With the football season about to kick off, ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit tackles some questions from Post columnist Steve Serby.
Q: How surprised are you that Sam Darnold could be the Jets’ Week 1 starter?
A: I’m not necessarily surprised. I remember saying I would love to have seen him come back and play one more year of college ball. The reason was not his skillset, not what he can do. I just wanted to see him work through his progressions from the pocket instead of at times taking off and running, which a lot of the college guys do when they get into trouble. … We’ll see. It’s one thing in the preseason to do this, another thing when they start dialing up the zone blitzes and the combo coverages and try to create some confusion. I mean, everybody from Troy Aikman and Peyton Manning and everybody in between struggled their first year in trying to pick up defenses when they kind of turn up the creativity. So let’s see how things go. I personally am a huge fan of his. I’m not surprised. I think eventually he’s gonna be a superstar in the NFL. But as we all know, there’s growing pains with first-year starters in the NFL.
Q: What do you think of Browns top-overall pick Baker Mayfield?
A: I’m a huge Baker guy. I thought he should have been the first pick in the draft. You talk about kind of that “it” factor where you get your guys to want to play for you — Baker Mayfield has that. You could see if you watched “Hard Knocks,” he has one of those infectious personalities. He’s a guy who can make any throw with a big, strong arm. I’ve compared him to Drew Brees as far as his style of play. Maybe even a young Brett Favre as far as you’ll see him scramble for his life, shovel pass a ball the way Brett Favre used to, or he’ll do some unorthodox things, but typically he reminds me the most of Drew Brees as far as how Drew moves his feet, finds an open man, comes off his primary, finds his second and third option. I think he’ll eventually get there, but much like Sam Darnold, sometimes it takes time.
Q: How good a pro will Saquon Barkley be?
A: Man, you’re hitting all my sweet spots here! That’s my guy (chuckle). I’ve never covered a guy, maybe since Reggie Bush, and maybe Adrian Peterson, that I’ve been more excited and watched them play in the NFL than Saquon Barkley. I’m happy he got to go to a team where they’ve got a lot of receivers, so he doesn’t have to run into a concrete wall, eight or nine guys at the line of scrimmage to stop him. I think there’s enough diversity there that Eli [Manning] will be the beneficiary. But I think New York is gonna fall in love, if they haven’t already, with Saquon Barkley. His personality and big smile, just one of those kids that’s very easy to root for. And another thing is you can get him out in space, match him up with a linebacker or a safety from a slot position. He runs routes like a receiver. It’s not just him running the football. I think people will see there’s a variety of ways he can hurt defenses. He’s probably the No. 1 guy I’m most excited to watch this year in the NFL that left the college game from a year ago.
Q: Giants GM Dave Gettleman has said he looks at him as a gold-jacket guy.
A: I’ve been doing this 23 years, and I can count on one hand how many guys did some of the things that I witnessed from him in the college game. Now that always doesn’t translate into the NFL world. But he has the body, and you’ve seen his legs … his core. … This guy’s built to be a dominant player. I’m just gonna knock on wood and hope that he stays healthy his whole career. I think I would side with Dave there and agree that he has everything that you would think going into his career that will give him a chance to become a superstar for years to come.
Q: So you can understand why the Giants would pass on Darnold with Manning there?
A: I can. I mean, you’re talking about a guy that you can put in your backfield hopefully the next 8-10 years, and be one of the best backs in the NFL. You give a quarterback like Eli, much like if you give Ben Roethlisberger a Le’Veon Bell. You give these guys that have been there and done that and still have game in them, it’s amazing how much better quarterbacks can become. John Elway’s a great example of that over the years — just couldn’t quite get there, couldn’t quite get there. All of a sudden, he got Terrell Davis and won two Super Bowls. So I think sometimes you have to be careful of underestimating of what a good back can do to a quarterback and receivers.
Q: What makes Alabama coach Nick Saban, Nick Saban?
A: It’s not one thing. It’s the ability to recruit, and he never takes his foot off the accelerator. That’s No. 1. No. 2 is his ability to de-recruit these guys and get them to buy in to the Alabama Way, which is you’re not special individually, we need to buy into a team that the culture of how we win here. And he gets them all to do that.
Q: Describe the pressure on Michigan coach John Harbaugh and does Urban Meyer’s three-game suspension at Ohio State add to that pressure?
A: I don’t see all that. I know he’s kind of an easy target right now for people. But if you really look at the games that he lost against Michigan State and against Ohio State and Penn State, a lot of those games have come down to the last few minutes, and then just not finding ways to win. So I think they’re a lot closer than people think. I think he’s gonna have a great year. If you go back and really study them, it’s pretty simple, they’re not taking care of the football. At the end of the day, he’s the head coach, it’s easy to point the finger at him. But I don’t necessarily feel the pressure that a lot of people are talking about.
