Every College Football Playoff Contender's Most Important Fall Camp Battle
We have spent the offseason bickering about position battles in the abstract, but with fall camps beginning to open, and the season sitting weeks instead of months in the future, now is when the real decisions get made.
Even the deepest, best, most -complete teams in college football have multiple positional hierarchies to sort out this next month, and some are more important than others. If the battles take place at a position of need—at a rare spot where a good team is weakest—it can alter the course of the entire college football season.
So in honor of the first day of August—the start of the first month of the season—we've taken a group of the top College Football Playoff contenders and highlighted their most impactful fall battle.
The 13 teams included as contenders are the top 13 teams in the Amway Preseason Coaches Poll, which was not necessarily done on purpose. It does, however, feel like there's a pretty distinct drop-off between No. 13 and No. 14—two teams that ironically play each other in Week 1—and another between No. 17 and No. 18.
Chime in below and let me know where you agree or disagree.
Clemson: Right Tackle
Shaq Anthony logged significant playing time last season, starting three games and seeing more than 500 snaps, per Aaron Brenner of The Post and Courier. But he didn't always look great in those reps, allowing Joe Gore to push him for the job at right tackle. Anthony is suspended for the season-opener at Georgia, and how Gore plays in that game (against a great defensive front seven) might determine who starts the rest of the way. Senior quarterback Cole Stoudt will need all the help he can get as he breaks in some new skill players.
Notre Dame: Strong Safety
Notre Dame's safeties did not meet their usual standard last season, one of the many differences between the 2012 and 2013 defenses. Sophomore Max Redfield entered the starting lineup at the end of the season and looks to have the free safety role locked down, but the strong safety role is up for grabs between fifth-year senior Austin Collinsworth (last year's starter), Elijah Shumate and Eilar Hardy.
USC: Left Guard
Scholarship restrictions have jeopardized USC's depth the past few seasons, and nowhere is that more obvious than along the offensive line. In theory, Jordan Simmons should be able to lock down the job at left guard, but he is coming off a knee surgery that ended his season last October. The best options behind him are freshmen, but one of them, Damien Mama, was the highest-rated guard in the 2014 class.
It barely registers nationally—at least compared to the bigger quarterback battles in the SEC—but the competition between Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy is among the most important of the fall. Stave has experience but has frustrated with his inconsistency and isn't very mobile. McEvoy is 6'6" and athletic enough that he moved to safety after losing the job to Stave last season, which might better fit the mold of a Gary Andersen quarterback (see: Chuckie Keeton).
Most Important Battle: Quarterback
Contenders: Jacob Coker, Blake Sims, Cooper Bateman
Through no fault of Alabama's own, this has become one of the most annoying position battles of the offseason.
Florida State transfer Jacob Coker, who backed up Jameis Winston in 2013, has been talked about and talked about and talked about, but he's done very little actual playing. He's a graduate transfer who didn't enroll until May and couldn't participate in spring camp.
His non-presence on the practice field will finally come to an end in August, however, at which point the battle with senior Blake Sims and redshirt freshman Cooper Bateman will finally begin in earnest. We can finally see—or at least hear from firsthand accounts—what Coker is capable of and how well he has picked up Lane Kiffin's offense.
Whoever wins the job doesn't need to set the world on fire. If Alabama gets even replacement-level SEC quarterback play, to borrow a baseball term, it should have one of the best offenses in the country. The running backs (led by T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry), pass-catchers (led by Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White, Chris Black, Christion Jones and O.J. Howard) and offensive line project to be that good.
Is Coker the right man for that job? And is there a chance he can be even more? At 6'5", he certainly has the look of an above-replacement-level SEC quarterback. We'll learn more about his accuracy, decision-making and mental capacity over the next month.
Until then, let's rewatch his Florida State "highlight package" for the million-and-first time!
Most Important Battle: Field Cornerback
Contenders: Jonathan Jones, Trovon Reed
Last year's field cornerback, Jonathon Mincy, is sliding across the field to take Chris Davis' spot on the boundary (assuming his arrest for second-degree marijuana possession does not jeopardize his season).
But that leaves questions on the field side, where junior Jonathan Jones, whose Auburn career has been marked by injury problems, is battling converted wide receiver Trovon Reed.
Reed impressed with the first-team defense in the spring game, registering several pass breakups, per Bleacher Report's Justin Ferguson. His athleticism is plain to see, but can the Auburn defense really trust a player so green at such an important position?
