Ten things we learned this spring
Oklahoma returns a star quarterback and receiver, but is most loaded on defense
Alabama hasn't settled on a quarterback and might play two early in the season
Notre Dame should get an instant boost from a strong defensive recruiting class
If by chance you've tired of reading about antitrust inquiries, ethical misconduct, television contracts and street agents, this story is for you. Spring football practices concluded last weekend, and while real games are still months away, spring ball did provide some glimpses into the season ahead.
Here are 10 things we learned this spring about potential 2011 contenders.
OK, so that's not exactly an earth-shattering revelation. The Sooners, who return quarterback Landry Jones, receiver Ryan Broyles and linebacker Travis Lewis, among others, have long been pegged as the likely preseason No. 1 team. But the scary thing we learned this spring is that even some of the returning non-starters are pretty darn good. Bob Stoops at one point called sophomore linebacker Corey Nelson the best player on OU's defense, which is interesting considering Nelson began spring as the backup to All-American Lewis and the Sooners return three other former starting linebackers as well. Sophomore safety Aaron Colvin led all Sooners with eight tackles in the spring game, and sophomore Gabe Lynn asserted himself as a solid starting cornerback and serviceable fill-in for All-Big 12 honoree Jamell Fleming, whose academic status is in limbo.
If there's an area of uncertainty for Oklahoma, it's running back, where sophomores Roy Finch and Brennan Clay and freshman Brandon Williams are vying to fill DeMarco Murray's shoes. As of now, none are surefire feature backs.
Michigan fans concerned that new coach Brady Hoke's preferred pro-style offense may not be the best fit for their beloved Big Ten player of the year saw nothing in Michigan's spring game to alleviate their fears. Shoelace broke off one of his trademark 55-yard runs the first play of the game but struggled through the air, finishing 5-of-14 for 70 yards. Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges have made it clear they'd prefer the lanky QB to run less often, which should help Robinson's durability. But after progressing so dramatically in Rich Rodriguez's spread offense from his freshman to sophomore years, Robinson may get bogged down at times as a junior while learning a much more nuanced passing game.
The silver lining for Michigan followers is that their beleaguered defense looks improved -- not that it could have gotten worse. New coordinator Greg Mattison unleashed a more aggressive unit this spring, an approach that included experimenting with star tackle Mike Martin rushing off the edge.
Earlier this spring I posited Oregon's heavy losses on defense would prevent the Ducks from making another run at the BCS title game. It turns out I may have had it backwards. Oregon's defense dominated its star-studded offense in spring scrimmages, including last weekend's spring game. Projected first-time starters like junior defensive end Dion Jordan, sophomore defensive tackles Ricky Heimuli and Wade Keliikipi and junior linebacker Michael Clay showed big-time playmaking potential. One huge downer: Junior linebacker Kiko Alonso, expected to succeed linchpin Casey Matthews, was arrested Sunday for burglary and trespassing charges and is suspended indefinitely. (He already served a season-long suspension last year for a DWI arrest.)
Chip Kelly's bigger questions going into fall will be his rebuilt offensive line (which the defense overwhelmed at times) and a thin receiving corps that may rely in part on incoming freshmen.
Nick Saban ended spring no closer to naming a new starter -- and if you believe him, that's a good thing. Third-year sophomore A.J. McCarron, who shined both last spring and in mop-up duty last fall (30-of-48 for 389 yards and two touchdowns), was considered the presumptive favorite, and he did nothing to hurt his chances, going 21-of-38 for 222 yards, a touchdown and an interception in Alabama's spring game. But redshirt freshman Phillip Sims made Saban's decision more difficult by performing at a similar level (19-of-38 for 229), and his running ability gives the Tide more offensive options.
Saban seems in no hurry to name a starter, and some think he could let the audition continue right through the first few games. That might make some 'Bama fans nervous, considering they've enjoyed a clear-cut succession chain dating back to Brodie Croyle's 2003-05 tenure, but Saban did it at LSU when he was breaking in then-redshirt freshman JaMarcus Russell.
Boise State's Heisman finalist quarterback returns for his fourth season, but receivers Austin Pettis and Titus Young, on whom Moore relied so heavily, were both drafted in the first three rounds last weekend. NFL-caliber receivers don't grow on trees in Boise, Idaho, but the Broncos appear to have at least one capable replacement in sophomore Geraldo Hiwat, a 6-foot-4 playmaker who caught five passes for 97 yards in Boise's spring game. Hiwat is an Amsterdam native who'd played just a few games of American football at a Boise high school when Chris Petersen's staff offered a scholarship two years ago.
