Derrick Nnadi has emerged as a force on the interior of the Florida State defensive line. In a way, he has an ill-fitting track singlet to thank.
Back in middle school, Nnadi decided he wanted to play sports for the first time. He decided on track and field. Nnadi had no idea how fast he could run, but during the tryouts, he raced past many other boys.
“I was like, 'Oh, snap! I’m going to be on the track team! My first sport! I’m going to run track!'" Nnadi recalled in a recent interview.
The following day, he went to the coach’s office to check the final team list and find his name. He looked up and down, and could not find his name. He checked again. And again. Five times. Nothing. Nnadi wondered, "How did I get cut?"
He went into the coach’s office.
"What’s going on?" Nnadi asked the coach. "You timed me yourself. I was faster than a lot of kids."
The coach looked at Nnadi, nearly 6 feet tall and close to 290 pounds.
"'I’m going to be real with you,'" Nnadi recalls the coach saying. "'We just don’t have your size.'"
Nnadi looked at the coach incredulously. "Why didn’t you let me know before I started running?" Nnadi asked. There was nothing for the coach to say. Nnadi left the office feeling hurt and dejected.
But the pain did not last long. He turned his focus to football, the sport that first got his attention as a child when he saw former safety Troy Polamalu make a big interception on TV and said to no one in particular, "I want to play this."
Had Nnadi made the track team, no one knows which way his sports career would have gone. He could have ended up playing football anyway. But perhaps the rejection got him into football much sooner. Nnadi suited up for the first time in eighth grade. He says now, "Football, it clicked."
That first year, his team played home games at Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where his older brothers played. Nnadi remembers seeing his brother Bradley and screaming, “Bradley, I’m about to play!” His father, Fred, recalls one play in which Nnadi carried other kids on his back because he was so much bigger than them.
Fred began calling Derrick “Steel” and reinforced one simple message: "Nobody’s bigger than you; nobody’s stronger than you." He was right about that. Nnadi became a four-star recruit in the 2014 class and looked hard at Virginia Tech and Florida State.
Fred stayed on his son, trying to instill a work ethic he learned from his own father in his native Nigeria. Fred immigrated to the United States as a college student to study engineering at Old Dominion. Once he decided he wanted to stay in the United States, Fred brought his future wife to the country with him, and they settled down in Virginia Beach. But it was hard in the early going, as they started their family and Fred had to work odd jobs while he completed first his bachelor’s degree and then his master’s degree.
After they had four boys and two girls, Derrick, their youngest child, was born. But it didn’t mean Fred took it any easier on him. Fred Nnadi is not one to sugarcoat things, so not only would he praise Derrick for his strength and toughness, but he urged Derrick to prove it every single day, every single play or risk getting benched.
"My father, he was the tough guy, and he always carried that to his children," Derrick Nnadi said. "If you’re going to do something, do it to the best of your abilities."
Though his father preferred for him to stay closer to home, Nnadi opted to attend Florida State. His parents supported the decision, but the change was hard for the mild-mannered Nnadi. Especially when defensive tackles coach Odell Haggins got on him in practice.
"Freshman year, coming up, I thought, 'This man hates me, why is he being hard on me?'" Nnadi said of Haggins. "It took year in and year out for a lot of the things the coaches were saying to stay in my head."
"He never knew how good he was," head coach Jimbo Fisher said. "He was so naive. He took everything you said literally, and even when he messed up, you hated to yell at him because there was no malice or intent. But he’s grown into the game and understanding how to play the game."
That finally happened last year, before his junior season. Nnadi earned first-team All-ACC honors from the coaches after finishing with 49 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and six sacks. Before every game, his father still tells him, "No one on the field is stronger than you; no one is faster than you. You go in there, and you destroy your opponent. You have to prove that you’re the best of the best of the best."
"When I first heard him say it, I was like, 'OK, Dad,'" Nnadi said. "As I keep listening, I just learn a little bit more, and as he’s telling me this, all of it is, 'Yeah, if I put my mind to it, I can do it, simple as that.'"
Nnadi thought about leaving school early for the NFL draft but opted to return for his senior year. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. lists Nnadi as the No. 2 senior defensive tackle heading into this season. Fisher says Nnadi "has a chance to be one of the most dominant guys up front" on a Florida State defensive line that is loaded with talent.
