COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Jamal Adams emerged from the visitors locker room carrying his Thanksgiving dinner—a chicken sandwich in a box—his LSU backpack, and the sense of pride that comes with laying waste to the home team on Thanksgiving. The junior safety made his presence felt on the very first drive against Texas A&M, with a third-down sack of Trevor Knight en route to a 54-39 victory. It was a play reminiscent of former LSU safety Tyrann Mathieu, whose exploits in coverage and as a blitzer and tackler earned him the Chuck Bednarik Award as the nation’s best defensive player in 2011. Mathieu is one of the standard-bearers for what current LSU defensive backs describe as a “fraternity,” the cult of position known as DBU.
True to form, Adams wears a single strip of eye-black under his left eye, an homage to Mathieu. He readily admits to having stolen aspects of Mathieu’s game and personal style. Among LSU corners and safeties, all comparisons to Tigers heroes past are accepted and appreciated; the trail already blazed is just that good. LSU DBs rattle off the names as though they were gospel: Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu, Eric Reid, LaRon Landry, Ryan Clark. “We’re just trying to keep the brotherhood and the tradition going,” Adams says. “If we’re not out there on our P’s and Q’s we let ourselves down, but we let them down at the same time.”
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Much of that mentality is owed to the investment former LSU DBs have made in the program and its current players. Alums spend parts of their NFL offseasons and bye weeks in Baton Rouge, visiting with players and speaking to the group. One of them is defensive backs coach, and former Giants and Lions corner, Corey Raymond. Mathieu, the Arizona Cardinals star, gifted the program $1 million in November.
Former players communicate most often with fraternity pledges through social media, with Instagram likes and Twitter retweets serving as a currency of clout. In the case of Adams, an Instagram comment led to a valued friendship with one ex-player who considers himself the first generation of DBU. Clark, a former Giants, Pittsburgh and Washington safety who retired after the 2014 season, says he commented positively on one of Adams’ Instagram pictures during his freshman season in 2014, and the two wound up exchanging phone numbers. Now Adams calls Clark once a week to go over film at the team facility. If Adams hears Clark is going over film with Coach Raymond, he finds a way to get in the room. They critique his previous game, then break down the upcoming opponent.
“We love the school,” says the 37-year-old Clark of his fellow ex-LSU defenders. “The defensive back position at LSU really wasn’t that big of a deal when I was there, and then when you start to get all these first-rounders, it became DBU. I was the oldest and the most accomplished from the school at that time, so I kind of got to be the grandfather of it all.”
Several players on the current roster call on Clark for advice, and even work. Tre'Davious White, who along with Adams projects as a Day 1 pick in the 2017 draft, interned with Clark’s sports training operation, DB Precision at Traction Sports Performance in Baton Rouge. Yet it’s the safeties, Clark and Adams, who have a special bond.
“He’s critiqued me after each game. Tons of film, before and after,” Adams says. “He’s been a brother to me. His family is like a second family for me.”
Adams’ first family has a football pedigree too; his father, George Adams, was the 19th overall pick of the New York Giants in the 1985 draft. The former Kentucky running back rushed for 498 yards as a rookie but saw his career stymied by injuries. Out of the league by 1991, he sued the Giants in 1996 for damages related to his second hip replacement, the year after Jamal was born. Jamal says though his father walked with a limp, he rarely discussed his ailments or let his family know of his enduring pain.
“He was trying not to hurt for the family, doing whatever he could just to provide,” Adams says. “It makes me realize how lucky I am to play this game because you never know when it can be your last play. He stays on me about that. Always play hard, never take plays off.”
Relentlessness ended up being one of Adams’ best qualities. The 6' 1″, 213-pound safety collected 67 tackles with 5.5 behind the line of scrimmage and four interceptions as a sophomore in 2015, two years removed from Hebron High School in Carrollton, Texas. A handful of Instagram commenters took to calling him “The Money Badger.” In 2016, his role for the Tigers has shifted from playmaking zone defender to shutdown cover man, when needed. Coaches asked Adams to lock down high-profile tight ends in games against Alabama and Mississippi. Alabama’s O.J. Howard managed one catch for -3 yards against Adams, and Ole Miss’ Evan Engram caught three balls for 15 yards.
