Thursday, March 22, 2018

Iowa's Marshal Yanda deserving of Pro Football Hall of Fame inclusion

Scott Dochterman
Land of 10
8:00 a.m. Wednesday, March 21, 2018

ANSWER: Iowa has three former players enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They are: NFL all-time interceptions leader Paul Krause (81), Emlen Tunnell (79 interceptions, ranking second) and linebacker Andre Tippett (100 sacks). But there’s no doubt several former Iowa players should be on the short list for future honorees.

Here are the five most deserving former Hawkeyes for the Pro Football Hall of Fame:

Duke Slater, offensive/defensive line

Duke Slater was the NFL’s most dominant lineman throughout his 10-year career, which ended in 1931. At the time he retired, Slater had earned seven All-Pro selections, the second-most at that time in NFL history, according to Neal Rozendaal’s biography of Slater. He started 99 games and played 60 minutes in 90 of them. Slater, who played primarily f or the Chicago Cardinals, posted a dominant performance against the Chicago Bears in a 40-6 win in 1929.
For multiple years, including 1927 and 1929, Slater was the only African-American allowed to play in the NFL. After Slater announced his retirement, Lew Byrer of the New York Telegram wrote, “As long as I’ve played and watched football, the greatest tackle I ever saw was Duke Slater of Iowa. He was colored and received little credit.” Slater already has a jersey and shoulder pads in Canton. It’s a shame his bronze bust wasn’t immortalized when the Hall of Fame opened in 1963, even more of a shame that it’s still not there 50-plus years later.

Alex Karras, defensive tackle

As a four-time Pro Bowl selection and three-time All-Pro, Alex Karras was one of the NFL’s best defensive linemen in the 1960s. He was named one of three defensive tackles on the NFL’s Team of the Decade in the 1960s alongside Dallas’ Bob Lilly and the Los Angeles Rams’ Merlin Olsen, both of whom are inducted in the Hall of Fame. Of the six defensive linemen on the 1960s all-decade team, Karras is the only one not inducted.
Karras started for 12 years in Detroit as part of the original Fearsome Foursome defense. He played in 161 games from 1958 through 1970, although he joined Green Bay Packers running back Paul Hornung on the sidelines in 1963 for a gambling suspension. Karras was a defensive force and deserves inclusion.

Jay Hilgenberg, center

Perhaps no former Hawkeyes player is more overlooked by Hall of Fame voters than former Chicago Bears center Jay Hilgenberg. After landing with the Bears as an undrafted free agent in 1981, Hilgenberg moved into the starting lineup in 1983 and became a permanent fixture for a decade. Hilgenberg was a seven-time Pro Bowl player from 1985 through 1991 and started each season for the NFC squad. He was named All-Pro in 1988 and 1989.
In 1985, Hilgenberg guided the NFL’s top rushing attack and second-ranked scoring offense to a 15-1 regular-season record and a Super Bowl victory. His 12 postseason starts are tied for the most in Bears history. Only six other Bears have more Pro Bowl appearances than Hilgenberg and all of them are in the Hall of Fame. Only four other centers in NFL history have more Pro Bowl appearances than Hilgenberg, and all of them also are in Canton except recently retired Kevin Mawae.

John Niland, guard

In the Dallas Cowboys’ first great era under coach Tom Landry, John Niland was a vital component. Niland remains the highest-drafted offensive lineman in Dallas history after he was selected fifth overall in 1966. Niland moved into the starting lineup late in his rookie season and played for the Cowboys through 1974. He won a Super Bowl, played in another and started in legendary playoffs games such as the 1966 NFL title game against Green Bay and the 1967 Ice Bowl loss to the Packers. Niland started 14 playoff games in Dallas, including six NFL/NFC championship games.
Only seven Cowboys have more Pro Bowl appearances than Niland’s six. That’s just as many as quarterbacks Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach. Five times Niland was named a Pro Bowl starter, and four times he was nominated as the NFL’s Man of the Year. He deserves to be discussed by Hall of Fame selectors.

Marshal Yanda, guard

Marshal Yanda’s NFL career is far from over, but the Baltimore Ravens’ guard has built a Hall of Fame résumé. Yanda has six Pro Bowl selections (2011-2016), and he twice has been named All-Pro and twice named second-team All-Pro. Yanda nearly earned a Pro Bowl berth in 2010 when he moved to right tackle because of a teammate’s injury.
According to Pro Football Focus, Yanda has not given up a sack since Week 7 of the 2015 season and has surrendered only 5 sacks since 2012. In 2016, Yanda shifted from right guard to left guard after a shoulder injury and still was PFF’s top-graded guard for the entire season. Yanda was PFF’s top-ranked guard in 2015 and top-rated offensive lineman in 2016. Yanda has started in 12 playoff games and won one Super Bowl. From 2014-17, Yanda was the highest ranked guard in NFL Network’s top 100 list.
Yanda will need to wait five years after his retirement to be nominated for the Hall of Fame, and his position might preclude him from immediate induction. But he is every bit as Hall of Fame-worthy as any guard the last 20 years.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Burkhead bringing three-sport fundraiser back home

Plano Senior alum Rex Burkhead will return to his hometown of Plano on March 24 to host the second annual Team Jack Trifecta, a fundraiser to help raise money for research on pediatric brain cancer.

By Matt Welch
March 9, 2018

On March 24, Plano Senior alum and New England Patriots running back Rex Burkhead will return to Plano to host the second annual Team Jack Trifecta, a multi-sport fundraiser for pediatric brain cancer research.

The event will consist of a 5K fun run and youth football camp at Clark Stadium, plus and a 3-on-3 basketball tournament at Plano Sports Authority (PSA 2).

The fun run begins at 8 a.m. March 24, and costs $35 for adult and $15 for children 10 years and under.

At 10 a.m., Burkhead will be joined by numerous NFL veterans and former teammates for a football skills camp. The camp is open to kids ages six through 14 and costs $50.

Festivities will continue at 1:30 p.m. with a 3-on-3 basketball tournament. The registration fee is $200 per four-person team.

All proceeds from the event will support pediatric brain cancer research. Last year’s event raised approximately $35,000.

To register for any of the three events at the Team Jack Trifecta, go to

Thursday, March 08, 2018

The offseason’s underrated hire

From Albert Breer's "Four Downs"
March 8, 2018

2. The offseason’s underrated hire. We don’t talk much about position coaches here. But I’m going to give you one that I believe has a chance to be a big-time difference-maker for his first-time head coach: new Bears line coach Harry Hiestand. Matt Nagy did incredibly well to poach Hiestand, who’d been a target for a number of guys interviewing for jobs in January, from Notre Dame. And his star guard of last year, Quenton Nelson, reminded me of that last week at the combine.

I asked Nelson how, as an elite offensive line talent, he wound up playing guard and not tackle. Nelson answered, “Left tackle, we had Ronnie Stanley. Right tackle, we had Mike McGlinchey. Center, Nick Martin. Right guard, Steve Elmer, who was a very good player. And there was a hole in the left guard spot that I competed for and I ended up playing there.” Think about that. Stanley was the sixth pick in the 2016 draft, and is now Baltimore’s left tackle. Martin was the 50th pick that year, and is the Texans’ center. McGlinchey is likely to join Nelson in the first round of this year’s draft. And Elmer actually decided to forgo his final year of eligibility at Notre Dame, after starting for two years, to pursue a career in politics. Of the five, only Nelson was a Top 100 recruit coming out of high school.

That’s a staggering record of development,
and doesn’t account for Zack Martin (Nick’s older brother), who left Notre Dame the year that Nelson arrived, and has grown into the NFL’s best guard. We’ve seen the importance of line coaches the last few years, of course. Jeff Stoutland’s work last year in Philly—remember the Eagles lost Jason Peters for the year—helped the Eagles win it all and earned the ex-Alabama assistant a promotion to run-game coordinator. The difference Dante Scarnecchia makes in New England is well-documented, and Tony Sparano was huge in helping the Vikings meld new piece to fix their front last fall. Likewise, it looks like the Bears got a good one.

