College Football Spring Practice: 25 Questions Facing the Top Programs
With the bowls long gone and (most) recruits signed and sealed, college football fans have only one more thing to look forward to before the long, hot summer brings all the action to a halt.
Spring football has already kicked off at Duke and will continue at most schools with practices in mid-March and conclude with spring games in April.
As the popularity of the sport has grown, so has the desire to catch these spring games, which are more often than not mundane exercises in restraint, done at half-speed.
Even so, many of the top college programs will be fielding entirely new offenses and defenses in the spring game, so the curiosity is understandable.
Here are 25 questions facing the top football conferences/teams, and how spring ball will address them.
Will BYU Be Starting a Freshman Quarterback?
For a school that calls itself Quarterback U, dynamic play at the quarterback position is expected year in and year out.
That's why the early enrollment of Jake Heaps has to be one of the more exciting storylines for BYU fans and college football fans in general.
The question is, can the five-star Heaps, considered the top QB prospect by Scout, beat out Riley Nelson, a third-year player and Hall's backup last year?
Heaps will also compete against James Lark, another multi-year player who is returning from his mission.
Heaps has the recruiting hype, but Nelson and Lark have a few more years in the system. Spring practice should make the pecking order a little clearer.
Will Alabama Be Rebuilding or Reloading, on Defense?
With Julio Jones, Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Greg McElroy returning, the nucleus of Alabama's offense is intact.
But Nick Saban is a defense-driven coach, and defense also drives the attitude of his best teams. Can the Tide justify their enormous preseason hype by showing that their defensive replacements are as dynamic as the ones that departed?
The Tide return just two players from their national championship defense and lose two of their best, Kareem Jackson and Rolando McClain, to early entry.
Dre Kirkpatrick and two early enrollees, DeMarcus Milliner and John Fulton, will battle for the cornerback spots with B.J Scott and Robby Green.
Defensive linemen Marcell Dareus and Josh Chapman need to show that there won't be much dropoff from losing Lorenzo Washington and Mt. Cody on the line.
Nico Johnson and Courtney Upshaw have to display the same dynamism in the linebacking corps that helped Alabama to top three honors in rush defense.
Alabama treats its spring game like the real deal, complete with record breaking crowds in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Playing in that kind of environment against a tested offense should give a good indication of whether Alabama's defense can hold together, or if it's only a matter of time until the fatal upset.
Who Will Be The Best QB in the Big XII?
Four of the most decorated quarterbacks in Big 12 history—Todd Reesing, Zac Robinson, Colt McCoy and Sam Bradford—graduated or entered the draft early last year.
That leaves a mighty power vacuum in what has been the premier quarterback conference in college football, but there's reason to believe each of their replacements will also have success.
Oklahoma State landed one of the country's top offensive coordinators in Dana Holgerson, who helped Case Keenum to a record-breaking season with the Houston Cougars last year. Holgerson will try to mold Brandon Weeden or Nate Sorensen in Keenum's image.
First-year head coach Turner Gill will have to choose between athletic sophomore Kale Pick and JUCO transfer Quinn Mecham, a more well-rounded prospect.
Texas' Garrett Gilbert and Oklahoma's Landry Jones made their debuts last year, to mixed results. Gilbert threw well in a near-impossible situation, but also gave up crucial turnovers. Jones played outstandingly in the bowl, but was inconsistent throughout the year.
Uncertainty runs rampant in the Big 12, meaning the more we gather from spring ball, the better our guess is at who the best will be.
That means great quarterback play from Baylor's Robert Griffin, Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, Texas A&M's Jarrod Johnson, Iowa State's Austen Arnaud or whoever Nebraska decides on could shift the power balance in the Big XII and make the race for the conference title wide open.
May the best quarterback win.
Who Will Be Penn State's Quarterback?
Despite returning one of the best one-two punches at running back in Evan Royster and Stephfon Green, the Nittany Lions need production out of their quarterback. Sophomore Kevin Newsome's rawness as an athlete might make him a liability.
