Following are previews of the remaining Independent entries for 2014, courtesy Managing Editor P. Carl Giordano, with 2013 straight-up and pointspread records included.

by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

NOTRE DAME (SUR: 9-4; PSR: 5-8)... Brian Kelly is an impressive 37-15 in 4 seasons in South Bend, and he’s definitely upgraded the recruiting level, landing top-ten classes in each of the last two seasons. This year the Irish youth will get a true test, especially on defense, where 5 of the front 7 have moved on, including DE Stephon Tuitt (2nd round to Pittsburgh) & DT Louis Nix (3rd round to Houston). The offensive front lost OT Zach Martin (1st round to Dallas), TE Troy Niklas (2nd round to Arizona) and G Chris Watt (3rd to the Chargers). That’s a lot of high-quality beef to replace. There’s also a hurdle to overcome with some flux in the ND coaching staff, as both of Kelly’s coordinators have moved on. The offense will be headed by Mike Denbrock, who was the Irish passing game coordinator last season. He replaces Chuck Martin, who’s the head coach at Miami-Ohio this season. New defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has been in the NFL 6 of the last 7 seasons, with a one-year stint as Auburn’s d.c. in 2012. He replaces highly-effective Bob Diaco (now HC at UConn), who wasn’t a fan favorite.

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The offense is relying on a bigger, more mature Everett Golson at QB. Golson went 10-1 as a starter in 2012, throwing for 2405 yds. with a 12-6 TD-int. ratio before running afoul of the administration and being suspended for a year. The only loss was the 42-14 pounding administered by Alabama in the BCS Championship game. He’s put on some muscle and could make up for some inexperience on the OL. The list of RBs is talented and deep, with sr. Cam McDaniel, last season’s leading rusher (705 YR, 4.6 ypc), being forced down to 3rd on the depth chart. The projected starter is soph Tarean Folston, who gained 5.3 ypc last season and had 354 YR in the last 5 games LY. RS frosh Greg Bryant was very highly-regarded as a prep, and he impressed the staff this spring with his power and big motor. Bryant had 12 carries for 105 yds. in the spring game, electrifying the crowd with a 51-yard burst. Jr. starting WRs DaVaris Daniels and Chris Brown both return. Daniels caught 49 passes last season for 745 yds., and Irish fans were relieved when his suspension over academic issues was lifted in May. Daniels might be the dynamic playmaking wideout who will give Golson options other than handing it off or hoofing it himself.

Rebuilding the defense will be a challenge for VanGorder. He’s got to replace not only Tuitt & Nix, but also the top two tacklers from last season (LBs Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese) as well as captain Bennett Jackson (64 stops). VanGorder kept his cards close to his vest in spring, going vanilla and not giving a solid indication of what the defense will ultimately look like. His NFL defenses always ranked among the heaviest blitzing units in the league, and he quickly rebuilt Georgia’s “D” under Mark Richt, producing a dominant unit quickly a decade ago, and he improved the Auburn defense in 2012. History could repeat, as VanGorder has the raw material to at least improve on last season’s 22.4 ppg allowance. Soph LB Jaylon Smith was a frosh AA last year and the top-rated player at his position coming out of high school. Jr. DT Sheldon Day could become a monster impact player in a hurry. The 2ndary returns 4 players with extensive starting experience and received a bonus when graduate transfer Cody Riggs arrived from Florida and won a starting job at one corner. Jr. CB KeiVarae Russell (109 tackles the L2Ys) was a frosh AA two years ago, and he’s got the type of talent that makes coaches think he might be headed for the NFL early if he continues to improve this season. The LB situation would look a lot better if Jarrett Grace (broken leg that required two surgeries) or Ben Councell (ACL injury late in 2013) can recover enough to contribute. However, jr. Joe Schmidt did a decent job after the injuries, and incoming frosh Nyles Morgan was considered one of the top prep inside linebackers in the country.

Kelly is resourceful, and he’s been successful at each stop in his career. Notre Dame has been no exception. The schedule this season is one of the toughest in the nation, with visits to Florida State, Arizona State and Southern Cal on the docket, so duplicating last season’s 9 wins would be an improvement, and likely garner a nice bowl bid. Look out for the Irish in 2015, however, as Kelly could have 18-19 returning starters depending on how things shake out.

BYU (SUR: 8-5; PSR: 5-7-1)...Head coach Bronco Mendenhall has averaged 9½ wins a season in his last 8 years at BYU, and 2014 could shape up to be one of his better editions in Provo. After divesting itself of 5 offensive coaches after 2012, the rebuilt attack staff adjusted quickly last year to both the personnel and the schemes of o.c. Robert Anae. The Cougars improved last season despite winning the same number of games as in 2012. The fast-paced, read-option offense scored its most points since 2009 and generated 494 ypg in total offense, its most since 2001. The defense took a bit of a step backward in 2013, but that side of the ball figures to make a decent jump in effectiveness if it can stay healthy.

