges, especially with time management. Of that, Crawford is entirely aware.
"It appears to me that he's trying to learn at every opportunity he has to learn," said West Virginia running backs coach Tony Dews, hired in February from Arizona. "When we go out on the practice field, he does a good job of setting the tone and being a leader.
"The other kids, obviously, respect him a great deal and follow his lead."
From the start this spring, Dews said he saw in Crawford a running back with good ball skills, vision and burst. The coach asked him to improve his pass protection.
"He's embracing it," Dews said. "He wants to do it. And that's a big thing. He's not a guy who thinks he has all the answers."
Crawford drew notice from his coaches last summer, even before preseason camp, for his brash leadership methods. Soon, they saw that he created no problems among teammates, who were instead drawn to him.
The style comes naturally to Crawford. Much like when lifted weights overnight in Mississippi, then lapped others in the weight room once structured workouts began, Crawford said if he invests the time at West Virginia, he'll reap benefits on the field.
Away from the field, he's pushing constantly to stay ahead of the curve. His motivation to succeed starts every day at home.
"I commend him on that part of it," Dews said, "because there's a lot of guys his age -- and a lot of men even older -- that are out there and may not be as responsible as he is right now."
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AUBURN, Alabama -- To his credit, Gus Malzahn is still trying to convince everybody that there is a quarterback competition taking place at Auburn this spring.
After Saturday’s scrimmage, Malzahn talked up the two freshmen -- Woody Barrett and Malik Willis -- who went live and showed off their athleticism. Sean White is still recovering from a broken arm, but he’s progressing well. Plus, Malzahn mentioned that new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey has been impressed with White’s retention ability.
That’s all fine, but does anybody actually believe that Jarrett Stidham won’t be the starting quarterback when the Tigers take the field against Georgia Southern in the season opener?
Stidham, the former Baylor transfer, was asked whether he could see himself as Auburn’s starting quarterback come September.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Stidham said in his first interview with the media since he arrived at Auburn. “That’s why I came here. I came here to get a great education from Auburn University and then to be the starting quarterback for the Auburn Tigers.”
Stidham isn’t assuming anything, though. He knows there is a competition going on, even if everybody outside the program believes he will be the guy. He knows he has to earn the trust and respect of his teammates. It’s sometimes easy to forget that he’s been on campus for only two-and-a-half months and Saturday was his first “game action” in more than a year.
At the end of the day, nothing is final until Malzahn and/or Lindsey make a decision.
“You take it day-by-day,” Stidham said. “Obviously, I’m still the new guy here. I’m trying to step up and be a leader as fast as possible. It comes with time, to gain the trust of the guys on the team. But I think doing the little things that will hopefully stand out, and like I said, you just have to take it day-by-day and compete. That’s just how it is.”
For the record, Stidham used the phrase “take it day-by-day” seven times during Saturday’s interview, which lasted roughly 11 minutes. He isn't looking ahead -- or at least, he wanted to make us think he isn't looking ahead.
Maybe it is unfair to White to assume that Stidham will be the starter. White has started 16 games the past two seasons, and when healthy -- which has been the main issue -- Auburn has played relatively well. He was the starting quarterback last fall, when the Tigers ripped off six straight wins in the middle of the season.
Yet here we are. It seems like a matter not of if but of when Malzahn will announce Stidham as the team’s starter. How long will he wait?
Malzahn hinted that Stidham might have a slight advantage because he’s getting more reps with the first-team offense than White, but he quickly backtracked and told the reporters to “not read anything into that.”
Meanwhile, Stidham continues to say and do all the right things.
How’s your relationship with White and the other quarterbacks?
Stidham: “It’s been awesome. Sean, he’s a great guy. Woody, Malik, Devin [Adams] -- they’re all great guys. We joke around a little bit with each other. We encourage each other. We compete against each other. And I think it makes the room a lot better.”
How difficult has it been to get acclimated while competing for a job?
