College football roundup: Young stars electrify all-time classic Rose Bowl

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USATSI

College football roundup: Young stars electrify all-time classic Rose Bowl

With just the national championship game remaining on the schedule, it’s time to reflect on the highlights of the 2016-17 bowl season.

Close encounters: This has been the most competitive and exciting post-season in recent memory. Over half the games had a one-score margin of victory and were decided in the last minute or overtime.

Best Game: The Rose Bowl, our choice for the best matchup in the post-season lineup, certainly lived up to the hype. USC beat Penn State, 52-49, on a 46-yard field goal as time expired. The game showcased two of the brightest stars in college football, the Trojans’ redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold and Penn State’s sophomore running back Saquon Barkley. Darnold passed for five TDs and 453 yards; Barkley rushed for 194 yards, including a spectacular 79-yard TD jaunt that was one of the niftiest runs you’ll ever see. With these two around, the game is in good hands for the next couple of years.

Semi-finals: Sadly, both College Football Playoff semi-final games were one-sided affairs. No. 1 Alabama outclassed No. 4 Washington in the Peach Bowl, 24-7, and No. 2 Clemson destroyed No. 3 Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, 31-0.

‘Bama’s win was no surprise. Washington’s high-scoring offense was simply no match for the Crimson Tide defense. Husky quarterback Jake Browning looked rattled most of the day. His pick-six gave Alabama a 17-7 lead that sealed Washington’s doom. However, even those of us who predicted a Clemson win over Ohio State never imagined a 31-0 beat-down. It was the first time in 194 games that an Urban Meyer coached team was shut out. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson, despite his customary two turnovers, played brilliantly, and his receivers made the all-world Buckeye secondary look quite human. 

So the championship game will be a rematch of last year’s classic 45-40 Alabama win. Alabama is the early favorite, but we like Clemson in this one. The game may hinge on whether Watson and company can keep the Alabama defense out of the end zone.

Foster Farms Bowl—Utah 26, Indiana 24: It was a great game, decided by a Utah field goal in the final minute and highlighted by the 222-yard rushing performance of "unretired" Utah running back Joe Williams. It’s just a shame there wasn't much of a crowd on hand to see it...27,000 tickets “distributed,” 15,000 fans in the house. Fox did an excellent job on the broadcast (other than the introduction of Foster Farms’ CEO as “Mr.” Laura Flanagan during the trophy presentation), with its No. 1 announce team and studio crew.

Unfortunately, Foster Farms was swamped in the TV ratings by the competing bowls on ESPN—Russell Athletic and Texas. The Pac-12 and 49ers believed that being the only bowl game on Fox would translate into a big viewing audience. But over the years, it’s been proven time and time again that the built-in audience and constant promotion on ESPN—the undisputed home of college football and the place where most post-season games reside—delivers higher ratings than being the lone wolf on an over-the-air network like Fox.

Sun Bowl—Stanford 25, North Carolina 23: Another great game, with almost the identical score as the Foster Farms Bowl. With Christian McCaffrey sitting out and Keller Christ felled by a knee injury, Stanford’s defense and special teams saved the day. Defensive end Solomon Thomas and safety Dallas Lloyd were brilliant, with Thomas harassing Tar Heel QB Mitch Trubisky throughout and making the game-deciding play, and Lloyd intercepting two passes, returning one for a score. Running back Bryce Love did his best McCaffrey impersonation with a 49-yard TD reception and 59-yard run from scrimmage. 

Cardinal kicker Conrad Ukropina (try saying that quickly five times in a row!) scored more than half of Stanford’s points with four field goals and an extra point. The lone miss clanged off the left upright, something that Ukropina did four times this year. The odds on that happening must be a billion to one. For the season, Conrad hit 22 of 27 field goal attempts. If those goal post shots had caromed through the uprights instead of bouncing out, he’d have converted 26 of 27 on the year.

Note to those who think bowl games are “meaningless exhibitions:” Check out the sideline and on-field celebrations by Stanford players when they stopped North Carolina’s two-point conversion attempt to win the game.

