College Football Roundup: Watson shines in a classic; Stanford trending up, Cal down

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USATSI/AP

College Football Roundup: Watson shines in a classic; Stanford trending up, Cal down

Back-to-back classics.

That’s what we’ve witnessed in the National Championship Game the past two seasons. Even in their wildest dreams, the organizers of the College Football Playoff couldn’t have imagined two games of this caliber in successive seasons.

Last year, you’ll recall No. 2 ranked Alabama edged No. 1 ranked Clemson, 45-40. This year, the tables were turned, as No. 2 Clemson edged No. 1 Alabama, 35-31. A year ago, after defense dominated the first three quarters, the teams erupted for 40 points in the fourth quarter. This year’s game followed the same script, with the teams combining for 28 points in the final period (21 by Clemson).

Divine Deshaun: The game confirmed the unparalleled brilliance of Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who passed for 420 yards and 3 touchdowns, including the game-winner with one second remaining. In two games against the No. 1 defense in the country, playing for the national championship under the brightest lights and greatest pressure, all Watson did was pass for 825 yards, rush for another 116, and account for eight touchdowns.

Watson’s performance capped a career in which he went 32-3 as a starter, graduated in three years, and finished second and third in the Heisman Trophy balloting (behind Alabama’s Derrick Henry and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey last year, and behind Louisville’s Lamar Jackson this year).

Looking back through the post-season prism, one wonders how Jackson could out-vote Watson. Clemson, after all, beat Louisville 42-36 early in the season. Jackson won despite finishing the season with two straight sub-par performances in upset losses to Houston and Kentucky, then was shut down by LSU in a 29-9 clunker in the Citrus Bowl.

Watson didn’t have quite the same glittering stats, but beat Jackson head to head and won the national title. Like Stanford greats Andrew Luck (who finished second twice), and John Elway (who finished second to Herschel Walker), Watson will go down as one of the best college players never to win the Heisman.

Dykes Dismissed: Earlier this week, Cal fired head coach Sonny Dykes after four seasons at the helm of the Golden Bear program. While the timing was unusual — in that it came six weeks after the end of the season — the decision was not surprising. There were three main issues with the Dykes regime: 1) The inability to develop anything resembling a defense. The Bears ranked near the bottom of NCAA defensive statistics for all four years, and there was no sign of improvement.

2) Dykes publicly pursued other coaching jobs almost from the first moment he arrived in Berkeley, most recently at Houston and Baylor. This was embarrassing to the University and the Old Blues who understandably want a coach who is committed to the school and wants to be in Berkeley.

3) Lagging ticket sales and donor support. Cal had a university-wide debt of $150 million last year, $21 million of it in athletics (largely related to debt service on the stadium renovation). The athletic department needs to fill seats in Memorial Stadium and get the donors excited again.

Like many others, we had recommended then-San Jose State Coach Mike MacIntyre to the Cal athletic department four years ago. One can only wonder where the Bears might be right now if MacIntyre, who has done such an amazing job at Colorado, would’ve been hired instead of Dykes.

Recruiting Trail: Stanford is reportedly on the way to signing one of the nation’s finest recruiting classes. According to Scout.com, coach David Shaw has already garnered commitments from the country’s No. 1 ranked quarterback (Davis Mills of Greater Atlanta Christian School), No. 1 and 2 ranked offensive linemen (Foster Sarell of Graham Kapowsin HS in Graham, Washington, and Walker Little of Episcopal HS in Bellaire, Texas) and No. 1 tight end Colby Parkinson of Oaks Christian HS in Westlake Village). Nationally, Scout rates Sarell the second best player in the country and Mills No. 3.

Speaking of recruiting, Alabama didn’t go home empty-handed this week, as the nation’s top recruit, running back Najee Harris from Antioch HS, decided to go with the Crimson Tide. Harris had verbally committed earlier, then flirted with Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh before sticking with Alabama.

Unsung Utah: With his Foster Farms Bowl victory over Indiana, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham now has the best bowl record of any active coach. Since taking over the reins in Salt Lake City, Coach Whit is 10-1 in postseason play.

USC Finishes at No. 3: After its scintillating win in the Rose Bowl, USC climbed to No. 3 in the final AP poll. If star Adoree Jackson opts to come back for another year, the Trojans will contend for the national title next season.

Chargers to LA: San Diego Chargers owner Dean Spanos announced on Thursday that the Chargers will move to Los Angeles next season. One can only wonder what this means for the future of Qualcomm Stadium, home of the Holiday and Poinsettia Bowls, and San Diego State football?