The offense has two of the most effective weapons in the Rockies at its disposal. Jr. QB Taysom Hill threw for 2938 yds. & 19 TDs, while running for a team-high 1344 yds. and 10 scores. Hill’s 259 YR vs. Texas were the most by a QB since 2005. Jr. RB Jamaal Williams gained 1233 yds. (5.7 ypc) in 12 games and hasn’t lost a fumble in 428 career touches (383 rushes; 45 pass receptions). Those two very dangerous weapons will be escorted by an offensive line that returns a deep, experienced group. Due to a rash of injuries, the OL started 11 different players at various times in 2013. Ten of those 11 now return, including six who’ve been full-time starters in their careers when healthy. With 4 seniors scheduled to start up front, plus sr. 6-6 TE Devin Mahina, there is more than enough game experience to expect a repeat of last season’s production. Based on spring work, offensive coordinator Anae expects the team’s pass protection to improve significantly. The protection was an issue last season, as the 38 sacks allowed were the most by a Cougar squad since 2004.

The receiving corps loses the school’s all-time pass-catcher, Cody Hoffman, who’s now a Washington Redskin. However, there is a veritable legion of quality holdovers such as 6-6 jr. Mitch Mathews (23 catches; 17.3 ypc LY) & sr. Ross Apo (6-3; made 2 all-Independent 2nd-teams), and jucos like Devon Blackmon (an Oregon Duck at one time) & Nick Kurtz (starting after impressing during spring). Sprinkle in Stanford transfer Keanu Nelson and UTEP transfer Jordan Leslie (1585 receiving yds. with the Miners 2012-13), and you can see why Mendenhall is all smiles around the offensive meetings.

Defensively, there is work to do, but again an air of optimism surrounds the Cougars. Last season’s allowance of 160 ypg on the ground was their highest since 2002. However, the return of ex-regular DE Graham Rowley from his 2-year LDS mission, coupled with the development of run-stuffing 308-lb. NT Marques Johnson and the presence of DE Remington Peck (12 starts) makes the DL look stronger. Although the LB crew will miss the presence of star Kyle Van Noy (a 2nd-round pick of the Detroit Lions), the shifting of jr. Bronson Kaufusi from DE to OLB will give the team added pressure on opposing QBs. According to coaches, Kaufusi is leaner, meaner and faster when playing LB. Sr. LB Alani Fua had 63 stops in 2013, breaking up 10 passes with a pair of interceptions. The 2ndary should be very steady, as four senior veteran starters return. The leaders are S Craig Bills, who had 79 tackles LY, and CB Robertson Daniel, who had 66. Fifth-year senior transfer Harvey Jackson arrived from Nebraska and figures to get his fair share of reps. If the team can stay healthy, an improvement on the 22 ppg allowed and a reduction in rushing yards looks like a safe bet.

Entering the fall, the Cougars’ fate might be all but decided. If the team wins 6 games, it will play in the newly-minted Miami Beach Bowl against a representative from the American Conference at Marlins Park on Monday, Dec. 22. The schedule isn’t a cakewalk, with visits to Texas, UCF, MTSU, and Boise State on tap, along with home games against 2013 bowl teams Houston and Utah State. But it looks more like 8-10 wins if Hill & Williams stay healthy. Cougar fans, get ready for a trip to South Beach!

NAVY (SUR: 9-4; PSR: 10-3)...Navy has become a model of what “academy” football can be in the modern age under Ken Niumatalolo. In 6 seasons, Niumatalolo’s Midshipmen are 49-30 SU with 5 bowl appearances, and, most importantly, they stretched the winning streak over archrival Army to 12 games! The days of Roger Staubach leading a 2nd-ranked, 9-1 Navy squad into the 1963 Cotton Bowl for a national championship showdown against No. 1 Texas are long gone. But that’s not to say the Middies can’t be competitive.

Niumatalolo has a QB who has developed into one of the best option triggermen in the nation in recent memory. Keenan Reynolds rushed for 1346 yards and an astounding 31 TDs last season (the 31 scores are an NCAA record for a QB). He will likely surpass Staubach’s career total offense numbers by halftime of Navy’s Sept. 6 visit to Temple (he needs just 303 yards), and he’s on track to smash the school’s total offense mark (set by Chris McCoy from 1995-1997). That’s if he stays healthy. The offensive line is determined to keep Reynolds upright and operating this season, and that unit returns 7 players who combined for 59 starts a year ago, helping the Midshipmen rank 2nd in the nation in rushing yards. The Middies gained 5.5 ypc last season, and with the OL, Reynolds, and their top three fullbacks returning, that doesn’t figure to change. FBs Noah Copeland, Chris Swain and Quinton Singleton combined to gain 1120 yards, and slotbacks Geoffrey Whiteside, jr. Demond Brown and jr. DeBrandon Sanders combined for 1084 yards rushing & receiving, averaging 8.1 yds. per rush. The wideouts are new, but in the triple option, those guys are usually blockers, and 6-4, 206 soph Jamir Tillman & 202-lb. sr. Brendan Dudeck can fill the bill.

