Friday, April 28, 2017

Arkansas Recognized for Excellence in Promoting the Scholar-Athlete Ideal

April 28, 2017

IRVING, Texas – As part of the National Football Foundation Faculty Salutes, presented by Fidelity Investments, the National Football Foundation will present Sharon Hunt, the faculty athletics representative for the University of Arkansas, with a commemorative plaque and the school with $5,000.

Arkansas and Hunt are being recognized for their efforts in fostering excellence among student-athletes as exemplified by 2016 NFF National Scholar-Athlete Brooks Ellis. The presentation will take place during a ceremony at 11 a.m. this Saturday, April 29, in the East Indoor Club at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Arkansas' Annual Red and White Spring Game will follow the ceremony at noon.

"Dr. Sharon Hunt has been a critical liaison between academics and athletics at Arkansas," said Steve Hatchell, president and CEO of the National Football Foundation. "We are proud to join with Fidelity Investments in highlighting her role in ensuring that Razorback student-athletes have an educational experience that prepares them for success long after their playing days in Fayetteville."

Since 2011, the NFF has partnered with Fidelity Investments, a leading provider of not-for-profit workplace retirement savings plans in higher education, to recognize the contributions of the faculty athletics representatives at each of the schools with an NFF National Scholar-Athlete. As part of the partnership, the NFF presents each of the FARs with a commemorative plaque, and Fidelity Investments donates $5,000 to support the academic support services for student-athletes at each school. Since the program's inception, the NFF has recognized individuals 88 different times, and Fidelity has made donations of $440,000.

"In her role as faculty athletics representative, Dr. Hunt serves our institution, athletics program and makes a meaningful difference in the lives of our more than 460 Razorback student-athletes," said Jeff Long, vice chancellor and director of athletics for the University of Arkansas. "We are appreciative of her ongoing commitment to fostering the academic growth of all of our student-athletes on their way to graduation, including 2016 NFF National Scholar-Athlete Brooks Ellis. We are also grateful to the National Football Foundation and Fidelity Investments for recognizing Dr. Hunt's outstanding work and celebrating the overall academic excellence of Razorback student-athletes."

Hunt has been a faculty member at Arkansas since 1990 and currently serves as a professor of kinesiology. She previously served as head of the department of health science, kinesiology, recreation and dance and was the interim dean for the College of Education and Health Professions during the 2000-01 school year. In 2010, Hunt became the first woman and non-lawyer to hold the post of faculty athletics representative at Arkansas. In her role as the representative, she works closely with the athletic department and the student-athlete advisory council and represents the university at various SEC and NCAA meetings. A high school athlete, Hunt's involvement with collegiate athletics dates back to her own college days at Arkansas when she played extramural sports prior to the enactment of Title IX. After receiving her bachelor's and master's degrees in physical education at Arkansas, she went on to earn a doctor of education degree from the University of Georgia and joined the faculty of the University of Kentucky for 13 years.

Arkansas was represented in the 2016 NFF National Scholar-Athlete Class by Brooks Ellis, who maintained a 3.82 GPA as a pre-professional exercise science major with a minor in biology. The two-year team captain became the first two-time Academic All-American in program history and was named the 2016 SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year. As a senior, Ellis led the Razorbacks in tackles during the regular season for the second straight year with 78 and also recorded a team-high 7.0 tackles for loss. Off the field, the NFL draft prospect was named to the SEC Football Community Service Team and was a finalist for the 2016 Wuerffel Trophy.

The NFF National Scholar-Athlete Awards, presented by Fidelity Investments, were established in 1959 as the first initiative in history to honor scholar-athletes with postgraduate scholarships for their combined athletic, academic and leadership abilities. The program currently provides each member of the class with an $18,000 scholarship, distributing approximately $300,000 each year to the nation's top scholar-athletes. Each year at the NFF Annual Awards Dinner in New York City, one member of the class is declared the winner of The William V. Campbell Trophy, presented by Fidelity Investments, as the top football scholar-athlete in the country and has his scholarship increased to $25,000.

In 2011, Fidelity Investments became the first official sponsor in the 57-year history of the program, which has awarded more than $11.1 million to 828 individuals since its inception. At the start of the 2014 season, Fidelity also became the presenting sponsor of the Campbell Trophy, college football's premier scholar-athlete award.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Arizona Cardinals 2017: PK Phil Dawson team’s best offseason addition

By Russell S. Baxter

April 26, 2017

The free-agency period has been good one way or another for every NFL team. Hence, it’s time to take a look at the positives in our newest series for End Zone Score. Which newcomer to the club was the franchise’s best offseason move and why? We got things started with the 2016 last-place teams in the eight divisions. You can get caught up on the entire series by clicking right here. Now we are onto the clubs that finished third. And that means the Arizona Cardinals are in the spotlight.

PK Phil Dawson

After three consecutive 10-plus win campaigns, including a team-record 13 victories in 2015, a lot of things came apart for Bruce Arians’ team this past season. An erratic year by quarterback Carson Palmer did not help. The veteran signal-caller totaled 18 of the team’s 28 turnovers. His completion percentage slipped to 61.0 (down from 63.7) and one season after throwing a franchise-record 35 touchdown passes to 11 interceptions, he fell to 26 scores and 14 picks in 15 outings.

