Players Poised to Break Out in Week 3 of College Football Spring Games
In many regards, the concept of the college football spring game is overblown. It is, in effect, a glorified open scrimmage, and some teams opt not to even have one. If the game was really so vital to a team's overall development, that would not be the case.
However, one way the spring game has proven useful over the years is in identifying breakout talents. It is the bookend of spring practice—the time of year when players make the most improvement—and a good chance for certain players to showcase how much they have grown.
For proof of this, look no further than spring football season 2013, when Jameis Winston played so well that Clint Trickett transferred from Florida State to West Virginia. Winston would take that momentum into the offseason, which enabled him to become the player we know today—the national champion and Heisman Trophy winner.
Might the next Winston break out this weekend? Maybe. Probably not, but maybe. There are, however, some players in auspicious positions, whether it be after a camp of reported improvement, an offseason of much-needed health or a simple position of increased opportunity.
Here's who we'll be keeping an eye on.
CB Tony Brown, Alabama
Alabama entered the spring with questions at cornerback, a position group that was among the worst in Nick Saban's tenure last season. Those questions were only exacerbated when Eddie Jackson, the team's most proven player at the position, tore his ACL on April 5.
All of which shines a spotlight on early enrollee Tony Brown, who was the No. 9 overall player and No. 2 cornerback on the 247Sports Composite. Andrew Gribble of AL.com says Brown has been the "top beneficiary" of Jackson's injury (with regard to reps), and he should see extended playing time with the first-team defense Saturday.
Brown, who doubles as a track star, has recovered well from a minor shoulder injury this spring and plays with the grit in man-to-man coverage that Saban likes to see. He is capable of yielding a GIF-worthy highlight or two in the spring game, which would endear him to fans as much as his fluid hips and tackling endear him to coaches.
Don't be surprised if Brown starts at some point this fall.
DE Shiro Davis, Texas
Shiro Davis is Texas' best option to replace defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, who departed this year after notching 45.5 tackles for loss and 25 sacks in his last 32 games (which is ridiculous).
After slowly coming on at the end of last season, Davis has bulked up to 258 pounds (up from 249) this spring, and head coach Charlie Strong named him one of the young players starting to shine in late March, according to the team's official website.
In desperate need of production on the edge, Texas will be watching closely as Davis tries to wrap up a starting spot opposite Cedric Reed. He certainly has the talent—read: scary-quick pass-rush moves—to make Saturday his coming-out party.
WR Brisly Estime, Syracuse
Brisly Estime was by far the fastest, most dangerous weapon on Syracuse's offense last season, but he didn't earn regular playing time until later in the schedule.
This year, as a sophomore, he seems poised to earn a meaningful role from Week 1, which is scary news for ACC opponents, as reports from camp claim Estime is even faster than he was in 2013.
"We all knew he was fast," said strength and conditioning coach Will Hicks said, according to Chris Carlson of The Post-Standard. "He really got fast this offseason. He's a really fast kid right now. I'm not supposed to tell you numbers, but he's fast. Faster than last year. Dramatically faster."
Estime claims to have run a 4.28 in the 40-yard dash when he was in high school, so it's unclear what "dramatically faster" even means. It may just be talk. Or, potentially, it may be that college football has another Chris Johnson-type figure.
WR George Farmer, USC
Anyone remember George Farmer?
Before injuries derailed his career, Farmer was the No. 1 receiver and No. 8 overall player on the 247Sports Composite in 2011. He starred at Juniper Serra High School in Gardena, Calif., playing alongside (and ranking more favorably than) fellow future Trojans Marqise Lee and Robert Woods.
After injuring his knee in April 2013 and taking a redshirt, Farmer is coming along—slowly but encouragingly—this spring and beginning to show shades of his old self. "He looks like he wants to let people know he can play," said quarterback Cody Kessler, per Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times. "He's really bought into that work ethic."
For Farmer, "breaking out" this weekend does not mean lighting up the box score. He needn't overexert his rehab. All it means is running on the field, cutting with confidence, moving with his normal, gliding speed and making a couple of plays that fans can get excited about.
Here's to hoping he can do that.
QB Justin Thomas, Georgia Tech
Quarterback Vad Lee, who had started for the past two seasons, announced his decision to transfer mere days after Georgia Tech's bowl loss to Ole Miss, leaving the position in doubt heading into 2014.
Justin Thomas is the working favorite to replace him, and he has the pedigree Jackets fans would love to see under center in Paul Johnson's triple-option offense—i.e., he was recruited as an athlete (instead of a quarterback), ranked in the top 150 of the 247Sports Composite and decommitted from Alabama to play at Georgia Tech.
Tim Byerly and Matthew Jordan are around to push Thomas this spring and fall, so he doesn't have the luxury of slouching through Friday's game. He'll need to be his best, be creative, extend plays inside the pocket and create plays when he breaks contain.
But those are all things he is capable of.
RB Shaq Thompson, Washington
Linebacker Shaq Thompson needs no breaking out. He was a former blue-chip recruit and has been an All-Pac-12 honorable mention the past two seasons.
Running back Shaq Thompson, however, might get his first real shot in the spotlight this weekend.
According to Adam Jude of The Seattle Times, new head coach Chris Petersen has experimented with his best defensive player—and best overall athlete—in the offensive backfield, letting him participate in running back drills during practice and giving him three carries during a 50-play scrimmage in early April.
The first carry went for 20 yards down the right sideline. The next carry went for 74 yards and a score. The next carry went for a modest 12-yard gain—and just like that, UW might have found a replacement for All-American tailback Bishop Sankey.
"I could see him back there playing (as the) starting running back and starting linebacker-safety," said receiver Jaydon Mickens, according to Jude. "I could see him really doing that."
Eat your heart out, Myles Jack.
WR D'haquille Williams, Auburn
D'haquille Williams has a lot to live up to.
The last time a receiver topped the 247Sports JUCO Composite, it was Cordarrelle Patterson. The last time Auburn landed a JUCO player so highly regarded, it was Cam Newton. Receivers coach Dameyune Craig said Williams is "our Jameis Winston" and called him "a once in a lifetime player," according to Justin Hokanson of Rivals.com.
But seriously, D'haquille. No pressure.
Williams has been up to the task during spring camp, however, using his 6'3" frame on the outside and lobbying to become a No. 1 receiver in this offense. Converted cornerback Trovon Reed said Williams "deserves every star he got" in recruiting, per Joel Erickson of AL.com.
By 247Sports' subjective rankings, he got five.
QB Travis Wilson, Utah
Before concussion issues derailed his season (and threatened his career), Travis Wilson was well on his way to becoming one of the Pac-12's best quarterbacks. He led the October upset of Stanford and shredded Oregon State with both his arm—which is mounted on a lanky 6'7" frame—and his legs.
Having been medically cleared to participate in non-contact spring drills, Wilson now gets to work with former Wyoming head coach and Missouri offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, who has become something of a QB guru over the last decade-plus.
The results are already showing.
According to Matthew Piper of The Salt Lake Tribune, Wilson completed 11 of 21 passes for 182 yards, five touchdowns and zero turnovers in the Utes' most recent scrimmage. He looked like every bit the breakout star he did at the start of last season, leading head coach Kyle Whittingham to call his performance "exceptionally sharp."
Maybe my prediction was not so crazy after all.