Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

“The Hayt” Tests College Players At Sawgrass CC

With the unpredictable weather in North Florida in late February you wouldn’t think that Ponte Vedra Beach would be a good location for an early-spring college golf tournament. But it’s exactly that unpredictability that has been an attractive part of “The Hayt” for 25 years.

Starting at Queens Harbor Golf Club and eventually moving the Sawgrass Country Club, the tournament has gone through some changes in venue and sponsorship (once known as the Mercedes Championships) but it’s the kind of test early in the year that lets players, coaches and entire teams know where they have their strengths and weaknesses.

“Last year it was cold, windy and rainy,” Lorens Chan, a senior at UCLA said this week. “We don’t get that kind of weather in Southern California and this week it’s really breezy. With those kinds of conditions, you find out very quickly if you have game or not.”

At 15-over par as a team (5 players) in the first round on Friday, Chan’s UCLA teammates saw Sawgrass in all its glory. Chan shot +2 74 to keep his team in contention.

As the host to the Tournament Players Championship before moving to the Stadium Course in 1982, the Country Club took its toll on the best on the PGA Tour in early March for five years. Jack Nicklaus and Mark Hayes won the title at one over par. When Lanny Wadkins won at -5 in 1979 he won by five shots. Breaking 80 wasn’t guaranteed, even for the best players in the world.

Playing in the wind in the spring is nothing new for the golfers on the JU and UNF teams and it showed in the first round. The Ospreys have a six shot lead at +5 led by Phillip Knowles’ two-under 70, tied for the low round of the day. The Dolphins sit in second place, six shots behind with Raul Pereda leading the way with a 71.

“It’s a great test this early in the year and that’s why teams keep coming back,” Scott Schroeder, UNF’s golf coach said from the windy Sawgrass clubhouse porch. Schroeder played for the Ospreys under John Brooks, the tournament’s founder and now as the coach has kept the tournament in the upper echelon of collegiate events. The Ospreys have been the de-facto tournament host from the beginning. “Teams come from all over because of the reputation the tournament has and because of the great golf course,” Scott said. “They’ll find out who can handle tough conditions and who can’t.”

Here are the standings after the first round:

  • UNF … 293 … +5
  • JU … 299
  • Oklahoma St. … 300
  • Louisville … 301
  • North Texas … 302
  • UCLA … 303
  • Coastal Carolina … 303
  • Liberty … 305
  • Tennessee … 305
  • UAB … 308
  • East Carolina … 310
  • Furman … 313
  • Tulsa … 315
  • Army West Point … 315
  • UCF … 321

Without the blessing of the Sawgrass CC membership, and the work by their Director of Golf Greg Lecker and local businessman John Hayt, this tournament might have gone elsewhere or disappeared completely. Hayt lived at Queens Harbor when it started and struck up a conversation with some of the players, saying they were “Outstanding young men. And good players!” Hayt has stayed close to the UNF program over the years and Schroeder says it’s more than just money that put Hayt’s name on the tournament.

“He’ll stop by my office, talk to the players, really give them somebody to lean on. It’s mentoring, it’s real. He’s a part of our program.”

The tournament concludes this weekend.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Earnhardt, Kyle Busch win Duels at Daytona

He knew it was a fast car so it was a little bit of a decision at the end of the first Duel 150 race at Daytona for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“It’s a hard equation,” he said in Victory Lane when I asked him which was his priority, save the car or win the race. “But your instincts take over and you want to win the race”

No question Earnhardt had the fastest car in the race as he was able to hold off Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Blaney for the victory. It’s his fifth Duel victory, the most among active drivers and his second straight.

“We knew it was a real good car. … It’s a great car,” said Earnhardt. “Another win at Daytona for the Earnhardts, adding to our legacy.”

Earnhardt led 28 of the first 30 laps after taking the lead from pole-sitter and teammate Chase Elliott. With six laps to go, Earnhardt got past Hamlin and went into the lead and onto victory. All told, Earnhardt led 43 of 60 laps.

Brining this car to Daytona was the plan all along as “Amelia” as Dale’s ride is nicknamed, was fast right off the truck again. Last year Earnhardt won three races and had a second and a third in five races driving “Amelia.”

“Even if the guys told me we were going to have a fast car and it was a new car, you get comfortable in certain cars and I really like this one,” he explained. “I don’t spend time in the garage but you figure cars become obsolete after about six months for whatever reason. But this car is still fast.”

Today (February 18) was the 15th anniversary of Dale Sr.’s death at Daytona, a fact not lost on his son. “I was daydreaming a little bit,” Earnhardt said in his post-race interview. “I’m guilty of daydreaming a little bit about winning this race tonight because of the day. That was special to me.”

