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College Capsules: Graham still leaning on old lessons

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Posted: Saturday, August 24, 2013 10:30 pm

CAMP TONTOZONA, Ariz. (AP) — The foundation for Todd Graham's coaching career was set by a man he never met and another who came into his life at just the right time.

One was Tom Landry. An entire generation of kids growing up in Dallas idolized the late Cowboys coach and Graham's admiration came not only for the Super Bowls he won, but the integrity and poise with which he lived his life.

Landry's impact came at a distance; Graham never got to meet the Hall of Famer in the fedora.

Buddy Copeland left a much more personal imprint on Graham.

By taking interest in an overachieving seventh grader whose father had just left, Graham's middle school football coach gave him a male authority figure when he needed one most and a tough-love approach that stuck with him throughout a winding career that's taken him to Arizona State.

"From the time I was in seventh grade, because of Buddy, I knew I wanted to coach," said Graham, in his second season as the Sun Devils' coach. "I've played for and got to be around some great coaches, some Hall of Fame coaches, and they were great, but Buddy Copeland is really the one I pattern my coaching style after."

Graham's style has, at times, led to criticism from those who don't know him.

Because he's bounced around, Graham has been portrayed as someone who can't finish the job, who's always looking toward the next opportunity. He's coached at four schools in eight years as a college head coach, including one-season stops at Rice and Pittsburgh.

Graham always left for what he believed to be a better opportunity and says he wants to be at ASU for a long time, but his words did little to quell the criticism.

His methods also have sometimes been characterized as quirky, like bringing the plug-in air fresheners from ASU's home locker room on road trips and taking down photos in the visitors' locker room so his players would feel more at home.

Whatever others may say about him, there's no denying what Graham is at the core: A heck of a football coach.

From his days as a high school coach in Texas and Oklahoma to his current job in Tempe, he has been a winner wherever he's gone.

In 2006, Graham led Rice, a team that had gone 1-10 the previous season, to its first bowl game in 46 years in his first season as a college head coach.

At Tulsa, where he had been an assistant from 2003-05, Graham led the Golden Hurricane to three bowl victories in four years.

And, after a 6-6 season at Pitt, he led Arizona State to a bowl victory and eight wins, including three straight to end a season for the first time since 1978.

"It is a little disappointing (the characterizations)," said Tim Cassidy, Arizona State's senior associate AD for football. "You're looking at a coach who in 2000 was the head football coach at a high school in Texas. He hasn't gotten this way because he's got p.r. agents. He's gotten this way because he's a very hard worker, has a definite plan and is a very good coach. I see each of his moves as a step up the ladder."

A big part of Graham's success has been his appetite for knowledge, taking what he's learned from those he's played for or coached with, then implementing it in his own philosophy.

As a high school coach in Texas, he turned the tables on the coaching-clinic system, paying coaches like R.C. Slocum, Norm Chow and Mike Hinkle to visit his school so his assistants could get individualized instruction instead of sending them to clinics where they would be lumped into larger groups.

Wherever Graham went, he listened to and observed his bosses and colleagues: as a player under North Mesquite High School's Gary Childress and East Central's Pat O'Neal; as a middle school coach with Bill Taylor; working alongside Auburn's Gus Malzahn, Tulsa's Bill Blankenship, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris and Texas A&M receivers coach David Beaty.

He's also exchanged ideas with Slocum at Texas A&M, Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops and Fresno State head coach Tim DeRuyter, along with a constant give-and-take with his current assistant coaches.

Graham's quest for football knowledge started in his middle school days, when a scrappy little defensive back who could barely keep his helmet on caught the attention of his coach.

"After the first week or so, I noticed that with every step, he was always right behind me and when I talked to the group, he was eyeball to eyeball," Copeland said. "He was a tough dude and turned out great, which was no surprise. He had success written all over him. From the first time I met him, I knew he was going to be something."

Graham credits Copeland for much of his success.

Graham lived on the western side of Mesquite, but ended up at McDonald Middle School on the north side of town because of a boundary change within the school district. The area where Graham came from wasn't as well off as where the school was located, so he and his friends had a bit of an adjustment period while trying to fit in.

Graham also was dealing with his father leaving the family, which forced his mother, Carol, to work three jobs at a time and left him devastated and confused.

That's where Copeland came in.

Sometimes gruff and always demanding, Copeland was the kind of coach players hated when they first met him, an old-school disciplinarian whose approach might not fly today.

He was especially hard on Graham, rarely saying anything positive to him in public, even telling him to stop feeling sorry for himself because he didn't have a daddy.

But behind that rough exterior, Graham saw a man who cared, someone who was only trying to make him a better player and person.

And for every time Copeland chewed Graham out in front of the team, there was a whisper in the ear about what a stud he was, a pat on the back to let him know he was proud.

"He was tough, could chew you out and hug your neck all in one sentence, but you knew he loved you," Graham said. "Buddy got a hold of me and grabbed my heart when I was a young kid."

Graham's style, just like Copeland's, is no-nonsense.

