Fiesta finale for Stanford, Luck

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Fiesta finale for Stanford, Luck

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Fiesta Bowl has just about everything you could ask for from a bowl game: two of the nation's best teams, most explosive offenses and underrated defenses, ready-for-the-NFL quarterbacks and this year's best case for changing the BCS.

OK, so maybe there's no national title on the line. LSU and Alabama get that honor under the current BCS format.

Still, when No. 3 Oklahoma State and No. 4 Stanford play Monday night at University of Phoenix Stadium, it figures to be one of those can't-miss shows, the kind that leaves fans asking "Did you see that?" the next day.

"This is about as good as it gets right here," Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden. "I'm pretty sure everybody around the country will be watching."

Might as well start with the quarterbacks. They are, after all, two of the most intelligent, mature and prolific ones out there.

PREVIEW: No. 4 Stanford vs. No. 3 Oklahoma State

Stanford's Andrew Luck has been projected as the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft almost since his days at Stratford High in Houston. Last year's Heisman Trophy runner-up, he made it two straight just misses after returning for a stellar senior season.

Prototypically sized, deceptively agile and mature beyond his years, Luck tore through Stanford's record book almost as often as he did opposing defenses and improved his NFL-ready resume by calling some of his own plays this season.

"There is a reason why he is going to be the first player picked in the draft, because he is very good at what he does and he's had a lot of success the last couple years," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said.

Gundy's quarterback is no slouch.

Weeden won't challenge Luck for the No. 1 pick, but he certainly could give the big Cardinal a run in the Fiesta Bowl.

Agile and accurate with a big right arm, Weeden came seemingly out of nowhere to pile up yards and touchdowns as a junior and continued it this season, putting together one of the most impressive two-year runs in Oklahoma State history.

He forced people across the country to learn how to spell his last name - it ends with "en," not "on" -- with his prodigious numbers and throws.

Weeden isn't mature beyond his years like Luck, though. He's just mature; a 28-year-old former professional baseball player who's married and doesn't get caught up by trivialities that might slip up younger players.

"He is great. He has put up numbers. He has done it winning," Stanford co-defensive coordinator Derek Mason said. "Any time you can do that, you put yourself in an elite category of quarterbacks. That's what he is."

Led by their two quarterbacks, Oklahoma State and Stanford have the kind of offenses that turn defensive coordinators inside-out at night trying to figure ways of slowing them down.

The Cowboys have arguably the most dynamic player in college football in Justin Blackmon, only the second two-time winner of the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's best receiver.

Oklahoma State also has a big, powerful offensive line and good balance, with running backs Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith combining for over 1,800 yards rushing and 32 touchdowns. The Cowboys were second nationally in scoring offense at nearly 50 points per game and third in total offense with 557 yards per game.

So many weapons, but stopping the Cowboys begins with stopping their best player.

"You start with Blackmon," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "He is the best receiver in the nation. He is great after the catch. He is a big, physical kid. He makes tough catches look easy. As soon as his feet hit the ground to jump up to make a catch, he is at full speed. He is a difference maker. He is a game changer."

Luck makes the difference across the field, but the ironic thing is that for all the attention he gets, the danger in Stanford's offense is its ability to run teams over.

Behind a moving wall of an offensive line, the Cardinal have one of the best ground games in the country, averaging 207 yards per game. Stepfan Taylor was the team's leading rusher, becoming the third player in school history to rush for over 1,000 yards in consecutive season with 1,153 this season, and there are four others with the ability to churn out yards, including the deceptively agile Luck.

Stanford ran the ball 54 percent of the time this season and had 2,495 yards rushing, third-most in school history, setting up Luck and the passing game.

"They never get tackled for the loss. They continue to drive their feet and move the pile,"

Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Bill Young said. "They are a very patient offense from the standpoint if they can make 2 or 3 yards, they will try to get 3 or 4 more on second down, and then they will hit you with a play-action pass when you are sucking it up to play the run too much."

The final bit of intrigue is the it-could-be-us argument from a pair of teams that finished 11-1 -- the same record as Alabama, which earned the No. 2 spot in the Bowl Championship Series.

The Cardinal's lone loss was Nov. 12 to Oregon, which won the Pac-12 and is playing Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl earlier Monday. Stanford wasn't close to Alabama in the final BCS rankings, but could make a case for a spot in the title game if the system was different.
Oklahoma State can make an argument either way.

The Cowboys' loss, to Iowa State on Nov. 18, wasn't a particularly good one, but there were extenuating circumstances: The team was still reeling from the death of Oklahoma State women's basketball coach Kurt Budke and assistant coach Miranda Serna in a plane crash the day before.

The computers don't look at why a team lost, only who it lost to, so the Cowboys finished third in the BCS, an agonizingly close .0086 behind the Crimson Tide.

"The system is in place. It worked out. We came up little bit short," Weeden said. "If you looked back and you said before the year started we wanted to go to the national championship, you probably thought we were crazy. But our goal was to go to a BCS game."

The Cowboys got there -- and it could be a doozy.

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.