Early Storylines to Follow for 2018 CFB Spring Games

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistFebruary 22, 2018

Early Storylines to Follow for 2018 CFB Spring Games

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    Trevor Lawrence is enrolled at Clemson, but can he make noise for the starting gig?
    Trevor Lawrence is enrolled at Clemson, but can he make noise for the starting gig?Credit: 247Sports

    Everybody who cares about college football is either enjoying a short break after the emotions of the College Football Playoff and recruiting cycle, or they're already feening for spring practice to start again.

    All the teams have intriguing storylines entering drills, which should start in a few weeks. Whether it's replacing superstars, breaking in new quarterbacks, infusing freshman talent or new coaching regimes, this spring is going to be full of headlines.

    Alabama and Clemson, playoff teams from a season ago, figure to have all-out battles to be the starting signal-caller. Oklahoma (like the Tigers a season ago) has to move on from one of college football's biggest gamers at quarterback.

    Georgia's Kirby Smart has to help his team pick up the pieces from a near-miss national championship loss and restock the Bulldogs pantry with elite players. UCLA ushers in the Chip Kelly era without quarterback Josh Rosen, and its cross-town rival USC Trojans will miss Sam Darnold, too.

    Internet-surfing will begin soon enough as fans try to find every available morsel of information on their teams. Everybody (yet again) will try to unseat Nick Saban's Crimson Tide atop college football's mountaintop.

    Nobody can win a championship this spring, but this is where it starts. Let's take a look at what to watch for once drills begin.

Will Alabama Be Sophomore Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa's Team?

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    David Goldman/Associated Press

    Alabama was as good as out of January's national championship game against SEC-rival Georgia at halftime, trailing 13-0, when Nick Saban trotted out freshman phenom Tua Tagovailoa to replace longtime starter Jalen Hurts.

    All the lefty did was lead the Crimson Tide on a storming comeback, completing 14 of 24 passes for 166 yards, three touchdowns and one interception in a 26-23 overtime win. Everybody crowned the talented Hawaiian as the next big thing at the Capstone.

    He'll have every opportunity to be "The Man" this spring in title town, but will Saban move on from Hurts—a two-year starter—that quickly? Of course he will if Tua gives the Tide the best chance to win. But it isn't a job Hurts will relinquish that easily.

    These are two kids who proved to be mature beyond their years. They seem to genuinely root for each other, and this is going to be a battle without animosity. Sure, there's the chance the loser will transfer and be a star elsewhere, but there is also the opportunity for both to play in a two-QB system.

    The battle will be waged this spring, but it likely won't be determined.

    "If Saban is smart, and he is brilliant, almost Einstein-like, I think he'll drag this one as long as possible," SEC Network analyst Paul Finebaum said on SportsCenter, according to 247Sports' Brad Crawford. "He doesn't want to lose Jalen Hurts before the season begins."

    We may not know who wins the battle this spring, but we should get a good idea who is going to lead the Tide's title defense.

Can the Elite Freshman Defensive Backs Turn Around Texas' Secondary?

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    Michael Thomas/Associated Press

    The first Texas season under coach Tom Herman didn't go the way the Longhorns wanted, but there were plenty of building blocks.

    A 33-16 Texas Bowl victory over a soaring Missouri team was a promising finale for an inconsistent team, and quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who was finally healthy, showed some leadership skills after entering the game in place of Shane Buechele.

    He's the perfect signal-caller for Herman's system, after all, which requires a QB to be able to drive the ball down the field while also effectively executing the read option. 

    Defensively, there were glimmers of hope, but the secondary was nowhere near good enough. It finished 109th nationally in pass defense, allowing 258.8 yards per game.

    Help is on the way.

    While nobody can touch Georgia's recruiting class for depth and talent, the Longhorns put together the most talented defensive back class maybe ever on paper. Five-star safeties BJ Foster and Caden Sterns lead the way for an incredible-looking group.

    Four-star cornerbacks Anthony Cook, Jalen Green and D'shawn Jamison, as well as 4-star safety DeMarvion Overshown, have the ability to step right in and give the Longhorns one of the best defensive backfields in the country.

    Foster, Sterns and Cook (the three best overall prospects) already are on campus. That's going to be massive for defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, who is known as one of the best motivators in the business. 

    Remember, this is a team that allowed just 13 points to high-octane Oklahoma State a season ago. Just think what it will look like with that infusion of talent.

Which Studs Will Ohio State Insert in Its Defensive Line to Replace NFL Trio?

