Michigan Needs Big Man To Compete With Elite Teams

To get back to the Final Four, the Michigan Wolverines need a consistent inside presence.

Michigan basketball is in rare territory as a consistent inside presence is the missing piece to the Wolverines’ postseason success puzzle.

Despite earning a 2016 NCAA Tournament bid, the Wolverines didn’t do enough in postseason play to satisfy the Michigan faithful’s desire to enjoy a deep March run. Michigan fans are well aware of the Wolverines’ wild success in the tournament preceding this year’s first round loss to Notre Dame. Arguably the best backcourt in the nation in 2013, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke led Michigan to an appearance in the national championship game against Louisville.

Wolverine fans remember Burke’s overtime-forcing 30-foot three-point shot that ultimately earned Michigan a victory over Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen that year. Both Burke and Hardaway Jr. went on to be first-round picks in the NBA Draft. The following season, sophomore guard Nik Stauskas led the Wolverines to the Elite Eight before Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison nailed a deep three to punch the Wildcats’ ticket to the Final Four.

In spite of miraculous performances by Michigan’s backcourt during their 2013 and 2014 postseason runs, neither Burke, nor Stauskas, were key to the Wolverines’ success in March. Do the names Mitch McGary or Jordan Morgan ring any bells? They should for Michigan fans. McGary rarely played in the Wolverines’ 2012-13 regular season before earning the starting job and averaging 16.0 points and 11.6 rebounds per game during Michigan’s run to the championship game. Morgan started in 2014 and averaged 12.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game in the postseason. What do McGary and Morgan have in common? They both experienced time at center, a position that has gotten lost of late amid the plethora of talented guards head coach John Beilein and the Wolverines have at their disposal.

To be fair, Beilein has had to deal with more than his fair share of injuries throughout the past two disappointing seasons. A season-ending leg injury to Caris LeVert and nagging foot injuries to Derrick Walton Jr. were detrimental to the Wolverines’ depth, not to mention the numerous early departures of young talent to the NBA.

Early departures aren’t currently an issue, and unless multiple players suffer season-ending injuries at the beginning of the 2016-17 season, Michigan will likely be expected to compete with not only the elite teams the Big Ten but the top programs in college basketball. The expectations probably won’t be met, unless the Wolverines can find their next McGary or Morgan.

Michigan isn’t on the same recruiting level as Kansas or Kentucky. It can’t bring in multiple high-schoolers who will be future NBA lottery picks and send them off to the NBA after just a year in college, while still competing at college basketball’s highest level season after season.

Michigan has a few candidates to fill the void in the middle. Mark Donnal showed flashes of promise this season, and given that he’ll be a senior next season, Donnal could help the Wolverines. Ricky Doyle, a 6-foot-9 sophomore, didn’t exactly scream breakout potential after averaging 3.8 points and two rebounds per game in an expanded role this season.

Moritz Wagner, a freshman from Berlin, Germany, played an extremely limited role during the Wolverines’ regular season. However, in Michigan’s upset win over the Indiana Hoosiers on March 11, Wagner went 2-for-2 from the free throw line and 3-for-3 from the field, including a three. In the Wolverines’ First Four matchup against Tulsa, Wagner again was perfect from the field (2-for-2), while grabbing eight boards and blocking four shots. Wagner showed enthusiasm and fire throughout the season, even from the bench. The team first mentality is something many young players lack, and it will serve Wagner well in the future. Expect to see a major increase in minutes and productivity for the energetic freshman next season.

NHL Rookies Who Will Be Stars By The Year 2020

A look at some of the NHL’s future stars.

Below is a look at three of the NHL’s up-and-coming stars.

Artemi Panarin – Left Wing – Chicago Blackhawks

The Chicago Blackhawks are loaded with talent, and 24-year-old rookie left winger Artemi Panarin has wasted no time solidifying himself as the Blackhawks’ next superstar. Panarin isn’t the only star on Chicago’s roster as studs Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are only three years Panarin’s elder. The Blackhawks newcomer leads all rookies in points (57), goals (22) and assists (35). The next closest NHL rookie behind Panarin in points is Arizona Coyotes rookie Max Domi, who is a healthy 15 points behind (42 points) the Blackhawks’ Russian rookie. Chicago has a balanced and talented roster with players in their prime, coupled with a solid foundation of youth. Hence, the Blackhawks should be in contention for an NHL title for the next decade.