He has a chance to prove that right away in the opener against Alabama. His "track speed" could end up coming in handy in his football uniform.
What about the guys you don't know? What about the under-the-radar players who might not be stars but could nonetheless have a significant impact on their team's season?
On Monday, we'll look at those potential players from the SEC East. On Tuesday, it will be the West's turn.
Florida: WR Tyrie Cleveland
Whether it’s Feleipe Franks or Malik Zaire at quarterback, the Gators' offense needs playmakers outside of embattled receiver Antonio Callaway. Enter Cleveland, the 6-foot-2, 196-pound former Under Armour All-American who started four games as a true freshman last season. His 98-yard touchdown against LSU, coupled with a season-long average of 21.3 yards per catch, makes Cleveland a potential difference-maker when it comes to opening up a formerly stagnant offense.
Georgia: WR Javon Wims
Like Florida, the Bulldogs can’t afford to hang their hat on a single receiver carrying the offense. Terry Godwin is good, but he’s not an extraterrestrial. For help, look toward former junior college transfer Wims, who was a tad underwhelming during his first season on campus last season, starting just three games and totaling 17 total receptions. At 6-foot-4 with good speed, he still has potential. If Eason takes the second-year leap everyone expects, Wims could become a good red-zone target.
Kentucky: DE/LB Denzil Ware
In a reversal of fortune last season, it was Kentucky’s offense that had to do the heavy lifting, carrying a subpar defense to the program’s first bowl berth under coach Mark Stoops. With significant improvement needed in the front seven, keep an eye on Ware, who has already started 24 straight games at defensive end/outside linebacker. Now an upperclassman, the 6-foot-2, 245-pound junior could develop into a solid NFL prospect. He certainly has the size and pass-rushing skill to boost a defense that struggled to affect the quarterback in 2016.
Missouri: DL Marcell Frazier
Frazier says he doesn’t want to talk to the media this season, but that won’t stop us from talking about him. Missouri is a defensive line factory, and the redshirt senior appears to be the next NFL prospect ready for export. Despite starting just five games as a junior, he racked up 8.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks and four quarterback hurries.
South Carolina: LB Skai Moore
Remember him? You should, even though it may have felt for the past year or so that he disappeared from South Carolina. No, he wasn’t off in the NFL, although it would have been a reasonable assumption after he led the team in tackles in three consecutive seasons. Rather, shortly after Moore announced that he would return for his senior year, he suffered a season-ending injury (herniated disk). Now he’s off the trainer’s table and back in the fold as one of the league’s most athletic linebackers, poised to lift a defense that struggled for much of last season.
Tennessee: RB John Kelly
Losing Jalen Hurd during the season was a bitter pill to swallow. Seeing Alvin Kamara turn pro early was tough, although not altogether unexpected. When two talented backs walk out the door, it helps to have someone waiting in the wings like Kelly. After doing next to nothing the first five games of last season, the 5-foot-9, 212-pound junior showed what he was capable of by totaling 612 yards and four rushing touchdowns during the final eight games of the year. With a new offensive coordinator and a new starting quarterback, Kelly’s name could be called early and often in 2017.
Vanderbilt: DL Nifae Lealao
It’s going to take more than one man to help a Vanderbilt defense that ranked dead last in the SEC in sacks and among the worst in tackles for loss nationally last season. A 6-foot-5, 312-pound nose guard like Lealao is a good place to start. The senior was a bright spot last season, showing not just the size and strength to punish in the running game, but also the quickness to fight off blocks and disrupt the quarterback. If he develops into one of the best interior linemen in the SEC as coach Derek Mason expects, it would be a huge boost to a struggling defense.
At a track and field practice during the spring, Jack Tuttle received some unwelcome news from two of his football coaches at Mission Hills High outside of San Diego.
“Hey, you’re in trouble,” the quarterback -- and Utah commit -- was told.
“I was like, ‘What’s going on here?’” Tuttle said.
The coaches didn’t keep up the charade for long. They were there to pass along a bit of potentially life-altering news: Alabama had offered Tuttle a scholarship.
“That was pretty cool,” he said.
It also didn’t really change anything for him. Tuttle appreciated the offer and understood its significance, but it didn’t make him rethink his commitment to Utah. It did, however, affect the way he was perceived nationally as a prospect and, perhaps, by other schools. By the time he arrived at the Elite 11 finals in early June, Tuttle had received several more offers from prominent programs from all over the country.
