Hope Springs Eternal: Offense Edition
Birds. Bees. Baseball. Blooming of foliage. Coaches misusing Twitter. Yes, we've reached spring, a time when even Will Muschamp can pretend that everything's happy, except in those dark hours when he opens his depth chart spreadsheet and stares blankly at a South Carolina roster that lost to The Citadel just five months ago. Here are 10 stories to watch (or in some cases, not watch) on offense during spring practice, in no particular order. We'll be checking back in next week with a handful of defensive battles to keep an eye on.
Tyrone Swoopes Continues to Exist
Charlie Strong's come out publicly to say that he hopes to feel comfortable with a potential quarterback by the end of spring, noting that “I hope we're not talking about this in the fall.” We're probably going to be talking about this in the fall. Senior Tyrone Swoopes and sophomore Jerrod Heard are the big names in play here, with early enrollee freshman Shane Buechele (four stars to his name) a dark horse to swoop in should the other two falter. Heard issued one booming warning shot last year when he destroyed Cal for 527 total yards (364 passing, 163 rushing) in the third game of the season. He wouldn't come close to touching those numbers again in any one game, though, ultimately opening the door for Swoopes to start against Baylor in the season-finale. He did OK. He's also a career 56.3% completer with a lackluster 17/12 TD/INT ratio across parts of three seasons. Heard's sometimes electric running ability offers a level of intrigue, but neither quarterback has proven dependable. Strong can put on an optimistic face and say that he wants to find his starter by the end of the spring, but it's possible he won't find one this year, period.
Here's perhaps the trickiest quarterback battle of the spring, for reasons that have little to do with football. It's only natural to pull for the perennially-injured Hill, who's chosen to return for his final year of eligibility after suffering a season-ending Lisfranc fracture against Nebraska in the 2015 season-opener. Freshman Tanner Mangum would come on at the end of that contest to win it on a Hail Mary, one of a number of highlight-reel bombs he uncorked on his way to throwing for 3,337 yards (59.9% completions) with a 23/10 TD/INT ratio. Under normal circumstances, those numbers would be more than enough to give Mangum the edge in spring practice. We aren't working under normal circumstances here. Hill has NFL-level abilities when he's right and beyond that, it's at least somewhat difficult to believe he would agree to return to BYU without at least partial assurance that he will have a legitimate opportunity to take back his job. With the Lisfranc injury, a broken leg and a torn LCL on Hill's ledger, Mangum could well see playing time even if his injury-prone teammate does win the job, though.
Texas A&M Attempts a Memory Wipe
Ah, the Aggies. For a time this offseason, it seemed their entire program might collapse like a dying star. They actually began the 2015 campaign 5-0 before Alabama demolished them 41-23 on October 17. They would finish out 3-3 after that loss to the eventual champs, then watch quarterbacks Kyler Murray and Kyle Allen transfer, then endure a few weeks of Kevin Sumlin-to-the-NFL rumors before the ship finally kind of sort of slightly probably righted itself. At the very least, it stopped taking on water. Trevor Knight transferred over from Oklahoma as a graduate and he'll be duking it out with junior Jake Hubenak to start. Knight at least has the name-value going for him, even if the statistics don't scream “Breakout season on the horizon!” In 10 starts with the Sooners in 2014 (his longest stint as a starter), he threw for 2,300 yards (56.6% completions) and a 14/12 TD/INT ratio. Hubenak actually walked on at Oklahoma State in 2013—he received no scholarship offers—before transferring to Blinn Junior College for the 2014 season. At which point, he went crazy, throwing for a sizzling 4,052 yards with a Brandon Doughty-ish 47/9 TD/INT ratio. Then onward to Texas A&M for 2015. He saw only limited action last season with the Aggies. Knight probably has the initial edge between the two, just because of his experience against FBS competition, but there's little in his pedigree that would suggest he's more than an average quarterback.