Dylan Larkin – Center – Detroit Red Wings

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Detroit Red Wings center Dylan Larkin, it’s that speed leads to efficiency. Larkin leads all NHL rookies in plus-minus at +21, primarily because of his game-breaking speed and constant attacking mindset. Larkin’s tremendous speed allows him to be the catalyst for Red Wings scoring chances. The 19-year-old is also second among NHL rookies in goals with 19.

Since the start of the second half of the NHL season, opposing teams have effectively schemed for Larkin. As a result, the Red Wings have struggled to score of late. However, it’s just a matter of time before Larkin gets back into a groove on offense. Talented Detroit veterans Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk should occupy more defensive attention, giving Larkin the space he needs to create for himself and others. Larkin has quickly become the future of the Red Wings franchise, and if Detroit surrounds him with a skilled supporting cast, the Red Wings should soon be a Stanley Cup contender.

Connor McDavid – Center – Edmonton Oilers

Edmonton Oilers rookie Connor McDavid, who turned 19 years old in January, has only played in 28 of Edmonton’s 65 games this season because of a broken clavicle. However, McDavid has been extremely effective in the short amount of time that he’s been healthy. This season, the 6-foot-1 center has recorded 19 assists and 12 goals, including both goals against second-overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft Jack Eichel in Edmonton’s 2-1 overtime victory in Buffalo against the Sabres on Tuesday.

Considering the Oilers currently have the second-fewest points in the NHL (55), McDavid, last year’s No. 1 overall pick in the NHL Draft, could find himself playing with a few other first-overall picks before he gets his first taste of playoff hockey. That being said, Edmonton is fortunate to have him. McDavid’s speed and spectacular puck handling make him a lethal offensive threat — One the Oilers can build their franchise around in the foreseeable future.

Why Michigan State Is College Basketball’s Best

The Michigan State Spartans are poised for a return to the Final Four this season.

The Michigan State Spartans always seem poised for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Since Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo’s arrival in East Lansing, Mich., the Spartans have appeared in seven Final Fours. In addition to their success in the postseason, the Spartans have had several players find success at the next level. Most recently, Denver Nuggets shooting guard Gary Harris, Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Adreian Payne and All-Star power forward and NBA champion Draymond Green.

Izzo’s sustained success at Michigan State has become so mundane that every one of his seasons seem to get overlooked. In the midst of the Wisconsin Badgers’ run to the championship game and the Kentucky Wildcats’ perfect regular season last year, the Spartans managed to finish the regular season with a 27-12 (12-6 in conference) record and an eventual berth in the Final Four.

This season, Michigan State is led by senior shooting guard Denzel Valentine, who’s a contender for the Player of the Year award. Valentine is college basketball’s version of Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook. The 6-foot-5 guard averages nearly 20 points and eight rebounds with a little more than seven assists per game with the Spartans. Valentine is extremely accurate from beyond the arc, shooting more than 44 percent from three-point range this year. Valentine’s combination of athleticism and shooting touch makes him the Spartans’ jack-of-all-trades.

As is the case in most seasons, a single player can’t lead a team to the NCAA Tournament. However, Valentine isn’t alone in Michigan State’s push toward the postseason. Spartans guard Bryn Forbes, a transfer from Cleveland State University, is shooting over 48 percent from the three-point line and the field. Forbes has established himself as one of college basketball’s best shooters, and he’s an improved threat shooting off the dribble, something the 6-foot-3 guard did with less success during his career at Cleveland State.

The difference between Michigan State and other Big Ten contenders is a consistent inside presence. Spartans forward Matt Costello is an elite post player, and his relentless energy on both sides of the ball motivates and inspires the rest of the team. Costello and Valentine provide inspiration to their teammates and serve as calming influences when the Spartans are on the big stage. Meanwhile, Izzo has done a tremendous job of bringing in young and athletic guards to support his two veteran leaders.