When he arrived at Arizona State, he changed the program's entire culture, turning it into a yes-sir, no-sir operation where cursing — by anyone — is not allowed, acting out is not tolerated and a dress code is strictly enforced.

At first, Graham's players didn't like it, particularly after playing under the much more laid back Dennis Erickson the seasons before. But as they were around Graham more, they realized he was being hard on them because he cared, because he wanted to make them better.

It was tough love with a purpose and the players, to a man, have bought into their coach's philosophy and adopted it as their own as they head into a second season together in the desert.

"He's going to be demanding of them," Cassidy said. "The only way someone's going to get better in school or on the football field is if someone is pushing them to be their absolute best, and that's what he does."

Just like Copeland did.

-- John Marshall

Suspensions announced for Everett and Raven

COLLEGE STATION (AP) — Texas A&M announced game suspensions for cornerback Deshazor Everett and safety Floyd Raven, both suspended from the team since July following their arrests on charges of misdemeanor assault and criminal mischief.

Athletic director Eric Hyman says Everett will be suspended for half of a game and Raven will be suspended for one game.

At the time of their arrests, College Station police said Everett and Raven were charged after an April 7 fight at an apartment complex. Police said two people reported being attacked by a group that included Everett and Raven. Police said they both had visible injuries from the attack, and a car was damaged.

Everett had a late interception to seal the Aggies' 29-24 upset win at top-ranked Alabama in November.

No. 7 A&M opens the season Saturday against Rice.

Other SEC Football News

Feisty McCarron has brought rings aplenty to Alabama

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — AJ McCarron started out as a feisty freshman seething over his lowly spot on the depth chart for his first scrimmage. Third team? Seriously?

Now, the Alabama quarterback is an impeccably efficient passer who has as many titles (two) as defeats since becoming the Crimson Tide's starter. He's even got a celebrity girlfriend who unwittingly stole some of his thunder during the national championship game.

Much has changed, but McCarron still doesn't back down.

Not on Twitter, where he told his 169,000 followers he was happy to be home "working to get another" title and not attending the ESPYs. Not on the game manager label, or on pal Johnny Manziel.

Or nearing the end of a blowout win over Notre Dame, when his eruption over a delay of game penalty that merely delayed the celebration drew a shove from normally peaceful center Barrett Jones.

Those are just subplots in the story of a quarterback who's been delivering to 'Bama fans what they covet most: Championship rings.

With a 25-2 record, McCarron's pecking order is now pretty well established for coach Nick Saban's top-ranked Crimson Tide. Many think he'll lead the Tide to a third consecutive national title, something no team has managed going back to the first Associated Press poll in 1936.

"He went from a guy that was kind of bucking the system early on and Saban had to kind of get him in line and he realized, 'If I just play within the system, we can win a lot of games and win championships,'" said former Alabama quarterback Jay Barker, who led the Tide to the 1992 national title. "And he's definitely done that."

Saban recalls that first scrimmage, which he turned into a memorable lesson on leadership. He said McCarron thought he should have led the second team, not the third, and didn't handle it well.

"He came fussing and kicking and cussing up to my office after the scrimmage because he was disappointed he didn't play with the second team," Saban said. "And he didn't do a very good job of leading the players that he did play with, which was the third team. And he was kind of fussing and cussing and frustrated.

"He said, 'Why didn't I play with the second team?' And I said, 'Well, we were only evaluating on one thing today and that was leadership. And you failed dramatically.'"

McCarron hasn't failed many such lessons since then. He has become the face of the program — if that title doesn't belong to either Saban or perhaps the QB's girlfriend, Katherine Webb, who drew the cameras and TV announcer Brent Musberger's attention repeatedly as the championship game in Miami itself provided little beauty for non-Bama fans. Webb has since landed a role on a reality show and a spot in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue

McCarron has done OK, too. He has been nearly flawless in two national championship games, and was the MVP against LSU two seasons ago. He was the nation's most efficient passer last season, with a school-record 30 touchdowns against just three interceptions. His 291 pass attempts between interceptions made for the second-longest streak in SEC history.

A program that has produced the likes of Bart Starr, Kenny Stabler and Joe Namath is still not known for quarterbacks.

McCarron has a shot to become the first Tide quarterback picked in the opening round of the NFL draft since the New York Jets took Richard Todd in 1976.

His poise, collection of titles and ability to make a variety of throws remind Barker of New England Patriots star Tom Brady.

"I know that's a lot of expectations to put on a kid like him, as far as a guy who's won so many championships and been a Pro Bowler and one of the best quarterbacks of all-time," Barker said. "If you look at the stature, the way that they're built, the way they throw, their mind for the game. I think AJ's even a better athlete because he can move around and make plays with his feet that Brady can't do.

"His ability to sit in the pocket and throw between the tackles is as good as anybody in the country, and I hope this year he's going to be recognized for that even more."

Barker was fifth in the 1994 Heisman Trophy balloting. McCarron is regarded as a legitimate candidate to win the award, if far from the favorite unless Alabama suddenly becomes a pass-heavy team.