There was a definite buzz about him headed into the camp, and it took less than a day of him competing side-by-side with some of the nation’s best quarterback prospects to understand why. Not only did Tuttle hold his own among the 24-player field, he was consistently among the camp’s most impressive players and an easy choice to earn one of the 12 prestigious quarterback invitations for The Opening this week in Beaverton, Oregon.
He displayed a natural fluidity that’s rare for a player entering his final year of high school and possesses a strong, accurate arm. At 6-foot-4 and just over 200 pounds, he has the size coaches look for and is athletic enough to confidently make throws on the run. For Utah fans, his performance should have been encouraging, but it’s also important to consider the setting. There’s only so much that can be learned about any player from how they go through camp drills in shorts and T-shirts.
“I thought I played pretty well and the experience was fantastic,” Tuttle said. “I really loved the camp. The coaches, the players, they were all great and now I’m really looking forward to The Opening.”
In the weeks since his performance at the Elite 11, Tuttle’s stock has continued to rise. Following the decommitment of Matt Corral, the ESPN.com’s No. 2-ranked pocket-passer from USC, Trojans head coach Clay Helton extended an offer to Tuttle. Again, Tuttle was honored and, again, he gave no indications the USC offer would affect his pledge to Utah.
“The first time I stepped foot on campus, it was love at first sight,” Tuttle said. And his subsequent trips to Salt Lake City, including one two weeks ago to throw at a camp, have reaffirmed his initial feeling.
Tuttle remains ESPN.com’s No. 29-ranked pocket-style passer, but by the time the rankings are finalized, it stands to reason he could be the Utes’ most highly ranked incoming quarterback in over a decade – and possibly longer.
There will be more than 160 of the nation’s best prospects at The Opening, which takes place at Nike’s world headquarters and begins when players start arriving on Wednesday and runs through July 3.
Of the 12 quarterbacks who will be at The Opening, three -- Tanner McKee, Justin Fields and Corral -- remain uncommitted. Fields, the No. 4 overall player in the ESPN300, was committed to Penn State, but had a change of heart in June.
The full list of quarterbacks also includes: Cammon Cooper (Washington State), Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), Devin Leary (NC State), Quincy Patterson III (Virginia Tech), Justin Rogers (TCU), Tyler Shough (North Carolina), Dorian Thompson-Robinson (UCLA) and Jarren Williams (Kentucky).
It’s that time of year in the sports calendar where the majority of news is made off the playing field, as most major sports are in their offseasons (except for baseball). Trades are happening left and right in the NBA, the NFL has some downtime before training camp and baseball’s trade deadline is next month.
In the spirit of offseason tinkering, we thought we’d have some fun on the SEC blog this week. Earlier this month, the Golden State Warriors won their second NBA championship in three years, largely because of the acquisition of Kevin Durant during free agency last offseason. To that end, we've laid out this thought experiment: If your favorite SEC team could add any active player from the roster of a conference rival to help put it over the top (whether that means claiming a national championship or simply making a bowl game), who would that player be?
On Wednesday we picked players for SEC West teams. Friday we pick players that we believe constitute the “missing piece” for SEC East teams:
Florida: QB Jalen Hurts, Alabama
The Gators have long been searching for a mainstay at quarterback. Why not pluck the guy who was the SEC’s offensive player of the year as a true freshman? Hurts can throw the pigskin (2,780 yards, 23 touchdowns) and run it (954 yards, 13 touchdowns). He has a different skill set from some of the quarterbacks Jim McElwain has worked with in the past, but hey, when you have a great talent, you figure out a way to make it work.
Georgia: WR Calvin Ridley, Alabama
With playmaker Isaiah McKenzie (who led the team with 44 receptions) gone, the Bulldogs sure could use a big-time receiver. Ridley would fit the bill perfectly and give the Bulldogs a legit No. 1 receiver to strike fear into opposing defenses, particularly when those opponents already have to account for Nick Chubb and Sony Michel in the backfield. Ridley would be a weapon Jacob Eason would utilize plenty.
Kentucky: DT Da'Ron Payne, Alabama
The Wildcats are thin at defensive tackle and need more bodies, so why not add the best player at the position in the conference? With tremendous strength and good quickness for his size (6-foot-2, 319 pounds), Payne would alleviate a lot of Kentucky’s concerns on the defensive interior.