We haven't seen much of Newsome except in mop-up duty, but he's the presumed starter over Penn State's two signees at the QB position.
Still, I'd give early enrollee Paul Jones an outside chance at giving Newsome a run for his money. He has better hype as a passer and will benefit from 15 practices this spring.
If he can impress in the Blue/White spring game, there's a chance the Lions suit up a true freshman at QB in the fall.
That they also face questions in the linebacking corps should give Lions fans pause. Without Sean Lee, Jared Odrick, Josh Hull and Navorro Bowman, Penn State lost about 80% of its total tackles last season.
What Will Florida's Offense Look Like?
After three years of offensive fireworks (OK, 2009 wasn't that great), the Florida Gators are suddenly searching for a new identity on offense.
Junior John Brantley steps in to replace one of the most dynamic players in the history of the sport, fielding a uniquely different set of skills.
Brantley has been billed as a pro-style quarterback, but I have a difficult time picturing Urban Meyer running a lot of plays out of the I-formation. Is the jig up for triple option, sideline-to-sideline run schemes? Will Florida start slinging it?
The spring game will be the first indication of the Gators' base packages, play calls and audibles with Brantley at the helm.
We should also get to see what players are stepping in at wide receiver. Wideout was arguably the weakest position last year, and the Gators lost Riley Cooper and David Nelson to graduation.
The Gators' route-running and explosiveness will need to vastly improve if Florida is scheming to get more vertical. We'll know more after spring ball.
Will Georgia Look Competitive?
The Bulldogs have been on the ropes for some time, and it's difficult to note the exact cause. Yes, the secondary play has been abysmal, but when Georgia's defense is clicking, it also seems like their offense can't step up.
2010 will be just as questionable. When your depth chart is this shot full of holes, there's clearly some questions about your defense.
Spring ball should answer some of those questions, like how the Bulldogs will be replacing one of the conference's top defenders, Rennie Curran.
I also expect some resolution on who the Bulldogs' starting QB will be, or at least a general idea of the rotation.
Rivals likes Logan Gray's chances. He's a redshirt sophomore with above-average recruiting hype in his third year in the system and should see the majority of snaps with the first team. However, Aaron Murray was a more highly-touted prospect whose upside could help him beat out Gray.
The spirit of competition on both sides of the ball can only help the Bulldogs, who could have more than just games to lose with another subpar season.
Will Dayne Crist Compete in Notre Dame's Spring Game?
The good news on Dayne Crist is that he is ahead of schedule for his recovery from a torn ACL. He may be able to participate in spring ball for everything but full contact.
That rules out a full-speed spring game, but coaches tend to avoid full contact anyhow.
Hoepfully, Irish fans will get their first opportunity to see how Kelly's system differs from Weis' and whether Crist is as good as advertised (Charlie Weis used him in very limited passing duty last year, partly because of his youth, and partly because so many of the Irish's games came down to the wire).
Crist isn't lacking for dynamic players to throw to. Michael Floyd is the No. 1 receiver in the country in my opinion, and Kyle Rudolph and Shaq Evans will provide interesting mismatches around the field.
I'm also looking forward to WR Tai-ler Jones' contributions. He enrolled early and could be to Floyd this year what Floyd was to Golden Tate last year—a consistent deep threat that spreads the coverage around.
Will Matt Simms or Tyler Bray Supplant Nick Stephens at Tennessee?
When you can't beat Johnathon Crompton for the starting QB job, you've got issues.
Tennessee's issues with middling quarterback play (yes, Crompton got better midseason, but the damage was already done) could continue if redshirt senior Nick Stephens doesn't make major strides in his first and only year as a starter.
With new head coach Derek Dooley, the Vols start with a fresh slate. That doesn't favor Stephens. I like Matt Simms' and Tyler Bray's chances at starting over Stephens for the Vols.
Simms is a JUCO transfer with successful bloodlines, while Bray is a very underrated QB prospect who enrolled early and could have the better upside.
In spring ball, the Vols will also look for Montario Hardesty's replacement. Bryce Brown is the obvious choice, but RB David Oku was another prospect with excellent hype who was deployed in short yardage situations last year.