Stidham: “There are difficulties with it, but I’m just trying to stay true to my personality. I just try to be a people person, be a light in the room. Whether we’re in meetings or in the weight room or working out on the field, whatever it is, I just try to be who I am and not be someone I’m not or who someone wants me to be. I think it just comes with time.”
The spring game at Auburn is less than two weeks away. Even if Stidham were to put up crazy numbers, don’t expect Malzahn to make a decision on the starting quarterback until later in the offseason or maybe even fall camp. He learned his lesson two years ago with Jeremy Johnson.
Still, it’s pretty easy to see who the front-runner is at this point.
WACO, Texas -- The era of #AmericasTopOffense at Baylor might be over, but it was undoubtedly fun while it lasted.
Baylor started throwing around that title early on in the 2013 season and rolled with the humble hashtag for three full years. And it was true. The Bears led the nation in scoring and total offense in 2013, 2014 and 2015. They won back-to-back Big 12 titles with speed, tempo, wide splits, speed, confident gunslingers, skill players galore, well-built lines and more speed.
How is new head coach Matt Rhule supposed to top that? He's not. The offense he's constructing in Waco this offseason is going to be different-- maybe a lot different. It's hard to say right now in the early stages of the spring install.
Based on the staff he put together, Rhule is attempting an intriguing philosophical merger. He's pairing the physical pro-style attack he ran at Temple with the Chip Kelly-spread principles that offensive coordinator Jeff Nixon learned while working for Kelly with the San Francisco 49ers last season.
Nixon's co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach is Glenn Thomas, who served as Temple's OC in 2016. Offensive line coach George DeLeone also came from Temple. But when Baylor's initial co-OC Matt Lubick abruptly bailed for a job at Washington last month, Rhule brought in another 49ers staffer in Bob Bicknell to coach the receivers.
The blueprint they're all preparing together is some sort of hybrid of those two offenses. "Multiple" sure seems like the keyword right now, based on the way quarterback Zach Smith tried to sum it up to reporters after a spring practice last week.
"It's kind of an NFL, pro-style offense," Smith said. "Spread stuff, tempo stuff. An all-around great offense. I've had fun learning it. I'm enjoying it every day."
Rhule was asked earlier this month how he intends to tweak his system to fit in with the Big 12. He paid his respects to the conference's high-flying offenses but certainly doesn't sound interested in reinventing what he does best.
"I've not really spent too much time worrying about the Big 12 itself," Rhule said. "We've watched everybody, we've studied everybody. There's obviously a lot of great offensive minds. There's really a lot of great offensive players in the Big 12. The quarterback play is ridiculous. You watch what certain kids do and it's really, really impressive.
"I think our focus is always on what we do, what we think we can do really well."
At Temple, the brand was big sets and body blows. Two backs, two tight ends and a wear-you-out mentality. Back in October 2015, Rhule actually made this comment to Temple reporters while describing his relatively old-school system: "I would love the day when we look like Baylor -- we go out there early on and we're scoring 30 points in the first quarter. But that's not us."
A different comparison seems obvious here, and the numbers back it up: Temple played a lot like Kansas State on offense.
Both teams averaged 32 points per game and 2.5 points per drive last season. Both teams ran fewer than 70 plays per game. Both were among the nation’s slowest in time of possession per play, a measure of tempo. Under Rhule, the Owls ran the ball on 58 percent of their plays last season. K-State was a 62-percent run team. And clearly it works for both programs.
Scheme-wise, Rhule is certainly going to be a departure from the previous regime. And yet, Baylor actually does seem to possess the personnel to deliver on Rhule's vision.
Blake Lynch and Chris Platt can step up to lead a receiving corps that lost KD Cannon and Ishmael Zamora. The quarterback spot is a question mark and the offensive line needs more bodies, but the new staff is inheriting some nice pieces.
Rhule says this spring is all about figuring out that personnel and installing a basic scheme, then growing it in whatever direction it needs to go. Nixon is stressing fundamentals for now as the Bears get started with spring ball. The rest will come in due time.
"For me, it doesn't matter what offensive system you run, we have to be fundamentally sound and guys have to be able to go out and perform fundamentally first before anything else scheme-wise," Nixon said.
