Spring football primer: Burning questions for non-AQ leagues
Heading into spring practice last year, few people expected Notre Dame to deliver much more than a rebuilding season. Instead, the Irish ended up in Miami playing for the BCS title in January. It's difficult to believe that any Northern Illinois fans envisioned a BCS berth after the best quarterback in program history, Chandler Harnish, graduated in 2011. Yet those fans enjoyed a trip to Miami last season, too, thanks to the legs and arm of quarterback Jordan Lynch.
In 2012, spring was critical for the development of Notre Dame's staunch defense and Lynch's dual-threat capabilities. In 2013, it could serve as a launching pad for a new crop of under-the-radar contenders. Here's a look at key questions facing each of the non-AQ conferences over the next few weeks.
• Independents: Can Notre Dame recover from its offseason with an exciting spring? Rarely does a program enjoy its best season in decades and subsequently stumble once the New Year arrives, but that's exactly what happened to Notre Dame once the calendar turned to 2013. Between its national title loss to Alabama, head coach Brian Kelly's public flirtations with the Philadelphia Eagles and Manti Te'o's "catfishing" scandal, the Irish are probably eager to get back on the gridiron.
Coordinator Bob Diaco will head the defense again this season, but he needs to find replacements for his top two tacklers and locker-room leaders. Te'o's NFL draft stock may have dropped after a poor showing against Alabama, but his departure leaves a crevice -- both physically and emotionally -- right in the middle of the Irish unit. Te'o and safety Zeke Motta combined for 190 tackles in 2012, while Te'o and defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore were considered the defense's inspirational guides. Now that all are gone, returnees Stephon Tuitt, Prince Shembo and Bennett Jackson will have to take on even more prominent roles. All eyes will also focus on redshirt sophomore Jarrett Grace; he's the most likely candidate to replace Te'o at middle linebacker.
Bigger questions exist on offense. Top rushers Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood are gone, and quarterback Everett Golson needs a dependable backfield complement. Running back George Atkinson III has been a valuable special teams asset for two seasons, and he should get an opportunity to distance himself as the top rushing option this spring. Atkinson will face competition from heralded recruit Greg Bryant, redshirt freshman Will Mahone and USC transfer Amir Carlisle.
• C-USA: Which newcomer will make the biggest impact? Conference USA overhauled by adding FAU, Middle Tennessee State, Louisiana Tech, UT-San Antonio, Florida International and North Texas on the heels of the departures of Memphis, Houston and UCF. The most intriguing addition may be UTSA, which showed promise in its FBS debut last year. Larry Coker's squad returns 18 starters from the 2012 team that went 8-4 in its lone season in the WAC. And the Roadrunners will get some national exposure; they play Oklahoma State in the Alamodome on Sept. 7.
This spring, UTSA will look to get its depth chart in order. Even though a large number of starters return, last year's stats indicate that Coker likes to rotate his personnel. Twelve different receivers caught the 24 touchdown passes thrown from starting quarterback Eric Soza and backup Ryan Polite, and last season's leading receiver, Evans Okotcha, was not a starter. With batch of fresh faces entering the league, UTSA -- with an old Miami coach at the helm -- may be poised to make a mark.
• MAC: Can NIU's Jordan Lynch replicate his record-setting year under a new staff? It's hard to imagine Northern Illinois eclipsing the success it found last year, but superstar quarterback Lynch returns for his second and final season as the Huskies' starter. It's unlikely the program will return to a BCS bowl, but Lynch will enter the fall as a dark horse Heisman candidate. In 2012, he broke the NCAA record for rushing yards by a quarterback (1,771), led all FBS quarterbacks -- including Heisman winner Johnny Manziel and Ohio State's Braxton Miller -- in total offensive yards (4,733) and rushed for more than 100 yards in 12 of 13 games. No other player in the FBS turned in more than nine 100-yard rushing efforts.
Following former coach Dave Doeren's pre-Orange Bowl departure to NC State, however, Lynch enters 2013 under the tutelage of headman Rod Carey and a revamped staff. He also loses his top target, 1,000-yard receiver Martel Moore. Look for diminutive speedster Tommylee Lewis to fill that void and become an integral part of the Huskies' aerial attack.
• Mountain West: Will Boise State's Joe Southwick develop into a top-flight quarterback? In 2010 and 2011, Boise State won marquee games to start the season (against Virginia Tech and Georgia), immediately announcing its intentions as a BCS threat. Last season, the Broncos lost that high-profile season opener to Michigan State, and they essentially fell off the national radar by Week 2.
As it turns out, that may have done wonders for Southwick's maturation. The then first-year starter struggled with his accuracy early in the year, but he threw nine touchdowns to zero interceptions and completed 71 percent of his passes over Boise's final four games. He also returns one of the nation's most reliable targets in wide receiver Matt Miller, who should generate some preseason All-America buzz.
Southwick will have to adjust to a new starting running back with D.J. Harper's graduation, but sophomore Jay Ajayi was stellar as Harper's backup last season. Ajayi averaged 6.7 yards per carry and scored four touchdowns in Harper's relief.
• Sun Belt: Can Arkansas State continue its success under new coach Bryan Harsin? The Red Wolves have won 19 regular-season games over the last two years, and during that stretch, they've gone 15-1 in conference play. It turns out they are victims of their own success. Arkansas State's last two coaches have fled for higher-profile jobs: Hugh Freeze went to coach Ole Miss, while Gus Malzahn returned to Auburn after just a one-year stint in Jonesboro, Ark.
Now Harsin, the former Boise State and Texas offensive coordinator, takes over the Red Wolves after a supposedly acrimonious departure from Mack Brown's staff. Even if he received a modest pay raise ($700,000 from $650,000), Harsin clearly wanted out of Brown's football culture. He has an opportunity to do what he did at Boise State: win frequently without the glamor or egos associated with a big-time program.
Leading the charge will be former elite recruit David Oku, who transferred to Arkansas State from Tennessee in 2010 and ran for 1,061 yards last season. The Red Wolves return only five starters on defense, but they will certainly be a team to monitor now that Harsin is at the helm.