Complete Previews for Week 2 of College Football Spring Games

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistApril 10, 2014

Complete Previews for Week 2 of College Football Spring Games

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    Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

    Welcome to the heart of spring football season.

    This weekend features by far the most spring games of any on the calendar with 54, including 30 of the 64 teams from power conferences (31 of 65 if you count Notre Dame) and 20 of the 39 teams that finished last season with nine or more wins.

    To further illustrate the point, take a look at this: Last weekend, we previewed the 12 best games on the schedule and ended up including SMU and Bowling Green. This weekend, we're previewing the 20 best games but ended up omitting West Virginia, Maryland, Minnesota, N.C. State and Central Florida, among many, many other quality programs.

    The weekend is really that stacked.

    Among those playing are the last two national title game participants from outside the state of Alabama, the reigning Sugar Bowl champion, the prohibitive Big Ten favorite and perhaps the best head coach who switched programs this offseason.

    It's weird to say this in April, and it's admittedly wishful thinking, but we might be in store for an awesome weekend of football.

Arizona

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    USA TODAY Sports

    When: Saturday, April 12, 4 p.m. ET

    Rich Rodriguez is the maestro of a seven-man quarterback competition, including five players who have taken first-team reps this spring.

    The familiar names are former blue-chip prospects who transferred into the program—Connor Brewer (Texas) and Jesse Scroggins (USC)—but Anu Solomon, Nick Isham and JUCO transfer Jerrard Randall also have a realistic shot at the job. The spring game will go a long way in determining who leads the pack this summer.

    Elsewhere, some youngsters are competing with redshirt senior Terris Jones-Grigsby for the right to replace Ka'Deem Carey at tailback, but no matter who wins the job at each of these positions, Arizona's offense has the perimeter weapons (keep an eye on returning receiver Austin Hill), offensive line (which returns four starters from a solid unit) and scheme to remain explosive next year.

    The real questions lie on defense. A unit that struggled, in spots, last season returns just one starter along the defensive line. If Rodriguez can find some answers on his oft-weaker side of the ball, this could be the strongest team he's fielded in Tucson.

Clemson

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    USA TODAY Sports

    When: Saturday, April 12, 4 p.m. ET 

    Clemson's spring game, which had previously appeared among the most intriguing in the country, lost some luster this week with reports of a collarbone injury to early enrollee quarterback Deshaun Watson, who was the No. 41 overall player in the 247Sports Composite.

    According to Heather Dinich of ESPN.com, head coach Dabo Swinney said Watson was "having an outstanding spring" and that he will be fine for summer workouts, but a quarterback battle between just Chad Kelly and Cole Stoudt—while still worth watching—will feel hollow without Watson around to compete.

    Keep an eye on the outside too. A trio of freshman receivers—Artavis Scott, Demarre Kitt and Kyrin Priester—will all get their shot to earn meaningful reps sans Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant, while redshirt freshman cornerback Mackensie Alexander has had a nice spring and could help put Brent Venables' defense over the top.

Florida

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    USA TODAY Sports

    When: Saturday, April 12, 1:30 p.m. ET

    Reports from camp have been good for quarterback Jeff Driskel, who missed the last nine games of 2013 with a broken leg. But given his up-and-down tenure in Gainesville, fans will (rightfully) reserve judgement until getting to see him for themselves Saturday.

    The rest of the offense, as it adjusts to first-year coordinator Kurt Roper, will also be under a microscope in the spring game. Receiver Demarcus Robinson was the subject of a lengthy analysis by B/R's Barrett Sallee, and a big performance on his end would put Gator fans at ease—or at least something resembling it—before the summer.

    Defensively, keep an eye on 5-star early enrollee Jalen Tabor, who has been running with the first-team opposite all-world cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and had a pick in the first team scrimmage. That duo has a chance to be special as early as 2014 and especially in 2015.

Florida State

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    Colin Hackley

    When: Saturday, April 12, 3 p.m. ET

    Jameis Winston will get billed as the main attraction here, and rightfully so, but the talent around him bears more watching.

    Running back Mario Pender has a chance to gain a leg up on Ryan Green and Dalvin Cook—both of whom are injured and out for the spring—for the right to back up Karlos Williams, while a large group of receivers will fight to earn playing time before the arrival of freshmen Ermon Lane and Travis Rudolph this summer.

    The defense has enough bodies to reload after losing a considerable amount of draftable talent, and a spring exhibition can only tell so much about how the unit will cope with Jeremy Pruitt's departure. One thing worth watching, though, is the development of Mario Edwards and Eddie Goldman—two former blue-chip recruits—at defensive end.

    FSU is counting on them to become leaders in 2014.