In fact, I hit up Nagy on this on Wednesday. He and Hiestand didn’t know each other before Nagy assembled his staff, and as first impressions have gone, the new Chicago boss put it like this: “He impresses me more and more every day.”

Harry Hiestand named most underrated NFL hire

By Matt Eurich
March 8, 2018

Lost in the shuffle of new Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy bringing back Vic Fangio and hiring Mark Helfrich to be his offensive coordinator was the fact that the organization brought in one of the most well-respected offensive line coaches in the game in Harry Hiestand. He's been credited for his outstanding work with offensive linemen at Notre Dame between 2012 and 2017 and adds a wealth of experience to Nagy's offensive coaching staff.

In Albert Breer's latest piece for The MMQB he listed Hiestand as the offseason's most underrated hiring, writing:
We don’t talk much about position coaches here. But I’m going to give you one that I believe has a chance to be a big-time difference-maker for his first-time head coach: new Bears line coach Harry Hiestand. Matt Nagy did incredibly well to poach Hiestand, who’d been a target for a number of guys interviewing for jobs in January, from Notre Dame.

Breer noted Notre Dame's Quenton Nelson and fellow teammate Mike McGlinchey are set to be first-round picks come April and players like Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin and Zack Martin have all become NFL stalwarts under the tutelage of Hiestand in the past. Breer was told by Nagy that the young coach did not know Hiestand before the staff was assembled and Nagy is blown away by him on a daily basis.

"He impresses me more and more every day," Nagy said.

Hiestand is no stranger to Bears fans. The veteran offensive line coach followed offensive coordinator Ron Turner to the Bears in 2005 and held the offensive line coach position until the 2009 season. During that stretch he helped the offensive line become one of the team's strengths, backed by the play of Olin Kreutz and Ruben Brown on the interior of the line. After his five-year stint in Chicago he coached at the University of Tennessee before joining Notre Dame's coaching staff in 2012. During his time as an offensive line coach he has seen a long list of his collegiate players make major impacts in the NFL.

The veteran coach will have his work cut out for him this year as the Bears try to get better along the line of scrimmage after moving on from former Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton. If Hiestand can work wonders with Chicago's offensive line like he did in the past then good things could be on the horizon for the organization.

The enduring legacy of Jack Hoffman's inspiring Nebraska run

March 6, 2018
By Mitch Sherman

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Late last October at Gillette Stadium, 12-year-old Jack Hoffman and his parents, Andy and Brianna, found themselves as guests on the New England Patriots' sideline before kickoff against the Los Angeles Chargers.

It was any kid's dream, mingling among some of the biggest stars in sports. So for whom did Jack first look, Brady or Gronk?

"We're pretty big Rex Burkhead fans," Brianna said. "We were there to see Rex."

For good reason. Five years ago this spring, a friendship between Burkhead, then a Nebraska running back, and Jack led to a moment at the Cornhuskers' Red-White game that made the youngster an overnight celebrity. His 69-yard touchdown run electrified Memorial Stadium and brought awareness nationally to pediatric brain cancer, with which Jack was diagnosed in May 2011 at age 5.

Jack Hoffman's touchdown run in the 2013 Nebraska spring game immediately became a viral sensation, as the 7-year-old battling brain cancer became a national inspiration. Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Media Relations

The run won an ESPY, earned Jack a meeting with President Barack Obama and landed him as the grand marshal in the 2013 Nebraska homecoming parade. It also launched a fundraising effort, boosted by the Hoffmans' continued relationship with Burkhead and the Nebraska football program, that has enabled the Team Jack Foundation to raise more than $5 million for pediatric brain cancer research and treatment.

Last month, the foundation hosted its fifth annual gala for a crowd of 750 donors that featured more than two dozen current and former Nebraska players, including Burkhead, who recently completed his fifth NFL season and first with the Patriots.

In addition to its financial impact, the Team Jack Foundation provides support to dozens of families affected by pediatric brain cancer.

"I don't think we ever envisioned this," Burkhead said.

Jack, after enduring two surgeries in 2011 and two regimens of chemotherapy before his participation in a 13-month clinical trial when the tumor showed growth in August 2014, has remained off treatment since late in 2015.
"I'm doing good," Jack said in February. "Haven't felt cruddy lately."

He takes 14 pills a day to battle seizures caused by epilepsy, a secondary condition of the present-but-stable brain tumor. His next scan is scheduled for April at Boston Children's Hospital, the site of Jack's operations and previous treatment.

Jack attends sixth grade at West Holt Elementary in Atkinson, Nebraska. He plays basketball and baseball, though he's currently sidelined by a fractured right tibia and fibula courtesy of a faulty playground swing. The cast comes off in May.

Five years after his unforgettable run at Nebraska, Jack Hoffman is thriving and raising money for pediatric cancer. Mitch Sherman/

But you won't hear any hint of a complaint from the Hoffmans about such normal, pre-teen mishaps.

"You live day to day when you have a kid with cancer," Brianna said. "We have a lot of friends with kids who have brain tumors. And a lot of them aren't doing as well as Jack. So we're fortunate to be where we're at right now. You're thankful for every day that you've been given. We're thankful for today.

"And we're thankful for the opportunity to get the word out. There are a lot of kids with cancer. It's technically a rare disease, but it's not really rare -- once you're in it and you see how many people are affected by it."

More than 4,600 children in the United States are diagnosed annually with brain cancer. It is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths among children. Still, Jack's father said, funding lags for research and treatment.
That's where Team Jack has accomplished its most meaningful work.

"There's been too much attention brought to our family and to Jack," Andy said. "Because it was never about Jack. It was never about our family. What Team Jack is really about is a disease."

The foundation has given nearly $4 million to research, investing in six projects nationally. In 2015, Team Jack committed $1.5 million to create a dedicated program at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. The Nebraska Legislature matched the pledge. And this summer, Dr. Jonathan Schwartz arrives from Michigan to begin work as the state's first pediatric neuro-oncologist.

The Team Jack Foundation this year announced a donation of $500,000 in seed money to UNMC for the POWER5 initiative, a $5 million program to fund research, pain management and education for this cause.

And at the Team Jack Gala last month, Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos said the school would again in 2018 stage special events for pediatric brain cancer patients around a football game -- the Sept. 28 visit to Lincoln from Purdue.

Jack Hoffman's run resulted in a meeting with President Barack Obama and an ESPY. Rich Arden/ESPN Images

"Our goal was to take those blessings that we have in life and use that platform to raise awareness to a crisis in this country," Andy said.

With Burkhead, the Hoffmans truly found a match made in heaven. He came to Nebraska in 2009 as a schoolboy legend out of Plano, Texas, the son of an FBI agent and a fourth-grade teacher. Burkhead left as a beloved figure and the fifth-leading rusher in school history.

"Growing up, my parents always preached to me to use my platform," he said. "Giving back was a big thing."

Teammates, coaches, even casual acquaintances gained a sense that Rex was destined for something larger than football. For former Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell, now with the Denver Broncos, that relationship with Jack crystallized the importance of Burkhead's generous spirit.

"I think I can speak on a lot of guys' behalf when you talk about what that meant to us," Bell said. "It showed us as Rex's teammates how to grow individually. We were all able to build on that moment and do things in our personal lives because of what Rex did for Jack."

The Hoffmans found special significance in the timing of their first encounter with Burkhead in 2011 during a visit arranged by Nebraska. It came just days before Jack's second brain surgery.

And when Burkhead signed last March with New England, it again marked a moment of deep meaning for the Hoffmans.

"We attribute Boston to saving our son's life," Andy said.

Burkhead plans his own fundraiser in Texas this year -- he did it last year for the first time -- to support Team Jack. When the Hoffmans attended in 2017, they stayed at the home of Burkhead's parents, Rick and Robin.

"I think Jack says it best," Brianna said. "If you ask him who his best friend is, he'll say Rex. From the beginning, it's almost like he was an angel."

