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Winners and Losers from College Football's 2014 Spring Games

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistApril 28, 2014

Winners and Losers from College Football's 2014 Spring Games

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    USA TODAY Sports

    We have officially reached the point of spring football season where it feels safe to pause and reflect.

    Yes, the Oregon schools still have to play their annual exhibition, but for the most part, every major FBS team has concluded spring workouts. Now comes the long, barren tundra of summer until practice resumes in the fall.

    Before such a long a layoff, though, some players, units and teams did well to improve their standing within their respective locker room or conference. With a strong spring game performance, they enter summer workouts with the momentum necessary to excel in 2014.

    On the other hand, some players, units and teams did not look strong at the end of spring practice and will need to improve before the season kicks off in late August.

    Here are 10 examples that stand out.

Winner: WR Josh Malone, Tennessee

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    As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. And Josh Malone's for Tennessee fans was a look he would not like to redo.

    Playing before more than 68,000 fans at Neyland Stadium, Malone, a true freshman early enrollee, stole the show of an offense-heavy game with six catches for 181 and three touchdowns. 

    Much was already expected of Malone, who joined the Vols as a 4-star recruit and the No. 36 overall player on the 247Sports Composite. It's not like he was ever going to be eased into action beside Marquez North, last year's breakout freshman receiver.

    Only now, the expectations are (justifiably) higher.

Loser: QB Blake Sims, Alabama

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Blake Sims had a chance to make a statement.

    After separating himself from the rest of the quarterbacks in spring game, the senior and former backup to AJ McCarron was thrown on a big stage at A-Day with a chance to stake a claim for the starting job before Jacob Coker arrives this summer.

    Instead, Sims struggled throughout the afternoon, completing just 13 of 30 passes with two interceptions (that easily could have been four).

    "I thought ... the game speeded up today and [Sims] tried to speed up with it, rather than just staying in his rhythm," said head coach Nick Saban, according to Alex Scarborough of ESPN.com.

    This doesn't eliminate Sims from contention. One has to think Saban dialed back the offense in a nationally televised scrimmage, and the defense Sims was playing was…well, an Alabama defense. He still has a small chance to win the job. 

Winner: QB Malik Zaire, Notre Dame

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    Even without looking at the box score, you could tell just from watching the game that Malik Zaire has a chance to be as good as (if not better than) Everett Golson as soon as 2014.

    He looked every bit as good.

    Looking at the box score only further services that point. Golson was OK, completing 13 of 23 passes for 160 yards, but Zaire finished 18-of-27 with 292 yards and two touchdowns (after taking the first snap).

    This job still belongs to Golson, who remains the favorite heading into fall camp. But with his spring game performance, Zaire took what was a competition in name only and made it a competition in earnest.

Loser: QB Chad Kelly, Clemson

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    RICHARD SHIRO

    Isn't this obvious?

    Chad Kelly entered Clemson's spring game with a legitimate shot to start at quarterback. With early enrollee Deshaun Watson on the sideline (collarbone), he and senior Cole Stoudt were set to battle one more time for the lead heading into summer workouts.

    From there, the walls began to cave. Stoudt stole the show in the spring game, while Kelly struggled to find a rhythm, argued with his coaches about not going for it on fourth down and eventually got yanked from the game. Again: He was yanked from the SPRING game.

    But that wasn't even the nadir. In part because of his behavior in the exhibition, Kelly was dismissed from the team soon after and will play next season at East Mississippi Community College, per the NJCAA website, which confirmed he has signed his national letter of intent.

    It's hard to fall much farther, much quicker, than Kelly has.

Winner: Auburn Passing Game

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    John Bazemore

    This could have gone to a number of individuals.

    Specifically, quarterback Nick Marshall and JUCO transfer D'haquille "Duke" Williams looked as impressive as Auburn fans were hoping. Both viscerally and on the stat sheet, the duo looked ready to make a respective run at the All-SEC first team.

    On the whole, though, the entire Auburn passing game looked substantially better than it did last season— when it struggled to get going on more than one occasion.

    Even though the running game should be OK without Tre Mason and Greg Robinson, it's not crazy to expect at least a tiny step back. In that case, Marshall, Williams, Sammie Coates and Quan Bray will all need to step up big time.

    It looks they're ready to do so.

Winner/Loser: QB Brandon Harris/Anthony Jennings, LSU

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    Even before spring practice and the spring game, it was assumed that Brandon Harris would be the best physical prospect—would have the best legs, most impressive arm—out of all the quarterbacks competing to replace Zach Mettenberger in Baton Rouge.

    What Anthony Jennings had on Harris was experience. He isn't untalented by any stretch, but to combat what Harris has over him, Jennings was expected to use his more advanced knowledge of Cam Cameron's offense and the reps he got at the end of last season as a boost.