Georgia

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    When: Saturday, April 12, 1 p.m. ET

    Hutson Mason will take the field for the first time since the end of last season, when he couldn't lead Georgia to a win over Nebraska in the Gator Bowl. Bulldogs fans are confident in Mason, but that confidence seems derived, more than anything, from a vicarious extension of their confidence in the coaching staff, which has always done well with quarterbacks.

    At some point, Mason must prove to fans why Mark Richt and Mike Bobo are so high on him—that he's more than merely competent. He's looked confident throughout spring camp, though, and Saturday seems like a perfect time to do so.

    This is also the first public look at the defense under coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who comes over after leading a dominant championship unit at Florida State. According to Mark Schlabach of ESPN.com, Pruitt's first goal is to eliminate a plague of lazy plays that he calls "loafs."

    Everywhere but the secondary, the talent is there for this defense to be quite good and carry Georgia through the SEC East in 2014. The pieces last year just did not fit together. It's unrealistic to expect such cohesion so soon, but Saturday will be a good look at how hard the unit has bought in to Pruitt's preaching.

Louisville

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    Garry Jones

    When: Friday, April 11, 7:30 p.m. ET

    Bobby Petrino will emerge through the home tunnel at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium and coach from the home sideline. By sheer virtue of improbability, that makes this game worth the price of admission.

    There are questions to answer, though, as Will Gardner takes the field for the first time as UL's likely replacement for Teddy Bridgewater. According to Andrea Adelson of ESPN.com, Petrino called Gardner a "good fit" for his vertical passing scheme, and Cardinals fans are eager to see what he and their new coach have in store.

    The bigger questions lie on defense, where Todd Grantham comes in from Georgia to rebuild a unit that lost...well, everything.

    Last year's defense, not Bridgewater, was secretly the force that carried Louisville, and Grantham's Bulldogs struggled in the SEC with a far more talented roster than he has before him currently.

Miami

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    Credit: 247Sports

    When: Saturday, April 12, 6 p.m. ET

    The loss of quarterback Ryan Williams, who tore his ACL last Friday and will have surgery this week, adds an unlucky wrinkle to the quarterback competition. Williams was the favorite to replace Stephen Morris, and his absence will direct all eyes onto redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen during Saturday's scrimmage.

    If Olsen—who is, yes, the younger brother of G-Reg—performs well, it will give him a comfortable edge heading into fall camp. If he performs poorly, it will open the door for sophomore Gray Crow and late-rising freshman Brad Kaaya, who will arrive on campus this summer.

    And then there's the defense, which needs to get better—a lot better. Especially given the unrest at quarterback, the whole must equal the sum of the parts. How Tyriq McCord and Quan Muhammad perform in their pass-rushing roles might define this season in Coral Gables, and a big game Saturday, from either of them, would be a welcome sign for Hurricanes fans.

Mississippi State

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    Mark Humphrey

    When: Saturday, April 12, 1 p.m. ET

    Will Dak Prescott justify the hype?

    Even if he underwhelms in Saturday's game, it's not like anyone will expect any less from the junior quarterback, who emerged as one of the nation's top offensive players toward the end of last season.

    But if Prescott shows improved command of his accuracy and the same out-of-pocket maneuvering as last year, his dark-horse Heisman train (and Mississippi State's dark-horse SEC contender train) will pick up even more steam.

    Defensively, the Bulldogs bring back eight starters, and the fostering of depth behind those pieces might be more important than anything.

    If sophomore lineman Chris Jones can make the leap from "wildly impressive freshman" to "All-SEC-caliber wrecking ball," however, it could put this unit—and, by extension, this team—over the top. After posting two tackles for loss in the team's most recent scrimmage, it appears he might be on his way.

Nebraska

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    Nati Harnik

    When: Saturday, April 12, 2 p.m. ET

    Which Tommy Armstrong will we see Saturday?

    Will it be the good-not-great Armstrong, who split time with Ron Kellogg III last season? Or will it be the great-not-good Armstrong, whom coaches and teammates have noted a transformation in this offseason, per the Associated Press?

    Such questions loom over Nebraska's spring game, which will also feature Johnny Stanton's best attempt to hold off Ryker Fyfe for the backup quarterback role (and maintain a chance, however slim, at winning the starting job), as well as a sorting-out of the crowded hierarchy behind Ameer Abdullah at running back.

    Defensively, the Huskers need to establish starters and shore up depth along the defensive line and in the secondary. Defensive end Randy Gregory is about the only player in either unit that the Huskers can count on, so young-but-promising players such as cornerback Charles Jackson could ascend the depth chart with a strong performance.

North Carolina

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    USA TODAY Sports

    When: Saturday, April 12, 3 p.m. ET

    This one is all about Seth Littrell and whether his replacement of former offensive coordinator and current Arkansas State head coach Blake Anderson will (a) throw an unneeded wrinkle in the offense or (b) give redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky a realistic shot at beating out Marquise Williams for the quarterback job.