However, Palmer is back for another season in position to make amends. That’s not the case when it comes to placekicker Chandler Catanzaro. He’s now a member of the New York Jets. But he suffered through a forgettable 2016 with the Cards. He connected on 21-of-28 field goal attempts. But those seven misses came at some real inopportune times, most notably in a home loss to the New England Patriots and a dreadful 6-6 overtime tie with the Seattle Seahawks. All told, the Cardinals’ special teams were a real mess. And that’s being kind.

Enter Phil Dawson, who became available when the new-look San Francisco 49ers signed veteran kicker Robbie Gould. He’s quietly become one of the league’s all-time leaders at his position. The 18-year pro, who spent his first 14 seasons with the Cleveland Browns, ranks 15th in NFL history in points scored (1,698) and 10th in field goals (404). He gives the Arizona Cardinals a highly-reliable option in what proved to be a problem area in 2016.

Former Husker Will Compton, Redskins agree to contract extension

From staff reports
April 25, 2017

ASHBURN, Va. — Restricted free agent linebacker Will Compton re-signed with the Washington Redskins on Monday.

He signed with the Redskins after going undrafted out of Nebraska in 2013, playing in 48 regular-season NFL games, including 29 starts. Last season, Compton played and started in 15 games. He had career bests with 103 tackles, five passes defensed and two fumbles recovered.

Compton was the Redskins starting middle linebacker and served as a captain in the 2016 season.

“The more I put into it, the more excited I get,” Compton said in a statement. “The guys in the building, I feel like we have a lot of great people from top to bottom in the building. ...I think we have a really great group of guys. We can build in a lot of different areas, but I’m excited.”

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Ellis Dreams of Entrepreneurship, NFL legacy

Former linebacker Brooks Ellis (#51) walks off the field after a game against Alcorn State on Oct. 1.

April 18, 2017
By Elise Parker

Brooks Ellis, a six-foot-two-inch linebacker, knelt between two cones in preparation for the 40-yard dash. He looks down the line at the scouts, their thumbs ready to press start on the timers. He takes a deep breath and sprints down the field.

Ellis was one of 17 former Razorback football players who showcased their talents to 30 NFL teams on Pro Day on March 15.

“The NFL has always been a dream of mine,” Ellis said. “It’s every young football player’s dream to make it to the big time. That’s what all of the hard work, early mornings and commitment has come to. This moment.”

His brother, Andrew, wore a Big Rock T-shirt in support of his All-American older sibling’s company.

Life on the Field

Ellis, 22, is a Fayetteville native. He played football at Fayetteville High School and was the student body treasurer. He led the Bulldogs to two state championships and was named Defensive Player of the Year both years.

As a recruit, he was ranked No. 4 in Arkansas and the No. 24 linebacker in the country. After multiple offers, he followed in the steps of his grandfather, David Lashley, who played offensive and defensive line at Arkansas in the 1950s.

“I looked around at a few places but I knew I was going here,” Ellis said. “My family is here and I grew up watching the Hogs, so it wasn’t too hard of a decision.”

During his career at the UofA, Ellis played in 49 games with 41 starts. He led the team in tackles nine times and was the only student-athlete from the Southeastern Conference to be selected to the Academic All-America first team in 2016.

Ellis received an $18,000 postgraduate scholarship as a member of the National Football Foundation (NFF) National Scholar-Athlete Class in New York City at the 59th NFF Annual Awards Dinner, making him the fourth Arkansas football player to get this award since 1978.

He graduated from the UofA in December 2016 with a degree in kinesiology and a minor in biology.

The Company

In summer 2016, Ellis and his friends were hiking at Devil’s Den State Park in Winslow. They stumbled upon an oddly shaped rock while they were walking, which sparked the idea for the company.

“I don’t remember exactly what he said, but one of my buddies goes, ‘Whoa, that’s a big rock’ and we immediately thought it would be a good name for a company,” Ellis said. “We have always wanted to start a T-shirt business, and finding this rock was the beginning.”

Ellis and four of his closest friends created Big Rock Clothing Company (BRCO). The five young investors are former teammates at Arkansas, and used their own money to buy the first 50 T-shirts.

Their business motto is simple: Be comfortable. Live in the moment.

“We wanted to create a company that was comparable to Fayettechill, while being affordable for students,” said Alex Brignoni, Ellis’ childhood best friend and part owner. “Our shirts are for people who love being outdoors and having fun, because that’s what we love to do.”

Big Rock mainly sells its T-shirts via social media.

“Until we decide that we want to create a website, right now we just sell our shirts through direct message on Instagram,” said Matt Dodson, self-proclaimed sales director for Big Rock. “It’s easy and convenient for our customers and is working well since we are still a start-up.”

Ellis said his favorite part about this experience has been bonding with his friends and learning something new everyday.

“As a kinesiology major, I know nothing about business,” Ellis said. “Through my buddies I have learned a lot about running a company, and trust me it’s not easy.”

He said the group often disagrees about designs.

“Running a company is just like football in a way,” Ellis said. “First and foremost we are a team, and I will always do what’s best for the team, even if I don’t agree. We have been teammates for almost three years, and that comes in handy when working together on a day-to-day basis and making decisions.”

The Future

Aside from running the company, the group loves to throw the football around. They said they are Ellis’ biggest fans.
“I am so proud of Brooks,” Brignoni said. “I wish I was as good of a player as he is. If he makes it big, he better take me with him.”

