Gary Cavalli

Local college players turn heads at respective Pro Days

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AP

Local college players turn heads at respective Pro Days

Last week both Stanford and Cal held “Pro Day,” an annual showcase where each school’s departing players audition for NFL scouts. 

To those unfamiliar with Pro Days, these events typically feature lots of men with stopwatches, a few TV news crews, and a group of players running 40-yard dashes, cone drills and 20-yard shuttles. The objective is to give NFL teams an opportunity to evaluate prospects up close and personal.

Since 1982, the top 300 or so prospects in the country have been invited each year to the NFL Scouting Combine, a centralized evaluation for all pro teams. Subsequent Pro Days held by individual schools provide a stage for players who weren’t invited to the combine. They also offer participants a chance to improve their combine performance or give interested teams another look.

At Cal’s Pro Day on Friday, Khalfani Muhammad turned a lot of heads with a 4.35 40-yard dash, faster than any running back recorded at the combine earlier this month. In fact, Muhammad’s time would have tied for fourth best overall. Wide receiver Chad Hansen also impressed with a 4.45 in the driving rain. Quarterback Davis Webb, who had some accuracy issues at the combine, had a good outing despite throwing a wet ball for much of the day. His predecessor, Jared Goff, was the No. 1 pick in last year’s NFL draft.

Stanford’s “Pro Timing Day” on Thursday attracted a lot of attention because of the presence of two projected first round draft picks — running back Christian McCaffrey and defensive lineman Solomon Thomas. Over 40 NFL representatives were on hand, including 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and Carolina Panthers head man Ron Rivera. Several sportswriters and local TV anchors covered the proceedings, which were also streamed live on ESPN3.

It was a far cry from the pre-Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw days, when Stanford had few pro prospects and Pro Days drew sparse turnouts. However, 31 Stanford players have been drafted in the last seven years, including four in the first round and six in the second. McCaffrey and Solomon will boost those numbers.

McCaffrey has been the Cardinal’s marquee player for the past two seasons. He set an NCAA record with 3,864 all-purpose yards in 2015, finishing second in the Heisman Trophy balloting, and then rushed for 1,639 yards in ’16. Thomas had 25 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks in the last two seasons and was named the Pac-12’s defensive lineman of the year last fall.

Surprisingly, most pundits now believe Thomas will go higher than McCaffrey in the draft. McCaffrey is currently projected to go middle or late first round. Thomas is expected to go in the top five. In fact, NFL draft guru Mel Kiper now has Thomas being taken with the No. 2 pick in the draft by that team down the road in Santa Clara.

NFL teams are split as to whether McCaffrey can be an every down back. Some see him as more of a complimentary, third-down type. At the combine, he excelled in the 40-yard dash (4.48), vertical jump (37.5”), cone drill (6.57) and both 20 and 60-yard shuttles (4.22 and 11.03), but did only 10 reps in the bench press. His overall rating at the combine was 5.99 (out of a possible 8.0). At Pro Day on Thursday, he put on a brilliant display in a number of receiving drills, showing off the versatility that many teams crave.

Thomas was one of the top performers at the combine, registering a 4.69 40, 30 reps in the bench press, a 126” broad jump, 6.95 cone drill and 4.28 shuttle. His overall rating was 6.85. On Pro Day, he did a number of position specific drills.

Unlike McCaffrey, who elected to skip the Cardinal’s post-season game, Thomas played in the Sun Bowl and elevated his pro stock with several game-changing plays. The NFL’s post-combine analysis noted: “Thomas' bowl performance against North Carolina opened a lot of eyes, as he was all over the field in the Cardinal's win in a way that isn't even reflected in an impressive stat line (seven tackles, two for loss, sack).”

According to one NFL observer at Pro Day, “In the bowl game, Thomas went from the second round to maybe the second pick in the draft.”

Stanford coach David Shaw, understandably, is a huge fan of both players. He chafes at the suggestion McCaffrey can’t be an every down back.

