TGS 2016 COLLEGE FB PREVIEW...A LOOK AT THE INDEPENDENTS
We conclude our 2016 college football team previews with a look at the four independent entries, courtesy Managing Editor P. Carl Giordano. Last year's straight-up, spread, and over/under marks are included...Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor
NOTRE DAME (SUR 10-3; PSR 7-5-1; O-U 7-6)...ND coach Brian Kelly has a rebuilding job to do after losing 7 players drafted in the top 103 picks by the NFL in May, but there is plenty of reason for optimism in South Bend. Last year was a season of almost unprecedented injuries for Notre Dame, as the team lost its top QB, top three RBs, starting TE and nose tackle, plus a fistful of defensive backups. Yet the Irish were 10-1 and in position to be in the CFP semifinal before a last-second field goal gave Stanford a 38-36 win in Palo Alto Nov. 28.
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The Irish quality and depth at QB is impressive. Soph DeShone Kizer was forced into action as a redshirt frosh last season after jr. Malik Zaire was injured Sept. 12 at Virginia. Kizer threw for 2884 yds., completed 63%, and had a 21-10 TD-int. ratio while also scoring 10 rushing TDs and gaining 520 yards on the ground. Zaire, who was MVP of the Music City Bowl at the end of the 2014 season and the starter a year ago at this time, returns seeking to regain his status as the top dog. The starting position will be contested into the fall, and the two could share time all season.
At RB, ND lost Greg Bryant to academics prior to last season and Tarean Folston (career 1378 YR, 5.2 ypc) to a knee injury in Game One. The Irish were rescued by C.J. Prosise (1029 YR, 6.6 ypc), who was also injured down the stretch. True frosh Josh Adams then rushed for 115 ypg and 7.0 ypc over the last five. Adams and Folston return, and soph Dexter Williams looked sharp in spring, so ND is three-deep to start the season.
The offensive line will be in transition with the graduation of a triumvirate of three-year starters, but the left side boasts a pair of talented players in soph G Quenton Nelson (11 starts LY) and jr. T Mike McGlinchey. Soph Alex Bars, an excellent pass-blocker, is the new right tackle, and he was pushing Nelson for a starting role before he broke his ankle last season. Jr. G Colin McGovern played in eight games last year, and C Sam Mustipher appeared in nine, so it’s not like Kelly is just tossing puppies out there and hoping they growl.
The receiving corps lost five of its top six pass-catchers, including speedy star Will Fuller (1258 yds., 20.3 ypc, 14 TDs), who went in the first round to the Houston Texans. There’s no obvious replacement for Fuller on the horizon, but there is reason to believe production won’t drop off the table. Jr. Torii Hunter caught 28 passes last season and will be the lead target. Hunter was impressive in spring, as was 6-4 soph Equanimeous St. Brown (5 catches for 53 yds. in the spring game). True frosh K.J. Stepherson was an early enrollee and caught Kelly’s eye with his catch-and-run ability. The youngsters will get a chance, as sr. Corey Robinson, who caught 16 balls in 2015, was forced to quit football due to concussions.
Defensively, six experienced starters return, but d.c. Brian VanGorder must get his front seven to defend the run better. Last season the Irish gave up 4.6 ypc on the ground, the school’s worst performance in six years. Part of the decline in 2015 was due to an preseason knee injury to sr. NT Jarron Jones, who returns to his starting position. Sr. DE Isaac Rochell, who made 13 starts and 63 tackles LY, emerged as the leader of the defensive line in spring. Jr. DT Daniel Cage was also a regular last season. The move of 310-lb. John Montellus from the OL to DL could help the Irish get a bit more attitude (and heft) up front.
The LB corps is a bit of a worry after losing Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt. Those two combined for 369 tackles in 2014 and 2015. But sr. James Onwualu has solid experience, and jr. Nyles Morgan looked like the genuine article at MLB in spring. Five-star LB prospect Daelin Hayes (6-3, 254; enrolled early for spring) could fit in quickly.