The Spartans continue to navigate their way through the thick of their Big Ten schedule as the conference’s teams beat each other up. Indiana point guard Yogi Ferrell and the Hoosiers seem to be the team that could challenge Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament. Despite the Spartans’ 19-point win over the Hoosiers on Valentine’s Day, Indiana continues to improve as the season progresses. Ferrell is surrounded by accurate shooters, including power forward Max Bielfeldt. A transfer from Michigan, Bielfeldt has developed an effective three-point shot, something he never had during his time in Ann Arbor, Mich. Ferrell is shooting nearly 43 percent from beyond the arc this season, in addition to almost 53 percent from the field. The Hoosiers’ interior success gives guards like Ferrell and senior Nick Zeisloft space to shoot, and the ability to penetrate the lane and find open shooters.

The Spartans will be challenged in the Big Ten Tournament, most likely by Indiana head coach Tom Crean and his Hoosiers. However, Indiana isn’t the only NCAA Tournament bound team from the Big Ten. The Maryland Terrapins, led by likely future first-round NBA Draft pick Melo Trimble, are 22-5 this season. Maryland cashed in on college basketball’s “free agency” period as Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon has been one of the high-volume scorers for the Terrapins this season with Trimble and stud freshman center Diamond Stone. The Terps have enough talent to reach the Final Four. The question is whether the Terrapins will give all they’ve got in every postseason game.

Michigan State could be the best team in the Big Ten. A combination of senior leadership, multiple high-volume scorers and elite coaching makes the Spartans the best bet right now to cut down the nets in Houston, site of the 2016 Final Four.

Post 2016 National Signing Day College Football Playoff Predictions

Predictions for the next College Football Playoff following National Signing Day.

The Alabama Crimson Tide claimed the recruiting national championship for the sixth straight year, according to 247Sports. The Alabama machine should pump out several first round draft picks in the upcoming NFL Draft with the majority coming from the Crimson Tide defensive front seven. The machine can’t produce talent if it doesn’t bring it in, which is exactly what Alabama head coach Nick Saban and his staff have done year after year. Alabama’s No. 1 2016 recruiting class features three five-star recruits and 14 four-star prospects. Among the five-star players are linebackers Ben Davis and Lyndell Wilson, both of whom could immediately start on the Tide’s defense with the departure of stud linebacker Reggie Ragland. Alabama isn’t the only team that drastically boosted its College Football Playoff chances with a stellar 2016 recruiting class. Below are predictions for the 2016-17 College Football Playoff after an eventful National Signing Day this week.

4. Michigan Wolverines

In only a year at his alma mater, Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh has revitalized Michigan football. Harbaugh has not only rejuvenated Michigan on the field, but he’s also invigorated the program on the recruiting trail. In an offseason that featured sleepovers and tree climbing, Harbaugh owned the college football spotlight from the conclusion of bowl season leading up to and during National Signing Day Wednesday. Wednesday, Michigan’s “Signing of the Stars” event featured past Wolverines Tom Brady, Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner, as well as former Wolverine Derek Jeter, wrestling legend Rick Flair and the musical group Migos. Harbaugh was so wrapped up in the Signing Day extravaganza, he found out he had landed No. 1 overall recruit Rashan Gary via ESPN announcer Mike Tirico’s phone while backstage at the event.

A season ago, Michigan struggled to rush the passer and stop the run against the Big Ten’s elite teams. Just ask NFL-bound Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott, who rushed for more than 200 yards in Ohio State’s 42-13 blowout of the Wolverines in November. Gary, a 6-foot-5, 293-pound defensive tackle from Paramus Catholic High School in New Jersey, should immediately start on new defensive coordinator Don Brown’s defense after defensive tackle Willie Henry declared for the 2016 NFL Draft. In addition to Gary, four-star linebacker Devin Bush Jr. will likely step into a prominent role in year one to help fill the glaring gap the Wolverines have at linebacker.

On the offensive end, transfer John O’Korn will likely start at quarterback. O’Korn transferred from Houston last year and showed flashes of his potential in limited time with the Cougars. The 6-foot-4 quarterback could have a plethora of help at receiver with leading receivers Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh returning for their senior seasons. All-American tight end Jake Butt, who probably could have been a high pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, will also return to Ann Arbor, Mich. for his senior season. The Wolverines should come out of the Big Ten East, considering the large amount of talent departing Michigan State and Ohio State for the NFL. Two possible hiccups on Michigan’s 2016 schedule are road games at Iowa and at Ohio State. If Harbaugh’s quarterback development magic works for O’Korn, Michigan will likely be in the 2016-17 College Football Playoff.