Missouri: DE Marquis Haynes, Ole Miss
The Tigers saw their best defensive lineman, Charles Harris, leave for the NFL this offseason. Haynes, meanwhile, has more career sacks to his credit than any active SEC player (24.5 over the past three seasons). He’s similar in height to Harris if a little leaner, but he would provide instant pressure and plenty of SEC experience to a Mizzou defensive line that could use it.
South Carolina: DL Trenton Thompson, Georgia
The Gamecocks could use more talent and depth on their defensive line, and adding someone like Thompson would help. He was productive in 2016 (recording 9.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks), and at 6-foot-4, 309 pounds, would be an impact player to plug into the defensive interior.
Tennessee: RB Derrius Guice, LSU
The Vols lost two running backs from last season's team: (Alvin Kamara and Jalen Hurd). While they have rising junior John Kelly back (6.4 yards per carry), having a workhorse like Guice would take a lot of pressure off their young quarterbacks. Whoever starts under center for the Vols (either Quinten Dormady or Jarrett Guarantano) will be a first-time starter at this level, and the best way to ease such a player in is to have a great back to carry the ball. No player in the SEC last season did that better than Guice, who finished with 1,387 yards (on just 183 carries).
Vanderbilt: LB Shaun Dion Hamilton, Alabama
One of the reasons Vanderbilt’s defense has been so effective the past two seasons involved the presence of inside linebacker Zach Cunningham. Now that he’s gone, finding a replacement will be far from easy. Imagine if the Commodores picked up someone like Hamilton. Before a knee injury cut his 2016 campaign short, he racked up the third-most tackles on the Crimson Tide (64) and was particularly effective on run defense, with 52 of his tackles coming against opposing backs. He also tallied nine tackles for loss, two sacks, two interceptions, a forced fumble and a pass breakup. He would be a fit, and would remedy the loss of someone like Cunningham.
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There's no question that USC quarterback Sam Darnold will get a healthy helping of the Heisman hype before and during the 2017 season. The kid has it all, and he's coming off a breakout redshirt freshman season (3,086 yards, 31 touchdowns and just nine interceptions). He also completed 67.2 percent of his passes, which means he's is pretty accurate.
Well, every bit of that accuracy was on full display during a recent boating trip. Darnold posted an Instagram video in which he launches a pass from the back of a moving boat to USC freshman volleyball player Sean Morrissey.
Not only does Darnold connect with Morrissey, he does so while the frosh is leaping off a wakeboard, arms outstretched and body ready to get drenched.
— USC Trojans (@USC_Athletics) June 19, 2017
It's tough to say which feat was more impressive, but Darnold might be sending head coach Clay Helton a message with the caption of his video: "Heads up Trojan nation. I think we may have found our next great receiver @seanmorrissey"
Friends. How many of us have them?
It's a question we must dive into every now and then, and it's no different in the world of college football. Like Marvel superheroes, a good duo -- or trio -- can literally make all the difference in the world.
Now, college athletes aren't out to right all the injustices of the universe, but a good tag team can be the difference between a win and a loss. Last week, esteemed colleague Mitch Sherman took a look at the country's most dynamic duos, so we decided to adopt that for SEC land.
This week, we'll be looking at the top duos or trios on offense and defense. Today, we start with the offensive backfield (quarterback and running back).
1. Alabama: QB Jalen Hurts, RB Damien Harris, RB Bo Scarbrough. This trio combined for 2,806 rushing yards last year. That was more than 11 SEC teams had the entire 2016 season. Add the fact that they totaled 26 rushing touchdowns and Hurts added another 2,780 passing yards and 23 passing touchdowns, and you just won't find a more dangerous backfield in the SEC.
2. Georgia: QB Jacob Eason, RB Nick Chubb, RB Sony Michel. Chubb and Michel have totaled an impressive 5,835 rushing yards over the last three seasons, including 1,970 yards last year with 12 touchdowns. Eason threw for 2,430 yards and 16 touchdowns as a true freshman in 2016. As he continues to get more comfortable with Georgia's offense, expect those passing numbers to increase this fall.