    Littrell has a fine offensive mind and steered Indiana toward relevance over the past couple of seasons, but one of his calling cards with the Hoosiers was the inability to settle on a starting quarterback. Williams and the offense fared well at the end of last season, and how big of a handprint Littrell—an acolyte of Mike Leach's Air Raid—feels he needs to put on the scheme should be interesting to watch come Saturday.

    The debut of 5-star running back Elijah Hood is also worth keeping an eye on, but assuming the offense stays steady in 2014, which it should, the defense is the unit most Tar Heel fans are concerned with.

    After starting the season like Swiss cheese [cues up highlights of ECU's 600-yard, 55-point explosion in Chapel Hill], the UNC defense eased into itself and played quite well down the stretch.

    With eight starters returning, it's reasonable to expect this group to look just as good as it did at the end of last season, if not better.

Notre Dame

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    Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    When: Saturday, April 12, 12:30 p.m. ET

    This was supposed to be about the triumphant return of quarterback Everett Golson, and it still is. Only now, it's not just about how much better he'll make Notre Dame after returning from last year's suspension; it's about whether he even deserves to start.

    Why? Malik Zaire.

    Golson's backup has been talking to the press about how he believes he will start the season opener, and the picture B/R's Keith Arnold painted of Zaire after watching Notre Dame's practice made him sound like a rich man's version of Golson himself.

    Will Zaire actually take the starting job? Probably not—at least not by Week 1. But if he outperforms Golson in the spring game, by any margin, that is all anyone will be able to talk about this summer. And at that point, why shouldn't perception have a chance to be reality?

    Brian VanGorder's defense, the development of pieces along the defensive line and the play of Notre Dame's backs and receivers are also important in their own right, but let's not kid ourselves.

    We'll be watching how the quarterbacks play Saturday.

Ohio State

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    USA TODAY Sports

    When: Saturday, April 12, 1:30 p.m. ET

    Ohio State's spring game doesn't have the intrigue of years past. We know heading into the game what the general shape of this team will be.

    Because of that, the real mystery lies with some of the Buckeyes' younger players, who will have a perfect stage to make a big first impression. Chief among them is 5-star inside linebacker Raekwon McMillan, who enrolled early and has impressed with the second team behind Curtis Grant. Can he stoke some momentum for a starting role?

    On offense, the biggest question is not if, but with whom Urban Meyer will replace Carlos Hyde in the running game.

    How tailbacks Ezekiel Elliott, Bri'onte Dunn and Curtis Samuel and versatile, Percy Harvin-esque playmaker Dontre Wilson get used Saturday will give some hints toward Meyer's preference.

Oklahoma

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    USA TODAY Sports

    When: Saturday, April 12, 3 p.m. ET

    Was Trevor Knight's performance in the Sugar Bowl a fluke? And if so, how big of a fluke? Because even something slightly worse than the form Knight showed against Alabama would be good enough for OU to win the Big 12 next season.

    That and the replacement of skill-position players are the biggest things to watch for Saturday afternoon in Norman. Running backs Keith Ford and Alex Ross would be wise to impress before 5-star all-purpose back Joe Mixon arrives this summer, while receiver Jordan Smallwood will get a chance to continue his hot spring on a bigger stage and earn a meaningful role in the passing game.

    Defensively, things are, for the most part, fine. Perhaps even better than ever. The Sooners return nine starters from a very sound defense, although both losses in the top 11 come from the secondary.

    Sophomore Ahmad Thomas is another name to watch, as he, like Smallwood, could use a strong spring game to corroborate his quality performance in camp.

Penn State

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    USA TODAY Sports

    When: Saturday, April 12, 1:30 p.m. ET

    James Franklin will roam the sidelines of Beaver Stadium in a home "game" for the first time of his career, and that, along with the fact that it's Penn State, will bring fans to the field en masse.

    The continued development of Christian Hackenberg is obviously important, as he is now the same age as Jameis Winston was when he dominated Florida State's spring game in 2013.

    Of larger note on offense, though, is the task of replacing Allen Robinson at receiver and seeing whom Franklin prefers between Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch in the tailback trichotomy that's developed this spring.

    The defense returns eight starters from last season and should be in relatively good shape, provided all of those pieces have meshed well with the new scheme. Of the young players worth watching, linebacker Gary Wooten sticks out as a versatile option who is capable of playing both inside and out and "caught the eye" of Big Ten analyst Gerry Dinardo on his trip to PSU, per Bob Flounders of PennLive.com.

South Carolina

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    USA TODAY Sports

    When: Saturday, April 12, 12 p.m. ET

    I'll defer here to B/R's Barrett Sallee, who wrote a nice breakdown of what to expect from South Carolina's spring game earlier this week.

    The first of his four key points—how good is Dylan Thompson?—is of particular importance after Thompson struggled to fill in for Connor Shaw at Missouri in 2013. However, given the impressive form Thompson showed as a backup in 2012, it is fair to assume the best.

