2016 All-Spring Game College Football Team
Spring game statistics are, for the most part, completely uninteresting. With the way teams divide their starters and how they limit snaps in these scrimmages, not much can be gleaned from them.
Every huge performance should be looked at in its proper context, and every quiet day from a star player should be forgiven. Spring games are about entertaining fans and trying out different units and situations without giving too much away.
Still, there's no denying that a number of players across the country upped their individual stock during their respective spring games with standout performances. While those outings won't necessarily be a reflection of what's to come this fall, they can provide much-needed momentum for position battles and development.
Based on the box scores and production on the field, we've compiled a position-by-position look at the single best performances from the scrimmages to fill out an All-Spring Game Team for the 2016 offseason. Which of these top spring game performers do you see having the most success in the regular season? Shout them out in the comments below.
Quarterback: Lamar Jackson (Louisville)
24-of-29 passing for 519 yards and eight touchdowns
Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson had the spring game performance of all spring game performances last month when he lit up the Cardinals' second-team defense for more than 500 yards and eight touchdowns on just 24 completions.
Jackson averaged nearly 18 yards per attempt, firing off deep ball after deep ball to an experienced Louisville receiving corps. While that absurd yardage and the touchdowns aren't what people should expect to see regularly out of the dual-threat quarterback this fall, the main takeaway is the high rate of completion.
For a quarterback that completed just 54.7 percent of his passes last season and had four different games in which he failed to connect on more than half of his attempts, getting over the 80 percent mark against virtually any defense is impressive. Jackson spent spring camp working hard on his passing accuracy, and he showed tremendous poise and improvement in that area during the finale.
While Jackson's final stat line is a prime example of how incredibly inflated some spring game box scores can be, no other quarterback in the country came close to putting on the show he did in a public scrimmage.
Running Back: Kani Benoit (Oregon)
14 carries for 113 yards and one touchdown
Huge rushing performances are hard to find in spring games, as most teams like to rotate heavily and not put too much of a workload on any one running back. Oregon, a team that prides itself on having a high number of offensive weapons, had 14 players record carries in its spring game.
With star running back Royce Freeman not carrying the ball a single time and Taj Griffin held out of action, Kani Benoit stole the show for what was an impressive Oregon running attack in the scrimmage. Benoit had one of the game's biggest highlights, a 48-yard run in which he broke two tackles. He scored on the next play to extend the victorious Mighty Oregon team's lead.
Although Oregon has become more of a force on the national recruiting stage in recent years, Benoit was just a low 3-star running back out of high school, according to 247Sports. He battled his way up a ridiculously deep running back depth chart in Eugene and averaged seven yards per carry last year as the team's No. 3 rusher.
With his performance in the spring game, Benoit could be in line for even more work in the Ducks offense this fall. They have weapons all over the place, and this formerly overlooked running back could be a valuable piece to a bounce-back 2016 campaign.
Wide Receiver: Isaiah Johnson (Houston)
15 receptions for 292 yards and three touchdowns
Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. could use another go-to target in head coach Tom Herman's spread attack this season. In the Cougars spring game, Ward showed a phenomenal connection with sophomore wide receiver Isaiah Johnson.
Johnson was a big-play machine for Houston, scoring all three of Ward's touchdowns tosses from 48, 51 and 90 yards out. With projected starters Chance Allen and Ra'Shaad Samples out for the spring game, the sophomore took full advantage of his opportunity by blazing his way to a near-300-yard day for the Cougars.
"It was good to see when one person goes down, the next man has to step up," Johnson said, per Joseph Duarte of the Houston Chronicle.
Johnson will have to continue to work hard in the summer and into fall camp to make sure his big day wasn't just a one-time deal against a transitioning Houston secondary. His speed and nose for the end zone could make him a breakout star this season in one of the nation's most exciting offenses.
Wide Receiver: Janarion Grant (Rutgers)
11 receptions for 140 yards and one touchdown
Last year, Janarion Grant was more of a special teams weapon for Rutgers as senior wide receiver Leonte Carroo posted big-time performances in the passing game. This year, Grant looks more than ready to take over Carroo's spot as the top Scarlet Knight out wide.
