After a one-year hiatus due to COWID-19, spring training for college football is back on track as teams slowly return to normal in the face of a global pandemic.
What hasn’t changed from last year are the teams at the top of the discipline: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Georgia.
Although the Crimson Tide, Tigers and Buckeyes need new quarterbacks, they shouldn’t lose much.
Here are the stories, players and coaches to keep an eye on this spring:
1. Alabama and Clemson restart
Star quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence and Mack Jones are expected to be among the first quarterbacks selected in the 2021 NFL Draft, but the Tigers and Crimson Tide have more than ready replacements. Alabama’s Bryce Young was the No. 1 quarterback in the dual-threat class and the top prospect in California in the 2020 class. Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei threw for 941 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. He started two games for Lawrence, who was out of the lineup last season for COVID-19. The Tide’s biggest concern is replacing Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith and receiver Jaylen Waddle.
2. Can MSU get back on track?
Were the Tigers a sure-fire miracle in putting together one of the best seasons in college football history in 2019? LSU fell off its pedestal at 5-5 last season. The Tigers rank 97th in defense (34.9 points per game) and 39th in offense (32 points). Bo Pelini is retiring after one season as defensive coordinator and LSU coach Ed Orgeron has hired Minnesota Vikings assistant Daronte Jones to replace him. Orgeron hired Jake Peetz, who worked with former LSU point guard Joe Brady of the Carolina Panthers, to improve the offense.
3. Will Jim Harbaugh ever find a recipe in Michigan?
The Wolverines gave Harbaugh a reprieve that will carry him through the 2025 season, even though his teams have never beaten an Ohio State opponent and have lost four consecutive bowl games. Michigan has five new assistant coaches, including defensive coordinators Mike McDonald and Maurice Linguist. They replaced Don Brown, who fired Harbaugh after the Wolverines ranked 79th in rushing (178.8 yards), 90th in pass defense (250.5 yards) and 95th in scoring defense (34.5 yards) and went 2-4 in 2020.
4. Steve Sarkisian debut at Texas
Sarkisian, former offensive coordinator at Alabama and coach at USC and Washington, takes the helm at Texas, where Tom Herman failed. Sarkisian said the Longhorns will play hard, without slowing down. Let’s hope they do better in 2020 after finishing 61st in the FBS in scoring defense (28.5 points per game) to slow down opponents. And of course, Sarkisian will do what his predecessor failed to do and put the ball in Bijan Robinson’s hands as often as possible.
5. Can Georgia close the gap with Alabama?
The Bulldogs should have a full spring and offseason with offensive coordinator Todd Monken and quarterback JT Daniels playing well in the last four games of 2020. Georgia is strong with running backs and wide receiver and has good depth on the offensive line. His defense should be one of the best in the FBS again. The timing is right. Did Kirby Smart’s team finally catch up to the Crimson Tide this year?
Can JT Daniels build on last season’s success with a favorable schedule? Jay Biggerstaff/USA Sports Today
Familiar faces in new places
1. Gus Malzahn, UCF
The Gus coach is headed to UCF, where the former Auburn coach will operate in the Plains pressure cooker. His teams’ offensive struggles of late have dropped him to an average of 382.8 yards per game with the Tigers, who were No. 77 in total offense in 2020. The Knights have their star quarterback Dillon Gabriel back, who in 10 games last season threw for 3,570 yards, 32 touchdowns and four picks.
2. Bret Bielema, Illinois
It was fun being Bret Bielema, but not lately. He is embroiled in a bitter contract dispute with Arkansas, where he was fired after a 29-34 record from 2013 to 2017. After a few seasons in the NFL, Bielema returned to his Big Ten roots. He inherited an Illini program that hadn’t won in a decade.
3. Josh Heupel, Tennessee
A former UCF coach will try to empty the trash can at UT, which appears headed for NCAA probation after former coach Jeremy Pruitt was fired. A handful of the Volunteers’ top players, including running back Eric Gray and offensive lineman Wanya Morris, have transferred. Star linebacker Henry To’o To’o has also reportedly left the team.
4. Brian Harsin, Auburn
Given his lack of SEC experience, Harsin was a surprising choice to replace Malzahn at Auburn. But maybe that’s why the Tigers need him: an outsider who won’t be influenced or pressured by Auburn’s boosters. Harsin went 69-19 in seven seasons at Boise State and won three Mountain West Conference titles.