3. Florida State Seminoles

The Seminoles always seem to fly under the radar on the recruiting trail. However, Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher never fails to bring top-tier talent to Tallahassee, Fla. Since former Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston departed for the NFL last year, Florida State had yet to find its next star at the position. The ‘Noles may have found that star when highly touted quarterback Malik Henry committed to Florida State in 2014. Henry could compete for the starting job in 2016 as a true freshman with redshirt freshman Deondre Francois, sophomore J.J. Cosentino and senior incumbent starter Sean Maguire, who is recovering from surgery to repair a broken ankle. Despite losing stud defensive back Jalen Ramsey to the NFL, the Seminoles brought in cornerback Levonta Taylor, a five-star recruit and the No. 1 ranked prospect at his position. With Heisman candidate Dalvin Cook returning at running back and the signing of four-star wide receiver Keith Gavin, Florida State will look to return to the College Football Playoff to atone for a horrific loss to Houston in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl this past season.

2. Alabama Crimson Tide

As long as Nick Saban is head coach, the Crimson Tide should never be doubted. Alabama makes defense a priority on the recruiting trail, and it shows throughout the regular season and in postseason appearances. The Tide’s 2016 recruiting class was no exception as Alabama brought in another class filled with beasts on the defensive side of the ball, including four-star defensive tackle, Raekwon Davis, who stands 6-feet-7 inches and weighs 327 pounds.

A solid defense with a prolific rushing attack is the formula Saban has used to consistently win in Tuscaloosa, Ala.  If all goes as planned, running back Bo Scarbrough should become the next Derrick Henry. The 6-foot-2, 240-pound tailback is similarly built to Henry and plays with a relentless energy. Saban’s nine-year tenure at Alabama has brought four national titles and a litany of first round draft picks to the university. Although Alabama isn’t known for elite quarterback play, the Tide signed the No. 2 overall quarterback in the 2015 class, Blake Barnett. Barnett could be critical as Saban pursues his sixth national title next season.

1. Clemson Tigers

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney fell just short of landing No. 1 overall prospect Rashan Gary, but five-star 6-foot-4, 327 pound defensive tackle and No. 2 overall prospect at the position Dexter Lawrence serves as an excellent consolation prize. Clemson has virtually no gaps on the offensive side of the ball with Heisman favorite, quarterback Deshaun Watson, wide receivers Artavis Scott and Mike Williams, and running back Wayne Gallman all staying in school for at least one more year. The Tigers lost some defensive talent to the NFL, including defensive ends Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson, and shutdown corner Mackensie Alexander. The Tigers hope to fill those gaps with Lawrence and four-star cornerback Trayvon Mullen. Both players should step into critical starting roles in defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ defense. Clemson’s offense will likely lead the Tigers to another College Football Playoff berth. Whether the Tigers’ talented and somewhat inexperienced defense can rise to the occasion remains to be seen.

2016 NFL Playoffs Conference Championships Recap

Super Bowl 50, scheduled to take place next month, will feature two teams that resemble polar opposites.

Although the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers seem like different teams, both utilized solid defensive play to punch their tickets to the Super Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif on Feb. 7. The Broncos took advantage of a New England Patriots offensive line that was decimated by injuries throughout the course of the season. Denver linebacker Von Miller’s speed off the edge, combined with a spectacular performance from Broncos defensive tackle Derek Wolfe, abused quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offense throughout the game. Against the Broncos’ defense, New England was unable run the ball without injured running back Dion Lewis, who suffered a torn ACL in Week 9 of the regular season, and LeGarrette Blount, who suffered a hip injury in Week 14.

The Broncos repeatedly put New England in third-and-long situations, resulting in sustained relentless pressure on Brady. Conversely, Denver quarterback Peyton Manning showed flashes of the guy we saw in 2013 who threw for an NFL record 55 touchdowns. Despite their early offensive success, the Broncos were never able to establish the same rhythm in the second half of their AFC Championship Game matchup with New England. Denver’s second half struggles could have been a result of Denver’s inability to effectively run the ball with Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson.