Grant averaged more than 12 yards per reception and caught the go-ahead touchdown for the victorious White team in Rutgers' first spring game under new head coach Chris Ash. The speedster also recorded a couple of carries, returned punts and defeated several students in a 40-yard dash contest at halftime, according to Keith Sargeant of NJ Advance Media.
"Obviously he brings a different dimension to our offense because of his speed and play-making ability," said Rutgers wide receivers coach Jafar Williams, per Sargeant. "Anytime you have a guy who can line up in the backfield and line up in the slot, line up anywhere on the field, it creates issues for the defense and we're trying to make sure we're keeping them on their toes as well."
Rutgers still has a quarterback battle on its hands as it exits spring ball, but whoever wins the job will know who his top option is when the season kicks off.
Wide Receiver: Auden Tate (Florida State)
Six receptions for 100 yards and two touchdowns
In the last two seasons, Florida State's passing attack hasn't had the type of big-bodied playmaker it enjoyed when eventual first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin was with the program. But the breakout spring performance of sophomore Auden Tate had many comparing him to the defending NFC champion wide receiver in Carolina.
As Tom D'Angelo of the Palm Beach Post noted, Travis Rudolph is the only one of Florida State's top three receivers last season who is taller than 5'10". Tate, on the other hand, is 6'5" and showed an ability to go up and get the football that was similar to Benjamin's game-winning grab in the final BCS National Championship Game.
Tate's strong spring, capped by a team-high 100 yards and two touchdowns in FSU's Orlando scrimmage, has people in Tallahassee thinking the sophomore could be a go-to red-zone threat in a deep receiving corps led by Rudolph, Kermit Whitfield and Bobo Wilson.
Tate should add a dimension to the Florida State offense that hasn't been present since Benjamin was roaming the sidelines.
Tight End: Georgia's Entire Unit
Isaac Nauta: Six receptions for 56 yards
Jackson Harris: Seven receptions for 53 yards
Jordan Davis: Two receptions for 36 yards
The top tight end award from this year's spring game goes to not one, but all three tight ends who caught passes for Georgia in Kirby Smart's record-breaking first G-Day in Athens.
While the quarterbacks received plenty of attention in the scrimmage, a notable development from the game was just how much the Bulldogs used their tight ends under the new coaching staff. As Jason Butt of the Telegraph noted, Georgia completed passes to tight ends twice as much in the spring game than it did on average last season.
"Judging by G-Day, Jim Chaney's reputation of having a tight end friendly offense will continue at Georgia," Butt wrote. "Tight ends caught 15 of the 51 passes thrown by quarterbacks at G-Day, equating to a usage of 29.4 percent in the passing game. In 2015, only 14.1 percent of Georgia's 199 completions went to tight ends."
Even though returning starter Jeb Blazevich didn't record a single reception, star true freshman Isaac Nauta and sophomore Jackson Harris each had over 50 yards. Georgia has a lot of talent at the position for 2016, so expect whoever starts at quarterback this season to target a variety of tight ends after their strong spring game showing.
Offensive Line: Minnesota
Minnesota's offensive line was good in pass protection last season, but it couldn't find much success in paving the way for an effective ground attack. The Golden Gophers were tied for 101st nationally in rushing yards per game and ranked 102nd in Football Outsiders' Power Success rate, which measures the "percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown."
According to ESPN.com's Brian Bennett, new full-time Minnesota head coach Tracy Claeys wanted to address that weakness in the offseason by signing and developing offensive linemen who "have a chance to knock people off the ball" instead of being just solid pass protectors.
Minnesota showed just that in its spring game, with 222 rushing yards for first-team running backs James Johannesson and Rodney Smith. JUCO signees Vincent Calhoun and Garrison Wright were difference-makers up front, and, according to ESPN.com's Josh Moyer, "Claeys said right tackle Jonah Pirsig was maybe the spring's offensive MVP."
In 2015, the Golden Gophers didn't have the kind of effectiveness on the ground they are used to showcasing. This spring, though, Minnesota looked like it had the most improved offensive line in the country with the way it turned things around for the ground game.
Defensive End: Johnathan Calvin (Mississippi State)
Eight tackles (four for loss) and four sacks
Mississippi State needed some new stars to emerge on its defensive line this spring, and Johnathan Calvin answered the call in a huge way. In the Bulldogs spring game, he was virtually unblockable, flying into the backfield for four sacks—half of his eight tackles.