"It's not as easy as I thought," said Reed of his transition to cornerback, per Joel A. Erickson of AL.com. "I thought it'd be like easy to mirror those guys, but when the bullets flying and everything is moving full speed, it gets hard."
One has to admire Reed's candor, his willingness to admit that he is struggling. Some players would have too much pride to say that.
Still, it is hardly encouraging for a potential starting cornerback on a team with national title aspirations to just be realizing how hard it is to mirror receivers. Most cornerbacks are humbled by that realization as freshmen and work for years to learn to master the skill.
Can Reed make up the learning curve this fall?
Update: Apparently, Auburn came out with a revised look on the first day of fall camp. Mincy was back on the field side, with thought-to-be-former cornerback Josh Holsey starting across from him on the boundary, per Joel Erickson of AL.com. Jones and Reed both ran with the second team.
Those two should still fight Holsey for that job, although this does not shine a positive light on their chances of starting Week 1.
JUCO transfer Derrick Moncrief, who was thought to be competing with Holsey at boundary safety, must have done enough during his impressive spring camp to convince the staff he's ready to start.
Most Important Battle: Cornerback/Cover Safety
Contenders: Terrence Singleton, Terrell Burt, Ryan Reid, Chris Sanders, Tion Wright
This is not a straightforward, two-men-for-one-spot battle. Instead, it's a case where essentially five players are battling for two spots.
One of those players will be Terrence Singleton, whose position might depend on how the other four players perform. He is listed as a cornerback on the post-spring depth chart, with Terrell Burt at cover safety, but Singleton played a little safety in the spring and could slide over there if Burt struggles and another cornerback emerges.
Candidates to emerge at the cornerback spot include redshirt sophomore Ryan Reid and a pair of JUCO transfers, Chris Sanders and Tion Wright. Burt did not play exceptionally well last season, struggling in particular against Central Florida, and if one of those players steps up, he could find himself on the outside looking in.
Baylor could really use one of these players' emergences, too, considering the way its secondary has been gutted. The Bears cobbled together a respectable pass defense last season, but losing reliable contributors such as Ahmad Dixon, Sam Holl, K.J. Morton, Demetri Goodson and Joe Williams will be difficult to cope with.
Most Important Battle: Punter
Contenders: Cason Beatty, Jonathan Hernandez
In some ways it's a joke, and in some ways it 100 percent serious, that Florida State's biggest question mark is at punter.
Cason Beatty is not asked to punt the ball often thanks to Florida State's efficient offense, but when he was called upon last season, he was among the worst at his position in the country. Despite having highly-touted athletes on their coverage team, the Seminoles finished 112th in yards per punt, 121st in net yards per punt and 121st in punt return average, per Chris Nee of 247Sports.com.
Desperate to see anyone but Beatty win the job, FSU fans took to Twitter this week to beg former Florida Atlantic punter Sean Kelly to transfer to the program. However, Bud Elliot of Tomahawk Nation confirmed that Kelly is not eligible to play in 2014, and that his cryptic tweet about being in Tallahassee was referring to community college.
Sophomore Jonathan Hernandez and a group of walk-ons should push Beatty for his job during fall camp. Almost anything would be an improvement over how bad this unit was last season.
And any weakness FSU has will be exploited by smart opponents.
Most Important Battle: Boundary Cornerback
Contenders: Sheldon Dawson, Devin Bowman, J.J. Green, Shattle Fenteng, Malkom Parrish, Aaron Davis
Georgia's secondary is one of the most confusing units in college football. There are too many moving parts.
One of the few things we do know is that Damian Swann will start at cornerback. Even after taking a step back last season, the potential for him to regain his 2012 form is something UGA can't pass up.
Across from him, though, there is uncertainty. Shaq Wiggins was supposed to start on the boundary, but he transferred to Louisville in May, and Brendan Langley (four starts in 2013) was moved to receiver.
That leaves the Bulldogs with an eclectic group of options. Sheldon Dawson and Devin Bowman have plenty of game experience but not much in the way of production. J.J. Green is a freak athlete but just converted from running back this offseason. JUCO transfer Shattle Fenteng has great size (6'2") but has yet to show what he can do. Malkom Parrish is a top-70 prospect but didn't enroll until June.
The real dark horse, though, is walk-on freshman Aaron Davis, who flew under the recruiting radar after needing two ACL surgeries in high school. According to Tim Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he saw time with the first-team defense this spring despite having played only one live football game the past three years.
But even with some offensive questions, Clemson presents an interesting challenge in the first week of the season. Who among these players can be trusted against a Chad Morris-coached offense?
