7 College Football Teams That Suffered Unexpected Setbacks in Spring Practice
Following Alabama’s A-Day game, Nick Saban told reporters, “Nobody has ever had a bad spring game. Let’s start with that.”
In some ways, the Crimson Tide’s cantankerous head coach is right. No matter what the score was of your favorite team’s spring game, it has either already been forgotten or will be long forgotten by the time preseason practice opens up in early August.
For college football coaches, spring’s 15 practices capped by the traditional spring game are exceptionally valuable in terms of evaluation and improvement.
But it is entirely possible for them to pass without everything being sunshine and lollipops for those involved. Injuries, transfers and general malaise can occur, leaving programs with questions as they leave spring and enter summer.
Here are seven college football teams that suffered unexpected setbacks in spring practice.
The Crimson Tide entered spring trying to shed the ugly aftertaste of the end of the 2013 season. Alabama entered the final week of the regular season in position to battle for its third consecutive national championship but lost to archrival Auburn in the “Miracle at Jordan-Hare” and suffered a dispiriting Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma.
One of spring’s biggest charges for Saban and new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin was to establish a quarterback, or at the very least, establish a competitor for transfer Jacob Coker, who will arrive in May after completing his Florida State graduation requirements.
Senior Blake Sims looked like that guy early on, throwing for 515 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions in the Crimson Tide’s first two scrimmages, according to stats released by Alabama.
But with 73,000 (and Coker) watching on A-Day, Sims struggled, completing 13 of 30 passes for 178 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Although it can be precarious to draw judgments from spring games, fellow quarterbacks Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell, Alec Morris and Parker McLeod completed 14 of 33 passes for 165 yards, a touchdown and two picks.
Saban wasn’t pleased, according to AL.com. "I didn't think the consistency on offense was what I would have liked it to be today," Saban said. "We did make some plays, but there wasn't really the consistency that you would really like to see in the offense."
Coker has been called “the leader in the clubhouse” in the Tide’s quarterback derby, and that apparently hasn’t changed. Given the importance of graduated quarterback A.J. McCarron to Alabama’s offense, it was crucial for his successor to get as much experience as possible with the guys he’ll be playing with this fall.
Coker will have a chance to get acclimated with his new receivers this summer, but having an unsettled quarterback situation entering preseason practice isn’t optimal.
Making matters worse, projected starting sophomore cornerback Eddie Jackson suffered a torn ACL with a week left in spring practice, leaving Alabama with a combined nine returning starts between three players.
Highly touted incoming freshman Tony Brown will get more reps at the position, but injuries like Jackson’s are never what coaches want.
When Michigan coach Brady Hoke fired offensive coordinator Al Borges and replaced him with Alabama OC Doug Nussmeier following a disappointing 2013 season, he set plans in motion to change the Wolverines’ offense to a more balanced, pro-style system.
But he needed solid quarterback play and offensive line play. This spring, he didn’t necessarily get either, which could be an issue as Michigan heads into fall.
Last fall, Gardner threw for 2,960 yards passing with 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, adding 483 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns, but the Wolverines were only 7-6.
Borges and Nussmeier said sophomore Shane Morris (who started the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl while Gardner was sidelined with a broken foot) would get a look this spring as well.
And while Gardner leaves spring as the starter, the senior’s hold on the job is far from secure. Michigan didn’t hold a traditional spring game, holding a structured open practice. But Hoke wasn’t happy with what he saw, according to the Detroit Free Press on a recent Big Ten teleconference.
"I think (the competition) is going to continue," Hoke said. "I don’t think Devin played as well Saturday as he has during (the) spring football (season), as he (did) the Saturday before."
The Wolverines will need significant offensive improvement over the summer and preseason for Nussmeier's offense to flourish this fall.
Following the graduations of Marcus Lucas and L’Damian Washington, Missouri had major holes to fill in its receiver corps. The dismissal of star wideout Dorial Green-Beckham following multiple offseason brushes with the law only amplified those problems.
Green-Beckham, who stands 6’6”, 225 pounds, is one of college football’s most talented receivers, but he couldn’t pull it together off the field, forcing coach Gary Pinkel’s hand.
With DGB gone, Missouri now must replace 167 receptions, 2,468 yards and 25 receiving touchdowns from 2013.
New starting quarterback Maty Mauk, who capably filled in for injured James Franklin last season, is excited about returning receivers like Darius White, Jimmie Hunt and Bud Sasser.
This spring, he completed 41 of 64 passes for 446 yards and a touchdown in Mizzou's three public scrimmages.
But it’s hard to understate how much Green-Beckham’s dismissal (warranted or not) will affect Missouri on the field this fall.
New head coach Charlie Strong wanted to use this spring to change the Longhorns’ culture, to instill toughness that wasn’t evident under Mack Brown’s regime. Whether that really happened won’t be evident until fall, when Texas takes the field against real opponents.