Anderson’s third-and-one, 30-yard run early in the fourth quarter was one of the rare occasions the Broncos’ offensive line won the battle at the line of scrimmage in the second half. In the final two quarters, Denver’s elite defense bailed the team out, totaling four sacks while forcing a plethora of knockdowns and rushed throws by Brady. Brady arrived in Denver as a legitimate MVP candidate, and that MVP-caliber ability showed itself late in the fourth quarter when Brady floated a 40-yard pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski on fourth-and-ten that set up a score by the Pro Bowl tight end four plays later. Gronkowski’s four-yard touchdown catch with 12 seconds to play brought the Patriots within two points. Ultimately, the Denver defense bent but did not break, thwarting New England’s two-point conversion attempt to tie the game. As a result, the Broncos will make their eighth Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.

Meanwhile, the Carolina Panthers secured just their second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history with a dominating 49-15 victory over the Arizona Cardinals Sunday. Carolina was aided by an atrocious performance from Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer and seven Arizona turnovers. Behind an opportunistic defense, and former Heisman Trophy winner and MVP candidate Cam Newton, the Panthers advanced to face the Broncos in next month’s Super Bowl.

The Cardinals’ defense was forced to consistently worry about Newton’s proven ability with his legs to take off on read-options and designed runs. However, it was Newton’s ability to effectively throw the ball from the pocket that decided the NFC crown. Panthers receivers Corey Brown and Ted Ginn Jr. each had a huge impact on the NFC Championship Game. Ginn’s 32-yard punt return and 22-yard touchdown run on a misdirection play got Carolina off to a fast start. Then, it was Brown’s turn. The second-year undrafted receiver out of Ohio State ripped off an 86-yard touchdown catch and run to put the Panthers up 17-0 late in the first quarter. Arizona struggled to move the ball for three quarters, and because of the Panthers’ second half debacle in the Divisional Round against the Seattle Seahawks, Newton left no doubt this time, tacking on 10 points in the third quarter to seal the Super Bowl berth for head coach Ron Rivera and the 17-1 Panthers.

Super Bowl 50 will pit the No. 1 ranked Broncos defense against the NFL’s hottest offense and quarterback. In Santa Clara, Calif., the future of the league at the quarterback position, Newton, will meet one of the greatest players of all time, “The Sheriff” Peyton Manning.

Jim Harbaugh The Program Rebuilder

University of Michigan football head coach Jim Harbaugh has the Wolverines on the right path.

The Michigan Wolverines’ first year under new head coach Jim Harbaugh has concluded. With a crushing defeat over the Florida Gators in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl, the Wolverines capped an impressive 2015-16 campaign with double-digit victories (10-3). Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock threw for 278 yards and three scores in the 41-7 blowout of Florida, showing his development under Harbaugh. Looking for proof of Harbaugh’s ability to develop quarterbacks? Look no further than the fifth-year Wolverines signal caller this past season.

Rudock began the season with an atrocious road performance against Utes in Utah, throwing three picks, including an interception that was returned for the game-winning touchdown. In the 12 games following the 24-17 loss to Utah, Rudock threw 18 touchdowns and just 6 interceptions. The Wolverines quarterback finished the season with more than 3,000 yards through the air, completing nearly 65 percent of his passes.

Harbaugh’s first year in Ann Arbor, Mich. was nothing short of spectacular, especially considering it followed the Wolverines’ disappointing 5-7 campaign in 2014. However, former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke’s recruiting job shouldn’t be overlooked. Skill position players such as wide receiver Jehu Chesson, All-American tight end Jake Butt and Big Ten Freshman of the Year Jabrill Peppers were all members of the Maize and Blue before Harbaugh’s return to his alma mater. Despite Hoke’s ability to bring in top-tier talent, the former Michigan coach wasn’t able to utilize that talent to its fullest potential. Harbaugh did exactly that in his debut season for the Wolverines.

Michigan’s 10-3 season likely satisfied the Wolverine faithful’s burning desire for the team to return to legitimacy and become the powerhouse program it once was. For Harbaugh, the Wolverines 10-win season serves as a convincing campaign that will give him the credibility needed to rebuild the state of Michigan football. The work Harbaugh has done on the recruiting trail is already beginning to show itself as the Wolverines currently have the third-best incoming 2016 class, just behind the LSU Tigers, according to 247Sports.