With exciting competition at the quarterback spot and one of the biggest question marks at coach, the Vols are once again one of the most interesting teams to watch regardless of conference affiliation.
What Will Texas' Offense Look Like Post McCoy?
Colt McCoy provided stability and uniformity to the Texas offense for so long that it became hard to visualize what the Longhorns' offense will look like without.
I'm not expecting a dramatic overhaul of the offense, but now that the Longhorns are getting some tight ends back, I expect more than a few bones to be tossed to the running game. Texas' rushing offense relied heavily on playing off the pass, but I don't expect it to remain as one-dimensional.
I also don't think Garrett Gilbert will be dropping back nearly as often as McCoy did on average, despite possibly being the better passer.
In any case, the spring game should be the first indication of the direction the Longhorns' O will take this fall.
Who Takes Over for Bill Stull at Pitt?
Pitt's is another quarterback battle that will be interesting to watch. Pat Bostick, one of the better recruits from the 2007 crop, may not be panning out as well as some expect, and will need to battle athletic QB Tino Sunseri for the starting job.
Of course, Dave Wannstedt is not opposed to riding Dion Lewis to another nine-win season, but Stull's play was arguably as critical in Pitt's closest wins (and losses).
The spring game should indicate whether Sunseri or Bostick are getting the snaps with the first team. Under Sunseri (the more mobile option), the offense could face an intriguing overhaul; under Bostick, it'll be pro-style business as usual.
Can Oklahoma Bounce Back?
I can think of only one certainty for the 2010 Oklahoma Sooners: WR Ryan Broyles is going to be good, good, good.
Beyond that, questions surround the offensive and defensive lines, RB position, linebackers, secondary and for some, even the grip Landry Jones has on the quarterback position.
To me, Jones played lights-out against the Cardinal in the Sun Bowl, but Sooners fans took issue with his inconsistency. His five-interception game against Nebraska was particularly abysmal.
The Sooners' problems run deep, but their recruiting hasn't flagged over the past few years. This year, they pulled in a top five class and landed a few major early enrollments to boot, including safety Tony Jefferson.
In addition, difficult seasons like the Sooners had last year can sometimes forge a team for the long term. Oklahoma threw plenty of youth into the fire last year, and that could help down the road.
We'll learn in the spring if Stoops has a few aces up his sleeve, or if 2010 will be another disastrous year of plug and play on the lines.
Who Will Be Cal's Quarterback for 2010?
Shane Vereen took over the RB spot after Jahvid Best's injury, and Cal's defense scored a few major prospects on signing day. But the song remains the same: who will be Cal's quarterback this fall?
Cal coach Jeff Tedford has said the competition is officially wide open.
Problem child Kevin Riley is now a senior, but confidence issues and inconsistent play have marked up his career.
Junior Brock Mansion or sophomore Beau Sweeney have the chance to unseat Riley with a solid spring practice. If Riley hangs on, it all depends on how you view the glass—half-empty or half-full.
Who Will Stanford's Running Back Be?
With apologies to Andrew Luck and Jim Harbaugh, running back Toby Gerhart defined Stanford's season last year.
Gerhart's departure for the NFL leaves the Cardinal with an unwelcome identity crisis at a crucial juncture in Harbaugh's tenure. He'll be the leading candidate for every coaching vacancy in the country by the end of 2010.
That means a season to the tune of ten wins and/or a Pac-10 title might be necessary to maintain his interest in staying at Stanford. Few teams can manage that without a steady running game.
The Cardinal will hope to get such steadiness out of either Stepfan Taylor, Tyler Gaffney or incoming recruit Anthony WIlkerson.
Wilkerson won't be enrolled for spring, leaving Taylor and Gaffney to compete for first- and second- team carries. Their recruiting hype was almost dead-even, but Taylor saw more carries and even scored a few touchdowns last year.
Unless Harbaugh is comfortable with leaning on his passing game and getting away from last year's grind-it-out beginnings, dynamic play from the new RBs is crucial to the Cardinal's ongoing competitiveness in the conference. Spring ball should give us a better idea if the clock on Harbaugh's departure is ticking.