New Cal coach Wyking Jones ready to prove critics wrong amid changes

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AP

New Cal coach Wyking Jones ready to prove critics wrong amid changes

Even the most passionate Cal fan might struggle to name a single player on the current basketball roster. The team's top five leading scorers from last season have all departed. Ivan Rabb and Jabari Bird moved on to the NBA, Grant Mullins graduated, and both Charlie Moore and Kameron Rooks elected to transfer.

But perhaps the most significant change is on the sideline. Out is Cuonzo Martin, who agreed to a massive seven-year contract with Missouri, worth a reported $21 million. Replacing him is 44-year-old Wyking Jones, a longtime assistant coach, who spent the past two seasons as Martin's top aide in Berkeley.

Jones' promotion was met with heavy criticism from many in the media, both locally and nationally. Skeptics believe Cal settled for the cheap option, rather than the best option. But why can't both be true? There's no denying that salary played a factor in the hire - the athletic department's financial troubles have been well documented in recent years. But Jones impressed Athletic Director Mike Williams in other areas too, reportedly acing his job interview with a detailed plan for the program moving forward. And unlike the other candidates, Jones already has direct experience dealing with Cal's unique set of circumstances.

“It's not something that you can walk into and just get a really good grasp of,” Jones explained. “It's a learning curve that, if you walk into this situation for the first time, it would take you a tremendous amount of time. Knowing who to go to when you need things, who's in charge of this, who's in charge of that, just having a familiarity of how to really get things done around here.”

Jones also discovered the challenges of recruiting at a school like Cal, where not every athlete can qualify academically. While many coaches would view that as a negative, Jones chooses to embrace it.

“In my mind, that's what makes this place special,” he said. “It's the number one public institution in the world for a reason. Your recruiting pool shrinks quite a bit, but that's okay because typically what happens is if you get a kid who has a lot of discipline on and off the court, you're not going to run into troubles on the weekends when they're in the dorms. They're usually kids who have a lot of respect for the community and other students.”

From a coaching standpoint, Jones has unquestionably paid his dues in the world of college basketball. Prior to joining Cal as an assistant in 2015, he made stops at Louisville, New Mexico, Pepperdine, and Loyola Marymount, where he also played from 1991-95. Now, after nearly 15 years in collegiate coaching, Wyking Jones is a head coach.

“I think initially it's very exciting to have an opportunity to coach, have your own program at a storied program like Cal, to follow in the footsteps of some great coaches,” he said, smiling. “But now the smoke has cleared and it's time to get to work.”

That work has already begun. As previously mentioned, Jones will have to replace his top five scorers from a year ago, who accounted for nearly 56 points per game. The Bears will count on increased production from senior center Kingsley Okoroh and junior guard Don Coleman. They will also rely heavily on redshirt senior forward Marcus Lee, who sat out last season after transferring from Kentucky.

“It's an adjustment, for sure,” Jones admitted. “But you have 13 scholarships for a reason. It's just an opportunity for the guys who are still here to earn their scholarship. It's an opportunity for them to make a name for themselves and have an impact on this program.”

Under Cuonzo Martin, Cal established itself as one of the best defensive teams in the country. Last season, the Bears ranked 18th in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 63.4 points per game. Jones hopes to continue that trend while also implementing a full-court pressure defense, similar to the one he coached at Louisville, which resulted in a national championship in 2013.

“It's a process,” he acknowledged. “In year one, hopefully we can be good at it. In year two, look to improve. In year three, hope to be great at it... It's a type of defense, when you're talking about pressing, it's reading all the other guys on the court. It's never scripted. It's being able to read when is the right time to go trap, when is the right time to go switch, when is the right time to bluff and stunt at a guy to slow him down. So there's a learning curve in it.”

Jones knows there will also be a learning curve for him personally as a head coach, especially with such a young and inexperienced roster. He expects his team to be overlooked and undervalued by much of the college basketball world, but that's just fine with him.

“I think a lot of people will probably guess that we won't be very good, and that's motivation right there. That's motivation for my staff, for our managers, for the support staff. It's motivation for everybody that's a part of this program to exceed those expectations. So I think that makes for an exciting season.”

Stanford star McCaffrey boosts NFL Draft stock with special teams skills

Stanford star McCaffrey boosts NFL Draft stock with special teams skills

INDIANAPOLIS -- More and more college coaches are putting their starters and even their stars on special teams as they seek to pile up every possible point in an era of pedal-to-the-metal shootouts and never-safe leads.

Fading fast are the days when superstars would catch their breath on the sideline when the kicker or punter trotted onto the field with the scrubs.

NFL teams love it.

Watching how players handle themselves as a blocker, gunner or returner provides a glimpse into a prospect's range, selflessness and versatility. It also delivers a sneak peek into how coachable he'll be, says Phil Savage, the SiriusXM NFL Radio host who spent two decades as an NFL coach, scout and executive and now oversees the Senior Bowl.

