Spring football is a proving ground. The 15 practices that are packed into two months are built to be a gauntlet that push the physical and mental limits of a team.
Along the way there are always surprise players who step out for their teams and become the storylines of spring. Some are previously underperforming stars, while others show up from out of nowhere to become the headliners for their teams heading into summer.
This is a look at 10 players who will exit spring with a new confidence and swagger heading into the summer. Look for these rising stars to become household names for their respective programs heading into 2013.
Cody Kessler is in a battle for the starting quarterback position at USC, and, so far this spring, he has had a leg up on the competition.
Max Wittek fell to a knee injury (via L.A. Times) early in camp, allowing for Kessler to take the majority of the snaps through the first half of spring. Kessler has stepped up and performed well for the Trojans offense so far.
As the spring continues to progress, Wittek will return from his injury and get back into the competition, but Kessler has already made his worth known to the coaching staff.
When the Trojans exit spring, Kessler should have the edge in the race for starting quarterback.
Michigan is heading into the 2013 season needing to replace its top two pass catchers from a year ago. Finding talent isn’t the issue but creating playmakers has been.
Jeremy Jackson is a rising senior who has been very limited in his role with the Wolverines over the past few years. Heading into 2013, he will step up and become a leader in the passing game.
The Wolverines need an explosive playmaker to burst onto the scene this spring, and Jackson will be that guy. He is a lengthy receiver standing at 6’3”, making him the tallest outside receiver option for the Wolverines this year.
Expect Devin Gardner to favor this veteran leader early and for Jackson to become a breakout star this fall.
Curtis Grant came to Ohio State as a highly regarded linebacker prospect, but he has yet to live up to the hype that preceded him.
After earning the start at middle linebacker for the Buckeyes in 2012, he was pulled for bad performance by week three. This spring, Grant has a new attitude and new approach to the game that will make him a premier linebacker for the Buckeyes defense.
The middle linebacker position is wide open and in need of leadership. Grant has the natural ability to be the most obvious choice, but to this point, he has lacked the mentality of a leader.
That changes this spring. Look for Grant to leave spring as the starter at middle linebacker and to head into 2013 as the backbone for the Buckeyes defense.
Bo Wallace stepped into the starting quarterback role for the Ole Miss Rebels last year and played very well in the newly installed Hugh Freeze offense.
Wallace finished the year with 22 passing touchdowns for the Rebels, but he also tossed 17 interceptions. Despite his success, he was one of the most turnover-prone quarterbacks in the country.
He isn’t in a battle for his position, but Wallace still has to show a lot of improvement this spring. Wallace is entering his second year in the Freeze offense, and he will show a new proficiency by the end of the 15 practice sessions.
Look for Wallace to be one of the rising stars in the SEC for 2013.
Tennessee is entering its first season under Butch Jones, and the Volunteers' new coach is putting this program through a complete overhaul.
The offense and defense are both changing, which means personnel will likely change as well.
One name to watch out of Knoxville this spring is LaTroy Lewis. Lewis is a redshirt freshman who is entering spring battling for time at defensive end.
The Vols are in need of a speed rush off the edge of the defense, and the young Lewis is the answer. He was recruited by the Butch Jones staff while at Cincinnati, so these coaches are familiar with his skills.
He will exit spring as one of the rising stars for this defense.
The LSU Tigers were expecting a Heisman-type year out of Zach Mettenberger in 2012. Instead, the Tigers got a modest 12-touchdown and seven-interception year that helped the Tigers finish with 10 wins.
This spring, Mettenberger has to put it all together for LSU. He has the talent to be among the nation’s elite, but his inconsistency has pushed him to the middle of the pack.
Cam Cameron was hired (Baltimore Sun) in the offseason to take over the LSU offense, and the hire will bring a new life to Mettenberger’s game. LSU has the surrounding talent to challenge for a national title, but without Mettenberger stepping up his game, the Tigers won’t make a run.
He will exit spring ready to be considered one of the SEC’s elite signal-callers.
Tony Steward is heading into spring looking to secure the starting middle linebacker position for the Clemson Tigers.
He was a highly regarded prospect in the 2011 class, but he has not seen a lot of field time over the past few years.
This spring he will step into a void left by departing upperclassmen and hope to take the defense to a new level. For the past two seasons Steward has learned the position and defensive coordinator Brent Venables' scheme.
Steward will become a nationally known name by mid-season. He has All-American talent and will exit spring as a respected leader on the Clemson defense.
Viliami Moala is a rising star on the Cal defensive line and will exit spring as a name to follow for the Bears.
Heading into spring, he is listed as a second-string option behind experienced nose tackle Deandre Coleman.
Coleman returned for his senior year for the Bears and will be the starter, but Moala is too talented to keep off the field. He will exit spring as a solid No. 2 and rotational player at nose tackle.
Moala is the future upfront for the Bears, and his presence will become known by the end of the spring practice session.
The Arizona Wildcats enter the spring with a quarterback battle on the to-do list.
The Wildcats will lose starting all-star Matt Scott to graduation, and a set of transfers are set to battle for the starting job.
B.J. Denker is a JUCO transfer who played in a handful of games last fall for the Wildcats. He also earned one start against Colorado.
In limited action last year, he completed 67.6 percent of his passes and tossed three touchdowns. This spring will be a launching pad for him to expand on his skills and take Arizona into the heat of the Pac-12 title battle.
Rich Rodriguez needs a strong presence at quarterback for his offense to work, and exiting spring, Denker will look the part.
Last season, whispers of a dark-horse Heisman candidate were leaking out of Fort Worth as Casey Pachall was preparing for his third season with the Horned Frogs.
Shortly after starting the season with 10 passing touchdowns and only one interception, Pachall departed the TCU program to attend substance abuse rehab. He has since returned to the program (USA Today) and will challenge for the starting job this spring.
Pachall is on the fence of becoming a great comeback story, and it all starts this spring.
He is one of the most elite dual-threat quarterbacks in the country, and his presence on the field makes TCU an instant challenger for the Big 12.
This will be the best story of spring as Pachall becomes not just an improved player but a better teammate along the way.