The only thing better than a summer road trip is a college football road trip, hanging out at the preseason camps of some of the most storied and prestigious programs in the land.
My odyssey included five campuses in 10 days — visits with five top-six teams in the Associated Press preseason poll — and started with a cross-country flight from Tennessee to Los Angeles to check in on USC. After a couple of days on the West Coast, I flew back east to Tallahassee, Florida. On back-to-back days, I watched Florida State then Alabama practice, and all I can say is their Sept. 2 clash in Atlanta can’t get here soon enough.
The Midwest portion of my junket started two days after returning from scorching Tuscaloosa. The first stop was State College, Pennsylvania, where James Franklin, “a Pennsylvania boy with a Penn State heart,” has the Nittany Lions back among college football’s elite. The final stop of my tour was Columbus, Ohio, where Ohio State coach Urban Meyer is a staggering 61-6 in five seasons.
And in the spirit of full disclosure, I did utter the dreaded M-word (Michigan) once in Meyer’s presence, but he gave me my one warning and didn’t make me drop and do 10 pushups.
Go behind the scenes with me on my tour with a hodgepodge of sights, sounds, impressions, insight and unfiltered thoughts from the coaches and players themselves.
Click on the links below to go directly to each team:
Stop 1: USC Trojans
Clay Helton may not have been a flashy hire at USC, but after so much upheaval over the past few years, he brings a much-needed steadiness to the program in his second full season. He’s the Trojans’ fifth head coach since Pete Carroll’s last year in 2009, and the past two USC head coaches have been fired during the season. As one veteran USC insider told me, “It was important to have an adult in the room.” His players love him, and there’s a real connection there. Helton said the best advice he received was from his father, Kim, the former head coach at Houston.
“He told me, ‘You don’t have to be Nick Saban. You don’t have to be Bill Belichick. Go be Clay Helton. Go do the things you believe in. Go establish your culture,'” Helton recounted.
Helton, who jokes that he’s anything but Hollywood, has done just that in a way that has endeared him to his players.
“We know we can go to him about anything, and we know he’s always going to be honest with us, whether it’s football or something off the field. That’s the kind of coach you want to play for,” USC tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe said.
Helton might have the best quarterback in the country in redshirt sophomore Sam Darnold. And as talented as Darnold is, he’s equally respected by his teammates. He doesn’t have that quarterback persona. He played all sports in high school and even played some on defense, and that’s the way he carries himself on the team.
“We took a big step last year, but it was just a step,” Darnold said of the Trojans’ 52-49 Rose Bowl victory over Penn State. “We know what the standard is here at USC. It’s the reason we came here, and I wouldn’t trade the guys on this team with anybody in the country.”
Helton is even more succinct.
“We’re here to win championships — Pac-12 championships and national championships,” he said.
The Trojans’ young talent is especially impressive. They’ve recruited well each of the past two years. Freshman running back Stephen Carr is part of a loaded and diverse running back stable led by Ronald Jones II. USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin said this group of running backs reminds him of the one on the 1998 Tennessee national championship team he quarterbacked, one that included Jamal Lewis, Travis Henry, Shawn Bryson and Travis Stephens.
Speaking of Martin, he’s a head coach waiting to happen. He’s a fabulous recruiter and did a terrific job of fine-tuning the USC offense last season. Helton said he’s glad he was able to hang on to Martin for another season.
A lot of eyes nationally will be on Darnold and the USC offense, but the Trojans’ front seven has a chance to be outstanding. The coaches think outside linebackers Uchenna Nwosu and Porter Gustin are both high-round draft picks. They combined for 20.5 tackles for loss last season.
Stop 2: Florida State Seminoles
Every time a prominent head-coaching job has opened the past several years, or even when a head coach looks to be on the way out at a marquee Power 5 school, Jimbo Fisher’s name invariably comes up. But my takeaway from spending some time with the Seminoles’ eighth-year head coach is that he’s not going anywhere.
“Why would I? This is a destination job,” Fisher said, as he noted that reported courtships by LSU over the past couple of years never got to a point where he was close to leaving.
Fisher, whose average of 11.1 wins per season tops all major college coaches, has been pleased with the way FSU has reinvested in football with facility upgrades and player amenities.