"I think because of the landscape of college football where scoring is at a premium, you've got to figure out a way to put points on the board not only on offense but through your special teams and defensively, as well," Savage says. "These coaches want to get these young players on the field as soon as possible, and a way to do that is utilize them on special teams."

These tapes provide a bonus to pro scouts.

"Now you have a vision of what that player might forecast to in the NFL as a young player and, specifically, as a rookie," Savage said.

Offensive and defensive coaches have a better idea of the types of players they're integrating into their schemes, and special teams coaches no longer get blank stares and blank canvases from the rookie class.

"Not only do you like the fact that they come in and have experience doing it, but you love the mentality if you're a coach and a decision maker that this guy isn't a diva, he's got no ego about it, he understands the team and puts team before self," says ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay.

"And he comes in with the mindset of 'What can I do to help the team and how can I contribute?' Those are the guys that seem to make it and last longer in the league because they're just willing to do different things and whatever it takes."

The prime example in this year's draft class is Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey , a "dynamic player than can do it all," according to Broncos GM John Elway.

McCaffrey gained more than 5,000 yards from scrimmage in his college career and added almost 2,000 more as a returner.

"There's just a lot of big plays open in the return game," McCaffrey says. "You see special teams have such an impact on the game today. Any time I can have the ball in my hands, I feel like I can do something dangerous, and that's really why I love the return game."

Other highly touted draft prospects who polished their resumes on special teams include Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers, LSU safety Jamal Adams, Washington wide receiver John Ross, and USC cornerback Adroee' Jackson, all of whom are projected as high selections.

McShay says "we're seeing more and more programs put an emphasis on special teams and having their key players contribute in one or more areas on special teams."

He pointed to Ohio State, where Urban Myers coaches special teams himself.

"It's a major emphasis there, and so you'll see some more guys typically lined up and contributing that are starters and stars," McShay says. "It's an honor to be on special teams."

Not a burden.

"It is not uncommon now to see people that are going to be picked in the first round having 100-plus special teams plays," suggests NFL draft consultant and former Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt.

He pointed to the University of Florida, where Gators defensive backs cover kickoffs as well as they do receivers.

"Everyone's always trying to get their best guys on the field," Brandt says.

That's a change from years past when coaches feared exposing their star players to the extra hits.

The added value benefits the players, whose multiple talents allow NFL general managers to address many needs.

"We're seeing more emphasis on it in college, and I think NFL teams love to see it because if just means you're getting a bit more for your buck," McShay says.

Top talents who bolstered their value by playing special teams:

CHRISTIAN McCAFFREY , RB, STANFORD: He shined at the combine working out with the running backs and was as impressive running routes. Asked if there was anything he couldn't do, the son of former NFL wide receiver Ed McCaffrey said then: "I can't sing."

JABRILL PEPPERS , S, MICHIGAN: He worked out with safeties and linebackers at the combine, where teams talked of him playing RB and WR in addition to returning kicks. "The bottom line is I'm a ballplayer and I'm a hell of a ballplayer," Peppers said.

JOHN ROSS , WR, WASHINGTON: He caught 81 passes with 17 TDs last season but actually posted more return yards (2,069) than scrimmage yards (1,924) in his college career.

ADOREE' JACKSON , CB, USC: One of the best special teams coverage players in the NCAA, Jackson also scored eight TDs on punt and kick returns in college. His punt return averages rose from 6.0 yards to 10.5 and 15.8.

JAMAL ADAMS , S, LSU: Another star in coverage, Adams' defensive mentality extends to special teams. "I love being on the field and just playing football," said Adams, whose father, George, was a first-round pick by the Giants in 1985.

ALVIN KAMARA , RB, TENNESSEE: In a deep running back group, Kamara separates himself with his special teams acumen. "A lot of teams have been bringing up special teams," Kamara said.

DESMOND KING , CB, IOWA: He had eight interceptions as a junior and three as a senior. "I had a really good special teams season," King said. "Not being targeted as much, I still went out there and competed the best I could and was still making plays."

CHRIS WORMLEY , DE, MICHIGAN: Wormley touts playing for Jim Harbaugh as one of his attributes. "Coach Harbaugh came in and ran our program like an NFL program, like he had with the 49ers," said Wormley, who blocked three kicks his senior season.

ZAY JONES , WR, EAST CAROLINA: Like McCaffrey, he has good NFL bloodlines (son of Robert Jones, brother of Cayleb Jones). He caught 158 passes as a senior, but spent his first two seasons in college also making his mark as a returner.