March 05, 2015 - Dave Miller
Burning questions for spring football
Follow @Miller_Dave Spring football is slowly but surely starting to get underway at programs across the country, which means that we are just a little bit closer to the beginning of a new college football season. Okay, so we are still 26 Saturdays away from the dawn of the 2015 campaign, but let's take a look at some of the key storylines that will start to play out this spring and carry over into fall camp. Note: Teams get just 15 practices (only eight with contact) to iron things out before spring ball ends. The Ohio State quarterback battle: Because of his spectacular play during the final three games of the Buckeyes' national championship season, Cardale Jones is essentially the No. 1 on the quarterback depth chart. But, as of now, Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett are still in Columbus. However, neither Miller nor Barrett will be competing for the starting job when the team begins spring practice on March 10. Two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year Miller is still recovering from shoulder surgery, while Heisman Trophy-contending Barrett will be limited by an ankle injury. Head coach Urban Meyer has a great problem on his hands with three star signal-callers, but how will it play out before the new season kicks off? Jones will likely come out of spring as the starter, with Barrett being able to compete in an intense battle in fall camp. But will Miller remain? He doesn't seem to have the brightest pro future at QB, so would he be open to changing positions? Or will he transfer and seek an immediate starting job? As a graduate transfer, he would be immediately eligible at any school. Oregon already found its replacement for Marcus Mariota in former Eastern Washington starting signal-caller Vernon Adams. But there are some other major programs remaining that would love to add a dynamic threat like Miller at QB. No matter who is at QB for the Buckeyes in the fall, Meyer's bunch has a great chance to once again win the College Football Playoff. Just look at the schedule, and just remember the young talent being brought back. Dry spell in Tuscaloosa: With Urban Meyer approaching (if he hasn’t already) Nick Saban territory as being the best head coach in the game, how will Alabama regroup after losing the Sugar Bowl to Ohio State? The Crimson Tide will be breaking in a new quarterback for the second consecutive season, and it will be interesting to see if Florida State transfer Jake Coker is ready to fulfill the high expectations that followed him to Tuscaloosa. Lane Kiffin enters his second year as offensive coordinator, but he’ll need a quarterback to emerge and a star wide receiver to step up and replace Amari Cooper. The biggest issue, however, remains the team’s secondary. ‘Bama will be favored to win the SEC West, but can Saban’s bunch be true College Football Playoff contenders? An old-school Michigan regime: Jim Harbaugh is eventually going to make Michigan a national contender once again. But it is going to take time implementing his philosophy and system, as this is a very young Wolverines squad that’s littered with underclassmen. It starts with spring practice, which is akin to childbirth, according to the former Stanford and San Francisco 49ers boss. The Big Ten can always use more star power, and the East division just became a lot more interesting with Harbaugh trying to revive Michigan while Ohio State continues to soar under Meyer. The new staff will make sure the quarterback position and offensive line eventually get straightened out, and new playmakers must emerge at receiver. But fans in Ann Arbor have to be giddy about the prospects of this program moving forward because Harbaugh has won at every one of his stops. Attendance at the Big House should be high for the team's spring game on April 4. New faces of the Big 12: That TCU-Baylor debate may carry over into the new season. Perhaps no other team outside of defending champ Ohio State will garner as many first-place votes in preseason polls as Gary Patterson’s Horned Frogs. The squad fielded a prolific and new-look offense to go along with a stout defense in 2014, and many of the key personnel from that team are back. Star quarterback Trevone Boykin could be a Heisman Trophy finalist, and the defense should at least be as good as in 2014. Meanwhile, Art Briles should have another strong Baylor team on his hands this year despite losing Bryce Petty because 18 starters will return. Seth Russell is the likely starter, and we have seen him succeed when he had to step in for Petty. Intriguing true freshman Jarrett Stidham could push Russell, but either way offense will never be an issue in Waco. But Briles didn’t do himself any favors when complaining about the results of last year’s final College Football Playoff rankings. Still, Oklahoma and Texas have work to do if they want to reclaim Big 12 supremacy. Auburn lowers the Boom: Will Muschamp is back on The Plains, and that's a bad thing for opposing SEC offenses. The former Florida head coach is the Tigers' new defensive coordinator, and his recruiting prowess already helped Gus Malzahn and the rest of the staff reel in a strong crop of talent this past National Signing Day. Auburn was a complete disaster defensively last year, and the team recorded a disappointing eight wins. Muschamp inherits eight returning starters on defense as well as end Byron Cowart, who was the top-rated player in the 2015 class. Fellow end Carl Lawson has also been medically cleared, which is huge for a team that had just 21 sacks in 2014. This spring, Muschamp will be installing the 3-4, so the 15 team practices will be very important. Notre Dame's offensive mystery: Brian Kelly brought in a new personality to add to the offensive mix, as Mike Sanford left Boise State to be the new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the Fighting Irish. Sanford is considered one of the bright young minds in the college game, and he helped lead the Broncos to the No. 9 scoring offense (39.7 points per game) and a Fiesta Bowl victory over Arizona last season. The Irish return 18 of 22 starters overall from last season, including eight on offense. Kelly has not yet announced who will call the offensive plays, but adding Sanford is a clear sign that he wants to maximize the potential of an offense that was turnover-prone last fall. Of course, Everett Golson (37 total touchdowns and 22 turnovers last year) and lefty Malik Zaire, who started the bowl game against LSU, will be at the forefront of spring drills because both can start for nearly