3. Auburn: QB Jarrett Stidham, RB Kamryn Pettway, RB Kerryon Johnson. Stidham hasn't played a lick of SEC ball, but he did throw for 1,265 yards and 12 touchdowns in limited work at Baylor back in 2015. He didn't run a ton with the Bears, but he should with the Tigers, and coaches around the league think he'll be an instant star. As for the running backs, all Pettway and Johnson did was combine for 2,119 yards and 18 touchdowns last season.
4. Missouri: QB Drew Lock, RB Damarea Crockett, RB Ish Witter. Lock was second in the SEC with 3,399 passing yards and tied for third with 23 touchdowns. He also had 123 rushing yards and a score, but he's more arm than legs. Crockett was a pleasant surprise in the league with 1,062 yards, while Witter followed up with 750 yards on the ground.
5. Arkansas: QB Austin Allen, RB Devwah Whaley. This would have been a trio months ago if not for the untimely retirement of outstanding back Rawleigh Williams. But it's not like this backfield is done for. Allen led the SEC with 3,430 passing yards and was second with 25 touchdowns. Whaley is an up-and-comer who looks poised for a 1,000-plus-yard season after his 602-yard debut as a backup last year.
Others to watch:
Texas A&M: Trayveon Williams, Keith Ford
If you’re a fan of an SEC team, chances are you know where you’re going to be on fall Saturdays. But what if you were given the chance to go to any game involving an SEC team each week of the season? That’s the scenario we envisioned for the ultimate SEC road trip.
College football reporters Edward Aschoff and Sam Khan Jr. take their picks of which game they would attend, if given the choice of any involving an SEC team, each week this season. Today, we look at the November games:
Aschoff: LSU at Alabama -- It is the game in the SEC just about every year. Now, this season it likely won’t have the same fervor around it, but you can’t get through an SEC season without checking this one out. Alabama has won six consecutive meetings with LSU, but the last time the Tigers won, the game just so happened to be in Tuscaloosa.
Khan: Auburn at Texas A&M -- As Edward said, LSU-Alabama is the game in the SEC these days, so that’s the No. 1 choice, but if you had to go another direction in Week 10, an SEC game at Kyle Field is a solid option. It’s a great place to watch football. Both of these teams should be putting up the points with regularity this season, and it’s a return to Texas for Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham, the former Baylor signal-caller who prepped at Stephenville High School. One bit of intrigue here: Stidham considered the Aggies both as a high school recruit and during the transfer process but the Aggies passed, opting to stick with 2017 four-star recruit Kellen Mond.
Aschoff: Georgia at Auburn -- Another great rivalry for us to drool over. Last season, this game was a defensive struggle, but both teams are expected to see their offenses take some positive steps forward because of their respective quarterbacks. The Jacob Eason-Jarrett Stidham battle under center should make for great TV.
Khan: Arkansas at LSU -- It’s not as prestigious or long-running as the Auburn-Georgia rivalry, but the Arkansas-LSU Battle for the Golden Boot can often be entertaining. LSU has won 13 of the 21 meetings since it became a trophy game in 1996; this season it’s in Death Valley, which is always a great place to attend a game.
Aschoff: LSU at Tennessee -- These two haven’t faced each other since 2011. It’s been a long time coming, and with so many unknowns for both teams, this one should be fun. All eyes are on Volunteers coach Butch Jones, who needs to show that his program is headed in a positive direction late in the season.
Khan: LSU at Tennessee -- This is one of those iffy weeks on the schedule with four SEC teams playing non-Power 5 conference opposition, so the variety of choices isn’t wide. Neyland Stadium is probably the safe bet here, with both teams likely having some stake in the division race on the line.
Aschoff: Alabama at Auburn -- Simply put, it’s the Iron Bowl. Alabama is the favorite to win the SEC, while Auburn could well have the best shot at dethroning the Tide. You get Alabama’s new-look defense on the Plains against program-changing QB Jarrett Stidham. Then there’s Alabama’s high-octane offense against an ever-improving Auburn defense.
Khan: Florida State at Florida -- If Auburn is as good as we think it will be, the Iron Bowl is hard to beat. However, this is a great week for rivalries, including FSU-Florida, which could have plenty at stake. Could FSU -- No. 2 in our Way-Too-Early Top 25 -- be in the College Football Playoff hunt? Will Florida have already clinched a spot in Atlanta for its third consecutive SEC title game and have an outside shot at the CFP? Either way, the Swamp should be rocking for this one.