Ellis said he hopes to make it to the NFL and get drafted this April. His friends and teammates have served as a major support system.

Ellis’ mother, Shelley, has attended every game of his career, and said she is excited for this opportunity for her son.

“It has been a long and stressful process,” Shelley said. “I am so proud of Ellis and everything he has accomplished. He has an amazing work ethic, but I am ready for this process to be over and for him to be in the NFL.”

Ellis attended the 2017 NFL Combine where he was a top performer in the three-cone drill and 60-yard shuttle.

He still lives in Fayetteville and devotes most of his time training with the Arkansas strength and conditioning coach, Ben Herbert, alongside the other Razorback potential draftees.

“I’m excited and anxious for the future,” Ellis said. “I am so thankful to have spent my college years playing at Arkansas with my brothers, and have learned so much and grown as a player, but now it’s time for the next adventure.”

With Burkhead and Gillislee signings, Patriots buy into analytics

By Michael David Smith

April 18, 2017

At a time when teams across the NFL are showing little to no interest in most of the big-name running backs available in free agency, the Patriots have signed two running backs. And in doing so, they’ve shown they’re at the forefront of the analytics movement, even if they don’t like to say so.

Today the Patriots signed restricted free agent running back Mike Gillislee to an offer sheet that they hope the Bills won’t match, and previously the Patriots signed running back Rex Burkhead away from the Bengals. What do Gillislee and Burkhead have in common? The average fan may not know a lot about them, but the analytics people love them.

Analytics website ranked Gillislee as the most efficient running back in the NFL last year, and Burkhead as No. 2. Analytics website NumberFire also had Gillislee first and Burkhead second. Analyst Warren Sharp’s metrics had Gillislee first and Burkhead second in success rate, and Burkhead first and Gillislee second in the fewest “missed yards per attempt,” or how close they came to being successful on the plays that weren’t quite good enough to quality as successful.

The various analytics websites have slight differences in the way they rate players, but they all tend to support the same traits in a running back, namely consistently helping the team pick up first downs. Both Gillislee and Burkhead were excellent at picking up first downs last season, gaining first downs more than 30 percent of the time. Meanwhile, for all the focus on LeGarrette Blount and his 18 touchdowns last year, Blount picked up first downs on just 22.4 percent of his carries. The analytics models say Blount was actually a mediocre running back last year, and that may explain why the Patriots are willing to let Blount walk and turn their attention to Gillislee and Burkhead.

Unlike the Browns, who are open about the fact that they’re building their team with an analytics approach, the Patriots keep quiet about their belief in analytics. We noted last year that Bill Belichick was dismissive about analytics websites, saying he doesn’t look at them. And he probably doesn’t, because he doesn’t need to: He has staffers who stay on top of the latest in analytics, and those staffers do read those websites. One of Belichick’s most trusted advisors is Ernie Adams, the Patriots’ football research director, who was a municipal bonds trader before he worked for Belichick, first in Cleveland and then in New England. Many of the methods that sports statistical analysts use are rooted in the same methods used to analyze economic data. Adams understands both, and that makes him valuable to Belichick.

The interest in analytics goes to the very top of the Patriots’ organization. The Patriots’ official website wrote last year that “You may not find a bigger believer in data and analytics than New England Patriots Owner Robert Kraft.”

As the Browns struggled through their first rebuilding season under the new analytics-based regime last season, some observers scoffed that the Moneyball approach wouldn’t work in the NFL. And maybe it won’t work in Cleveland. But it’s working in New England, whether the Patriots say so publicly or not.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Rex Burkhead Explains Why Wanted To Join Patriots’ ‘Multi-Dimensional’ Offense

By Zack Cox

April 18, 2017

FOXBORO, Mass. — Last month, Rex Burkhead left the Cincinnati Bengals to sign a one-year, $3.15 million contract with the New England Patriots. On Tuesday, he explained why.

To Burkhead, one of New England’s greatest allures — on top of the franchise’s obvious track record of success — was the various and creative ways in which the Patriots use their running backs.

“It was very intriguing, of course, how they use them,” Burkhead said. “Split them out, use them in the backfield, just the multi-dimensional ways that they use them. What (Patriots offensive coordinator Josh) McDaniels does with offensive schemes, it’s great, and I felt like it was a fit for me.”

Though he primarily played on special teams during his four seasons with the Bengals, Burkhead’s lofty contract was proof the Patriots believe he can be a major factor on offense, as well. No team would shell out $3 million for a player who only contributes in the kicking game.

Burkhead is coming off by far the most productive season of his career. After totaling just 13 carries over his first three NFL campaigns, he carried the ball 74 times for 344 yards and two touchdowns in 2016, with 39 of those rushes and both scores coming over his final two games in a Bengals uniform.

The 26-year-old also has had modest success as a pass-catcher, tallying 34 career receptions for 288 yards and one touchdown.

“I’m just coming in, trying to work hard and leaving that to the coaches to decide,” Burkhead said when asked how he expects to be used this season. “Whatever way they see me fit, that’s up to them and for me to earn those spots.”

In New England, Burkhead will join a talented stable of running backs headlined by Dion Lewis and Super Bowl LI hero James White. The Patriots also have Brandon Bolden and D.J. Foster under contract for this season and likely will add at least one more back before training camp opens in July.