It's no surprise, you see, that Jack and his parents, in that visit to Foxborough last season, looked right past the Patriots' more famous names in search of Burkhead. In a season shortened to 10 games because of a knee injury, he scored eight touchdowns, doubling his career output.

You could say his focus shifts in the offseason, but that wouldn't be exactly right. Team Jack and its mission never stray from the top of Burkhead's priority list.

"The way the foundation has grown, how the awareness has grown, it's unbelievable," Burkhead said. "As for Jack, when we met, I just didn't know how much longer he would have. So to see him now, getting tall and enjoying life and experiencing things, playing sports and being able to go to school, it's very heartwarming."

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Inside the NFL Scouting Combine

From Adam Rossow's "Rossow's Rants: Inside the NFL Scouting Combine"
March 6, 2018

INDIANAPOLIS - As most of you know, I had the pleasure of covering the NFL Scouting Combine over the past week. You can check out all of my stories over at Hawkeye Headquarters, as well as some web extras on Twitter and Facebook.

But I wanted to give an inside look at some other happenings in Indianapolis, including some behind the scenes conversations. Here goes it.

• I had multiple NFL people (scouts, former players, etc) that Kirk Ferentz is a top-10 college football coach and has been for years. He’s held in very high regard around the league – both for the way he runs the Iowa program and with his relationships with NFL organizations.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Lions banking on Jeff Davidson to boost feeble run game

By John Niyo
March 4, 2018

Indianapolis – Matt Patricia used to be an offensive lineman. But he made a name for himself coaching defense in the NFL.

And now that he’s a head coach, one of his most important hires shortly after accepting the Lions’ top job was to bring in veteran offensive line coach Jeff Davidson. The two worked briefly together in New England when Patricia joined the Patriots’ staff in 2004.

But at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, Patricia spoke highly of Davidson, a 24-year NFL coaching veteran who most recently served as the Denver Broncos’ offensive line coach.

“He knows me, and he knows what I want,” Patricia said. “I have a great relationship with him. Jeff and I worked together a long time ago. I think he’s a phenomenal coach. He’s very smart, Jeff is very analytical about the game. Really an outstanding coach in relating to the players.”

That’s a necessity after the past few seasons in Detroit, when the Lions rushing attack ranked as arguably the NFL’s worst with Ron Prince coaching the line while also holding a dual title as assistant head coach.

The expectation is that Davidson, a former All-Big Ten lineman at Ohio State in the late 1980s, will do more than just revamp the Lions’ blocking scheme. He’ll also develop a better rapport with his offensive line group.

“He understands when he needs to be hard on ’em, and he understands when he needs to love ’em up,” Patricia said. “And he can just relate on a whole different level than I can, because I never played at this level, and Jeff has.”

Friday, March 02, 2018

Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia on Iowa’s Brian Ferentz: ‘The sky’s the limit for him’

Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia praises former colleague Brian Ferentz, who is the offensive coordinator at Iowa.

By Scott Dochterman
March 2, 2018

INDIANAPOLIS — Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz and new Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia were on the same coaching staff in New England when the Patriots advanced to the Super Bowl following the 2011 season.

Ferentz coached the Patriots’ tight ends while Patricia led the team’s safeties that year. In 2012, Patricia became New England’s defensive coordinator, while Ferentz left to join Iowa’s coaching staff as offensive line coach. Ferentz became the Hawkeyes’ offensive coordinator last season.

Patricia, who became the Lions coach earlier this month, praised Ferentz for both what he brought to the Patriots as a leader and as a teammate.

“Just in general with Brian, I think he’s phenomenal,” Patricia said Wednesday morning at the NFL combine. “He’s a really smart guy. He works extremely hard. He studies the game. Tries to understand the problems that are involved in it. His overall organization is phenomenal. He was a young guy with us and very detail-oriented from that standpoint.

“I just think the world of him as a coach, as a person. I think the sky’s the limit for him.”

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Patriots Free Agency: Why Re-Signing Rex Burkhead Is In New England’s Best Interest

By Zack Cox
February 20, 2018

Rex Burkhead proved to be a dangerous and versatile offensive weapon in his first season with the New England Patriots. When he could stay healthy, that is.

The 27-year-old running back was a touchdown machine for the Patriots late in the season and provided a jolt of offensive production in Super Bowl LII, but he also missed seven games (including playoffs) due to injury and dealt with additional ailments during the preseason.

First, it was a rib injury suffered in Week 2 — shortly after Burkhead hauled in a 19-yard pass from Tom Brady for his first touchdown in a Patriots uniform — that sidelined him for four games. Then, a knee sprain in Week 15 that kept him out until the AFC Championship Game.

Fortunately for the Patriots, they had tremendous depth at running back this season, allowing them to absorb Burkhead’s injuries plus another one to James White late in the year without skipping a beat. Burkhead and White both took a backseat to Dion Lewis (career-high 896 rushing yards and 10 total touchdowns), but all three made important contributions as New England fell one win short of a second consecutive championship.

Burkhead, who signed a one-year, $3.15 million contract with the Patriots last spring, is set to venture back into free agency next month. (So, too, is Lewis, whom we profiled earlier in the week.) Let’s take a look at Burkhead’s 2017 season and his chances of returning to the Patriots in 2018.

2017 stats: 64 carries, 264 yards, five touchdowns; 30 catches (36 targets), 254 yards, three touchdowns

Highlight of the season: His performance in a Week 13, when he rushed 12 times for a season-high 78 yards and two touchdowns while also catching three passes for 25 yards in a win over the Buffalo Bills.

Six of Burkhead’s eight touchdowns came during a four-game stretch from Week 12 to Week 15.

Burkhead also scored a touchdown and blocked a punt in a Week 10 win over the Denver Broncos and made the most of his limited action in Super Bowl LII, amassing 64 yards from scrimmage on just four touches in a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Chances of coming back: Pretty good, especially if Lewis signs elsewhere, which appears likely at this point. With his ability to contribute as a runner, pass-catcher and special teamer, Burkhead is a perfect Patriots player, and the injuries he dealt with this season should allow them to re-sign him to a relatively affordable deal.

Running back depth: White, Mike Gillislee

Contingency plan: The Patriots were overstocked at running back this season, so much so that Gillislee — who underperformed in the early going but wasn’t horrible — hardly saw the field over the final 11 games. If Lewis and Burkhead both leave, though, the Patriots will need to bolster the position this offseason.

Even if Burkhead does re-sign, given his injury history, it could be worth using a mid-round draft pick on a running back prospect. New England rarely drafts running backs but has been successful when doing so, selecting White (fourth round) in 2014 and Stevan Ridley (second round) and Shane Vereen (third round) in 2011.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Ex-NFL QB Kordell Stewart Shares Vision for Mariota, Titans

Former NFL quarterback Kordell Stewart shared his thoughts on Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota, and new head coach Mike Vrabel, his teammate with the Steelers, with Titans Online.

By Jim Wyatt
February 16, 2018

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Former NFL quarterback Kordell Stewart sat down with Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota on Super Bowl LII Radio Row recently, and came away impressed.

“He’s everything that you see on the football field, which is very calm and relaxed and easy-going,” said Stewart, a host on "NFL No Huddle" which airs on NFL-TuneIn. “But you can see that little spark inside of him. When you look into his eyes you can kind of tell what goes on inside his soul. I like him a lot because he is humble and he hasn’t forgotten where he came from. And he’s a good football player.”

So, what do the Titans and Mariota need to do to take things to another level?

Stewart discussed that topic with Titans Online, and he also shared some thoughts on new Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, his teammate four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“The thing is being able to allow the player, Marcus in this case, to take his talents, and just be natural with it,” Stewart said. “When we saw him at Oregon, we saw the RPOs, which is something he hasn’t done since he’s been with the Tennessee Titans. If you can add that functionality to it a little bit, it gives him a chance to be himself. Being able to move and run a little bit is a big part of why he’s been so successful and why he won a Heisman Trophy.