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    All Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and defensive coordinator Greg Schiano do is reload the Buckeyes defense, and that's going to be no different in 2018.

    The Big Ten champions may have fallen just shy of the College Football Playoffs thanks to a late-season collapse against Iowa, but the pass rush rarely failed them. Though they must replace soon-to-be NFL draftees Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis and Jalyn Holmes, tons of talent remains.

    Without question, the leader of the unit will be Nick Bosa, who has the chance to be an even better prospect than his brother, Joey. Defensive tackle Dre'Mont Jones' decision to return to Columbus will soften the blow of the losses too.

    So, who will step in and rush the passer along with Bosa?

    The best bet is Chase Young, a former 5-star talent who earned some snaps on a crowded unit a season ago and could be an all-conference selection right away.

    Talented junior Jonathon Cooper will play more snaps, and freshman Tyreke Smith is going to get the opportunity to play right away. With all that depth at defensive tackle, Jones is good and versatile enough to play outside, too.

    "I think it could be a step up from last year," Bosa told Landof10.com's Ryan Ginn. "They set the bar for us, and we're going to enhance it. There's just so much talent on this D-line right now. Even though we're young, it's some of the best talent I've ever seen. It's going to be really good once we get the chemistry together."

    That may be a tall order, but the Buckeyes will get an in-depth look at the rotation this spring.

Who Will Get a Jump-Start in the Battle for L.A.?

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    Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

    It's going to be a completely new-look UCLA Bruins team without star quarterback Josh Rosen, who left Westwood a year early for the NFL. Also, Jim Mora Jr.'s plodding offense is gone, and Chip Kelly's speed spread returns to the Pac-12.

    But that isn't the only "new" show in town.

    Over at USC, Clay Helton will enter his third full season as the Trojans head coach breaking in a new quarterback as well. Sam Darnold left after his redshirt sophomore season along with the man who got a ton of touches behind him, running back Ronald Jones II.

    With all that top-end talent gone, it's a brand-new, wide-open game in the Pac-12 South. The top team from that division may not come from L.A., but nobody is conceding that just yet.

    The Trojans feature star freshman JT Daniels, who will have every opportunity to replace Darnold. High school receiver teammate Amon-Ra St. Brown will be an exciting addition, too, but neither will be available this spring.

    That gives Jack Sears and Matt Fink the opportunity to get a head start for the Trojans. Both are talented players and former top prospects.

    Over at UCLA, Rosen's replacement likely will come down to Devon Modster (who received playing time while Rosen was hurt a season ago), Washington transfer K.J. Carta-Samuels and freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who won't be on campus this spring.

    Things will really ramp up in the quarterback races once Daniels and Thompson-Robinson get to their collegiate destinations, but there are plenty of storylines coming out of L.A.'s college football landscape this spring. Everybody wants to know how the fresh Trojans and Bruins will look.

Can Trevor Lawrence Unseat Kelly Bryant at Clemson?

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    Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

    Clemson expected to have a difficult time replacing Deshaun Watson a season ago, but Kelly Bryant stepped in and did a commendable job replacing a legend.

    As the season progressed, however, Bryant's downfield passing limitations became evident. Yes, he's a good dual-threat option, but is he the type of signal-caller who can lead the Tigers to another national championship? 

    That's a question he's going to have to answer on the field. With all the talent Dabo Swinney has brought in for the Tigers, Bryant must earn his job. The biggest competition is going to come from rising sophomore Hunter Johnson and incoming star freshman Trevor Lawrence.

    Both of those guys were top-ranked quarterbacks, but Lawrence is looked at as being a generational talent. He was the top overall performer at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, and the 6'6" signal-caller can make any throw.

    If he plays to the level he's capable, it'll be hard to keep him off the field, especially if he can put 15-20 pounds on his wiry frame. 

    While Ray-Ray McCloud and Deon Cain are gone to the NFL, the Tigers have tons of receiving talent waiting in the wings. Sophomore Tee Higgins, Diondre Overton, Amari Rodgers and incoming freshman Justyn Ross are elite talents. Hunter Renfrow returns for his senior season and should be the go-to guy for the Tigers.

    But they need somebody to get them the ball. Lawrence has all the skills and the big-time arm, but you never know how those things will translate to the college game. If it comes easily to him, he'll unseat Bryant.

    He's that talented.

With Baker Mayfield Gone, Will Oklahoma's Offense Take a Significant Dip?

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    Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

    How do you replace Baker Mayfield, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, stat-stuffer and one of the fiercest competitors at the position in the past few decades?

