The 2014 college football season is finally here! Are you excited? We’re excited! We’ve been counting down the dog days with a steady stream of preview content, and now, at long last, it’s time to usher in the new campaign the best way we know how: by presenting our 2014 College Football Triangle All-Stars. Trigger warning for USC fans: Prepare for a lot of Myles Jack.
Bo Pelini, Coach, Nebraska
Matt Borcas: Truth be told, this honor has very little to do with Bo Pelini’s football acumen. Save for Will Muschamp, every coach we considered boasted an extensive knowledge of X’s and O’s, rendering the schematic part of the equation moot. Instead, we focused on selecting a well-rounded personality — a motivator, salesman, ambassador, and teacher all rolled into one. Pelini brings all of those qualities to the table, plus an indefatigable commitment to succeed on his own terms.
It wasn’t always like this. Pelini more or less sleepwalked through his first six years at Nebraska, racking up four-loss seasons like clockwork and generally giving off a joyless, Nick Sabanesque vibe without the BCS titles to match. Perhaps this was because his job security was determined by the whims of Taylor Martinez’s arm, or because the pressure from fans and media was truly overwhelming. Regardless, something has changed about Pelini, and it’s been a wonder to behold.
We saw a hint of it when Pelini gave Tommie Frazier a giant middle finger after the Husker legend’s anti-Pelini Twitter screed last September, and Nebraska’s Hail Mary–aided victory over Northwestern in November confirmed the gods were indeed on Pelini’s side. Yes, the Huskers still lost their obligatory four games, but between their Gator Bowl victory over Georgia (the program’s first postseason win in four years) and Pelini’s subsequent out-of-character decision to tweet at the famed @FauxPelini parody account, it was clear Pelini was in the midst of a personal revolution.
The cat, of course, was the tipping point.
Immutable rule of life: If you kick off your spring game with a feline deification ritual, you’re a shoo-in to coach the Triangle All-Stars. Throw in a promising uniform-modeling career, the headline “Bo knows fun,” and one of the few legitimately funny ice bucket challenge videos, and you were probably born to coach the Triangle All-Stars. The autumn of Bo starts now, people. Savor it!
Myles Jack, LB, UCLA
Chris Ryan: Myles Jack, linebacker, UCLA, is the stuff Chuck Norris jokes are made of. Last season, he was the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year on defense, and made second-team all-conference. As a true freshman, he recorded 76 total tackles, seven of them for a loss. He had two picks, which he returned for about 33 yards each. Against Arizona, he managed eight tackles and two deflected passes, in a 31-26 victory. This is what Wildcats fans looked like while watching him:
This is why:
If spread offenses rely on space to thrive, Myles Jack is the black hole that sucks up all the space. And all the bubble screens. And all the loose balls. He was a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award last year for most versatile player. In the future, they should give the most versatile player the Myles Jack Award.
Myles Jack, RB, UCLA
Ryan: Myles Jack, running back, UCLA, is the stuff Chuck Norris jokes are made of. He was the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year on offense. He rushed for 267 yards and seven touchdowns in four games as a running back. Against Arizona, he recorded 120 yards on six carries. This is what Wildcats fans looked like while watching him:
This is why:
If the spread offense relies on playmakers to breathe, Myles Jack is the pair of defibrillator paddles that truly give it life. Coach Jim Mora Jr. has stressed that the sophomore will play running back only in certain situations this season, and on the surface, this is because the Bruins want to save Jack from burning out. (He said he was “exhausted” after pulling double duty agains the Huskies last season.) In truth, UCLA knows it would be too much trouble for the Heisman committee to carve his football supernova’s face on the trophy and change the name of the award to The Jack.
Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia
Andrew Sharp: WHY DID THEY HAVE TO WHISTLE THIS PLAY DEAD?
TODD GURLEY WOULD HAVE KEPT GOING.
YOU KNOW HE WOULD HAVE.
BECAUSE HE DID.
THERE IS VIDEO.
Helmet or no helmet, he’s in attack mode at all times. Remember those sounds Chris Berman used to make whenever there was a Mike Alstott highlight? I make those sounds in my head anytime Todd Gurley is running. Except Gurley’s fast, too, which makes him a lot more unfair than Alstott ever was. Take two minutes to watch the highlight reel.
