College Football's 10 Most Intriguing Spring Game Storylines of 2014
College football's spring practice season is hitting the final stretch, with many schools set to hold their annual spring games in the next week or two. These contests, although completely unofficial, provide us with the last tangible evaluation of teams and players before the pads and helmets are put away until preseason training camp.
There is so much to look for during these spring games, from individual player development to position battles to overarching schematic changes. The storylines number in the hundreds.
We've identified the 10 most intriguing spring game storylines that will set the stage for the 2014 season. Some are specific to a certain team or player; others are more general and apply to many schools.
Either way, they'll leave us with some lasting impressions of what to expect this fall.
Auburn's Second Act
Was Auburn's magical turnaround from 3-9 doormat to national championship game participant a fluke, or are the Tigers for real?
It's worth arguing that Auburn needed some lucky breaks down the stretch to get as far as it did, but that doesn't explain the whole season. Gus Malzahn orchestrated a sea change in terms of Auburn's attitude and fight, and we're all interested to see if that can continue.
Many pieces of Auburn's amazing 2013 team are gone now, but the replacements have shown great progress during spring practice, as noted by B/R's Justin Ferguson. The April 19 spring game, which will air live on ESPN at 3 p.m. ET, will be a well-watched event, as Tigers fans and many others will look to see if Nick Marshall's growth as a quarterback is producing results.
Jameis Winston's Double Duty
Before he took college football by storm and became the second straight redshirt freshman to win the Heisman, Jameis Winston first made a name for himself at Florida State as a baseball player. And even with all the fame he's gathered on the gridiron, he's still being loyal to his baseball roots.
Winston has been going back and forth between the Seminoles baseball team, for which he is a relief pitcher (with 15 strikeouts and four saves in 14 innings of work, through April 6), and football for spring practice.
He's one of the players who doesn't have much to prove during a spring football game, but how he looks on April 12 (3 p.m. ET, ESPN) will show whether the rigors of doing double duty have had any effect on his football performance.
Golson's Golden Opportunity
Everett Golson's last game action came about a year ago, when he went 6-of-13 for 98 yards and an interception in Notre Dame's 2013 spring game. The numbers were mostly unimportant, because after leading the Fighting Irish to the BCS title game the year before as a redshirt freshman, Golson was firmly entrenched as the team's quarterback.
Then Golson was suspended in May because of "poor academic judgement," as he put it in a statement announcing he would miss the 2013 season.
Now reinstated, Golson is battling with a very confident redshirt freshman in Malik Zaire for his old job. Because of this competition, what Golson does in Notre Dame's April 12 (12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) spring game will hold much more weight for the future than it did a year ago.
Texas A&M's Spring Without a Spring Game
There's no shortage of quarterback battles to keep college football fans interested during the offseason, but the one to replace Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M will be one to watch.
The competition began with three candidates—senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and 5-star early enrollee Kyle Allen—but has been reduced to two for the time being after Hill was suspended following an arrest for public intoxication in late March.
Who Kevin Sumlin ultimately chooses to be the starter will have a big impact on how the Aggies fare this season, so it's very likely that decision won't be made until late into fall training camp. A spring game would have helped provide some live game action for Sumlin's evaluation, but Texas A&M finished practice April 5 without such a competition.
Construction at Kyle Field has prompted the school not to hold a spring game in 2014 or 2015, which robs fans of a chance to see the quarterback prospects up close and pick their favorites. They'll just have to wait until fall practice for another look.
New Coach Nuances
There are 20 FBS programs that are under the guidance of a new coach for 2014, although technically two of them are new old leadership as Bobby Petrino returns to Louisville and Mark Whipple is back at Massachusetts.
While that number is down from the 31 changes following the 2012 season, it still accounts for more than a 15 percent turnover rate. It also means a good number of teams will likely look very different when they hit the field this fall due to the new coaches' schemes and approaches.
Spring football games don't reveal many of a team's tricks and traits, but when it comes to those involving first-year coaches, there should be some noticeable differences.
Besides Louisville (April 11), which goes from a defensive-minded coach in Charlie Strong to offensive guru Petrino, other schools whose spring games will highlight a change in style include Strong's new team at Texas (April 19, 2 p.m. ET, Longhorn Network), a Chris Petersen-led Washington (April 19, 4 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network), USC with Steve Sarkisian (April 19, 4 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network) and James Franklin's Penn State (April 12, 1:30 p.m., BNT2Go.com).
Transplants Taking Root
Transfers in college football have become more and more prevalent the past few years, especially when it comes to the use of the graduate-transfer provision that lets players become eligible immediately if the school they leave doesn't offer the degree they're seeking.