“If you can bring that kid-like life back to the game for him, you’ll have a chance to see his talents flourish the way they should.”

Stewart, who played 11 seasons in the NFL, played from 1995-2002 with the Steelers before playing with the Bears and the Ravens. Nicknamed “Slash,” he was known for his athleticism and versatility. He threw for 14,746 yards during his career, and ran for 2,874 more.

Mariota, heading into his fourth NFL season, has already thrown for 9,476 yards with 58 touchdowns and just 34 interceptions. But Mariota’s numbers dipped in 2017 in his second full season under former head coach Mike Mularkey and offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie. After throwing for 3,426 yards with 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2016, he threw for 3,232 yards with 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions in 2017. He ran for 312 yards on 60 carries.

While Mariota guided the Titans into the playoffs, his passer rating dipped from 95.6 to 79.3. Mariota’s passer rating as a rookie was 91.5, when he threw for 2,818 yards with 19 touchdowns in 12 starts.

Stewart believes Mariota should benefit from an offseason without surgery. Some fresh ideas with new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, formerly with the Los Angeles Rams, should also help, he said.

“I think we all have to respect Marcus Mariota came off a severe injury that I think slowed him down a step and a half last year,” Stewart said. “But you also have to get him to evolve into being a better passer. You have to remember he came into the league from Oregon being an RPO kind of guy, a run/pass offense. So now he’s been asked to be a three-step, five-step, seven-step guy. Well, that’s not who he is. But you also have to start forcing the hand to implement that so he can develop into being that quarterback on the field. … It is taking this and developing his skill set to be a more efficient quarterback in the National Football League. Sometimes coaches try to change a player. You don’t want to change him, you just want to refine him, enhance what you have.”

So how might that look like in 2018 for Mariota, and the Titans?

“The sooner he grasp what is being asked of him and he gets comfortable, the better off he’ll be,” Stewart said. “In the interim, it is going to be a process, and I don’t think you need to put a stamp of approval of what it should be, other than when watching him, doing the eye test. Is he progressing to be something better than what he was? And that’s not saying the guys weren’t good coaching him. But we all like to evolve, right?

“It is just going to be a matter of how he progresses. You saw what happened to Jared Goff last year with the Rams. Look at how a coaching change impacted him. Look at how (Eagles quarterback) Carson Wentz seemed to change overnight before he was injured. Get in a good situation and have an opportunity, and you have a chance to be great.”

As for Vrabel, Stewart thinks he has a great chance to be successful.

Stewart said he thought Mularkey, his former offensive coordinator with the Steelers, helped the Titans make improvements. He called Vrabel, his teammate from 1997-2000 with the Steelers, one of the smartest players he’s ever been around.

“He gets it and understands it,” Stewart said of Vrabel. “Mike has been amongst the best and seen how they coached. He played the game like he was one of the best. And I think he is going to take that combination of success and apply it to his football team.”

Ohio State’s Katie Smith named finalist for another hall of fame

Katie Smith, who has been named one of the 2018 inductees into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, is now a finalist for the Basketball Hall of Fame.

By Andrew Erickson
February 17, 2018

It has been a hall of fame kind of week for Katie Smith.

The former Ohio State women’s basketball player and two-time ABL and WNBA champion on Saturday was named one of 13 finalists for the Basketball Hall of Fame.

The announcement comes less than a week after Smith was named one of the 2018 inductees into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

Smith, a Logan, Ohio, native, helped Ohio State to its only NCAA title game appearance during the 1992-93 season, won two championships each with the ABL’s Columbus Quest and the WNBA’s Detroit Shock and was an Olympic gold medalist in 2000, 2004 and 2008.

Smith, 43, joined the WNBA’s New York Liberty as an assistant coach in 2014 before being named coach last October.

The star-studded list of nominees includes Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Ray Allen, Maurice Cheeks, Grant Hill, Chris Webber, Tina Thompson, coach Charles “Lefty” Driesell, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, coach Rudy Tomjanovich, referee Hugh Evans and the Wayland Baptist University women’s basketball team.

Inductees into the Basketball Hall of Fame will be announced March 31 at the Final Four in San Antonio.

In five short years, Vince Marrow has gone from “Stoops’ close friend” to Kentucky football icon

By Jack Pilgrim
February 16, 2018

When Mark Stoops announced the hire of Vince Marrow back in December of 2012, his credentials didn’t immediately jump off the page. Or ever, for that matter.

Marrow had been a graduate assistant with Nebraska under head coach Bo Pelini, where he looked over the tight ends unit and eventually helped recruit when associate head coach Barney Cotton was unable to travel while recovering from surgery.

Before that, he served as a tight ends coordinator for two NFL Europe teams, the University of Toledo, and the Omaha Night Hawks, and was also a head coach for Springfield High School in Holland, OH. He played in the NFL from 1992-1995, and then overseas until 1998. He even played in the lone season of the XFL begun by WWE’s Vince McMahon in 2001.

Stoops and Marrow had known each other since before they were 10 years old, and played together at Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown, Ohio. At first glance, it looked like the newly-hired Kentucky head coach was handing out a favor for a longtime family friend.

Five years later, Vince Marrow is the most valuable element of the Kentucky football program.

“Our logo right now probably the last three years has been the second-most dominant logo recruiting in Ohio,” Marrow said on National Signing Day last Wednesday.

He and the Kentucky Wildcats had just earned a signature from four-star linebacker Chris Oats over Ohio State, the fifth UK signee from the state of Ohio.

Bill Greene, an Ohio recruiting insider for 247 Sports, said despite a hard late push from the Buckeyes, Oats’ relationship with Marrow ultimately won out in the end.

“I always felt they were in good shape when Oats described his relationship with Marrow as a father/son relationship,” Greene said. “I never heard him talk that way about any other head coach or any other assistant coach at any other school. Even when I thought Ohio State might be able to win this one, that always stuck with me.”

Ohio recruiting analyst Andrew Lind reported similar information when the tide started turning blue for Oats, saying Kentucky flat out won the recruiting battle with OSU, with Marrow being one the key reason.

“While questions about his grades will surely be tossed around as a reason why he didn’t end up at Ohio State, Oats’ decision will be more so about his relationship with Marrow and the rest of Kentucky’s staff,” he said.

This is a sentiment we have heard time and time again from talented recruits, specifically from the state of Ohio.

Five of the top 35 prospects from the state of Ohio signed with Kentucky in the 2018 recruiting class. Six of the top 30 prospects from Ohio signed with Kentucky in 2017. In 2016, 10 of Ohio’s top 56 recruits ended up in Lexington.

Since arriving at Kentucky back in 2012, Marrow has been the lead recruiter on 37 Kentucky signees from the state of Ohio, with 16 of those prospects being listed as a four-star by at least one recruiting service.

When Kentucky’s 2014 recruiting class finished as a consensus top-25 group, and easily the highest rated in school history, attention turned toward UK’s lead recruiter. In 2015, Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines did their best to steal the talented recruiting coordinator away from Kentucky, but a hefty raise and promotion kept him in blue and white.

When whispers of other schools laying the groundwork to make another run at him spread last March, Kentucky signed Marrow to a three-year contract extension to keep him at UK as the recruiting coordinator through 2020, including another pay raise worth roughly $500,000 a year.

And even that may be an underpay.

You see, what Vince Marrow does at Kentucky on the surface is appreciated, but that’s not where he holds his incredible value with the program. What he does behind the scenes, however, is where he has become a truly special talent.

He has looked every elite program in the eye while crossing paths on the recruiting trail without flinching and has won at an unprecedented rate. He backs down to no one.
Like we’ve seen with Oats, Lynn Bowden, Josh Paschal, CJ Conrad, and plenty others, Marrow competed with the big dogs and won out on National Signing Day. And when those same elite programs come knocking on the door in the weeks leading up to Signing Day, he almost always manages to hold them off.