McCarron mostly brushes off Heisman talk to focus on team goals, but his mother, Dee Dee Bonner, does have a picture of him adopting the Heisman pose in a 'Bama football costume as a youngster.

Game managers don't win Heismans. Guys who make plays and few mistakes certainly have a shot.

This is the quarterback who first came to national attention as a redshirt freshman backup when Saban gave him a hard slap to the backside after an ill-advised downfield throw.

"I went from coming in being called a risk-taker, and 'He's crazy with the ball. He just throws it, blah, blah,'" McCarron said. "Getting smacked on the butt in 2010 from Coach. And then, 'Oh, he doesn't want to be coached,' to now, whenever you mention my first name, it's like 'Game Manager' is my middle name, and then they say my last name. Going two totally different ways.

"It's pretty funny to see what people try to say I am, but I know what I'm capable of doing."

McCarron grew up idolizing Packers quarterback Brett Favre, less for his stats than because he got so much from his teammates and "you never saw Brett Favre not smiling."

The son of a Mobile, Ala., firefighter who lived on Dauphin Island Parkway — or D.I.P. — does find motivation from more even than titles.

"I want to see my family have things they've never had," McCarron said. "I grew up a poor kid from Mobile on D.I.P. So I came from nothing. I want to be able to watch my family enjoy things that they've never had. That's my biggest thing that pushes me."

-- John Zenor

Meyer began SEC title run, now wants to end it

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Urban Meyer had officially been the head coach at Ohio State for maybe 10 minutes when he was hit with his first question about his old conference.

So, is the Southeastern Conference better than the Big Ten, and if so, why?

"It's obvious that the SEC right now is dominant," the ex-Florida coach said in November 2011 at his first news conference as new head man of the Buckeyes. "It's a faster league than the Big Ten. Does it mean it's a better league? Yeah, it's the best conference in college football. Does it mean the Big Ten's far behind? I don't think it's that far. I think you'll see the game change again. It changes all the time."

Since Meyer spoke those words the SEC has won two more national championships, stretching to seven its unprecedented domination of the college game's landscape.

No conference had ever won even three consecutive titles since The Associated Press began its poll in 1936.

It was Meyer who lit the fuse on that string of success, winning the title after the 2006 season. More than most, he knows what makes the SEC such a powerhouse. Does he have any insight into what it will take for Ohio State or Oregon or Stanford or someone else to break through?

"I don't think it's just the Big Ten, I think everyone is chasing the SEC," Meyer said last month in Chicago at the Big Ten's preseason get-together. "And it's well-deserved. If you look in the (NFL) draft, that'll answer it. There are just more (SEC) guys getting drafted. That doesn't mean the Big Ten doesn't have great players. There are great players in the Big Ten conference.

"The SEC has more great players."

The SEC's control of the sport began with Meyer during his days at Florida with a landslide 41-14 victory over unbeaten and No. 1 Ohio State in the 2006 season's national title game. After another SEC school, LSU, routed the Buckeyes again a year later, Meyer and the Gators added another crystal trophy in 2008. The SEC's iron grip on No. 1 has continued to this day.

Now Meyer is at Ohio State and is on the other side, trying to break that streak.

He concedes it may help that he has insight into what it might take to do that because of his up-close look at the SEC in his six years at Florida (2005-10) and another year spent as a college football analyst at ESPN.

"I know the highest level," he said. "Yep. I think it helps, to answer your question."

But he backed away from making any promises that this might be the year the domination ends or that his Buckeyes might be the team to do it.

"I'm not worried about the SEC," he said recently during Ohio State's preparation for its 2013 opener. "I'm worried about the Big Ten."

A glance at the preseason AP poll doesn't appear to show that anyone is gaining ground on the SEC.

Alabama, winner of the last two national titles and three of the last four, is a clear-cut choice as No. 1. Ohio State is second, but there are five SEC teams in the top 10 for the second year in a row in the initial poll. Georgia is No. 5, South Carolina No. 6, Texas A&M and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel are at No. 7 and Florida is at No. 10.

By the way, the SEC's coaches don't even think Manziel — who gave the conference its fourth Heisman winner in the last six years — is the best quarterback in the league. They picked Georgia's Aaron Murray as preseason first team.

Is it any wonder that some coaches and schools are getting tired of hearing about the SEC?

"Don't talk to me about the SEC. Let's compare specific programs," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said at the Big Ten preseason meetings. "The whole SEC isn't Alabama, isn't LSU, isn't Georgia. Let's talk about certain teams. . There are some teams in the SEC that are trying to bridge the gap to be us. Everybody wants to lump the whole SEC into one category. Let's not go there."

Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany was asked during a trip to Ohio State about his conference vs. the SEC's upper hand.

"We've had opportunities to play in some big games and we've won some and missed on some others," he said. "With the resources we have and the commitment on the academic and athletic side that we think is the right way. As far as academics and athletics, we are the gold standard."

