Top CFB Storylines to Watch During Spring Practices

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistMarch 11, 2020

Top CFB Storylines to Watch During Spring Practices

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    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    The brief lull between national signing day and the start of spring practice is almost over, and college football fans around the nation will at least get a month-long snapshot of the sport until the long, hot months before kickoff.

    There are plenty of headline-making narratives to watch throughout the spring as we try to see any signs of what the 2020 season may bring.

    From media-darling coaches at Power Five programs to top assistants getting their first shot at their own gig, from the transfer-portal additions to the early-enrollee freshmen ready to suit up for the first time, there are things to watch everywhere.

    Who are the favorites? Will new ones materialize? Will last year's fizzle? Who are the emerging playmakers to watch? Which role players can seize the spotlight and become superstars? From quarterback battles to other hot topics, plenty of storylines are ready to capture our attention.

    LSU is facing a rebuild but has the pieces in place to excel. Ohio State and Clemson look like frontrunners, while Oklahoma, Georgia, Alabama and others should be right back in the thick of things.

    Let's take a look at some of the top spring storylines to watch.

The Champs Start Anew

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    The 2019 football season was a special one for the LSU Tigers, arguably one of the best college football teams ever assembled.

    If they're going to repeat as national champions, Ed Orgeron will have to submit one of the best head-coaching jobs in recent history.

    The Tigers lost Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow, as well as elite playmakers such as wide receiver Justin Jefferson, running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, tight end Thaddeus Moss, safety Grant Delpit and edge-rusher K'Lavon Chaisson.

    They must also replace defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and passing game coordinator Joe Brady. The former is now the head coach at Baylor, and he replaces Matt Rhule, who left to be the head coach of the Carolina Panthers and hired Brady as his offensive coordinator.

    According to 247Sports' Chris Hummer, the only national champions in the past 15 years who then lost 14 or more starters were 2006 Florida and 2010 Auburn. The Gators went 9-4 in '07, and Auburn was 8-5 in '11. None of that bodes well for the Bayou Bengals, especially considering it's going to take a full makeover.

    Don't feel too sorry for LSU, though. Orgeron has done just fine on the recruiting trail and still returns playmakers like Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver Ja'Marr Chase, fellow pass-catcher Terrace Marshall Jr. and elite cornerback Derek Stingley Jr.

    If Myles Brennan can be a capable replacement for Burrow, the Tigers have enough talent to jump right back into the College Football Playoff. Seeing how this new puzzle all fits together in Baton Rouge begins during spring practice, and Orgeron will need to figure out how quickly he can get his program all the way back.

Quarterback Battles Brew at Premier Programs

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Speaking of Myles Brennan, everybody is going to be watching what he does at LSU. If he can hold off a pair of freshmen in Max Johnson (the son of former NFL signal-caller Brad Johnson) and TJ Finley, it will be the best thing for the Bayou Bengals because he's familiar with the system.

    However, if Brennan isn't the answer, at least Johnson and Finley are already on campus and ready to go through spring drills.

    That is far from the only exciting quarterback battle brewing around the nation this spring.

    Everybody in Tuscaloosa should be excited to see 5-star freshman Bryce Young make the cross-country trip and throw his skill set into the fray to replace Tua Tagovailoa. Mac Jones proved last year he's a capable SEC signal-caller, and he will have every chance to win the job. Taulia Tagovailoa and Paul Tyson are in the mix, too.

    At Oregon, Tyler Shough is the odds-on favorite to replace Justin Herbert for the Ducks, but mid-term enrollee Jay Butterfield and Cale Millen will make things difficult. Still, Shough's skills could surprise.

    "He's really smart," Herbert told the Oregonian's James Crepea of Shough. "He's really athletic, as well. He makes some plays in practice that sometimes I don't even believe."

    Michigan's race to replace Shea Patterson will be a fun one between big-armed Joe Milton and the athletic Dylan McCaffrey, and Oklahoma's battle between Spencer Rattler and Tanner Mordecai to take Jalen Hurts' snaps will be one to watch, too.

    Washington, Tennessee, Florida State and others are going to have free-for-alls. At USC, JT Daniels could make things interesting for Kedon Slovis, and the same could be said for Emory Jones putting the heat on Kyle Trask at Florida.

    Plenty of quarterback carousels will kick off this spring.

Are the Favorites in Fine-Tuning Mode?

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Everybody knows who the favorites are likely to be entering the 2020 season, but enough questions swirl that it's no slam dunk Ohio State and Clemson are going to be in the title game.

