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Five veteran college football quarterbacks poised to make Kenny Pickett-like leap in 2022 season

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Kenny Pickett is the kind of success story in college football that has existed for decades but has become increasingly rare in recent years. He’s a quarterback who showed up to campus without a lot of hype and didn’t light the world on fire despite getting a chance to play early. But he kept playing, kept improving, and in 2021 it all came together. Pickett led Pitt to an ACC title, was named a Heisman finalist and ended up as the only QB selected in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft.

It’s a story that’s been compared to what we saw with Joe Burrow, and while the similarities are there, some key differences also exist. First, Pickett was a three-star recruit and considered the 738th-best player in the 2017 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. Burrow was a four-star and ranked as the No. 280 player in the 2015 class. Second, while Pickett played a little as a freshman in 2017, he was Pitt’s starter for his sophomore season. Burrow didn’t have a clear path to playing time at Ohio State and transferred to LSU, where he had an average season in 2018 before blowing up in 2019.

Burrow had only thrown 418 college passes before his senior season; Pickett entered the 2021 season with 1,177 pass attempts under his belt. Generally, you are who you are at that point, but Pickett took a giant step forward long past the point expected of him. It’s a success story that has caused many fanbases around the country to take a look at their QB depth chart and wonder if the next Kenny Pickett might be on their team.

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Odds are, he isn’t. These days, the quarterbacks who end up as Heisman finalists or first-round picks show up on campus that way. They’re five-star or four-star recruits who have been groomed for the moment since childhood. But that QB might be out there, and I have scoured the countryside to find him. The qualifications were easy enough. I wanted to find a veteran QB with plenty of game experience who has been just slightly above average during his career — what we on The Cover 3 Podcast refer to as a JAG+ — so a breakout would seemingly “come from nowhere.” Also, I wanted to avoid players who were highly rated recruits out of high school. Not necessarily three-stars only, but no five-stars or high four-stars. What I ended up with are these five quarterbacks.

Which one will emerge as the next Kenny Pickett?

Kedon Slovis, Pitt

How perfect would it be for the next Kenny Pickett to be the player replacing Kenny Pickett? Slovis burst onto the scene in 2019 when he wasn’t supposed to. He was a three-star recruit out of high school meant to be a backup for five-star recruit JT Daniels. Then Daniels suffered a knee injury, and Slovis was thrust into the starting role, where he excelled. He threw for 3,502 yards, 30 touchdowns and nine interceptions as a freshman. He played so well that Daniels chose to transfer rather than stay and try to win his job back. He might’ve? Slovis regressed the last two seasons and transferred to Pitt following the regime change at USC. While Mark Whipple has left for Nebraska, Frank Cignetti will run the Panthers offense, and he had success at Boston College with Phil Jurkovec.

Sam Hartman, Wake Forest

Sam Hartman is the perfect Wake Forest quarterback because he’s been pretty good for a while now, but nobody ever seems to notice. While I include him on this list, it’s fair to argue that Hartman has already had his breakout season. After throwing for 33 touchdowns and 15 interceptions in his first three seasons (22 games), Hartman tossed 39 touchdowns and 14 interceptions for the Demon Deacons last year. Hartman also set career-highs in completion rate, attempts and yards while rushing for an additional 364 yards and 11 touchdowns. If he cuts down the turnovers in 2022, he could make a Pickett-like leap. Also, if you’re wondering if I want to refer to it as a Pickett’s Charge, I very much do, but Pickett’s Charge didn’t go well in real life, and I don’t want to put those vibes on any of these guys.

Sean Clifford, Penn State

When cooking up this idea, Clifford’s name is the one that immediately came to mind. Honest. He’s been a solid player for Penn State who has shown steady improvement each season, but he’s done so when the Nittany Lions haven’t played well overall. He seems to take the brunt of the blame from fans. Some of it is deserved, but a lot of it isn’t. Last season, Clifford threw 109 more passes than any previous year and set career-highs in completion rate (61%) and passing yards (3,107). He’s entering his second season under offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, and it’s the first time in his career he’ll work with the same play-caller in consecutive seasons. If he can hold off young upstart Drew Allar, Clifford could be on the verge of a breakout in his fifth season.