Calvin transferred to Mississippi State from the JUCO ranks last season and had a solid first season, recording 5.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks as a reserve. This spring, he proved he could be a force on the edge with returning starter A.J. Jefferson, who picked off a pass in the Bulldogs' spring game.
"Defensively we played well," Mississippi State defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon said, per Logan Lowery of the Daily Journal. "We were pretty limited on our package, but the things that stood out to me was Johnathan Calvin looked good on the pass rush and did some nice things and we rushed the quarterback well with a four man rush."
If Calvin can continue getting after the quarterback during passing downs, he'll carve out a key role in the Mississippi State defense for the upcoming season. He had by far one of the most impressive spring game performances of any defender in Power Five football.
Defensive End: Trey Carter (Oklahoma State)
Four tackles (three for loss), three sacks and one fumble recovery
Oklahoma State is looking to replace the production of sack masters Emmanuel Ogbah and Jimmy Bean this spring, and Trey Carter emerged as a viable replacement for one of them during the Cowboys' annual spring game last month.
Carter had three sacks and fell on a fumble in the scrimmage, which was marked by strong defensive play despite the departures of stars such as Ogbah and cornerback Kevin Peterson.
Oklahoma State has several sophomore defensive ends vying for a starting job, and Carter put up an MVP-type performance in the spring game. No other player had more than one sack for the Cowboys.
The sophomore still has some work to do in order to nail down a starting job for the Cowboys, but he put himself in a strong position with his scrimmage work. He's a pass-rushing specialist who can get on hot streaks similar to what Ogbah did during his time in Stillwater.
Defensive Tackle: Kevin Givens (Penn State)
Six tackles (3.5 for loss) and two sacks
Kevin Givens is still adjusting to life as a defensive tackle as opposed to his former position at defensive end. But an observer of Penn State's spring game wouldn't know that, as he was easily one of the stars of the contest.
Givens racked up 3.5 tackles for loss in the scrimmage and came away with two sacks. The redshirt freshman never played defensive tackle in high school and looks somewhat small for the position at first glance. But the 6'1", 267-pound Givens added weight and developed his game well in spring camp, coming away with a standout performance in the finale at Beaver Stadium.
"He's got tremendous work ethic," Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry said, per Jeff Rice of 247Sports. "He really understands the game. He understands leverage and blocking schemes and just a lot of things that came to him naturally that maybe we didn't get a chance to see on his high school film."
From the opening play of Penn State's Blue-White Game, Givens showed he can be a top-notch playmaker for the Nittany Lions defense. For a player brand new to a position, it was a phenomenal performance.
Defensive Tackle: Davon Hamilton (Ohio State)
Five tackles (three for loss) and three sacks
Elsewhere in Big Ten country, another redshirt freshman defensive tackle wowed the crowd with his ability to consistently get into the opposition's backfield. Ohio State's Davon Hamilton had three tackles for loss—all sacks—in a record-breaking spring game performance at the Horseshoe.
According to Dave Biddle of 247Sports, Hamilton exited spring "locked in as Michael Hill's backup at the 1-technique DE position" after being "the biggest pleasant surprise of spring." Ohio State's defensive line is going through quite a large rebuilding project, and Hamilton could be an important fixture of depth in the fall.
"Defensive tackle Davon Hamilton with the sack. Urban Meyer mentioned him couple weeks ago as guy having a good spring," Cleveland.com's Doug Lesmerises wrote in a tweet during Ohio State's spring game.
Hamilton carved out a place for himself in the Ohio State defensive line rotation this fall with his great spring practice work and a standout scrimmage. Being able to pressure the quarterback up the middle will provide a boost for the young Buckeyes defense.
Outside Linebacker: Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (Oklahoma)
Three tackles (three for loss) and two sacks
Oklahoma's defense didn't create the type of multi-interception mayhem from last year's spring game this time around. But a standout of what was a rather pedestrian scrimmage was Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, who is vying for a starting job in a rebuilding linebacker corps in Norman.