How Does Nebraska Replace Ndamukong Suh?
But they can mitigate the impact of his departure by improving their offense and controlling the clock.
In their bowl, the Huskers played a well-rounded game that featured some previously unseen explosiveness on offense. Mixing athletic freshman Rex Burkhead in Wildcat packages, while leaning on Roy Helu Jr. as the every-down back could be the beginning of a dynamic rushing game from the Huskers.
In addition, the sudden wealth of talent at the QB position will give the Huskers options and raise the level of competition for a position that underwhelmed last year.
As for the defensive line, Jared Crick plays a fine three-tech tackle, but he might have trouble sliding over to the nose position. Husker fans have to hope that true freshman Chase Rome can be a reliable backup. He's closer to the ideal height and weight for a nose tackle.
Nebraska recruited well on defense this past cycle and should be expecting immediate contributions from Rome as well as safety Corey Cooper.
More help from a looser and less predictable offense will help the Huskers reach their goal of repeating as division champs and playing for a Big XII crown despite losing 2009's most dominant player.
Husker fans will be looking for the kind of offensive experimentation they saw in the Holiday Bowl in spring practice. They'll keep the other eye on the defensive line.
Will Robert Marve Take Over At Purdue?
Robert Marve's transfer to Purdue perplexed many before it was entirely forgotten.
Now, Marve is in position to succeed Joey Elliott and lead Purdue back to the postseason after a two-year hiatus.
The Boilermakers were on the cusp of breaking through last year: falling to Oregon on the road after a missed two-point conversion, taking Notre Dame to the wire, and handing Big Ten champion Ohio State their only conference loss.
Marve seems to be a little closer to the brand of quarterback Danny Hope prefers—Hope's not as pure a spread coach as Joe Tiller was. Purdue also returns All-Big Ten honorable mention RB Robert Bolden, an 1,100-yard rusher.
The words "Purdue" and "Big Ten darkhorse" seem like they've been written every year for the past 10 years, but the Boilers have fallen short each time. WIth Marve and Bolden, as well as WR Keith Smith forming one of the most promising trios in the conference, maybe this is the year?
Spring practice will tell us more. If Marve can't even beat out Caleb TerBush for first-team snaps, I wouldn't keep my fingers crossed.
Who Will Be Ohio State's 1000-Yard Back?
2009 was the first year an Ohio State running back fell short of 1,000-yard mark since 2004, when the Bucks went 8-4.
So it's no wonder Jim Tressel spent three scholarships on running backs in the 2010 class, after spending three others on the 2009 class.
The vision of Terrelle Pryor as the reincarnation of Vince Young should be a thing of the past now—at least from an X's and O's perspective. Pryor is a passer first and foremost.
That means the Buckyeys' 1,000 yard rusher will have to come from one of seven candidates at running back.
The competition between Brandon Saine, Boom Herron, Jaamal Berry, Jermil Martin, Carlos Hyde and Jordan Hall—who came on strong to close the season—should be fierce.
Coach Tressel does not strike me as the kind of coach who prefers the platoon system, so it's more than likely that one player from that group will emerge as the primary RB by midseason.
I expect one of those players—probably Berry—to be the guy. His chances at the 1,000-yard line are good. Next year, defenses will be forced to empty the box and respect Pryor's arm. That should loosen up some running lanes for the next Beanie Wells-type buster.
Spring ball should give us our first look at the leader among the seven.
Will TCU Be Able to Replace Jerry Hughes?
The Horned Frogs replaced seven starters on defense in 2009 and still fielded one the country's best squads throughout the year.
For 2010, the Horned Frogs only need to replace four starters. But they lose arguably their best player in defensive end Jerry Hughes, a Lombardi Award candidate and double-digit sackmaster in 2009.
TCU's MO is to bulk up speedy offensive players and convert them to pass rushers. But Hughes was an end his whole career, and he did more than just blitz off the edge. He was excellent in run support as well, helping TCU to a top 10 finish in rush defense.