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Spencer Sanders, Oklahoma State

While Hartman and Clifford can be considered dual-threats, Sanders is the most dynamic rusher on this list, providing him another avenue to succeed. He’s rushed for 1,565 yards in his three seasons at Oklahoma State, but I include him for his potential growth as a passer. Sanders threw the ball more in 2021 than any other season and saw a dip in his efficiency. His completion rate dipped slightly, while his yards per attempt plummeted to 7.2, and he had the lowest efficiency rating of his career at 133.5. Of course, he also set career-highs in yards and touchdowns and nearly led Oklahoma State to its first Big 12 title since 2011. I don’t know that he’ll ever reach the point where he’s considered a first-round pick by NFL teams, but it’s not insane to believe Sanders can have the kind of season that garners Heisman buzz if he improves as a passer to add to his rushing ability.

Tanner Morgan, Minnesota

In 2019, Tanner Morgan threw for 3,253 yards and 30 touchdowns while averaging 10.2 yards per attempt as the Gophers finished 11-2 and at No. 10 in the AP Top 25. Morgan was so impressive that season that I included him in my “way-too-early” 2021 NFL Mock Draft as a potential first-round pick. Then it all fell apart. Minnesota offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca left for Penn State, receiver Tyler Johnson left for the NFL and COVID obliterated the Gophers’ depth chart during the 2020 season. The 2021 season didn’t go much better for Morgan, as Minnesota ran the ball more often than any team in the country outside the three service academies. Still, Morgan’s completion rate of 59.6% was an improvement on 2020, and his yards per attempt climbed up to a respectable 8.2. Now, Ciarocca has returned to Minnesota with the same offense Morgan had success in during the 2019 season. While Ciarocca hasn’t brought Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman with him, we could see Morgan take another step forward and closer to the player he was in 2019.

Finally, here are the career numbers of our five candidates compared to Kenny Pickett’s career pre-2021. You can argue that they’ve been too good.

Kenny Pickett

1,177

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60.4

6.78

3.3

2.1

124.1

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Kedon Slovis

953

68.4

7.95

6.1

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2.5

150.2

Sam Hartman

1,169

57.7

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7.93

6.2

2.5

139.6

Sean Clifford

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1,005

60.4

7.80

6.2

2.4

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141.5

Spencer Sanders

886

62.4

7.79

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5.6

3.5

139.5

Tanner Morgan

903

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61.4

8.94

6.2

3.0

150.9

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USFL Week 6 Power Rankings: Stallions, Generals on top

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The unbeaten Stallions and one-loss Generals remain at the top of our USFL Power Rankings. RJ Young ranks the field.



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With the best offence in the WNBA, have the Aces finally found their rhythm?

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For a team that, on paper, seemed like they would be able to fight with the best in the league on any given night, the Las Vegas Aces have yet to find the success they were meticulously built for.

It’s not team chemistry giving them issues — the Aces have arguably the most fun on and off the court, supporting each other in-game as well as keeping the atmosphere light and uplifting each other outside of those four quarters.

Talent was never an issue either, as 2020 MVP A’ja Wilson continues to dominate the league, Jackie Young has continued her ascendance since last season, Dearica Hamby is one of the biggest threats in the league coming off the bench and Kelsey Plum is putting up career-highs in points and assists.

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Yet that post-season glory still eludes the Aces, who moved the franchise from San Antonio to Nevada in 2018 and hired former Detroit Piston Bill Laimbeer to coach the team; who after missing the postseason that first year have made three consecutive conference finals; and who are a team that, on the outside, has what it takes to go all the way.

So, what do the Aces have that makes them a championship contender?

When drafting first overall in 2017 (still in San Antonio), 2018 and 2019, they picked up Kelsey Plum, A’ja Wilson and Jackie Young, three players more than capable of making an impact on the floor, whether it’s Plum’s three-point shooting, Young’s finishing or Wilson’s impact in all areas of the game — part of what makes her an MVP-calibre player.

Last season, the Aces also acquired Gray from Los Angeles, dubbed the “Point Gawd”, who not only fit in well with the Aces culturally, but tied her career-high in assists per game and averaged 11.1 points per game last season, a number she is currently surpassing in 2022.

And while Wilson’s ability in the paint, her physicality, her delicate yet precise finishes and her mid-range game all were a nightmare on their own for anyone playing against Las Vegas, they also had to deal with Liz Cambage in their way, a 6-foot-8 centre averaging a near double-double and was clutch on the defensive boards for the Aces.

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However, in free agency, Cambage chose to leave for Los Angeles, a team she had said was a dream to play for since she got into the WNBA.

But with that gap in the line-up, two-time Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby finally moved into a starting role and proved that her production wouldn’t slow no longer coming off the bench.