Q: Chip Kelly returns as the UCLA coach.
A: Fired up to have him back. I think his brand maybe tarnished a bit because of his NFL experience. All I think of when I see Chip Kelly, is him in a visor standing on the sideline in Eugene, Oregon, scoring 50 points a game. And if he can make Oregon quote-unquote cool, for the Pac-12 kids growing up, he’s definitely gonna make UCLA a cool brand. It’s not if, it’s when he makes UCLA a powerhouse.
Q: Describe new Nebraska coach Scott Frost.
A: Man, I love the dude’s intensity. You could not find a more perfect fit. Obviously it’s his alma mater. Last time they won the national title in ’97, he was the quarterback. Coaches with a chip on his shoulder. He’ll get the team to play with that same chip. The big question for me, when Tom Osborne was rolling in Lincoln, it wasn’t just a walk-on program that was special, they were recruiting in Florida, in New Jersey, in California, in Texas. Can Scott Frost and his staff hit some home runs and some skill players in those areas to give Nebraska what they need to be able to win at an elite level.
Q: Jimbo Fisher has moved from Florida State to Texas A&M.
A: I think Jimbo Fisher is one of the better offensive minds in the game. I don’t know what kind of team he’s inherited. I don’t know if he has the quarterback to give him a chance to win right away. But I think between the resources that they have in College Station — very similar to Nick Saban — his relentless style of recruiting, I think it’s pretty well-documented his ability to work with quarterbacks. Give him a year or two, I think Jimbo Fisher again becomes a very challenging game for Alabama and Nick Saban, much like Georgia right now and Kirby Smart.
Q: What are your thoughts on Notre Dame?
A: Notre Dame … has been close, but at the end of the day, they still are struggling when they play the teams with elite skill. They may have one or two, and the teams that they play have seven or eight. And so I think it’s just a matter of Brian Kelly continuing to try to go out and raise the bar of the type of players that they have on the roster.
A: Chris Ash, know him really well. The challenge for any head coach that coaches at Rutgers is trying to keep the homegrown talent in state, as opposed to going to Penn State or Wisconsin or Ohio State or Michigan or wherever they might be heading. Chris Ash has a great background. He’s kind of got a blue-collar approach. I love him as a defensive mind, he’s an outstanding coach.
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A: Mark Richt, I thought they made great strides last year, they kind of ran out of gas late in the year. I think at the end of the year, quarterback play let them down. I think Malik Rosier at times put the ball into coverage, made some poor decisions, and just got exposed. He’s the key. That defense — Manny Diaz, the gold chain — is gonna be one of the best in the country. It’s gonna come down to what kind of play they get from Malik Rosier, and how much has he improved in the offseason to take that next step? A little bit of a forgotten team because everybody wants to talk about Clemson in the ACC, but I think Miami ends up getting to Charlotte [N.C.], and they play Clemson in the ACC Championship game.
Q: Your championship quartet: Alabama, Clemson, Penn State and Washington. … Alabama’s weakness.
A: Breaking in an entire new secondary. They lost 10 guys that were major contributors on defense. So while Nick Saban recruits at an incredibly high level, his will that defense gel? Who will become the leader?
Q: Clemson’s biggest weakness or concern?
A: Who’s gonna be their quarterback? Kelly Bryant, who was kind of the guy a year ago and proved that he couldn’t quite get enough to where they needed to go throwing the ball against ’Bama, and now here comes Trevor Lawrence, a true freshman, that they think can be another Deshaun Watson. I don’t know if it’s a weakness, but I think it’s a question mark to see who eventually emerges to become their go-to guy at quarterback.
Q: Penn State’s weakness or concern?
A: The obvious would be when you lose a player the magnitude of Saquon Barkley. Can Miles Sanders and others step in and provide that big-play ability to be able to come up with enough offense to take some of the pressure off of Trace McSorley feeling like he needs to do it. The other thing I would say is they’ve been so successful with the vertical throws with McSorley. … Does he have receivers that can provide that kind of big-ability? … They’ve had some great guys over the last couple of years, so who becomes their go-to guy downfield I think is a big part of that offense.
Q: Washington’s weakness or concern?
A: The start of the season which is such a big game. Gotta travel all the way across the country and basically going to Auburn’s backyard and take on a team that a lot of people think can be challenging for the playoff this year. And if they win that game, the sky’s the limit. And if they lose that game, it could affect the team as far as their confidence and what they’re trying to do. On the field, the one thing would be, another team that’s lost their receivers — [John] Ross two years ago, [Dante] Pettis last year — have they recruited well enough in that area to give them ability to throw the ball with Jake Browning and have balance in that offense?