“I’m always watching film, of course, so whenever we watch the Patriots on film, I always got a glimpse of (New England’s running backs),” Burkhead said. “Great backfield. I’ve gotten to know them a little bit the past couple of days, and (they’re) great guys, as well. So I’m just looking forward to being a part of them.”

The Bengals reached the playoffs in three of Burkhead’s four seasons with the team but bowed out in the wild-card round each time. The Patriots, meanwhile, have reached each of the last six AFC Championship Games and have won five of the last 16 Super Bowls, including two of the last three.

“The tradition here that Coach (Bill) Belichick’s instilled, the attitude — you can tell on film just watching the guys,” Burkhead said. “They play hard, and football is kind of their passion. And that’s what I want to be a part of.”

Monday, April 17, 2017

Around the NFL: Pierogis, predictions and a draft approaching like big thunder

Cleveland Browns nose tackle Jamie Meder (98) and Danny Shelton (55) celebrate after a win over the San Diego Chargers on Saturday, December 24, 2016.

By Steve Doerschuk
April 17, 2017

It was the night before Christmas, and all through the home team’s part of the house every creature was stirring.

“The Pierogi Prince of Parma does it again!” big Joe Thomas beamed, with words strangely capturing the entire mood.

Nearby, Jamie Meder savored the blocked field goal that saved a 20-17 conquest of San Diego. The pride of Parma Valley Forge High School grinned as if he had just thrown a silver dollar across Lake Erie.

This was no ordinary victory. It was the only one.

Now it is Easter, and the Christmas Eve surprise stands as the Browns lone win in the last 490 days.

The win before that was on Dec. 13, 2015 against San Francisco. There is no asterisk after 490 — the Browns lost all of their 2016 practice games.

Euphoria doesn’t last. Job security is scarce for most who shared in the win. Consider where the exultant players were that day, and where they stand as the draft rolls in like big thunder.

The ones who played the most snaps against San Diego (71) were the starting offensive linemen, Austin Pasztor, Jonathan Cooper, Cam Erving, Spencer Drango and Thomas.

Pasztor is a free agent who can’t find a team. Cooper was cut two days after Christmas. Drango was a 2016 draft pick who is back, but for how long? Erving was a Ray Farmer first-round pick who has gone through three head line coaches (Andy Moeller, George DeLeone, Hal Hunter) and is on his fourth (Bob Wylie).

Robert Griffin III played 61 snaps against San Diego before leaving with a concussion. He is gone to the realm of Jeff Garcia, Trent Dilfer and Jake Delhomme. Everyone wonders what quarterbacks will be on the roster by the end of next week.

Big wideout Terrelle Pryor played 66 downs and was targeted just five times. He took his plus-sized ego to Washington, leaving room to wonder whether Josh Gordon can return from oblivion.

Tight end Gary Barnidge played all but three offensive snaps and caught five passes. Age, not ego, is his issue. He is older than everyone on the roster except Thomas.

Barnidge must wonder where Sashi Brown has Alabama tight end O.J. Howard in his mock draft, and what’s up with Seth DeValve (seven snaps against San Diego), another 2016 draft pick.

Wideout Corey Coleman put in 61 of a possible 71 snaps in the victory. You wouldn’t have known it by his production (two catches, 15 yards). Coleman racked up 1,363 yards and 20 TDs in 2015, but that was at Baylor.

Ask Ozzie Newsome what spending a No. 15 overall pick on Coleman last year necessarily means. Travis Taylor, a former top-10 pick, averaged 35 catches across five nondescript Ravens seasons.

Hollywood Higgins and Ricardo Louis, two of the four wideouts stockpiled in last year’s draft, played a combined 16 snaps in the Dec. 24 win. Neither looked promising.

Isaiah Crowell (38 snaps) and Duke Johnson (33) split the work at running back. A pocket of Browns fans would love to see more juice at the position.

On defense, linebacker Jamie Collins played all 68 snaps against San Diego and recently signed a $50 million contract extension. Who knew this was coming last October, when he played against the Browns as a New England Patriot?

Safety Ed Reynolds was one of two other Browns (Christian Kirksey) to log every down of defense. Reynolds looked better than one would have thought of a guy cut by the Eagles in September.

The Browns handed the Eagles Carson Wentz last April. It might take more than Reynolds to smooth out those repercussions.

Cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun, cut by the Jaguars in September, played 52 snaps.

Veteran cornerbacks Tramon Williams (63 snaps) and Joe Haden (39) had roles then. Now? Williams has been cut. Haden needs to snap out of a career funk.

Meder (43 snaps) and Danny Shelton (40) split time at nose tackle in the win. Pierogi Prince Meder may be different, but former undrafted free agents out of Ashland usually don’t play more than former first-round draft picks.

Everyone is wondering how new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will shuffle the deck.

Tracy Howard, undrafted out of Miami (Fla.) last year, logged 25 snaps against the Chargers as a utility defensive back. Ibraheim Campbell, a 2015 fourth-round pick, was supposed to break through at safety, but all 22 of his snaps against San Diego were on special teams.

There is a clamor to find a way to Ohio State safety Malik Hooker, although he is projected to be taken between the Browns’ scheduled picks at No. 1 and No. 12.

A fuss was made when linebacker Demario Davis, who had started 48 straight games for the Jets, arrived as a 2016 free agent. He logged only 23 snaps against San Diego and is another guy beholden to Gregg Williams’ evaluation.

