Big changes for Alabama, Ohio State among 10 spring football storylines –

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It’s believed the first spring football practice was held at Harvard in 1889. “The football squad was practicing on Jarvis Field yesterday afternoon,” a reporter for the Harvard Crimson wrote on March 15, 1889. “The work consisted of kicking, tackling, and falling on the ball.”

Spring practice isn’t quite that simple today. Harvard didn’t play a spring game in 1889 before 90,000 fans and a TV audience, let alone pick up its ball and go to IMG Academy. (To be fair, Michigan’s punters could use a falling-on-the-ball drill.)

Still, the spring represents football at its simplest form more than any other time of the year. It’s coaches getting 15 practices of techniques, fundamentals and teaching to a wide variety of players without worrying about preparing for a game in a couple days.

For many players, spring is their best shot at playing in the fall, or in some cases, even being on the roster. The nudge out the door by coaches to underperforming players inevitably happens to bring in the fresh crop of players. That, too, is a time-honored spring tradition.

The simplicity of spring football often butts heads with the reality of 2016. Since the public craves information out of their favorite teams’ spring practice, every nugget gets dissected even though we rarely see (or totally understand) what’s truly happening at these practices. Heck, the Harvard Crimson reporter from 1889 might be banned by his university today for reporting that players fell on the ball at a closed practice.

But there is a beast to be fed so we in the media come up with lists. Thus, here are spring practice storylines to follow for the next two months.

1. Recovery of injured stars: Unfortunately, 2015 became the Year of the Injury around college football. Elite players constantly went down with season-ending ailments. Georgia running back Nick Chubb, Baylor quarterback Seth Russell, UCLA defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes, Notre Dame running back Tarean Folston and Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams are among the injured stars planning to return in 2016.

A lot of these players will take it easy with spring activities. That’s the case for Chubb, who blew out his left knee last season. “I doubt very seriously he will be out there participating in any drills,” Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity said. “He’s out there running around with guys but off to the side. I think his rehab is on schedule. Everyone’s encouraged by his progress so far.”

At Baylor, Russell (fractured neck) and his injury replacement, Jarrett Stidham (broken ankle), were on the field when spring practice started last week. Russell told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram he was millimeters away from not walking again. Russell and Stidham won’t participate in contact drills this spring. Still, Art Briles felt good enough about his quarterbacks that he moved Charles Johnson back to wide receiver after he was Baylor’s quarterback in the Russell Athletic Bowl.

2. Notre Dame’s multiple good QBs: An injury created arguably the most fascinating quarterback competition this offseason when Notre Dame starts spring practice March 16. After Malik Zaire broke his ankle in Week 2, DeShone Kizer took the job and ran with it by throwing for 2,884 yards, 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, plus running for 10 more scores.

Kizer was so solid as Notre Dame went 10-3 that it’s easy to forget Zaire was supposed to finally become Brian Kelly’s much-needed reliable quarterback. Zaire was 19 of 22 for 313 yards and three touchdowns and no interceptions against Texas in Week 1. Notre Dame’s quarterback situation, once a question mark, has reached the point that Kelly plans to redshirt promising sophomore quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

“We sacrificed his redshirt season (in 2015) by playing,” Kelly told Fox Sports. “The goal would be to go in this year to redshirt him. That’s why it was very important to get Ian Book out of California. He’s a very proficient passer. He’s going to be a long-reliever for us. He’s a very smart kid that can take that position (third-string) while we redshirt Brandon. And then we’ll let those two kids, DeShone and Malik, compete old-fashion (for the starting job). It’ll be wide open and let the best man win.”

3. Alabama’s QB competition — again: Finding a new quarterback has become a rite of passage for Nick Saban. For the third straight year, Alabama will have a first-year starting quarterback. Saban had three quarterbacks in his first seven years with the Crimson Tide.

Given how Blake Sims and Jake Coker performed the past two years, there’s no reason to think Alabama will drop off with its next quarterback. But there’s still the process of learning who he is when spring practice starts March 11. Cooper Bateman, Blake Barnett and David Cornwell are in the mix. Barnett was the No. 2 pro-style quarterback recruit in 2015 per 247Sports, while Cornwell was No. 4 in 2014 and Bateman was No. 3 in 2013.

Bateman made a surprise start against Ole Miss last season and completed 11-of 14-passes for 87 yards with one interception before getting replaced by Coker. Cornwell struggled during preseason camp last year. Departing Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland described Barnett this way to “He’s going to be a monster in college football.”

Before Signing Day, Barnett wrote on Twitter: “I’ll keep it simple. I got 16 reasons why you should commit to UA. The chances of there being 17 reasons next year is likely.” He was referring to Alabama’s 16 claimed national championships. Will Barnett be the QB gunning for No. 17? Stay tuned next summer or fall, when Alabama’s quarterback decisions typically get revealed.

Will the Tide roll behind Cooper Bateman as starting quarterback in 2016? (USATSI)
Will the Tide roll behind Cooper Bateman as starting quarterback in 2016? (USATSI)

4. Ohio State’s youth movement: Urban Meyer has called 2016 “the year of development” for the Buckeyes. And with good reason. Per, the Buckeyes will have 44 players with freshman eligibility in 2016, meaning more than half of the team has never played a college game.

That’s not ideal spacing between recruiting classes. The Buckeyes got surprised by losing so many early entrants to the NFL (nine) and they redshirted 21 of 25 players in 2015. Meyer has said he hopes to play 18 of the 25 freshmen Ohio State signed in February. It probably won’t be that high, but Meyer seems committed to playing a lot of true freshmen again. Only three starters are back on defense: defensive end Tyquan Lewis, middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan and cornerback Gareon Conley.