In those matchups, Adams displayed the sort of versatility NFL defensive coordinators covet. The ability to match up against big receivers and mobile tight ends is likely to make Adams the first safety off the board in April. And the relentlessness he operates with is what makes Clark think he’s a lock to be a Top-10 pick and a force in the league.
Clark was at a recent LSU practice (though he says it looked more like a pro day considering the number of scouts in attendance) when Steelers college scout Mark Gorscak asked him to give his opinion on Adams’ prospects.
“I told him not to compare this kid to Troy Polamalu, because Troy is my favorite player I ever played with,” Clark says. “But Jamal has that same explosion and instincts. He feels the game the same way Troy did.”
A current coach explains why his pupil is destined for success as a pro. Here’s Texas A&M defensive ends coach Terry Price on Aggies junior Myles Garrett, potentially the top pick of the 2017 draft.
“You look at the injuries he’s played through, the high ankle sprain, and the fact that he’s still out there speaks to his character and his commitment. A lot of guys in his position would’ve just sat out, but he didn’t. The guy loves the game, talks about it and works at it constantly, and just wants to be great. On the field, some of the athleticism he shows is amazing for a guy his size. He’s been blessed with a lot of ability and he uses it to his advantage. He understands route concepts, coverage concepts that ends and OLBs have to, and obviously he excels at rushing the quarterback. He can work in any scheme, any position. He’s going to be a star at whatever you ask him to do. He’s different from Von in the sense that he’s a bigger guy. 270 pounds, 6' 5″ and can do a lot of the same things. We started using him in spots as an interior lineman since sophomore year, according to the matchup. We try to find matchups from time to time where we like the matchup with the guard, and he’s effective in that.”
A few NFL evaluators introduce you to the players they’re keeping an eye on…
Freddie Stevenson, FB, Florida State: Maybe the only draftable, actual fullback in this draft. Tough-nosed lead blocker with aggression, decisiveness, power. Plus he has the foot speed to get out ahead on stretch runs or tosses.
Jake Butt, TE, Michigan: He’s a complete tight end, as a blocker and receiver. You need a guy like that, and not just all these college tight ends that can split wide. I think he’ll end up in the first round.
Tre'Davious White, CB, LSU: Elite athlete who can be an asset in the return game. Great feet and man cover skills. Sort of a liability in run support but getting better at tackling and should be able to add some weight without losing speed.
This one goes back a few years, to the halcyon days of 2011, when new Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer made his second staffing hire with a 6 a.m. phone call to Mark Pantoni. The Buckeyes Director of Player Personnel and recruiting guru had one mandate: Keep the cupboards full. Steve Wiltfong at 247sports.com penned an interesting profile of the 35-year-old whose duties last weekend included the vital yet unheralded task of hosting more than 370 recruits and high school coaches in Columbus to watch what was essentially a playoff elimination game between Michigan and Ohio State. After OSU’s double-overtime victory, Meyer was asked to put into words Curtis Samuel’s wild, weaving cutback run off a swing pass on a third down in the second overtime, on which the former four-star recruit from Brooklyn evaded Michigan defenders on about nine different occasions, setting up a fourth-down conversion that rescued OSU’s season. Said Meyer: “That’s called recruiting.”
I knew Texas fielded a young football team under Charlie Strong, but I didn’t know they were this young.v Via Bruce Feldman:
The Longhorns, 5-6, start nine sophomores on defense and have a true freshman quarterback, and three freshmen and sophomores start on the offensive line. In all, there are 29 freshmen and sophomores on the Longhorns' two-deep.
Texas replaced Strong, 16-21 over three seasons with the Longhorns, with Houston coach Tom Herman.
One note on the new Texas hire: Kudos are in order for ESPN’s Cole Cubelic, who did some heavy lifting during a typically low-impact pregame drive-by interview with then-Houston coach Tom Herman last Friday before the Cougars’ game against Memphis. Herman, who we now know was definitely in talks to become Texas’s next coach, responded to Cubelic’s question about multiple reports that he may not be Houston’s coach in 2017 by saying, “Honestly, don’t believe anything that you read.” Cubelic pressed on: “Can you confirm those reports are false?” Herman: “Absolutely. Sure.” Cubelic kept going, with Herman visibly agitated. “As a former player, I’ve been in a situation with a coaching change. I know it can be challenging. How will you handle that with your kids today.” Said Herman: “There’s nothing to handle except beating Memphis.”