“It’s real special,” Earnhardt admitted. “I was thinking about that. I try not to make too big a deal. I’ve told all you guys in interviews we’ve done how much I like people to remember dad, talk about dad. It really warms my heart to see the stuff on social media and so forth. That’s probably my best way to gauge the reaction to a day like this. You see a lot of people mention him … It’s pretty cool.”

Michael McDowell will advance to the 40-car Daytona 500 field Sunday, while Whitt and Josh Wise will miss the 500.

Race Two of the Duel 150’s was pretty uneventful until the end. Matt Kenseth was on the pole and held the lead until Kyle Bush went to the front and took control. On the final lap, Jimmy Johnson, running third, got pushed sideways coming out of turns one and two starting a chain reaction through the field that ended the race on a caution. Busch cruised to the victory, the second in a Daytona qualifying race for the defending NASCAR champion.

“I feel like we’re on a birdie from last year,” Busch said from Victory Lane. “Winning this race was great and hopefully it is a good sign for Sunday.”

With his victory in the Duel and Kenseth being forced into a backup car because of a crash on the final lap, Busch will now start on the front row in Sunday’s Daytona 500.

“I haven’t had a chance to run this car much in traffic,” Kyle told me after the race. “It’s too scary in practice and I don’t think I was any worse than 2nd in this race. So we’ll keep this car shined up and ready to go for Sunday.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Champions Ride for Safety

When I was invited to ride in the “Champions Ride for Safety” by St. Augustine NASCAR Driver Scott Lagasse I was flattered and a bit intimidated. After looking at the list of cyclists, I knew I’d have my work cut out for me. Sixty miles from the Alligator Farm in St. Augustine to the track at Daytona with legendary pro cyclists like George Hincape and Christian Van de Velde as well as professional racecar drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Lagasse himself. All of these guys ride for fun and fitness and their competitive nature, I knew, would ramp the speed up pretty regularly along the ride.

“No problem Sam” one of the guys in Lagasse’s regular riding group from St. Augustine told me before we left. “We’ll go like 20 or 21, no faster than that.” I know I can sit on anybody’s wheel for 20 or 21 mph all day long, but when it creeps up, I’m going to struggle. I haven’t been able to ride in the last three months because of stem-cell surgery on both knees so I approached with a bit of trepidation.

Nonetheless, early on Wednesday morning about thirty of us departed to the south, headed to the track. After about a five-minute warm up, somebody on the front decided we needed to pick it up a bit and looking at my bike computer we were clicking along at between 25 and 27 miles an hour. I knew, based on my heart rate, I wouldn’t last there long but just tried to tuck in and hang on.

I’ve met most of these guys in their “day jobs” but it was completely different riding along with athletes I’ve covered and admired for their accomplishments in a completely different arena. I learned quickly they all take cycling, and their fitness, very seriously.

“We’ve all been there,” a voice from behind me said as he gently put his hand on my back and helped me back to the group. I was struggling a bit to stay with the main peloton as we approached Daytona and the pace jumped a bit. I laughed to myself when I looked over and saw it was six-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson helping me along.

“I’m so much better when I’m fit and that’s why I concentrate on it,” Johnson told me. “I like helping my friends lose weight, stay fit and think about their health.”

All of these guys have hectic lifestyles, traveling constantly but fitness is a part of their daily routine.

“I’ve always liked to exercise,” Indy champion Tony Kanaan said after the ride. “Now it seems the whole racing community has gotten into it.”

“I was on the back end of that,” retired Indy driver and three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti told me in Victory lane. “My buddy (Tony) Kanaan had already brought it to our sport so it’s all his fault,” he added with a laugh. Both Franchitti and Kanaan are avid cyclists, driving up from Miami the night before to participate in the Champions ride.

And while fitness was at the forefront of the day, Lagasse is hoping to raise the awareness of how cyclists and motorists can share the road. Scott rides, “as much as I can” in and around St. Augustine when he’s home and is passionate about changing the culture on his home state’s roads.

“I hate it that we’re at the top of the list in pedestrian and cycling fatalities,” he explained. “I want to ‘humanize’ the equation. Drivers need to know that those are real people on bikes and cyclists need to respect the drivers’ rights as well.”

As we cruised through the Tomoka State Preserve near Flagler Beach, I found myself next to George Hincape, the 17-time Tour de France veteran. Yes, a few miles earlier it was a bit of a surreal moment when I tucked into the draft, only to look up and see it was George right in front of me, doing the pulling.

