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.

Sergeant Bluff native Croston's latest stop is Super Bowl

By Jeff Budlong
February 1, 2018

MINNEAPOLIS -- At what point does the underdog label no longer fit?

Cole Croston has worked hard to answer that question because every other one that has been thrown his way since graduating from Sergeant Bluff-Luton High School has been handled in an emphatic way.

First, he was too small and not talented enough to stick with the Iowa football program as a walk-on. Then it was the doubts about his ability to hold up against Big Ten defensive linemen once he did get on the field and eventually started games at left tackle. After his name was not called in the 2017 NFL Draft, Croston took a chance and signed as a free agent with the New England Patriots.

That is a very good story. Undersized son of a former Hawkeye and NFL player proves the doubters wrong before getting a shot at an NFL training camp and moving on to whatever his life’s work will be after his brush with professional football.

Except, Croston kept impressing coaches and when the big cutdown day came his phone rang, but not to tell him to bring his playbook to hand in. No, he was getting ready for the regular season. He was a member of the most dominant team of the last two decades.

Now he is heading to the Super Bowl Sunday with the Patriots
and if that is surprising just go back and read the last three paragraphs.

“At the start of the season my goal was just to make the team and I was able to accomplish that,” he said. “I just kind of put my head down through the season and you look up and here we are at the Super Bowl. It is nice to be one of the last two teams playing.”

The 24-year-old believes he remained on the Patriots roster because of that thing that separates most multi-sport athletes – versatility.

“My ability to play guard and tackle on both sides,” he said. “I was actually taking some snaps at center as well, so I would say the No. 1 thing is being versatile and being able to do multiple positions.”

"He is very athletic and what is hard to find is someone who is 6-foot-5, 315 pounds and is very athletic," said Croston's father Dave, who played for the Green Bay Packers. "That is why there are so few guys that can play offensive line at that level."

Croston said he quickly learned that football was now his job as a first-year pro and has focused all season on ways to improve during and after every practice.

"You hear 'do your job' all over the place and that is really all they want you to do," he said. "If all 11 players do their job on the field the play should be successful.

"It has been a total pleasure to work with (offensive line coach) Dante Scarnecchia. He is a total expert at his craft, he has been doing this for 40 or 50 years, and what is great is we have formed respect for everyone on the line and I think it has brought the unit together."

For many rookies, the first NFL season can be a challenging one.

"He has been in Foxborough since May most of the time working out, the rookies are there every day basically, we are talking six months," Dave said. "My advice to him when we talked was the old cliche take it one day at a time and it is really true. It is a grind."

Croston's week became about routine beginning with light work and lifting along with film work and study on Monday. Tuesday was an off day followed by a pads day on Wednesday. Thursday and Friday are more field and film work with Saturday set for final preparation before a Sunday game.

Croston put that time to good use twice being named practice player of the week and appearing in three games -- eight total snaps -- late in the season.

"There is no guarantees in the NFL but if you are helping your team with your practice ... that shows contribution, and at that level you don't get a lot of feedback," Dave Croston said. "They don't tell you 'hey, good job' because it is expected, but one of the things I told him is your feedback is that you are there."

"Sometimes the naysayers are at the back of your mind, but at the same time I am just pushing myself to get to that next step for me," Cole Croston said. "I was able to do that earlier in my career and I have been truly lucky not to get caught up along the way, and so far we are still moving up.

"I am just trying to be realistic knowing it isn't going to last forever and take it one day at a time. It is a blessing to be in the position I am in now."

Croston and the rest of the Patriots arrived in Minnesota's Twin Cities on Monday to prepare for Super Bowl LII against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. Whether Croston will dress for the game likely will not be known until closer to game time.

"I didn't even know the Super Bowl was in Minneapolis until the last couple of games we were playing," he said. "It is pretty cool to be three, four hours from home playing the in the Super Bowl. Being in that position now is an incredible blessing."

Croston said his parents, two brothers and both sets of grandparents are set to be in the stands at U.S. Bank Stadium to take in the biggest game of the season.

"It is going to be a little surreal, I didn't really expect to go to a Super Bowl," Dave Croston said. "I am going to go and take it all in. The good news is most of the family is going and it could be a once-in-a-lifetime. Hopefully not but you never know.

"I have always felt that athletically Cole is a better athlete than I was and I made it to (the NFL). It is very fulfilling to watch him do this."

With Cole Croston in the Super Bowl, it marks the second time in three seasons a Siouxland football player has been on one of the final two teams playing in a season. Two years ago, former Bishop Heelan High School and Morningside College standout Brandon Wegher was part of a Carolina Panthers team that fell to the Denver Broncos.

It is a feeling Croston knows will last.

"It is going to an incredible feeling whether I am suited up or not," he said. "Being able to step on that field with the New England Patriots who are playing for the Super Bowl against a spectacular NFC team is going to stick with me forever."

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