7 Spring Practice Position Battles That Are Heating Up
Sometimes, position battles have a way of working themselves out.
Sometimes, one player just outperforms his competition so vastly, so publicly, that coaches have no choice but to name a victor and lock him into a starting role.
Other times, you have what happened last weekend at Clemson. Entering the Orange and White game, the Tigers had a three-way battle to replace record-setting quarterback Tajh Boyd in senior Cole Stoudt, sophomore Chad Kelly and true freshman DeShaun Watson.
All of that changed Saturday. Kelly was pulled from the game after throwing two interceptions and sniping with coaches on the sideline after his team elected to punt on a 4th-and-3 inside the 50. On Monday, Kelly was dismissed from Clemson’s program for what coach Dabo Swinney called in a release “a pattern of behavior that is not consistent with the values of our program.”
One day later, Swinney named Stoudt the starter over Watson, who missed the game with a cracked collarbone but is expected to contribute this fall regardless.
Not all battles are so easy to resolve. With spring workouts winding to a close this weekend and next, a number of high-profile competitions will stretch into the summer unresolved. Here are seven spring practice position battles that are heating up as spring practice transitions into summer workouts.
Alabama coach Nick Saban and new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin presided over one of the nation’s most crowded quarterback battles this spring. AJ McCarron left a huge hole in the Crimson Tide’s offense when he graduated, finishing his collegiate career 36-4 with two national championships.
Kiffin and Saban evaluated five quarterbacks this spring, and one has separated himself from the pack pending the arrival of a high-profile graduate transfer next month.
Senior quarterback Blake Sims served as McCarron’s backup last fall, completing 18 of 29 passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns mostly in mop-up duty. He has a solid arm and is a good fit in the pro-style offense that Kiffin will run, but he is an unknown commodity as a starter in the high-pressure SEC.
In a recent scrimmage, Sims completed 24 of 39 passes for 288 yards and two touchdowns and earned praise from Saban.
Sims is leading four quarterbacks who have combined for zero collegiate snaps. They are sophomore Alec Morris, redshirt freshman Cooper Bateman, highly touted early enrollee David Cornwell and redshirt freshman Parker McLeod.
The top candidate might not even be on campus yet, however.
In late January, Florida State quarterback Jacob Coker officially finalized his long-expected transfer to Alabama. Coker lost a battle last fall to Jameis Winston, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy and lead FSU to a national title, entrenching himself as the Seminoles’ quarterback.
Coker took advantage of an NCAA rule that allows players to transfer to a program that allows a compatible graduate program should they finish their degree in three years. He’ll have two years of eligibility remaining. He stands 6’5”, 230 pounds and should fit right into Alabama’s plans. His last coach, Jimbo Fisher, is a Saban acolyte who has molded FSU’s program after Alabama’s.
Coker will have a chance to lead a program in Tuscaloosa, and even though he won’t arrive until next month, AL.com’s Andrew Gribble calls him “the leader in the clubhouse.”
The Arizona Wildcats’ competition to replace B.J. Denker as the new starting quarterback was wide-open entering spring, and it appears to be that way entering fall as well. Arizona has seven quarterbacks on its roster, with four believed to be serious candidates to start, and none distinguished themselves this spring.
Senior Jesse Scroggins, a transfer from Southern California, has a great arm and some speed, making a 44-yard touchdown pass and a 25-yard scramble in the Wildcats’ spring game. But he has not been consistent enough to separate himself.
Texas transfer Connor Brewer, a sophomore, had two touchdowns in the spring game. His arm is not as big as Scroggins’ is, but he is accurate and smart in the pocket.
Junior Jerrard Randall arrived at Arizona over the winter after transferring from LSU via Northeast Mississippi Community College. He has a big arm but doesn’t know the system as well as the other competitors.
Redshirt freshman Anu Solomon was a highly touted recruit before redshirting last fall. He, too, has the ability to move the ball through the air and on the ground. He threw for 74 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game.
The Wildcats have the potential to be a Pac-12 contender with Rich Rodriguez’s spread-it-out offense. But any of the four quarterbacks could be under center for the 2014 season opener against UNLV, which makes for a fascinating competition this fall.
"Everyone wants to know who the starter is, but I can tell you this — I don’t see myself naming a starter until a couple minutes before the first game, or a couple seconds," Rodriguez said, via Zack Rosenblatt of the Arizona Daily Star.
Tre Mason was one of the biggest reasons for Auburn’s dramatic 2013 turnaround. Used properly in Gus Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle system, he piled up 1,816 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns and helped lead the Tigers from a 3-9 record in 2012 to a 12-2 record in 2013, coming within seconds of beating Florida State for the BCS National Championship.
Mason finished sixth in Heisman voting and then departed early for the NFL, leaving Auburn with several choices to replace him in its backfield alongside mobile quarterback Nick Marshall.
Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee will likely pick from a pair of seniors in Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne to fill Mason’s role. Both were more than bit contributors a year ago. Grant carried 66 times for 647 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 9.8 yards per carry. Artis-Payne had 91 carries for 610 yards and six scores, averaging 6.7 yards per carry.
The two offer a contrast in styles. Artis-Payne is known for his power, while Grant is known as a home run threat who can score whenever he touches the ball. However, Artis-Payne can run the 40-yard dash in under 4.5 seconds, and Grant, who stands 5’11”, 205 pounds, has proven he can handle an every-down grind that will be necessary for the Tigers’ top tailback.