Even if he loses a recruiting battle initially, he doesn’t give up there. Just this past year, Kentucky signee Nick Lewis committed to Washington State early in the recruiting process, and Marrow called him immediately afterward to tell him he’d end up in blue and white regardless. After constantly prying and digging, he got the 6-foot-9, 348-pound lineman to visit Lexington, and he flipped his commitment almost immediately after.

If Marrow gets his foot in the door with a four or five-star talent, that player will not commit to any school without thinking twice about the Wildcats. It’s a fact. The mutual respect gained is something that never fades, and it has paid off in the end on several occasions. According to multiple sources, Marrow also keeps tabs on former top recruits in case a potential transfer comes to fruition (keep an eye on a former four-star receiver that had Kentucky in his final two from several years back.)

Family. Community. Priority.

When Marrow gets involved with a recruit, he’s all in. When you see some of the other top programs in the nation recruit, they place players on the backburner as second or third options in case other situations arise. They’ll “offer” a scholarship, and then tell them to their face to hold off on visiting or making a commitment until closer to Signing Day. With Kentucky’s top recruiter, every player is a priority, and they are treated as such. Recruits and their families respect that.

“He makes every recruit feel like they are the No. 1 prospect on Kentucky’s board,” said one former top prospect and Kentucky signee. “Once they’re committed, Coach Marrow just takes it to the next level. He creates a family atmosphere that you don’t see anywhere else.”

Even still, everyone knows Vince Marrow is an extraordinary recruiter. He has made raking in four-star talent the norm, and Kentucky fans expect a solid number of them each recruiting class as a result. But what else does he do for the school to separate himself from the pack?

One source close to a Kentucky player that made an NFL decision this offseason said Marrow was easily the difference maker.

“You don’t understand what it’s like to be recruited by Coach Marrow, you really don’t,” they said. “(When he was making his decision), it felt like you could trust him with every aspect of the situation wholeheartedly. He laid everything out, pros and cons, and (the player) was able to make the best decision for him. It truly felt like he was being recruited to Kentucky all over again. (He) felt special.”

Marrow gave his pitch, and made him feel wanted at Kentucky, but didn’t force the issue. He didn’t do what was in the school’s best interest or his own, it was entirely on what was best for the player, and his family appreciated that.

It was a decision that was done the right way, with the right resources to help.

Following Kentucky’s loss in the TaxSlayer Bowl back in 2016, Boom Williams announced his decision to enter the NFL Draft, one that shocked no one. Williams had always loved the spotlight and had dreams of playing in the NFL, and it was no secret he wanted to get there as soon as possible. In the decision making process in the weeks leading up to the bowl game, Vince Marrow put in countless hours of work talking to NFL scouts and teams about Williams’ draft stock, knowing full well he had all but decided he was going pro. Still though, like he had promised to do with every other Wildcat since he got to Kentucky, he went the extra mile.

After receiving draft grades of anywhere from the fifth round to undrafted, Marrow approached Williams’ family about the numbers and strongly advised him to reevaluate his decision. Williams’ family talked to their own people and came to the conclusion that Boom would be selected in the “first or second round,” and went forward with the draft preparation process.

Williams went undrafted and has yet to play a down in the NFL.

If tensions rise in the locker room, Marrow is the one to neutralize the problem. If a player is upset with his current status on the team and threatens to transfer, Marrow talks them back from the ledge. When Kentucky needs to seal the deal with a recruit on the fence, Marrow delivers the knockout blow.

In all aspects of the game, Vince Marrow has been Kentucky football’s most valuable element since he arrived on campus back in 2012. He has taken recruiting to unforeseen heights, developed an inseparable bond with both recruits and current players, and overall, helped build excitement and expectation of success around the program we haven’t seen in years.

In five short years, Marrow has gone from being thought of as nothing more than Mark Stoops’ close friend to becoming a Kentucky football icon.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Why the Lions believe in new offensive line coach Jeff Davidson

New Lions offensive line coach Jeff Davidson, right, knows how to connect with players well. (AP File Photo)

By Kyle Meinke
February 12, 2018

ALLEN PARK -- The Detroit Lions added a couple offensive linemen in the early rounds of Bob Quinn's first draft, and the unit didn't get better. So they added two more in free agency last year. And then they got worse.

Sure, injuries hurt. There's no escaping that. But their offensive line coach also didn't do a good job. There's no escaping that either.

There's a reason Ron Prince was the only assistant fired when the season ended. And there's a reason Jeff Davidson was hired to replace him.

Prince was an old-school coach. That's one way of saying he was intense, and some would say to a fault. People who have been in that room say his message wasn't getting through.

In Davidson, the Lions get the opposite in terms of temperament.

"I think he understands the players," Lions GM Bob Quinn said. "He understand what offensive linemen go through. You can't treat everyone exactly the same in a room that big. It's one of the biggest rooms in the building, because you've got five guys that are starters, you have to have least eight on the 53, probably 10 total including practice squad. So your room has 10 guys in it. The only other room quite that big is probably defensive line or secondary.

"So you got to have a presence. And you can't treat the 10-year vet the same as the rookie backup left tackle that you're trying to develop. So you got to have a real way to connect with these guys. And I think Jeff has that."

One reason for that is he's played the position himself. He was an all-Big Ten guard at Ohio State, and was selected a captain as a senior in 1989. (His father, Jim, was also a captain for the Buckeyes in 1964. They were the school's first father-son paring to be named captain.)

Jeff Davidson was a fifth-round pick of the Broncos in 1990, and played five seasons in the league. So he understands what the guys are going through. He empathizes in ways other position coaches can't. And it helps.

"He has a good feel of when to really grind the guys, and when to back off a little bit," Quinn said. "My mentality is -- and I think Matt (Patricia) would say the same thing -- is everything starts up front. So you expect a lot out of those guys. You want them to be physical for 70 plays a game. So you really got to be able to manage those guys, and what you do in practice, what drills you do in practice, how that relates to what you're doing in the team setting, and what you're doing in the meeting rooms. Jeff brings a wealth of experience with that."

Former Lions offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz knows this as well as anyone. He played under Davidson at two stops -- in Minnesota, where Davidson was the offensive line coach, and again in Carolina, where he was the offensive coordinator.

"He played football, and knows the game well," Schwartz said. "I think when you have a coach who has played the game before, they just have a different perspective. They're a calming influence because they know things happen during the game that, you know, you get beat sometimes. The defense sometimes outwits you. It happens. And the coaches that I've played for that have played the game are generally, like, 'Well, all right, we got beat on that play.' They're not going to yell and scream as much. They're not going to nitpick as much."

Davidson got his coaching start with New Orleans in 1995. He joined New England as the tight ends coach in 1997, then worked his way up to assistant offensive line coach in 1998 and served as the tight ends/assistant offensive line coach from 2002-04.

That means he worked alongside incoming Lions coach Matt Patricia for one year, in 2004, and it was Patricia who replaced him as assistant offensive line coach when Davidson left for Cleveland in 2005. He went on to serve as the offensive line coach for the Browns (2005), Vikings (2011-15), Chargers (2016) and Broncos (2017), plus had stints as an offensive coordinator in Cleveland (2006) and Carolina (2007-2010).

In Detroit, he inherits a talented group that has struggled to meet expectations. Quinn added left tackle Taylor Decker (first round) and left guard Graham Glasgow (third round) in his first draft, then signed right guard T.J. Lang and right tackle Rick Wagner last year.

But the Lions allowed 47 sacks in 2017, which was second most in the league, and paved the way for the worst rushing attack in the game. Some of that falls on the running backs of course. The Lions really suffered by not having a true between-the-tackles threat.

But they also suffered from some of the worst run blocking in the league. According to Football Outsiders, they were the very worst.

Then again, they lost Decker to a shoulder injury in May. And that proved to be a portent of things to come. Four-fifths of the line missed multiple games in 2017, forcing the Lions to start 10 different combinations up front. The top five started just two games together, and played just 95 snaps.