Okoronkwo, who is also known as "Obo" on the team, broke out for two sacks, with one of them going for a safety. He continually found a way to get into the backfield and was tabbed by quarterback Baker Mayfield as a potential breakout star for 2016.
"Obo is going to make a lot of plays," Mayfield said in an interview for the program's website. "He's kind of gotten overshadowed because we had Eric Striker and Devante Bond on the outside, but he's going to make some plays."
After biding his time behind some of the top names out of Oklahoma's defense for the last couple of seasons, Okoronkwo showed in the spring game he is ready to take the reins as a top pass-rusher for the Sooners. Remember the name, even if it's difficult to spell.
Outside Linebacker: Mike McCray (Michigan)
Seven tackles (two for loss) and one sack
The above picture of Mike McCray was taken more than three years ago, when he was a prized linebacker recruit for the Michigan Wolverines. Since then, he hasn't been in the eye of the camera much, redshirting in 2013, sitting on the bench in 2014 and injuring his shoulder in 2015.
But this year, McCray flashed the potential he once showed in high school with a series of strong practices, which culminated in a top-level performance in Michigan's spring game. His numbers were by far the best of any defender, as he broke into the backfield for two tackles for loss and recorded the game's only sack.
"He made play after play in Florida during the first week of camp," Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com wrote. "And when the session wrapped up with the spring game, he was at it again. In the backfield, making plays. He's big [6'4", 240 pounds] and he's fast enough to be in space when he has to."
Michigan's linebacking corps is largely unproven, as star defensive back Jabrill Peppers moved to the position this offseason. But if McCray can be the playmaker he was in the spring for Jim Harbaugh's Wolverines, they would have a solid linebacker corps. McCray has the physical gifts and the natural talent to be a star.
Inside Linebacker: Rashaan Evans (Alabama)
17 tackles (one for loss) and one sack
The most eye-popping defensive stat line of spring game season has to go to Alabama inside linebacker Rashaan Evans, who was a tackle magnet and recorded as many sacks in the A-Day scrimmage as head coach Nick Saban.
Evans moved from outside linebacker to inside linebacker during the spring, and it paid off for his future. The next-closest defender to Evans in the final tackle tally only had seven takedowns. He looked stronger and ready to handle the responsibilities that come with being on the inside of Saban's 3-4 defense.
"I was excited about that," Evans said, per Matt Zenitz of AL.com. "Basically, man, I was just trying to do all I can to help my team. I felt pretty good. [Playing inside linebacker] is something new for me, and I'm excited about [the production]."
Zenitz wrote that the in-state product is competing for a starting inside linebacker job this offseason next to Reuben Foster, who was a teammate of Evans' at Auburn High School. (Yes, that Auburn.) Evans' development in the spring should make him a valuable playmaker in the Tide's upcoming national title defense.
Cornerback: Corn Elder (Miami)
Five tackles, one interception and three pass breakups
Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya capped a strong spring with an impressive scrimmage performance, but top Hurricanes cornerback Corn Elder wasn't going to let the signal-caller get all the spotlight in Mark Richt's first spring game with the team.
Elder, who broke out onto the national stage last season by scoring the controversial game-winning kick return touchdown against Duke, intercepted a Kaaya throw and swatted away three passes in last month's spring game. He also chipped in five tackles for the Hurricanes, showcasing his strong ability in that category.
According to Christy Cabrera Chirinos of the Sun-Sentinel, Elder was the only player who intercepted a pass from Kaaya all spring long.
Miami doesn't have a ton of depth on its defense this season, so it will need Elder to continue to be a reliable playmaking corner.
Cornerback: Des Lawrence (North Carolina)
Nine tackles (one for loss), one interception and one sack
North Carolina's sudden improvement in pass defense last season was a key storyline for the ACC Coastal Division champion. And if UNC's spring game is any indication, the unit will be in good hands once again with Des Lawrence leading the way.
Lawrence, who challenged for All-ACC honors last season, had nine tackles in the scrimmage and made an incredible sideline interception of new starting quarterback Mitch Trubisky. His playmaking ability—he also had a sack—charged up the rest of the secondary, which finished with three more picks and plenty of crucial breakups.
"The coaches have told us that in order for us to go to the next dance, the next place, the defense is going to have to step up," Lawrence said, per Logan Ulrich of the Daily Tar Heel. "We were much faster than we were last year. From sideline to sideline, this defense is one of the fastest I believe I've seen."