One major setback came at quarterback, where oft-injured junior David Ash again failed to establish himself as the offense’s leader. Ash suffered a fractured foot which ended his spring early, a troubling trend when paired with the concussions that ended his 2013 season and broken ribs that also hampered him.
Sophomore Tyrone Swoopes was uneven in Texas’ spring game, and the other quarterback currently on campus, Jerrod Heard, is a true freshman.
Southern California transfer Max Wittek recently visited Texas for the third time and appears likely to sign with the Longhorns as a transfer—he will be eligible immediately. But, he must learn the playbook and build chemistry with his teammates over the summer if he does.
It’s no easy task.
Strong made waves when he declared the Longhorns wouldn’t win a national championship this fall, but that should have been obvious. He’d settle for a clear-cut starting quarterback he could trust right now.
Texas A&M had plenty of questions to answer this spring following the departure of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel and talented wideout Mike Evans to the NFL draft.
However, the Aggies suffered through a series of arrests and injuries which could ultimately affect team chemistry and preparation come August.
A&M had a three-man derby to replace Manziel in rising senior Matt Joeckel, rising sophomore Kenny Hill and true freshman early enrollee Kyle Allen.
At the end of spring, Allen, rated as 247Sports’ No.1 pro-style quarterback prospect, was the last man standing, although he hasn’t won the job yet. Joeckel transferred to TCU, while Hill was suspended indefinitely following an arrest for public intoxication.
In addition, redshirt freshman wideout Ricky Seals-Jones, expected to be a top target this fall, was arrested for disorderly conduct.
The Aggies defense was similarly disjointed. A&M needed this spring to fix a porous defense. Last fall, the Aggies allowed 32.2 points per game (95th nationally) and finished 109th in total defense, allowing 475.4 yards per game.
Only two starters were lost from that defense, but other issues beset it this spring. Sophomore defensive linemen Jay Arnold and Daeshon Hall, expected to be big contributors, have been sidelined by shoulder injuries.
And starting defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and linebacker Darian Claiborne were suspended following arrests for marijuana possession and a noise violation, respectively.
Claiborne also missed the Chick-fil-A Bowl following an arrest for marijuana possession. Golden withdrew from school but is expected to return.
In addition, sophomore safety Kam Miles, a projected starter, was dismissed from the team following a violation of team rules.
It is unclear if any of the suspensions will carry over to the season, but the combinations of suspensions and injuries robbed a young defense of valuable time to jell, which coach Kevin Sumlin can’t be pleased about.
Following 2013’s ugly 2-10 record, Virginia coach Mike London clearly needs to win this fall to keep his job. This spring’s events didn’t necessarily help his cause.
Sophomore Greyson Lambert (who was voted as one of four captains for the 2014 season) emerged ahead of returning junior incumbent David Watford as the frontrunner to become the starting quarterback, although the battle remains open going into the fall.
Lambert completed 18 of 31 passes for 220 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions in the Cavaliers’ spring game making smart plays while also throwing passes into double and triple coverage, according to the Washington Post.
“I guess the quarterback spot was open,” wide receiver Kyle Dockins told the Post regarding Lambert. “And he took it.”
Meanwhile, Watford completed 4 of 14 passes with two interceptions. He was a member of London’s leadership council a year ago, but isn’t on the council this fall. London told the Post “everybody comes short of meeting an expectation” and Watford alluded to an “off-field incident” that kept him off the council.
Those aren’t qualities you want from a returning starter, which means London could be entering a pivotal season with a first-time starter.
Making matters worse, senior tight end Jake McGee, UVa’s leading receiver last fall, announced he will transfer after graduating next month. McGee had 43 receptions for 395 yards last fall and worked as a hybrid receiver/tight end this spring.
It is a big blow for a program that couldn’t afford defections entering a crucial season for London’s future.
Even with enigmatic quarterback Logan Thomas under center, Virginia Tech’s offense was hardly a force of nature last fall.
The Hokies entered spring with a very unsettled signalcaller situation, with sophomore Brenden Motley and fifth-year senior Mark Leal battling, knowing full well that Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer and true freshman Chris Durkin would join the fray in August.
Tech’s spring game, which saw White defeat Maroon 7-3, was anything but inspiring.
Motley and Leal did little to distinguish themselves. Motley completed 6 of 11 passes for 72 yards with an interception, while Leal went 10-for-18 with 90 yards and an interception. Tech coach Frank Beamer told the Roanoke Times he'll have to make a decision quickly this fall.
"I think we’ve got to take a direction and move in that direction and not take long," Beamer said. "I think again it’s one of those deals that whoever it’s going to be needs to get a lot of reps in preseason practice."
The Hokies are known for their defense under coordinator Bud Foster, but offensive improvement is needed to reverse a troubling trend. Following eight consecutive 10-win seasons from 2004-2011, Tech is just 15-11 over the past two seasons.
"I think we’re an up-and-coming football team," Beamer said. "We’re going to go through some growing pains probably this year. But I think we’re going to go through growing pains full speed."
Unless a clear starter emerges, those “growing pains” will be profound.