NCAA

College Football Roundup: Watson shines in a classic; Stanford trending up, Cal down

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College Football Roundup: Watson shines in a classic; Stanford trending up, Cal down

Back-to-back classics.

That’s what we’ve witnessed in the National Championship Game the past two seasons. Even in their wildest dreams, the organizers of the College Football Playoff couldn’t have imagined two games of this caliber in successive seasons.

Last year, you’ll recall No. 2 ranked Alabama edged No. 1 ranked Clemson, 45-40. This year, the tables were turned, as No. 2 Clemson edged No. 1 Alabama, 35-31. A year ago, after defense dominated the first three quarters, the teams erupted for 40 points in the fourth quarter. This year’s game followed the same script, with the teams combining for 28 points in the final period (21 by Clemson).

Divine Deshaun: The game confirmed the unparalleled brilliance of Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who passed for 420 yards and 3 touchdowns, including the game-winner with one second remaining. In two games against the No. 1 defense in the country, playing for the national championship under the brightest lights and greatest pressure, all Watson did was pass for 825 yards, rush for another 116, and account for eight touchdowns.

Watson’s performance capped a career in which he went 32-3 as a starter, graduated in three years, and finished second and third in the Heisman Trophy balloting (behind Alabama’s Derrick Henry and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey last year, and behind Louisville’s Lamar Jackson this year).

Looking back through the post-season prism, one wonders how Jackson could out-vote Watson. Clemson, after all, beat Louisville 42-36 early in the season. Jackson won despite finishing the season with two straight sub-par performances in upset losses to Houston and Kentucky, then was shut down by LSU in a 29-9 clunker in the Citrus Bowl.

Watson didn’t have quite the same glittering stats, but beat Jackson head to head and won the national title. Like Stanford greats Andrew Luck (who finished second twice), and John Elway (who finished second to Herschel Walker), Watson will go down as one of the best college players never to win the Heisman.

Dykes Dismissed: Earlier this week, Cal fired head coach Sonny Dykes after four seasons at the helm of the Golden Bear program. While the timing was unusual — in that it came six weeks after the end of the season — the decision was not surprising. There were three main issues with the Dykes regime: 1) The inability to develop anything resembling a defense. The Bears ranked near the bottom of NCAA defensive statistics for all four years, and there was no sign of improvement.

2) Dykes publicly pursued other coaching jobs almost from the first moment he arrived in Berkeley, most recently at Houston and Baylor. This was embarrassing to the University and the Old Blues who understandably want a coach who is committed to the school and wants to be in Berkeley.

3) Lagging ticket sales and donor support. Cal had a university-wide debt of $150 million last year, $21 million of it in athletics (largely related to debt service on the stadium renovation). The athletic department needs to fill seats in Memorial Stadium and get the donors excited again.

Like many others, we had recommended then-San Jose State Coach Mike MacIntyre to the Cal athletic department four years ago. One can only wonder where the Bears might be right now if MacIntyre, who has done such an amazing job at Colorado, would’ve been hired instead of Dykes.

Recruiting Trail: Stanford is reportedly on the way to signing one of the nation’s finest recruiting classes. According to Scout.com, coach David Shaw has already garnered commitments from the country’s No. 1 ranked quarterback (Davis Mills of Greater Atlanta Christian School), No. 1 and 2 ranked offensive linemen (Foster Sarell of Graham Kapowsin HS in Graham, Washington, and Walker Little of Episcopal HS in Bellaire, Texas) and No. 1 tight end Colby Parkinson of Oaks Christian HS in Westlake Village). Nationally, Scout rates Sarell the second best player in the country and Mills No. 3.

Speaking of recruiting, Alabama didn’t go home empty-handed this week, as the nation’s top recruit, running back Najee Harris from Antioch HS, decided to go with the Crimson Tide. Harris had verbally committed earlier, then flirted with Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh before sticking with Alabama.

Unsung Utah: With his Foster Farms Bowl victory over Indiana, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham now has the best bowl record of any active coach. Since taking over the reins in Salt Lake City, Coach Whit is 10-1 in postseason play.

USC Finishes at No. 3: After its scintillating win in the Rose Bowl, USC climbed to No. 3 in the final AP poll. If star Adoree Jackson opts to come back for another year, the Trojans will contend for the national title next season.