“People may not want to talk about it, but race is a component in that discussion,” he told me at Pro Day. “Some teams want to put Christian in a box. ‘He’s a white running back, another Danny Woodhead.’ Well, he’s not. If you look at the film, what he did at the combine, and here today, he’s more of a Reggie Bush or a Ladainian Tomlinson. He’s a difference maker.”

Shaw also marveled at Thomas’s rise up the draft boards since his Sun Bowl performance.

“That’s the beauty of bowl games,” Shaw said. “What might seem meaningless to one guy can make 10 million dollars for another.”

College Football Roundup: Stellar class for Stanford, change hurts Cal

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AP

College Football Roundup: Stellar class for Stanford, change hurts Cal

Wednesday is “National Signing Day” in college football, the day when thousands of high school recruits make their choice of colleges official by signing binding letters of intent.

And it’s become a huge production.

To record this momentous occasion, athletic departments churn out reams of press releases hyping the size, speed, ratings and statistics of their top recruits. CBS and ESPN present marathon coverage, similar to the NFL Draft. Elite players don the hats of their chosen schools before TV cameras, teammates and proud parents. Coaches spout glittering words of praise about the impact these new commits will have on their programs. And recruiting services anoint the colleges that made the biggest hauls.

Most schools now have a well-orchestrated Signing Day event—for the media, donors, select fans and local alums—featuring video clips of each signee accompanied by pulsating sound tracks.

These events can get pretty elaborate. Last year Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh invited a few high-profile ex-players, including New England Patriot quarterback Tom Brady, to attend his “Signing of the Stars” extravaganza.

The primary objective is to excite alums and motivate fans to buy tickets, not to mention impressing future recruits and their families.

The problem with all this, of course, is that it’s just speculation. Many of the “can’t miss” five-star prospects do, in fact, miss. And many unheralded two-star prospects and walk-ons achieve greatness, not just in college, but in the pros. As you might suspect, coaching has something to do with this.

In the Pac-12, according to the San Jose Mercury News' Jon Wilner, UCLA has had the top-rated recruiting class in the league for three of the last four years (plus No. 2 the fourth year). Yet the Bruins have failed to win a conference title or post a league record better than 6-3 during that time. On the flip side, Colorado, which had the league’s worst recruiting class three of the past four years, just won the South Division title this season.

Consider the case of Alex Mack, a two-star high school recruit from Santa Barbara, who became a standout at Cal, won the equivalent of the academic Heisman Trophy from the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame, and has been a perennial Pro Bowl selection. He signed a free agent contract with Atlanta before the 2016 season, and this Sunday will be snapping the ball for the Falcons in the Super Bowl.

In 2013, the San Francisco 49ers went to the Super Bowl with a couple of two-star high school recruits who became All-Pro offensive linemen—Joe Staley and Mike Iupati.

Speaking of the Super Bowl, according to Jon Solomon of CBS, the starting players in this Sunday’s game were rated as follows coming out of high school: New England offense, average 2.9 stars (out of 5); New England defense, avg. 2.8; Atlanta offense 2.8; Atlanta defense 2.5. Over 60% of these gentlemen were not even in the top 500 recruits of their respective high school classes. Late bloomers, I guess.

The good news is that things are about to change. This April, the NCAA is expected to approve an early signing period that will allow high school recruits to make their commitments to colleges during a three-day window in December.

Many players, perhaps a majority, will jump at this opportunity. These days, most recruits make up their minds long before the first Wednesday of February. (In fact, according to 247Sports, 12 of this year’s top 18 players enrolled at the school of their choice in January).

If we’re lucky, the early signing period will take much of the glamour out of Signing Day, and that will be a healthy thing for college football.