One guarantee at the start of this next offensive era at Baylor: We won't really know how the new-look Bears intend to operate until they take the field on Sept. 2. No matter what identity they settle on, they’ve got plenty of time to figure it out and more than enough talent to make it work.
At first, this was supposed to be about how 2017 was a make-or-break, must-win for Arkansas coach Bret Bielema. But the more you actually think about it, it isn't that cut and dried.
Bielema is entering his fifth season with the Razorbacks after seven highly productive seasons as Wisconsin's head coach. He has no SEC West Division titles but also has just one losing season (his first, in 2013) and has won two bowl games in blowout fashion, by a combined 46 points.
Yet, he's won eight games only once (2015) and is coming off an insanely frustrating 2016 season that featured a 3-0 start, including a double-overtime win at No. 15 TCU, and concluded with embarrassing back-to-back losses to Missouri and Virginia Tech after leading by 17 and 24 points, respectively, at the half.
Promise has battled inconsistency throughout Bielema's 25-26 tenure at Arkansas.
But it's more complicated than just a win-loss record. To say that 2017 is a must-win season for Bielema seemed so easy until diving deeper and wading through the fan frustration. It seems almost too reactionary after you talk to people in the industry who have their fingers more firmly on the coaching pulse.
The charismatic Bielema isn't just some run-of-the-mill coach holding a call sheet in Fayetteville. He's a guy who led Wisconsin to three straight Rose Bowls, then took a fading Arkansas program and made it relevant again with a completely different approach -- most notably his ability to turn a high-flying offense into a bullish run-first, run-often offense in his first two seasons.
He later properly adapted his rough-and-tumble offensive style to showcase more passing with the superb hire of Dan Enos in 2015, while still producing one of the SEC's top rushing offenses.
However, he's also watched his defenses slide into the ranks of the unwatchable, even with players he thought finally gave him adequate quality and depth in his front seven. Arkansas has allowed an average of 400-plus yards per game to SEC opponents over the past two seasons, including a staggering 482.9 yards and a league-worst 7.9 yards per play in league play. Arkansas was also last in the SEC in points allowed in SEC play (37.3) last season and 13th in 2015 (30.1).
It's mind-numbing to think about the potential this team has had, yet it's gotten sidetracked by the shortcomings.
Bielema is also sandwiched among Nick Saban, Gus Malzahn, Dan Mullen, Kevin Sumlin and Hugh Freeze in the SEC West. Les Miles was there at one point, too. Bielema is in what has been arguably the country's toughest division during his tenure. Complicating matters is the fact that his immediate recruiting territory just isn't as succulent as the likes of Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Tennessee and Texas A&M.
Consider: The state of Arkansas has produced 12 ESPN 300 players since Bielema was hired by the Razorbacks. The state of Florida had 49 in the 2017 class.
So the deck isn't exactly stacked in Bielema's favor. As one agent essentially told me this week, it's hard to even think about firing a guy like Bielema, who -- again -- has three winning seasons in the SEC West, with everything going on around him.
But you also have to consider all that stuff going on around him! That just can't be ignored. You can't ignore that Auburn has 10 more wins than Arkansas in the past four seasons and was seconds away from winning a national championship in 2013 with first-year coach Gus Malzahn. You can't ignore that in the past four years, Mississippi State and Ole Miss have both hit the 30-win mark and have been in the College Football Playoff conversation.
Texas A&M should have a better four-year resume, but Sumlin does have 33 wins in that time. Miles might be gone, but his resume is undeniable, and the Tigers even won six games without him, trampling Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson in the process.
While other schools in the West have risen and fallen in the polls, Arkansas has merely dipped its toe in under Bielema, getting no higher than 16th in the AP poll. Fans notice such things. They certainly noticed last year's two-game collapse to end the season and the fact that Bielema is 6-19 against Top 25 teams in four years. He's also just 10-22 in SEC play.
