10 Bold Predictions for 2017 Spring Football
How will Jalen Hurts and Alabama adjust to another new offensive coordinator?John Bazemore/Associated Press
College football has truly become a year-round sport. Obviously, the 12-game regular season and the College Football Playoff get the most attention, but games naturally segue into the homestretch of recruiting season, which is followed closely by spring football.
Multiple teams across the nation have already jumped into spring workouts, with more and more jumping into the fray with each passing day. The 2016 season, which ended with the Clemson Tigers hoisting their first national championship trophy in 35 years, is already a memory. Graduation and NFL draft departures have changed rosters and created questions, as they do every year.
Spring football is about answering those questions, or at least trying to. Here’s a look at 10 bold predictions that should unfold on football practice fields and stadiums across America this spring.
Alabama’s Offense Will Shift Under Brian Daboll
Bo Scarbrough will be a major force in Alabama’s offense.Butch Dill/Associated Press
Over the last three months, the Alabama Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator spot has doubled as a revolving door. Following three productive but at times tumultuous seasons in Tuscaloosa, Lane Kiffin accepted Florida Atlantic’s head coaching position. He was originally expected to coach through the end of the College Football Playoff, but instead he parted ways following a Peach Bowl win over Washington.
Nick Saban promoted former Southern California coach Steve Sarkisian to Kiffin’s spot for the national-title-game loss to Clemson, but Sarkisian left to become the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator. Saban turned to the NFL and the Bill Belichick coaching tree, plucking New England Patriots assistant Brian Daboll as his third coordinator in as many months.
Kiffin turned Alabama’s pro-style offense into more of a blended up-tempo attack with spread elements, although freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts had ups and downs in his first season as a college football starter. He threw for 2,780 yards with 23 touchdowns and nine interceptions, completing 62.8 percent of his passes, and added 954 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. However, he passed for a combined 188 yards and a touchdown in the playoffs.
Can Daboll, not known for his quarterback work, help Hurts become more polished? The guess is he’ll lean more on a bruising running game led by Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough, who are both capable of carrying an offense. Will this become fully apparent in spring? Maybe not publicly, but the building blocks will begin falling into place.
Dante Booker Will Become Ohio State’s Middle Linebacker
Dante Booker will become the man in the middle of Ohio State’s defense.Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
The Ohio State Buckeyes have a strong nucleus returning from a young team that made the College Football Playoff, but one of the biggest holes is at middle linebacker. Raekwon McMillan was excellent in the middle of the Buckeyes defense, and it’s no surprise he left early for the NFL draft.
Replacing him won’t be easy, but Urban Meyer and his staff have recruited well and have a number of talented options on the roster. One of the most intriguing is Dante Booker. Booker began 2016 as a starting outside linebacker but suffered a knee injury in the second game against Tulsa, missing six games. He couldn’t displace freshman Jerome Baker as the starter upon his return and finished with 22 tackles on the season.
Booker’s experience and talent makes him a natural choice to slide into the middle and replace McMillan as a veteran presence. Expect him to prove it to Ohio State’s defensive staff before spring wraps up.
Hunter Johnson Will Make an Impact in Clemson’s Offense
Hunter Johnson can make some noise as a Clemson freshman.Credit: Scout.com
When Deshaun Watson connected with Hunter Renfrow for the game-winning touchdown with one second left in the national title game, the Clemson Tigers reached the top of the college football mountain for the first time since 1981. Staying there? That’s another story entirely.
Watson, the Heisman Trophy runner-up, led a raft of NFL draft departures. His loss will be felt most acutely. He threw for 4,591 yards with 41 touchdowns against 17 interceptions, a year after becoming the first college player to rush for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in the same season. Coach Dabo Swinney will begin a competition to replace him this spring, and while junior Kelly Bryant, Watson’s backup, will begin as the No. 1 quarterback, his ascension into the starting role is far from assured.
Redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper and early enrollee Hunter Johnson are also in the mix. It’ll be fascinating to see how Johnson, a 4-star prospect and the nation’s No. 5 QB prospect per Scout.com, fits in. He is a very accurate passer with a strong arm and is also capable of picking up yardage with his feet, much like Watson was.
Don’t expect Clemson to name a starter after spring practice, but examining how the Tigers handled their last quarterback vacancy could be instructive. Three years ago, Watson arrived as a highly touted early enrollee, but Clemson went with experienced backup Cole Stoudt as the starter. Watson got his feet wet at Georgia, took over at Florida State and became the starter in the fourth game against North Carolina.
It wouldn’t be shocking to see Bryant keep the role through spring practice, but Johnson will push him hard and make a name for himself this spring, setting himself up for a fall coronation as the starter.
Jacques Patrick Will Become Florida State’s Feature Back
Jacques Patrick has a big opportunity in Florida State’s offense.STEVEN CANNON/Associated Press
The Florida State Seminoles have a strong nucleus returning from a 10-3 team and hope to retake the ACC title from Clemson’s grasp after two seasons as the Atlantic Division runner-up. But there are questions that Jimbo Fisher and his staff must answer before the Seminoles can overtake the Tigers. Who’ll replace Dalvin Cook as the offense’s feature back? Cook is off to the NFL after rushing for 1,765 yards and 19 touchdowns as a junior.
He leaves a major big-play void in FSU’s backfield. Who’ll fill it? Junior Jacques Patrick is a strong candidate. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry as a sophomore, rushing for 350 yards and four touchdowns in a reserve role. The 6’2”, 231-pound back bashed South Florida for 124 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries.
Patrick has the experience and frame to thrive in Florida State’s offense. He’ll face a challenge from early enrollee Cam Akers, but expect him to grab the lion’s share of carries for himself by impressing this spring.
Jarrett Stidham Will Seize Auburn’s Starting QB Role
Jarrett Stidham is the quarterback Auburn needs in its offense.Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
The Auburn Tigers trudged through an up-and-down 8-5 season in 2016 largely because they never found the consistency Gus Malzahn needed at quarterback. Sean White, Jeremy Johnson and John Franklin III combined for 2,192 yards and 11 touchdowns against six interceptions, but none was a true difference-maker.
That makes Jarrett Stidham’s arrival so important. Stidham looked like the heir apparent in Baylor’s offense as a freshman but transferred away from a tumultuous situation and didn’t play last fall, opting to preserve a year of eligibility. White and Franklin will return, but Stidham is immediately the most talented signal-caller on the roster.
Expect him to emerge from a three-way competition for the starting role and quickly get to work on getting the most out of Auburn’s hurry-up, no-huddle offense in a crucial season for Malzahn’s Auburn future.
Mark Andrews Will Emerge as Baker Mayfield’s Favorite Target
Mark Andrews has shown he can be a very productive receiver in Oklahoma’s offense.Butch Dill/Associated Press
The Oklahoma Sooners just missed the College Football Playoff last fall but scored a pair of Heisman Trophy finalists in quarterback Baker Mayfield and wide receiver Dede Westbrook, a prolific passing game combination that hooked up for 1,524 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns via Westbrook’s hands and quick feet.
Westbrook has graduated, and now Mayfield, who returns for his senior season, must find a new top target.
The clear No. 1 option? Junior Mark Andrews. Andrews has 14 touchdowns in his first two seasons and has shown big-play ability.
Now he needs to find consistency. He had four touchdowns in the first three games of 2016 but just three the rest of the season. With Westbrook gone, the door is wide open for Andrews to be the man in OU’s passing attack. Expect him to walk through and make himself comfortable this spring.
Michigan’s Top Receiver Will Be Donovan Peoples-Jones
Donovan Peoples-Jones is already on campus and ready to thrive in Michigan’s offense.Tony Ding/Associated Press
Michigan hopes to build on 2016’s 10-3 record, which saw the Wolverines compete strongly for a College Football Playoff berth until fading in mid-November. Michigan returns only five starters across the board, although one of them is quarterback Wilton Speight.