“I challenge my friends to ride just 20 miles,” Hincape said, talking about his daily routine at home in Greenville, S.C. “And if they do it, they’re hooked. They fall in love with cycling and it changes their lives.”

As much time on the road as Hincape spends on his bike, he knows a few things about the interaction between motorists and cyclists. “Everybody just needs to have respect for one another,” he explained. “Cyclists and motorists need to learn how to coexist because there are going to be more bikes and more cars, not fewer.”

Running a cycling friendly hotel in Travelers Rest, S.C., George has stayed close to the sport and still rides beautifully. Getting people on both sides of the issue to see a solution is what he preaches.

“This is a great cause, a great event,” he said standing in Victory Lane at Daytona. “If we can raise the awareness and just have people think about it, that’d be great.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jaguars Re-sign Chad Henne

In a move that makes complete sense, which doesn’t happen often in the NFL, the Jaguars re-signed Chad Henne to a contract today. As the backup for Blake Bortles, Henne has played an important role in mentoring Bortles through the beginning of his career. In the process the two have become friends with Bortles saying often how fortunate he’s been to have Henne as a teammate.

“I just really think we study well together,” Henne said after signing his new deal. “We’re always together, whether we’re in the film room or on the field doing foot work. Just bits and pieces. Anything he wants to ask me – defenses, different coverages, reads – we’re a culminating factor together. It’s just a great relationship and that’s why I wanted to be back here.”

Henne, 30, has appeared in 64 games with 53 starts over the past eight NFL seasons and has completed 1,159 of 1,954 passes (59.3 comp. pct.) for 12,931 yards and 58 touchdowns.

Henne, 6-3, 220, joined the Jaguars as an unrestricted free agent on March 15, 2012 and signed a two-year extension on March 7, 2014. A second-round draft selection (57th overall) by Miami in 2008, Henne played collegiately at Michigan where he received many honors, including 2008 Capital One Bowl MVP, 2006 Manning Award finalist and 2004 All-American Freshman Team.

Signing with the Jaguars puts him in a situation he’s comfortable with and keeps Henne from going through being a stop-gap starter for another team looking for a long-term quarterback.

Really, there’s not that many opportunities like that out there and those teams that needed a quarterback are most likely going to be in the same situation – draft a quarterback – and then I’d be in that same position again. Why not be here where I feel comfortable and love working with Blake?”

It’s clear that Henne believes in *Bortles as well as the young talent on offense the Jaguars have put together in the past couple of years.

“I think in my mind right now, I see him work each and every day and I feel like I have a good work ethic but this kid really wants to get better and has the drive and has the right attitude. When you work with somebody like that, kind of similar to your work ethic, you want to be around that because you two can tie together and be together all the time.”

“There’s still room to get better as we always say, but we have a lot of great, young talented guys. You’ve seen it this past year with Allen Robinson and Blake’s gotten a lot better. You add T.J. Yeldon. You add tight ends doing a great job. Allen Hurns is always consistent. A lot of young talent which is only going to get better through the years.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

The Players Military Appreciation Day at 17th Hole. Toby Keith concert at 6:30, Tuesday May 10th.

This year’s Military Appreciation Day at The Players will have a new venue, added attractions and a superstar headliner performing. Again, Military Appreciate Day will be on Tuesday of The Players, May 10th, the first day the tournament is welcoming fans. The ceremony will begin at 6, with Toby Keith performing in concert at 6:30. Instead of the traditional location on the back of the clubhouse, this year the ceremony and the concert will be on the TPC at Sawgrass Stadium course famed 17th hole.

“I’m extremely excited to honor the men and women who serve our county by performing at THE PLAYERS Championship,” said Keith, who has performed more than 200 USO shows and entertained more than 250,000 men and women in uniform and their families. In April 2014, Toby Keith was honored with the Spirit of the USO Award. “I have always been a proud supporter of the U.S. Military and can’t wait to rock the stage for our troops and their fans.”

In June 2015, Keith was inducted in to the Songwriters Hall Of Fame in New York City, and he has been honored by the Nashville Songwriters Association International with its Songwriter/Artist of the Decade distinction. He is a three-time BMI Country Songwriter/Artist of the Year and was named the American Country Awards’ Artist of the Decade. His albums have sold more than 40 million copies, ranking him among the top-selling all-genre artists on Billboard’s Top 200 Artists of the Decade. Keith is also Billboard’s No. 1 Country Artist of the Decade and No. 1 Country Songwriter of the Decade.