Malzahn has not put a timetable on naming a starter, which means it could stretch past this weekend’s spring game and into the fall. Whenever he decides, it’ll be closely watched, as the tailback is a key piece of the Tigers’ high-powered offense.
Anthony Jennings began LSU spring practices with the inside track to replace strong-armed Zach Mettenberger as the Tigers’ starting quarterback. After all, the sophomore stepped in last fall after Mettenberger tore his ACL in the regular-season finale against Arkansas and led LSU to a pair of wins. Against the Arkansas Razorbacks, he keyed a game-winning 99-yard touchdown drive by throwing a 49-yard touchdown pass to receiver Travin Dural.
He also led an Outback Bowl win over Iowa but was uneven, completing seven of 19 passes for 82 yards with no touchdowns and an interception.
As LSU wrapped up spring practice last week, the quarterback situation was entirely unclear. Incoming true freshman Brandon Harris, rated as the nation’s No. 3 dual-threat quarterback by 247Sports, finished a strong spring by completing 11 of 28 passes for 195 yards and three touchdowns and adding 77 rushing yards in the Tigers’ spring game.
Jennings? He completed nine out of 17 passes for 157 yards with a touchdown and a pair of interceptions returned for scores by LSU defensive backs.
Both quarterbacks have mobility and solid arm strength, which are necessities in Cam Cameron’s offense. LSU still figures to push the ball deep this fall when blue-chip recruits like Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn arrive on campus.
LSU coach Les Miles told Matthew Harris of The (Baton Rouge) Advocate that he wasn’t ready to name a starting quarterback, a sign that the competition will stretch into fall.
"Both guys are pretty good," Miles said. "We’d like to think they’d continue to improve and be well beyond where they are today. Both guys are talented enough to be our quarterback."
Jennings had his chance to distance himself from the freshmen this spring. With spring over, it is clearly anyone’s race this fall.
Entering spring practice, Michigan senior quarterback Devin Gardner was the favorite to keep his job over sophomore Shane Morris, despite the presence of new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who is installing a pro-style offense that could take advantage of his talents.
After all, Gardner started all last season as a junior, throwing for 2,960 yards with 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while adding 483 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns.
A broken foot sidelined Gardner for the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, and Morris completed 19 of 31 passes for 198 yards and an interception, adding 40 yards rushing in a loss to Kansas State.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke wasn’t happy with Gardner’s up-and-down spring, including an uneven effort in the Wolverines’ spring game.
"I think (the competition) is going to continue,” Hoke said, according to the Shawn Windsor of The Detroit Free Press on a recent Big Ten teleconference. “I don’t think Devin played as well Saturday as he has during (the) spring football (season), as he (did) the Saturday before.”
Both Gardner and Morris have dual-threat abilities, and while the senior should still have the edge, it is far from a sure thing that he’ll line up under center this fall. That’ll likely be determined in August.
Texas A&M QB
The Texas A&M Aggies began spring practice with three quarterbacks vying to replace Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel, one of the nation’s most electric, polarizing players in his two seasons of college football. A year ago, Manziel threw for 4,114 yards with 37 touchdowns against 13 interceptions in 2013, adding 759 yards rushing and nine rushing scores.
As Kevin Sumlin and Co. wrap up spring, the leader to replace him just might be a freshman. True freshman early enrollee Kyle Allen, rated as the nation’s No. 1 pro-style quarterback and No. 10 overall prospect by 247Sports, was the only Aggie signal-caller to survive the spring unscathed.
Sophomore Kenny Hill was suspended indefinitely midway through spring practice after being arrested for public intoxication, and senior Matt Joeckel announced Wednesday that he was transferring. Joeckel has already graduated and will be eligible to play wherever he lands this fall.
Allen has the abilities to thrive in Sumlin and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital’s wide-open system, capable of moving the ball through the air and on the ground as Manziel could. Due to Kyle Field renovations, A&M did not have a spring game and Sumlin has not shown any indication of naming a starter before fall.
The Wisconsin Badgers boast one of the nation’s more unique quarterback battles. Junior Joel Stave has started 19 games over the last two seasons, including all 13 in 2013. Last fall, he threw for 2,494 yards with 22 touchdowns against 13 interceptions, helping lead Wisconsin to a 9-4 record.
However, he suffered an injury to the AC joint in his throwing shoulder in a Capital One Bowl loss to South Carolina, which ended his spring early. He is expected to be fine for preseason drills, but he had competition before the injury.
Junior Tanner McEvoy is his primary competition. Wisconsin’s coaches would like more mobility from their quarterback, something Stave doesn’t possess. McEvoy has excellent athleticism. He competed with Stave for the starting job last fall before serving as a wide receiver and safety.
Following Wisconsin’s spring game, coach Gary Andersen told Tom Oates of the Wisconsin State Journal that he expects Stave and McEvoy to battle for the job. Freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins and sophomore Bart Houston were also competing, but they're not expected to be factors this fall.
"Joel fought like crazy. He’s got an injury and it’s hard to deal with and we expect him to be better. He’s got a great attitude, so does Tanner, and it will be a fight."
Stave’s injury has made it difficult to read the quarterback derby, as has the fact that senior Kenzel Doe is the Badgers’ only experienced, fully healthy receiver going through spring drills. Stave is the incumbent, but assuming he is fully healthy this fall, he’ll have serious competition to return as the Badgers’ starting signal-caller.
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