Per 247Sports, Michigan has commitments from 14 four-star prospects, most notably the top running back in the class, Kareem Walker. In addition to Walker, the Wolverines will add the 11th-best linebacker in the class, Devin Bush Jr. Bush Jr. could see his fair share of playing time in his first season due to Michigan’s departing talent at linebacker. Seniors Joe Bolden and Desmond Morgan served as the veteran leaders for a resurgent Wolverines defense under former defensive coordinator and current Maryland Terrapins head coach D.J. Durkin. Heading into the offseason, Michigan has a glaring gap at linebacker. However, junior linebacker Ben Gedeon will return for his senior season after recording 34 tackles for the Wolverines last season.

Harbaugh is not one to shy away from publicity. The Wolverines’ head coach maintains a constant, unique voice on social media. After Michigan’s Citrus Bowl victory over Florida, rapper Wale tweeted the following:

Harbaugh’s response did not disappoint as he tweeted:

This is a perfect example of Harbaugh discretely selling Michigan football through social media. While Harbaugh’s commentary on social media can seem somewhat odd at times, his recent actions while recruiting the No. 1 ranked kicker in the 2016 class, Quinn Nordin, showed that Harbaugh will do just about anything to bring talent to the program. The Michigan head coach planned a sleepover with Nordin, a current Penn State Nittany Lions commit.

Currently in a rebuilding process, Harbaugh knows that recruiting is vital. It’s recruiting tactics like the ones Harbaugh uses on Twitter and his actions with Nordin that put the coach, his players and the program in the limelight. The publicity Harbaugh generates will bring top-tier talent to Ann Arbor, Mich., and the Wolverines’ new head coach knows it.

Texans Are Quarterback and Healthy Foster From Playoff Run

With a solid quarterback and a healthy Arian Foster, the Houston Texans can make a playoff run next season.

The Houston Texans performance against the Kansas City Chiefs wasn’t pretty Saturday afternoon. In the Texans 30-0 blowout loss to Kansas City, Houston failed to establish an effective running game behind running back Alfred Blue, and Texans quarterback Hoyer never got in a rhythm throwing the ball.

Hoyer completed less than 50 percent of his passes and threw four interceptions against the Chiefs as Kansas City limited the Texans’ primary source of offense this season, star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. While Kansas City mostly contained Hopkins (69 receiving yards), the Texans needed a nearly perfect offensive performance to have a realistic chance of defeating the Chiefs. Kansas City’s trio of pass rushers, Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, and Dee Ford, forced Hoyer to throw the ball into coverage, resulting in critical mistakes that magnified when the Texans entered the red zone.

Although it seems the Chiefs are on a different level in comparison to the defensive-oriented Texans, the gap may not be as wide as many might think. Houston has substantial pieces in place on its defense, including two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt and former No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney, who both can rush the passer and stop the run. Despite having no big names in their secondary, the Texans finished third in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game.

Solid NFL quarterbacks don’t grow on trees. While Houston seems limited at quarterback, Texans head coach Bill O’Brien could soon reunite with Penn State passer Christian Hackenberg, who O’Brien coached while he was at the university. Hackenberg has been inconsistent throughout his three-year career as a Nittany Lion, but the majority of his struggles were due to a lack of playmakers at the wide receiver position and a terrible offensive line. Penn State’s offensive line was last in the Big Ten in sacks allowed this season, allowing 39 sacks in 13 games, according to BigTen.org.

In his freshman and sophomore seasons, Hackenberg showed great touch on the deep ball and that he can make accurate throws into extremely tight windows. If the Texans can bolster their much-improved offensive line, Hackenberg could be the best quarterback to draft in the “win now” window Houston is in.

The Texans have a plethora of talent at wide receiver. Hopkins became a breakout star this season, thrusting himself into the category of elite NFL receivers. Given the amount of young talent that has burst onto the NFL scene over the last few years, Hopkins’ accomplishments shouldn’t be understated. In addition to Hopkins, the Texans relied on sure-handed veterans Nate Washington and Cecil Shorts III this season. In the 2015 NFL Draft, Houston selected Arizona State stud wideout Jaelen Strong.