Two years before Bielema arrived, Arkansas won 11 games and got to No. 3 in the BCS rankings. Now the Hogs are yet again a mystery in the SEC. The pieces appear to still be there in some parts of the offense, but the receiving corps is being totally rebuilt. The defense is in new hands with Paul Rhoads taking over, but that front seven is still a major work in progress.
We don't know what to make of Arkansas. Frankly, we really don't know what to fully make of Bielema as we attempt to sift through the positives and negatives that have made up his Arkansas career. 2017 could be a bridge to truly finding out who he is as Arkansas' coach -- for better or for worse.
You can't overlook the good, but you can't overlook the bad. Unfortunately, you also can't overlook the complexities.
Until we see 12 more games from the Hogs, Arkansas and those peering in are left in limbo on how to properly characterize Bielema's tenure.
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's difficult to go from unbeatable to unrecognizable.
For months, Alabama's secondary was regarded as one of the best in the nation, ranking first in opposing QBR and among the top 20 in touchdowns allowed, completion percentage and interceptions during the regular season. Even Washington's Jake Browning, who led all Power 5 quarterbacks in touchdown passes, crumbled against the Tide during the first round of the College Football Playoff, throwing for a paltry 150 yards, one touchdown and two picks.
Then came Clemson and the national title game, in which Deshaun Watson carved up Alabama's defensive backs to the tune of 420 yards and three touchdowns. The final two plays of the game were an indictment on the secondary: A pass-interference penalty set up first-and-goal from the 2-yard line, where Watson rolled to his right and found a wide-open Hunter Renfrow for the game-winning score.
Star defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick was in a daze after the 35-31 loss. The sophomore looked around the locker room in Tampa, Florida, and knew he wouldn't be suiting up with many of his teammates again. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey was set to turn pro, as was safety Eddie Jackson. The next day, Fitzpatrick watched a replay of the game a couple of times.
"Then I just had to switch my mindset and focus on a new team and a new season," he said.
Some players took it harder than others, he explained.
"But everybody learned from the game, and that's the most important thing."
Fast-forward two and a half months to the start of spring practice, and the Alabama secondary appears to have turned the page. Whereas the front seven lost five of seven starters to the NFL, the secondary returns three, including Fitzpatrick, cornerback Anthony Averett and safety Ronnie Harrison.
There's a good mix of new and old throughout the depth chart as well. At corner, senior Tony Brown is back along with rising sophomore Shyheim Carter. At safety, senior Hootie Jones is vying for reps alongside redshirt sophomore Deionte Thompson.
Even 2016 four-star athlete Trevon Diggs is trying his hand at defensive back this spring after playing primarily receiver as a true freshman last season.
"We do have some experience," coach Nick Saban said, "but it's going to take a while for us to sort of see which combinations of guys in regular, nickel and dime work best for us."
The biggest question facing the unit -- where will Fitzpatrick play -- appears to be answered, though.
The New Jersey native who has played nickelback, cornerback and safety his first two seasons on campus, is starting back at his natural position of corner.
"That's what I came here to play," Fitzpatrick said. "I did star my freshman year because we had Marlon [Humphrey] and Cyrus [Jones] out there. Then last year, Eddie went down so I had to move to safety. Now this year I'm back where I feel most comfortable, really. Coach [Saban] trusts me to be out there, and if I'm doing a good job out there, I'll stay there."
In what should feel like music to Alabama fans' ears, Fitzpatrick, who is already an All-American caliber DB, said he feels more likely to intercept passes at corner than he did at safety.
Time will tell whether Fitzpatrick can add to his eight career interceptions, or whether he'll even stick at cornerback. The good news for Alabama is that with Fitzpatrick and his teammates, Saban and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt have options.
The secondary may have ended last season on a sour note, but the future looks bright.
"It's a new team, a new attitude, new leaders, everything like that," Fitzpatrick said during the first week of spring practice. "It was a lot of fun to be out there."
NC State punter A.J. Cole III started going to Kenya over spring break as a senior in high school. Once he got to college, he needed his best sales pitch to convince teammates to come along with him.