Hamby is averaging a career-high in points and rebounds so far this season, with a double-double of 14.1 points and 10 rebounds per game, and is able to increase production with her teammates while on the floor.

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If all these players were producing at a high level last season, why couldn’t they get the job done?

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There isn’t a solid answer to exactly why the Aces fell to the Mercury, a team that had already played two other single-elimination games, lost a solid shooter in Kia Nurse and were relying on 39-year-old Diana Taurasi to get them to the end of Game 5 — and yet, they did.

The Aces managed to take Game 1 of that series, but dropped back-to-back games, losing by over 20 points in each, including a game where the Aces scored just 60 points with Wilson and Young being held to eight points each and Plum held to just six.

When all their cylinders are firing, Las Vegas has the best offence in the league — that is their greatest strength. They have shooters beyond the three-point line, from midrange, players who can drive the net and players who can be physical in the paint and finish at the time.

However Las Vegas found themselves trailing more often than not, rushing shots that didn’t fall, missing lay-ups and other almost guaranteed baskets, and getting too in their own heads to slow down and play the Aces basketball that holds championship-winning technique and skill.

Now, in 2022, the start to their season couldn’t be going any better. But what truly is the difference?

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Enter Becky Hammon. It’s not just her WNBA experience as a player, or her knowledge as a coach from her time with the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA, but it’s her belief in her players and their ability to win games with their shooting.

In the Aces’ pre-season game against Minnesota — one of only two games they have lost this year — they took 23 three-point shots in the game, which still wasn’t enough for Hammon’s liking knowing what her team is capable of.

“It’s an emphasis for us. We shoot a lot of threes every day, and everybody has the green light,” said Hammon after that first game of the season.

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Starting the season with back-to-back double-digit wins over Phoenix and Seattle, the Aces looked more in championship form, though they then dropped a game to Washington by 13 points in a game where both Alysha Clark and Natasha Cloud were inactive.

Since then, the Aces have have scored 100 points in three games, including their last two, and have won their last two games by 20 or more points.

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Most notably, the Aces took on Cambage’s new team on May 23, and set a franchise record for three-pointers made, scoring 18 in the 104-76 win, proving that their sharpshooting offence that Hammon puts an emphasis on has elevated their game to an even higher level and tying a WNBA record.

Meanwhile, the Aces managed to hold Cambage to just 10 points in what could have been a “revenge” game of sorts — new transplants Chennedy Carter and Jordin Canada did the heavy lifting, though the Sparks are now on a five-game losing streak.

On the other side, Las Vegas is on a five-game win streak, Las Vegas has seen Young and Plum score in double-digits every game this season, with Young having a Most Improved Player-type campaign in 2022 as a key player in the Aces’ rotation.

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The Aces are outscoring their opponents by over 13 points per game, shooting a whopping 10 per cent better than their opponents from the three-point line.

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With a starting five like Las Vegas has, all of whom averaging 12 or more points per game this season, it’s tough to stop them when even the bench can contribute almost 10 points a night — even their 2022 first-round draft pick Kierstan Bell added 12 points in the Aces’ win over the Sparks.

Scoring in transition on the fast break or off of turnovers is what Las Vegas does to create gaps in the score against their opponent while also shooting 50 per cent from the floor as a team, including 47 per cent from beyond the arc.

Their ball movement and rebounding on the court are only compliments to the shooting, intensity, physicality and basketball intelligence the Aces have this season. Their task now is keeping up this style of play for 28 more games.

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AFC East burning questions for 2022 season: Will Tua take a leap? Who will handle Pats’ play-calling duties?

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While it’s still only May and the start of the 2022 regular season is a few months out, the dust has settled on the NFL’s offseason with the major roster-building mile-markers now in the rearview mirror. As teams now begin their offseason programs with the OTAs and minicamp on the horizon, we can begin looking at the overall rosters and dissect any questions we may still have about them for the upcoming year. 

Below, we do just that as we dive into each team in the AFC East and highlight one burning question that still looms over the organization. As you’ll read, these questions range from very macro, big-picture questions all the way down to the minutia of play-calling duties. 

Bills: Is this the year?

If there was ever going to be a year to hope (expect?) that this could finally be the year that the Buffalo Bills pull off the impossible and win the Super Bowl, this would be it. After all, they are the betting favorite to hoist the Lombardi Trophy this year and have a quarterback in Josh Allen that is also the favorite to win league MVP. 

