College Football Players Turning Heads During 2021 Spring Practice

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistApril 13, 2021

College Football Players Turning Heads During 2021 Spring Practice

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Nobody has a bad spring, right? At least not publicly.

    So, when it comes to figuring out who is standing out during college football's spring football practices, you've got to sift through the coachspeak and find out who truly is shining. It's a time for implementation, development and for backups to surge into starting roles.

    It's also a time for coaches to ensure they have depth for the upcoming season, so they tread lightly with the poor-mouthing, especially with the transfer portal in full effect.

    But this spring has been extremely productive for a lot of potential playmakers on both sides of the ball. From a handful of offensive skill-position players to a few standout defenders to a couple of signal-callers, the 15 practices this spring have been a separation story.

    A group of midterm freshmen is drawing exciting buzz, too.

    Let's take a look at some players who are turning heads this spring.

Charlie Brewer, Quarterback, Utah

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Utah's quarterback room has a lot of young potential playmakers who should have coach Kyle Whittingham and Utes fans excited for the future.

    After Cameron Rising missed last season with an injury suffered in the first game, he will miss this spring. He's a good-looking young signal-caller, as well as freshman Peter Costelli and Texas transfer Ja'Quinden Jackson.

    But they're all taking a back seat now to wily veteran Charlie Brewer, who transferred from Baylor to Utah to finish his career. Hopefully, it will work out better than Jake Bentley's transfer did a season ago.

    "First of all, Charlie Brewer is quite a bit ahead of everybody else," Whittingham said, according to the Salt Lake Tribune's Josh Newman. "The other four are freshmen, that's to be expected. Charlie's a senior with a lot of experience under his belt. The other four guys have almost no Division I experience, so that's no surprise to us. That's how things are unfolding to this point."

    That's not just a backhanded compliment because of Brewer's experience, though. He's grasped the offense early, and the veteran mentality is something a Utes team needs as it tries to return to the top of the Pac-12 with a young roster.

    Brewer has thrown a lot of college passes. He could have a big final year in the Pac-12, and he's off to a quality start this spring.

Ji'Ayir Brown, Safety, Penn State

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    Barry Reeger/Associated Press

    Penn State struggled to start the abbreviated 2020 football season, but the Nittany Lions came on strong to close a disappointing year.

    If they're going to build on that momentum established during the final four games of the year, they need to find some defensive playmakers.

    Enter safety Ji'Ayir Brown, a JUCO transfer who carved out a role for himself a season ago and is emerging as a dependable playmaker this spring for coach James Franklin.

    There's even a great story from The Athletic's Audrey Snyder on Brown's improbable run from little-known high school player to Lackawanna Community College to State College. It's possible he could start alongside his former JUCO teammate Jaquan Brisker in the secondary.

    The player the Lions affectionately call "Tig" is making a major move this spring.

    "Tig's had a really good spring," Franklin said, according to Blue White Illustrated's David Eckert. "I think he's leading us right now in turnovers. He's just much more comfortable and much more confident, which we typically see in second-year players, whether you're a second-year high school or second-year junior college player. He's an awesome young man in general."

    This could be a big year for Brown.

Josh Downs, Wide Receiver, North Carolina

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    Marta Lavandier/Associated Press

    When you lose the kind of offensive skill-position players North Carolina did after a breakout 2020 season, it's possible production will take a major step backward.

    Several budding weapons for upperclassman quarterback Sam Howell may change that narrative.

    One of those is receiver Josh Downs, who had a huge Orange Bowl alongside teammate Khafre Brown to close last year. With plenty of catches vacated by the departures of Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome, the Tar Heels need pass-catchers to rise to the occasion. Downs has this spring.

    "He's our best receiver at this point," UNC coach Mack Brown told the Fayetteville Observer's Chapel Fowler this spring.

    Last year, he had four catches for 91 yards and two scores in the loss against Texas A&M in the bowl game, and the 5'10" speed-burner is excited about the opportunity. He views the outgoing talent as a chance to shine.

    That's what he and his teammates are doing this spring, but Downs specifically has drawn praise and is confident in his ability to make things tick for Howell and Co. on offense in Chapel Hill.

    "We've got to fill that void," Downs told Fowler about losing star receivers and running backs. "I think we're doing a good job at that."