The secondary is led by sr. S Max Redfield, a 5-star prep back in the day whose 64 tackles last year is the most of any returning player. Sr. CB Cole Luke (89 stops the last two seasons) is also back to fill one key spot. Although there are several experienced backups with starting experience, the surprise of the spring was true frosh S Devin Studstill, who enrolled early and ran with the first team most of the way.
Summary...Whichever QB Kelly chooses will be a strength for the team. The Irish have finished third, 11th, 11th and 13th in the country in recruiting the last four years, and filling in on the OL and at LB should prove a very quick fix for the most part. The schedule is challenging, but the Irish are in the mix once again for a CFP slot.
BRIGHAM YOUNG (SUR 9-4; PSR 8-5; O-U 7-6)...Rookie HC Kalani Sitake takes over for Bronco Mendenhall, who somewhat surprisingly moved to Virginia after he went 99-43 in Provo and took the Cougars to 10 straight bowl games. Sitake (former BYU fullback) has hired former Cougar Heisman-winning QB Ty Detmer to coordinate the offense.
BYU is two-deep at QB with 25-year-old sr. Taysom Hill, who’s very talented, but has missed 20 of 26 games the last two seasons with injuries, and 22-year-old Tanner Mangum. Hill missed spring workouts recovering from Lisfranc foot surgery, and it remains to be seen if he can regain his old starting form. When Hill was injured LY, Mangum moved in and threw for 3377 yds. with a 23-10 TD-int. ratio as a true frosh. Included were a pair of Hail Mary, game-winning TDs in the team’s first two contests! Regardless of who starts, both have demonstrated they can perform at a high level.
Star RB Jamaal Williams returns after taking last season off. In his career, he’s made 25 starts and rushed for 2526 yds., while scoring 24 TDs. Last season sr. Algernon Brown led the Cougs with 709 YR and 11 TDs. They’ll both be on the field at the same time for periods this fall, as Detmer has installed a pro-style attack that will use the 245-lb. Brown at fullback in certain sets. Washington State transfer Squally Canada is expected to have an impact as well after winning the backup RB role in spring. The great news for all the runners is that four veteran offensive line starters return, led by C Tejan Koroma and sr. left tackle Brad Wilcox. BYU owns one of the more experienced offensive lines in the country, and it cut down on sacks last season despite the running game being less effective than usual due to the injury to Williams.
The Cougs lost their top two receivers from last season. But, as usual, but they have some quality prospects at WR. Seniors Mitch Juergens and 6-6 Nick Kurtz combined for 76 catches in 2015, and 6-4 soph Moroni Laulu-Pututau has the athleticism to make a leap from his six receptions as a true frosh.
A major change has come on defense with the move from a 3-4 under Mendenhall to a 4-3 this season. The four-man front gives the DL more freedom and puts another body between the offensive linemen and sr. MLB Harvey Langi, who likes the new system a lot more. Jr. OLB Fred Warner was outstanding last season with 67 tackles and still has plenty of upside. Three sr. defensive starters also return from a front seven that held foes to just 3.7 ypc and collected 40 sacks (6th-most in the nation). The departure of DE Bronson Kaufusi (11 sacks LY) to the NFL will diminish the pass rush, but Langi, Warner and DEs Sae Tautu and Sione Takitaki combined for 16 QB sacks. The coaches moved 235-lb. soph Francis Bernard from RB, where he gained 334 yds., 7 TDs and caught 17 passes with 2 more scores, to outside LB to fill a vacated spot.
The secondary has three starters back, as sr. S Kai Nacua (66 stops), sr. CB Michael Davis (team-high 10 passes broken up), and jr. S Micah Hannemann (46 Ts) are ready. True frosh CB Troy Warner (LB Fred’s little brother) was in for spring and appeared to fit right in to the starting lineup.
The Cougars ranked 23rd in total defense last season. And, with eight returning starters, could be at least as good as last season when they cut their points allowed to 22.8 per game from 27.5 in 2014. BYU also ranked 23rd in red zone defense. The Cougs led the country in blocked kicks with eight.