***

STANFORD SHINES

Coach David Shaw reeled in a stellar class of 19 players, highlighted by five recruits who own the nation’s No. 1 ranking at their positions according to at least one recruiting service. They are: offensive tackle Walker Little (Houston, Texas), who is also rated the No. 1 recruit in the nation by 247 Sports and No. 4 by Scout.com; QB Davis Mills of Greater Atlanta Christian School, also rated the sixth best player in the country according to Scout; offensive tackle Foster Sarell (Graham, Washington), also rated the second best recruit in the nation by Scout and No. 3 by Prepstar; tight end Colby Parkinson (Westlake Village); and fullback Sione Lund from Salt Lake City.

All five of the No. 1’s have excellent size: Little is 6-8, 305; Mills 6-4, 205; Sarell 6-7, 315; Parkinson 6-7, 235; and Lund 6-1, 235. Mills passed for over 2700 yards and 34 touchdowns this year, with only one interception, despite missing two games with an injury. He also ran for over 300 yards and 8 touchdowns.

The Cardinal landed five other prospects who earned four stars from either Scout or ESPN—wide receiver Osiris St. Brown of Mater Dei in Santa Ana, wide receiver Paulson Adebo from Mansfield, TX, running back/defensive back Connor Wedington from Sumner, Washington, defensive tackle Dalyn Wade-Perry from Sparta, NJ, and defensive end Ryan Johnson from Axis, Alabama. Brown, the brother of Notre Dame receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, had 62 receptions for 1,127 yards and 19TDs this year.

Other names of note include center Drew Dalman from Pacific Grove, son of former Stanford and 49er center Chris Dalman, and tight end Tucker Fisk from Davis, son of former Stanford and NFL defensive lineman Jason Fisk.

The various services rate Stanford’s class anywhere from 10th in the country (ESPN) to 24th (Scout).

***

BEAR TERRITORY

Despite a late start, new Cal coach Justin Wilcox landed a couple of Scout.com four-star players in tight end Taariq Johnson from Buena Park and cornerback Elijah Hicks from La Mirada, both of whom have already enrolled at Berkeley. The Bears also signed 6-2, 192 pound quarterback, Chase Garbers from Corona Del Mar, who’s rated the No. 10 QB in the country by ESPN and No. 35 by scout.

The Bears signed 14 recruits in all, but the late coaching change cost them four local players who flipped to USC. More junior college signings are anticipated in the coming weeks and months.

The bottom line, though, is to take all of this with a grain of salt. The true merits of these recruiting classes won’t be known for two or three years. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

College Football Roundup: Wilcox the right choice for Cal; Stanford raising ticket prices

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AP

College Football Roundup: Wilcox the right choice for Cal; Stanford raising ticket prices

The Golden Bears may have gotten it right this time.

Cal moved quickly to replace fired head coach Sonny Dykes with Justin Wilcox, one of the most respected defensive minds in college football. And judging from the early returns, it looks like an excellent hire.

Wilcox has earned high marks as defensive coordinator at a number of the top programs in the country -- Boise State, Tennessee, Washington, USC and most recently, Wisconsin. This year his Badgers’ defense ranked No. 7 in the nation in total defense. Cal’s, by contrast, was No. 125.

The hiring sends an important message that defense, which has been an embarrassment at Cal for the past four years, is of prime importance. For the Bears to move into the elite in the increasingly-competitive Pac-12, they can’t survive with offense alone. Witness Dykes’ 10-26 record in conference play, the ascent of defensive-minded Colorado this season, and Chris Petersen’s championship blueprint at Washington, which features one of the nation’s top defensive units.

Wilcox also is a much better fit culturally than Dykes, who’d spent most of his career in Texas and the South. Wilcox knows the Pac-12 very well. He played at Oregon and coached the linebackers at Cal from 2003-2005 prior to his recent stints at Washington and USC. Wilcox clearly understands the conference, the West Coast, and the cultural and academic environment at Berkeley, which he called the “most dynamic place in the country.”

Hiring a new coach so late in the game could pose problems with respect to assembling a staff and recruiting, but again, Wilcox is off to a great start. He lured Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin, architect of some high-octane offenses at EWU, to come aboard as offensive coordinator. He also nabbed Steve Greatwood, a former colleague at Oregon and one of the most experienced offensive line coaches in the country.

