Ten things we learned this spring
Lane Kiffin is taking opposite approach to Pete Carroll, who was all about fun
Denard Robinson looks like Michigan's QB of the future, not Tate Forcier
OU ushering in new era; Va. Tech now Tailback U; Pac-10 arms race; more
For the college football fans who can't stand the nearly eight-month wait between seasons, spring football has become an increasingly refreshing oasis. In the online age, one can read daily practice recaps about one's favorite team from multiple media outlets. Heck, with the right cable package, one can watch spring games at LSU, Alabama, Florida, Michigan, Penn State, Pittsburgh, North Carolina and Oregon.
Most teams quite clearly remain a work in progress, but here are 10 developments and revelations that stood out around the country.
1. There's a new tone at USC
All those Lane Kiffin haters hoping the reviled former Tennessee coach would continue his trash-talking, rule-breaking ways at USC have been thus far disappointed. So, too, have those who figured the former Trojans offensive coordinator would attempt to present himself as Pete Carroll-lite. So far, the new boss has taken a near-opposite motivational approach from his mentor, who was all about being "fun" and "psyched." To put it bluntly, Kiffin has been a hard-ass, restricting practice access, issuing scathing critiques of his players ("Our running backs ... don't have a clue right now," he said early this spring), even stripping the No. 1 jerseys (once worn by Kiffin's prized recruit, star receiver Mike Williams) from cornerback T.J. Bryant and receiver De'Von Flournoy until they prove themselves worthy.
It remains to be seen whether Kiffin's various methods will produce a superior product to last year's four-loss team. While the Trojans still boast several standouts (quarterback Matt Barkley, who injured his hand in Saturday's spring game; receiver Ronald Johnson and defensive lineman Jurrell Casey), Kiffin hasn't been shy in his assessment that the Trojans' talent level has dropped from when he last worked at USC four years ago. "Our defense has a chance to be really good," Kiffin said. "I think our offense has a long, long, long ways to go, especially in the run game." One promising addition in the latter department: freshman early-enrollee Dillon Baxter, who broke off a jaw-dropping double-spin move on a 58-yard run in last weekend's spring game.
2. RichRod seems ready to untie Shoelace
The first sign that perhaps Tate Forcier wasn't going to be Michigan's quarterback of the future, as so many of us had assumed following his hot start as a freshman, came when Rodriguez pulled a struggling Forcier for classmate Denard "Shoelace" Robinson in the fourth quarter of a 30-28 loss at Iowa last October. Forcier's downward spiral continued throughout the Wolverines' seven straight Big Ten losses, but his coach stuck with him, in part because Rodriguez didn't seem ready to trust the speedy Robinson to do much more than run the ball.
The competition between the two continued this spring, however, and Robinson showed off a considerably more balanced set of skills. He was the star of Michigan's spring game, throwing a 97-yard touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree. In an earlier scrimmage, he went 15-of-20 for 82 yards while running 12 times for 105 yards and two touchdowns. Rodriguez has yet to name a leader, saying only that Robinson "probably had a few better practices than Tate has." (Forcier suffered a slight ankle sprain during the final week.) But with the embattled coach under pressure to make a splash ASAP, here's guessing Robinson will be the starter when the Wolverines host Connecticut on Sept. 3.
3. Oklahoma can't wait to usher in a new era
The 2010 draft was mostly a day of celebration for Oklahoma fans -- the Sooners produced four first-round picks, including three of the top four. But it also served as one last painful reminder of a nightmarish 2009 campaign that saw two of those standouts, No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford and tight end Jermaine Gresham, go down with season-ending injuries and the Sooners lose five games for the first time in a decade. Last month's spring game, therefore, was an opportunity to focus on the future -- one that looks pretty darn bright.
Sure, Oklahoma has its share of returning veterans, including running back DeMarco Murray, defensive end Jeremy Beal and linebacker Travis Lewis, but some of the biggest revelations of the spring were the Sooners' youngsters. Rising sophomore quarterback Landry Jones picked up where he left off last season, when he threw for 418 yards in the Sun Bowl. Meanwhile, true freshman receiver Kenny Stills caught six passes for 84 yards; redshirt freshman fullback Marshall Musil ran for a game-high 92 yards; and rising sophomore defensive tackle JaMarcus McFarland proved a capable replacement for Gerald McCoy. Bob Stoops' team should improve in 2010 -- and return to national title contention by 2011.
4. Virginia Tech is the new Tailback U
Most teams would be overjoyed to return just one running back the caliber of Ryan Williams, who, as a redshirt freshman last season, ran for 1,655 yards and 21 touchdowns. But Williams will be far from the only Hokie toting the rock this fall. Junior Darren Evans, Tech's leading rusher in 2008 (1,265 yards), returned this spring from the ACL injury that cost him last season. And redshirt freshman Tony Gregory was so impressive during scrimmages that coaches might allow the speedy David Wilson -- who averaged 5.7 yards per carry as a true freshman backup last season -- to redshirt this fall.
Frank Beamer's teams have long been known for their defense and special teams, but this could be the Hokies' most dynamic offense since the early 2000s. Much like then, when Tech had either a Michael Vick or Bryan Randall under center and star runners like Lee Suggs and Kevin Jones, Tech will have the luxury of both a playmaking senior quarterback (Tyrod Taylor) and a powerful backfield. The Hokies will need all that firepower right off the bat when they face Boise State on Labor Day night.
5. Penn State's offense is causing panic
Joe Paterno tried to send a warning midway through spring practice when he said during a Big Ten coaches teleconference: "We have a very average offensive line." On the morning of the Nittany Lions' April 24 spring game, he conceded "we've got a long ways go" in determining a successor to departed quarterback Daryll Clark. Then the Lions took the field for the Blue and White game that afternoon and showed a nationally televised audience that for once, their coach is not exaggerating.
Neither sophomore Kevin Newsome (5-of-12, 50 yards) nor former walk-on Matt McGloin (10-of-23, 110 yards, two interceptions) did anything to distinguish themselves in the spring game. It didn't help that Penn State's revamped offensive line (All-Big Ten center Stefen Wisniewski has moved back to guard, one of several position shuffles) couldn't protect them. Of the quarterbacks, true freshman Paul Jones (5-of-8, 67 yards, two TDs) won the eyeball test hands down, and position coach Jay Paterno said the staff is open to playing him. But one can't help but think that his father would sooner stitch dragon flames on the Nittany Lions' jerseys than start a true freshman on the road at Alabama on Sept. 11.
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