I’m quite sure Cubelic didn’t expect Herman to open up to him right there in the tunnel about the nuances of coaching a team that may not be yours to coach in a matter of days. But it was worth it to get Herman on the record issuing flat-out denials. The manner in which coaches depart programs matter to the players they recruit, and in some cases, leave behind for greener pastures.
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WHAT I’M WATCHING
Saturday unless noted, all times Eastern…
Western Michigan vs. Ohio (Friday, 7 p.m.):WMU senior Corey Davis, college football’s new all time leader in career receiving yards, will carry an untested label into the NFL draft by virtues of his school’s gooey non-conference schedule in 2016 (Northwestern, North Carolina Central, Illinois, Georgia Southern). In this regard, he reminds me somewhat of ex-Fresno State receiver, Davante Adams, the 2014 second-rounder of the Packers whose most prolific 2013 performances came against the likes of UNLV and San Jose State. Facing Ohio in the MAC title game won’t be a benchmark for evaluators, yet the Bobcats will be the first team Western Michigan has played all season with a defense ranked higher than its own in yards allowed per game.
Colorado vs. Washington (Friday, 7 p.m.): The defensive talent on display at Washington is something to behold, and now we get to see this unit face off with a red-hot Colorado team that hung 45 and 44, on Washington State and Arizona, respectively, in consecutive weeks. As many as nine Washington defensive players could be drafted in May, including junior cornerback Sidney Jones and redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Vita Vea, should they choose to declare. Plus, here’s a dream matchup made for December: Colorado corner Chidobe Awuzie up against Washington receiver John Ross (1,071 yards, 16 touchdowns this season).
Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State (12:30 p.m.): Tons of great football on Saturday, including Clemson-Virginia Tech, Alabama-Florida, and a Top-10 matchup between Penn State and Wisconsin. But if I have to pick one to watch on Saturday, I’m parking it on the couch for the latest installment of the Bedlam Series. Two reasons: (1) I think Oklahoma State junior Mason Rudolph will be in the conversation next year as a top-tier passer, and would probably be a Day 2 or early Day 3 pick if he declared in 2017. He’s got work to do with decisiveness and reads, but he’s thrown all of 13 picks in his two seasons as starter, fewer than Deshaun Watson or DeShone Kizer. And (2) Dede Westbrook. The Oklahoma receiver is arguably one of the most consistent big-play threats in college football with over 19 yards per catch and 1,354 yards receiving in 2016. At 23, Westbrook is one of the more fascinating stories in college football, having overcome a foreboding medical diagnosis in high school (a ruptured small intestine on a fluke hit), and spending time at Blinn College before retreating back home to Cameron, Texas, to take care of his two children. He’ll make a final case to be a first-rounder in the Big 12 title game and the ensuing bowl game.
Former NFL GM and current Reese’s Senior Bowl Executive Director Phil Savage highlights senior match-ups he’ll be keeping an eye on this week.
Western Michigan OT Taylor Moton vs. Ohio DE Tarell Basham: Two Reese’s Senior Bowl participants will face each other at Detroit’s Ford Field on Friday. After redshirting in 2012, Moton (6' 5″, 328 pounds) has started four straight seasons, as a right guard and right tackle. He will be opposed by Basham (6' 4″, 262 pounds), who has racked up 146 total tackles, 37 tackles for loss and 26.5 sacks in three-and-a-half years as a starter. The next round of this 1-on-1 battle will continue in Mobile in late January.
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I spent Thanksgiving with family at Texas A&M, where the holiday fun was spoiled by LSU sophomore Derrius Guice’s school-record 285 rushing yards on Thursday night. While the Thanksgiving brunch at a College Station restaurant was memorable, the weekend lunch stop at Madden’s Casual Gourmet in Bryan, Texas was the consensus winner. Madden’s boasts appetizer crabcakes like they make ’em back home in Maryland, beef tenderloin rubbed in chocolate, coffee and all sorts of other magic, and deviled eggs drizzled with bacon jam and chile oil. Highest recommendation. And a bonus: The in-house store—Old Bryan Market Place—is stocked with the sort of home fixins’ you might see on HGTV's Fixer Upper With Chip and Joanna Gaines (yes, I watch the show).