USC, Alabama and Stanford Play the Long Game at Quarterback
Charlie Strong might be hopeful that Swoopes or Heard can pull away with the Longhorns' starting gig by the end of spring. Nick Saban, David Shaw and Clay Helton are taking decidedly longer views. Saban, in particular, is notorious for waiting until the last minute to name his starting quarterback. Twas the case with Blake Sims in 2014, twas the case with Jacob Coker in 2015, and twill likely be the case with Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Blake Barnett. Bateman attempted 52 passes last season and also played in all 15 contests as a long-snapper, which probably gives him the edge over five-star QB Barnett (considered to be the second-best pro-style QB in the country for the 2015 cycle, just behind UCLA's Josh Rosen). Barnett's the more interesting player, though, simply because of his immense upside. Unless Saban surprises us, we'll probably be waiting this one out until near the opening kickoff against USC. So, cool segue, Trojan HC Clay Helton indicated earlier in March that barring a considerable gap in play during the spring, he'll wait until August to name his starting gunslinger. Redshirt junior QB Max Browne's a strong-armed lad who spent the last few years backing up Cody Kessler and owns the edge on experience—always a nice thing to own an edge on, in more or less all avenues of life—but redshirt freshman Sam Darnold's a whole other beast when it comes to athletic ability out on the run. The obvious play here would be to start Browne, who offers a more seamless fit with what USC was doing offensively in 2015. But again, this probably won't be decided until August. Ditto with David Shaw and Stanford. Shaw's gone on the record saying that the Cardinal won't be officially naming a starting quarterback until 10 days before they open the season against Kansas State. And if you just read that sentence and had the thought “Stanford-Kansas State is a weird opening match-up,” yes, yes it is. Anyway, Keller Chryst (son of Wisconsin HC Paul Chryst) should be considered the strong favorite to start here, with Ryan Burns the only real candidate to beat him out.
Derrick Henry's Ghost Lingers as Scarbrough Looks to Take Over
And you thought Derrick Henry had galloped off to the NFL. Well, technically he has, but you wouldn't know it from listening to Alabama's crew talk about five-star sophomore RB Bo Scarbrough. DT Jarran Reed literally called the 6-foot-2, 240-pounder “another Derrick Henry,” while TE O.J. Howard (Henry's former roommate) told BamaOnLine prior to the Cotton Bowl that “if Bo wants to do it, I think Bo has a chance to be like Derrick Henry, and that's winning the Heisman and everything.” That's a whole lot of pressure for a back who tore his ACL last April and carried the ball just 18 times during the 2015 campaign. The bulldozer-of-a-back has the talent to make good on the boasts of others. We should all just be careful not to drown in the massive wave of hype before he's seen any sort of extended run.
The Battle to Replace Zeke Using Four Humans
Unlike with Scarbrough and Henry, nobody's tossing around Ezekiel Elliott comparisons for the Buckeyes' deep stable of running backs. One name you won't be seeing in spring ball for Urban Meyer is junior Curtis Samuel, who underwent surgery to repair a toe injury suffered against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. He'll likely be sidelined through most (if not all) of spring ball. Redshirt sophomore Mike Weber's the probable name to jump through the open door. He impressed last spring as a freshman and looked like he was in the mix to earn backup carries behind Zeke for the 2015 campaign, but alas, a torn meniscus ultimately forced him to take a redshirt. The 5-foot-10, 205-pound back was Rivals' No. 59 recruit for the 2015 cycle. Antonio Williams enrolled early and ranked as the No. 3 back in the country for the 2016 class. He could make a push, but probably won't see starter carries unless he comes in polished. That leaves us senior Bri'onte Dunn. That he's the most experienced in this lot is almost completely irrelevant. He's logged a mere 49 carries for 291 yards in his three years in the program. Samuel (once healthy) and Weber are my favorites to see extended carries in the coming season, though Meyer used Samuel as a receiver, back and returner last year—he might see an increase in touches without actually turning into the focus back here.