Chargers to LA: San Diego Chargers owner Dean Spanos announced on Thursday that the Chargers will move to Los Angeles next season. One can only wonder what this means for the future of Qualcomm Stadium, home of the Holiday and Poinsettia Bowls, and San Diego State football?

NBA mock draft 2019: Where Zion Williamson, other stars will be picked

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USATSI

NBA mock draft 2019: Where Zion Williamson, other stars will be picked

The NBA offseason has began for 14 of the league's 30 teams.

While those lucky enough to make the playoffs continue to focus on the task at hand, the rest are busy with what has become a year-round process of talent evaluation. Coaching changes already have been, and more are possible as teams are eliminated from the postseason.

Soon enough, the focus of all 30 teams will shift to the 2019 NBA Draft, where Duke’s Zion Williamson is certain to be the No. 1 pick. Lottery balls fall May 14, and they will set the official order in which non-playoff teams will select.

Once that's done, players will move up and down draft boards. The NBA’s combine on May 15-19 again will force shifts, followed by individual workouts and team assessments.

Plenty will change between now and the June 20 draft, but here's our 2019 mock, version 1.0.

CLICK TO SEE OUR 2019 NBA MOCK DRAFT

Kyler Murray's football-over-baseball decision gives NFL what it needs

Kyler Murray's football-over-baseball decision gives NFL what it needs

Rocked by scandal involving its most successful and influential owner, sharply critiqued by medical experts and buffeted by opposing winds of its conservative fans and those seeking social progress, the NFL is searching for a hug and a hero.

Major League Baseball, which has its own shame from the owner’s box, might be even more desperate. The game has devolved into such tedium that its guardians worry about game length, mound height and what on earth to do about the designated hitter.

Furthermore, the steroids era has given way to the age of American-born players with beige personalities, seemingly ambling off a factory assembly line in monochromatic lockstep. The casual fan -- once familiar with Jeter, Bonds, Junior and The Big Unit -- rarely recognizes Mike Trout or Bryce Harper, much less Khris Davis, who has hit more home runs than anybody over the past three seasons.

These are challenging times for the popularity of these two American legacy sports, only one of which can anticipate the gift soon to be delivered.

Kyler Murray’s timing is impeccable. The two-sport star and Heisman Trophy winner’s choice to declare for the April 25 NFL draft is a stroke of luck for football and a stinging defeat for MLB, the Oakland A’s in particular.

For even with the A’s recent success and solid young core of players, tickets remain plentiful. The addition of Murray, drafted ninth overall by Oakland last June, would have sent a wave of enthusiasm throughout the organization.

“It’s franchise-changing when you have somebody like that,” said Bob Dorfman, a San Francisco advertising executive and sports marketing analyst. “You can build your whole team around him. You can build your whole marketing plan around him. Merchandise becomes a huge thing. It can improve your TV deals. It can improve your sponsorship opportunities.

“It can completely turn around a franchise if this guy turns out to be all that he’s cracked up to be.”

The perfect package

Every NFL team is fantasizing about The Kyler Effect. All 32 were represented at Oklahoma's March 13 pro day, where he did little more than support his teammates between stepping on a scale in the morning and throwing 66 passes in the afternoon.

The Arizona Cardinals, who hold the No. 1 pick in the draft, envision the quarterback as a catalyst for reviving their sagging fortunes. During his time as coach at Big 12 rival Texas Tech, first-year Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury was so taken with Murray that his comments amounted to breathless admiration. Raiders coach Jon Gruden describes Murray as “like watching a video game,” insisting Derek Carr is his quarterback while clearly intrigued by Murray.

What’s not to like for a team and a league needing a lift? Murray comes with no visible red flags, is young at heart and conveys joy in the midst of mayhem. He can charm the elderly while also enthralling the fifth-grader.

The perfect baseball candidate would be a five-tool center fielder or shortstop. Murray plays center field.

The perfect football candidate would be a quarterback capable of sprinting through defenses and throwing over them. Murray is, ahem, that quarterback.

If this were an auction, the bidding between NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred might go on for months, with Patriots owner Robert Kraft (under investigation) and San Francisco Giants CEO Larry Baer (suspended without pay) leading cheers.

Murray fits the magnetism profile. Team owners see revenue. Coaches, scouts and fans swoon over his dual-threat talent. As a Korean-American, his multicultural ancestry (hello, young Tiger Woods) should, at least theoretically, broaden his appeal.

