With spring practices concluded across the country, let's take a look at 10 things we learned during offseason drills.
1. Virginia Tech may have to rely on its defense early: In order for head coach Frank Beamer and the Hokies to continue their run of winning at least 10 games in eight consecutive seasons (the longest streak in the nation), Bud Foster's defense may have to carry the load, at least early in the season until the offense gels. Virginia Tech is trying to replace star running back David Wilson, receivers Danny Coale and Jarrett Boykin as well as four offensive linemen. Quarterback Logan Thomas will continue to grow in this offense and rise up NFL draft boards, but he will need new playmakers to emerge this fall. And the Hokies open with a tough Georgia Tech team on Labor Day night.
ICONEJ Manuel and the Seminoles may be primed for a run at a BCS game.
2. Florida State is legit — if the run game is effective: The Seminoles disappointed their fans by not living up to expectations in 2011, but this team is loaded with talent. Mark Stoops has elite personnel to work with on the defensive side of the ball, and they'll be even deeper this year with a studly recruiting class arriving. The offensive line grew up in the second half of the bowl win over Notre Dame, but the most important issue is having a sound rushing attack. Early enrollee Mario Pender could be the answer in the backfield.
3. Texas A&M will protect whoever is at quarterback: The Aggies will likely turn the offense over to Jameill Showers, who would replace Ryan Tannehill. All eyes will be on how Kevin Sumlin and his offensive staff adjust to life in the SEC. Showers looked good running the spread scheme under Sumlin and offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury in the spring game, showcasing a strong arm and sound pocket presence. He was 20 of 31 through the air for 203 yards and two touchdowns against no interceptions in the contest. If he wins the job, he won't have to worry about getting knocked down too often, as the Aggies allowed just nine sacks in 13 games last season despite throwing the ball more than most teams in the nation. Four of five starters return up front, including rising junior stud tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews.
4. Alabama is still sound on the ground: Despite losing Trent Richardson to the NFL, Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon will pace an always strong Crimson Tide rushing attack and help take pressure off of starting quarterback AJ McCarron. Lacy was shelved this spring, but he'll return to the fold in the fall and is ready to become the top back. The true freshman Yeldon, however, will push for playing time after recording 179 yards from scrimmage in the team's spring game, earning MVP honors. McCarron will have a deeper, more skilled set of receivers at his disposal this fall, so the offensive game plan will be opened up a bit. But the Tide will still rely on running the ball and playing strong defense.
5. Oregon has a good "problem" at quarterback: Darron Thomas surprised us all when he elected to forego his senior season. But the Ducks have two very good options to run this offense in Marcus Mariota and Bryan Bennett. Bennett played well when he filled in for Thomas last year, but Mariota is coming off an impressive spring game performance. This battle will last into the fall, but Chip Kelly's up-tempo, high-octane offense will be in good hands no matter who starts at quarterback.
6. Notre Dame should start Golson: As I wrote a few weeks back, Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly should hand the keys to the offense over to Everett Golson, the rising sophomore who was the only QB to not throw an interception in the team's spring game. While it was merely a spring game, Golson has the momentum heading into fall to win the starting job. If he continues to work hard this summer both in the weight room, film room and voluntary workouts with his teammates, he could have the inside track to start the opener in Dublin against Navy. Golson's ability to keep plays alive with his feet and take off and run is huge, but consistently keeping his eyes down the field will be vital. The Irish may be improved this season, but it may not show in the team's record — because that schedule is brutal.
7. New beginnings at Ohio State and Penn State: The Buckeyes and Nittany Lions may endure some on-the-field struggles in the fall, but Urban Meyer and Bill O'Brien have their squads on the right track. Meyer has his quarterback in Braxton Miller to run his spread offense, and he may have found a go-to receiver in freshman Michael Thomas, who caught 12 passes for 131 yards in the team's spring game. O'Brien, meanwhile, still has not settled on a starting quarterback. Incumbent Matt McGloin may win the job, but Paul Jones remains the most intriguing option if he can stay out of academic trouble. Increasing the tempo of both offenses was the main goal this spring, and both teams will continue to improve in that area.
ICONTyler Bray and the Vols need to have a big season in Derek Dooley's third year.
8. The Vols see improvement: Derek Dooley needs a successful third season in Knoxville, so he at least needs to feel positive about his team entering the summer months. The team has better depth at running back, a position that really crippled the Vols last season. And the offensive line played well in the team's Orange-White spring game. Quarterback Tyler Bray is saying all the right things, acknowledging that he must be the team leader. Can the defense stay healthy and continue to play well with Sal Sunseri as the new defensive coordinator?
9. Quarterback play may not be the biggest issue in Westwood: I've argued that new UCLA head coach Jim L. Mora should make Brett Hundley the team's starting quarterback. He's the future at the position, and veterans Richard Brehaut and Kevin Prince have showed the last few years that they either can't stay healthy or can't stay consistent. But as bad as the quarterback play was during the latter years of the Rick Neuheisel era, the defense has been very underwhelming as well. In the team's final scrimmage of the spring, the quarterbacks took advantage of an injury-depleted defense. The team has good depth at defensive tackle, but end Datone Jones really needs to bring pressure off the edge consistently. Cassius Marsh is another player that needs to play well and take some pressure off of Jones. As bad as the offense has been, the defense needs to do its part to help the Bruins move up the Pac-12 standings.
10. Quick fix in Lawrence? New Kansas head coach Charlie Weis took on a tough task when he arrived in Lawrence, and he's made some moves to try to make the Jayhawks competitive as quickly as possible. He brought in former Notre Dame starting quarterback Dayne Crist, who looked good in the team's spring game, as well as five other transfers (including two more from Notre Dame). He also tried to shore up the defensive line by adding some JUCO players and true freshmen. And with former BYU signal-caller in the fold for 2013 and 2014, Weis has improved this team. But how improved will the Jayhawks be in the standings?
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