Several of those graduate transfers are still at their old schools, finishing up undergraduate work, and won't be a part of their new team's practices until the fall. But many transfers who had to take the traditional route of sitting out a season between schools will get their first real taste of game action in spring games.
In most cases, these transfers were related to playing-time issues at the old school, so it's likely a transfer's destination was picked because of a strong opportunity to play. Spring practice was the first chance to show that worthiness, and now the spring game adds another chance to show what the new school is getting.
That was the case with Cincinnati's spring game on April 5, when former Notre Dame quarterback Gunner Kiel threw for 300 yards on 17-of-22 passing and rushed for a touchdown.
High-profile transfers to watch in the remaining spring games include former Florida quarterback Jacoby Brissett at North Carolina State (April 12, 1 p.m. ET), former Notre Dame receiver DaVonte' Neal and former Texas quarterback Connor Brewer at Arizona (April 12, 4 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network) and former Oklahoma State quarterback Wes Lunt at Illinois (April 12, 3 p.m. ET, BTN2Go.com).
With more and more big-name freshman recruits finishing high school early in order to get a jump on their college careers, the spring games have become unofficial playing-time auditions for some of college football's most promising newcomers.
By enrolling early, these prospects get the opportunity to showcase their talents in an extra set of practices before the rest of the recruiting group shows up in the summer. And in some cases, they could begin an early campaign to win a starting job.
That could be the case in Baton Rouge, where true freshman Brandon Harris outshined sophomore Anthony Jennings in LSU's spring game on April 5. Bleacher Report SEC Lead Writer Barrett Sallee believes Harris will be the Tigers' starter in the season opener Aug. 30 against Wisconsin in Houston.
Other newcomers who have a great chance to make a name for themselves in spring games include 5-star Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan (April 12, 1:30 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network), 4-star North Carolina running back Elijah Hood (April 12, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN3) and 4-star, dual-threat Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson (April 12, 4 p.m. ET, ESPNU).
Many teams have one or two true freshmen in camp early this spring; others have a few more than that. Then there's Tennessee, which had 14 newcomers (including two junior college recruits) enroll early as part of a 32-player recruiting class that 247Sports ranked No. 7 nationally.
That kind of talent influx has Volunteers fans frothing about what this fall will be like, especially after hearing reports of running back Jalen Hurd and receiver Josh Malone making great strides during practice sessions. Add in video of JUCO transfer Von Pearson's one-handed catch, and it's understandable why the excitement level is high.
Last year's Tennessee spring game drew more than 61,000 fans for Butch Jones' first unit. There's a good chance that figure will be topped for this year's game on April 12 (3 p.m. ET).
Had Steve Sarkisian stayed at Washington, he would have had to figure out what to do with his quarterback position, a job left open with the graduation of Keith Price.
That won't be an issue at USC, thanks to the return of Cody Kessler, who had a solid season in 2013 in leading the Trojans to 10 wins and a bowl victory. But that didn't stop Sarkisian from opening up the job to allow other USC quarterbacks to have a shot, most notably former 5-star recruit Max Browne.
Browne, who redshirted in 2013, appears to be trailing Kessler for the gig, according to Bleacher Report's Trenise Ferreira. But a lot can change between now and USC's 2014 season opener Aug. 30 against Fresno State, and the Trojans' April 19 spring game (4 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network) will be a high-profile opportunity for both quarterbacks to state their cases.
The most intriguing and most important storyline of this and every spring football season is one for which teams can try to plan but can never truly be prepared: injuries.
Whether it's in the spring game itself or during the practices leading up to that final workout, injuries sustained during spring ball have become almost inevitable. Coaches try to tailor the spring regimen in a way that minimizes the risk of injury, keeping certain players away from contact and even holding certain vulnerable starters off the field.
But even that can't stop all of the ailments. A perfect example of this is Miami (Fla.) quarterback Ryan Williams, who, according to Brandon Odoi of CanesInsider.com, suffered a torn ACL on April 5 during a non-contact drill. Williams was a front-runner to replace Stephen Morris as the Hurricanes' starter this fall.
Oklahoma's Blake Bell, who was making the switch from quarterback to tight end this spring, suffered a knee sprain last week and will miss the rest of spring practice, according to Ryan Aber of The Oklahoman.
Numerous other injuries of varying scales have occurred during spring ball, and others are likely to happen before teams are done. Some may even happen in spring games, while the injuries suffered beforehand will no doubt impact who gets the reps and how certain position battles shape up following spring games.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.
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