College Football Players Under the Most Pressure During Spring Practice in 2016

Ben Kercheval@@BenKerchevalCollege Football Lead WriterFebruary 19, 2016

College Football Players Under the Most Pressure During Spring Practice in 2016

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    Spring football is a time for re-evaluation. For some coaches, in fact, it's the first time to get a good look at their players since the end of the previous season. Unless there are surefire starters cemented in the depth chart, position battles open back up.

    Everything is up for grabs. 

    But not every player faces the same type of pressure to come through. Whether they're replacing a legend, trying to fend off backups or simply live up to their recruiting hype, these are the players who face the most pressure during spring ball. In some instances, positions need to improve to save a coach's job for the upcoming season. 

    With those angles in mind, we've compiled a list of players who need to have big spring practices. Have any additional players you think are under the most pressure? Let us know in the comment section. 

Alabama Running Back Bo Scarbrough

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    Alabama's Bo Scarbrough is facing a lot of pressure this spring, but it's the good kind. He's projected to be the next face of the Crimson Tide's long line of great running backs. After serving in a limited role in 2015 (18 carries, 104 yards), he's expected to be more of a feature back in '16. The first opportunity for Alabama fans to see this increased role will be in the spring game in April. 

    But as Charlie Potter of 247Sports notes, Scarbrough isn't the only big-name back who is competing for the starting job: 

    But it will not be a one-man race for the starting running back job in 2016. Scarbrough will have to hold off fellow former five-star back Damien Harris for the top spot. But it was Scarbrough, and not Harris, that received rave reviews from veteran players in the withering days of the 2015 season.

    There are huge expectations for Scarbrough, especially since Alabama's departing running back, Derrick Henry, won the Heisman Trophy last year. 

Florida State Wide Receiver Ermon Lane

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    Florida State's passing attack was one of the team's biggest weaknesses in 2015. While the passing numbers weren't awful by any stretch, the Seminoles' pass-catchers had a hard time breaking free and making big plays. (It should be noted that part of the problem was pass protection.) 

    One receiver who needs to deliver in 2016 is Ermon Lane. The former 5-star has battled injuries over his career and had limited production as a sophomore (six catches, 50 yards). He missed the Peach Bowl with a foot injury, and his availability for spring depends on how quickly he recovers. 

    If he is ready, Lane doesn't face any competition from incoming freshmen this spring—the 'Noles' only wide receiver commit for 2016, Keith Gavin, wasn't an early enrollee—but this is a position group as a whole that will be subject to open competitions. 

    It's Year 3. Lane is more than adjusted to the college game. In addition to staying healthy, he needs to show he can be an improved part of the passing game. Transitioning into the '16 season, the receivers, more than quarterback or offensive line, remain the biggest question marks. 

Mississippi State Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald

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    Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald put it best. “Dak Prescott almost is Mississippi State football,” he told Michael Bonner of the Clarion-Ledger in December. “Trying to follow up a guy like that is going to be really hard.”

    But someone will have to replace one of the greatest players in Bulldogs program history, and Fitzgerald is generally believed to be the front-runner. He'll have to beat out Elijah Staley and Damian Williams, of course, but he has the edge after being Prescott's backup in 2015. 

    Fitzgerald's pressure is twofold. First, he has to elevate his game from backup to starter. Second, he has to be the guy after the guy, which is never an easy role to fill. 

Nebraska Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr.

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    This is the last go-around for Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. And after a disappointing first year for head coach Mike Riley, the Huskers need some life on offense. 

    Armstrong finished last year with a solid performance in the Foster Farms Bowl against UCLA, throwing for 174 yards while rushing for another 76 yards and scoring two touchdowns. It's clear by now Armstrong won't be the pocket passer Riley is used to having, but that doesn't mean he can't be effective. 

    He does, however, have to be more consistent. Some of Armstrong's decision-making in 2015 was questionable at best. Though Armstrong is the most experienced quarterback, backup Zack Darlington turned some heads during last year's offseason. With a sense of urgency already surrounding Riley in Lincoln, it's reasonable to say Armstrong doesn't have the starting job locked down just yet. 

Oregon Cornerback Ugo Amadi

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    To put it lightly, Oregon's pass defense last season was...subpar. The Ducks ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in passing yards per game allowed and gave up 35 touchdowns through the air, tied with Arizona State for last. 