Summary...BYU’s scheme changes might result in fewer points scored, as the team will utilize a huddle, but the plus side of the new system might be that defense will be better rested. Certainly the team will be more mature than most of its foes (as it always is). And Sitake will try to draw on the fact that the Cougars have a lot of players returning from missions. Still, the schedule is demanding, as BYU faces eight straight teams that went to a bowl game last year (without a bye week) to open the season. Sitake arrives after serving successfully as d.c. at Utah and Oregon State, so it’s a good fit for the program. It will be up to Sitake and AD Tom Holmoe to guide the Cougars going forward...possibly into an expanded Big 12 in the very near future.
ARMY WEST POINT (SUR 2-10; PSR 6-5-1; O-U: 4-8)...It's not easy to compete at the military academies, as HC Jeff Monken was well-aware when he took the job. Army West Point hasn’t beaten a team from a Power 5 conference in the last three years and has made just one bowl appearance in the last 20. Worse, the Black Knights have dropped 14 straight against arch-rival Navy! It wasn’t always that way. From 1984 to 1996, Army posted eight winning seasons, went to four bowl games and beat the Naval Academy in 10 of those 13 years. Monken has also been playing a lot of his incoming cadets as freshmen, giving valuable experience to youngsters.
The offense will be essentially the same triple-option attack that ranked 12th in rushing last season, grinding out 244 ypg on the ground. That figure was the team’s lowest in the last six seasons, however, due to the Black Knights stalling against quality foes Duke, Air Force and Navy (a combined 125 ypg rushing in those losses).
This season the option will be directed by either jr. Ahmad Bradshaw or soph Chris Carter at QB. Bradshaw started last season by averaging 111 ypg rushing, but was injured against Eastern Michigan and was then eased back into the lineup. He started just two of the remaining eight games. Bradshaw was 2nd on the team with 450 YR, but his 3.4 ypc and 48% passing weren’t that great. Soph Chris Carter started the final two games of last season, his only two appearances. Carter could provide a more dangerous passing component to the attack this season, as he completed 13 of 21 passes for 348 yds. playing in just those two games against Rutgers and Navy. Carter looked crisp in spring workouts throwing the ball.
Army’s most effective rusher last season was FB Aaron Kemper (team-high 544 YR, 5.4 ypc LY). But he was kicked off the team for academic violations, and his return is very unlikely (his jersey has been issued to another player). The Cadets’ next man up at the position is soph Andy Davidson, who was switched from LB to FB in spring practices. Davidson played in every game LY, but after him it’s a couple of other lightly-used sophs on the depth chart. In all, 8 of the 11 players who gained 118 yds. or more return this season after Monken spread the ball around among numerous RBs. Jr. John Trainor and soph Jordan Asberry combined for 465 YR, ranking 5th & 6th LY. Three starting offensive linemen are back, as is last season’s top pass catcher, sr. Edgar Poe (16 recs., 27.6 ypc, 6 TDs).
West Point returns nine starters from last year’s stop unit, including a liberal sprinkling of Monken recruits in the two-deep. Army was much-improved defensively in 2015, shaving 55 ypg and 5.1 ppg from its 2014 allowances. The defense returns its top seven, and 13 of its top 15, tacklers from last season. That group is led by sr. LBs Andrew King and Jeremy Timpf, who tied for the team lead with 92 tackles last season. Those two made enough plays to cut significantly into opponents’ efficiency, as the team’s ypc dropped from 5.3 in 2014 to 4.5 (Army’s lowest in five years), and foes’ completion percentage went from 67.4% in ‘14 to 60.8% LY.
The Black Knights must improve their pass rush, as they’ve averaged just 14 sacks per year in the last four seasons. King led the team with 4½ QB sacks, but no one else had more than two. Monken was pleased with the defensive progress in spring, as the team showed an improved knack for forcing turnovers, an area greatly in need of improvement. Last season Army ranked 122nd in the country, forcing just 11 opponents’ errors. That, coupled with the fact the Cadets lost 13 fumbles (112th) was a dangerous combo that resulted in Army emerging 113th in TO margin.
Summary...Last season Army scored its fewest points since 2009. And the loss of Kemper, combined with the insertion of 13 sophs into the offensive two-deep, would appear to point to another decrease, not an increase, in scoring. The defense is more seasoned and was improved last year. But the jury is still out as to whether Monken can rekindle the program.