Gurley broke onto the scene two years ago with 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns as a freshman. Last year, he got hurt against LSU (he had 73 yards in just more than a quarter that day) and missed three games in October, but he still had close to 1,000 yards (989) on the season. Now he’s back for Year 3, and it’s time for a coronation. This is your new running back king.
He can run through people …
He can run past them …
He can go airborne …
There are great players everywhere in college football. But if there’s only one you can choose to focus on this fall, then definitely, absolutely, get some Todd Gurley in your life.
Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington
Sharp: Recent years have seen a boom in athletes named Shaq and/or Shaquille. There have been two Shaquille Johnsons in college basketball. Or Shaquille Cleare, a center who went to Maryland before transferring to the University of Texas. Or Shaq Goodwin, a power forward for Memphis. You can see it in football, too. Deadspin compiled some of the gridiron Shaqs last year:
2012: Shaquille Powell (Duke), Shaquille Mason (Georgia Tech), Shaq Thompson (Washington), Shaq Roland (South Carolina), Shaq Jones (Alabama-Birmingham), Shaq Beverly (Troy)
2013: Shaquille Tolbert (Army), Shaquille Roberson (Alabama-Birmingham), Shaquille Murray-Lawrence (UNLV), Shaquille Love (Kentucky), Shaquille Jones (New Mexico), Shaquille Hunter (Arkansas), Shaquille Huff (Middle Tennessee State), Shaquille Harris (Massachussets), Shaquille Fluker (Georgia), Shaquille Griffin (Florida), Shaq Wiggins (Georgia), Shaq Lawson (Clemson), Shaq Anthony (Clemson)
Shaqs here, Shaqs there, SHAQS EVERYWHERE.
But none of the Shaqs have a chance to be as good as Shaq Thompson. It’s even better that he plays football. No Shaq will ever top the original on the basketball court. But a football player? That’s perfect. Could you think of a better name for a linebacker than SHAQ THOMPSON?
It’s one those names that feels like it comes with an unstated “Motherf---ing” in the middle. Of course we should love him.
On the field, he’s rebounded from the worst pro baseball career in history (actually a point in his favor here), he was a five-star recruit coming out of high school, and he’s currently projected as the no. 2 outside linebacker in next year’s NFL draft. At 228 pounds, he runs a 4.57 40, with a 30-inch vertical. He’s already been solid in his first two years at UW, registering 152 tackles, and Year 3 is when he should take over and start dominating for real. Oh, also: He’s playing offense this year?
Get involved while there’s still time. Pretty soon the whole country will be talking about SHAQ MOTHERF---ING THOMPSON.
Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan
Matt Hinton: When I chose Gardner for this distinction, one of my colleagues replied, “HOW IS DEVIN GARDNER STILL AT MICHIGAN?” which sums up Gardner’s trajectory from an above-the-fold recruit to beleaguered afterthought more efficiently than anything I have to add. Although a more relevant question might be: How has Gardner survived?
As a first-year starter in 2013, Gardner was hounded and hit with astounding frequency, dodging near-weekly assaults behind an unstable offensive line that ranked 112th in Adjusted Sack Rate and yielded more tackles for loss than any other FBS offense.1 Gardner’s most memorable throw of the season was a comically pathetic attempt with two Notre Dame defenders at his feet in his own end zone, resulting in an Irish touchdown. At one point, he was pulled at the end of a futile effort against Michigan State because, in the words of his own coach, he was too “beat up” to finish after enduring seven sacks and countless other hits in the face of wave after wave of unimpeded Spartans.2 It was only a matter of time before Gardner suffered a real injury, which he did in the regular-season finale against Ohio State, at which point the campaign to elevate freshman Shane Morris to the top of the depth chart began in earnest.
In fact, the Wolverines’ starting tackles, Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, both started every game and were both drafted in May’s NFL draft. The interior line, on the other hand, saw six different starters rotate among three positions and never settled on a single configuration.
Including sacks, Michigan limped out of that game with minus-48 rushing yards, the first of a three-game stretch in which the Wolverines managed a single offensive touchdown in regulation.