5. Butch Jones, Arkansas
The former Tennessee coach has another job as head coach after three seasons on Nick Saban’s staff. He had success at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, but struggled at Tennessee, where his teams went 34-27 in five seasons. But compared to Pruitt’s tenure, maybe it wasn’t so bad.
Can Gus Malzahn mount a more effective offense at UCF? Today’s Sports Day John Reed-USA
Changes to coordinator position
1. Bill O’Brien, offensive coordinator, Alabama
Bad news: O’Brien, a former coach from Houston, Texas, has the unenviable task of replacing Sarkisian, who led one of the most prolific offenses in SEC history in 2020. Good news: The Tide’s last two offensive players have landed on their heads; Ole Miss has contracted Lane Kiffin in 2019. O’Brien had a 15-9 record at Penn State after taking over the program following the Jerry Sandusky scandal. He is one of two former NFL coaches on Saban’s staff; former Jacksonville Jaguars coach Doug Marrone is in charge of Alabama’s offensive line.
2. Marcus Freeman, defensive coordinator, Notre Dame
Freeman, 35, was the most coveted coordinator in the FBS after his Cincinnati defense ranked 13th in total defense and 8th in scoring last season. Broyles’ finalist was also LSU’s top coach, Ed Orgeron, before choosing the Irish. Freeman replaces Clark Lea, who left to become Vanderbilt’s new coach.
3. Jeff Grimes, offensive coordinator, Baylor.
Grimes worked the past three seasons for BYU, which went 11-1 in 2020 and had the third-best offense (43.5 PPG) in the FBS. He replaces Larry Fedora, who fired Baylor after it finished last in the Big 12 in both scoring (23.5 points) and rushing (310.2 yards) in 2020.
4. Derek Mason, defensive coordinator, Auburn .
Mason wasn’t as successful at Vanderbilt as most head coaches before him, but he is widely considered one of the best defenders in the sport. He was Stanford’s defensive coordinator in 2012 and 2013; the Cardinals finished in the top 15 in the FBS in scoring defense both seasons. Mason and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, who previously worked at Georgia and South Carolina, give new coach Brian Harsin a special SEC grade.
5. Mike Jurcic, offensive coordinator, Penn State
Nittany Lions coach James Franklin hired Jurcic by surprise to replace Kirk Charrocca after just one season. Penn State’s offense slid into 2020, ranking 37th in total offense (430.3 yards) and 54th in scoring (29.8 points). Jurcic, who previously played at Texas, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, caught the eye of Cowboys coach Mike Gundy during a meet at Division II University in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania.
All eyes will be on Bill O’Brien, who will take on the role of offensive coordinator at Alabama. Tom Pennington/Getty Images
Interesting positional combat
1. Ohio Quarterback
With former starter Justin Fields expected to be a top-10 NFL draft pick, the Buckeyes become a trio of prospects without much experience. Backups Jack Miller III and C.J. Stroud did not attempt a single pass last season. Rookie Kyle McCord finished fifth in the pocket standings and 31st overall in the ESPN 300.
2. Texas Quarterback
Casey Thompson, who is entering his fourth season with the program, took a big step toward possibly replacing former starter Sam Ehlinger with four touchdowns in the Longhorns’ 55-23 victory over Colorado in the Valero Alamo Bowl. Hudson Card, the second pick in the 2020 ESPN 300 and from Austin, Texas, is also getting a lot of attention from Sarkisian.
3. USC wide receiver
The Trojans have a potential Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Kedon Slovis, but will need to find new targets after the departure of Amon-Ra St. Louis. Brown and Tyler Vaughn. Highly-rated Bru McCoy and Colorado transfer K.J. Nixon will have to turn their attention to Drake London, who had 33 catches for 502 yards in 2020.
4. LSU Quarterback
Myles Brennan completed 60.3 percent of his passes for 11 touchdowns in the first four games of last season before an abdominal injury forced him to miss the final seven games. In his absence, Max Johnson has thrown for 1,069 yards, eight touchdowns and one interception in five games, culminating in a 37-34 win over No. 6 Florida. Orgeron promises an open competition.