Williams is a headstrong guru who has been promised big authority. It will be interesting to see whether he features last year’s second- and third-round picks, front-seven defenders Emmanuel Ogbah (57 snaps against San Diego) and Carl Nassib (53).

The mysterious Browns never explain who among Sashi Brown, Andrew Berry, Hue Jackson and 2016 defensive coordinator Ray Horton had the most say in picking Ogbah and Nassib.

Good luck deciphering how “Moneyball Paul” DePodesta fits in. Or Jimmy Haslam, who has watched the Browns go 5-11, 4-12, 7-9, 3-13 and 1-15 since he bought them.

Everyone is curious to see what the nebulous blend of deep thinkers will do in the draft.

Wouldn’t it be something to find old Joe Thomas and the Pierogi Prince doing a little dance months before the 24th of December?

Player Spotlight: Trey Flowers

April 14, 2017
By PFW Staff

We take a look back at Trey Flowers' 2016 season and offer our predictions for 2017.

2016 Regular Season Stats: 16 games played, 8 games started, 45 tackles, seven sacks and two fumble recoveries.

In his first full NFL season, Trey Flowers was a leader on the Patriots defense:

• Flowers led the Patriots in sacks with seven on the season.

• In his first NFL start, he recorded his second consecutive two-sack game after finishing with two sacks for 15 yards vs. Seattle in Week 10.
• Flowers' 2016 sack total ranked in the top 10 among AFC defensive linemen.
• He recorded three multiple-sack games in 2016 with two coming back-to-back in Weeks 8 and 10 at Buffalo and vs. Seattle, and the third coming in Week 15 at Denver.

Belichick on Flowers: "[Trey Flowers] has good quickness and he has good length, good arm length, is able to keep guys off of him. He does a good job in the running game in there. He's got good playing strength, he's got good length and he's got good quickness so he's able to escape and get off some of those blocks quicker than some of the bigger guys that the guards and centers are used to facing in there. They have an advantage in size and probably overall length. But he has an advantage in quickness and leverage with each guy trying to play that out. He's been very productive for us in there.”

Flowers in 2017: Flowers will deal with more attention from opposing offenses in 2017 and will need to adapt to the changes. He is a born pass rusher and will continue to provide pressure in more of a full-time role on the edge.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Big hopes for Burkhead

From Karen Guregian's article "Which opponent is on tap for Patriots season opener?"

April 11, 2017

NFL Network analyst Solomon Wilcots believes Bill Belichick’s interest simply comes from understanding what’s necessary to win in today’s game.

Wilcots, who hails from Cincinnati and has attended plenty of Bengals practices, believes running back Rex Burkhead will be a star with the Patriots.

“Bill Belichick hit it out of the park with that dude,” said Wilcots. “He is one of the most fundamentally sound football players in every facet that you can ever ask of a running back. He can run, he can run with speed, he can run with power, he can run inside, he can block, he can pass protect, he can play special teams, he’ll blow somebody up on kickoffs, he can catch it, the guy is an excellent receiver . . . This dude can do everything you want a running back to do. There are no weak areas. That’s all I can tell you. And I’ve watched him four years here.”

Pep Hamilton, back from NFL, gets most out of Michigan’s players

By Jake Lourim

April 7, 2017

In the three months since Pep Hamilton came from the Cleveland Browns to become the passing game coordinator at Michigan, those inside the U-M football program have seen multiple sides of him.

Redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight, Hamilton’s primary student, sees the coach’s 11-year-old son coming around the practice facility, calling, “Dad, Dad! Let’s throw the football!”

Hamilton obliges, and it reminds Speight of his relationship with his own father, with whom he would play basketball, football or lacrosse in their backyard in Richmond, Va.

Hamilton arrived at Michigan on Jan. 12 after four seasons in the NFL, and he brought his professional mind-set with him. He encourages his players to snub video games in favor of film study. If one makes a mistake, offensive coordinator Tim Drevno said, Hamilton will tell him to repeat the task until it’s right. Nobody gets a pass, Hamilton admitted, even heralded freshmen wide receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black.

“When they’re young, and you ask them to do something, if they ask why,” Hamilton said Tuesday, “you tell them, ‘Because I said so.’”

That’s Michigan’s new passing game coordinator, and what he will demand from his players. Speight admitted he has a “working relationship” first and foremost with Hamilton, and Hamilton likewise knows what his job is: “To help Wilton be the best Wilton that he can be.”

The 42-year-old coach hopes the benefits will follow. He relishes this process of mentoring players, saying it’s one of the primary reasons he came back to college. Hamilton last coached in college as the wide receivers coach and then the offensive coordinator at Stanford from 2010 to 2012. He then left for the NFL for four years, as the offensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts from 2013 to 2015 and then the associate head coach for the Browns last season.

In coaching the Colts, Hamilton had a chance to continue teaching the players he developed at Stanford — most notably quarterback Andrew Luck, but also wide receiver Griff Whalen and tight end Coby Fleener. But the opportunity to work with players earlier in that process lured Hamilton back to college.

“I think it’s a lot more fulfilling to have an opportunity to coach a young man and watch him mature and grow to be an adult,” Hamilton said. “…I had an opportunity to coach some guys on the college level and then coach them well into their pro careers, but it’s fun to watch them grow and develop and realize their full potential as players over the years.”