So he called a meeting on campus and promised those interested that they would embark on a life-changing experience. It would not be an easy one. For starters, they would each have to raise $3,000 to fund the trip. They would have to make sure they had a full range of up-to-date shots (not to mention a passport and other travel documents).
They would have to take two seven-hour airplane rides to Nairobi. Then they would have to board a Jeep-style safari truck and head four hours northwest to Nakuru. Once there, they would be staying in bunk beds on the campus of Mountain Park Academy, a boarding school for Kenyan children. Modern amenities would be in scarce supply.
They would spend five days with the teachers and children, doing mission work while also uplifting, encouraging and teaching the children either in the classroom or through sports. Cole got three teammates to join him last spring.
Just a few weeks ago, Cole, Brady Bodine and Nicholas Lacy made the return trip to Kenya and the Mountain Park Academy during their spring break. Starting linebacker Airius Moore also joined them, making his decision at the last moment. Cole promised Moore, “If you go on this trip and don’t think it was worth the money, I’ll personally refund you.”
“It was the afternoon of the first day, he was like, ‘You’re not going to have to pay me the money,’” Cole said Moore told him.
Cole has now made the overseas trek four consecutive years, and each trip has had a profound impact on him. He now sponsors a high school student at the academy named Benedict, using $300 from his cost-of-attendance stipend at NC State to do so.
Benedict used to leave his home at 4 a.m. to walk the 3.7 miles to the school. He is able to live on campus now and is hopeful he will make it to college. In Kenya, roughly 10 percent of students who take a required test to get into college are able to pass.
Benedict and Cole have grown close over the past several years, but that also is the case with the other children at the school. As soon as Cole arrived this spring, he sprinted down a long hill to pick up and hug the children, who all shouted, “A.J.! A.J.!”
Working on a story about NC State players taking a mission trip to Kenya, led by punter A.J. Cole. Love this greeting when they arrived. pic.twitter.com/IXvMK6SUKP
— Andrea Adelson (@aadelsonESPN) March 24, 2017
“Half a second later, I was running in, putting a kid on my shoulders, playing with him,” Bodine said. “That’s one of the experiences I remember because, just like that, I was in it. I was playing with them.”
As part of the visit, those on the mission also bring supplies to the children. This year, they brought dresses for the girls, along with the standard pencils, papers and notepads. Cole remembers on one of his first visits watching children take notes in the margins of a newspaper because they had nothing to write on.
Sports also are a big part of what they do, especially because there is often a language barrier between visitors and the children. Some of the older students speak English, but most younger children speak Swahili and/or their tribal language. Though the children have never watched or played in an American football game, the NC State players will throw the football around with them (and also teach them the Wolfpack cheer).
The big sport in Kenya is soccer, and kicking a ball around with the children is always a source of amusement and fun. So is the big end-of-the-week soccer game between the teachers at the school and the visitors. The teachers won 7-2 this year, and the children shouted, “Kenya! Kenya!”
“When you get there, you get so much out of it,” Lacy said. “You get so much more, with the relationships you build with the kids. I love going there. I’m still on a high from going there.”
Lacy, a rising senior, might also have discovered a future career path. A human biology major, Lacy would be able to work in the global health field with his degree, which would allow him to go to developing countries to help combat the AIDS epidemic or help malnourished children.
Cole and Bodine, both juniors, plan to go back again next spring.
“If I come here to college, if I don’t ever go read to kids in Raleigh, if I don’t ever go on a mission trip, if I don’t ever use my platform to in some way help other people, I’ve wasted my time,” Cole said.
Moore plans on going back, too. The trip inspired him so much, he’s decided to sponsor two children -- a boy and a girl in sixth grade. He summed up the trip this way: “They changed my life more than I changed theirs.”
LSU WR Russell Gage's family among many Louisianians who have still not returned home after last year's floods
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Like thousands of his neighbors in South Louisiana last August, LSU wide receiver Russell Gage made the panicked decision to help his family escape from their rapidly flooding home.