But the good news is everyone except center Travis Swanson is due back next year. Swanson wasn't great anyway, and there is a growing belief that Glasgow will slide into the center position in 2018. And with so much experience back, plus a new voice to lead them, there is hope in Allen Park that the offensive line is headed for a bounce back season.

"Offensive line-wise, I think we have good personnel," Quinn said. "I think there might be some changes, but the core group are going to be back at core positions, and I would hope those guys would improve. Some of those guys had injuries last year, and obviously we were without our left tackle for half the year. If a little of each of those things improve, the whole thing is going to be better."

Ohio State Great Katie Smith Selected to Women's Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2018

By Dan Hope
February 12, 2018


Former Ohio State guard Katie Smith was announced Monday as one of seven members of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame class of 2018.

Congratulations @katiesmith30 !!! WE ARE SO PROUD OF YOU!!
— OSU W Basketball (@OhioState_WBB) February 13, 2018

Smith is one of the top women's basketball players in Ohio State history, leading the Buckeyes to the NCAA Tournament final as a freshman in 1993 and finishing her career as the Big Ten Player of the Year in 1996. She was inducted to the Ohio State Athletic Hall of Fame in 2001.

After her career as a Buckeye, Smith went on to a 15-year career in the WNBA, scoring 6,452 points over the course of her career and leading the Detroit Shock to WNBA titles in 2006 and 2008, winning WNBA Finals MVP honors in 2008. Smith is currently the head coach of the WNBA's New York Liberty.

Smith is also a three-time Olympic gold medalist, having been a member of the U.S. national teams that won gold in 2000, 2004 and 2008.

Smith is joined in the 20th anniversary class of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame by two of her Olympic teammates – Chamique Holdsclaw and Tina Thompson – as well as women's basketball coaches Ceal Barry, Rose Marie Battaglia, Chris Dailey and Mickie DeMoss.

The 2018 Women's Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony will take place on June 9 in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins Praises Titans Coach Mike Vrabel

Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins spent the past four years with new Titans head coach Mike Vrabel in Houston. Hopkins had some nice things to say about Vrabel over the weekend at NFL Honors from Super Bowl LII.

By Jim Wyatt
February 9, 2018

Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins spent the past four years with new Titans head coach Mike Vrabel in Houston. Hopkins had some nice things to say about Vrabel over the weekend at NFL Honors from Super Bowl LII.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins has spent the past five seasons terrorizing NFL defenses, including his own in practices.

During that time, he developed a great deal of respect for Mike Vrabel, who spent four seasons in Houston before being hired as head coach of the Tennessee Titans last month.

Hopkins, speaking on the red carpet of the NFL Honors at Super Bowl LII over the weekend in Minneapolis, said he was sorry to see Vrabel go. Despite competing on opposite sides of the football in Houston, Hopkins said he got to know Vrabel well.

And Hopkins believes Vrabel’s ability to connect with players should help him as a head coach.

“I had a lot of interaction with him,” Hopkins said. “He’s one of those guys you could talk to off the field, not just about football, but personal stuff. Vrabel was good to me. It wasn’t just a football relationship with him, it was a personal relationship. Guys could relate to him.

“He’s a great guy. He’s not just a good coach, but he’s a good guy. He can relate to his players. The Titans are lucky to have him.”

A two-time Pro Bowler who has already amassed 5,865 receiving yards in his career, Hopkins joined the Texans in 2013.

A year later, Vrabel joined the Texans as linebackers coach, a job he held from 2014-2016 before being promoted to defensive coordinator in 2017.

Last month, Vrabel was hired by the Titans.

“I think that was the best decision for the Titans organization,” Hopkins said. “He’s a winner, and he knows how to win championships, man. He has been part of an organization that has done it time and time again. With us, he did a great job. Last year we had a lot of injuries but guys still fought and played for him. I definitely think he’s going to be a great head coach. I am excited for him, and happy for him and his family.”

Hopkins believes the Titans are going to be a threat once again in the division. The Titans finished 9-7 last season, and in second place behind the Jaguars.

The Texans and Colts finished at 4-12.

“I think the whole AFC South has improved, but Tennessee in general, and Jacksonville, they’ve done a great job of getting young talent,” Hopkins said. “They are going to be good for a while. We got them the first game (in Houston), and gave them a tough game the second time (in Nashville). But they have some good young talent.”

Hopkins believes Vrabel will have a solid staff around him in Tennessee, and he believes he’ll develop trust with players on both sides of the ball.

The Titans hired former Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur as their offensive coordinator, and hired former Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees to lead the defense.

The fact Vrabel’s a defensive-minded coach doesn’t mean his offenses can’t be successful, Hopkins said.

“I would definitely disagree with that,” he said. “Vrabel knows football, and he is definitely going to use Marcus Mariota and take advantage of his skill set. He’ll also work with him on what thinks he is not good at, and help him improve. That is one thing about Vrabel – he is honest, and he is going to push you to be the best you can be.

“Those guys are going to love playing for him.”

Friday, February 09, 2018

Former Husker, TeamMates recognize mentors and students

February 9, 2018
By Joe Harris

February is National Mentoring Month. In honor of that, Lincoln TeamMates held their 10th Annual Recognition Event Thursday night.

It featured dinner, an awards ceremony and a speech from former Husker and current Washington Redskins linebacker Will Compton.

The goal is to recognize and highlight the achievements of TeamMates mentors and the kids they take under their wings.

Teammates program, which helps students find an adult to look up to.

The TeamMates program finds mentors for LPS students, so they have an adult in their lives to help them solve life's problems and celebrate successes.

TeamMates coordinator Walter Powell said mentors and students deserve recognition.

The kids aren't the only ones who enjoy the benefits of the program. Mentors say they get something out of it too.

TeamMates said it needs more mentors though, so volunteers are in high demand. They're also looking for donations to help fund their operations. You can find information for both at

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Monday, February 05, 2018

Stephen Neal: National wrestling champion, 3-time Super Bowl champion, Roadrunner for life

February 3, 2018

One could consider Stephen Neal the quintessential New England Patriot.

He didn’t play college football, but rather was a national championship wrestler at Cal State Bakersfield. He was an undrafted free agent in the NFL before settling into a 10-year career, seven of which came as a starting offensive guard in New England. And, in true Patriots fashion, he was a three-time Super Bowl champion during that time.

On Sunday, New England will take the field in Super Bowl LII against the Philadelphia Eagles in Minneapolis, Minn. Neal, of course, will be watching from his home in San Diego.

“I love watching football and I love the Super Bowl,” Neal said. “Doesn’t really matter who’s in it.”

Neal said he still has an affiliation with the Patriots, cheers for them, and likes it when they win. Even so, Neal said he would be OK seeing the Eagles capture their first Super Bowl championship.

“If Philadelphia can win, it’ll change that city quite a bit,” Neal said. “Either way, I want to see a good game. You never want to see people get hurt. And it’s always fun watching the competition.”

This is the second time the Eagles have played the Patriots for the championship. The first was in Super Bowl XXXIX, which was held Feb. 6, 2005, in Jacksonville, Fla.

Plenty of interesting faces dotted the starting lineups that evening: Neal, not to be outdone, lined up at right guard. The Patriots also had underrated running back Corey Dillon coming out of the backfield and some familiar faces on defense: tackle Vince Wilfork; linebackers Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest and Tedy Bruschi; and defensive backs Asante Samuel and Rodney Harrison.

As for Philadelphia, Donovan McNabb was at quarterback, Terrell Owens lined up at wide receiver and Brian Westbrook was their versatile tailback. All were star players for the Eagles.

Only two starters from either team that night remain in the NFL, however.

Kicker Adam Vinatieri is one of them; after an illustrious run with New England, the 45-year-old Vinatieri now plays for Indianapolis.

And the second is none other than quarterback Tom Brady, who’s in his 18th season of professional football and seeking his sixth Super Bowl ring with the Patriots. His five NFL championships are tied for the league record.
Joining Brady all those seasons has been head coach Bill Belichick. In a league where career spans are short and the turnover rate is high, the quarterback and coach’s longevity is something to marvel.