5. Georgia Corner
The Bulldogs have almost everyone back on offense, and they are very talented on the defensive line and at linebacker. The secondary is a concern, however, after starting cornerbacks Eric Stokes, Tyson Campbell and DJ Daniel left for the NFL Draft and topback Tyreek Stephenson transferred to Miami. At least Kelee Ringo, the No. 1 and No. 8 cornerback in the 2020 ESPN 300, returns after missing last season with a shoulder injury. Nyland Green’s early entry was No. 7 in the ESPN 300 for cornerbacks of 2021.
Casey Thompson threw four touchdown passes in the Texas Bowl last season, making him a tough matchup as a starting quarterback. Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
1. Jack Coan, QB, Notre Dame (via Wisconsin)
Coan started 18 games for the Badgers in 2018 and 2019, then injured his foot in preseason camp and missed last season. He is likely the favorite to succeed Ian Book, who left the team after completing 68 percent of his passes for 3,278 yards, 23 touchdowns and eight interceptions at Wisconsin.
2. McKenzie Milton, QB, FL (via UCF)
The former Heisman Trophy candidate missed the last two seasons recovering from a devastating injury to his right knee that nearly ended his career. He amassed 8,683 yards, 72 touchdowns and 22 interceptions at UCF, with a 27-6 record as a starter. If Milton is healthy, he will be a welcome addition to an FSU program that desperately needs stability at the quarterback position.
3. Charleston Rambo, Rhode Island, Miami (via Oklahoma)
After catching 43 passes for 734 yards and five touchdowns in 2019, Rambo’s production declined last season. Still, he should have been one of OU’s top pass catchers next season before he suddenly entered the transfer gate. He is a welcome addition to a Hurricanes division that collapsed in 2020.
4. Charlie Brewer, CB, Utah (via Baylor)
When healthy, Brewer was one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the Big 12. He started 40 games for the Bears, including 35 of the last 36. He threw for 9,700 yards, 65 touchdowns and 28 interceptions and ran for 1,039 yards and 22 touchdowns. He will take on Texas transfer Ja’Quinden Jackson, who was No. 34 in the 2020 ESPN 300.
5. Eric Gray, RB, Oklahoma (via Tennessee)
Gray led the Volunteers with 772 yards on the ground and was second on the team with 30 catches last season. The Sooners lost two of their top rushers for 2020 with Rammond Stephenson (NFL) and T.J. Pledger (traded to Utah), but they do get back Kennedy Brooks, who would not play in 2020 due to COWID-19 issues.
Charlie Brewer was one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the Big 12. AP Photo/Su Ogroki
Real young people to see
1. J.J. McCarthy, QB, Michigan
Harbaugh has been reluctant to use freshman quarterbacks in the past, but McCarthy is the best passer he’s signed at Michigan. McCarthy, who is ranked 25th on the ESPN 300 and second among dual-threat quarterbacks, threw for 1,392 yards, 16 touchdowns and no interceptions as a senior at IMG Academy. With the departure of Joe Milton and Dylan McCaffrey, McCarthy will have to make do with Cade McNamara and Dan Villary this spring. Alan Bowman of the Texas Tech Red Raiders will enter the fray this summer.
2. Treveon Henderson, RB, Ohio
Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon went it alone against the Buckeyes, leaving a big hole in their backfield. Henderson, a native of Hopewell, Virginia, was the nation’s top tailback, rushing for 2,424 yards and 45 touchdowns as a junior in 2019 (Virginia high schools did not play football last fall due to COWID-19).
3. Tommy Brockermeier, OL, Alabama
Coach Saban is not afraid to use freshman players on the offensive line, and Brockermeier is one of the most highly regarded line players to sign with Alabama. With leftback Alex Leatherwood going to the NFL, his Brockermeyer (No. 2 in 2021 ESPN 300) and J.C. Latham (No. 5) could replace him.
4. Will Shipley, RB, Clemson
The Tigers don’t have an obvious replacement for star Travis Etienne. Shipley finished second and 22nd overall. He ranked first on the ESPN 300 list and ran for 4,173 yards and 50 touchdowns in three seasons at the school. He also caught 84 passes, and some recruiting analysts have compared him to Carolina Panthers star Christian McCaffrey because of his versatility.
5. Derrick Davis Jr, S, LSU
The Tigers desperately need help on defense, which was the worst in the SEC in 2020 with 323 passing yards per game. ESPN’s recruiting service ranked Davis as the country’s best safety; LSU chose him over Ohio State and Penn State for a catch from Monroeville, Pa.
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