Shaw Superlatives: There were some who questioned former Stanford Athletic Director Bob Bowlsby (now Big 12 Conference Commissioner) in January of 2011 when he hired David Shaw to replace Jim Harbaugh as head football coach. Shaw has not only proven the naysayers wrong, he’s become the one of the most successful coaches in Stanford history. In six years, Shaw has posted a 64-17 record, won four Pac-12 Conference Championships, gone to the Rose Bowl three times (winning two), won 10 or more games five times, and finished in the top 10 nationally four times. Next year, in all likelihood, he will pass the legendary Pop Warner (71-17-8) as the winningest Stanford coach of all time. Heady stuff.

Shaw’s name is routinely mentioned as a candidate for every NFL job that pops up, because of a stellar resume that includes pro coaching experience prior to his Stanford tenure. So far, he’s resisted the urge and the promise of more money. Why? He’s a Stanford alum who truly believes in the university’s mission to win the right way, and his family loves the environment on campus and in Palo Alto. Stanford has had a long line of coaches who’ve left soon after achieving success on the Farm—John Ralston (Denver Broncos), Bill Walsh (San Francisco 49ers), Denny Green (Minnesota Vikings), and Tyrone Willingham (Notre Dame). Shaw just may be the one who sticks around.

Memory lane: We spotted Sun Bowl officials Jimmy Rogers and John Folmer on the dais for the trophy presentation to David Shaw. Rogers and Folmer were the two bowl representatives who invited Stanford to the Sun Bowl back in 1977, when I was Sports Information Director and Bill Walsh was the head coach. After Stanford's 21-3 win over Cal in the Big Game, I walked Jimmy and John down to the Stanford locker room, where they extended the official Sun Bowl invitation to Bill as he emerged from the shower, draped only in a white towel. His best friend, Cal coach Mike White, was standing right next to him.

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: Arkansas tight end Jeremy Sprinkles was suspended from the Belk Bowl for shoplifting…at the Belk department store, the game’s title sponsor.

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.

Former Napa star Josh Jackson leaving Kansas, entering NBA Draft

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Former Napa star Josh Jackson leaving Kansas, entering NBA Draft

LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Josh Jackson declared for the NBA draft on Monday after one of the best freshman seasons in Kansas history, one marked by plenty of highlights on the floor and a few distractions off it.

The 6-foot-8 swingman, who is considered a certain lottery pick, was the Big 12 newcomer of the year after averaging 16.3 points and 7.4 rebounds. He helped the Jayhawks to a 31-5 record and its 13th straight regular season Big 12 title before losing to Oregon in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.

Jackson signed with former NBA player B.J. Armstrong of Wasserman Media Group.

"After thoroughly consulting with my family, I have decided to enter the 2017 NBA draft and pursue my dream of playing professional basketball," Jackson said in a statement Monday.

"I am very thankful for all of the support I have received from my coaches and teammates at Kansas," he said, "and I look forward to starting my career in the NBA."

Jackson was the nation's No. 1 recruit when he signed with the Jayhawks out of Prolific Prep Academy in California. He immediately earned a spot in the starting lineup, teaming with national player of the year Frank Mason III and Devonte Graham to form one of the nation's top backcourts.

With natural athleticism and ability to slash to the basket - not to mention defensive chops that are rare among freshmen - Jackson quickly established himself as one of the nation's top draft prospects.

His importance was never more evident than in the Big 12 Tournament, when he was suspended by coach Bill Self following a series of off-the-court issues. The top-seeded Jayhawks stumbled in a quarterfinal loss to TCU, ending their run at the conference tournament before it really began.

He returned for the NCAA Tournament and played well in wins over UC Davis, Michigan State and Purdue, but was hamstrung by foul trouble and managed just 10 points in a season-ending loss to the Ducks.

Jackson's suspension came following an incident outside a Lawrence bar in December, when a member of the Kansas women's basketball team got into an altercation with Jackson's teammate, Lagerald Vick.

Jackson followed the woman to the parking lot and the woman said he kicked her car and caused hundreds of dollars in damage. He pleaded not guilty last week in Douglas County District Court to one misdemeanor count of criminal damage to property and a trial is scheduled for May 24.

His attorney, Hatem Chahine, said he was planning to file for diversion.

Jackson also was ticketed in February after he struck a parked car and fled the scene, and that drew Self's ire when he didn't tell his coach about the incident until several weeks later.

His decision to declare for the draft came a week after teammate Svi Mykhailiuk announced he would skip his senior season. But unlike Jackson, the 6-8 sharpshooter has not hired an agent and could withdraw his name by May 24 and return to the Jayhawks.