Ten things we learned this spring
An already loaded LSU team suddenly seems capable of throwing the football
The incoming freshman class is stacked, which is great for the defending champs
Depth issues are going to be a real concern for trendy championship pick USC
Spring seems to last longer in the college football realm than in the rest of reality. Teams like Stanford and Texas began practicing in late February. LSU wrapped in late March. Meanwhile UCLA, the last notable holdout, plays its spring game May 5.
Those stretched out sessions allowed coaches to get a deeper look at their evolving teams -- and fans and media to spend more time dissecting the possibilities. With kickoff now less than four months away, let's recap what we learned this spring.
After Les Miles' team capped a remarkable 13-0 regular season with a shutout loss to Alabama in the BCS championship game, LSU fans found themselves back in a familiar position: griping about quarterback play. But with the oft-maligned Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee moving on, spring marked the beginning of the Zach Mettenberger era -- and attendees at LSU's March 31 spring game were pleased with what they saw.
The former Georgia backup and junior college transfer put up strong numbers, completing 14-of-25 passes for 270 yards and two touchdowns. But more encouragingly, coaches opened things up and seemingly called more downfield plays than in recent years. "There is a little more juice on the ball now," said Miles. "Our ability to throw the football is a little better." Which is intriguing, seeing as the Tigers are already loaded pretty much everywhere else.
Last Saturday, around the same time Chip Kelly's team played its spring game, the NFL finished announcing 253 draft picks, none of which were Darron Thomas. Nothing against the former Ducks quarterback, but that's a pretty strong testament to Kelly's system, which apparently averaged 45-plus points per game and reached three straight BCS bowls without an elite signal-caller.
That means Oregon should have little trouble reloading this fall. Both candidates fighting for the starting job, third-year sophomore Bryan Bennett (who averaged 8.7 yards per rush and threw six touchdowns while subbing for an injured Thomas last season) and redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota, are more dangerous runners than predecessors Thomas and Jeremiah Masoli. Mariota, who broke an 82-yard scoring run off an option-fake in the spring game, is a Dennis Dixon-like breakaway threat. Combine that with the return of explosive tailbacks Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas, and Oregon should be faster overall than it was with Thomas and LaMichael James. Scary.
Two of the brightest standouts from defending national champion Alabama's spring game were five-star running back T.J. Yeldon (88 rushing yards and 91 receiving yards) and classmate/receiver Chris Black (44-yard touchdown reception). Oklahoma five-star receiver Trey Metoyer was the star of the Sooners' spring, capping it with six catches for 72 yards in the Red-White Game. Ohio State's Michael Thomas looked like a potential playmaker for Urban Meyer's first squad, catching 12 passes for 131 yards in the Buckeyes' spring game. Oregon's 6-foot-8, 297-pound five-star defensive lineman Arik Armstead earned the "man-child" moniker following his spring game performance.
These are just the early enrollees. Many more touted phenoms, including Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham and Texas running back Johnathan Gray, arrive this summer.
Most expect the Trojans to return to national title contention this fall, and with good reason: they're loaded. Consider: Quarterback Matt Barkley is the favorite to be next year's No. 1 draft pick, receiver Robert Woods is a returning consensus All-American, and yet anyone who watched USC practice this spring came away realizing sophomore receiver Marqise Lee is the most talented Trojan by far. Safety T.J. McDonald and center Khaled Holmes are considered potential first-rounders as well, putting USC well into recent Alabama territory.
However, this is still a team entering the first year of an NCAA-mandated 75-scholarship limit, and injuries left the Trojans so thin they didn't tackle in their spring game. Walk-ons saw significant action at receiver. While most of the hobbled players should be back by fall, coach Lane Kiffin was crushed when sophomore tailback Tre Madden, a converted linebacker who'd emerged as a legit playmaker, tore his ACL, leaving Curtis McNeal and D.J. Morgan the lone viable tailbacks. USC's Top 22 may be as talented as it was during Pete Carroll's heyday, but reinforcements will be harder to come by.
The biggest story of the spring took place off the field, when Bobby Petrino crashed his motorcycle and ... well, you know the rest. Two days after the Razorbacks' spring game, Arkansas AD Jeff Long announced the hiring of John L. Smith, the former Michigan State head coach who served as a Petrino assistant until last December. Suddenly a guy who was just settling in to his latest job at alma mater Weber State has been handed the keys to an SEC championship contender, albeit on an interim one-year basis.
