The beginning of spring marks an exciting time in the sports world.
March Madness is in full swing, NBA and NFL teams are vying for playoff positions, the MLB is gearing up for Opening Day, and Mel Kiper Jr. has emerged from extended hiatus to talk about the NFL Draft.
But most importantly to college football fans, Spring Practice is upon us.
This year more than ever, spring ball has taken on an outsized role in the lives of we fans. After 90,000 people showed up for last year’s Alabama Spring Game, major media outlets are tripping over themselves to hype what was previously considered a dead time in college football.
Even ESPN—which had called Spring Games “glorified practices”—has changed its tune. This year, ESPN College GameDay will be in Gainesville for Florida's annual scrimmage.
If nothing else, the increased exposure means that college football coverage is now a year-round pastime—and that it's never too early to start previewing the 2008 college football season.
Over the next month, Beyond the Bleachers will be breaking down the most intriguing storylines of the offseason, focusing on emerging stars, new coaches in new places, Heisman Trophy candidates, BCS Championship contenders, and possible sleepers.
We start this week with a look at a group of players who have the potential to emerge as heavy hitters for their respective teams. Though they don’t have much experience, each of these guys will look to turn solid springs into stellar falls—so keep an eye on them as the action heats up...
QB—Ryan Perrilloux, junior, LSU
As a true freshman in 2005, Ryan Perrilloux figured he would play right away:
“With [LSU’s] quarterback situation, I can come in and play next year. JaMarcus Russell struggled last year, and Matt Flynn is definitely not a better quarterback than me.”
After making such a bold assertion three years ago, his time has finally come. Although Perrilloux has been involved in several off-the-field issues, he is eligible for LSU and ready to play a feature role for the Tigers next fall.
With his size (6’3” 227 lbs.) and versatility, Perrilloux will be great—if he stays out of trouble.
QB—Robert Marve, redshirt freshman, Miami
Few freshmen have more riding on their shoulders than the Tampa native and former Florida Mr. Football winner.
Marve has the distinct opportunity to start for one of the most storied programs in the country as a freshman. After a car accident ended Marve's season last July, he’s back to stake his claim to the No. 1 spot.
Marve will need to keep his nose out of trouble, especially after having been arrested in November for attempting to run away from a police officer.
This spring, Marve will be competing with a pair of true freshmen, including Jacory Harris, the former Miami Northwestern quarterback and Florida’s reigning Mr. Football. As it stands, Marve is the front-runner, and looks set to carry on the prestige of Quarterback U.
QB—Hunter Cantwell, senior, Louisville
While most of the players on this list are younger, Cantwell is inexperienced mostly due to the fact that he has been in Brian Brohm’s shadow for his entire career at Louisville.
Excluding the short stretches of time in which Cantwell subbed for an injured Brohm as a freshman and sophomore, he had been reduced to watching from the bench. Cantwell did show flashes of greatness his sophomore year as he stepped in for Brian Brohm and led Louisville to victories over Miami and Kansas State.
This year, Cantwell’s final year of eligibility, the 6’5” 230 pound quarterback will get his own shot at the limelight. With an arm that former head coach Bobby Petrino considered “stronger than Brian Brohm’s” and high praise from Mel Kiper Jr., the sky is the limit for this senior pro prospect.
QB—Jevan Snead, sophomore, Ole Miss
The former 2006 Parade All-American from Stephenville, Texas, has waited a few years for his chance to start.
Snead originally signed to play at the University of Texas, where he engaged in a losing position battle with fellow freshman Colt McCoy. Snead then transferred to the University of Mississippi, where after sitting out his transfer year he figures to be one of the “saviors” of the program under new coach Houston Nutt.
With mega-prospect Michael Oher protecting his blind side, Snead should at least have a little more time in the pocket to maneuver.
QB—Stephen Garcia, redshirt freshman, South Carolina
A former four-star recruit from Tampa, Garcia expects to take the reins from departed fifth-year senior Blake Mitchell this season.
But if the 6'3” 205-pound Garcia wants to be the starting quarterback for the Gamecocks, he must first overcome his problematic past, which includes multiple run-ins with the law.
Garcia has been arrested twice, once for “drunkenness and failure to stop for a police officer” and once for “malicious injury to personal property” after he keyed a professor's car. He was also recently fined for underage drinking. For Garcia’s latest infraction, he has been suspended from football activities until August 15th.