    A number of players in the secondary got burned throughout the season, but one of the guys who had the toughest year was Ugo Amadi. That can be hard for a freshman who is still learning the college game, but he's among the players who really need to get better this spring to bolster a leaky pass defense. 

    To Amadi's credit, he did come up with a huge interception against Washington. There were bright moments, to be sure, and things upon which he can build. But that's where the pressure comes in this spring: He needs to show visible signs of improvement. Otherwise, he may get shuffled deeper into the depth chart. 

Penn State's Offensive Line

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    We're breaking the rules this one time only. Penn State's offensive line—all of it, every last position—is under a tremendous amount of pressure in 2016. 

    Over the last two seasons, Penn State has allowed 83 sacks. Not all of those are on the offensive line—quarterback Christian Hackenberg shares some responsibility as well—but we'd be remiss if we didn't note the obvious: This unit needs a ton of work. On top of that, offensive line coach Herb Hand left to take the same job with Auburn. 

    Penn State will be breaking in a new quarterback in 2016, and he's going to be ruined quickly if he has to deal with the same type of protection that Hackenberg saw over the past two years. This is now a veteran O-line. There should be no reason for the protection to still be this bad. 

    If it is, a lot of fans are going to question the job that head coach James Franklin is doing, if they aren't already. 

Texas Quarterback Jerrod Heard

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    Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

    As far as Big 12 quarterbacks go, there's a case to be made that West Virginia's Skyler Howard actually faces the most pressure. Despite throwing for more than 500 yards in the Cactus Bowl against Arizona State, Howard's first year as a full-time starter in 2015 was filled with ups and downs. And with head coach Dana Holgorsen entering a critical year, Howard is going to catch even more flak if he doesn't improve his consistency. 

    But that still pales in comparison to the pressure at Texas, specifically regarding quarterback Jerrod Heard. At this point in his young career, he is known for his running skills over his passing. That's fine, but he has to at least pose the threat of an air attack to create balance. Heard threw for just five touchdowns with five interceptions last year. 

    With early enrollee Shane Buechele joining the mix, along with a new offensive coordinator in Sterlin Gilbert, Heard has to prove all over again that he's the guy for next season. No program wants too much turnover at quarterback, but head coach Charlie Strong is approaching crunch time in Austin as he moves into Year 3. 

Texas A&M Quarterback Trevor Knight

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    Trevor Knight's career at Oklahoma didn't pan out as planned. Despite winning the quarterback job in 2013 over Blake Bell, Knight missed part of the year with a knee injury. He came back to have the game of his career in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama but never carried that momentum into the 2014 season. Last year, he lost the starting job to Baker Mayfield.

    He gets a second chance at Texas A&M. After enrolling early, Knight will battle with Jake Hubenak—coincidentally, another transfer from a Big 12 school, Oklahoma State—for the starting job in 2016. That within itself puts pressure on Knight to make the most of his final opportunity in college after getting off to such a hot start.

    On top of that, however, next season is a critical one for head coach Kevin Sumlin. He has the coordinators he needs to get A&M to the next level, but the results simply haven't been there. The Aggies haven't been able to recapture the magic from Johnny Manziel's 2012 Heisman-winning season. It's one thing for the defense to need time to develop. It's another for Sumlin, an offensive-minded coach, to have trouble establishing an identity on that side of the ball. That's where Knight will be needed as well. 

Wisconsin Running Back Corey Clement

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    For the first time since 2004, Wisconsin did not produce a 1,000-yard running back. A relatively young offensive line played a role in that, but it was also a disappointing season for Corey Clement. The heir apparent to Melvin Gordon rushed for nearly 1,000 yards as a complementary back in 2014. However, last year, he suffered a sports hernia injury against Alabama in Week 1 and appeared in just three games for the rest of the season. 

    Clement was also involved in a disorderly conduct issue late last year, which made for a frustrating season. Moving into 2016, spring practices will provide an opportunity for Clement, who was once considered to be one of the top future backs in college football, to get back on the right track. 

    Though Clement considered moving on to the NFL, Jesse Temple of ESPN.com noted returning for another year was the right move. Now, he can prove he can be that next great Badgers running back. 

    Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.