    In the spring game, however, it became clear that isn't the case. Like Bleacher Report's Barrett Salle says above, Harris grasped the scheme well, which is huge for a player his age. He also played mistake-free football and flashed his legs with 75 rushing yards.

    Jennings, on the other hand, threw two interceptions and generally looked out of sorts. Out of sorts enough to be out of the running for this position? No. He still has a very real chance to start. But he is now, with little doubt, the favorite to lose to Harris.

Winner: CB Darian Hicks, Michigan State

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    Credit: 247Sports

    On Pat Narduzzi's defense, it is the natural order for things to take shape properly, for backups to become quality starters.

    Still, after losing Jim Thorpe Award winner Darqueze Dennard after last season, Michigan State entered the spring with major questions at cornerback. No defense asks more from its cornerbacks than this one, which frequently puts them in press-man coverage, so a "decent" option to replace Dennard would not be tolerated.

    Question answered.

    Presumed new starter Darian Hicks was (perhaps) the best player on the field during MSU's spring game, finishing with six tackles, a pass breakup and an interception and winning the first star of the game from Sean Merriman of Big Ten Network.

    The interception came on a deep ball from Tyler O'Connor and iced the game for Sparty, showing Hicks can make plays in the clutch just as well as the normal run of play.

    He and Trae Waynes should keep the No Fly Zone in tact.

Loser: Virginia Tech Offense

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    Victor Calzada

    For the most part, it is unwise to make sweeping generalizations after a spring game. It it too hard to derive meaningful conclusions from an intrasquad scrimmage so far from the season.

    Still, something about the way Virginia Tech's offense struggled felt important. After a year where it faltered from start to finish, it somehow looked even more anemic.

    According to Andy Bitter of the Roanoke Timesall 10 points of the ugly 7-3 slopfest came in the first quarter. Bud Foster's defense was certainly partly to blame for the struggles, but at this point, who among us has any faith in Scot Loeffler's offense?

    VT doesn't have the talent to overcome poor coaching.

Winner: QB Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma

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    Alonzo Adams

    As far as next season is concerned, this doesn't matter a lick. After transferring from Texas Tech this winter, Baker Mayfield will not be eligible to play in 2014.

    However, he will only be a sophomore by the time next season rolls around, so Mayfield's impressive spring game still feels important. He outshone Trevor Knight by a lot in the Sooners' exhibition, stealing headlines by completing all nine of his passes for 125 yards.

    Because of Davis Webb's improvement, Mayfield was nudged out of Lubbock after throwing for more than 2,300 yards and 12 touchdowns as a true freshman last season. Even outside of Kliff Kingsbury's offense, though, he proved he has the arm and savvy to do well.

    If Knight struggles as he did this spring—and in many spots last season—during 2013, it's not a slam dunk that he keeps his job once Mayfield is able to play.

    That's a very big "if," but still...who would have thunk it?

Loser: QB Tyrone Swoopes, Texas

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Yes, he got better as the game went on, but the way Tyrone Swoopes started the spring game—which seemed so important to his quest to start next season—left an indelible mark.

    With David Ash (injury) and Jerrod Heard (unenrolled) both absent, Swoopes, a sophomore, had a chance to redeem his poor relief appearance in the Alamo Bowl and prove he is capable of leading this offense. But instead, he showed that he is the same inconsistent player he was as a freshman last year.

    According to Max Olson of ESPN.com, Swoopes' first four possessions went: interception, punt, three-and-out, three-and-out (with a missed field goal).

    And that was against a second team defense! How would he fare with, say, Oklahoma's starters lined up across from him?

    Exactly.

Winner: WR Devon Allen, Oregon

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    Steve Dykes/Getty Images

    Like the rest of Oregon's receiving corps, Devon Allen entered the spring game with an unsure role in the offense.

    Seniors Josh Huff and Daryle Hawkins left the team after last season, and top returnee Bralon Addison tore his ACL during spring camp, leaving an offense that relies on quickness and separation on the outside without a proven playmaker at the position.

    Allen looks poised to fill the void after hauling in a pair of touchdowns during the spring game.

    His first—a 45-yard bomb on a fantastic throw-and-catch from Marcus Mariota—was likely the highlight of the afternoon, while the second helped substantiate his claim to a meaningful role.

    Also a star hurdler with the track team, Allen's speed makes him a natural fit for the Oregon offense, and head coach Mark Helfrich knows it. "We love tough track guys," he said, according to Tyson Alger of The Oregonian "There’s that perception that a track guy is soft."

    "That’s absolutely not the case if they’re the right guy."

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