    We've already discussed more questions than answers in the Bayou, but it will be fun to watch the young talent and additions like defensive coordinator Bo Pelini (a blast from the past) mesh in LSU's defense of the title. The Tigers are still in the catbird's seat until somebody knocks them off.

    Still, few are expecting LSU back in 2020. Most of the buzz surrounds Clemson and Ohio State.

    Dabo Swinney's Tigers are spearheaded by the returns of quarterback Trevor Lawrence, running back Travis Etienne and receiver Justyn Ross, but they aren't without fault. They've got to improve their defensive front, and reinforcements like top-ranked prospect Bryan Bresee are on campus and ready to do just that. Swinney also must face life without offensive coordinator Jeff Scott, who left to be South Florida's head coach.

    Though the Buckeyes have quarterback Justin Fields and a receiving corps and offensive line that are the nation's envy, they've got to replace running back J.K. Dobbins, and expected starter Master Teague III is out for the spring. That means an opportunity to find other capable rock-toters.

    Replacing edge-rusher Chase Young is going to be difficult, too.

    Alabama has the quarterback battle and hopes the returns of Dylan Moses and Joshua McMillon will shore up the defensive woes from a season ago, and Georgia upgraded talent but has its own newness with offensive coordinator Todd Monken and transfer quarterback Jamie Newman.

    Oklahoma must continue to improve its defense on top of the quarterback uncertainty, and fringe contenders Notre Dame and Penn State need to find capable receivers.

    This spring is an ideal time to address concerns, and fans are going to watch the reports to see how things are going.

Magnolia Magnetism Abounds in Mississippi

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    Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    Lane Kiffin and Mike Leach. In the same SEC. In the same division. In the same state.

    Yes, please. Sign us up.

    The two social-media treasures and press-conference heroes are ready to make some Magnolia Magic as the new head coaches for the Ole Miss Rebels and Mississippi State Bulldogs, respectively. 

    The only bad thing about these two offensive gurus trying to regain relevance in the nation's toughest conference at a pair of schools that hate each other is that the two coaches actually like each other a lot. They get along, they both seem comfortable in the spotlight, and there's a lot to like about the new/old rivalry.

    Kiffin and Leach know each other from their Pac-12 days, in which the former was the head coach of the USC Trojans several stops back while Leach was at Washington State, which he just left for Starkville.

    "I've always liked Lane, and I know you're not supposed to like anything Ole Miss," Leach said, per the Spokesman-Review's Theo Lawson.

    "Welcome to the state, old pirate and friend," Kiffin tweeted when the Bulldogs hired Leach.

    Who would have thought Elijah Moore's peeing-dog celebration in last year's Egg Bowl could have been the catalyst that gave the college football world this glorious rivalry between Kiffin and Leach?

    We won't get to see any game between the two this spring, of course, but we will see how their teams are coming together. It's impossible for the media to stay away from these two, and college football is fun again in Mississippi.

Tracking How the Coaching Carousel Came out

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    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    Not all the coaching moves around the nation were as headline-grabbing as what went down in Mississippi, but there are plenty of intriguing storylines surrounding the nation's new coaches.

    Whoever said you can't go home again forgot to tell Mack Brown. His first season back at North Carolina, where he made a name for himself before trotting off to Texas, was a roaring success. He helped resurrect the Tar Heels, getting them to a bowl game and again making them a recruiting power.

    Two programs are trying that formula in 2020.

    Rutgers turns back to Greg Schiano, who was the program's most successful coach in the past three decades. San Diego State replaced Rocky Long with Brady Hoke, who parlayed his last job with the Aztecs into a short Michigan stint.

    Speaking of winning formulas, Ohio State promoting top assistant Ryan Day after Urban Meyer's retirement worked out swimmingly, and others are trying that method this year.

    Former Washington defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake is taking over Chris Petersen's program, offensive coordinator Ryan Silverfield will try to keep the scoring firepower in Memphis after Mike Norvell left for Florida State, and Shawn Clark is Appalachian State's third new head coach in three years.

    Most around Tallahassee should be excited to see Norvell's offense in the ACC, and some of the nation's top assistants, Dave Aranda (LSU DC to Baylor), Jeff Hafley (Ohio State co-DC to Boston College) and Jeff Scott (Clemson co-OC to South Florida), are getting their big shots.

    Second-chance coaches like Willie Taggart at Florida Atlantic and Steve Addazio at Colorado State are newsworthy, as are longtime position coach Sam Pittman heading to Arkansas for his first head-coaching gig and Eli Drinkwitz turning a one-year stint at Appalachian State into the Missouri job.