The transition has involved adjustments on both sides. Sophomore running back Chris Evans said Tuesday that Hamilton brings new verbiage but said it’s easy to remember — some terms, as an example, are named after golfers or boxers.

And Speight said Hamilton is similar to his predecessor, Jedd Fisch, in terms of what he runs and how he coaches.

Meanwhile, in working with college players versus pro players, Hamilton has much less time allotted for meetings and practice, so he has to adjust in teaching offense.

“A lot of what we’re going to do is just a continuation of what we do at Stanford when Coach (Jim) Harbaugh was there,” Hamilton said. “We’re adapting to our players, as opposed to our guys having to adapt to a new system.”

That’s another reason Hamilton left Cleveland for Ann Arbor — Harbaugh. The two worked together at Stanford, and as he does with many former assistants, Harbaugh brought in Hamilton to work for him again. With those two plus Drevno, the Wolverines have three key members from a staff that led a successful Stanford team in 2010.

“I know that Coach is going to find a way to win,” Hamilton said. “His teams always win. It was important for myself as well as it is for the rest of our staff to have an opportunity to win.”

Since his time at Stanford, Hamilton has gone 30-18 with the Colts and 1-15 with the rebuilding Browns. He believes he has learned from some mistakes and is ready to use that knowledge at Michigan.

He expressed one main desire that brought him back to college, and it’s one he has expressed before: “I want to win a national championship.”

Husker defenders get to know new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, like his energy

New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco coaches defensive end-turned-outside linebacker Alex Davis, right, during practice. Davis said Diaco has been patient, but demanding about the position change. “When he gets on you, you know it’s out of love,” Davis said.

By Rich Kaipust

April 5, 2017

LINCOLN — Junior safety Aaron Williams is like any of his Nebraska defensive teammates in that he has spent the Huskers’ first 10 spring practices both committing mistakes and making good plays.

Almost all of those come with a reaction from first-year defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, who seems to be everywhere and interacting with everyone.

And by now, Williams said, you realize that Diaco’s not just pushing the speed limit with everything he’s doing. He’s also showing tact and consistency in how he goes about it.

“He’s not a person who’s going to get in your face, yell, cuss you out because you’re messing up,” Williams said. “But if you’re wrong, he’s gonna let you know you’re wrong. Just like when you’re right, he’s gonna let you know you’re right.”

Diaco at his introductory press conference spoke of a coaching style that was uplifting, and not rooted around tearing players down or emasculating them. Young men, he said, flourish in a supportive environment.

NU players have been living it this spring — and confirm that the 43-year-old from New Jersey has been everything he said he would be.

“I think the thing about Coach Diaco is when he gets on you, it’s all about he wants you to be perfect,” outside linebacker Luke Gifford said. “He wants you to be detail-oriented. And he may get on you, but he will be the first to praise you. So you might have one bad play, but the next play he’ll be right behind you tapping you on the butt.”

Defensive end Carlos Davis said his first impression of Diaco was that “he’s for real.”

“And what he wants done is going to get done,” Davis said. “No questions asked.”

In the process, however, Diaco does so without profanity or getting personal. Safeties coach Bob Elliott, who was with Diaco at Notre Dame and Iowa, called it part of being a great communicator.

Asked about that approach Tuesday, Diaco said: “If you’re not using disrespectful words, and demoralizing words, and emasculating words and dehumanizing words — if you don’t communicate that way and it’s not part of your DNA, then you can coach the guys.

“They want to be good, they want to be coached,” he said. “And you build a relationship and communicate with respect and love. Being nice and telling people what they want to hear is not my version of love. Being honest and truthful and consistent and caring and respectful, that’s the ties that bind.”

Elliott knew better than anyone what players would see when spring practice started on March 4. But he didn’t waste any time sitting back and observing out of curiosity.

“I knew how they were going to respond to Bob,” Elliott said. “I’ve been through this before with Bob, and I knew they were going to love him, and they were going to react to his energy and his enthusiasm and his thoroughness and knowledge of this scheme. And his ability to teach.

“There was no doubt in my mind that they would eat it up and they would buy in, and for the most part I think that’s happened.”

Alex Davis started spring practice with a position change, moving from defensive end to outside linebacker in the new 3-4 scheme. Some mistakes admittedly were made in the early going.

Davis said the message from Diaco, who also happened to be his position coach, came in a positive manner, but also with a demand: “C’mon, catch up.”

“When he gets on you, you know it’s out of love,” Davis said.

Williams and linebacker Mohamed Barry said they like how Diaco carries himself and holds players accountable. Barry called him genuine and said he likes how Diaco dresses, giving a thumbs-up to the regular gray sweatpants and gray T-shirt over a black hooded sweatshirt.

Almost every conversation or interview, though, comes back to Diaco’s enthusiasm.

“His energy is all day long,” Elliott said. “He’s an all-day sucker now. He goes from early morning to late at night. It helps me. I mean, I feed off his energy. I think all the coaches do, and all the players. And that’s why my confidence in Bob and what he can do is complete.”

Diaco was on the move from the get-go, running alongside players and exhorting effort just minutes into that first practice last month. Defensive players immediately realized that they race from spot to spot and never stop until a drill is over, or be called out for it.

But Gifford said the Blackshirts already had seen the spirit and intensity in the meeting room and when Diaco was around morning workouts.