Murray’s ordinary stature, listed at 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds at Oklahoma, invites skeptics -- some still question his height -- but also adds the underdog element that captivates the casual fan and opens the window to transcendency. He’s an instant name-brand star, with the potential to be a visible ambassador for a team and a league and a sport that needs as much positive recognition as it can get.

Consider: In a recent ESPN poll ranking the global fame of current athletes, MLB struck out among the top 50, and just two NFL players -- quarterbacks Tom Brady of the Patriots and Cam Newton of the Panthers -- were included. The NBA, by contrast, had three in the top 11 (LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry) and nine in the top 50.

The addition of Murray to the NFL has no less than national implications.

“It’s kind of a movie script,” Sooners coach Lincoln Riley said. “The ups of being the player he was in high school. Then he goes to Texas A&M, and the ups and downs he had there. And then he comes here and sits for a couple years. He’s a backup in football. He’s not playing that great in baseball in his first year.

“And then all of a sudden, he kind of gets settled in -- or however you want to describe it -- and then becomes a top-10 pick, most likely, in two different leagues. It’s just stupid. That’s just unheard of. You couldn’t even dream that up.”

Murray, 21, might have “settled in” with the Sooners last fall, but he also introduced himself to America beyond Texas. The junior did it with spectacular exploits, destroying opposing defenses with his arm and his legs, passing for 4,361 yards (42 touchdowns, seven interceptions) and rushing for 1,001 yards and 12 more scores.

Not that any of this surprised the folks back home in Texas, where Murray’s career at suburban Allen High School, about 25 miles northeast of Dallas, was as celebrated as those of Lone Star legends Earl Campbell and Adrian Peterson. The Eagles were undefeated (43-0) in Murray’s three seasons as the starter, with him passing and rushing for 186 touchdowns.

Sooner stardom

Murray initially chose to attend Texas A&M, where his father, Kevin, played quarterback 30 years earlier after a brief minor-league baseball career. That lasted one uneven season, during which the true freshman made three starts. Kyler announced during winter break that he was transferring, and one week later chose Oklahoma as his next stop.

The Sooners at the time were coached by Bob Stoops, the famous sideline presence who spent 18 seasons at Oklahoma before retiring in the summer of 2017 and endorsing Riley as his successor. Stoops could not have predicted Murray’s rise to the top of the NFL draft board, but he is not surprised.

“When I first laid eyes on him, he was a junior in high school and I saw him coming out of a weight room in Allen,” Stoops recalled. “He was put together physically even then. I tried to recruit him then and didn’t have much luck. But the second time, after leaving A&M, he called us, and we were elated to have him coming to Oklahoma.

“In fact, Lincoln’s comment watching his tape was, 'If Kyler comes to Oklahoma, he could win the Heisman Trophy.' I guess it was prophetic.”

Murray sat out the 2016 season by NCAA mandate, spent the ’17 season backing up eventual Heisman winner (and No. 1 draft pick) Baker Mayfield, and used the 2018 season to build such a remarkable brand that he has reached first-name-only identification.

That’s a by-product of piling up preposterous stats by throwing perfect 60-yard spirals over defenses, using 4.3 speed to dart through them, winning 12 of 14 games and, along with the Heisman, Associated Press Player of the Year honors and the Davey O’Brien Award, which signifies college football’s top quarterback.

Yet there are a few scattered skeptics. Some question Murray’s leadership, and one in particular, former general manager and current NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly, claims to have gotten a heavy dose of negative feedback from some of the teams that interviewed Murray at the NFL Scouting Combine in February.

“These were the worst comments I ever got on a top-rated quarterback, and I’ve been doing this a long time,” Casserly said on TV. “Leadership -- not good. Study habits -- not good. The board work -- below not good.”

Asked to evaluate his leadership, Murray responded logically: “Ask my teammates.”

Oklahoma coaches and teammates offer a vigorous defense of Murray’s toughness, knowledge -- he was on the Big 12's All-Academic second team -- and leadership.

“Kyler’s a different breed,” said Sooners offensive lineman Cody Ford, also projected as a first-round pick. “He’s a great leader and a great teammate. Even when he didn’t play, he was pushing everybody, pushing anybody. When he was sitting back watching Baker do his thing, he always took a leadership role. So, for somebody to say he’s not a leader is not right. They’re wrong in so many ways.”