Then he acknowledged that the SEC might just be a diamond standard, or whatever's better than gold when it comes to winning games and titles.

"You just take your hat off to (the SEC) and respect them for what they've done and you continue to chase the brass ring," he said.

When Meyer talks about the biggest difference between his old conference and others, he falls back on a familiar refrain: "SEC speed."

To him, the league is faster, top to bottom, but particularly on the defensive line and at linebacker. South Carolina has fearsome junior defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, perhaps as quick as many acclaimed major-college running backs.

Meyer and his staff have stretched the typical geographical borders of Ohio State's recruiting. The Buckeyes appear to be getting more players out of the SEC's back (or front) yard. The current roster includes six players from Georgia, five from Texas, four from Florida and six more from California, the Carolinas and Virginia.

The Buckeyes are clearly pursuing SEC speed.

"We're a faster team," Meyer said of his current team.

He compares the influx of speed to what took place with that first championship team at Florida.

"The '06 team injected a bunch of speed and playmakers into that team," he said. "I see very similar qualities (here)."

Of course, it's easy to say you're matching up more with the SEC. It's another matter entirely to win a showdown on the field.

Asked if the Buckeyes or the Big Ten have the capacity to end the SEC's control of the top spot, Meyer said: "Sure. Why do you think every day we're waking up, trying to change that?"

-- Rusty Miller

Georgia's Bennett, Mitchell reunited as starters

ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — Add this to the long list of reasons Georgia's Aaron Murray returned for his senior season: He can look forward to a full season of having two of his favorite receivers, Michael Bennett and Malcolm Mitchell, playing together again.

It's an opportunity Murray enjoyed for only one game in 2012.

Mitchell opened last season at cornerback before finally returning to offense in the fifth game. Bennett was Georgia's leading receiver through five games before tearing up his right knee in practice, ending his season.

Bennett is expected to join Mitchell as the starting receivers when No. 5 Georgia opens at No. 8 Clemson next Saturday.

Bennett says he has made a full recovery from reconstructive knee surgery. He isn't even wearing a rubber sleeve on his knee in practice.

Mitchell is Georgia's leading returning receiver. A healthy Bennett should help make up for the losses of Tavarres King, a fifth-round pick by Denver, and Marlon Brown, who is in the Ravens' camp.

"It's exciting," said Murray of Bennett's return. "He was one of my favorite targets last year. He's a big target and very reliable. You know Mike is going to run his route the way he was taught and I can trust he's going to be there."

Bennett (6-3, 205) had 24 catches for 345 yards and four touchdowns, leading the team in each category, through five games. He had two touchdown catches against Tennessee and had at least 70 yards receiving in four of his five games.

More importantly, Bennett was establishing himself as Murray's go-to receiver before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

Have the two re-established that chemistry?

"I think you've got to play games before you can really know, but as far as practice is concerned it looks like they're doing just fine together," coach Mark Richt said Friday.

Mitchell finished with 40 catches for 572 yards and four touchdowns last season. The junior was a third-team pick on the coaches' All-SEC preseason team released this week.

Georgia also has tight end Arthur Lynch, receiver Chris Conley and running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall returning as top targets for Murray.

Bennett said it's not important that he reclaim bragging rights as the Bulldogs' leading receiver.

"You know, it was nice being the leading receiver but again, I kind of stress that it doesn't really matter to me," Bennett said Friday. "What matters to me is winning games and being able to catch the ball when it's thrown my way. I know it's going to be thrown my way. It's just a matter of getting the job done."

Bennett said he used informal players' workouts during the summer to regain his confidence and didn't feel he had any remaining hurdles to clear during preseason drills. He said he has had no setback with his knee and was slowed only by a tight hamstring.

"He's missed very little considering the surgery and what he's gone through," Richt said. "It's pretty amazing, actually."

Bennett has regained his teammates' confidence.

"He's got guts," Lynch said. "He's got the play-making ability. He's a dude that if you pick up a ball for backyard football or whatever, he's a guy that you want.

"For me, I see him exceeding any expectations placed on him and capitalizing on the year he had last year. He's not any slower. He doesn't have a slow step in him. He's attacking every day as if he never had an injury and that's exactly what you want."

Mitchell, meanwhile, appears bound for a full-time role on defense. Injuries to safeties Tray Matthews and Corey Moore, who might start while Josh Harvey-Clemons serves a one-game suspension, haven't led to even a part-time role in the secondary for Mitchell.

Receivers coach Tony Ball quickly put a stop to any thought Mitchell had of visiting the defense.

"I think one day I played around and tried to at practice," said Mitchell, when asked if he has seen any time on defense. "Coach Ball wasn't having any of it. We were doing one-on-ones and I just jumped up there in front of one of my receivers and they made me move."

NOTES: Georgia, which worked out in shorts for 90 minutes on Saturday, has set its game-week practice schedule. Richt said the Bulldogs will have their normal full-pads workout on Monday instead of Tuesday, leaving time for the players to have an extra "dress rehearsal" before making the trip to Clemson. Richt said the goal is "to get everybody's legs back and get them as healthy as we'll be." ... Richt said he hopes Matthews, a projected starter as a freshman, can return from shoulder and hamstring injuries to play against Clemson.