Speight has some work ahead in spring practice to establish rhythm with new starting receivers. The graduation of Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson, who combined for 92 catches, 1,362 yards and nine touchdowns, means he’ll need to invest some time, as no receiver with more than 16 catches or 183 yards is set to return.
Is the cupboard bare? No. Not at all. This is a prime chance for young players to step into starring roles. Expect true freshman receiver and early enrollee Donovan Peoples-Jones to jump to the front of the line. Peoples-Jones is a 5-star prospect and the nation’s top receiver, per Scout.com. He stands 6’3”, 190 pounds and possesses excellent athleticism, speed and leaping ability.
Expect him to excel in spring practice and lock down a starting role heading into summer workouts.
Saeed Blacknall Will Be Penn State’s Top Receiver
Saeed Blacknall is ready to become Penn State’s top receiver.Michael Conroy/Associated Press
The Penn State Nittany Lions broke through in James Franklin’s third season, winning the Big Ten title and narrowly missing the College Football Playoff thanks in part to a high-powered offense. Quarterback Trace McSorley progressed throughout the year and passed for 3,614 yards with 29 touchdowns against eight interceptions, including a 384-yard, four-touchdown effort in the Big Ten title game comeback over Wisconsin.
However, he’ll enter spring seeking a new No. 1 target in the passing game after Chris Godwin (who caught 59 balls for 982 yards and 11 touchdowns) left for the NFL draft. DaeSean Hamilton (who had 34 catches for 506 yards and a touchdown in 2016) is the leading returning receiver, but the most intriguing candidate is junior Saeed Blacknall.
Blacknall made only 15 catches for 347 yards and three touchdowns (making zero or one receptions in 10 games) but had a huge Big Ten title game, going for 155 yards and three scores on six catches. He has the skills to fill Godwin’s role as the big-play receiver. Expect Blacknall to build chemistry with McSorley and establish himself as the Nittany Lions’ No. 1 wideout by spring’s end.
Texas QB Shane Buechele Will Emerge as a Star
Shane Buechele can take the next step toward stardom in Texas’ offense.Orlin Wagner/Associated Press
Tom Herman has a big task ahead with the Texas Longhorns. Herman was the most sought-after candidate on the coaching carousel, but he’ll need to succeed quickly after watching Charlie Strong lose his job following three losing seasons in as many years.
There is some solid raw material in Austin, most notably sophomore quarterback Shane Buechele. Buechele looked like a star early on, throwing for 262 yards per game and six touchdowns with one interception in a 2-0 start. But he and the Longhorns faded late; he threw two touchdowns against five picks in an ugly three-game losing streak to end the season, including a loss to Kansas that ultimately sealed Strong’s fate.
A new staff is a new start for Buechele, and it’s worth noting Herman’s no-huddle fast-paced scheme turned Greg Ward Jr. into a star at Houston. Buechele has the arm and mobility to grow into the job quickly under steadier hands. Here’s guessing he solidifies the starting role this spring and shows us how he can be a star and a potential Heisman Trophy candidate.
Will Grier Will Be a Star at West Virginia
Will Grier is ready for a fresh start at West Virginia.L.G. Patterson/Associated Press/Associated Press
West Virginia gave Dana Holgorsen some job security with a 10-3 season in 2016, the Mountaineers’ best since joining the Big 12. Holgo wants to show it was no fluke, but to do so, he needs to find a capable leader for his offense.
Fortunately, he has a strong candidate in the wings in Will Grier. Grier looked like the next great Florida quarterback as a freshman in 2015, leading the Gators to a 6-0 start while throwing for 1,204 yards and 10 touchdowns. But his season (and, as it turned out, his UF career) was scuttled by a positive NCAA test for performance-enhancing drugs.
Grier landed at West Virginia, and it looks like a good fit. He has great potential as a pro-style quarterback but is also capable of scrambling for yardage. Grier will be the clear starting quarterback in Morgantown this spring, and expect him to establish himself as a star entering this fall.
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