    The resume-building process begins this spring.

New Faces, New Places

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    As college football wrestles with what to do with the increasing number of transfers, the portal is spitting out players everywhere across the nation. Plenty of them are difference-makers, too.

    There are almost too many potential game-changers heading to other destinations to mention them all. A number of them haven't made their final picks yet, either.

    How everything shakes out over the next few weeks could have an impact on the 2020 season. After all, superstars like Joe Burrow and Justin Fields didn't start out where their names were made. Neither did Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and many, many others.

    Miami head coach Manny Diaz has been this year's biggest beneficiary of the portal, landing graduate transfer signal-caller D'Eriq King from Houston and Temple pass-rusher Quincy Roche, who should make an instant impact opposite Gregory Rousseau. The U is far from the only place to watch, though.

    Georgia replaced quarterback Jake Fromm with Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman, and the Bulldogs hope pairing him with new offensive coordinator Todd Monken is going to be a championship recipe with plenty of other pieces in place for another all-out title run in Athens.

    Jake Bentley made the cross-country trip from South Carolina to take Tyler Huntley's job at Utah, and the Utes are going to have the opportunity to be right back in the Pac-12 title game with the senior under center.

    Tennessee landed Georgia's former starting offensive lineman, Cade Mays, though he'll have to get an NCAA waiver to play right away. The same goes for running back Lorenzo Lingard and wide receiver Justin Shorter, who will need help to play right away for Florida.

    The Gators waited for Georgia edge-rusher Brenton Cox, who will be on the field this spring. Plenty of others also have the potential to be big adds in 2020. 

Texas Do-over

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    Richard W. Rodriguez/Associated Press

    Nobody in Austin is paying Tom Herman the big bucks to go 8-5. That may sound harsh, but it's true. After the large leap forward in 2018, last season was a colossal failure for the Texas Longhorns.

    If you don't believe that, just look at how Herman handled the offseason, showing both coordinators that the door with the "Exit" sign is bigger in Texas. 

    Tim Beck was let go and resurfaced as the NC State offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and Todd Orlando is the new defensive coordinator at USC. Herman replaced those guys with former Ohio State passing game coordinator Mike Yurcich and former Rutgers head coach Chris Ash, respectively.

    Those seem like two fantastic hires, but how quickly they mesh with the Longhorns players and Herman will be a big part of just how good Texas can be in 2020.

    Last year, the Longhorns undoubtedly dealt with far too many injuries to have any real consistency, especially on defense. Much of that young, talented unit is back for Ash, who will implement a 4-3 scheme. It's natural to be worried about the scheme change, but the Horns' roster seems better-suited for it.

    Yurcich is back in the Big 12 after a wildly successful season helping Justin Fields in Columbus. Before that, he was on Mike Gundy's staff at Oklahoma State.

    Is the new staff a sign of desperation for Herman, or will it be an injection of necessary new blood into a program full of potentially elite former prospects? With senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger back and lots of talent around him on both sides of the ball, the Horns could be a prime candidate for another resurgence.

    Grabbing that continuity and building off it begins this spring. There will probably be lots of fluffy talk about holding hands and preaching unity, but getting on the same page over the next month will go a long way toward a bounceback 2020.

Helton's Last Stand?

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    How long has Clay Helton been on the hot seat? It seems like forever.

    Players around the nation are obviously hearing about it, too, as the Trojans finished a shocking 55th in 247Sports' composite recruiting rankings for 2020, a near-unbelievable fall from the standard top-10 classes produced each year by one of the sport's bluebloods.

    So many important storylines interwoven in Helton's immediate future will manifest themselves this spring.

    After Kedon Slovis' surge as a freshman in 2019, JT Daniels is back to shake things up and make it a quarterback battle in Troy. While Slovis is the heavy favorite, Helton and offensive coordinator Graham Harrell have no margin for error.

    There's so much receiving talent in place, and everybody should be excited about the offensive upside. Not only are Tyler Vaughns, Amon-Ra St. Brown and Drake London back, but exciting redshirt freshmen Bru McCoy and Kyle Ford also have the ability to be superstars right away, especially in Harrell's pass-happy system.

    Speaking of Harrell, his first year as USC's offensive coordinator was extremely successful, and Helton needs that side of the ball to keep growing with all the pass-catching talent surrounding the signal-callers. He also needs to see the same growth after making a move on the defensive side.

    The Trojans fired Clancy Pendergast after a poor season, replacing him with ousted Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, who dealt with injuries and was burned too much by his propensity to blitz in Austin. 