UMASS (SUR 3-9; PSR 4-8; O-U 4-7-1)...HC Mark Whipple moved UMass from back-to-back 1-11 records in the two seasons before he took over to 3-9 each of the last two. Don’t look for it to get any better, as the Minutemen return just 10 starters, and it’s difficult to spot three teams on their schedule they can beat. The 2016 slate includes a trio of SEC foes (Florida, Mississippi St. and South Carolina), plus ACC rep Boston College and Indy heavyweight BYU.
The offense will be centered on budding star soph RB Marquis Young, who rushed for 960 yds. last season, with 7 TDs and a 6.3 ypc average. There is depth at RB, as well, as fireplug (5-8, 215) soph Sekai Lindsay showed ability in spring. Operating behind an OL that boasts four experienced senior starters, the ground attack should be a reliable staple.
The QB will likely be ex-Va. Tech recruit Andrew Ford, a major college talent with three years of eligibility after redshirting in his freshman year with the Hokies and attending junior college last season. Ford (the Gatorade Prep Player of the Year in Pennsylvania in 2013) threw for 196 ypg, completing 56.4% with a 23-6 TD-int. ratio and an 8-1 mark in 9 games for Lackawanna College last year. Ford will likely shoulder to the front of the line in the UMass pecking order in the competition to replace graduated star Blake Frohnapfel, a situation that should cause distress for soph returnee Ross Comis. Comis undoubtedly felt he was the heir apparent to Frohnapfel. However, Whipple, who recruited Frohnapfel as a graduate transfer from Marshall, saw a chance to make another quick upgrade at the position and brought in Ford. Comis will be battling 6-4 RS frosh Randall West and Austin Whipple (Mark’s son) for the backup.
Replacing go-to WR Tajae Sharpe (111 catches, 1319 yds.) will be a much bigger problem. Sharpe, drafted by the Tennessee Titans of the NFL, might be the best wideout to ever play at UMass (apologies to Victor Cruz). In total, the Minutemen lost five of their top six pass-catchers, returning only part-time starting 6-5 jr. Shakur Nesmith (15 catches) among WRs who caught more than a handful of passes. One possible plus is the return of sr. Jalen Williams, who had 20 catches in three starts in 2014 before injuring his quad in drills and missing all of 2015. Until some of the wideouts prove themselves and develop rapport with Ford (or Comis, or West), the offense will lean heavily upon Young and Lindsay.
The UMass defense improved fractionally last season, but overall hasn’t made much progress under Whipple. The Minutemen gave up 31.4 ppg in 2015 and ranked 103rd in total defense, and they lost four of their top five tacklers, including star LB Jovan Santos Knox (131 stops).
The defensive line allowed 4.4 ypc, which was its best mark since 2011 and ranked ahead of bowl teams such as UCLA, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame and Oregon. Still, losses at LB prompted Whipple to dip into the juco ranks for a little help up front, recruiting run-stopping DE Ali Ali-Musa to join returning starters NT Sha-Ki Holines and sr. DT Peter Angeh. Holines and Angeh each had 33 tackles and occupied blockers while Santos-Knox made the plays, so the pressure will be on inside backers. Those are vet starter jr. Shane Huber, the team’s top returning tackler with 95, and sr. John Robinson-Woodgett (57 stops in 12 appearances in 2015).
The secondary is a potential worry, with four new starters from the all-senior unit that took the field in the first half of last year. Soph S Charan Singh made five starts after now-graduated regular Khary Bailey-Smith went down for the year with a knee injury. However, the other three projected secondary regulars have little or no starting experience and stand 5-8, 5-8 and 5-10. The Minutemen have never given up more than last season’s 14.3 yds. per pass since moving up to the FBS, and opponents completed 62% of their passes against UMass last year. Only once in the last 11 seasons have the Minutemen turned in a worse performance. It might get worse in 2016.
Summary...Massachusetts moves from the MAC to Independent status this season, likely hoping to eventually hook up with a larger conference. Good luck with that. Whipple was a winner during his first stint guiding the Minutemen (49-26 in 1998-2003), but that was against the James Madisons and Hofstras of the world.
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