But the darkness of those valleys tends to obscure that there were a few peaks, too — most notably against Notre Dame early and Ohio State late, two games in which Gardner combined for eight touchdown passes to one (admittedly horrible) interception and Michigan as a team combined for 82 points.3 For the season, he finished second in the Big Ten in both pass efficiency and total offense, despite the chaos that reigned over the month of November. As a fifth-year senior, Gardner enters the season with zero hype in terms of preseason all-conference or All-American teams, but with 21 career starts under his belt and his sky-high potential more or less intact. More important, he enters with a new offensive coordinator, Doug Nussmeier, who’s coming off two wildly successful campaigns as the chief playcaller at Alabama and is considered an automatic upgrade over the not so dearly departed Al Borges. Assuming the same is true for the offensive line — quite literally, the blocking cannot be worse than it was in 2013, even with a true freshman likely taking over for a first-round pick at left tackle — Gardner should finally have a fair shot to turn that potential into a reality.
Markus Golden, DE, Missouri
Note that most of Gardner’s success against the Buckeyes came on a broken foot, suffered in the second quarter of that game. Still, after a solid month of offensive futility, he led Michigan to 603 total yards against OSU and came within a two-point conversion of a season-salvaging upset.
Hinton: Missouri’s starting defensive ends in 2013 turned out to be a unanimous All-American and a second-round draft pick, respectively, so to suggest that the Tigers’ most fearsome pass-rusher was actually a guy who came off the bench in every game is a dubious proposition. But good god, man, look at the film. Here’s Markus Golden repeatedly burying Georgia’s Aaron Murray. Here he is thoroughly abusing Tennessee’s Ja’Wuan James, a first-round draft pick. Here he is blowing past Texas A&M’s Cedric Ogbuehi, a leading candidate to go no. 1 overall in the 2015 draft, to repeatedly harass Johnny Manziel. Here he is single-handedly turning a screen pass versus Toledo into a 70-yard pick-six and generating arguably the single greatest GIF of the 2013 season,4 thanks to this play:
With apologies to Georgia’s sideline in the waning moments of the Bulldogs’ loss at Auburn.
Opposing coaches saw enough of Golden in a reserve role to make him a second-team pick on their preseason All-SEC squad, something of a dis given that Golden finished with more tackles for loss last year (13) than any returning player in the conference except Arkansas’s Trey Flowers. Here’s guessing that by November they’d prefer to be facing one of the guys he’s replacing.
Nate Terhune, DT, Kent State
Holly Anderson: The Flashes will be rebuilding almost their entire defensive line for 2014, and will miss in particular the services of one Roosevelt Nix, but they get back Nate Terhune, the defensive lineman who made the below run — and jump — as a sophomore, on a fake punt run, just a little more than two months after breaking his ankle in an early game. Terhune’s score straddles that line between Things We Want to Call Fat Guy Touchdowns and Things We Cannot Call Fat Guy Touchdowns Because the Guy Is Not Fat. Two more eligibility years of waiting to see if they’ll again run him at an unwitting return team start now.
Ricky Seals-Jones, WR, Texas A&M
Anderson: The Johnny Manziel–to–Mike Evans tandem has dissipated to the Browns and Bucs; in their places, please accept this bouquet of sophomores. Kevin Sumlin named Kenny Hill to succeed JFF at quarterback, and he’ll be throwing to a guy last seen making a 71-yard touchdown catch look easy:
That actually was just about the last time you would’ve seen Ricky Seals-Jones, who missed most of 2013 recovering from knee surgery. He returns alongside another expected sophomore phenom, Speedy Noil, and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital’s been cooking up something special for both of them.
Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
His name is Joey Bosa, and he’s the reason playing quarterback against Ohio State will be among the least enjoyable tasks in college football this season. Last year, as a true freshman, he started 10 games for the Buckeyes, registering 7.5 sacks, 13.5 tackles for losses, and one Vegas-devastating touchdown. He was pretty much Ohio State’s lone defensive bright spot in the Orange Bowl, and alongside 2013 All–Big Ten second-teamers Michael Bennett and Noah Spence, he’ll round out a thoroughly vicious D-line. More important, Bosa recently debated the finer points of grammar pedantry with Chad Johnson on Twitter and has taken to using Johnny Manziel’s money sign on Instagram, which are basically prerequisites for joining the Triangle All-Stars. I doubt he’ll be able to coexist with Devin Gardner on this team, but at least that’ll make the practices intense!
