Is Texas back?
The Longhorns just might be.
Coming off its best season in almost a decade, coach Tom Herman’s bunch has big goals for 2019. Four-time defending Big 12 champ Oklahoma stands in the way. But with quarterback Sam Ehlinger returning to lead a team overflowing with blue-chip talent, the Longhorns could finally return to the pantheon of college football.
2018 record: 10-4
Spring practice start date: TBA
Strength heading into spring: For the first time in 10 years, Texas will enter a season boasting one of the top quarterbacks in college football. After flashing moments of brilliance as a true freshman, Ehlinger took a major step forward as a sophomore, leading Texas to its first 10-win season since 2009.
As one of the most effective dual-threat quarterbacks in the country, Ehlinger passed for 3,296 yards while completing 64.7 percent of his passes. He also tossed 25 touchdown passes to only five interceptions. On the ground, Ehlinger added 482 yards and another 16 touchdowns. And in the Sugar Bowl against Georgia, he controlled the game with three rushing touchdowns, connecting on 70.4 percent of his 27 passing attempts.
Can Ehlinger elevate his game to yet another level in 2019? If so, Texas will have the goods to challenge Oklahoma for Big 12 supremacy — and, perhaps, for a spot in the College Football Playoff, as well.
Question mark heading into spring: After relying almost exclusively on Ehlinger at times to supply a consistent ground attack the past two years, the Longhorns desperately needed to bolster the rest of their running game — from the offensive line to the running backs.
Although a chunk of the offensive line is gone from last season, the Longhorns bring back a cornerstone in four-year starter Zach Shackelford. The spring will be critical in piecing together the rest of the group.
Besides being a better run-blocking team, the Longhorns also need more dynamic playmaking from their running backs than they’ve gotten since losing 2016 Doak Walker Award winner D’Onta Foreman.
Former ESPN 300 signee Keaontay Ingram should be given every opportunity to be the primary back after rushing for 708 yards as a freshman last season. The Longhorns, however, do have other options.
Either way, Texas has to produce a more efficient running game to protect Ehlinger and open up a more balanced attack.
Instant impact addition: With the upcoming graduations of Anthony Wheeler and Gary Johnson, the Longhorns will be light on experience at linebacker. Junior college transfer Caleb Johnson should help fill the gap after signing with the Longhorns in December.
Rated the No. 2 junior college outside linebacker and No. 22 overall juco transfer, Johnson has the talent to start right away. Or at the very least provide quality depth for Todd Orlando’s defense.
2019 game to get excited about now: Although the Oklahoma showdown on Oct. 12 will be massive, the Longhorns won’t have to wait until then to play in the national spotlight. LSU visits Austin in Week 2 (Sept. 7) in a barometer test for both Tom Herman and the Big 12.
Even though LSU won 10 games playing in the brutal SEC West last season, Texas could actually be the slight favorite with the game being in Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.
Beat LSU, and Texas could head into the Red River Showdown ranked in the top five for the first time since 2008, when the Longhorns beat Oklahoma on the way to finishing third in the polls.
Spring storyline to watch: After ranking third in the Big 12 in defensive efficiency last season, the Longhorns face the task of replacing eight starters, including All-Big 12 defensive end Charles Omenihu, cornerback Kris Boyd and Johnson. Still, talent remains for the Longhorns to be stingier in 2019.
Safety Caden Sterns is a big reason why. Sterns was the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year and a first-team All-Big 12 performer. He is also flanked by a host of talented underclassmen in the secondary, including B.J. Foster, Anthony Cook and DeMarvion Overshown.
Up front, Malcolm Roach leads the way after returning for his senior year. The Longhorns are banking that Roach could have the breakout final season that Omenihu delivered in 2018 on the way to being named the Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year. Joseph Ossai could be in for a big season as well after starring in the Sugar Bowl.
With so much inexperience elsewhere, the Longhorns could have some bumpy moments early on. But this group has the potential to emerge into one of the Big 12’s best defenses by season’s end.
Reports: Bears to cut K Parkey in March
After a difficult season culminated by a crucial missed field goal on a potential game-winning field goal in the NFC playoffs, kicker Cody Parkey will be released by the Chicago Bears when the new league year begins in March.
FILE PHOTO: Sep 17, 2018; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bears kicker Cody Parkey (1) watches his field goal during the first half against the Seattle Seahawks at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports
According to multiple reports on Friday, the team intends to cut ties with Parkey once the NFL free agency period begins on March 13.