-- Charles Odum

Arkansas' Hocker to handle all kicking duties

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Zach Hocker wasted little time coming to the point during his first meeting with new Arkansas coach Bret Bielema.

Hocker, already one of the most accomplished kickers in Razorbacks' history entering his senior season, told Bielema shortly after his hiring last December that wanted to achieve more. He wanted to add the job of punter to his field goal and kickoff duties.

Bielema promised to consider Hocker's request that day, though he made it clear he'd have to earn all the jobs. Hocker proved himself that throughout preseason camp, and when Arkansas opens its season next week against Louisiana-Lafayette, he'll be a one-man ensemble at the kicker position.

The collection of pressure-packed jobs might be more than some can handle. But Hocker views his newly added duty as just a return to the same workload he handled in high school.

"I'm going to compete at anything I can," Hocker said. "If I was in the running for a field position, I'm going to try my hardest to get on the field."

Hocker's health was initially one of Bielema's biggest concerns as it became clear the kicker was Arkansas' best option at each position. To alleviate any worries about overworking him, Bielema monitored the kicker's workload during preseason camp.

It's a philosophy of quality over quantity that Bielema plans to carry into the season — giving Hocker Wednesdays and Fridays off from practice during the week in an attempt to keep his right leg fresh.

"We've got to make sure we don't, obviously, tap out his leg," Bielema said.

Hocker enters this season with 287 points in his career, just seven shy of the school record Bill Burnett set from 1968-70, and he's just 12 field goals short of tying Todd Wright's career school record of 60.

The Russellville, Ark., native provided an element of stability when took the field for the Razorbacks, connecting on 16 of 19 field goals as a freshman during the 2010 season. He followed that up with a 21-of-27 effort as a sophomore, setting the school single-season record for points by a kicker with 118.

However, last season Hocker struggled with consistency — much like the rest of an Arkansas team that finished 4-8 in the wake of Bobby Petrino's firing. He finished 11 of 18 on field goals.

"It was just an uncharacteristic year for me," Hocker said. "I just wasn't in the rhythm. I think that's how it was for almost the whole entire team last season with all the stuff going on. I just never felt that comfortable stage like I had my freshman and sophomore year."

Hocker spent part of the offseason talking with other kickers, including punter Tim Masthay from the Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints punter Thomas Morstead and Indianapolis Colts punter Pat McAfee, about the mental part of the position. He said he's learned how to focus better week to week, leaving mistakes in the past and not letting them interfere with the present.

That work was on display during Arkansas' only open scrimmage of the preseason, during which he blasted a 68-yard punt — a clear sign he's had no trouble returning to the position he was originally recruited for by the Razorbacks. Hocker also connected on a 57-yard field goal during the scrimmage.

Bielema said he was standing next to an NFL scout during one practice when Hocker blasted a pair of kickoffs, one to the back of the end zone and the other into the bleachers behind it. He said the scout was amazed Hocker was handling all three positions so well.

"It goes to show you what confidence does for a kicker," Bielema said. "He is liking life right now. I think he's enjoying what we're doing. He knows we're going to take care of him.

"We're going to take care of his body, we're resting him the right way, and he is stroking the ball as good as anybody I've been around."

-- Kurt Voigt

Vols aiming to have nation's top offensive line

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee's offensive linemen savor the challenge they're facing and the attention they're receiving.

The Volunteers return four starters from a line that allowed only eight sacks last season. Because Tennessee lacks star power at the skill positions, offensive tackles Antonio "Tiny" Richardson and Ja'Wuan James rank alongside linebacker A.J. Johnson as the Volunteers' most recognizable names.

Richardson and James are part of the line that leads an offense without much experience anywhere else. The Vols have a new starting quarterback and must replace first-round draft pick Cordarrelle Patterson and second-round selection Justin Hunter in the receiving corps.

"It's a lot of responsibility, but the biggest thing is there's not any pressure," Richardson said. "We've been together so long, the cohesiveness is there."

Richardson, a junior, is the line's lone non-senior starter and a potential first-round draft pick. James has started every game since he arrived on campus. Center James Stone has 27 career starts. Guard Zach Fulton has started 29 games. Alex Bullard, a Notre Dame transfer who started 12 games in 2011 and primarily worked as a reserve last year, replaces Miami Dolphins third-round draft pick Dallas Thomas at the other guard spot.

Stone says they want to establish themselves as the best offensive line in the country. Teammates believe that's a realistic goal.

"They look like what everyone perceives them to be," running back Rajion Neal said. "They're animals. They're straight beasts up front. That's what we need, and that's what we're going to depend on."

North Texas and Middle Tennessee were the only Football Bowl Subdivision teams to allow fewer sacks than Tennessee last year, yet the Vols didn't have a single lineman earn first-team all-Southeastern Conference honors from the league's media or coaches.