Donovan Edwards, Running Back, Michigan

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    Credit: 247Sports

    If you're looking for a team that could make a huge jump if some freshmen slot into key roles and perform well this year, look no further than Ann Arbor, Michigan.

    The Wolverines haven't been in the news for the right reasons the past few years as coach Jim Harbaugh has gone from a hot coaching commodity to a disappointment, but there's still time and opportunity for him to turn things around for Big Blue.

    Yes, they need better playmakers on both sides of the ball, but Harbaugh has done a terrific job recruiting the past couple of years, and one of the best prospects he's signed is West Bloomfield, Michigan, running back Donovan Edwards.

    The nation's third-ranked running back coming out of high school is showing why on the spring field.

    After the Wolverines struggled on the ground a season ago, Edwards has been a welcome star this spring, and he's going to battle for key carries right away. Teammates Blake Corum and senior Hassan Haskins should also be firmly in the running back rotation, but Edwards is too good to keep off the field.

    "Speed. Speed. Speed. Speed," redshirt junior linebacker Josh Ross told The Wolverine's Clayton Sayfie. "That dude flies and is so fast. He's still learning and getting better, but he can definitely fly."

    Between him and receiver Xavier Worthy, Harbaugh is going to have a couple of young burners on offense.

Ty'Ron Hopper, Outside Linebacker, Florida

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The Florida Gators have already wrapped up spring, and while they were hoping for more consistent returns on quarterback Emory Jones in his quest to replace Heisman Trophy candidate Kyle Trask, much of the headlines centered on the other side of the ball.

    They found some new defensive playmakers this spring, and while midterm enrollee Jason Marshall turned plenty of heads, perhaps the player who got the most positive reviews was outside linebacker Ty'Ron Hopper.

    The redshirt sophomore reportedly flew around the field, making plays all spring.

    "Hopper was reportedly everywhere this spring, constantly around the ball, attacking downhill and making plays," Gators 247Sports writer Thomas Goldkamp told colleague Brandon Marcello. "Florida will have the luxury of bringing him along as slowly or as quickly as it wants, since veterans Ventrell Miller, Amari Burney and Mohamoud Diabate all return.

    "But if Hopper picks up in the fall where he left off this spring, he could push for starting snaps at linebacker."

    Bob Redman of 247Sports is hearing the same type of buzz. While it's almost a lock Diabate will have a role in the starting lineup, Hopper could seize the gig from either of the other two. The top-100 recruit from Roswell, Georgia, has the talent and athleticism to be a star.

Doug Nester, Offensive Lineman, West Virginia

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    It may not be a major surprise that Doug Nester is making some noise in Morgantown this spring, but it's huge news for the West Virginia Mountaineers.

    Anytime a player finds himself in new surroundings (even if they're familiar), making a strong first impression speaks volumes. That's exactly what Nester is doing after transferring from Virginia Tech back to his home-state Mountaineers.

    Coach Neal Brown's team has enough exciting, returning parts that you should definitely pay attention to the Mountaineers in the Big 12, even if Oklahoma and Iowa State are the favorites and the Texas Longhorns have a lot of new-coach buzz.

    The Mountaineers return three starters on the offensive front, but Nester is playing all over the place, hoping to slot into one of those other two positions. While he played mostly guard during his time with the Hokies, he's showing the versatility to play guard and tackle this spring.

    "You can see as he learns what we're doing and what the expectations are and then what his job is in each scheme. You can see him starting to play with confidence and be more physical," Brown said, according to the Weirton Daily Times' Jared Serre. "[I'm] excited about him. I think he can be an upper-level Big 12 offensive lineman without a doubt."

    With multiple years of eligibility remaining, Nester's homecoming could be big for '21 and the future.

Kobe Pace, Running Back, Clemson

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    Credit: 247Sports

    With most of the attention swirling around the development of quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, the return of receiver Justyn Ross and the young, talented defensive players, Clemson quietly had another player make a major move this spring.

    It happened to be a very important one, too.

    Kobe Pace wasn't a heralded prospect out of Georgia, but the 3-star back looked like he was going to be a big piece of the committee to replace star Travis Etienne. The Tigers can depend on Lyn-J Dixon and are breaking in freshmen Will Shipley and Phil Mafah, but Pace set the pace this spring.