That speed and ball-hawking ability will be crucial for North Carolina this season as it is set to face several big-name quarterbacks in ACC play. Together with M.J. Stewart, Lawrence will be a top name to watch on defense in the Coastal Division in 2016.
Safety: Malik Hooker (Ohio State)
10 tackles, two interceptions and one touchdown
All eyes were on Malik Hooker for Ohio State this spring, as he was the only healthy scholarship safety on the entire roster, according to Tim Shoemaker of Eleven Warriors. With the pressure on him in a transitioning Ohio State defensive depth chart, Hooker rose to the occasion and then some.
In Ohio State's spring game, Hooker recorded a game-high 10 tackles, picked off a pair of passes and took one of those interceptions back 82 yards for a touchdown. In pass coverage and run support, Hooker was everywhere for his team and looked like the next big thing at safety for the Buckeyes.
"I'm very comfortable," Hooker said, per Shoemaker. "I'm going into my third year here, taken a lot of tips and stuff from all the older safeties and players that have been here before me. I'm very comfortable out there."
Possibly the brightest defensive star of Ohio State's youth movement during the spring game, Hooker put up a performance that Buckeyes fans will be buzzing about for the rest of the offseason.
Safety: Dwayne Thomas (LSU)
Eight tackles (two for loss) and two sacks
In all the mixing and matching across the depth chart for new LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, he found a spot where veteran safety Dwayne Thomas can thrive.
During LSU's spring game, Aranda constantly unloaded Thomas from a fifth defensive back spot into the backfield, wreaking havoc on the Tigers offensive line for hurries and a pair of sacks. He had a team-high eight tackles in what was a fantastic debut for Aranda's unique defensive scheme in Baton Rouge.
"He's got a knack for rushing," Aranda told Bleacher Report after the game. "Once you're in that 3-4 alignment, you've got nickels, corners, safeties, inside linebackers and outside linebackers rushing. You want to be able to identify those guys. ... I think he's one of those guys who's shown that in those drills and out here today."
Aranda is still installing his defense and trying to find the best spots for the wealth of athletic talent he now has on his hands. Judging by the spring game, Thomas has found a niche as a blitzer from the secondary.
Kicker: Daniel Carlson (Auburn)
5-of-5 on field goals (long of 55) and 2-of-2 on extra points
While Auburn's quarterback battle didn't produce the success many fans wanted in Jordan-Hare Stadium during the annual A-Day spring game, those in attendance got more proof that kicker Daniel Carlson is one of the best special teams weapons in the country.
Last year's Groza Award finalist kept putting points on the board when Auburn's drives stalled. He nailed a pair of 50-plus-yard field goals and tacked on three additional short ones. Throw in the two extra points he converted, and he was responsible for more than half of Auburn's scoring, as Wesley Sinor of AL.com noted.
"I mean it was windy as all get-out down there and he's just drilling it," Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said, per Sinor. "One of the best kickers in college football and that will be a big weapon for us next year."
The one Auburn fans call "Legatron" gives an offense still trying to find its rhythm the confidence that, if it gets into enemy territory, there's a great chance the Tigers will still put some points on the board.
Punter: Tyler Newsome (Notre Dame)
Seven punts with an average of 52.7 yards
Notre Dame's spring game MVP this year wasn't won by dueling quarterbacks DeShone Kizer or Malik Zaire. A breakout defensive star didn't claim the title, either.
Instead, that award belonged to punter Tyler Newsome. And before anyone scoffs at giving the MVP award to a specialist—he absolutely deserved it. Newsome punted the ball seven times in Notre Dame's scrimmage and averaged well over 50 yards per boot. He averaged nearly five yards more than the top punter in the nation had a season ago.
"[He] punted the heck out of the football," Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said, per LaMond Pope of the Chicago Tribune. "I guess that's a good thing in the spring game; your punter won the MVP. That says a lot about a spring game."
Don't take any shine away from Newsome's performance. Punting the ball 50-plus yards is tough. Averaging 50 yards on several punts is difficult. Punters are MVPs, too, people.
Justin Ferguson is a National College Football Analyst at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.