Tennessee's linemen are getting much more attention now, but additional accolades will come with more victories. The Vols open the season Aug. 31 against Austin Peay.

"There is a chip on their shoulder with everything," offensive line coach Don Mahoney said. "So much has been made about each guy and their skill set, what they've done and how talented they are. But still, in the end, as I've told them, it boils down to us as a team, as a school, as a program, all those things. They get that."

Tennessee's new coaching staff is finding ways to make sure this group doesn't get caught up in preseason acclaim. Mahoney said the line must start creating running room as well as it protects the quarterback.

His linemen have taken heed.

"It's always great to keep the quarterback clean, but it's only half of the job, as everybody knows," Stone said. "I feel like this year it's an opportunity to go back there and prove we can run block as well as pass block."

At one point in training camp, Tennessee coach Butch Jones complained that "too many people want to crown" the linemen and said they "need to step it up." Just a few days later, Jones was marveling at how quickly and thoroughly they had responded to his message.

"They responded like I thought they would," Jones said. "They're very prideful."

Now they're ready to respond to suggestions that Tennessee will struggle to end a string of three straight losing seasons. The senior linemen have endured two coaching changes and plenty of upheaval. The one thing they haven't experienced is a winning season at Tennessee.

They're ready to change that.

"We've got to make the most of this," James said. "This is our last four months playing on the same team. It feels like we've been here forever playing together. So we're just trying to go out there each day in practice and work on something... so we can have no regrets at the end of the day."

-- Steve Megargee

Kentucky backfield adjusting to a pass-first philosophy

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky will ask a lot of its running backs this season. Carrying the ball might be the least of their responsibilities.

New Wildcats offensive coordinator Neal Brown is implementing his pass-oriented "Air Raid" scheme that means the tailbacks' first priorities are catching passes and blocking.

Seniors Jonathan George and Raymond Sanders say that shifting their mindset from punishing defenses rushing the ball to improving their receiving and blocking skills has been an adjustment.

Still, they're mindful that the ground game will be important to help the Wildcats establish the pass.

"The running back is a really important part of this offense," said George, who was second to Sanders in rushing last season with 504 yards and four touchdowns. "We really have to be more versatile as far as catching the ball because there are opportunities to make more plays out of the backfield and running the ball.

Running backs coach Chad Scott "has taught us all a lot of great techniques to improve our games and put us in position to win those one-on-one battles in the trenches. And blocking has gone really well for me so far."

In some ways the duties are similar to what the backs had to do in Kentucky's former spread formation, where they had to pick up blitzing linebackers or defensive backs and get free to give the quarterbacks an option to beat the pressure.

George has shown he can do all three, adding 21 receptions for 223 yards and a touchdown last season along with contributing on special teams.

Sanders, who rushed for 669 yards and five TDs as a junior, said he has had to expand his repertoire. An able receiver (18 catches, 111 yards in 2012), he's adapting to getting more touches in the passing game but has focused on blocking better and making protection calls.

"I've had to just work on my game with cuts and pass blocking, just getting better at the little things that can help instinctively," said the 5-foot-8, 187-pounder, who has added 15 pounds since coming to Kentucky.

"We definitely have to be able to pass block to give the quarterback time to make plays. I've watched a lot of film to take things forward so I can be comfortable at the line of scrimmage."

Though Sanders and George have the inside line to the starting job, Kentucky is grooming candidates to bolster the rotation.

Sophomore Dyshawn Mobley, who rushed 41 times for 184 yards last season, has impressed coaches with his hard-charging running style since returning to practice last week after surgery this summer to repair two hernias.

First-year Kentucky coach Mark Stoops described freshman JoJo Kemp as a "pit bull" for his mentality. And junior fullback D.J. Warren is a bona fide blocker who's working to help the Wildcats in other areas.

"I feel good about the backfield," Stoops said.

Though the backs aim to raise last year's per-game rushing average of 138.8 yards, the objective is boosting a Kentucky passing game that averaged just 176.2 yards. Brown comes in with a reputation of success after building Texas Tech's air game into a top-10 outfit the past three years, including No. 2 last season at nearly 356 yards per game.

By comparison, the Red Raiders' 86th-ranked ground game (139.9) was one spot above Kentucky, but the running game was still a significant part of the offense — Kenny Williams' 824 yards led three Red Raiders with at least 450.

As Kentucky works toward achieving the same proficiency, Brown offers hopes to his backs by stressing they must establish running game in order for the Wildcats to open things up through the air.

"For us to put all our eggs in the receivers' basket, that wouldn't be real wise for myself or coach Stoops," Brown said. "We're going to have to run the ball and lean on the offensive linemen that have some experience, and then those backs that have been through those wars."

-- Gary B. Graves

Other Football News

Gaffney puts baseball aside to return to Stanford

STANFORD, Calif. (AP) — Every time Tyler Gaffney attended a Stanford practice last year, Coach David Shaw teased his former running back that he had one year of eligibility remaining.