“We’re thrilled to have Toby Keith kick off tournament week at the most famous hole in golf,” said Michele McManamon, THE PLAYERS 2016 Volunteer Chairman and co-founder of Tuesday’s Charity of the Day, Operation New Uniform. “The Military Appreciation Day Concert is always a fan favorite, and the new location for 2016 allows us to entertain an even bigger crowd in the incredible, wrap-around atmosphere of 16 and 17. Fans will also have access to the great amenities available in that area – including the Food Court and upgraded restrooms – ensuring a true concert-like experience. With a superstar like Toby Keith on stage, we know the Stadium is going to be rocking.”

Prior to tournament week, THE PLAYERS will welcome active duty, Reserve, retired military, veterans, and military spouses to TPC Sawgrass on Saturday, May 7, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Birdies for the Brave® Patriots’ Outpost, to participate in its fourth-annual Military Job Fair, in partnership with the Jacksonville Military Veterans Coalition. The Military Job Fair is free and open to military personnel, veterans and military spouses who are seeking employment. There will be approximately 40 companies on hand, all with open hiring opportunities. Free career counseling and resume-writing assistance will be provided, as well as, information on local educational institutions with veterans’ programs.

Previous PLAYERS Military Veterans Job Fairs have seen attendance of more than 500 military job seekers and 40 companies participating. On Sunday, May 8, THE PLAYERS and Birdies for the Brave® will again partner with Operation Shower to host a group baby shower for 40 military moms-to-be whose spouses are deployed members of the U.S. Navy. Scheduled to be held from 12-2 p.m. in the Patriots’ Outpost, the event will be hosted by Jim and Tabitha Furyk and will feature Operation Shower’s signature Shower-In-A-Box, gifts of high-quality products for the moms and babies that have been provided by sponsors and donors.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Hall of Fame Voting: A Process

“Amalgamation of a career”

It’s perhaps an unknown process, but it’s a process nonetheless. To get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame it ultimately takes an 80% yes vote of the selection committee on the Saturday before the Super Bowl. (This year there were 46 members. Thirty-two, one from each NFL team, and, in essence, 14 at-large voters). It’s a collection of media members from around the country with eight representatives of the staff of the PFHOF and two HOF members in the room. So it’s a small group. You can look at each of the other selectors in the eye. And the discourse is usually honest, brutally frank and often contentious. It’s the job of the representative of the corresponding team to make the case for selection to the Hall. (When a player’s career is spread over a couple of teams, both reps will speak.)

It takes most of the year to get the 15 finalists plus the senior and contributor into the room on that Saturday before the Super Bowl. As selectors we’re asked to take the original nominee list, sometimes around 100 players, and cull it down to 25. Once that’s determined, we vote again to cut the list to 15.

Committees are appointed and meet in the summer in Canton, OH to determine the Senior and Contributor candidates. They’re considered separately from what are called the “Modern day players” as they’re presented to the full Selection Committee.

So once we get into the room there are 15 players eligible for five spots. That’s the maximum number allowed to be inducted in any one year. If the Senior and Contributor are elected that would make eight total in any particular class.

So it’s a pretty tough process to get in to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That’s why I chuckle in the weeks after the selection process is over for any particular year. The committee is roundly criticized for whom we didn’t put in the Hall. My response to that is always, “Who would you throw out of the current class to get your guy in?”

There are some years I look at the list and honestly believe each of the 15 finalists deserves to be in the Hall. But I can only vote for five. If a player gets to the “room” as one of the 15 finalists they have an 88% chance of eventually being inducted into the Hall.

So is there a formula to get in? There’s a lot of speculation about whose “year” it is to get in when the list of finalists is released. That’s a fallacy. Sometimes there’s a logjam at a position that’s eventually sorted out. Lynn Swann and John Stallworth seemed to cancel each other out until eventually they both were elected. Andre Reed, Chris Carter, Tim Brown and Art Monk all eventually got into the Hall. But in each case, they were evaluated on their own merits. Consequently they all now wear gold jackets.

No player or coach is perfect. All have their ups and downs in a career but as one selector once said it’s the “amalgamation of a career.” I go into the room each year with research behind me and listening to the presentations for the individual accomplishments as part of a team game.

“Edge” players are easy to quantify. That’s why quarterbacks, receivers, tackles, pass rushers and cornerbacks are so well represented in the Hall. Guys in the middle of the field, centers, guards, safeties are tough to quantify so personal research as well as the presentations in the room are an essential part of the process. I’ve had my mind changed several times by the presenters on the day of the meeting. The thoroughness of the presentations is inspiring.

Each year the opening statement by the President of the Hall includes the reminder that as selectors we’ll be “changing men’s lives with our actions today.” And that’s true.

