The Biggest Takeaways from 2014 College Football Spring Games
With only a few more spring games remaining, the offseason-season of college football is grinding to a halt, which will leave us with no semblance of football—even the zombie form of football we see all spring—until the start of fall practice.
To get us through the summer months, we will no doubt spend considerable time discussing what happened in (mostly) March and April. The importance of spring football can be argued, but it is guaranteed to leave behind some juicy storylines nonetheless.
The spring games in particular serve an important narrative function. They are a major plot point in position battles and the first impression we get of early enrollee freshmen.
From those games, we always derive some important takeaways.
Here's what we have learned in 2014.
Everett Golson's Job Is Not Safe
We all scoffed—OK, maybe only I scoffed—when Malik Zaire said he thought he'd be the starting quarterback when Notre Dame opens the season against Rice on April 30.
Everett Golson, after all, led the Irish to an undefeated regular season, No. 1 BCS ranking and trip to the national title game as a redshirt freshman two years ago before sitting out 2013 with a suspension. His return was supposed to reinvigorate the team.
And while Golson didn't look bad during spring practice or during the spring game, he looked viscerally worse than Zaire in both cases. He looked a few steps slower and (curiously) a tad less assured in his progressions. He looked like the second-best QB on the team.
How will that materialize come the fall? It's hard to say for sure.
Head coach Brian Kelly has never been shy about changing quarterbacks—even mid-game—and it's a safe bet that both see the field in some capacity next season. Only now, Zaire looks less and less like a guy whose sole job is to come in when Golson struggles.
He looks like a genuine piece of the offense.
The Kids Are All Right
Ten of the top 40 recruits on the 247Sports Composite enrolled early this semester, and even though a couple—Andrew Brown (Virginia) and Dalvin Cook (Florida State)—were injured during camp, and Texas A&M didn't have a spring game for Speedy Noil and Kyle Allen to play in, the ones who suited up all stood out during their first public exhibitions.
Specifically, Alabama offensive tackle Cam Robinson (No. 4) and cornerback Tony Brown (No. 9), Florida cornerback Jalen Tabor (No. 14), Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan (No. 22) and Tennessee receiver Josh Malone (No. 36) and running back Jalen Hurd (No. 40) all did well and look poised to either start or become key reserves in their first FBS season.
We'll know more about the state of this class when the other 75 percent of the top 40 arrives this summer and fall. Running back Leonard Fournette (LSU), defensive end Myles Garrett (Texas A&M) and defensive back Jabrill Peppers (Michigan)—the three highest-rated players on the Composite—have yet to make an appearance, and how they acclimate will go a long way in defining this year's group.
But the early returns look promising.
Florida Will Not Play Will Muschamp Football
…And that's intended as a compliment.
Last season, Florida's offense was as boring as it was predictable—as inefficient as it was difficult to watch. In part because Jeff Driskel broke his leg against Tennessee, the play-calling devolved into a torrent of uninspired rush attempts and play-it-safe pass attempts that rarely tested opposing defenses in any creative way.
But now, with offensive coordinator Kurt Roper having joined Will Muschamp's ranks, the mindset appears to be different. The Gators played at a faster pace in the spring game and did the unthinkable—at least based on how he's been used since arriving in Gainesville—by putting Driskel in the shotgun, where his dual-threat abilities should be complemented.
"I'm extremely pleased with the day offensively with 15 practices and how far we've come," said Muschamp after the 23-23 tie, according to Jeff Barlis of ESPN.com. "I think you can attribute all that to Kurt Roper and the offensive staff and the job they've done."
We'll see how well it works when things go live.
Alabama Has a Lot of Eggs in One Basket
Alabama waged a five-man quarterback competition this spring that appeared to be won by senior Blake Sims—the man who backed up AJ McCarron last season.
Sims, however, struggled in the A-Day game, completing just 13 of 30 passes and throwing a couple of interceptions (and a couple more that probably should have been, too).
Because of this, it looks more and more like Florida State transfer Jacob Coker will be the starting QB in Tuscaloosa. This seems fine, as Coker is a good physical prospect whom coaches at FSU loved—so much so that he was battling with Jameis Winston for the right to start during fall camp last season.
However, Coker is just as not-game-tested as the rest of Alabama's quarterbacks, and no matter what the Seminole staff might tell you, he never seemed to have a realistic shot at beating Winston for the job. That battle felt more in-name than legitimate.