Shaw never really thought Gaffney would put off a professional baseball career and return to football anytime soon, not with him playing so well in the minors for the Pittsburgh Pirates. For the most part, he just joked with him about the possibility.

"I'd walk up, and I used to run the wildcat, he'd yell out, 'Tiger Gaff!' I'm in jeans and walking up there. Everyone would laugh," Gaffney said. "Little things like that, saying, 'Oh, we'll see you next year.' Coach would come up and give me his business card and say, 'Oh, we'll talk later. We'll talk later.'"

What Shaw found out later is that Gaffney already had been plotting a return.

After a solid debut with the short season Class-A State College Spikes, Gaffney got the urge to resume his football career and chase the two things missing from his Stanford resume: a degree and a championship.

He wrote out the pros and cons of the decision on a whiteboard with his parents in January. Then, he called a meeting with Shaw to make sure Stanford would welcome him back. Finally, he parted ways with the Pirates — at least for now — to make a run at a Pac-12 Conference title and a national championship with the fourth-ranked Cardinal this fall.

Gaffney said he missed the adrenaline on football game days, the challenge of "moving another man against his will" and lining up with 10 other players as opposed to a one-on-one matchup with a pitcher. At times, he said living with a host family in State College, Pa., and being surrounded by intense Penn State football fans felt like being on another planet compared to Stanford's serene Silicon Valley campus.

When baseball season ended, Gaffney attended almost every Stanford home game and a couple on the road, including at Oregon when the Cardinal outlasted the top-ranked Ducks in overtime en route to a conference championship and the program's first Rose Bowl victory in 41 years.

Watching from the sideline and the stands reminded him what he had left behind.

"I wish everybody could take a year off and be a fan for a game just to see what's going on from the outside," Gaffney said. "It's just an unbelievable experience to be so helpless."

Ever since he could remember, Gaffney played more than one sport. He starred at San Diego's Cathedral Catholic High School in baseball and football and chose Stanford because of the opportunity to play both, following in the footsteps of Cardinal greats such as John Elway and John Lynch and Toby Gerhart.

In the back of his mind, Gaffney always knew he could come back to football.

NCAA rules allow an athlete to play professionally in one sport and maintain eligibility in another, so long as they don't receive money from endorsements. While it's rare for a player to return after missing an entire season of major college football, plenty of players have rotated between sports, including at Stanford.

Elway (Yankees) and Lynch (Marlins) played in the minors before going back to Stanford. Gerhart, the 2009 Heisman Trophy runner-up and current Minnesota Vikings running back, turned down an opportunity to play professional baseball. More recently, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson left North Carolina State for a summer in the Colorado Rockies' farm system before enrolling at Wisconsin for a sensational senior season.

Gaffney's return couldn't come at a better time on The Farm. With Stanford career rushing leader Stepfan Taylor playing for the Arizona Cardinals now, Gaffney will get more opportunities than he ever had before.

In his first three seasons, Gaffney ran for 791 yards and 12 touchdowns on only 156 carries. He also caught 17 passes for 187 yards and three TDs.

Shaw said he always knew Gaffney could come back. He just thought Gaffney would play at least two years of baseball first.

"When it's all said and done, he's going to play football for pay in the future," Shaw said.

Senior Anthony Wilkerson and Gaffney, who played ahead of Wilkerson two years ago, will likely receive the majority of snaps. But Ricky Seale, Kelsey Young, Remound Wright and Barry Sanders all will receive carries on what has been one of the nation's best rushing teams since Shaw and his predecessor, Jim Harbaugh, arrived in 2007.

And Gaffney embodies that tough, physical style. He rarely runs out of bounds, preferring to go head-on with defenders — a mentality that often surfaced on the baseball diamond, too.

Gaffney, drafted in the 24th round by the Pirates as an outfielder, batted .297 and had an impressive .483 on-base percentage for State College thanks to a style that makes advanced statisticians salivate: He drew 20 walks to 20 strikeouts and was hit by a pitch an unbelievable 20 times in 38 games.

"I swear I don't stand on the plate. I don't shy away from the ball," he said.

Gaffney, who said he has 20-15 vision, surmised that part of the reason he gets hit so much is his mental approach at the plate. He is double-majoring in sociology and psychology, and he loves using methods he has learned in the classroom on the field.

In typical Gaffney fashion, he said his favorite moment from last season was a benches-clearing altercation, which started when Connecticut Tigers pitcher Angel Nesbitt threw behind Gaffney. Gaffney smiled and stood closer to the plate, getting plunked in the left shoulder on the next pitch. The umpire ejected Nesbitt.

"Smiling goes a long a way," Gaffney said. "I like pressing people's buttons."

Gaffney never charged the mound; he said he couldn't afford a fine. He learned in his first game as a professional that contact in baseball can come at a price.

Gaffney stole 11 bases for State College, and on his first attempt, he started to slide head-first into second. At the last moment, he remembered the Pirates fine minor-league players $150 for going in head-first, and he jammed his left pinkie finger in the dirt trying to make the transition. The knuckle on his left pinkie is still misshaped.