“We had talked so much about our attitude and the way we do things, that everyone knew how practice was going to be,” Gifford said. “So it really wasn’t a big adjustment. It was like, ‘All right, this is the way it’s going to be. Everyone’s going to go 110 percent all the time, and that’s just the way it is.’ And that’s the way it should be.”

Diaco is just as quick to find a receiver or quarterback and slap a helmet when the offense has its moments. Linebacker Marcus Newby laughed when asked how many calories the former Iowa safety might burn in a two-hour practice.

“He’s high energy, and that’s something I feel like we were missing,” Newby said. “It’s something we have now, and guys can feed off it, guys can play around that, and just have fun. Attack the ball, have fun, play fast.”

Results won’t be known until September. It’s hard to say how much improvement Diaco can make with personnel that is fairly similar to a year ago.

But head coach Mike Riley opted for change after the last three teams to beat the Huskers in 2016 totaled 140 points and more than 1,500 yards.

So Williams said the Huskers can’t help but share in the urgency that Diaco brings, and don’t worry about a battery that never seems to need re-charging when he is around the NU football complex.

“He probably slows down around his wife,” Williams said, smiling. “She’s probably the only one who’s got that power over him. Other than that, he’s the same. What you see is what you’re going to get from him, every day, no matter where we’re at.

“That’s him. That’s his life.”

Elliott knows one of the other exceptions. It’s the press box on Saturdays. Where Diaco is studying the offense and calling plays.

“Bob’s great before a game, he’s great at halftime ... but he’s a different guy up in the box,” Elliott said. “He’s calm. And sometimes I get out of hand and he has to calm me down.”

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Iowa tackle Cole Croston added 90 pounds, started 18 games and now seeks NFL employment

By Scott Dochterman

April 5, 2017

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Cole Croston arrived at Iowa five years ago as a lanky, 225-pound walk-on legacy.

It took time for Cole Croston to earn snaps at offensive tackle, but once he did, he made the most of it. Croston shifted into the starting lineup because of injuries and he opened 10 games in 2015. Last year, he was limited to just eight starts because of a leg injury but was named third-team all-Big Ten.

With 18 career starts at an offensive line factory such as Iowa, it appears Croston will have his NFL opportunity. But, like his journey from lightweight walk-on to 315-pound starter, Croston will have to fight uphill on his way to the NFL.

“I got here and I was 225 pounds and it was like I was a million miles down the road,” Croston said. “Being able to gain 90 pounds, being 315 now, at that point the goal was to become a starter, and I was able to do that. Then from there to work up, have a pro day. I was hoping to get invited to the combine; it didn’t work out. I was able to perform at the pro day where tons of scouts are out there watching. It’s just been a dream come true.”

Croston’s pro-day numbers suggest he has pro potential if he can add strength. Even at his weight, he jumped 32.5 vertically, which would have topped all offensive linemen at last month’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis. His 3-cone drill time of 7.38 seconds would have ranked third. He ran the 40-yard dash in 5.21 seconds, which was in the top 15. His 17 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench was near the bottom, but Croston quipped, “I’ve got long arms, a long ways to go."

NFL scouts rank Croston in the borderland between late-round prospect and priority free agent. Lance Zierlein of wrote, “Has good frame and above average length. Plays with desired hand strength. Can snatch the frame of defender and sustain his block with hand strength and body control. … Zone block specialist. Comes out of stance and gets into lateral movement quickly.”

As for Croston’s weaknesses, Zierlein wrote, “Has no butt and anchor is wishy-washy. Spins wheels as drive blocker. Falls off of blocks when he becomes too dependent on leaning to create drive.”

Dan Shonka, national scout and general manager for Ourlads Scouting Services, ranks Croston as his 23rd available tackle.

Croston’s five seasons in Iowa’s pro-style, zone-blocking scheme should benefit him. He also is willing to slide inside at guard or even center. His path to playing time could be similar to former Iowa tackles Riley Reiff and Andrew Donnal, who initially saw snaps as blocking tight ends.

Croston could join his father, Dave, as an NFL draft pick. Dave Croston, a first-team all-Big Ten tackle in 1986, was a third-round selection of the Green Bay Packers in 1987.

Mostly, Cole Croston just looks for a shot with an NFL club. He already has graduated and continues to train in Iowa City. Teams have shown interest in him, and he’ll likely make visits in the next few weeks.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” Croston said. “If it doesn’t work out, I have a finance degree from the University of Iowa, which is a great degree. If it doesn’t work out for football, I should get a job somewhere.

“When draft day comes around either it happens, or it doesn’t and you get picked up. That’s the goal: an opportunity.”

Heartfelt homecoming: Burkhead thankful for Plano, Metroplex support at fundraiser

Plano Senior alum Rex Burkhead returned to his alma mater on Saturday to host the Team Jack Trifecta, a fundraiser to help raise money for research on pediatric brain cancer.

By Matt Welch
April 4, 2017

Be it on the football field or the basketball court, Plano Senior alum Rex Burkhead saw plenty of large crowds during his four years as a Wildcat.

On Saturday, that same fanfare was palpable on the campus of the city’s oldest high school, only instead of spectating, the Plano community was there to join Burkhead in his latest endeavor to raise awareness about pediatric brain cancer.

That came about through the Team Jack Trifecta, a three-sport fundraiser hosted by Burkhead on behalf of the Team Jack Foundation, which is dedicated to raising money for research on children’s cancers.