Of the thousands of players who have passed through the NFL, under 300 are in the Hall of Fame.

I’m often asked if Tony Boselli will every get in the Hall of Fame. As a left tackle in the golden age of left tackles, Boselli was the best among his peers. Walter Jones and Jonathan Ogden were selected to the Hall in the past couple years. Orlando Pace will get in. They all admit Boselli was at the top of their list. Nobody questions his ability or even his greatness on the field. The only negative to Tony’s candidacy is the brevity of his career. But the question is often asked: What is a short career? Boselli played in 95 games and was the dominant player in each of those. There are other players with shorter careers in the Hall and making it to the top 25 this year is the first step for Tony. It won’t surprise me if Boselli is considered in the “room” in the very near future.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gators Bolster Offense on Signing Day

With a year under his belt and expectations high, Jim McElwain thought the Gators were very competitive on Signing Day. With twelve early enrollees as well as the graduate transfers, Florida had some specific situations they wanted to address through recruiting. But McElwain didn’t want the players already in school to miss out on the celebration of Signing Day.

“We did one with our team down there (in the team room), where we introduced the guys, put them in Gator colors and showed some highlights and had them make a couple comments and that was pretty good,” McElwain explained.

Looking at his class, the Gators head coach said it was plain to see what they were trying to do this year. The class included five wide receivers.

“I think you can kind of tell what we were trying to do in this class. We were trying to kind of restructure some of the rooms, get some new blood in there, get some guys as competition as we move forward.”

While their defense was solid and fast, Florida’s offense sputtered at the end of the year and was part of the plan when coaches in Gainesville focused on the recruiting process.

“I think we addressed some of those position needs. I feel really good at the skill spots. We obviously have some young offensive linemen and we have got a couple that we look forward to adding to that,” McElwain said regarding getting better on offense.

“But when you look at from the receiver, quarterback, running back side, I think we’ve got some really good talent in there. It will be fun to watch them, because the majority of here already. So we’ll get a good feel for that this spring.”

Getting what he calls the “full cycle” paid off for McElwain and he pointed to the biggest name to sign on Wednesday, Tyrie Cleveland, as a player who the Gators were able to “turn” because of his ties to Florida. “He’s a guy that came by this summer and always had a lot of interest in the Gators, right there in Duval County, before he moved to Texas, so he’s not necessarily, you know, stuck and into the Texas part of it,” the head coach said with a smile.

“For him, it’s a little bit of a homecoming. Here is a guy that grew up wanting to be a Gator, playing in the swamp, back with a bunch of guys — a couple guys that he actually grew up playing with. So I’m really happy he’s back in this part of the country.”

As far as the recruiting in the state, McElwain said they can do better and is already looking forward to the next two years.

“We’ve still got a long ways to go, but we’ll continue to work that in all those areas. I’m really, I kind of like how we’ve got some from a lot of the different areas, as far as within the state, not just focused on one central area. That’s something that we still need to get better at. We’ll keep working at it.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

FSU Class Among The Best In The Nation

With eighteen four- and five-star recruits in their signing class of 25, Florida State grabbed what is considered one of the best recruiting classes in the nation for 2016. Continuing it’s national reach, the ‘Noles had 13 players from Florida and nine other states. Seven of their signees are already enrolled in school and will participate In this year’s spring practice.

“Very unique group and if you can go back and look at this class, it’s 25 signees, 13 kids in the state of Florida,” Jimbo Fisher said on Wednesday afternoon. “But we signed kids from 10 different states. So I think the brand of Florida State being able to be out there and people being interested in being part of our culture and what we do here and our winning traditions and championship traditions, I think speaks for itself.”

Perhaps one of the overlooked portions of recruiting is what a player feels like on his official visit. A lot of that falls to the current players on the roster, to make it a good “fit” for an incoming recruit. Fisher pointed that out, saying the top players they recruited chose Florida State because of the guys who were already in Tallahassee.

“Our players did a tremendous job of hosting kids and showing everyone so they felt confident around our players,” Fisher explained. “Even the star players, they were nervous, saying I didn’t know how to be around guys such as Dalvin Cook and DeMarcus Walker, they said coach, they were normal, good old guys just like us. And our players understood the importance of recruiting how many young players have an impact in your program just like a lot of them did when they came in.”

And while FSU’s class includes some of the top players in the country, including Jacksonville’s Andrew Boselli who’s already in school, the Chief Seminole admitted they didn’t get everybody they wanted. Nobody ever does.

Like I said, would you get everybody? You don’t ever get everybody you recruit, but I don’t worry about those. I worry about the ones we’ve got. We’ve got a great group of guys and great group of players.”