Wilcox has a reputation as a strong recruiter. Indeed, three highly-regarded recruits -- defensive lineman Gabe Cherry (Bakersfield), DB Elijah Hicks (La Mirada) and WR Taariq Johnson (Buena Park) arrived on campus this week as mid-year freshman enrollees.

At his press conference Wilcox appeared smart, poised, classy and businesslike. He refused to be baited into criticizing his predecessor. He also appealed to Cal fans to support the program and make Memorial Stadium a tough place to play. The stadium was pretty noisy during the Jeff Tedford regime, but lately it’s borne no resemblance to Autzen Stadium in Eugene, where Wilcox played, and Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, where he coached this year.

If he can turn the program around, I suspect Memorial Stadium will be rocking once again.

2017 Schedules: The Pac-12 has released its 2017 football schedule, and both Wilcox and Stanford coach David Shaw are looking at some tough sledding. Both teams open Pac-12 play in September against a loaded USC squad. Cal’s non-conference games include the season opener at North Carolina and home games with Weber State and Ole Miss, followed by USC in Memorial Stadium on Sept. 23. Wilcox also has conference road games at Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Stanford and UCLA. Ugh!

Stanford, meanwhile, opens on the road (probably in Australia) against Rice, then kicks off Pac-12 play at USC on Sept. 9. However, the Cardinal will benefit from having UCLA, ASU, Oregon, Washington and Cal on the home schedule, along with Notre Dame.

New ticket policy at Stanford: Speaking of the Stanford home schedule, the Cardinal brass notified thousands of season ticket holders this week that to retain their sideline seats, they must make a substantial donation to the Buck/Cardinal Club athletic scholarship program. The “Priority Seating Expansion” means that ticket holders in 10 sections of the stadium will need to cough up about three times as much money to keep their seats. For example, a fan with two season tickets who would normally pay $1,078 for two seats this season now must ante up an additional $1,000 per seat. Bottom line: a total tab of $3,078 instead of $1,078. With six home games, that translates to $513 per game for two tickets.

Although the home schedule is attractive this season, it’s hard to fathom the reasons behind the new policy. Stanford had no home sellouts last year, and there were plenty of good seats available for every game. A similar policy was implemented several years ago at Maples Pavilion, and the result has been lots of empty seats at Stanford basketball games.

Nationally, college football attendance declined this season for the sixth year in a row. Among the many reasons were rising ticket prices, the increasing number of night games, uncertainty over starting times, and the quality of the home viewing experience.

Greed, it seems, has trumped fan loyalty. Instead of raising prices and repeatedly asking the same people to spend more money, college athletic departments might consider rewarding loyal fans by lowering ticket prices. That way, they could fill some of those empty seats, improve the atmosphere in their stadiums, and give their coaches more of a home field advantage.

Beamer Selected: The College Football Playoff folks just added former Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer to their selection committee. A better choice could not have been made. Beamer retired last year after 29 years with the Hokies, and he is widely regarded as one of the best coaches and finest human beings to ever grace the sport.

I can speak from personal experience as a bowl director. Virginia Tech played in our first post-season game in San Francisco back in 2002, when it was known as the Diamond Walnut San Francisco Bowl. Coaches can bring a lot of baggage -- and ego -- to a post-season game. Some might have viewed a bowl game in its infancy as something of a comedown for Beamer, whose team had played in the national championship game two years earlier. But not Frank. He treated everyone associated with our bowl with the same warmth, graciousness and respect, enthusiastically did everything we asked of him, and was a total delight to deal with.

His wife, Cheryl, was another class act. A week after the bowl game, I got a thank you note in the mail from Cheryl, along with a $20 bill. She apologized for not having gassed up her rental car before returning it, and didn’t want to saddle me with the bill.

People like that just don’t come along every day.