Ohio State’s spring practice, which starts March 8, will be an important one for Meyer to develop younger players. The Buckeyes have recruited so well that they don’t rebuild, they reload. But even Ohio State will get challenged in 2016 with a reloading like this.

5. Clemson’s depth on defense: Deshaun Watson and the Clemson offense could be scary good in 2016. But the bigger story for the Tigers, who started spring practice this week, is depth on defense. How well Clemson has recruited and developed players will get tested in 2016. Dabo Swinney has said Clemson got lucky it stayed healthy on defense in 2015 to reach the national championship game.

Now Clemson must replace six defensive starters lost early to the NFL: defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, safeties Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green, cornerback Mackensie Alexander and linebacker Travis Blanks. Throw in a couple players whose eligibility expired and the Tigers’ defense is virtually brand new again in 2016.

Clemson’s defense heard this talk a year ago when eight starters left, and the unit more than held its own. Still, linebacker Ben Boulware, cornerback Cordrea Tankersley and defensive tackle Carlos Watkins need help. Some names to watch to possibly replace Lawson and Dodd at defensive end: Austin Bryant and Richard Yeargin.

6. Transfer QB watch: Last season, a transfer quarterback won the national championship (Alabama’s Coker) and another transfer reached the semifinals (Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield). Here are some transfer QBs to watch in 2016:

* Trevor Knight (Texas A&M): Will the Aggies’ “trade” of Kyler Murray to Oklahoma for Knight pay off in a crucial year for Kevin Sumlin? Knight often struggled with the Sooners, but he is a veteran.

* John O’Korn (Michigan): The Houston transfer sat out last year and is in position to possibly become the Wolverines’ starter. O’Korn threw for 3,117 yards and 28 touchdowns as a freshman but lost his job to Greg Ward Jr. the next year.

* Dakota Prukop (Oregon): The Ducks do love FCS transfer quarterbacks. One year after Vernon Adams, it’s Prukop, who was a dual-threat star last season at Montana State. He also had offers from Alabama and Michigan. How does Prukop perform at a higher level?

* Davis Webb (Colorado): Webb had a promising first two seasons at Texas Tech (44 touchdowns and 22 interceptions) but lost his job to Patrick Mahomes. Webb, a grad transfer, won’t be in Boulder until this summer.

7. ACC’s new, experienced coaches: For years, the ACC has often been No. 2 in NFL talent behind only the SEC. Coaching? Not so much. That’s what made the ACC’s recent coaching hires so intriguing.

Miami’s Mark Richt, Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente, Virginia’s Bronco Mendenhall and Syracuse’s Dino Babers have all won 10 games in a season as a head coach. On paper — a necessary qualifier — the ACC couldn’t have asked for better hires at those schools.

“I was extremely pleased with the result of those four coaching searches,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said. “I think our ADs recognize that if you’re going to compete, you better have really strong coaches and really strong leadership.”

Most eyes will be on Richt, who transitions from Georgia fans wanting championships to Miami fans who right now would just take their first ACC Championship Game appearance. As Richt shapes the Hurricanes over time, it will be interesting to see if “The U” can actually return.

8. SEC’s changing faces at coordinator: It’s Installation Spring around the SEC. Ten of the 14 teams have a new defensive coordinator, offensive coordinator, or both. Ole Miss, Florida, Arkansas and Vanderbilt are the only SEC schools bringing both coordinators back in 2016.

The changes within the conference may be felt the most on defense, where the SEC has eight new defensive coordinators. LSU and Tennessee may have made the best defensive hires by landing Wisconsin’s Dave Aranda and Penn State’s Bob Shoop, respectively. Georgia, South Carolina and Missouri now have defensive-minded head coaches.

At Alabama, the expectation is Jeremy Pruitt won’t miss a beat by returning to run Nick Saban’s defense. Still, Kirby Smart and Saban knew each other so well for so long that it allowed Alabama to run smoothly.

9. How good can Houston be? It’s Houston’s turn to play the expectations game. Tom Herman has a nice raise that pays him $3 million a year. The Cougars return 14 starters from a team that went 13-1 and beat Florida State in the Peach Bowl. And they just signed what’s believed to be the highest-ranked recruiting class ever by a school from a Group of Five conference.

The expectations are going to be high for Houston, which starts spring practice March 7. Better to be high than low. Still, human nature tells us complacency can occur after success. If the Cougars need any motivation, all they must do is look at Week 1 on their schedule: A showdown against Oklahoma. Win that game and Houston will be making even more noise nationally.

10. Spring games: If you’re craving football, the first spring game arrives March 18 (Baylor) and the last ones are April 30 (Oregon, Army). In a sign of the times, you can even watch an open spring practice for a team that won’t play football in 2016 (UAB on March 5).

The busiest spring game day is Saturday, April 16, which features 15 spring games, including eight from the SEC. The past two national champions, Alabama and Ohio State, both hold their spring games April 16. There’s even a night spring game (UCF) on that date because of a scheduling conflict with baseball.

Georgia will have its first spring game under Kirby Smart on April 16, and he’s asking 93,000 fans to sell out the stadium. “Come to G-Day, make your observations,” Smart said, according to the Macon Telegraph. “Post them on your Internet sites, do whatever you gotta do. Tell me how crazy I am on email.”

Ah, nothing says spring football in 2016 like schools comparing spring game attendance numbers. By all means, enjoy these glorified scrimmages but do so under two conditions: 1) Don’t assume you know much from watching vanilla practices; and 2) Don’t pay for admission. Spring games are a gesture to the community, not for making an extra buck.

If 127 years of spring football has taught us anything, this annual ritual needs less scrutiny, not more.

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