The event consisted of a 5K fun run around the Plano campus on Saturday morning, followed by a youth football camp and a 3-on-3 basketball tournament. Between the three sports, the Team Jack Foundation said approximately $35,000 was raised towards research for pediatric brain cancer.

“This means a lot. It means the world to me to see the Plano community come out and support this cause,” Burkhead said. “It’s something that started in Nebraska and to bring it down to Texas and see so many people from the community – people I went to high school with and people who just wanted to rally around the cause – it really means a lot to me.”

The undertaking of this type of fundraiser was an entirely new experience for Burkhead, most notably in being able to bring the event to his hometown. He had plenty of help along the way, including a mix of fellow PISD alumni and gridiron veterans on hand to help as coaches during the event’s youth football camp.

That cast included Plano alums Carson Meger and Collin Brence, to Plano West alums Jackson Jeffcoat and Ameen Behbahani, to Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and Detroit Lions running back Ameer Abdullah, who all helped a camp of more than 50 kids through two hours of football fundamentals.

“It was awesome. I think the coaches enjoyed it and I know the campers enjoyed it,” Burkhead said. “They had a great time and I already had some asking if we were going to do it again next year. That got me excited.”

Although the Team Jack Trifecta provided plenty of opportunities to learn and compete, an early-afternoon presentation inside the Plano Senior gymnasium evoked the message of Saturday’s cause.

There, Burkhead and Team Jack Foundation board chair and co-founder Andy Hoffman addressed the crowd on the foundation’s mission. That message that was later driven home after recognizing a few kids who had previously encountered some form of childhood cancer: Sim Scott, Ian Ramsey, Miles Dagelwicz and Team Jack namesake Jack Hoffman. Several of those kids were in attendance, including Scott, a 14-year-old Plano resident and brain tumor survivor who delivered an emotional speech about living with a brain tumor and the importance of raising money for research.

“That makes it even heavier and makes people who come to these events realize that they’re here for competition and great prizes, but they’re all here to support this cause,” Burkhead said. “It lets them know where their donations went and puts that in perspective.”

The fundraiser was the latest highlight in what has been a busy offseason for Burkhead, who took the next step in his NFL career in mid-March by signing a one-year, $3.15 million deal to play for the five-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.

Burkhead had spent the first four years of his pro career with the Bengals, who drafted the running back in the sixth round in 2013. During his time in Cincinnati, Burkhead logged 87 rushes for 375 yards and three touchdowns plus 34 receptions for 288 yards and one touchdown. The former Plano star capped his Bengals career on a high note, rushing for 119 yards in a Week 17 spot start last season.

Prior to signing with New England, Burkhead visited the Atlanta Falcons – the other half of Super Bowl LI – before opting to sign with the Patriots.

“They have a no-nonsense approach and you see that with how much they win,” Burkhead said. “Everybody in that organization, from [head coach Bill] Belichick to one of if not the greatest quarterback of all time (Tom Brady), the whole package there is something that I really wanted to be a part of.”

Deployed at both running back and receiver throughout his Cincinnati tenure, Burkhead's versatile skill set is one the Patriots have traditionally coveted with their running backs. New England was clearly high on Burkhead as well, making him the franchise’s highest-paid running back since Fred Taylor in 2010.

“Hopefully I can earn a role and whether it’s split out wide or in the backfield, I want to be that multi-dimensional guy they can use,” Burkhead said. “And if that’s on special teams too, I’ll be more than happy with that.

“They use their guys in so many different ways, so whatever I can do to help them win some games.”

The first chapter of Burkhead’s tenure with the Patriots begins April 17 when he reports for offseason training activities.

Monday, April 03, 2017

A.J. Derby trade with Patriots already paying off for Broncos

April 3, 2017

When the Denver Broncos sent a fifth-round pick to the New England Patriots for tight end A.J. Derby in October 2016, John Elway made it clear that he thought Derby could make an immediate impact. After being stuck behind Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett, the expectation was that Derby would play important snaps in Denver — and he did exactly that.

After casually being worked into the offense with six snaps in a loss to the Raiders a little over a week after the trade, the Broncos took the training wheels off down the stretch. Over the next five games, Derby played in no fewer than 47.5 percent of the team’s snaps and made an impact, catching 16 passes for 160 yards.

And in Week 13 and Week 14, Derby was particularly potent, catching 9 total passes for 92 yards
before missing the final two games of the season with a concussion. However, that stretch alone was enough to prove that the trade is already paying off for Denver.

They paid a premium for his services considering they paid a fifth-round price for a player who’d been drafted in the sixth round just a year earlier and had missed all of 2015 with a knee injury. But if you extrapolate his numbers in that five-game sample out to an entire season, you’re looking at a 50-catch, 500-yard tight end. That’s something the Broncos haven’t had since Julius Thomas.

And that’s just what he is right now. He didn’t make the switch to tight end until his senior season at Arkansas, so we’re just now getting a taste of his true potential as he continues to learn the nuances of the position.

If Derby can stay healthy in 2017, he’s going to have the chance to emerge as the clear No. 1 in the Broncos offense, finally giving Denver a solid third receiving option behind Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. And that’s going to be significant to the development of their two young quarterbacks, Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch.

So while the Broncos may have overpaid a bit relative to where Derby was drafted, the price is paltry considering the Broncos nabbed a player with potential to be a valuable contributor long-term.

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