    The 5'10", 215-pound sophomore had a big spring game (69 yards on six carries) and was steady leading up to it, too.

    SI.com's Owen Watterson mentioned Pace as the running back who stands to gain the most. Coach Dabo Swinney called Pace a "grown man" in another Watterson article.

    Before you scoff at a former little-known recruit like Pace making that kind of progress, remember Etienne wasn't a huge prospect out of high school, either. And while no one player is going to replace a multiyear ACC Offensive Player of the Year, the Tigers aren't asking them to. 

    They want a group of runners to fill that void, and Pace proved this spring he's going to be one of them.

Stevie Rocker Jr., Running Back, Arizona

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Several midterm freshmen made this list, and one of them whom you've probably never heard of is going to be playing on a team desperately in need of offensive playmakers for a new coach.

    Jedd Fisch has his work cut out for him in Tucson in trying to rebuild the Wildcats. It isn't going to be an overnight fix, but Fisch knows offense, and with a clean slate, there's playing time available for pretty much anybody who can make plays.

    In the few spring practices so far, true freshman Stevie Rocker Jr. looks like one of those guys.

    You can't read a practice report on the Wildcats without seeing his name. The 6'0", 185-pound 3-star running back decided to stay home rather than go to BYU, California, Nevada or somewhere else, and he may be rewarded with immediate playing time.

    Michael Wiley and Drake Anderson are the odds-on favorites for carries, but Rocker is going to be tough to keep off the field if he keeps performing the way he has. As Fisch told reporters, he's made a big first impression:

    "I couldn't be more impressed with Stevie Rocker the way he's gone out here. The guy should really be getting ready for his prom, if they're having those this year, and graduation. He's not 18 yet. He turns 18 in May. So the fact that he's not even 18 yet, and the fact that he's playing like he's playing and participating in every practice, every opportunity to get better, you can't ask for more. There's a ton of upside there, and I think we're just scratching the surface with Stevie."

    Arizona Desert Swarm's Brian J. Pedersen mentioned Rocker a week ago, too. He's making noise this spring.

Maason Smith, Defensive Tackle, LSU

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Despite having great springs, some true freshman standouts may be a year away from earning serious playing time. Stevie Rocker Jr. is a great story, but when the Pac-12 season starts, it's going to be interesting to see if he's relied upon for important snaps.

    One first-year player who definitely will be is LSU defensive tackle Maason Smith.

    The 5-star prospect was the nation's top-ranked player in the 2021 class, according to Rivals, and the Houma, Louisiana, native was also the 30th-ranked player on 247Sports and the No. 19 overall prospect in its composite rankings.

    He's a 6'5", 316-pound can't-miss phenom on the defensive front who's been a standou this spring. As a matter of fact, coach Ed Orgeron said he's already battling for the starting job on a defensive line that needs to find difference-makers.

    "I can see a guy like Maason Smith moving up," head coach Ed Orgeron told reporters"He had a great practice today, becoming a starter in the rotation. We have six, seven, eight defensive linemen that can play, which we need that."

    Smith was one of the biggest recruiting wins of any team in the cycle, and he's showing why. A banged-up Glen Logan has opened the door for Smith, and he has burst through it.

    It's just a matter of time before Smith not only starts in Baton Rouge but stars.

Ray Thornton, Linebacker, Texas

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Plenty of the focus in Austin this spring revolves around the offense, because that's new Texas head football coach Steve Sarkisian's specialty. Also, when you're replacing a Longhorns legend like Sam Ehlinger and breaking in a star like Bijan Robinson, that's where most of the buzz will reside.

    But the 'Horns need to be a lot better on the other side of the ball than they were during Tom Herman's tenure, and defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski has some exciting new pieces.

    One of them is LSU graduate transfer Ray Thornton, who could be a major mover coming off the edge to replace departed pass-rusher Joseph Ossai's production. 

    Thornton also had some experience playing middle linebacker for the Bayou Bengals, so he can line up all over the field and should be a major playmaker right away.

    "He's one of those leaders that comes in and everyone feels him," Texas running back Roschon Thompson told reporters of Thornton.