Parkey, who turned 27 on Tuesday, endured an inconsistent season in Chicago after inking a four-year, $15 million contract last winter following the team’s release of Robbie Gould, the Bears’ all-time leading scorer who moved on to the San Francisco 49ers.
Parkey, a five-year veteran, not only missed a career-high seven field-goal attempts and three extra points during the regular season, but his 43-yard attempt in the final seconds of the NFC wild-card round against the Philadelphia Eagles first hit the upright then the crossbar before bouncing back on the field.
Despite the NFL later ruling that the kick was partially blocked, Parkey took much of the public blame for the Bears’ season ending.
Parkey began his career with the Eagles in 2014 when he made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, scoring a franchise-record 150 points while making 32 of 36 field-goal tries. In two seasons with the Eagles, Parkey never missed an extra point.
Parkey later kicked for the Cleveland Browns in 2016 and Miami Dolphins in 2017.
In January, the Bears signed Tulsa product Redford Jones after conducting a workout that reportedly included multiple hopefuls. Jones made 50 of his 67 field-goal attempts at Tulsa from 2015-17, and he does have a kick on his resume where he hit both uprights. Unlike Parkey’s double-doink, though, that 2016 attempt against Cincinnati ended up going over the crossbar for three points.
“We need more production out of that position,” Bears general manager Ryan Pace said last month after signing Jones. “We know we need to get better there, and it will be an area of focus.”
—Field Level Media
WTA roundup: Bencic upsets Svitolina to reach Dubai final
Belinda Bencic secured a spot in the final by stunning two-time champion Elina Svitolina 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (3) on Friday at the Dubai Duty Free Championships in the United Arab Emirates.
Tennis – WTA Premier 5 – Dubai Tennis Championships – Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium, Dubai, United Arab Emirates – February 22, 2019 Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic in action during the Semi Final against Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina REUTERS/Satish Kumar
Bencic trailed 5-3 in the final set before recovering to defeat the sixth-seeded Svitolina. She will face second-seeded Petra Kvitova in the championship match after the Czech Republic star defeated Taiwan’s Su-Wei Hsieh 3-6, 6-2, 6-4.
“I think I’m always the most proud of how I fight,” Bencic said after posting the victory. “Even when I lose, I learned myself to just look in the mirror and be proud of myself when I’m fighting, when I’m giving my all, when I’m trying to do what I have to do.”
Bencic won eight consecutive points after Svitolina was in position to close out the match. Then the Switzerland native carried the momentum into the tiebreaker to notch one of the biggest victories of her career by outdueling the Ukrainian.
“Basically, I stayed in the zone, even in (the) tiebreak,” Bencic said. “I was barely breathing, just playing automatic. You are not thinking any more. It’s where the instincts just guide you through it.”
Bencic will be seeking her third career title when she squares off with Kvitova, who will be shooting for her 27th.
Kvitova dropped the first set on Friday before recovering to win the last two.
“It was a tough one today, for sure,” Kvitova said. “She really didn’t give me anything for free. It was a tough first set. I’m glad that I was able to came back in the second. I didn’t play great at the end of the first.
“I think I’m pleased with my kind of mental focus after losing the first set, that I was calmer when I came back and played from the beginning of the second set. I still kind of felt that I can do that somehow. I don’t know. It was something weird.”
Kvitova overcame eight double faults to claim the victory.
Hungarian Ladies Open
Top-seeded Alison Van Uytvanck defeated Ukraine’s Kateryna Kozlova 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 to advance to the semifinals in Budapest.
Van Uytvanck, of Belgium, will face fifth-seeded Ekaterina Alexandrova in the semis. The Russian dispatched third-seeded Frenchwoman Pauline Parmentier 6-3, 6-2.
Eighth-seeded Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic will face Russian Anastasia Potapova in the other semi. Vondrousova outlasted Romania’s Irina-Camelia Begu 5-7, 6-1, 6-3 while the 17-year-old Potapova fought past Romania’s Sorana Cirstea 6-4, 6-7 (5), 7-5 in 2 hours, 50 minutes.
—Field Level Media
Patriots owner Robert Kraft facing charges of solicitation of prostitution
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft is facing charges of misdemeanor solicitation of prostitution after he was twice videotaped paying for a sex act at an illicit massage parlor, police in Florida said Friday.