Seven months after the storms damaged about 146,000 homes in the region, the Gages have still not moved back into their house in Baker, about 15 miles north of LSU’s Baton Rouge campus.
“We’re putting the finishing touches on the house and everything, so it’s good,” Gage said Thursday, noting that his family expects to move back into the house in May or June.
Contractors have helped the Gages work to repair their home, but they remain among the many families who are still ensnared in a painfully slow recovery process. The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated this week that 45,000 flood-affected residents are still living with friends and family and 373 more are still living in hotels.
That’s what the Gages did for more than a month after the floods, staying at a hotel close to LSU before the Federal Emergency Management Agency set them up to live in a trailer near their house until home repairs are complete.
The state government reports that more than 1,000 families remain in FEMA trailers, another painful adjustment for Gage’s family.
“At first it was difficult, especially when you can see the house [from the trailer],” said Gage, who will be a senior this fall. “But after a while of doing so, my mom’s definitely ready to move back into the house, but we’ve adjusted.”
Gage grabbed roommate Devin Voorhies and rushed home to Baker in August during preseason camp once his mother called him via FaceTime and showed him the water rushing into their home.
“Once I got there, the water was around 3 feet and rising,” Gage said at the time. “Me and my roommate were able to go and get a rescue boat to come in and get my family out to safety.”
Gage and Voorhies had parked about 5 miles from the house, so the rescue boat brought them halfway back and then the family -- Gage’s parents, sister and grandmother -- walked the remaining distance to the car. He then drove them to the hotel, where they would remain for the next several weeks.
Even in the storm’s immediate aftermath, Gage attempted to keep his family’s situation in perspective, showing resolve that has undoubtedly been tested during this drawn-out recovery process.
“The waters are gone, but the damage is done,” he said then. “We’re going to have to redo the walls and everything. But all that stuff’s replaceable. As long as my family’s safe, we’re fine.”
Gage was among several Tigers affected by last summer’s floods, a group that also includes defensive lineman Christian LaCouture, tight end Caleb Roddy, fullback Bry'Kiethon Mouton and tight ends coach Steve Ensminger.
Some of them are among residents fortunate enough to have already returned home, but the state’s recovery is still in its early stages overall.
The Louisiana government has secured $1.6 billion in disaster recovery funds, but the federal government has not released that money to the state. Gov. John Bel Edwards is lobbying President Donald Trump and Congress for at least $2 billion more, but it remains unclear where Louisiana flood recovery ranks on the federal government’s list of budget priorities.
In the meantime, the Gages and many like them will try to make the best of their unpleasant circumstances until they can get back into their homes.
“I guess you could say we’ve gotten used to it,” Gage said.
CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Shaq Quarterman bounced from the practice field, hamming it up for a cadre of reporters with his typical grin plastered across his face. Two practices into his second spring, this was old hat, and he had plenty of reason to smile.
Quarterman is, in many ways, the face of this new Miami team. He’s young, he’s brash and he’s good. And from the day he first donned a Hurricanes jersey, he made it clear his goal was a national championship. So, even just a few days into spring practice, he was asked how close this team was to that lofty benchmark.
“We were one game away from going to the Coastal last year, and with a lot returning, and seeing how good we did off the first year, and how much better we can be -- we can be so much better,” Quarterman said. “So we definitely feel we’re closer.”
The bold sentiments fit nicely with Quarterman’s personality. He thinks big. And after a 9-4 season, a dominant bowl win and the return of so many talented freshmen, from Quarterman to Ahmmon Richards to Joe Jackson, there’s ample reason for enthusiasm at Miami.
But a national championship?
“You’ve got to break it down to smaller pieces of doing things right on a daily basis,” coach Mark Richt said.
This, after all, is a program that has yet to even play for an ACC championship, a team that hasn’t beaten rival Florida State since Quarterman was in the sixth grade. For all the returning talent, there are still big questions in the secondary and on the offensive line and, of course, at quarterback.
So Richt rightly will grimace at the notion of championship talk after two spring-practice sessions. But this does feel like a different Miami team -- not in terms of brash expectations, but in terms of the ability to actually back it up.
