Seven Spring Questions to Ponder
Can Brady Hoke save Oregon's defense?
The Ducks' 2015 box scores are horrifying in their own special way. A few examples: 42 points allowed to Eastern Washington, 62 allowed to Utah, 45 to Washington State, 55 to Arizona State, 36 to Stanford and 42 to Oregon State to close out the season. They saved the best/worst for last, though, coughing up a 31-0 halftime lead at the Alamo Bowl to a TCU team playing its backup quarterback and missing first-round NFL-er-to-be Josh Doctson. As you might expect, the program shook up its defensive staff once the nuclear fallout settled. And they did it in an unorthodox way. They demoted defensive coordinator Don Pellum to linebacking coach and brought in former Michigan HC Brady Hoke to serve as DC. The last time Hoke served in a coordinating position was back in 1982, when he was coaching high school ball. The Internet failed to exist, then. Whether he can rescue the Ducks from their defensive quagmire will be among the most interesting story-lines to watch in the coming season. By all accounts, Hoke is a good recruiter on the defensive side of the ball. Whether he can implement the pieces he helps bring aboard is another question completely. Oregon should improve from the 13th worst defensive unit in the country—as John Lennon once echoed, it can't get much worse—and their offense figures to score if FCS transfer Dakota Prukop can get up to speed. The rest of the Pac-12 has long-since caught up to the Ducks' high-flying ways, though, and a team like UCLA, USC (assuming they don't have any transition issues from QB Cody Kessler to Max Browne or Sam Darnold) or even Washington offers a more complete offense-defense combo. If Hoke is the answer to Oregon's defensive woes, it will probably take another year or two for us to see it on the field.
Will Don Brown help boost Michigan to title-contention?
Jim Harbaugh's Wolverines are the polar opposites of Mark Helfrich's Ducks. There are offensive questions here—especially at quarterback—but the defense is coming off an all-world run. In 2015, they finished with the 6th best scoring defense in the country. That's including the 42-13 smack-down Ohio State laid on them at the end of the season. After a season-opening hiccup against Utah in which they allowed 24 points, Michigan buckled down to allow just 14 total in their next five games. All that success led to DC D.J. Durkin heading to Maryland to take the Terps' open head coaching gig. Harbaugh then reeled in a gem to replace him in Boston College's Don Brown. Brown coached up the Eagles' defense to third-ranked in the country last season. Unfortunately, the offense did nothing to help out his fantastic unit and the team finished 3-9 overall (0-8 in the ACC). Now with Michigan, he's part of the reason the team is drawing hype as a potential title-contender in 2016. I'm not quite there, yet. I don't discount that late loss to Ohio State. It's a reminder that while the Wolverines have learned to swim, they aren't necessarily at the point where they can leap out of the sea like a Great White Shark and devour the Big Ten. Not yet, anyway, but that should come. Their defense figures to be just as strong in 2016 as it was in 2015, though, if not stronger. Harbaugh's at the helm for his second year and Brown coming on should steady things in the wake of Durkin's departure.
Speaking of the Big Ten, what's left for Ohio State?
Despite a tumultuous 2015 season which saw instability at quarterback, a running back snapping at the coaching staff in public and a weird vibe in general, the Buckeyes lost just one game last year and it would be easy to make the argument that they would have scored more than 0 points against Alabama (no offense, Sparty) in the Playoff. But about that “everybody going to the draft” thing. The Buckeyes sport just three returning defensive starters (and, for that matter, just three on offense). Beyond junior CB Gareon Conley, the secondary is a gaping wasteland of inexperience. Junior CB Damon Webb is the likely replacement for the departed Eli Apple, though sophomore Denzel Ward should also be in that mix. Chris Worley—a safety converted to linebacker—has waited patiently behind Darron Lee the last two seasons and is ready to slide into replace him, while redshirt sophomore DE Sam Hubbard should see increased snaps in the place of Joey Bosa. He actually out-sacked Bosa 6.5 to 5.0 last season, though we'll see if he can maintain that production without Bosa around to draw double teams. Ohio State HC Urban Meyer called this the “year of development” at the start of spring practice. That sounds about right.