Shane Wynn, WR, Indiana
Borcas: After the incomparable mascot mash-up, what I miss most about the dearly departed NCAA Football video game franchise is dynasty mode, which provided wannabe Bear Bryants like me with the opportunity to fulfill our elaborate program-building fantasies. My general aim was to elevate a historic basketball power to gridiron prominence by way of undervalued recruits and an explosive no-huddle offense; in other words, I attempted to mimic Indiana’s Kevin Wilson, who’s admirably/foolishly trying to rebuild the Hoosiers in real-life.
The poster boy of this rebuild has been wideout Shane Wynn, who arrived in Bloomington with Wilson in December 2010 from Cleveland’s Glenville High School, a noted Ohio State feeder factory. Though Wynn failed to nab a scholarship offer from the Buckeyes due to his diminutive stature, he made an immediate impact at Indiana, leading the team in all-purpose yards as a freshman. He’s since blossomed into a Brandin Cooks–like weapon for Wilson, reaching the end zone frequently and in nearly every way imaginable. And while Wynn was always one of the most purely entertaining receivers in the country, he’s now considered one of the best, as evidenced by his selection for the Biletnikoff Award watch list. As bizarre as it sounds, Wynn’s presence means it may be time to start watching Indiana football games.
Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland
Mallory Rubin: Here’s the thing about Stefon Diggs: When I read that he’s “back on track,” I don’t merely think that he’s healing and walking and nearing playing shape. Because the word “track” makes me think of running, and running makes me think of speed, and speed makes me think of Diggs, college football’s resident Flash5 in the slot, out wide, and on returns of all shapes and sizes.
Though he looks more like Superman in his Tri-Stars card, eh?
But Diggs’s isn’t just fast. He’s also got moves:
Please take a moment to think about what you just saw. Then take another moment to think about all the chances you’ll have to see feats of what-the-fuckery just like that this season, now that Diggs is back from the broken leg that robbed him (and us) of much of his sophomore season. It’s a little scary to think about what Big Ten defenses might do to Maryland in the Terrapins’ first year in the league (though certain lunatics out there remain bullish …), but it’s just as scary to think about what Diggs will do to those defenses.
Kendall Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
Rubin: The Hokies had a relatively quiet 2013 season. Kendall Fuller did not. The former five-star prospect made good on his recruiting ranking by earning ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year honors while rating as a freshman All-American and a second-team All-ACC contributor. He recorded 58 tackles and six picks, and did the sorts of things on a football field that led observers to ask if he might one day be considered “arguably the greatest player ever” in Virginia Tech history. Fuller had the stats, the swag, and, most impressive of all, the ability to make an alt-camo helmet look cool. Embrace him before he embraces the chance to intercept you.
Maty Mauk, QB, Missouri
Ryan: You know what my favorite sports statistics website is? Folk-Stats-Ref.com. I know it says that Mizzou QB Maty Mauk’s passes went about 8 yards per attempt, but anecdotally, I think it’s closer to “go way down there, and when you think you’ve gone too far, KEEP GOING” per attempt. They need to come up with a whole new way of calculating my man’s tosses. Mauk, who filled in for an injured Frank the Tank last season, has one of the coolest deliveries I’ve seen in some time. It’s one part hungover, and one part ready for life in the Old West. He’s compared himself to Johnny Manziel — while wearing a bow tie, no less — but to me, he’s less New Johnny, and more Slighty Smaller Version of Big Ben. There’s a lot of Roethlisberger in this kid’s game. And for once, I mean that as a compliment.
Leonard Williams, DT, USC
Rubin: There’s, uh, some weird shit going on at USC right now. You might have heard. But if possible, try to look beyond the lies and confusion and gymnastics of both the physical and truth-telling sort to instead focus on Leonard Williams, the top defensive draft prospect in college football. Williams isn’t quite Jadeveon Clowney or Ndamukong Suh, because no one is, but the Trojans junior is a force in his own right, a rare mix of power and speed and versatility, and a guaranteed magnet for your eyeballs on Saturdays. He’s probably not going to contend for the Heisman, like Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, or play two ways, like Tri-Stars captain Myles Jack, but he’ll own the Pac-12 … and our hearts.
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Illustrations by Robb Harskamp