Offseason developments foreshadow next season's big stories
Posted: Thursday April 29, 2004 1:27PM; Updated: Thursday April 29, 2004 3:39PM
Why, you might wonder, does spring football matter? The coaches barely tip their hat. The players barely hit. The stars barely see the field.
Two words: The future.
You already know what Darren Sproles and Matt Leinart can do. Spring is for finding out what Dwayne Bowe and Vernon Davis can do.
If those names don't ring a bell, don't worry. You can wait four months and see them for yourselves. Or, you can read this recap of the biggest developments around the country this spring.
The new Nebraska: Lincoln has officially migrated to the West Coast. In front of 61,417 curious spectators at the Huskers' first spring game under first-year coach Bill Callahan, QB Joe Dailey attempted 49 passes. And he posted a completion percentage (59.2) previously seen only in Eric Crouch and Jammal Lord's dreams.
No pressure: Ole Miss junior QB Micheal Spurlock, a.k.a. Eli Manning's replacement, showed impressive scrambling ability and a better-than-expected arm. Other impressive footstep followers: USC WR Whitney Lewis (replacing Mike Williams), Miami TE Kevin Everett (Kellen Winslow) and Michigan QB Matt Gutierrez (John Navarre).
Old faces, new places: George O'Leary, now more than two years removed from his resume scandal, went through his first round of drills at UCF; Mike Price, less than a year removed from his Alabama exile, found new life at UTEP; and Bobby Ross, four years removed from his last coaching job, enlisted at Army.
Armed and ready: If one must find a new quarterback, better he emerges by the end of spring. Among those who separated themselves from the pack: Minnesota's Bryan Cupito, Maryland's Joel Statham, Wisconsin's John Stocco, Arizona's Kris Heavner, Ohio State's Justin Zwick, Washington State's Josh Swogger and Iowa State's Bret Meyer.
Playing through: Amidst an ongoing investigation and new allegations seemingly by the week, Colorado went through spring practices with interim coach Brian Cabral calling the shots and exiled coach Gary Barnett often watching from the sidelines. The awkward mess is expected to be resolved by the end of next month.
Dwayne Bowe, WR, LSU: Big (6-foot-3) and fast, the sophomore made big plays in every scrimmage and should help the Tigers overcome losing stars Michael Clayton and Devery Henderson.
Vernon Davis, TE, Maryland: Coaches are drooling over this 6-3, 231-pound specimen with receiver skills and linebacker strength. The sophomore caught two touchdowns in the Terps' spring game.
Chansi Stuckey, WR, Clemson: A backup quarterback last season, the speedy sophomore moved to receiver and emerged as a viable replacement for multi-threat star Derrick Hamilton.
Dee Webb, CB, Florida: One of the top recruits in the country a year ago, the sophomore appears poised to follow Keiwan Ratliff as the Gators' latest big-play corner and return whiz.
Manuel Wright, DT, USC: The sophomore, who played sparingly last season, whipped himself into shape and played well enough to earn a starting job, thanks to Shaun Cody moving to end.
Signs of trouble
Tennessee's quarterbacks: There were only two contenders this spring, C.J. Leak and Rick Clausen, and they hardly looked like their accomplished brothers. Vols coaches are praying that one of their incoming freshmen, Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer, will distinguish himself in the fall a la Casey Clausen four years ago.
Virginia Tech's running backs: Projected starter Cedric Humes broke his leg during practices and may not be at full speed by fall. Humes' absence left Mike Imoh and freshman George Bell as the Hokies' lone tailback candidates. The pair combined for just 39 yards on 16 carries in the spring game.
Washington's offense: Huskies coach Keith Gilbertson called his team's second-to-last scrimmage "the worst offensive scrimmage I have ever seen," and while the offense played better in the spring game, it's clear they're a work in progress. QBs Casey Paus, Isaiah Stanback and Carl Bonnell are all struggling and there's little depth at running back and receiver
Purdue's defense: Sevens starters from last year's unit were drafted last weekend, leaving behind an inexperienced bunch that got absolutely torched throughout spring by the Boilers' veteran offense. Kyle Orton may well be one of the best quarterbacks in the country, but he's going to have to produce a whole lot of points.
Arkansas' depth chart: The Razorbacks, which lost 25 seniors and had four juniors bolt for the NFL, return just four starters. The offense, behind experienced QB Matt Jones and running backs De'Arrius Howard and DeCori Birmingham, showed progress, but the secondary is counting almost entirely on incoming freshmen.
How is Oklahoma's Jason White? The first returning Heisman winner in 13 years, recuperating from three different injuries, sat out all contact drills, heightening the mystery surrounding his late-season demise. Some Sooners fans are actually calling for backup Paul Thompson, who threw for 311 yards in White's absence at the spring game.
Have Florida State's Chris Rix and Miami's Brock Berlin learned from their mistakes? Such is college football that there will be more at stake when FSU and Miami meet on Labor Day than there was in their Orange Bowl matchup. As in national title hopes, which both sides surely feel depends on the performance of their erratic quarterbacks.
Will Michigan be able to run the ball? With Gutierrez and receivers Braylon Edwards, Jason Avant and Steve Breaston, the Wolverines should be fine in the passing game, but no one has emerged from a pack of contenders as the next Chris Perry. Look for Lloyd Carr to go with a tailback-by-committee approach, a la his 1997 national title team.
Have the Irish regained their swagger? Notre Dame probably wasn't as bad as its 5-7 record indicated, but a humiliating 38-0 loss to Michigan the second week of the season and the murderous schedule that followed destroyed their confidence. In his first spring, QB Brady Quinn looked more comfortable, and a softer early-season schedule could help build momentum.
Will Florida's Ron Zook combust by season's end? The perpetually caffeinated coach was even more on edge than usual this spring -- perhaps because a certain former Gator is back on the job market? Now in his third year, the grace period is over. Expectations will be high this fall, particularly after the way Chris Leak and the offense performed in the spring game.
Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.