    You can't. But the Sooners aren't going to attempt to create another Mayfield. Instead, they'll try to surround expected starter and former Texas A&M transfer Kyler Murray with as much talent as they can to be successful.

    They're off to a great start. 

    Receivers Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb took college football by storm a season ago. Mayfield's ability to throw them open and get the ball into tight windows was a big factor, but both players have elite speed and can make plays in the open field.

    Mykel Jones could emerge as a weapon, and tight end Grant Calcaterra has the talent to fill Mark Andrews' rather large shoes. The Sooners got some young, talented, speedy receivers in Jaquayln Crawford and Jaylon Robinson, too.

    At running back, the Sooners should be even better than a season ago. Game-breaker Rodney Anderson returns, and the offense will flow through him with Mayfield gone. His presence in the backfield will help Murray's transition into the starting role.

    Trey Sermon showed he can be an every-down back as a true freshman a season ago, and he's only going to get better.

    It's hard to envision Oklahoma being as good as it was in '17 without Mayfield at the helm. But with all the skill-position talent returning, Murray has to be excited about what he's inheriting, and he's already had plenty of time to learn coach Lincoln Riley's system.

    Things may not be as rocky as we think, and that continuity with Murray and all those players begins this spring.

How Many Early Enrollees in Georgia's Vaunted Recruiting Class Are Ready?

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    Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

    Georgia rebounded from a mediocre first season under Kirby Smart to piece together a remarkable run that ended just three points shy of the school's first national title since 1980.

    Unfortunately for the Dawgs, they must replace a ridiculous 31 seniors from the 2017 team. That may sound like a daunting task, but with the way Smart is recruiting, the roster will be more talented even if the experience won't be there.

    Smart's first full class last year was incredible, but the '18 haul was potentially the best ever on paper. It rivals all those Nick Saban classes that won national championship after national championship for the Crimson Tide.

    Georgia signed seven 5-star prospects in this year's class: quarterback Justin Fields, offensive linemen Cade Mays and Jamaree Salyer, running back Zamir White, defensive end Brenton Cox, cornerback Tyson Campbell and outside linebacker Adam Anderson. 

    The Bulldogs added 15 4-star players, too. 

    Every single prospect that came in mid-term is at least a 4-star prospect, which is an incredible feat and something that will help Smart replace all those contributors.

    White is still rehabbing his knee injury and won't be ready for spring, and while Fields should battle Jake Fromm for the starting quarterback gig, he won't win the job right away.

    Mays and Trey Hill have the nasty streak to step in and battle for a starting job on the offensive line. Cox almost certainly will be a rotational player on the edge of a 3-4 front. JUCO defensive tackle Devonte Wyatt was a major recruiting victory, while Kearis Jackson can upgrade the talent immediately at the receiver position.

    There are a lot of viable options for Smart to insert, and you'd better believe they'll have every opportunity to make an impact this spring.

Is Saquon Barkley Irreplaceable in Happy Valley?

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    The two toughest players in the nation to replace are Mayfield and Louisville signal-caller Lamar Jackson. 

    But coming in a close third may be Penn State all-around phenom Saquon Barkley, who produced a 1,000-plus-yard season all three years he resided in Happy Valley. He was a difference-maker between the tackles, on the edge and catching the ball out of the backfield.

    Trace McSorley's returning for another year helps, but the Nittany Lions are going to need a committee to reproduce the yards churned out by Barkley.

    The player expected to see many of Barkley's touches is rising junior Miles Sanders. In a Fiesta Bowl win over Washington, he had seven offensive touches for 19 yards and a touchdown. He also had four kick returns for 53 yards.

    "I've never seen a guy who runs as naturally as he does with his vision," Lions linebacker Jason Cabinda told Lions247's Mark Brennan. "The way he can run, he's a very special player, too. We talk about Saquon a lot, what a special player he is. But you've got a damn good football player right behind him in Miles Sanders. I'm excited for the future and what he's gonna do for this team."

    Program veterans Mark Allen and Johnathan Thomas will work to get an expanded role this spring, but they may be lapped by more talented players. The nation's No. 1 all-purpose back is coming to Happy Valley in the form of Virginia prospect Ricky Slade, and rising redshirt freshman Journey Brown is an exciting player.

    There would be a lot of reasons to be excited about a backfield that features Sanders and Slade, if he catches on quickly. But he won't be around in the spring when the Lions begin the process of moving on from Barkley.

                                         

    Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.