The Texans will go as far as a new quarterback, whether it be Hackenberg or someone else, and a healthy Arian Foster takes them. In recent years, Foster’s nagging injuries have plagued Houston’s rushing attack. With subpar signal callers on Houston’s roster, the Texans dearly missed Foster’s elite talent and dynamic ability out of the backfield down the stretch of the season. Given Foster’s inability to finish most seasons, Houston should consider developing a rookie running back to play alongside Foster in case he suffers another injury.

Arkansas Razorbacks running back Alex Collins could be that guy. Collins, a hard-nosed runner with a bruising style, could fit well into the Texans’ system and his skill set could complement Foster’s shiftiness. If Foster continues to show up on the injury report, Houston could begin to transition the talented tailback to more of a third down role.

The void at quarterback is a glaring gap on an extremely well-rounded Texans team. Because of Hackenberg’s previous experience with O’Brien, the Texans could remain a playoff team if they grab the Nittany Lions quarterback in the upcoming draft. If Foster can stay healthy, which he has had trouble doing throughout his career, and if Houston selects Hackenberg, the Texans could be in a position to make some noise in the AFC South next season despite it only being Hackenberg’s rookie year.

Capital One Orange Bowl Preview: Clemson vs. Oklahoma

A preview of the Orange Bowl featuring the Clemson Tigers and Oklahoma Sooners.

Clemson Tigers

If you think Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney’s Tigers are content with the top seed in this year’s College Football Playoff, think again. Despite Clemson’s No. 1 ranking, the Tigers will enter Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. as the underdog to the 4th-ranked Sooners. With most of the hype surrounding Oklahoma, which in some circles has portrayed the Sooners as possibly this year’s Ohio State Buckeyes (won National Championship last season), the Tigers should be fueled to earn the respect they inexplicably have yet to garner from naysayers.

Oklahoma Sooners

There will be no shortage of motivation for the Sooners, led by former walk-on quarterback Baker Mayfield. Mayfield walked on at Texas Tech and won the starting job as a true freshman. After transferring and walking on at Oklahoma, Mayfield beat out 2014 Sugar Bowl MVP Trevor Knight, who had just defeated the third-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide in that Sugar Bowl. In order to punch their ticket to the College Football Playoff National Championship in Glendale, Ariz. on Jan. 11, the Sooners will look to harness the emotion and energy that Mayfield plays with.

Keys to the game

Clemson

While the Tiger’s high-flying offense receives the bulk of the praise — and deservedly so — it will be Clemson’s defense that ultimately decides if the Tigers can come out on top. A season ago, a number of NFL prospects led Clemson’s defense, most notably current Atlanta Falcons defensive end Vic Beasley. Last year, fourth and fifth year seniors composed much of the Tigers defense. Coming into this season, most predicted the Tigers’ inexperienced defense would be the team’s downfall. However, according to NCAA.com, Clemson finished second in the FBS this season in opponent third down conversion rate at 24.8 percent. Getting off the field on third down will be vital for the Tigers defense, not only to give Clemson’s offense as many possessions as possible, but to slow down the Sooners’ two-headed monster at the running back position, Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon.

Player to watch: Tigers defensive end Shaq Lawson

Oklahoma

The Sooners need to establish exactly what Clemson will be trying to stop, a consistent running game. While Mayfield’s improvisational skills in the pocket are terrific, he’s not former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. In order for Oklahoma’s passing game to be successful, the Sooners likely need to average at least 4-5 yards per carry on the ground. A solid running game will make Mayfield’s job, both as a passer and rusher, that much easier. If the Tigers defense commits to shutting down Oklahoma’s rushing attack, there will be plenty of one-on-one matchups for the Sooners to exploit in the passing game.

Player to watch: Sooners wide receiver Sterling Shepard

Early 2016 NFL Draft Preview: Wide Receivers

Early 2016 NFL Draft Preview: Wide Receivers

An early preview of the wide receiver position for the 2016 NFL Draft.

Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss Rebels

After suffering a gruesome season-ending leg injury as a sophomore, Laquon Treadwell has returned to the dynamic playmaking force he once was. Treadwell is a lethal combination of physical strength, impressive speed, while also possessing a high football IQ. The junior receiver’s 6-foot-2, 210-pound frame allows him to go up and catch 50/50 balls as he’s virtually unaffected by press coverage and physical play from defensive backs. An underrated aspect of Treadwell’s game is his awareness when the ball is in the air as he attacks the football at its highest point. His great hands and ability to come down with contested balls is similar to former West Virginia standout receiver Kevin White. In addition to his physical tools, Treadwell’s surprising speed makes him a threat in all three levels of the passing game. His quickness and ability to make people miss in the open field makes him a dangerous option in the screen and short passing game. Treadwell’s game-breaking speed, paired with his physical toughness and knowledge of the game, makes him likely the top wideout in the 2016 class.

Pro Player Comparison: A.J. Green (Cincinnati Bengals)

Corey Coleman, Baylor Bears

Whenever Baylor wide receiver Corey Coleman’s name is mentioned among the best in college football, Bears head coach Art Briles’ fast-paced air-it-out offense is often credited. While that argument is understandable, consider that the Bears rank fourth in the FBS in rushing yards per game at 300.2 yards per outing. The spread scheme forces defenses to cover the entire width of the field — not allowing the defense to load the box — which yields an efficient running game between the tackles. Coleman has racked up more than 1,300 yards receiving and 20 scores this season. The junior wide receiver doesn’t have the most intimidating physical stature at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, but Coleman’s speed and athletic ability make up for his lack of physical tools. Coleman’s acceleration off the line of scrimmage allows him to break press coverage without it hindering his ability to run routes. The Bears receiver utilizes tremendous concentration and athletic ability to catch the football at its highest point. According to NFL.com, Coleman has recorded a 45-inch vertical and a 4.38 40-yard dash time. Coleman’s freakish athletic ability and speed probably makes him the second-best pass catcher in the 2016 class.

Pro Player Comparison: Emmanuel Sanders (Denver Broncos)

Tyler Boyd, Pittsburgh Panthers

Tyler Boyd is one of the best all-around impact players at wide receiver as he has the skills you want out of a pass catcher. Boyd has good hands, a strong frame at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds and great speed, boasting an impressive 4.37 40-yard dash time, according to CBS Sports’ nfldraftscout.com. Boyd’s quick acceleration also makes him a threat on special teams and in the wildcat. Pittsburgh’s shaky quarterback play and run-predicated offense has not plagued Boyd’s production. During his three years as a Panther, Boyd has been accompanied by effective running backs — First it was James Conner and now Qadree Wilson. Conner rushed for nearly 1,800 yards and 26 touchdowns a season ago before tearing his MCL in the Panthers’ season opener against Youngstown State this year. In Conner’s absence, Wilson has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 12 games. In an offense with high-volume running backs, Boyd has been the go-to guy in the passing game. Boyd could be a perfect fit for the San Diego Chargers if he were to pair with underrated receiver Keenan Allen. Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers could use more receivers who can make plays after the catch. Despite Boyd’s great speed, he doesn’t run deep routes often as he primarily makes an impact on screens, crossing routes and fly sweeps. Whenever he touches the ball, Boyd quickly picks up yardage in chunks, doing most of his damage with his shiftiness and speed after the catch.

Pro Player Comparison: Jarvis Landry (Miami Dolphins)

Sleeper: Aaron Burbridge, Michigan State Spartans

In the second half of Michigan State’s season, Spartans receiver Aaron Burbridge has stepped up to aid Michigan State’s passing game. Burbridge’s speed off the line of scrimmage is an underrated aspect of his game. The senior receiver rarely drops the ball, serving as a reliable every down threat for Cook, who seems as if he’s been banged up almost every game this season, and the Spartans offense. Burbridge is not going to beat coverage with imposing physical traits, but he wins matchups with great hands and surprising quickness out of the breaks of his routes.

Other Notable Prospects

  Corey Davis, Western Michigan Broncos

  Michael Thomas, Ohio State Buckeyes

  Will Fuller, Notre Dame Fighting Irish

  Mike Williams, Clemson Tigers

  Travin Dural, LSU Tigers

  Josh Doctson, TCU Horned Frogs

  Braxton Miller, Ohio State Buckeyes

  Sterling Shepard, Oklahoma Sooners

  Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina Gamecocks

  Ryan Switzer, North Carolina Tar Heels

  Roger Lewis, Bowling Green Falcons

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