The Horned Frogs should get more help from their offense in 2010, but a good pass rush is the great equalizer. Without that consistent threat, the Horned Frogs might see their hold on the Mountain West give way.
In spring ball, I expect ends Clarence Leatch and Wayne Daniels to compete for the lead spot. TCU is one of the most well-coached teams in the country. I'm confident the coaches will be able to spot the next Hughes from among a host of candidates.
Will West Virginia's Offense Take A Step Forward?
The West Virginia offense has steadily declined in productivity and explosiveness since losing Rich Rodriguez—a decline helped along by the perplexing decision to minimize Noel Devine's carries.
Yet the Mountaineers have recruited well, particularly at the quarterback position. Now they have two athletic QBs on the roster in Geno Smith and freshman Barry Brunetti.
Devine returned for his senior year, and the Mountaineers got some help on the outside from WR Ivan McCartney's commitment.
Off of a so-so year, West Virginia needs a breakout on the offensive side of the ball. There's just too much talent to let it all go to waste.
Spring ball will be the first look at what the coaches can do with Smith, a good-sized QB who runs a 4.4 40 and has above-average passing skills.
If Smith and Devine can develop a serious two-headed ground threat, West Virginia can once again compete in the Big East and possibly return to the BCS picture.
Will Texas Tech Run The Airraid?
I strongly suspect the Airraid's days at Texas Tech are numbered despite Tommy Tuberville's assurances to the contrary.
Sure, Tuberville called fake punts in unthinkable field position while at Auburn. But in terms of experimenting with offenses, his track record isn't exactly clean. Just ask Tony Franklin.
With true system QBs Taylor Potts and Steven Sheffield competing for the 2010 QB spot, the Airraid should remain intact at least this year.
Offensive coordinator Neal Brown was an amenable hire for the system after coming off of an extremely successful run as Troy's offensive coordinator. The Trojans averaged 440 yards per game and won the Sun Belt for four straight years.
But I'd be surprised if Tuberville doesn't mix in more traditional running plays to balance the play calling as the year progresses.
Before this year, a Tuberville-coached quarterback throwing more than 40 passes in a game wouldn't be possible unless a game entered a third overtime and every running back on the roster was injured. But I've been wrong before.
Will Baylor Be A Big XII Competitor?
The Baylor Bears held onto Art Briles throughout the Texas Tech coaching search.
This spring, they get Robert Griffin, the conference's most dynamic athlete, back from a poorly-timed ACL tear (he was able to obtain a medical redshirt).
Seeing Griffin once again in the backfield will be a welcome sight for fans excited by his conference freshman of the year honors in 2008.
With dynamic safety Ahmad Dixon enrolling at Baylor, the Bears are once again in position to make a run at a bowl and maybe a few big boys in the Big XII.
Dixon won't make spring ball, but he'll be as important to shoring up the Bears' defense as Griffin will be to the offense. I'm looking forward to seeing Griffin pick up where he left off.
Will North Carolina Look Like A National Championship Contender?
When North Carolina's draft eligible juniors announced they would all be returning for their senior seasons, the Tar Heels' chances at a conference championship went from good to great.
After all, defense wins championships.
The Tar Heels closed the previous season with a close but disappointing loss to Pitt in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Their entire offense returns intact.
If returning starters are any indication of success, the Tar Heels should be in position for a conference championship run at the very least.
Spring practice will give us a first look at monster OT James Hurst, an early enrollee from the underrated 2010 class, as well as Brandon Willis, a defensive end who decommitted from the Vols once Lane Kiffin left town.
Two dynamic players on two already-solid lines can only mean more wins and more success. I hereby predict great things for the Tar Heels in 2010.
Will 2010 Be the Year of the JUCO at Auburn?
Auburn fans will get their first look at JUCO transfer and ex-Gator Cameron Newton, who pledged to the Tigers over Mississippi State and Oklahoma.
The athletic dual-threat QB and No. 1 JUCO prospect could be the perfect fit for Gus Malzahn's up-tempo offense.