There's a chance Coker is exactly what the Crimson Tide need next season: a big, strong, risk-averse thrower with good accuracy and consistent mechanics. There's also a chance that he…well, isn't all that good.
Alabama can't afford the latter to be true.
Top-10 Freshmen Quarterbacks Will Get a Chance
According to their composite rating at 247Sports, the top 10 quarterbacks in the class of 2013—nine of which were pro-style, with only converted receiver Jalin Marshall (Ohio State) coming from the dual-threat side of the rankings—yielded just one first-year starter: Christian Hackenberg at Penn State.
Other than Max Browne at USC, none of the others were even given a realistic chance; and even Browne was nixed from the competition between Cody Kessler and Max Wittek toward the beginning of fall camp.
This year, things appear to be different. Of the top 10 quarterbacks in the class (again, going by composite ratings), five or six will be given a realistic chance to compete for a job in the fall.
Many of those QBs were helped by what happened in the spring game. Brandon Harris, for example, far outperformed Anthony Jennings at LSU. Meanwhile, Jerrod Heard and Brad Kaaya sat at home and watched Tyrone Swoopes and Kevin Olsen play poorly in their respective opportunities at Texas and Miami.
Kyle Allen at Texas A&M and Drew Barker at Kentucky are tentative favorites to win their jobs, while Deshaun Watson has a big hill to climb at Clemson—Cole Stoudt was recently named the starter, according to Coy Wire of FoxSports.com—but should be given a chance to win the coaches over when healthy this fall.
Either way, there's a good chance we see some young, untested faces start in Week 1 this season.
Even more might be starting down the line.
Some Heisman Bandwagons Are Stronger Than Others
Connor Cook and Trevor Knight enjoyed coming out parties on back-to-back evenings last January—Cook's in the Rose Bowl against Stanford and Knight's in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama.
Those are some pretty good defenses to own.
Because of how last season ended, these two quarterbacks—one of whom didn't start until Week 3 last season, the other of whom was benched for poor performance in Week 3 last season—were both considered trendy Heisman sleepers before the spring.
Their spring games, however, were quite different. Knight struggled and was eclipsed by Baker Mayfield, who transferred this winter from Big 12 rival Texas Tech. Cook, on the other hand, led an always-improving Michigan State offense to a victory with 159 yards and two touchdowns—including the game-winning score in the final minutes.
Whether or not you believe in in-game momentum—personally, I skew toward the Bill Barnwell principle of its meaninglessness—it's hard to deny the momentum one can gain in an offseason. Cook took off from the end of last year and appears to be better than ever.
Knight made the Sugar Bowl look slightly more like a fluke.
Big-Name Transfer Quarterbacks Are Ready for Their Close-Up
The names Gunner Kiel and Jacoby Brissett mean a lot to college football fans—a lot more than their tangible resumes.
Both were big-time recruits who, for whatever reason, did not stick at their first enrolled school (Notre Dame for Kiel, Florida for Brissett) before transferring and biding their time due to NCAA rules that made them ineligible last season.
Now each QB finds himself at a lesser (but still good) FBS program: Kiel at Cincinnati, Brissett at N.C. State; and each has a presumptive chance to start. They both looked good in the spring games, too, as Kiel threw for 300 yards on 17-of-22 passing and Brissett completed 24 of 37 passes for 365 yards.
These two might finally be ready to reach their potential.
Everything Should Be Taken with a Grain of Salt
This is an annual spring practice takeaway, but after roughly a month of looking deep—perhaps too deep—at everything that has happened in spring practice, it still bears repeating:
The season is four months away.
Not just that, the rosters are not complete. As mentioned earlier, only six of the top 40 freshmen on the 247Sports Composite actually played in a spring game this season. That means 34 potential impact players have yet to show their stuff to the world—not to mention those who are currently injured or simply playing it safe.
Furthermore—especially in the case of the biggest teams—spring games tend to be watered-down versions of what each team plans to run. Nick Saban is among the most guarded men in college football, and he's breaking in a new offensive coordinator in Lane Kiffin. Do you really think he would give up any secrets during a nationally televised scrimmage?
We love spring football because it's football—in the spring. We get excited because we miss it, because we can't wait to see it come back in earnest. The season is not pointless and there are some takeaways to derive, but it's foolish to declare one team a champion or another team a bust based on how it performed in April.
It's really just another thing to talk about.