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That said, Buffalo’s ability to roll deep into the playoffs and potentially win Super Bowl LVII goes beyond just the quarterback as they have one of the most loaded rosters in the NFL. They were the No. 1 rated defense in DVOA last season and that was largely without All-Pro cornerback Tre’Davious White, who was limited to 11 games with a torn ACL. Not only will the Bills get him back to inject into their secondary, but they also drafted Florida corner Kaiir Elam in the first round to play opposite of him. On top of bringing back and adding youth to the secondary, the Bills made the surprise splash of signing veteran pass rusher Von Miller to a six-year, $120 million deal in free agency, making what was already considered to be the best defensive unit in the NFL that much better.  

Meanwhile, the offensive side of the ball — headlined by Allen — also improved. They added Jamison Crowder to replace Cole Beasley, tight end O.J. Howard to complement Dawson Knox and drafted running back James Cook in the second round. 

Could the addition of all these pieces to an already established core be the push the Bills need to finally get over the hump? 

Patriots: Who is calling plays on offense?

The departure of Josh McDaniels has left a massive hole in the Patriots offense at a critical juncture with Mac Jones entering his second season in the league. 

While Bill Belichick has held onto coordinator titles in the past, it was clear in those previous situations who the offensive play-caller was. For instance, Bill O’Brien was the de facto offensive coordinator and called the offensive plays in 2009 when McDaniels initially left to be the head coach of the Broncos without actually holding the title. Also, McDaniels called the offensive plays without the OC title in 2005 following the departure of Charlie Weis. Even with the lack of a title, there was a clear elevation within the organization as to who would be taking the reins of the offense. This year? Not so much. 

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New England has been reluctant to reveal who in fact will be calling plays for them in 2022, but it does appear to be down to either Matt Patricia or Joe Judge. This offseason, Patricia revealed that he has been working with the offensive line while Judge noted that he was primarily been working with the quarterbacks. Neither has experience calling offensive plays and Patricia is the only one of the two who has any play-calling experience as he was the Patriots DC from 2012-2017. 

When you look at how each of their offenses ran when they were head coaches, it does bring a tremendous amount of concern for what may be ahead. Under Judge, the Giants offense ranked 31st in total yards and points during his two-year stint. Meanwhile, Patricia’s offense as head coach of the Lions from 2018-2020 was in the bottom half of the league in those same categories. 

With that in mind, it is frightful to envision either one ascending to that roll. The one wild card could be Belichick himself calling plays, but one does wonder if that obligation pulls him too far away from helping the overall operation. 

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The spotlight is now officially on Tua Tagovailoa. The Miami Dolphins came into this offseason and surrounded their former first-round quarterback with all the pieces necessary to succeed in 2022. In free agency, they added star left tackle Terron Armstead, inked wideout Cedrick Wilson to a three-year deal, and brought in a new stable of running backs in Raheem Mostert, Chase Edmonds, and Sony Michel

The biggest move of them all, however, came with the blockbuster trade that landed them former Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill. The duo of Hill and second-year receiver Jaylen Waddle gives Miami two of the fastest pass-catchers in the NFL. 

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It also shouldn’t be overlooked that the Dolphins brought in new head coach Mike McDaniel, who was the former offensive coordinator for the 49ers

While all of these additions raise the ceiling for Miami’s offense, they’ll only go as far as Tagovailoa will take them. If he isn’t able to elevate, that could result in the Dolphins making a change at quarterback by this time next year.  

The Jets are currently tied for the second-worst odds in the NFL to win the Super Bowl this season, so expectations aren’t exactly high in East Rutherford. They also have the worst odds to win the AFC East at +2200, are +600 to make the playoffs, and have an O/U win total of 5.5. While 2022 isn’t projected to be the Jets’ year, there is still plenty of optimism about the overall future of the franchise. 

They just went through a wildly successful offseason where they made key additions to an already young core. In free agency, they brought in safety Jordan Whitehead and corner D.J. Reed to help the secondary, and brought in tight end C.J. Uzomah. At the draft, they hit home runs in the first round, taking corner Sauce Gardner, wideout Garrett Wilson, and edge rusher Jermaine Johnson. They also took running back Breece Hall early in the second round. 

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That is quite the injection of talent and certainly has New York on the path toward contention. However, the Jets rebuild will only be successful if their No. 2 overall pick from the 2021 NFL Draft, Zach Wilson, lives up to that billing and becomes a true franchise quarterback. Last year, the 22-year-old flashed potential, but it was an underwhelming campaign overall as he finished with a 69.7 passer rating. Wilson taking a leap in 2022 is necessary for the Jets if they want to turn this positive momentum of their rebuild into a legitimate contender. 

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