Neal pointed to the structure and organization of the Patriots' locker room as a guiding force: Belichick at the top, and team leaders such as Brady, special teams ace Matthew Slater, and defensive back Devin McCourty all buying into the head coach’s vision. They disseminate that vision to players around them.

“I think it’s very calculated,” Neal said. “When people come in there, they look at the leaders. And when they all buy in, it’s a united front.”

High-round draft picks and big-name free agents have gone to New England, only to not fit the Patriots' mold and be jettisoned, Neal pointed out. On the flip-side of the equation, 34 percent of the Patriots' current roster consists of players who entered the league as undrafted free agents, according to a recent article. That is by far the most in the NFL.

Neal compared the approach to his days under former CSUB head wrestling coach T.J. Kerr.

“He couldn’t get the state champs, because they wanted to go somewhere pretty. They didn’t respect Bakersfield...But it’s the guys that are overlooked, those are the people who are still hungry. They want to prove themselves,” Neal said. “Guys that are undrafted, it’s the same thing. That’s the Patriots' way, that’s the Bakersfield way. And I’m glad I was allowed to be a part of both.”

Ties to the Central Valley

Neal did not receive a college football scholarship coming out of San Diego High School.

Instead, he decided to go the wrestling route. And it didn’t take long for him to find a home.

“I visited Cal Poly, went to Fullerton, went to Oregon. It was fun. They took me to the movies,” Neal recalled. “But when I went to Bakersfield, they were at practice, banging heads and working hard. I said, 'This is where I want to be to become a champion.’ Bakersfield is for grinders. They go out there and get it done.”

And Neal did in fact accomplish his goal.

He competed at the school from 1996-99, winning an NCAA National Championship as a junior and senior heavyweight. He was undefeated those two seasons with an 83-0 combined record. He held a 156-10 career record and was 120-2 over his final three years.

Neal holds CSUB career records for most wins and most pins (71) and was a four-time Division I All-American.

To capture his 1999 national title, Neal beat Brock Lesnar (the University of Minnesota standout who went on to WWE stardom) in a match that remains a sight to behold on YouTube.

“He’s the most celebrated CSUB athlete in the history of the program,” said former Roadrunners basketball player and current ESPN3 broadcaster Vance Palm. “Bar none.”

Neal spoke glowingly of one of his CSUB mentors — and a Roadrunners wrestling great in his own right — Darryl Pope.

Pope was an assistant coach with the Roadrunners and Neal’s workout partner when the team won a Pac 10 championship in 1996. That season, Pope was named National Assistant Coach of the Year by the National Wrestling Coaches Association.

Pope said he didn't return the following year due to Title IX implications that resulted in his position being cut from the program. Regardless, Pope would visit the team as a volunteer coach every day following his job as a local sixth-grade teacher.

“It was amazing to have that character of people,” Neal remembered. “When I think of Bakersfield, I think of Darryl Pope. People who are tough, people who work hard.”

Neal said Pope taught him how to prepare mentally, lift weights and train with a purpose.

“He molded me into the competitor that I was able to become,” Neal said.

To this day, Neal remains in close contact with CSUB wrestling, which is funded predominantly by boosters and community members. Neal said it costs about $250,000 annually to run and operate the program.

Neal has come to Bakersfield for the past seven or eight years for fundraising events, he said. He made it a point to emphasize that he likes the direction of the athletics department and the wrestling program under current CSUB Athletics Director Kenneth "Ziggy" Siegfried.

“I think it’s important to keep that program going because it gave me a platform to compete,” Neal said. “Whatever I can do to help the program, I want to do.”

Neal met his wife, Jodee, a Tehachapi native, at CSUB — she was a Roadrunners softball player. Their daughter was also born in Bakersfield, three days after the Patriots beat the Eagles, 24-21, in Super Bowl XXXIX.

Where is he now?

Neal has moved back to San Diego, with Jodee and their three children between the ages of 10 and 14.

All three are involved in sports, and Neal became a man of deep Christian faith as his NFL career unfolded.

What separates Neal from his contemporaries, Pope said, is his incredible mental strength and fortitude.

“He was one of the greatest wrestlers to walk the planet. Then, he doesn’t just walk on and make it in the NFL. He didn’t just break into the NFL. He busted the walls down,” Pope said.

When it was suggested that Neal never made the Pro Bowl, Pope pointed to other obvious credentials on Neal’s resume — the fact he played for, and protected, arguably the game's greatest coach and quarterback for a substantial period of time.

“Bill Belichick does not let you spend 10 years blocking for Tom Brady if you’re not an All-Pro,” Pope said. “Believe me. He was an All-Pro.”

Asked where he faced the toughest competition — the wrestling mat or the football field — Neal didn’t take long to answer.

“The wrestling mat,” he said. “There’s nowhere to hide. You wrestle a lot longer than four or five seconds. And there’s no equipment.”

As far as Sunday’s Super Bowl, Neal said the Patriots will have to slow down Philadelphia’s defensive front. He said they could do that by running the hurry-up offense, or via trap and wham blocking schemes.

“Josh McDaniels does a good job calling the game,” Neal said of the Patriots offensive coordinator. “They’re going to have a good plan.”

As far as defense, Neal said the Patriots have “given up a lot of yards this year. But not a lot of points.”

“It’s going to be a fun game,” he added. “I’m excited.”

Neal is now a retired athlete.

He’s currently a man of deep faith, a man whose loyalty to the CSUB program runs deep, and a man who’s never forgotten Bakersfield.

Friday, February 02, 2018

1-on-1 matchups in Super Bowl LII

By Steve Palazzolo
February 1, 2018

Patriots Edge Trey Flowers vs. Eagles left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai

New England does not create much pressure up front, but Trey Flowers is one of the best young edge defenders in the league and by far the most consistent presence along the defensive line for the Patriots. He’s been dominant in the two playoff games and now has 72 pressures (eight sacks, 23 hits, 41 hurries) on his 537 rushes this season. Flowers will line up all over the formation, including a few snaps directly over the center as a pass-rusher, but Halapoulivaati Vaitai may be the most favorable matchup when it comes to creating pressure. He’s surrendered nine sacks, 12 hit, and 22 hurries including the playoffs, and that performance sticks out on one of the league’s best lines. Overall, Vaitai has had a number of impressive games in place of All-Pro tackle Jason Peters, but he’s certainly not at Peters’ level and the Patriots may see what their best pass-rusher can do against him in must-pass situations.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Super Bowl 2018: Patriots versatile Rex Burkhead selfless on and off the field

While Burkhead played at Nebraska he befriended a young boy with a brain tumor

By Reid Forgrave
February 1, 2018

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. – When you talk with the teammates and coaches of New England Patriots running back Rex Burkhead about what makes the 27-year-old so valuable, you're not going to hear about his 264 yards rushing this season. You won't hear about his 254 yards receiving, either. You won't hear about his eight touchdowns.

You'll hear about a player whose versatility and egoless mentality made him an ideal fit for the Patriots when they signed him to a one-year deal before this season.

"Rex can do everything," said fellow Patriots running back Dion Lewis. "He plays special teams, runs the ball, catches the ball and he can block. He can do everything, kind of like a Swiss Army knife. He can run routes as a receiver out of the backfield as well, blocking punts, whatever."

"We have a group of versatile backs," said fellow Patriots running back James White. "Rex just comes in ready to work, really doesn't say too much like myself – tries to get all the coaching points then go out there on Sunday and do his job."

Even Patriots head coach Bill Belichick gushed about Burkhead.

"Really is a four-down player. He can play on first, second, third and fourth down at a good level. And those players are hard to find in the National Football League. He's a very reliable, dependable player."

"Rex, he's a special person," said Andy Hoffman, an attorney who lives in the small town of Atkinson, Neb., three and a half hours northeast of Lincoln, where Burkhead starred for the Nebraska Cornhuskers. "My wife and I often wonder: Is he human, or is he an angel?"