    The 6'3", 242-pounder will come off the edge for Texas, and he and Notre Dame transfer Ovie Oghoufo will be major parts of the Longhorns' defensive efforts in '21.

Taron Vincent, Defensive Tackle, Ohio State

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    Most Ohio State fans are zeroed in on the quarterback race this spring, but while coach Ryan Day is searching for the right maestro to conduct another final-four orchestra, other playmakers are emerging.

    Everybody is excited about freshmen running back TreVeyon Henderson, wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. and defensive end Jack Sawyer, who are putting together exceptional springs that could lead to major roles with the national runner-up Buckeyes.

    But a player who is blossoming at an opportune time is defensive tackle Taron Vincent, a former 5-star prospect who has battled injuries during his time in Columbus but is now beginning to look like the elite recruit Ohio State brought in as part of the 2018 class.

    "I think Taron Vincent has a chance to have a breakout year for us," Day told Eleven Warriors' Colin Hass-Hill.

    Vincent is the son of five-time NFL Pro Bowler Troy Vincent, and it's taken him longer than usual to develop, but it appears the younger Vincent is ready. The fourth-year junior has just 10 career tackles, two tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.

    Ohio State desperately needs a productive player to replace Tommy Togiai. Vincent may be that guy.

    "I feel it physically. I feel stronger, faster, just more explosive off the ball and stuff like that," Vincent told reporters. "I can feel it in my physical body and the game's kind of slowing down now. I'm older now, I can see stuff happening before it happens."

Mario Williams, Wide Receiver, Oklahoma

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Stop if you've heard this one before: The Oklahoma Sooners have an exciting, young freshman receiver whose name you should remember.

    Yeah. Shocker.

    But while it may be more newsworthy that 4-star midterm enrollee Clayton Smith is earning headlines on the other side of the ball, it's fellow 4-star Mario Williams who is perhaps having a better spring than anybody.

    Considering coach Lincoln Riley wasn't pleased with the receivers a season ago and into the spring, there is plenty of playing time available alongside Marvin Mims. Guys like Jadon Haselwood, Theo Wease and Trejan Bridges could earn that, but Williams is a speedy, flashy player in the mix.

    The 5'11", Plant City, Florida, prospect isn't the biggest player, but he may be the fastest on the team. And if that sounds a little like another former Sooners pass-catcher (Marquise "Hollywood" Brown), it should. There are similarities. 

    "He [Mario Williams] has looked very good," OU quarterback Spencer Rattler said, according to Sooners Wire's Brianna Dix. "Probably the fastest, one of the fastest guys on the team for sure. Quickest, probably. His get off the line is really impressive. He can catch the ball, run routes, get open, block—he can do it all; take back punts, kicks. So, I'm excited to see all the factors he brings to this offense."

    That isn't just lip service. Williams has the potential to fill a role, especially after Charleston Rambo transferred to Miami. Watch out for him to make an impact right away.

Bryce Young, Quarterback, Alabama

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    Credit: 247Sports

    There aren't many spotlights bigger and brighter than that which comes with being the quarterback at Alabama, especially considering the Crimson Tide are used to competing for national championships every year.

    Last season, Mac Jones went from unknown backup to Heisman Trophy finalist. Had he won college football's biggest individual honor, nobody would have batted an eye.

    But when vaunted 5-star quarterback Bryce Young got on the field for limited action, he was inconsistent. With such high expectations, the nation's second-ranked player in the 2020 class from Santa Ana, California, just wasn't ready for the big stage. 

    He didn't need to be then, but he does now.

    With Jones gone to the NFL, Young is expected to win the starting job. And he's done nothing to dampen those hopes this spring, drawing plenty of praise for his performance in scrimmages from coach Nick Saban, who lauded his "explosive plays."

    He "owned" the second scrimmage, according to Touchdown Alabama's Stephen M. Smith, too. It's obvious Young is showing up and showing out so far.

    "I told him one of the things that he has to work on is having presence on the fieldbeing the man so to speak," Saban told reporters. "Taking charge and being in command. I think that he's done better at that. I think he realizes what he needs to do to try and help the players around him play better. And I think he's done it very well."

         

    All stats courtesy of CFBStats and Sports Reference. Recruiting rankings via 247Sports' composite rankings unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.