I understand that college football coaches can leave whenever they'd like. I don't blame them for searching for the best opportunity available. We all do that. Still, Muschamp spring-boarding from Auburn's defensive coordinator position to the head coaching gig at South Carolina made me feel uncomfortable. Honestly, I couldn't tell you why, other than that there was an inherent cheapness to leaving before the team even played—and won—their bowl game against Memphis. For the Auburn faithful, his departure could be for the best. The team brought LSU DC Kevin Steele on board in Muschamp's place, a hire that's apparently gone over like gangbusters in the locker room. Junior DE Carl Lawson publicly praised Steele for the attitude he brings, saying that he pushes them without “all the screaming.” Shots fired at Muschamp? Not exactly. Some coaches are just screamers. It's why I would have melted down had I ever played football—I can't deal with confrontation. I'm afraid of bees. I would wilt under any sort of verbal barrage. I own a Care Bear. I digress. Auburn's defense showed legitimate signs of improvement last season after a few creaky moments. They ultimately finished out allowing just 26 points per game. Steele isn't a miracle worker, but he brings a level of refreshing professionalism to his role. Not only does he refrain from all the screaming, he also has experience building a title-contending defense from his time at LSU. The Auburn coaching staff has gone through change-after-change-after-change over the last few seasons. Steele should stabilize his side of the ball. The team (probably) won't have to worry about him jumping ship at the end of next season, either. He provides an actual building block, something Muschamp might never have been interested in being.
Will Jimbo Fisher spontaneously combust before the end of the spring?
At this rate, the answer to that is "probably." FSU HC Jimbo Fisher apparently stored up quite a bit of restless energy over the break between his team's Peach Bowl loss to Houston and the start of spring practice. He's come out smoking, with comments ranging from initial intrigue in his team—he's particularly keen on his linebacking corp—to an absolute shredding since practice began during the middle of last week. He went so far as to say that he had “never” had a day like Wednesday's practice in his six years with the team, referring to it as “awful” due to a lack of energy or life. “These young guys, this younger generation,” Fisher said. “These guys need to find out if they like football. They need to figure it out. A lot of guys want to play it, but they don’t like it.” It all sounds vaguely like some sort of speech out of a movie, but unlike Meyer's Buckeyes, Fisher isn't even dealing with much of a new crew—the team returns 16 starters. Perhaps familiarity just breeds complacency. Fisher alluded to as much when he indicated that the Seminoles can't just show up and succeed. It might take longer for this team (veteran-laden as it is) to mesh than Fisher initially thought when he espoused the notion that he wanted the 2016 team not just to win, but to dominate. Of course, it's early and there are oodles of talent here. You have to wonder if Fisher's peeking over at the Clemson machine, though, and whether his initial frustration is at least somewhat due to the fact that the Tigers are the clear class of the conference right now. That's pop psychology on my part, but just as Alabama casts a shadow over the SEC, Clemson's looming over the ACC heading into the coming campaign.
Nassib: Part II?
One of my favorite aspects of college football is in the impact of successful walk-ons. They're like a wave of sunshine in what can be a dark, stormy sports world. Penn State HC James Franklin might not be receiving a Christmas card from former QB Christian Hackenberg any time soon, but the Nittany Lions' head honcho has a knack for bringing out the best in unheralded defenders. Last spring, he singled out Carl Nassib as a player to watch. Nassib went on to record 15 ½ sacks and add a Lombardi Award to his trophy shelf. This spring, the man Franklin's touting as supremely awesome is redshirt freshman DT Ryan Monk. Monk didn't play in 2015 and his player page on the Penn State website is short to the extreme—it even fails to list any high school achievements or his major—but Franklin's already swooning over the for-now mystery man. “This Monk guy, I’m telling you, his work ethic, his attitude, his demeanor, is unbelievable. I’m really, really proud of him," Franklin said. He went on to say that "this Monk guy" is as driven and motivated as any player he's ever been around. Sound like a man-crush? Franklin literally referred to it as a man-crush. He's also compared redshirt junior DT Curtis Cothran to Anthony Zettle, at least in part, and touted redshirt freshman DT Kevin Givens as a potential 2016 playmaker. Givens, by the by, can squat 600 pounds and bench press 410.
How close is Washington to breaking through?
I'm all-in on the Huskies as a dark horse darling to crash the Pac-12 party in 2016. I'll admit to bias here. I lived in Boise during the Broncos' ascension to national prominence and those mid-2000's teams wormed their way into my heart. What can I say, I like the way Chris Petersen coaches football. You could see Washington's development under Petersen last season, from their wobbly beginning to their evolution into a crew that quietly stomped the end of their 2015 schedule, winning their final three games by a combined score of 141-78. In 2015, they trotted out the nation's 13th best scoring defense (mirroring nicely with Oregon's 13th worst). They did so with a relatively young team, too. Now-junior corners Budda Baker and Sidney Jones (both All-Pac-12 First-Teamers in 2015) could have a legitimate crack at All-American honors in 2016. Freshman CB Byron Murphy (four stars out of high school) should also see the field a fair bit, as he offers a set of strong ball-skills. Washington barely creaked over .500 last year, finishing 7-6, but their close to the season impressed and they should sport one of the best defenses in the country in 2016 barring injury. If their offense can keep pace, they are a legitimate threat to presumed conference favorites UCLA, USC and Stanford. Of those three schools, only UCLA returns their starting quarterback.