“Our biggest motivators are ourselves,” linebacker Zach McCloud said. “We have a standard to play to, and we’re trying to get to that standard.”
That Miami standard is something this team is keenly aware of, but McCloud also knows it’s a benchmark the program has fallen short of reaching for nearly his whole lifetime. That makes setting preseason expectations tricky.
Certainly this wouldn’t be the first time Miami talked tough during the spring only for that bluster to disappear come September. What encourages Richt, however, is that bluster isn’t the defining feature of this team -- at least so far. Yes, expectations are high, but the details remain the priority.
Beat Florida State? Sure, they can do it. But that can’t define Miami.
Win the Coastal? It’s possible, certainly. But there are plenty of smaller questions to answer first.
A national title? OK, Miami might be closer, but that can’t be the only finish line the Canes see.
“Just get better,” Richt said. “If everybody takes that attitude and puts in the work and trusts each other, I’m not going to put a limit on what can happen. But I’m not going to make some bold prediction, either. If you want to predict something, predict that we’re going to work hard to be the best we can be.”
Tennessee returned to the football field Tuesday for the first practice of the spring. Noticeably absent from the group? Joshua Dobbs.
It had to be a little strange. Dobbs had taken part in the past three springs. He’d started 31 consecutive games at quarterback, and he played as big a role as anybody in changing the culture at Tennessee. The Volunteers were 14-18 in the 32 games before Dobbs made his first start as a freshman in 2013. In the final 31 games he started? They went 22-9.
“The great thing is we always talk about leaving a legacy. Josh has left a legacy,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “A lot of it is how you prepare, the mindset, how you approach practice, and I could see that our other quarterbacks being with Josh Dobbs, that really has helped them.”
That’s just it, though. Dobbs doesn’t have another year of college eligibility remaining. Sorry, Vols fans, he’s not coming back. But his footprints will still be all over this 2017 team.
As the current players were walking into the indoor facility this week for practice, there were coaches from the Los Angeles Chargers working out Dobbs and some of the other Tennessee players hoping to play at the next level next season. The following day, it was Sean Payton and some New Orleans Saints coaches on campus to see Dobbs.
What better motivation is there than that?
Also this week, while Jones was in a staff meeting, the school’s sports-technology coordinator brought him a notebook Dobbs had used when he was a freshman. It was chock-full of detailed notes.
“Knowledge is power,” Jones said. “This is another great example in terms of not just on the field but off the field in how you prepare, how you take care of your body, how you study video, how you do the extra things. That’s part of his legacy that he will leave here.”
Now all quarterbacks are expected to write everything down and take in everything that’s said, just as Dobbs did when he was there.
And maybe that will be the best barometer of the impact Dobbs will have on next season's team. Most fans are a little uneasy that Tennessee has to start a new quarterback this fall. But let’s not forget that the players vying to replace Dobbs had the opportunity to learn and grow behind one of the SEC’s better and more experienced quarterbacks the past two seasons.
“There is a lot of excitement,” Jones said. “The first thing is it’s very unfair for any of us to ask them to be Josh Dobbs. Jarrett and Quinten, they’re different individuals. For us, we have to do a great job of playing to their skill sets.
“But they’ve been able to witness his work ethic, how he represented himself every single day, how he led, how he approached game day, how he approached practice. And I think the one thing that you can really take from him is just his consistency in performance, his consistency on a daily basis.”
Dormady served as Dobbs’ primary backup each of the past two seasons, and while Guarantano hasn’t even been on campus for a full year yet, he credited Dobbs this week for showing him how to get through the ups and downs of a season and become a better quarterback.
The time for both players is now, though, because Dobbs won’t be there in the fall. He’ll likely be busy playing on Sundays in the NFL.
But expectations remain high at Tennessee in large part because of the contributions made by Dobbs or by the likes of Derek Barnett or Cameron Sutton or Josh Malone. They helped pave the way to where a bowl game isn’t enough anymore. The goal now is to play for and win an SEC championship.