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Finding new stars

Ten questions as spring practices get under way

Posted: Wednesday March 9, 2005 4:45PM; Updated: Wednesday March 9, 2005 7:16PM
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Chris Leak
The biggest adjustment for Chris Leak will be if new coach Urban Meyer plans to use him in the running game.
Chris Stanford/Getty Images

Snow is still falling in several parts of the country, but for the nation's major college football teams, spring has already begun. UCLA, Alabama and Texas have been practicing since late February, Georgia and Texas A&M donned helmets last weekend and other programs will join them within the next few weeks.

While the fall is for stars like Matt Leinart and Adrian Peterson, spring is about finding new ones. The drills aren't glamorous stuff -- as anyone who's ever sat through a spring game knows -- but they allow coaches to get a feel for the kind of team they have and, most important, begin finding answers to their biggest question marks.

On that note, here are 10 of the most important questions heading into spring practices:

1) How quickly will Florida QB Chris Leak pick up Urban Meyer's offense?

On paper, it's the perfect marriage: The Gators' ultra-gifted quarterback playing in his new coach's creative spread offense. But the reason Meyer's system was so successful at Utah was not because his QB, Alex Smith, was a talented athlete but because he was the perfect leader. Statistically speaking, Leak, the nation's top-rated high school QB two years ago, had a solid sophomore season (3,197 yards, 29 touchdowns, 12 interceptions), but struggled at times to master previous coach Ron Zook's offense. Of course, Gators fans blame the coaching, not the player, and are giddy with anticipation for Meyer's impact. Many elements of Meyer's offense (the shotgun, spread formations) will be similar to those of Zook's, but the biggest adjustment for Leak will be if Meyer plans to use him in the running game like he did Smith, who often ran the option out of the shotgun. Leak has never been asked to do that.

2) Can Steve Spurrier return discipline to South Carolina?

Gamecocks fans can't wait for the former Florida coach to install his famous Fun 'n' Gun offense, but Spurrier needs to get his players to stop embarrassing themselves. Ever since the infamous brawl with Clemson last November that prompted South Carolina officials to pull themselves out of bowl contention, Gamecocks players have been making headlines for all the wrong reasons. In January, several players were charged with stealing video equipment and memorabilia from the football offices. Two others were suspended indefinitely last month and later charged in a campus burglary. And last week, Spurrier dismissed star running back Demetris Summers after Summers tested positive for marijuana a second time. Spurrier's arrival has lthirsty South Carolina fans dreaming of championships, but clearly the program is in need of a serious attitude adjustment before that's going to happen.

3) Can Oklahoma rediscover its swagger?

This figures to be the most challenging spring of Bob Stoops' seven-year reign in Norman. There is no shortage of talented youngsters itching to fill in for the 14 departed starters, but how do you replace the experience and confidence of a Jason White, Mark Clayton or Jammal Brown -- especially when the last taste in returning players' mouths was a humbling 55-19 Orange Bowl pounding at the hands of USC? Fourth-year junior Paul Thompson, sophomore Tommy Grady and redshirt freshman Rhett Bomar will stage a spirited battle for quarterback, with Thompson holding the edge because of his experience. Peterson is a steadying presence, but will be held out of contact drills after as he recoveres from shoulder surgery. Defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek's return (he was suspended last fall after being involved in a bar fight) will be a boon for a defensive unit that must be rebuilt in personnel and psyche. The secondary is the biggest concern; starters Antonio Perkins, Donte Nicholson and Brodney Pool all have departed. It will help if sophomore safety Tony Cade, a touted recruit two years ago, steps up as a leader.

4) Who will replace Cedric Benson and Derrick Johnson at Texas?

With post-Rose Bowl buzz surrounding Vince Young and Texas' prospects for next season, you'd never know the Longhorns were losing the reigning Doak Walker and Butkus award winners. The frontrunner for the tailback job, redshirt junior Selvin Young (Benson's primary backup in 2002 and '03), is sitting out the spring to concentrate on academics and recover from an ankle injury. In his place, sophomore speedster Ramonce Taylor, a Reggie Bush-type who will also return kicks, is getting most of the carries. Neither is a workhorse like Benson, so the two may rotate. In true Bush fashion, Taylor may also see time at receiver. As for the void left by Johnson, starting middle linebacker Aaron Harris will become the anchor of the defense. New defensive coordinator Gene Chizik's (formerly of Auburn) scheme emphasizes speed at outside positions, giving sophomores Robert Killebrew and Eric Foreman the best shot at filling Johnson's starting strongside spot.