You may remember this story from Burkhead's college years. When Burkhead was a junior at Nebraska, he was one of the best running backs in the country, rushing for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns. That season, Hoffman contacted the school about trying to get an autograph for his five-year-old son, Jack. Burkhead was Jack's favorite player. Earlier that year, Jack had surgery on a brain tumor. The entire summer, Jack suffered from seizures. The family traveled to Boston Children's Hospital for another opinion on the tumor that was still growing inside his brain. The neurosurgeon told the family they could operate a second time, but there were risks: Jack could have a stroke. Or Jack could never wake up.

So the family compiled some bucket list items for Jack, and one of them was to meet his favorite athlete. The family drove to Lincoln and walked into Memorial Stadium on a Thursday, two days before the Huskers were scheduled to play the Washington Huskies. Hoffman expected they'd just meet Burkhead for a quick photograph. Instead, Burkhead gave the family a tour of the weight room, the locker room and the stadium. On the field, Jack asked Burkhead to race. They raced down the field, side by side. They gave Burkhead a bracelet – "TEAM JACK PRAY" – and Burkhead promised he'd wear it during that Saturday's game. He did, and the Huskers won.

One week later, the Hoffmans traveled to Boston for the surgery. Before the surgery, Burkhead called Jack to tell him he was praying for him. That Saturday, the Huskers were playing a prime-time home game against Ohio State. The Huskers mounted a huge comeback and won. On Monday, Jack had his surgery. The next day, with Jack's head swollen like a balloon, Burkhead called him in the hospital.

"Rex told Jack he'd helped inspire that comeback against Ohio State," Scott Hoffman recalled.

But this wasn't just some quick feel-good story. The relationship between Burkhead and the Hoffmans has continued in the seven years since. "It went from Jack being Rex's little buddy to Jack being a de facto member of the team," Hoffman said. During the 2013 Nebraska spring game, Burkhead arranged for Jack to suit up in a Nebraska uniform and run for a touchdown in front of a crowd of 60,000 people. The Hoffman family was invited to the White House to meet President Barack Obama; Burkhead joined them. Then Burkhead helped launch the Team Jack Foundation to raise money for pediatric brain cancer research.

The relationship between Burkhead and Jack continues today. Burkhead is on the board of directors for the Team Jack Foundation. The foundation will host its fifth gala on Feb. 24, and Burkhead will be there. He's holding a separate fundraiser in his home state of Texas in the spring, too.

Jack is doing well, relatively speaking. The tumor is still there; doctors say it's "enhancing" but not growing. He's 12 years old now, a middle schooler who plays basketball in winter, baseball in the summer and football in the fall. The main side effect of the tumor is that it has made him an epileptic. Two years ago, he had a grand mal seizure. Since then, he's had seizures – usually smaller ones – once a week.

"We take the good with the bad, and the good outweighs the bad by a mile," Hoffman said. "We're not out of the woods with the cancer. He could be back in chemo in the near future. But he's enjoying life in the woods."

Burkhead is preparing for his first Super Bowl this week, but Jack is never far from his mind. The two have a fun relationship; Jack loves to burp directly in Burkhead's ear when they see each other. Burkhead plans to call him before the Super Bowl; he plans to call him after. It's as if meeting Jack gave Burkhead perspective on his own life.

"Just meeting him for the first time, I saw the positive attitude he had even though he knew he was fighting for his life," Burkhead said Wednesday at one of the press conferences in advance of the Super Bowl. "So anything going on in my life, it put it in a whole different perspective."

He'd been texting with Jack's family the night before. The families have gotten so close that the Hoffmans consider Burkhead like a son or a nephew.

"If there's a day I feel tired," Burkhead said, "or maybe some fear creeps in, I think about Jack in his situation, and that relationship, and it kind of puts those other things to the side. I can do this. This? This isn't bad at all."

Walk-on, Free Agent, Super Bowl Participant

New England Patriots rookie offensive lineman Cole Croston does an interview during Super Bowl LII Media Day on Jan. 29 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Croston was a three-year letterwinner for the University of Iowa from 2014-16. (Photo: Darren Miller)

Cole Croston put his head down and worked hard every step of his journey

By Darren Miller
February 1, 2018

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- When the World Champion New England Patriots scout for talent, they seek three qualities. Undrafted free agent offensive lineman Cole Croston possesses them all.

Croston, 24, a 2017 graduate of the University of Iowa, is listed as second-team left guard for the Patriots, who play Philadelphia on Sunday in Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia revealed what he wants in players:

"They have to be smart, they have to be tough, and they have to be athletic that order," Scarnecchia said Monday at Super Bowl Media Day in the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. "We brought Cole in as a free agent and we love the kid. He has done a nice job. He has been on the varsity the whole year -- hasn't played much, but we feel his time will come in the future."

Croston's story isn't a complete rags-to-riches tale, but nothing was handed to the tall, skinny kid from Sergeant Bluff, Iowa. He used his 6-foot, 5-inch frame to average 12 points and nine rebounds in 67 basketball games for Sergeant Bluff-Luton High School. On the football field he was first-team all-district as an offensive lineman and punter.

His college offer list consisted of one small school for basketball and partial scholarships for football at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, and Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Croston's father, Dave, lettered in football for the Hawkeyes from 1984-86 and was selected by the Green Bay Packers in the third round of the 1987 NFL Draft. One way or another, Cole was following his father's path to Iowa City.

"I decided I was going to go to Iowa and be a student or go to Iowa and play football," Croston said. "Luckily the football part worked out. Coach (Reese) Morgan asked me to walk on and I took it in a heartbeat. I weighed about 220 pounds. It was quite the investment (for the Hawkeyes) and I'm glad he took it."

Croston came to practice with a chip on his shoulder. His path was not unlike that of several walk-ons before him. Croston added weight, muscle, and playing time. He became a two-year starter at offensive tackle and was named third-team All-Big Ten his senior season.

"I have to give a lot of thanks to (strength and conditioning) coach (Chris) Doyle," said Croston, who now weighs 315 pounds. "He put a lot of weight on me and a lot of strength that I needed. Coach Brian Ferentz and coach Kirk Ferentz helped transform me to the player I am now. Brian taught me so many things that I wouldn't have learned without him."

When the 2017 NFL Draft was held from April 27-29, Croston was not among the 253 players selected. When it was time to sign a free agent contract he noticed that players who worked hard stuck around and enjoyed solid careers with New England. He heard that every Patriot -- drafted or not -- was given an equal opportunity.

"You get the feel around here that it doesn't matter if you're a first round or undrafted guy, everyone is going to get their chance to play," Croston said.

He met with Scarnecchia, who put him through a chalk talk session.

"We did test stuff on the board, some things they do at New England, to learn whether I was able to understand that or not," Croston said.

The No. 1 trait the Patriots were looking for was intellect, and Croston was well-prepared after five years in Iowa's program.

There was more. Croston started games at right tackle and left tackle at Iowa and occasionally would get reps at guard during camp. That versatility paid off as a rookie in the NFL.

"They have a saying here: 'The more you can do,'" Croston said. "I was able to show that I could play multiple positions and I was able to take things from the classroom onto the field and they appreciated that."

Croston spent the entire season on New England's 53-player roster. His first action came Nov. 19 during a 33-8 victory over the Raiders in Mexico City.

As a youngster, Croston spent Super Sundays with family at the home of his uncle or grandparents. Many of his family will spend Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis, watching Croston and the Patriots perform on football's biggest stage.

"I wasn't sure if I was even going to make the team," Croston said. "I was able to grind it out and earn a roster spot. Throughout the season, we put our heads down, went to work and had a pretty good record. We won a couple (playoff) games and now we're in the Super Bowl."

Croston won't be the only Hawkeye-turned-Patriot at Sunday's Super Bowl. Offensive lineman James Ferentz and wide receiver Riley McCarron are also in the Twin Cities as members of New England's practice squad.

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