Q: Which team can be a Cinderella?
A: I think Michigan State is a team that seems to be a team that’s forgotten every year. They’ve got an experienced quarterback now in Brian Lewerke, they got LJ Scott, who’s a physical back, they have a tenacious defense led by Joe Bachie.
Q: Describe Stanford running back Bryce Love.
A: Pound for pound the best player in college football in 2018. It’s miraculous to watch what we did, going over 2,000 yards in 2017, all while playing in the second half of the year on a gimpy ankle. He just gutted his way through 2,000 yards. He’s healthy now, and got a better quarterback in K.J. Costello, who I think’s gonna have a good year. Line play’s always solid. To me, he’s everything that’s right about college football and should be the face of the sport in 2018.
Q: Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa?
A: I hope Tua gets his chance. There’s been a lot of talk as you and I sit here and talk right now that [fellow QB] Jalen Hurts has not been giving him the keys. You can always count on Alabama having a great running game, they have four backs this year led by Damien Harris that can start anywhere. If you put Tua in there with the group of receivers that they have, it’s the best that Nick Saban’s had. I think they can score close to 50 points a game. I think they would be unstoppable. I’m anxious to see if Tua gets the opportunity to be the everyday quarterback.
Q: Missouri QB Drew Lock?
A: I think Missouri, if they can protect Lock and give him a chance to throw the ball, he’s got a couple of good backs behind him, some really good receivers, big, strong tight ends. I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t score a lot of points. He’s got a new offensive coordinator, Derek Dooley comes over from the [Dallas] Cowboys, so he’s gonna be learning more pro-style system. But I think Drew Lock has a chance to have a monster year.
Q: What are the most compelling storylines?
A: In no order, I would say can we get some new names up into the playoff at the end of the year besides the brands that we seem to see every year — the Alabamas and the Clemsons and the Ohio States, and then you can throw even Georgia in there now. Will this be a year where we get some new storylines and some potential Cinderella stories and get a shakeup of the top? Specifically, I’m interested to see how [QB] Shea Patterson, the transfer to Michigan, defense is good enough to win a championship, just wonder if he can get them over the hump and give them a chance. Seeing how USC replaces Sam Darnold is gonna be interesting, to see if this true freshman, JT Daniels, gets an opportunity to play, if he can play at a very high level to give them a shot. I think Penn State, for me, is a great story this year, because Saquon Barkley created such a stir that I think this program is anxious to prove to people that they’re more than one player, so I think they have a chance to have a potentially magical year.
Q: One coach in college football history, one game to win. Who would it be?
A: Probably Bobby Bowden. He had such a great record in bowl games, and I just love that he’s got a little bit of that unpredictable approach to his playcalling. Sometimes in that one game, you need a guy who’s not afraid. Some guys, in the big games, they play not to lose instead of playing to win. Bobby Bowden always played to win.
Q: One quarterback in college football history, one game to win. Who would it be?
A: This sounds corny, but I’d probably take Tim Tebow. Because he would not let his team lose, kind of that kind of approach. In the college game, not the NFL. In the college game, Tim Tebow, man, he would will his team to a victory.
Q: Your father Jim played for late Ohio State coach Woody Hayes. What’s the best story he hold you?
A: They were playing in Iowa, and Woody that week was a little bit lost and distant. And, as my dad tells it, he told everybody when they landed at Iowa City to go out and go buy their moms something small. Every player on the team, he wanted them to go out and buy something small for their moms and we’re gonna send it back to their moms. They were gonna mail these items to the moms. Everybody had no idea what he was doing, what he was talking about. And it turned out that his brother who died, and he had a lot of regrets, about what he wished he could have done. And he just wanted to send a message to his team about, “Don’t have regrets.” He waited too long and he missed an opportunity.
Q: If a martian landed on earth, what would you tell him about Lee Corso?
A: The greatest entertainer in sports television history.
Q: Three dinner guests?
A: Jackie Robinson, Ty Cobb, Tiger Woods.
Q: Favorite movie?
A: “Shawshank Redemption.”
Q: Favorite actor?
A: Harrison Ford.
Q: Favorite actress?
A: Meryl Streep.
Q: Favorite meal?
A: Pasta. I love red sauce.
Q: What is it like being Kirk Herbstreit?
A: Lucky. I’m just a college football junkie, and I just can’t believe I have this job to be able to cover college football at the highest level, and work on “GameDay” now for 23 years … call the biggest game of the week on ABC, call the national championship, the Rose Bowl every year … you kidding me?
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