    Sallee's other key points include replacing Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton on the defensive line as well as finding some viable players at cornerback sans Victor Hampton, who declared early for the 2014 NFL draft.

    Names to watch on these fronts include Gerald Dixon and Darius English at defensive end and Rico McWilliams, Sidney Rhodes and Jamari Smith at cornerback.

Stanford

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    When: Saturday, April 12, 4 p.m. ET

    The public will get its first look at Stanford's new running game, which will have to rebuild after losing All-American guard David Yankey and workhorse tailback Tyler Gaffney.

    Remound Wright will miss the game for disciplinary purposes, putting the onus on Ricky Seale, Kelsey Young and Barry Sanders Jr. to emerge from this game as a functional group. While the world pulls hard for Sanders to become his father and win the job, Stanford fans would be fine with any back playing well enough to get excited about.

    On defense, it will be much of the same thing...only different. Derek Mason left for Vanderbilt, giving way to former outside linebackers coach Lance Anderson at defensive coordinator, while seniors such as Shayne Skov, A.J. Tarpley, Trent Murphy, Ed Reynolds, Ben Gardner, Josh Mauro and Henry Anderson are gone after becoming one of the most successful classes in program history.

    Still, the way David Shaw has coached and recruited defensive talent, the Cardinal should remain stable on that side of the ball. Thus, the spring game might be more about solidifying leaders to replace the group listed above than anything else.

Tennessee

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    USA TODAY Sports

    When: Saturday, April 12, 3 p.m. ET

    Tennessee's village-sized recruiting class includes 14 early enrollees, and especially on offense, those players are expected to help facilitate a quick turnaround in Knoxville under Butch Jones.

    Stand-up running back Jalen Hurd and receivers Josh Malone and Von Pearson have all looked good in spring camp, and if they can play well Saturday, it would be encouraging for an offense that already has Marquez North on the outside.

    Of course, none of that will matter without some improvement from the quarterback position. Especially with a whole new unit being broken in on the offensive line, either Justin Worley or Riley Ferguson (or Joshua Dobbs or Nathan Peterman) needs to stake his claim at the position and prove the offense has a leader under center.

    On defense, the biggest questions exist along the defensive line, where the Vols return zero starters from a unit that struggled in 2013. Against a brand-new offensive line, however, it might be hard to tell exactly where things stand in the trenches—no matter how either side performs.

Texas Tech

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    USA TODAY Sports

    When: Saturday, April 12, 12 p.m. ET

    Most middling bowl games do not matter for the following season. Texas Tech's blowout win over Pac-12 South champion Arizona State in December was different. After stopping the bleeding of a five-game losing streak, the Raiders got to enter the offseason with a pulse.

    We'll see how that manifests Saturday. Year 2 of the Kliff Kingsbury era is filled with optimism, and now that Baker Mayfield and Michael Brewer have both transferred out, it also includes a sure-fire starting QB in Davis Webb. How will he assimilate to the job security?

    Questions exist on defense, where only one starting linebacker and one starting defensive back return from a season ago. TTU has traditionally struggled to find contributors at either of those positions, and we'll see if the Kingsbury regime can begin to buck that trend.

Vanderbilt

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    Mark Humphrey

    When: Saturday, April 12, 11 a.m. ET

    After the best three-year stretch in modern program history, Vanderbilt will wipe the board clean and begin to reload under former Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason.

    Former UCLA head coach Karl Dorrell takes over as the offensive coordinator, and his West Coast offense is markedly different from the multiple sets Vandy used under James Franklin and John Donovan. That and the quarterback battle between Patton Robinette and Johnny McCrary are of particular intrigue on offense.

    Defensively, Mason's patented 3-4 defense has shifted players from position to position all spring. We'll see how former ends perform as stand-up linebackers and, more importantly, how the entire team responds to losing its leader for the first time Saturday.

Wisconsin

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    Credit: 247Sports

    When: Saturday, April 12, 4 p.m. ET

    All eyes will be on the passing game—both on the players doing the passing and those the passes are being lobbed at.

    Can Joel Stave, now the starting quarterback for almost two years, stave off competition from re-converted safety Tanner McEvoy, Bart Houston and promising early enrollee D.J. Gillins? And how can any of that foursome look good without Jared Abbrederis around to catch passes?

    Defensively, the Badgers face more turnover than they're used to. It's hard to overstate how much Chris Borland meant in the middle of this unit, and head coach Gary Andersen has been experimenting with newer, faster formations—formations more like the ones he used at Utah State—and shifting players around to new positions.

    Because this is Wisconsin, we are trained to expect stability. No matter the amount of attrition, the Badgers always seem to be fine. But this is a new era, and an ugly spring game on both sides (or even either side) of the ball would make for an interesting, worrisome summer.