    There can't be a learning curve if Helton, Harrell and Orlando are going to survive another season. If everything doesn't fit together perfectly, this will be Helton's final spring.

2nd-Year Slumps or Surges

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    This season, it's no longer about being a nice first-year story; 2019's fantastic freshmen have to be 2020's superstars if their teams are going to continue surging ahead.

    For quarterbacks like North Carolina's Sam Howell, Arizona State's Jayden Daniels and USC's Kedon Slovis, their programs' fates rely on them competing for all-conference honors. All three are capable, and in the case of Slovis and Howell, much of their supporting casts return intact.

    Daniels will have a more difficult time with wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk and running back Eno Benjamin off to the NFL, but head coach Herm Edwards has stockpiled talent for the Sun Devils in the desert.

    Iowa State running back Breece Hall needs a huge year to help out quarterback Brock Purdy if Iowa State is ever going to contend for the Big 12, and fellow running backs like Auburn's D.J. Williams, Michigan's Zach Charbonnet, Georgia's Zamir White and Tennessee's Eric Gray all need breakout years in '20.

    With so much NFL talent gone, the nation's top rising sophomore, cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., must be extra impactful for LSU. Similarly, with linebacker Daniel Bituli gone in Knoxville, Jeremy Pruitt's defense will now rely upon Henry To'oto'o.

    Wide receiver David Bell won't have to carry Purdue's offense with Rondale Moore back, and Texas A&M returns plenty of pass-catchers to alleviate pressure on tight end Jalen Wydermyer. Too much won't be expected of Alabama offensive lineman Evan Neal with Alex Leatherwood returning for his senior year.

    Oregon has a ton of talent surrounding edge-rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, and Clemson upgraded its defensive lineman room with a loaded recruiting class to give Tyler Davis a lot more help than he had in a 2019 season that saw the Tigers yearn for the front-line talent departed off its 2018 roster.

    USC defensive lineman Drake Jackson, Notre Dame defensive back Kyle Hamilton, Texas A&M defensive back Demani Richardson and Texas running back Jordan Whittington are all going to need big seasons to help their programs make moves forward.

Any True Freshman Early-Enrollee Game-Changers?

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    Penn State freshman receiver KeAndre Lambert
    Penn State freshman receiver KeAndre Lambert247Sports

    Any time there's a major need at a position and a mid-term freshman enrollee comes in and looks the part, it's a beautiful thing for a coaching staff.

    That appears to be the case in Happy Valley as a Penn State team in desperate need of difference-making receivers is about to get an extended look at 4-star receiver KeAndre Lambert

    "I'm really impressed with his movement," former Penn State director for performance enhancement Dwight Galt IV told 247Sports' Tyler Donohue. "Very explosive horizontally and vertically."

    There's no way to list everybody who could surge toward an impact season with 15 strong spring practices, but they're all over the place.

    There's no higher-profile position than quarterback, and with vacancy signs flashing all around, several names are worth knowing. Alabama's Bryce Young is the headliner, but Oregon's Jay Butterfield, LSU's Max Johnson and Tennessee's Harrison Bailey, among others, should be on your radar.

    With LSU losing wide receiver Justin Jefferson and tight end Thaddeus Moss, flex tight end Arik Gilbert could be one of the most explosive new additions in college football. The nation's top-ranked player is Clemson defensive tackle Bryan Bresee, and he's on campus and ready to battle for a starting position.

    At Auburn with running back Boobie Whitlow transferring, Tank Bigsby has a golden opportunity to team with D.J. Williams to give the Tigers a terrific tandem in the backfield, and Jaylon Jones has all the trappings of a star to pair with Demani Richardson at safety in the Texas A&M secondary.

    Oregon linebacker Noah Sewell is a jumbo second-level defender who moves well for his size and is already on campus. Utah flipped Ohio State safety Clark Phillips III, and he has instant-impact potential.

    Speaking of the Buckeyes, wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba may be the most college-ready Ohio State pledge, but 5-star Julian Fleming and offensive tackle Paris Johnson Jr. are on campus, too.

    Over in the Big 12, Texas defensive tackle Vernon Broughton meets a massive need for the Longhorns, and fellow big man Patrick Jenkins is on campus at TCU and ready to pay immediate dividends for Gary Patterson's Horned Frogs after flipping from LSU.

    The list truly does go on and on, and every program can boast a youngster to watch. It's going to be exciting to see which early enrollees emerge as dependable players this spring.


    All recruiting information via the 247Sports composite rankings unless otherwise noted.