The strength of this Florida State team should be its defensive line, which is always a good place to start. Junior end Josh Sweat, who had major knee surgery coming out of high school, looks more explosive than ever. Brian Burns at the other end is a future top-10 NFL draft pick, according to the FSU coaches. The 6-foot-5 Burns has beefed up to more than 220 pounds, recently broad-jumped 11 feet, 4 inches and has a 7-foot wingspan.
Brad Lawing, FSU’s veteran defensive ends coach, is one of the best in the business. He coached Jadeveon Clowney at South Carolina, and watching Lawing teach the art of rushing the passer is a treat.
Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois looks noticeably thicker and has added some good weight. He got hit a ton last season, as the Seminoles gave up 36 sacks.
“But he just kept getting back up and making plays,” FSU star safety Derwin James said. “That’s what guys love about him, and we feed off of his toughness.”
Francois, who threw for 3,350 yards, 20 touchdowns and only seven interceptions as a redshirt freshman last season, answered without hesitation when asked what he liked best about football.
“Winning,” he said.
One of the FSU freshmen everybody is eager to see is running back Cam Akers. He runs low to the ground and can really accelerate. Fisher has tried to downplay the hype, but several people in the program told me Akers has been everything they thought he was when they recruited him.
Really, though, that goes for this entire freshman class.
“There’s more grind for a young group and an urgency to learn,” Fisher said. “It’s way above average, and I don’t just mean talent-wise, but personality-wise, too. There’s a lot of maturity. It’s going to be a special group.”
Stop 3: Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama has lost a ton of impact players on defense over the past two seasons, many of them leaving early for the NFL. But the Crimson Tide’s recruiting machine (and developmental machine) just keeps churning out great players.
Nick Saban told me noseguard Da’Ron Payne is one of the best interior defensive linemen he’s coached at Alabama. The 6-foot-2, 308-pound Payne is a monster in the weight room. One of the Tide’s strength coaches said Payne could bench-press “whatever you want to put on the bar.” Payne also has incredible quickness for a guy that big and powerful. If you’re looking for a breakout player this season for Alabama, sophomore end Raekwon Davis is a popular candidate. The 6-foot-7, 306-pound Davis has just 14 percent body fat.
This freshman class also looks the part. Linebackers Christopher Allen and Dylan Moses are two guys who look ready to play right now, as does defensive lineman Phidarian Mathis. On the offensive side, receivers Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III have been impressive this preseason along with running back Najee Harris.
It’s worth noting that Allen, Moses, Mathis and Smith are all from Louisiana, which tells you that Saban’s recruiting prowess in the state where he made his first SEC head-coaching stop hasn’t waned. Of course, that’s not what anybody at LSU wants to hear.
Sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts looks more instinctive throwing the ball, and Saban said the passing game as a whole has been more complete under first-year offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.
“We’re getting back to what I want to do on offense and utilizing all of our skill players,” Saban said. “We’re still going to have some of the [run-pass option] with Jalen, but we’ve done a better job of developing the total passing game.”
Now, it goes without saying that former offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin didn’t leave on the best of terms when Saban parted ways with him the week of the national title game. But as Kiffin is quick to point out, Saban has lost his past three games without Kiffin on the sideline — Clemson in the national title game, Oklahoma in the 2014 Sugar Bowl and Auburn in the 2013 regular-season finale.
Having won four of the past eight national championships, Alabama has become a convenient target. The comments from UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen earlier this month didn’t go unnoticed by the Alabama players. Rosen, in making the point that school and football didn’t go together, said, “Raise the SAT requirement at Alabama and see what kind of team they have.”
Alabama star safety Minkah Fitzpatrick was quick to retort.
“That is disrespectful for him to say something like that,” said Fitzpatrick, who went on a mission trip to Costa Rica during spring break. “I mean, there are people on every single team that have 4.0 GPAs. You have engineers on this team, and you have people at UCLA who are not the brightest. I feel like it wasn’t his place to speak on, but everyone is worried about Alabama because we’re at the top.”
Stop 4: Penn State Nittany Lions
This time a year ago, there were rumblings that James Franklin might be on the hot seat, and even he says now that’s ridiculous when you think about where the program has come from and the impact of the NCAA sanctions.
All he’s done since a 2-2 start last season was beat Ohio State, win the Big Ten championship, earn a trip to the Rose Bowl and cash in on a new contract that will pay him an average of $ 5.73 million per year. If that’s not enough, the Nittany Lions are currently ranked third nationally in ESPN’s 2018 recruiting rankings.