Foot Woes, Marijuana Candy and Opportunity: The Johnny Jefferson Story
Baylor junior RB Johnny Jefferson finds himself in an enviable position through almost no doing of his own. First, Shock Linwood went down with a Jones fracture in his right foot in December. He won't be taking part in spring festivities. That's understandable. Less understandable, the loss of Devin Chafin, who was arrested for marijuana possession last week—per reports, he legally obtained the wacky tobbacky and its less wacky brethren, marijuana candy, in Colorado, but found himself being arrested in Oklahoma, anyway. Take note of those state borders, friends. HC Art Briles immediately suspended him. So it returns to Jefferson, now. The 5-foot-10, 210-pound junior rushed for 1,000 yards (7.4 YPC) and eight touchdowns on just 136 carries in 2015. Chafin should be able to extricate himself from that smokey doghouse eventually, but it's impossible to tell just how effective Linwood will be in his return from injury. You'd like to think he'll come roaring back at 100%, but even if he does, Jefferson's in a spot to earn himself time-share carries at the least.
Everything Happening at Wide Receiver Behind K.D. Cannon
While Baylor's running game might be in a state of disarray right now, they're at least set at No. 1 wideout. Junior K.D. Cannon slots in nicely to replace the draft-bound Corey Coleman. The water on the depth chart becomes more murky beneath him. Receivers Ishmael Zamora and Chris Platt combined to catch 20 passes for 287 yards and three touchdowns during their freshmen seasons in 2015. Those two should see increased roles as we wind through spring and summer, but they can't rest easy, not with the way Art Briles recruits on offense. Devin Duvernay ranked as Rivals' No. 8 WR for the 2016 class (No. 52 overall) while Tren'Davian Dixon ranks as the outlet's No. 24 player at the position (No. 124 overall). Zamora and Platt are in position to win the second and third receiver roles in Briles' high-powered offense. Duvernay, in particular, has the sort of rare speed and explosivity to push them early.
Happy Happy Transfer Fun Time
We previously looked at Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight in recapping Texas A&M's weirdo season, but he's far from the only notable name. Perhaps my favorite is grad transfer WR Gehrig Dieter, who moved over to Alabama from Bowling Green this offseason. The move largely slid into the college football abyss, but overlook Dieter at your own peril. With Calvin Ridley already set to explode as a sophomore and Dieter (94-1033-10 last season) now in the fold as a potential strong possession threat, all Saban, Kiffin and company need is to find their quarterback. If, say, Blake Barnett can cash in on some of his potential, it's not impossible to imagine Alabama taking far more risks throwing the ball in 2016 than they did in 2015. That's assuming the Tide coaching staff actually lets their quarterback drive the offensive car. Far from a given, but Kiffin did open the offense up for Jacob Coker during the team's championship run.
That Ticking Noise is Probably a Metaphorical Bomb
LSU's offense never fails to give me a headache. I just want to love it so, so badly, yet it's so, so flawed. Les Miles may well end up The Coach Who Wasted Leonard Fournette. More than that, though, he was almost fired in late November and could well be on his way out (for reals this time) if he can't push the Tigers to the Playoff in the coming year. As tends to be the case with Les Miles teams, the quarterbacking situation remains a quagmire at best and a nightmare at worst. Anthony Jennings transferred out earlier this month, leaving Brandon Harris and Purdue transfer Danny Etling as the only two realistic names in this uninspiring battle. I like parts of Harris' game—he throws a nice deep ball and can be useful in play-action situations—but even for a BH apologist like myself, it's difficult to see him as the young man to push LSU to the promised land. As for Etling, his best season at Purdue came during his freshman year in 2013, when he threw for 1,690 yards with a 10/7 TD/INT ratio. While Alabama looks on track to piece together a potentially stronger offense than it did during its championship run, LSU continues to offer Fournette handicap after handicap. If he jumps to the NFL after this season, it's difficult to blame him. Unless Etling or Harris can truly develop into an arm capable of tangoing with the big boys of the SEC, legitimate title-optimism might be a pipe dream for the Tigers.