"You could always tell the way he plays that he's a football player first," Wilkerson said.

Even with that scar, Gaffney said one of the reasons he jumped at the chance to play professional baseball is because football players typically don't have long careers.

"I think getting hit by the ball is a little easier than getting hit by Shayne (Skov)," he said, referring to Stanford's star linebacker.

Gaffney hasn't stepped in a baseball cage since earlier this summer and said he'll resist any impulse during football season. But he'll likely return to the sport at some point.

The Pirates retain Gaffney's contract rights the next four years. He said the organization was surprised by his decision to leave because "they saw me trying to move up and do better. It'd be one thing if I was failing and it was like, 'Oh, he's going back to football.' They said, 'Pass a physical, and we'll welcome you back.'"

Gaffney said he always admired two-sport stars such as Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson. But when he left Stanford and the Pirates, he said both times "I was ready at that point to do one thing."

In a perfect world, Gaffney would play both sports professionally. And as far-fetched as that might sound, pursuing that dream remains his goal.

"It's a little harder than it used to be," Gaffney said. "But I'd rather try and be told, 'No,' than not try at all and always wonder."

-- Antonio Gonzalez

Kiffin: USC will play two QBs in season opener

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Quarterbacks Max Wittek and Cody Kessler both will play for No. 24 Southern California in its season opener next week.

Coach Lane Kiffin said Saturday that he couldn't pick a starting quarterback after a full offseason of evaluation, so both sophomores will get snaps Thursday at Hawaii.

"That really is how well both guys did," Kiffin told reporters after practice. "For us, we look at it as a great thing. We've got two guys that we feel great about. We don't feel like we have to limit our offense with either one of them in there."

USC's coaches won't even decide on a nominal starter until they arrive in Honolulu on Tuesday.

Kiffin thinks Wittek and Kessler are even in their competition to succeed Matt Barkley, the Trojans' four-year starter. Wittek started the final two games last season for USC while Barkley was injured, but Kessler had a strong training camp this month.

Wittek has a stronger arm and more experience, but Kessler proved to be more mobile while showing off his resourcefulness during camp workouts. They both beat out touted freshman Max Browne, who also was in contention for the starting spot until midway through camp.

"They've both done so well, made so many plays," Kiffin said. "It didn't show itself that one guy was above the other guy, so we do it all the time with other positions. We're not going to be stubborn and name a starter just because we're supposed to, or that's what we've done for 100 years, or whatever that is. We've got to do with all of our decisions what's best for our team."

Yet Kiffin has spent training camp saying he hoped a starter would emerge, acknowledging that using two quarterbacks isn't an ideal way to build a team with question marks at several offensive positions. Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver Marqise Lee also hoped Kiffin would pick a starter so he could develop his timing with one passer.

"Ideally, we're going to get to that," Kiffin said. "Ideally, we're not going to continue to do this all year. But at the same time, it can't just (choose) because we've had a way of doing things before."

Kiffin doesn't enjoy pretending to choose a starter at any position when he's planning to use multiple players during games. USC's depth chart, which Kiffin gave about "5 seconds' thought" before it was released Saturday, lists multiple possible starters at five offensive positions, including tailback, fullback and right guard.

Injuries also play a role in Kiffin's decisions, because 19 players couldn't participate in the Trojans' practice Saturday due to various problems.

But Kiffin seems confident his offense can build a winning rhythm with two quarterbacks taking the snaps.

"We're excited to see both of them play," he said. "We look at it as an opportunity for two guys to play great, just like when you're excited for two guys to play tailback."

Arkansas State hopes its defense can pressure teams

JONESBORO, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas State coaches are hopeful that their defensive players will turn up the heat on opposing teams this year. The Red Wolves had only 19 quarterback sacks in 13 games last year. Compared to other teams, they were sixth in the Sun Belt Conference and 91st nationally.

Defensive coordinator John Thompson told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newspaper that he was hopeful that defensive backs will be able to cover receivers well enough so linemen can cut through the offensive line and get to the quarterback. But Thompson also said last year's team didn't have to blitz a lot because it was often playing with a lead. He said the Red Wolves want to put together a better four-man rush in 2013.

Men's Basketball

Tennessee plans to retire Ellis' jersey March 1

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee will retire the No. 14 jersey of former Volunteers forward Dale Ellis before its March 1 game with Vanderbilt.

Although Tennessee already had announced plans to honor Ellis, school officials hadn't provided the date of the ceremony until issuing a release Saturday.

Ellis played for Tennessee from 1979-83 and was the Southeastern Conference player of the year in 1982 and 1983. He remains Tennessee's all-time leader in field-goal percentage for a single season (.654 in 1981-82) and a career (.595). The career record is for players with at least 500 attempts.

Ellis will become the fourth former Tennessee men's basketball player to have his jersey hang from the Thompson-Boling Arena rafters. The others are Bernard King (No. 53), Ernie Grunfeld (No. 22) and Allan Houston (No. 20).

© 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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