Most Important Battle: Quarterback
Contenders: Anthony Jennings, Brandon Harris
Anthony Jennings got his feet wet after Zach Mettenberger tore his ACL last season, and the results were mixed (to put it kindly).
Yes, he led a game-winning 99-yard drive to help LSU avoid an upset at Arkansas, but the signature throw of that possession—a 49-yard touchdown pass to Travin Dural—was not exactly a difficult one; it came on a busted coverage. Against a more disciplined Iowa defense in the Outback Bowl, Jennings looked mostly overmatched.
Things got worse for Jennings in the LSU spring game, when true freshman Brandon Harris erupted for 272 total yards and four total touchdowns. His accuracy (11-for-28 passing) left something to be desired, but at least he didn't throw an interception.
The same could not be said for Jennings, who had two interceptions in the exhibition. Spring games do not decide quarterback battles, but they can definitely sway the public sentiment…and after LSU's, it started looking more and more like this was Harris' job to lose.
But can the Tigers really start a true freshman under center and expect to compete for an SEC Championship? Are they banking too heavily on Harris and some of his other offensive classmates such as Leonard Fournette, Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn?
Opening the season against Wisconsin might call for more experience.
Most Important Battle: Inside Linebacker/STAR Linebacker
Contenders: Taiwan Jones, Darien Harris, Jon Reschke, Shane Jones
This is more of a position reshuffling than a battle.
Michigan State knows that Taiwan Jones will start, but it's not clear where he'll line up. The tentative plan is to slide him from the STAR position, where started in 2013, to the inside, where he would replace Max Bullough. That is how it's listed on the pre-camp depth chart.
At Big Ten media days, however, Mark Dantonio intimated that Jones has not locked up the job in the middle. The inside of Pat Narduzzi's defense is the most cerebral spot on the field, and Dantonio must be convinced of Jones' mental acuity for the role.
"It’s different inside," admitted the eighth-year head coach, per Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free Press. "We’ve got to make sure (Jones) has knowledge and that he plays on habit. We’re gonna find that out in August and September."
If he falters, projected STAR linebacker Darien Harris could get a shot in the middle, with Jones sliding back to his old role. Or, if Harris struggles on the weak side as well, redshirt freshmen Jon Reschke and Shane Jones (two of the three highest-ranked players from the Spartans' 2013 recruiting class) could also play on the inside.
Linebacker has become a landmark position under Dantonio and Narduzzi, but this season it goes from being a position of strength with Bullough and Denicos Allen to a position of uncertainty.
Fall camp should help straighten things out.
Most Important Battle: Cornerback
Contenders: Armani Reeves, Gareon Conley, Eli Apple, Damon Webb, Marshon Lattimore
Doran Grant is the only returning starter from last year's embattled secondary, and even though he struggled down the stretch, he is the safest bet to remain in the starting lineup this season.
Beyond him on the depth chart, junior Armani Reeves has the most experience, but according to Bleacher Report's Ben Axelrod, he has been inconsistent when pressed into playing time and might project better as a slot cornerback because of size limitations (5'10").
That would leave a quartet of freshmen—two redshirts, two trues—to compete for a starting job on the outside.
Gareon Conley and Eli Apple both impressed during spring camp, per Axelrod, but incoming recruits Damon Webb and Marshon Lattimore should not be slept on. They placed fifth and sixth, respectively, on the class of 2014 cornerback rankings, ahead of every other 4-star recruit, and three of the four players ahead of them could realistically start as true freshmen at SEC defensive juggernauts (Jalen Tabor at Florida and Marlon Humphrey and Tony Brown at Alabama).
Why can't Webb or Lattimore do the same?
New co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash can only do so much to fix the broken Buckeyes secondary; at some point, the talent must also develop. But can it develop quick enough to compete for a national title during Braxton Miller's final season?
Most Important Battle: Running Back
Contenders: Keith Ford, Joe Mixon*, Alex Ross, Samaje Perine
Keith Ford saw the field a bit as a true freshman but struggled with fumble problems that opened the job to competition in 2014.
His main competitor was expected to be Joe Mixon, the top all-purpose back in the 2014 class, but Mixon is suspended from the team pending allegations that he assaulted a woman, per Jake Trotter of ESPN.com. That opens things up a bit for Ford—who definitely has the talent to be a solid lead back—but hasn't given him the job.
If Mixon cannot play, Ford's main competition will be Alex Ross, a unique blend of size (6'1") and speed whom 247Sports ranked the No. 33 overall player in the 2012 recruiting class.