He needs to get his reps in and develop chemistry with Auburn's young playmakers. Nothing will be set in stone until five-star RB Michael Dyer gets on campus.
Newton should be a lock to displace backup Neil Caudle and promises more as a QB than Kodi Burns, who is strictly a Wildcat threat.
If Newton's as good as advertised, the Tigers could field the scariest offense in the conference in 2010. Spring ball will be our first chance to look into the void.
Will The USC Offense Be Explosive Again?
Both sides of the ball were a letdown for the Trojans in 2009. QB Matt Barkley struggled with interceptions at the same time that the USC defense was allowing the most yards and points per game since Pete Carroll's first days as head coach.
I can't vouch for the defense, but the offense sure got a jolt with coach Lane Kiffin's first recruiting class.
ATH Dillon Baxter, WRs Markeith Ambles, Kyle Prater and Robert Woods and TE Xavier Grimble are five of the most dynamic prospects in this class. They'll all be on the receiving end of throws from the best quarterback prospect of the previous year as soon as they all hit campus.
Kiffin's difficulties in finding an offensive coordinator are surely overstated, as are the criticisms of him as a play caller. Yes, he hasn't hired an OC yet, but this isn't Kiffin's first rodeo. If he can't find someone, he'll be fine calling the plays himself.
As for producing yards as a coach, Kiffin's Volunteers showed steady improvement last year (at one point, Jonathon Crompton was the most efficient passer in the SEC). At USC, he has a lot more talent to play with.
I'm excited to see if Kyle Prater and Dillon Baxter, both of whom enrolled early, can get the Trojan machine rolling early in spring ball.
The offense will get a major boost once Woods, Grimble and Ambles get on campus. But Prater is the prototypical wide receiver that USC lost when Damian Williams graduated. Baxter is a bruising every-down back that combines Joe McKnight's cutting techniques with Stafon Johnson's durability.
Will Louisville Find Its Footing Under Charlie Strong?
Charlie Strong may be a first-year head coach, but he's nobody's fool. He closed Louisville's 2010 recruiting class on a hot streak, lifting Torrian Wilson from Stanford (although he would make a final switch to UCF) and landing ATH Dominique Brown over Ohio State.
Though the Cardinals' offense was the more consistently disappointing unit of the two, Strong's forte is defense. In that regard, Louisville has a long way to go.
Massive attrition since the Bobby Petrino era, coupled with poor recruiting, has left the cupboard bare for Strong. Plus, he'll be dealing with a few unfortunate graduations. Both defensive tackles, strong safety Chaz Thompson and his backup, Richard Raglin, departed.
It will take every ounce of Strong's effort to get the Cardinals to a bowl game. A lot will be riding on immediate contributions from athletes like Brown and WR Michaelee Harris to take pressure off the defense.
The Cardinals' spring game will give us a first look at what Strong will be doing on defense and if he picked up any offensive innovation tips from his old pal Urban Meyer.
Will Florida State Field One of the ACC's Youngest, Brightest Defenses?
Florida State's recruiting wasn't that bad under Bobby Bowden, but it definitely seemed to get a boost this offseason.
The Seminoles landed three of the best defenders of the class in MLB Jeff Luc, DB LaMarcus Jyner and LB Christian Jones.
First-year defensive coordinator Mark Stoops has to find a way to get as much of FSU's young talent on the field as quickly as possible. The Seminoles are starting from scratch after fielding one of the worst defenses in the conference last year. Stoops would be wise to open up the competition at every position.
I'm particularly excited to see Luc and Joyner. In size and aggressiveness, Luc reminds me of Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State's five-star linebacker who last year lead the Sun Devils in tackles as a true freshman. I could see Luc enjoying that kind of production as a true freshman as well.
If Joyner was enrolling early, I'd expect him to play immediately, but he might have to spend some time as a nickelback before locking down one of the corner positions.
In any case, between the exciting DC hire and the crop of young talent, Florida State has a chance to make a 180 turnaround on defense next year. They will use speed and reckless abandon to overwhelm less athletic offenses in the ACC.