Tyler Shoemaker, who caught 32 balls for 582 yards and five touchdowns last season, returns for the Broncos, as does Moore's younger brother, Kirby, who's seen as more of a possession receiver. Unless one of them steps up as a true playmaker opposite Hiwat, though, Boise may have to rely more heavily on its run game in its first Mountain West season.
The 2010 Spartans may have been the most unsung 11-win, co-Big Ten championship team of all time, with their Capital One Bowl debacle against Alabama serving as a referendum for their skeptics. But early signs this spring indicate Mark Dantonio's team will actually be better in 2011, particularly on offense. It may surprise some to learn that previously unsung quarterback Kirk Cousins is being mentioned as a possible first-round draft pick next year, but he certainly looked the part in the spring game, going 22-of-29 for 285 yards and three touchdowns. Redshirt freshman Tony Lippett looked like a big-time playmaker at both receiver and cornerback and tight end Dion Sims, who was suspended all of last season, was the game's top receiver.
The big concern for Sparty is replacing linebacker Greg Jones, their two-time All-American and undisputed leader. Sophomore Max Bullough looked like the leading contender.
Normally, losing an accomplished four-year starting quarterback like Tyrod Taylor would be cause for panic, but in Blacksburg fans have been giddily awaiting the debut of Taylor's replacement -- and with good reason. Thomas, a 6-6, 245-pound redshirt sophomore, is a physical specimen with all the tools to be a big-time college quarterback. Coaches weren't sure what to expect in Thomas' first spring as the No. 1 guy, but three weeks later they were raving about his progress despite a pair of interceptions in the spring game. "I can't be more pleased with where he is right now," said position coach Mike O'Cain.
A twist to Thomas' ascension: O'Cain has taken over play-calling duties from offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring, a subject of constant fan criticism the past several years. It will be interesting to see how the former NC State coach maximizes his quarterback's abilities.
One of the most prominent storylines from National Signing Day was Brian Kelly's coup in landing three five-star defensive linemen, an area where Notre Dame has been sorely lacking for years. Two of them, Aaron Lynch and Ishaq Williams, enrolled early, and Lynch immediately asserted himself as a potential difference-maker, notching seven tackles and getting to the quarterback several times during Notre Dame's spring game. Fans will see him on the field in September. They'll also likely see freshman quarterback Everett Golson, at least in doses. The athletic dual-threat QB won't challenge for the starting job, but expect Kelly to install some packages to make use of his most spread-suited quarterback.
The biggest question surrounding the Irish in 2011 involves senior Michael Floyd. The school's residential life office decided against suspending the star receiver for his drunken driving arrest, but Kelly could still suspended him for games.
Arizona State's athletic department launched a re-branding campaign this spring titled "It's Time." Many pundits apparently agree, as the Sun Devils -- who haven't been to a bowl game since Dennis Erickson's first season in 2007 -- are a trendy Pac-12 sleeper pick and possible preseason Top 25 team. Quarterback Brock Osweiller even told ESPN.com that the team is already looking past the Rose Bowl and aiming for the BCS title game. So of course, in typical ASU fashion, All-Pac-10 cornerback Omar Bolden and key receiver T.J. Simpson both suffered ACL tears in spring practice and will likely miss most of the regular season.
The Sun Devils still have reason for optimism: Nearly 20 starters return from a team that put scares into Wisconsin and Oregon, including volatile star linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Still, losing an NFL-caliber cornerback is not the way teams normally hope to begin a potential dream season.
It's become a rite of spring and summer in Columbia: South Carolina's quarterback gets himself in trouble. AD Eric Hyman delivered the fifth-year senior's fifth career suspension last month after Garcia reportedly showed up at an SEC-mandated leadership seminar liquored up. Steve Spurrier still hasn't cut ties with the chronically defiant QB, who threw a combined five interceptions in last year's SEC championship game and Chick-fil-A Bowl losses yet remained ahead of sophomore Connor Shaw before this latest suspension.
The saddest part for Spurrier is that he has the makings of a potentially special team -- stars Alshon Jeffery, Marcus Lattimore and Stephen Gilmore all return -- but, as has been the case throughout his tenure, quarterback remains a major question mark.