He's yet to put it all together—on or off the field—but according to the folks at Football Brainiacs, a source said this summer that "if he stays healthy, (Ross is) going to eventually win that starting spot." Massive freshman Samaje Perine (250 lbs) could also snipe some carries.
At least of those players must emerge, however, to help ease the burden on redshirt sophomore quarterback Trevor Knight. He might have looked good in the Sugar Bowl, but before that, Knight had played just one not-awful game in his entire FBS career.
He can't carry this offense by his lonesome.
Most Important Battle: Outside Wide Receiver(s)
Contenders: Devon Allen, Chance Allen, Jalen Brown, Darren Carrington, Austin Daich, B.J. Kelley, Dwayne Stanford
Oregon's receiving corps became the story of the offseason in Eugene after Bralon Addison tore his ACL this spring.
Keanon Lowe is a veteran who should maintain his role in the slot, but at the two outside receiver positions, six or seven players will compete on a relatively even playing field to become starters in 2014.
Track star Devon Allen caught two touchdowns in the spring game—one from starting QB Marcus Mariota—and seems to be the player most folks are excited about, but Chance Allen, Jalen Brown, Darren Carrington, Austin Daich, B.J. Kelley and Dwayne Stanford could all reasonably break out this fall and win the job(s).
If they don't, the genius of Chip Kelly's offense—which lives on through former assistants Mark Helfrich and Scott Frost—and the skill of Mariota will be put to the test in a massive way.
Most Important Battle: Cornerback
Contenders: Jamari Smith, Wesley Green, Chris Lammons, D.J. Smith
Like so many SEC contenders this season, South Carolina might have its hand forced into relying on true freshman cornerbacks.
The departure of Victor Hampton—who left school early to go undrafted in the 2014 NFL draft—left Rico McWilliams as the only experienced cornerback on the roster, thrusting converted tailback Jamari Smith to the top of South Carolina's projected post-spring depth chart, per Charles Bennett of Bleacher Report.
Fortunately, incoming freshmen Wesley Green and Chris Lammons were able to qualify academically (after reports that they both would not) and are expected to become instant contributors. Both ranked as top-20 cornerbacks in the 2014 recruiting class.
But with a still-loaded (and still-coached-by-Kevin Sumlin) Texas A&M offense awaiting in Week 1, Green, Lammons and/or fellow freshman D.J. Smith will need to prove game-ready beyond their years.
Otherwise that first game could get ugly.
Most Important Battle: Free Safety
Contenders: Kyle Olugbode, Kodi Whitfield, Dallas Lloyd, Zach Hoffpauir
Running back is the obvious, more sexy answer, but it's not necessarily the correct one. Whoever wins the "starting" job between Barry Sanders, Remound Wright and Ricky Seale will be sharing it with the other two, and all are expected to play well. It's a position of intrigue and curiosity more than a position of worry.
The same cannot be said, necessarily, for the free safety spot left vacant by Ed Reynolds. Jordan Richards is an All-America candidate on the other side, but his running mate could perhaps be a problem. And for a Stanford program that has forged its identity on defense, but this year loses coordinator Derek Mason to Vanderbilt, even the smallest crack in the foundation could lead to a mini collapse.
Senior Kyle Olugbode is the tentative favorite because of his experience, but the Cardinal would not have moved Kodi Whitfield—last year's fourth-leading receiver and the guy who made the best catch of the 2013 college football season—from offense to defense if they were entirely convinced about his role.
Same goes for converted quarterback Dallas Lloyd.
Most Important Battle: Inside Linebacker
Contenders: Isaako Savaiinaea, Zach Whitley, Ryan Hofmeister
Whoever wins the second inside linebacker job for the Bruins will have protection. They will often be sandwiched between Eric Kendricks and Myles Jack, two linebackers with legitimate All-America potential.
Still, it matters for this defense that the drop-off from Jordan Zumwalt is negligible. Whether it is freshman Zach Whitley or sophomore Isaako Savaiinaea, the starter will be expected to limit his mistakes.
Savaiinaea made it plain why that is the case when he was forced into the lineup against Stanford and Oregon as a freshman last season. According to Bruins Nation, he was targeted by the Cardinal and Ducks offenses, and both units found success going after him. He should be one year better in 2014, but opponents will make him prove that after watching his freshman-year game film.
Whitley, meanwhile, was the highest-ranked member of UCLA's 2014 class and is supposed to be a rare type of athlete. If he can pick up the defense and limit the mistakes, he has a chance to win this job.
Note: All recruiting info courtesy of the 247Sports composite rankings.