every major program in America. With more diversity and balance, the offense should be improved and increase the program’s chances of being national contenders once again. But the defense also must improve after battling attrition last season. Balance needed in College Station: Texas A&M’s defense has been dreadful, but head coach Kevin Sumlin was able to pluck longtime LSU coordinator John Chavis out of Baton Rouge and get him to move within the SEC West to College Station. The Aggies have been working on improving their talent level and depth on that side of the ball, but there remains work to be done. Just how much of an impact can Chavis have in his first year? The Aggies ranked No. 111 nationally in run defense last season, allowing over five yards per carry. A&M's win totals have decreased each year under Sumlin, although no one should be panicking in the Lone Star State. However, Chavis must make the defense at least average if the Aggies want to be serious SEC West contenders in 2015. Inheriting sophomore end Myles Garrett is a start. That 'other' Texas team: I kid, I kid. But A&M, TCU and Baylor have certainly stolen some major thunder from the Longhorns over the last few seasons. How will the team in Austin fare in Charlie Strong's second season? The former Louisville head coach wants his 'Horns to evolved into more of a spread team, and he took notes from North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora earlier in the offseason. Wanting to go up-tempo is one thing, but can either Tyrone Swoopes or Jerrod Heard be consistent enough at the quarterback position? USC is a chic CFP pick: The Trojans have a lot of talent returning, but they have lost star standouts as well. Steve Sarkisian and his staff must replace running back Buck Allen and wide receiver Nelson Agholor on offense, while defensive lineman Leonard Williams should be the top defender taken in this spring’s NFL Draft. Quarterback Cody Kessler returns after having one of the most productive yet nationally underappreciated seasons in recent memory, while running back Justin Davis and receivers Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell will need to help fill voids on offense. If the Trojans are going to be true playoff contenders, overall team depth — especially on defense — is the primary concern. Florida getting offensive: The Gators are going to eventually be productive on offense. New head coach Jim McElwain has forgotten more about offense than many around the game will ever know. The question is just how quickly the offensive personnel can acclimate themselves to the system. Open competition is great for this unit, especially because the program is desperate for consistent playmakers outside of Demarcus Robinson to emerge. Treon Harris and Will Grier will battle for the quarterback job, while four new starters need to emerge across the offensive line. This will be an even younger team when the incoming freshmen arrive, but the veterans need to take to McElwain's teachings right away. Other issues to monitor: — Once again, Oklahoma underachieved throughout a season in which many expected the Sooners to at least compete for the Big 12 title. The Sooners suffered five defeats and were blown out by Clemson in their bowl game. Head coach Bob Stoops is overseeing a lot of new faces on the staff. How does OU bounce back? Trevor Knight will get seriously pushed for the quarterback job by Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield and Cody Thomas. — At UCLA, Josh Rosen is the future at quarterback. He was arguably the best signal-caller in the 2015 class and enrolled in Westwood in January. He will battle last year’s backup Jerry Neuheisel, Asianatii Woulard and Mike Faraul for the starting gig. — There is serious buzz for Arkansas and Tennessee. Bret Bielema and Butch Jones are doing wonderful things with their respective programs. But there are no days off in the SEC. Can these teams seriously challenge for division titles in 2015? — Florida State could have 11 players from last year’s team drafted into the NFL this spring, including former Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, who lost just one game in his two seasons of play. There will be competition for Winston’s starting job, with 2014 backup Sean Maguire being the lone signal-caller on the roster with any experience. But redshirt freshman JJ Cosentino is from a high school program that has produced Hall of Famer Dan Marino and two-time Pro Bowler Marc Bulger, among others, and the staff is high on him. Offensive line could be an issue for the ‘Noles in the fall. — Can Penn State head coach James Franklin field a cohesive offensive line to protect quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who is immensely talented but was battered throughout last season? Keep in mind that veteran offensive tackle Donovan Smith will be playing on Sundays in the fall. — Don’t look now, but there is emerging head-coaching star power in the American Athletic Conference, specifically in the West division. Former offensive coordinators Chad Morris (SMU), Tom Herman (Houston) and Philip Montgomery (Tulsa) are all entering their first seasons as FBS head coaches, and fan bases for those programs are expecting fireworks immediately. — The other new head coaches: Gary Andersen is now the head boss at Oregon State, which saw longtime program-builder Mike Riley head to Nebraska. Fellow Big Ten squad Michigan State lost stud defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi to Pitt, which is an intriguing ACC team because Paul Chryst did not leave the cupboard bare. Meanwhile, Chryst returns to Madison where he takes over the Wisconsin program. — The other new coordinators: With John Chavis in College Station, Kevin Steele is the new DC in Baton Rouge. He is joined by new Tigers defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, who will help make the Tigers’ recruiting efforts even better. NFL assistants Brian Schottenheimer and Jim Leavitt are back in the college game, as Schottenheimer replaces Mike Bobo and will run the Georgia offense, while Leavitt takes over the defense at Colorado after being on Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers staff. Gene Chizik is also back on the sideline, as he has resurfaced at North Carolina, which desperately needs help on that side of the ball from a guy who has always known good 'D.' Finally, UCLA's Jim L. Mora was able to woo longtime East Coaster Tom Bradley out West to run the Bruins' defensive unit. Dave Miller, the college football editor for the National Football Post, is on Twitter @Miller_Dave.