Early Predictions for CFB's Most Intriguing 2019 Position Battles
Position battles are a natural part of college football preseasons. With players graduating or heading to the NFL, key positions on major programs open up and a handful of young men compete to fill those shoes.
Even the biggest programs have to replace key contributors every season. The ability to fill those key positions and continue to win games is what separates the elite programs from the ones with short-term success.
There aren't as many big-time quarterback competitions as there were last season, but there are some other intriguing position battles across the country as schools start preparing for the 2019 season.
These projections and early predictions are based on where things stand as we head into spring practices.
Lavert Hill will be returning to Michigan despite being a promising NFL draft prospect. However, his counterpart David Long will be going pro, while starting slot corner Brandon Watson has finished his final college season.
Ambry Thomas is the favorite to be the other starting cornerback, simply because he's the only one with any significant playing time under his belt. Mostly a special teams player last season, Thomas was able to make a couple of plays on defense in limited time, even snagging an interception against Rutgers.
At 6'0" and 183 pounds, Thomas has some nice length and athleticism for the position. Defensive coordinator Don Brown is hoping those physical tools will see Thomas become an impressive defensive player.
Youth is the common factor with the other defensive backs vying to be starting corners for Michigan next season. Myles Sims saw no game time as a freshman last season but is 6'3" and was a top-200 overall recruit out of high school.
Vincent Gray and Gemon Green will also be hoping to prove themselves in camp without seeing any game time in 2018.
Thomas is the favorite to play alongside Hill simply because of his playing experience, but a cornerback as tall as Sims is fascinating.
I'd imagine that Brown and defensive backs coach Mike Zordich will try a rotation of all of these young defensive backs early on to see who shines, but Sims on the outside with Thomas in the slot could be the best combination once the season begins.
Mississippi State Quarterback
Replacing an established starting quarterback like Nick Fitzgerald is no easy feat, but Keytaon Thompson looks up to the task.
Thompson started the 2018 season opener in place of a suspended Fitzgerald and went off for 364 passing yards, 109 rushing yards and seven total touchdowns in a dominant 63-6 victory over Stephen F. Austin. He got a handful of touches after Fitzgerald returned and still made the most of those opportunities.
Solid size (6'4", 222 pounds) and the ability to make plays with his legs should help give Thompson every opportunity to earn the starting job.
The other backups from last season, Jalen Mayden and Logan Burnett, will try to prove themselves, but the true challenger to Thompson next season will be incoming freshman Garrett Shrader.
Shrader was the No. 6-ranked dual-threat quarterback in this year's class. He finished his high school career with 107 total touchdowns (75 passing, 32 rushing) in three seasons as a starter. The Bulldogs may want to be patient with the promising incoming freshman, but a strong showing before the season begins could force Joe Moorhead to name him the starter.
The fact that Thompson was still able to get snaps with Fitzgerald on the team should say a lot about what the team thinks of him. His one game as the starter may have been against a weaker opponent, but you can't ignore that kind of performance.
Look for Thompson to be named the starter well in advance of Week 1 to avoid any potential speculation from national and local media outlets.
Alabama Running Back
Najee Harris finished third on the Crimson Tide in carries last season, and the two backs ahead of him (Damien Harris and Joshua Jacobs) are heading for the NFL. He ran for 783 yards and four touchdowns while averaging 6.7 yards per carry this past season as a sophomore. If anything, his workload is expected to increase this coming season.
Fellow sophomore Brian Robinson Jr. will also be looking for an uptick in carries after running for 272 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 63 carries last year. The bigger name to keep an eye out for will be incoming freshman Trey Sanders, who was the top-ranked running back in the nation in 2019's recruiting class.
We will likely see the same by-committee approach to Alabama's backfield that we've seen for the past few years under head coach Nick Saban. The legendary coach typically likes to keep his backs fresh so he can unleash them in the postseason, as we've seen with the likes of Bo Scarbrough and Jacobs. Harris is the clear front-runner for the starting job, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Crimson Tide save Sanders until the College Football Playoff before letting him run free.