The defense is replacing some key players down the middle, but with 303-lb. NT Bernard Sarra returning, the shift of sr. OLB Jordan Drake to one of the inside spots, and the fact that FS Parish Gaines (65 tackles) returns, Navy d.c. Buddy Green has the tools to rebuild. Developing some depth along the defensive line is key, as those positions rely on players who are fresh and can take on blockers to free up the linebackers to make the tackles. One of the Mids’ best playmakers is sr. OLB Chris Johnson, who had 84 tackles and 3 ints. last season. CBs Kwazel Bertrand and Brendon Clements could make significant improvement in coverage if the pass rush improves. Navy managed just 11 sacks last season, and as a result, opposing QBs sat in the pocket and completed 69%, gaining 7.1 yds. per attempt.

Navy covered 10 of its 13 games a year ago in large part because option wizard Reynolds minimized turnovers. The Middies were tied for the fewest giveaways in the country with 10 miscues (and 2 of those were interceptions by backup QB John Hendrick, taking over for an injured Reynolds late in the first half against Western Kentucky). Normally, one might be skeptical that Navy can hold down the turnovers again, but the Middies have averaged a +8.7 giveaway-takeaway ratio under Niumatalolo. Navy is 14-5 as a road dog in the last 5 seasons, so if they take care of the rock again, the pointspread wins will flow.

ARMY (SUR: 3-9; PSR: 4-8)...Army should get a positive infusion with the hiring of head coach Jeff Monken and o.c. Brent Davis from Georgia Southern, and d.c. Jay Bateman from Ball State. Monken learned the triple option under Paul Johnson at Ga. Southern, Navy and Georgia Tech, while Bateman did a solid job at Ball State LY. The terminology is a bit different, and there is something of a learning curve, but expect the Black Knights to bounce back from a 3-year period when the team went 8-27 SU from 2011-13, including a 15-game losing streak on the road.

Although Monken was unhappy at times with the Cadets’ lack of aggressiveness and focus during spring work, he has most of what he needs to move Army back up to the level of fellow academies Navy & Air Force. Incumbent sr. QB Angel Santiago (593 YR, 10 TDR, 592 YP) might be unseated by less-experienced jr. A.J. Schurr (injured much of LY), as Schurr got more of the work in spring. Either QB’s main job will be to get the ball into the hands of a trio of sr. RBs in FB Larry Dixon (705 YR, 6.4 ypc LY), Terry Baggett (all-Independent LY; 1113 YR, 7.9 ypc ‘13), and Raymond Maples (injured most of last season; 2281 YR combined in 2012-13). Those three have been extremely productive and explosive in helping Army rank 3rd in the country in rushing LY, and 1st in 2011 & 2012.

The offensive line should be among the best units at the school in recent memory, as three starters return and are augmented by the emergence of jr. C Matt Hugenberg. Hugenberg was the team’s best offensive lineman in spring, allowing Monken to move decorated C Ryan Powis out to LT. The OL as a group has added some size, as Monken prefers a bit more heft on his “hogs” than ex-HC Rich Ellerson did.

The passing game was generally a change of pace or a weapon of last resort under Ellerson, as the Cadets haven’t thrown for more than 78 ypg since 2007 (under then HC Stan Brock). Army doesn’t figure to throw much more under o.c. Brent Davis, as Ga. Southern gained just 91 ypg passing LY (and zero YP in a November win at Florida), but Schurr and Santiago have a quality WR in 6-2 soph Xavier Moss, who led the team with 35 catches in 12 starts last season as a true frosh. The move of 6-3 jr. Kelvin White from QB to WR during spring is another sign that Monken is trying to get the best athletes on the field in the right spots.

Defensively, there is reason for hope. Army took a step forward to defensive respectability last year, improving in virtually every category over 2012, and that trend could continue this fall. Defensive coordinator Jay Bateman will transition the Black Knights to a 3-4, accentuating the positive with the return of 3 sr. DL starters in NT Richard Glover, and DEs Mike Ugenyi and Robert Kough (2nd-team all-Indy L2Ys). Soph LB Jeremy Timpf impressed the staff enough to move into a starters role, and srs. Julian Holloway (42 tackles), Derek Sanchez & Stephen Ricciardi will form a solid unit. The 2ndary should be much better, with 3 starters returning, including sr. SS Geoffery Bacon (2nd on team with 63 stops LY) and jr. CB Chris Carnegie (50 tackles in ‘13). The defense will likely feature 7-8 senior starters and will have a better plan this season after growing progressively worse under Ellerson.

Army has a much softer schedule this season, facing the likes of Buffalo, Yale, Kent State, Western Kentucky, Fordham and Connecticut. Given those are 6 winnable games and the fact that the Air Force was 2-10 LY, bowl-eligibility is not out of the question for the Black Knights of the Hudson in 2014.


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