If he can put these problems behind him, Garcia will thrive in Steve Spurrier’s offense.
RB—Emmanuel Moody, sophomore, Florida
Moody, a former four-star standout from Coppell, Texas, is a transfer from Southern Cal.
As a true freshman at USC, Moody started four early-season games and rushed for 459 yards, which was good for second on the team. After a spring in which he suffered hamstring injuries and faced the strong probability of splitting carries with several running backs the next fall, Moody transferred to Florida.
This spring, Moody will have to compete with another sophomore tailback and Texas prep star in Mon Williams.
RB—Caleb King, redshirt freshman, Georgia
After freshman Knowshon Moreno's meteoric rise in 2007, the focus this spring may be on his backup.
While Moreno has been compared to former Auburn great Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, King has been compared to the legendary Herschel Walker, as evidenced by this video.
While it’s unlikely that the 5'11”, 205-pound running back will take over Moreno's starting job, King should play an integral role for the Bulldogs in 2008.
RB—LeSean McCoy, sophomore, Pitt
McCoy led all freshmen in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 1,328 rushing yards, and tied for the lead with Moreno with 14 rushing touchdowns.
Despite Pitt’s poor passing game, McCoy was able to average 4.8 yards per carry. With an experienced offensive line returning and coach Dave Wannstedt desperate for a strong season, McCoy could emerge as one of the best running backs in the country.
RB—Joe McKnight, sophomore, USC
The top overall recruit in the 2007 class (according to some publications) showed flashes of brilliance as a true freshman.
McKnight finished the season with 903 all-purpose yards, but his best performance came in the Rose Bowl against Illinois. In that game, McKnight showed why all the pundits called him the “next Reggie Bush,” as he rushed for 125 yards on 10 carries, made six catches for 45 yards, and returned three punts for 36 yards.
Like Bush, McKnight possesses superior speed and athleticism, but has a slightly larger frame and could fill out into a more complete back. The biggest issue for McKnight will be getting enough playing time in a fierce running back competition with juniors Stafon Johnson, C.J. Gable, and Allen Bradford, and freshmen Marc Tyler and Broderick Green.
McKnight or Johnson will start for USC, but how much will they have to rotate?
RB/WR—Chris Rainey, redshirt freshman, Florida
Urban legend has it that the 5'9”, 156-pound Rainey once raced West Virginia superfrosh Noel Devine in a Wal-Mart parking lot while both were in still high school. Rainey allegedly beat Devine all three times.
While this isn't the greatest indicator of potential success at the next level, it shows that Rainey may be one of the fastest players in the country. And based on this highlight tape of Rainey in high school, he's got the skills to boot.
RB/WR—Greg Little, sophomore, North Carolina
The versatile 6'3”, 210-pounder was a jack-of-all-trades last season for the Tar Heels. Little lined up as a receiver, running back, and even quarterback in his freshman year. For good measure, he also walked on to the North Carolina basketball team.
After compiling almost 400 yards combined rushing and receiving last season, Little will be playing an increased role in 2008, as head coach Butch Davis has named him the full-time starting running back over Anthony Elzy and Johnny White—the latter of whom has switched to cornerback.
RB/WR—Jock Sanders, sophomore, West Virginia
Sanders, a 5'8” slot back from St. Petersburg, finished his freshman year with 308 all-purpose yards for the Mountaineers.
With the departures of Steve Slaton and Darius Reynaud, Sanders will play a significant role in the Jeff Mullen-led WVU offense. Pat White and Noel Devine will be the stars, but expect Sanders to be everywhere on the field come September.
WR/KR/PR—Jeremy Maclin, sophomore, Missouri
The prized recruit from Kirkwood, Missouri, lived up to his billing last year. Maclin set a freshman record for all-purpose yards with 2,776—the second highest total of any returning player in the nation.
With first team All-American tight end Martin Rucker gone, Maclin will get even more looks this year in the passing game. He may also play some downs in the backfield because of the loss of veteran running back Tony Temple.
Either way, Maclin is due for a monster season—he may even be a dark horse for the Heisman Trophy.
WR/KR/PR—Arrelious “Regis” Benn, sophomore, Illinois
Unquestionably Ron Zook’s best recruit at Illinois, Benn made an immediate impact for the Fighting Illini as a true freshman.
Benn had a solid year making 54 catches for 676 yards and 2 touchdowns, which included a breakout game at Penn State where he had 84 yards receiving, a touchdown, and a 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
Next season, Benn should develop into one of the elite receivers in the Midwest.