Ole Miss Wide Receiver
Losing their top three wide receivers in D.K. Metcalf, A.J. Brown and DaMarkus Lodge opens the door for a lot of younger players to make plays for the Rebels in 2019.
Soon-to-be sophomore Elijah Moore had the most receptions in 2018 of any returning player, catching 36 passes for 398 yards and two touchdowns. At 5'9", he'll get plenty of time in the slot and leave opportunities for others on the outside.
Braylon Sanders will likely have a larger role in the offense as well after catching 16 passes for 271 yards and a score in his second season with the team.
There are a handful of incoming receivers who will be looking to get some playing time early in their college careers. Jonathan Mingo and Dannis Jackson are both 4-star recruits from the state of Mississippi, and JUCO transfer Dontario Drummond will be joining the program after playing at East Mississippi Community College, better known as the original Last Chance U.
The good news for all of these young men is that there will be no shortage of opportunities. Moore is already an established playmaker for the Rebels out of the slot, and Sanders should see some playing time on the outside as one of the more experienced players on the offense. Expect to see a rotation of Mingo, Jackson and Drummond early on until one of them can separate themselves from the competition.
USC Running Back
Expectations have been sky-high for Stephen Carr since committing to the Trojans as a 5-star recruit. Unfortunately, injuries have been an issue for the past couple of seasons. He missed the final three games of this past season due to an ankle injury.
Carr only has 146 carries over two seasons, but he has still run for 747 yards and five touchdowns. He's shown serious explosiveness when healthy, and if he can avoid any major injuries heading into 2019, he'll have a strong chance to be the starting back.
Vavae Malepeai was the more consistent of the returning running backs last year, averaging 5.4 yards per carry with 501 yards and eight touchdowns. That production should give him a strong argument to try to unseat Carr as the favorite to be the starter.
Let's not forget Markese Stepp, who only touched the ball eight times as a freshman. At 230 pounds, he'll have the opportunity to fill a different role for the Trojans compared to the smaller Carr and Malepeai.
Assuming Carr is 100 percent, the Trojans should roll with him early on as their primary back given his big-play potential. Malepeai should get a fair share of touches as well, while Stepp could embrace the role of the short-yardage and goal-line back.
On Wednesday, former Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurst announced on The Players' Tribune that he will be transferring to Oklahoma. This is a huge get for head coach Lincoln Riley and the program.
Though Hurts lost the starting job to Tua Tagovailoa last season, he was a proven playmaker with the Crimson Tide, throwing for 5,625 yards, 48 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions over three seasons. He also ran for 1,976 yards and 23 touchdowns at Alabama.
Hurts transferred for Oklahoma for a reason, which is to play right away and compete for a national championship. It's no surprise that he's now the favorite to start under center.
Trying to follow in the footsteps of Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, incoming freshman quarterback Spencer Rattler is the No. 1 pro-style QB in the 2019 recruiting class. Rattler showed his ability as a gunslinger in the All-American Bowl in January, making some impressive throws on the move.
There's already a ton of hype surrounding him, and Sooners fans will be itching to see what he's made of. Rising sophomore Tanner Mordecai was also a promising recruit out of high school, while Tanner Schafer has spent a few seasons learning Riley's offense.
Don't expect Austin Kendall to stick around, even though the Sooners are reportedly blocking him from being immediately eligible to play at West Virginia, according to ESPN.com's Jake Trotter. It's safe to expect Kendall to transfer elsewhere.
Before Wednesday, Rattler would have been the likely choice to start at quarterback for the Sooners in 2019. He's still a dark-horse contender if he's able to dominate in spring practices and fall camp, but he's now facing an uphill battle.
We're going to see Hurts under center in Week 1. As long as he keeps producing, Sooners fans won't have an issue with the 5-star freshman sitting and waiting his turn for a season.
All recruiting information via 247Sports.