Smith said he plans to run the same offense as Petrino (Smith's own offensive coordinator once upon a time) and, with star quarterback Tyler Wilson and running back Knile Davis returning, "Nothing is going to slow down," said Smith. "In fact, we're going to speed up. Our expectations are that we're going to battle and fight for a national title." The question: Can Arkansas improve what has been a good-but-not great defense? "We're going to need some freshmen to come in and play," Smith said this week.
Cleveland Browns' first-rounder Brandon Weeden was 28 by the time he played his last college game. His chosen replacement is nearly a full decade younger. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy made a surprising announcement last week when he said Wes Lunt, a true freshman who graduated high school early and enrolled in January, had won the Cowboys' starting job. Based on just one set of spring practices, Lunt, a prototypical 6-4 drop-back passer much like Weeden, beat out junior Clint Chelf and redshirt freshman J.W. Walsh.
After two years of riding the Weeden-to-Justin Blackmon passing tandem, the reigning Fiesta Bowl champs will be starting over with an 18-year-old quarterback and just three of last year's top eight receivers. Both Gundy and offensive coordinator Todd Monken said this spring they don't plan to overhaul their pass-happy offense, though the veteran backfield of Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith will be counted on to deliver more big plays.
For the second straight year, Wisconsin's quarterback job figures to go to a former ACC starter. Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien is not quite the same sure thing as Russell Wilson, who arrived in Madison having started 36 games and thrown for 8,545 yards. Wilson wound up breaking the NCAA pass efficiency record and leading the Badgers back to the Rose Bowl. O'Brien, who graduated in three years and is thus immediately eligible, was ACC rookie of the year in 2010 (2,438 yards, 22 touchdowns, eight interceptions) before regressing and losing his job at one point last season.
Still, O'Brien figures to have a massive leg up come summer. Redshirt freshman walk-on Joel Stave finished spring as Wisconsin's No. 1 quarterback, followed by last year's primary backup, Joe Brennan, who went 2-of-11 for 24 yards in the spring game. Two other contenders were hurt, as is incoming freshman Bart Houston. Much like last year, a seasoned free-agent quarterback could be the difference for a team that returns nearly all its other offensive weapons, including running backs Montee Ball and James White and receiver Jared Abbrederis.
Former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach wasted no time making his imprint at Washington State, as quarterback Jeff Tuel completed his first 15 passes and finished 19-of-21 for 285 yards and a pair of touchdowns in Wazzu's last spring scrimmage. Fellow experienced quarterback Connor Halliday sat out with an injury, but will compete for the starting job in August. "It's not a very complicated offense, there's just a lot of ways to run it," said Tuel.
Leach's offense has undergone one noticeable change since his Texas Tech days: He hired running backs coach Jim Mastro, who, as a Nevada assistant from 2000-10, helped head coach Chris Ault develop the popular Pistol offense. Washington State running backs now frequently line up in Pistol formations, which could add more downhill running and play-action possibilities to Leach's historically pass-driven attack.
Slowly but surely, the SEC blueprint of big, fast defensive linemen is making its way north to the Big Ten. Look at the most recent NFL draft, which saw Illinois' Whitney Mercilus, Michigan State's Jerel Worthy, Penn State's Devon Still and Michigan's Mike Martin all go in the first three rounds. Urban Meyer signed a slew of elite D-linemen in his first recruiting class, but while those players develop, Mark Dantonio's Spartans remain the league's pacesetters.
Besides Worthy, Michigan State returns most starters and key contributors from the nation's sixth-ranked defense, and it showed in last weekend's Green and White Game, which the White won 14-2. Star defensive end William Gholston had two tackles for loss and a safety, bookend Marcus Rush had 2.5 sacks and the Green team managed minus-10 rushing yards. "We have four or five very good defensive ends," said Dantonio, a key to any championship hopeful.
Arguably the nation's most underappreciated quarterback last season was Kansas State's battering ram Collin Klein, who bulldozed his way to 1,141 yards and 27 touchdowns in leading the otherwise offensively challenged Wildcats to a 10-win season. Klein garnered some very modest Heisman buzz at times but was never taken seriously, likely because he was too one-dimensional, throwing for just 1,918 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Well, here was Klein's stat line in last Saturday's spring game: 47-of-56 for 480 yards and six touchdowns (plus five carries for 49 yards). It was just a scrimmage, and he was playing against K-State's second-string defense, but still. Coach Bill Snyder is opening things up for the senior, who called his own plays in the game. "You're going to see us throw the ball a little bit more this year," receiver Curry Sexton told the Kansas City Star. "Collin wants to do it. Collin has the capabilities to do it." In other words, Klein will be even more fun to watch.
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