T—Anthony Davis, sophomore, Rutgers
After a strong performance paving the way for future pro Ray Rice as a true freshman guard, Davis will make the switch to left tackle this fall. His main objective will be protecting senior quarterback Mike Teel’s blind side.
DT—Marvin Austin, sophomore, UNC
Butch Davis's No. 1 recruit from the 2007 class has already made an impact at Carolina.
After starting three games and finishing with 26 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss, and 4.0 sacks, Austin was named to the 2007 Freshman All-American Team. With experience under his belt, the 6'3”, 305-pounder could emerge as one of the best defensive linemen in the ACC.
DE/DT—Sen'Derrick Marks, junior, Auburn
The 6'1”, 290-pound Marks may not be as physically imposing as Austin, but he has the speed, motor, and work ethic to compensate.
Marks, a former Freshman All-American himself, has 82 career tackles, 5.5 sacks, and one interception. He looks to be the next great undersized defensive lineman to come out of Auburn.
DE—Jermaine Cunningham, junior, Florida
In his first season as a starter, Jermaine Cunningham recorded 33 tackles (11 for loss) and 5.5 sacks—but his most conspicuous act may have been getting arrested for being involved in a “food fight” at a local Jimmy John's.
One year older and without Derrick Harvey as a bookend, Cunningham is officially the man on the Gators’ defensive line. His ability to pressure the quarterback will be vital to the success of Florida's questionable secondary.
LB—Sergio Kindle, junior, Texas
Kindle, named one of UT's Outstanding Defensive Newcomers last year, has drawn comparisons to former Texas All-American Derrick Johnson.
After bouncing back from a DWI arrest before the 2007 season, Kindle figures to play a more prominent role under new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp.
CB—Eric Berry, sophomore, Tennessee
Unlike most true freshmen, Eric Berry learned the nuances of the college game on the fly, as he was thrown into the fray as a starter on Day One.
While the youngster took his lumps against the likes of Cal’s DeSean Jackson of Cal and Florida’s Percy Harvin, he improved dramatically as the year progressed. All told, Berry finished his freshman year with 86 tackles, two fumble recoveries, and five interceptions returned for 222 yards and one touchdown.
Tennessee head coach Philip Fulmer has considered using Berry on offense as well—similar to what Georgia did with Champ Bailey in the late 90s. If he gets the chance, Berry could prove to be one of the conference's biggest playmakers.
CB—Chad Jones, sophomore, LSU
Chad Jones stepped in as a freshman and made 34 tackles, 2.0 sacks, and 1 interception for the BCS Champion Tigers. With Jonathan Zenon, Chevis Jackson, and Craig Steltz all graduating, Jones, who has been compared to former LSU great LaRon Landry, will lead an inexperienced LSU secondary.
The 6’2”, 223-pounder has the size, speed, and ball skills to be one of the best defensive backs in the SEC.
S—Anderson Russell, junior, Ohio State
The Georgia native has played mostly in the shadow of fellow defensive backs Donald Washington and Malcolm Jenkins, but has quietly established himself as one of the most talented safeties in the Midwest.
Though a more-than-adequate athlete in pass coverage, Russell excels as a solid run-stuffer and pass-rusher, as evidenced by his 7.0 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks.
Russell may still be overshadowed in 2008—but the NFL scouts will certainly be watching.
QB—Kevin Riley, sophomore, Cal
QB—Jimmy Clausen, sophomore, Notre Dame
QB—Rusty Smith, junior, Florida Atlantic
QB—Colin Kaepernick, sophomore, Nevada
RB—Graig Cooper, sophomore, Miami
RB—Javarris James, sophomore, Miami
RB—Stafon Johnson, junior, USC
WR—Golden Tate, sophomore, Notre Dame
TE—Cornelius Ingram, senior, Florida
OL—Ryan Miller, sophomore, Colorado
OL—Stephen Schilling, sophomore, Michigan
OL—T-Bob Hebert, LSU
DE—Everson Griffen, sophomore, USC
LB—Martez Wilson, sophomore, Illinois
LB—Ross Homan, sophomore, Ohio State
LB—Chris Galippo, freshman, USC
DB—Major Wright, sophomore, Florida
DB—Jai Eugene, sophomore, LSU
DB—Eugene Clifford, sophomore, Ohio State