After the decision

It’s not only what Murray has accomplished that impresses observers but how he has done it, skillfully straddling that subjective line between confidence and humility while offering up a face full of cherubim -- all of which sets him even further apart from other draft-eligible players.

“No. 1, he won the Heisman Trophy,” Dorfman said. “That’s no guarantee of future success, but it does put you at the top of the heap coming into the league. No. 2, the whole baseball versus football thing was, intentional or not, a brilliant marketing strategy. It made him much more popular and a topic of discussion. He became a subject on sports-talk radio, with everybody wanting to know if he was going to go with baseball or football. It made him stand out in ways that nobody else could.”

Murray says he grappled with the choice, and there are reasons to take him at his word. Drafted ninth overall by the A’s last June, he quickly came to the Oakland Coliseum with his family, signed a $4.66 million contract -- with a $1.5 million bonus -- before donning the green and gold, grabbing a bat and taking a few swings.

A’s baseball boss Billy Beane that day described Murray as “arguably one of the most dynamic athletes” drafted in his 29 years as a scout and executive. The A’s approved of Murray’s decision to play football last fall. Represented by super-agent Scott Boras, they also expected him to choose baseball.

Though Murray has returned about $1.3 million in bonus money and forfeited the additional $3.16 million, he acknowledges that informing the A’s of his decision was not an easy conversation.

“At the end of the day, they drafted me. In my heart, I'll always feel like I'll be an A just because they took the time to do that, and obviously it's a dream come true to be drafted No. 9, first round,” he told Dallas sports-talk station KTCK-AM last month. “It was definitely tough. It's not like breaking up with a girlfriend, but it was hard to have that conversation for sure."

The A’s declined to comment for this story, citing they still own the rights to Murray and implying they still hope he’ll someday join the organization. Asked about a future in baseball, Murray gives himself an invisible fraction of wiggle room.

“I love baseball. I’ve always loved baseball,” he said. “I don’t know why everyone is trying to make me un-love baseball. I grew up playing baseball and football and basketball. But, at the end of the day, I can’t play both. Is it out of my system? I guess. But I don’t know.”

NFL teams don’t care. They are content to accept that Murray’s passion for football trumps his love for baseball. They’ve studied the video. They’ve met with him. They’ve tested him.

They also sense someone with his backstory and electric skills potentially can be a star off the field.

“He’s special,” said 86-year-old Gil Brandt, the godfather of NFL personnel men. “I don’t know that staying (at Oklahoma) for another year would do him any good. The way the league is going, with movement at quarterback, his timing is pretty good. He just has to get to the right situation. If he does, he’s going to be really good.

“If he goes first to the Cardinals, can you imagine the excitement in Arizona?”

Long and short of it

The blueprint for NFL quarterbacks indeed is changing. New Orleans' Drew Brees, at 6 feet, has won a Super Bowl. Seattle’s Russell Wilson, at 5-11, also has one ring and was within a questionable play-call of a second.

Noting the doubters, his smallish physique and running ability, some NFL teams believe Murray is the man who can silence once and for all the debate at about a quarterback whether a “small,” dual-threat quarterback can thrive in the league.

“I haven’t really thought too much about it, but I think it’s a cool deal, being different and not marginalizing shorter quarterbacks just because they’re not as tall,” Murray said. “I go out and play the game at my height -- whether it’s 5-9 or 5-10 -- I just love playing the game. I love to win. The fact that I might be able to change it is pretty cool.”

Wherever Murray lands, the hype will burn hot enough and high enough to leave a vapor trail. He’s the Golden Child the NFL badly needs, and the league surely will put his wholesome mug in front of as many cameras as it can find.

It’s a lot to live up to, but Murray comes with a cheering section befitting Superman in a modest physical package.

“The $4.66 million contract he got from the A’s, he’s going to make that in endorsements in the NFL,” Dorfman said. “Probably in his first year.”

Had Murray chosen baseball and the A’s, he’d likely be living in the Stockton area as a member of the Ports, Oakland's Class-A affiliate. He’d be bracing for months of cheap chow on long bus rides between two- and three-star hotels.

The Ports open their season Thursday at 5,200-seat Banner Island Ballpark. Even with the nice yard and the good crowd, they’ll miss Murray more than he’ll miss them.