“We’ve still got a ways to go, but I’m proud of the progress we’ve made and the way everybody here has invested in doing things the right way,” Franklin said. “I was happy for everybody at this university and everybody in this community that we had some success last year. They’ve been through so much here, but last year was last year. It’s what’s out in front of us that matters.”
With Franklin — who put together back-to-back nine-win seasons at Vanderbilt, which was a first for the Commodores — entering his fourth season, the Nittany Lions have made strides in updating their facilities. The locker room was renovated a year ago and is in keeping with some of the school’s most revered traditions, including the iconic blue stripe running down the middle of the locker room (just like the Penn State helmets) and only numbers on the lockers (just like the Penn State jerseys).
Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley give the Nittany Lions one of the best, if not the best, quarterback-running back combos in the country. Barkley said he wouldn’t trade McSorley for any player in college football. McSorley was at his best last season when the Nittany Lions appeared to be in the biggest trouble.
“You’re never out of a game when you’ve got Trace as your quarterback,” Barkley said.
Similarly, Barkley is a 230-pound bruiser who power cleans 405 pounds, does 32 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press and dropped his 40-yard dash time this summer to a 4.33. But his value runs much deeper than his ability to run over and run by defenders.
“He is amazing, not only as a player,” McSorley said. “Everyone sees what he does on the field, hurdling over people, the explosive plays, the incredible feats. But as a leader, that gets overlooked. He is one of the best leaders I have ever been around in my life, really helping along the young guys, extremely vocal every single practice. He just rubs off on the rest of the team.”
Stop 5: Ohio State Buckeyes
Even during the dog days of preseason camp, one of the best rivalries in sports isn’t too far from anybody’s mind. There’s a clock on the wall in the Ohio State complex counting down (by the second) to the Michigan game, or as they say in these parts, the school up north.
“I grew up in the 10-year war with Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes,” said Meyer, who is 26-3 against his chief rivals as a head coach. “So my appreciation for that rivalry … I fear that rivalry. I don’t want to let people down in the great state of Ohio. I remember when I was 5 years old, it was the first introduction, first indoctrination, I had to the game. I catch myself now looking over and seeing how important that game is, and for 365 days, you have to live with it if you don’t win that game. That’s what drives us.”
Of course, the big question: How does Meyer really feel about Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh?
“Mutual respect, and it probably stops there,” Meyer said, adding that stepping on the Ohio State logo in the weight room or wearing any shade of blue are strictly forbidden.
Both of Meyer’s coordinators are former head coaches, Greg Schiano on defense and Kevin Wilson on offense. This is Wilson’s first season, and at the top of his priority list is putting more of a charge into the Buckeyes’ offense. They struggled to make explosive plays down the field last season, but fifth-year senior quarterback J.T. Barrett said he’s already seen a big difference this preseason. Meyer said Wilson has brought a “swagger” to the Ohio State offense, which was shut out against Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal last season.
While Meyer isn’t advocating that Penn State should have been in the playoff instead of his Buckeyes last season, he admits that he would felt “empty” had the situations been reversed. The Nittany Lions won the Big Ten championship, beat Ohio State head-to-head, but were left out of the playoff.
“Whether you have four teams, whether you have eight or whether you have 64, and we’ve seen that in the NCAA basketball tournament, the 65th and 66th teams feel left out,” Meyer said. “But I felt for Penn State. Penn State was a helluva team. Should they have belonged in that playoff? Absolutely.”
Schiano said this Ohio State defensive line is the most talented he’s ever coached. Barrett is a believer, too. He said the Buckeyes rotate players in and out and that there’s no drop-off.
Something else that should pay dividends this season for Ohio State is the senior leadership. Meyer said it’s the strongest leadership he’s had on a team. Three of the Buckeyes’ best players — defensive end Tyquan Lewis, center Billy Price and Barrett — are fifth-year seniors and also three of their best leaders.
“The best teams I’ve ever been a part of are the ones with the strongest leaders,” Meyer said.
The Ohio State team meeting room is filled with quotations from all sorts of people, but one from Bill Belichick stands out: How do you know when your football team is ready? When everybody knows what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.
“‘What’ is not as powerful as ‘why,'” Meyer, who maintains a close relationship with Belichick, said. “He’s a very good friend and a guy who will obviously go down as, if not the best, one of the best to ever coach in the game in any sport. He’s everywhere in this facility.”