The 77-year-old Kraft was one of 25 people involved in the alleged solicitation at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter.
Michael Edmondson, spokesman for the state attorney’s office in Palm Beach County, told ESPN that the nature of any charges that the 25 people face will not be released until next week.
Kraft has denied wrongdoing.
The potential charges come amid a widespread crackdown on sex trafficking in Florida from Palm Beach to Orlando. Hundreds of arrest warrants have been issued in recent days as result of a six-month investigation, and more are expected. Ten spas have been closed, and several people charged with sex trafficking have been taken into custody.
Police said they secretly planted undercover cameras in targeted massage parlors and recorded the interactions between men and the female employees.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Kraft said they “categorically deny that Mr. Kraft engaged in any illegal activity. Because it is a judicial matter, we will not be commenting further.”
The NFL said it is “aware of the ongoing law enforcement matter and will continue to monitor developments.”
The individuals named as having solicited prostitutes could be facing either a first- or second-degree misdemeanor for each count. A second-degree charge carries up to a 60-day jail sentence and a $500 fine; a first-degree charge carries up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Most people charged for the first time with soliciting a prostitute in Florida are allowed to enter a diversion program, said attorney David Weinstein, a former prosecutor. Kraft would have to perform 100 hours of community service and pay to attend an educational program about the negative effects of prostitution and human trafficking.
Jupiter Police Chief Daniel Kerr said he was shocked to learn Kraft, who is worth $6 billion, was allegedly paying for sex inside a strip-mall massage parlor.
“We are as equally stunned as everyone else,” Kerr said.
Kraft lives in Massachusetts and has a home in the Palm Beach area. He is a frequent guest of President Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago Club. Though a Democrat, Kraft is friendly with Trump.
“Well it’s very sad. I was very surprised to see it,” Trump said at the White House on Friday. “He’s proclaimed his innocence, totally. But I’m very surprised to see it.”
Kraft’s wife, Myra Hiatt Kraft, died in 2011. He has been dating 39-year-old actress Ricki Noel Lander since 2012.
Team owners are subject to the NFL’s personal conduct policy, and owners and league employees are held to an even higher standard than players.
Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay was suspended for six games in 2014 after he was arrested on drug charges. He was also fined $500,000.
Vero Beach Police Chief David Currey, whose agency has been involved in the investigation, told reporters earlier this week that the prostitutes are victims who have been trapped into the trade.
“These girls are there all day long, into the evening. They can’t leave, and they are performing sex acts,” Currey said, according to TCPalm. “Some of them may tell us they’re OK, but they’re not.”
Kraft, who made his initial fortune through a packaging company, was a Patriots season-ticket holder when he purchased the team’s previous stadium in 1988, then used his leverage to buy the team for $172 million in 1994 to keep it from moving to St. Louis.
He hired Bill Belichick to be his coach in 2000, and the team subsequently drafted quarterback Tom Brady, launching nearly two decades of success.
Under Kraft, who also owns Major League Soccer’s New England Revolution, the Patriots have been the most successful team in pro sports, having made it to 10 Super Bowls, winning six, including this year against the Los Angeles Rams.
But there also have been issues involving team actions under Belichick.
In 2007, the Patriots were caught filming signals from New York Jets coaches; New England was suspected of doing so against other teams as well, and that was confirmed later on. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell fined the Patriots $250,000 and stripped them of their 2008 first-round draft pick. Belichick was fined $500,000, the most an NFL coach ever was fined.
In the 2014 AFC Championship Game, the team — specifically Brady — was accused by the Colts of doctoring footballs.
The NFL concluded that Patriots employees were involved in deflating the footballs and Brady was “at least generally aware” it was being done. After lengthy legal battles, Brady served a four-game suspension at the beginning of the 2016 season and the Patriots were fined $1 million — the heftiest for a team in league history. New England was stripped of a first-round and a fourth-round draft choice.
Neither Kraft nor Belichick was implicated after the investigation.
Longtime Patriots captain Devin McCourty told NBC Boston, which is with him on a goodwill trip to Puerto Rico, of the Kraft news: “When you see things come out like that you really have to just let it play out. See what it is, what it isn’t, and go from there.”
Information from ESPN’s Paula Lavigne, Mike Reiss and The Associated Press was used in this report.
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