It’s simultaneously the greatest and most frustrating part of college football. Every year coaches and fans have to say goodbye to a quarter (or a fifth, depending how liberally a coach uses his redshirts) of the roster.
But that, of course, makes way for new faces to step up during spring practices, injecting a dose of excitement to workouts that are still six months away from the start of the season. The ascent for new starters and some new stars begins now.
With almost every program’s practices now underway, let’s take a look at the 10 most important position battles of the spring.
One quick note before we dive in: This list easily could be filled with only quarterback battles. QB races are inherently interesting, and this offseason in particular offers many intriguing competitions.
I’ve limited the list to just the two highest-profile quarterback battles, so for honorable mention’s sake, here are a few more: Georgia, Florida, Florida State, Michigan, Baylor, LSU, Notre Dame, Ole Miss, UCLA, Oklahoma, Boise State, South Carolina, Louisville and West Virginia.
Ohio State defensive end
While all the focus is on Ohio State’s quarterbacks, that competition won’t begin in earnest until the summer. For now, J.T. Barrett can’t run and Braxton Miller can’t throw, as both signal callers are recovering from injuries. So as Cardale Jones competes with himself, the biggest position battle in Columbus will take place among the guys trying to sack Jones.
All-America Joey Bosa has one defensive end spot locked down, but the other spot is up for grabs. After Noah Spence was suspended and subsequently ruled ineligible, Steve Miller and Rashad Frazier stepped in to combine for three sacks and 10 tackles for loss. Both players are gone now, so the Buckeyes need someone new to step up and help maintain their defensive line dominance.
Jalyn Holmes likely enters as the favorite after playing in nine games as a true freshman in 2014. A former four-star recruit, Holmes made 11 tackles last year with one tackle for loss and brings a strong mix of size and speed.
After bouncing from linebacker to tight end and back to linebacker, redshirt freshman Sam Hubbard could finally find his spot at defensive end thanks to his quickness. Sophomore Tyquan Lewis has gotten snaps with the first-team defense this spring and earned some playing time over Holmes in the title game.
Predicted starter: Holmes
The natural assumption is that Jake Coker should succeed Blake Sims as the Crimson Tide’s starter. Then again, the natural assumption last offseason was that Coker would be AJ McCarron’s successor. So we’ll hold off before writing Coker’s name in the QB1 spot in pen.
That said, Coker enters into a much better situation this year than last year. For starters, he’s in Tuscaloosa for spring practices. As a graduate transfer, Coker had to finish his degree at Florida State last year before joining the Crimson Tide, limiting him to just the summer to learn the offense and compete for the starting job. And while Sims had spent four years in Nick Saban’s program, none of Coker’s competition this year boasts as much experience.
Junior Alec Morris has impressive arm strength, while Cooper Bateman is a dual-threat option. Then there are the younger wildcards: redshirt freshmen David Cornwell and true freshman early-enrollee Blake Barnett. Still, with a full year learning the offense and decent success when he got playing time last year, Coker should finally get the starting job—though don’t expect Saban to make it official until the last minute.
Predicted starter: Coker
Clemson defensive tackles
The nation’s No. 1 defense in yards allowed per play last year returns just four starters, and zero from the defensive line, so defensive coordinator Brent Venables will have to earn his money next season. With Shaq Lawson poised to develop into a star at defensive end, the bigger uncertainty is among the tackles, where the Tigers lose Grady Jarrett.
Despite the turnover, the main question may be which of the three starting-caliber defensive tackles earn the two spots. Sophomore Scott Pagano had 10 tackles last year despite playing just 54 snaps, 325-pound senior D.J. Reader can plug holes and take on double teams while still moving well, and junior Carlos Watkins should be ready to build on a promising freshman campaign now that he's nearly two years removed from a car accident that ended his 2013 season early.
The unit won’t carry much experience into this season, but there’s no shortage of talent.
Predicted starters: Reader and Watkins
Michigan running back
Michigan’s quarterback battle is certainly worthy of attention and will get even more interesting once four-star recruit Zach Gentry joins the mix this summer. But while the QB race could be framed as a choice between three less-than-ideal options, there's plenty of talent for coach Jim Harbaugh to sort through at running back.
Derrick Green’s numbers normally would make him a near lock to be the Wolverines’ top back this spring. Slimmed down and swifter, Green gained 471 yards on 5.7 yards per carry through six games before a broken clavicle ended his season. But with former five-star recruit Ty Isaac now eligible after sitting out a year following his transfer from USC, Michigan has two very capable threats in the backfield. Isaac gained 5.9 yards per carry as a freshman for the Trojans, so he should push Green for carries.
Both Isaac and Green will likely see the field, but Harbaugh’s Stanford teams typically featured a clear No. 1 back. Only one Michigan running back has topped 1,000 yards since Mike Hart’s senior season in 2007. Without a dominant quarterback to lead the offense, whoever wins the bulk of the carries should be able to end the drought.
Predicted starter: Isaac
Stanford defensive ends
It’s become the usual trend for Stanford that playmakers graduate and questions emerge as to whether the Cardinal can reload, only for the next group of playmakers to emerge just as capable as the players they replaced. Stanford defied expectations overcoming the losses of Harbaugh, quarterback Andrew Luck and more recently linebackers Shane Skov and Trent Murphy. With only four returning starters from a defense that allowed 4.1 yards per play last season, the doubts have re-emerged. So who might step up this time?
Stanford loses its entire defensive line, including starting defensive ends Henry Anderson and Blake Lueders (10 sacks and 20 tackles for loss combined in 2014). With senior Luke Kaumatule taking reps at linebacker, junior Nate Lohn has the most experience as an end after appearing in nine games and making one tackle last season. Solomon Thomas brings a lot of promise to the unit as a top-40 recruit in the class of 2014. After redshirting last year, he should see the field in ’15 but will miss some time this spring with a toe injury. Aziz Shittu will likely earn one of the starting spots, but he is unavailable for spring practice as he continues to recover from a knee injury. That gives extra time for junior Jordan Watkins and sophomore Harrison Phillips to try to impress.
Predicted starters: Shittu and Thomas
Being the returning starter doesn’t count for much when your final performance was a 57-yard outing in a 31-7 blowout loss. Tyrone Swoopes is in no position to rest on his laurels, so he’ll have to battle redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard to hang on to his starting job. Although he had solid performances against UCLA, Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa State and Oklahoma State, Swoopes’s overall numbers (2,409 yards with 13 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a 58.3 completion percentage) were hardly the type of production expected from a Texas quarterback. He can feel encouraged by Charlie Strong’s comments to FOX Sports’s Bruce Feldman that even Teddy Bridgewater would have struggled behind Texas’s offensive line last year.
On the encouraging side for Heard is the Longhorns’s expected switch to a faster tempo and a spread offense. Heard played in a spread attack in high school and is a better runner than Swoopes.
Swoopes has shown improvement in Texas’s spring workouts so far. Expect him to remain the starter entering the season. Whether he’ll be able to keep the job is another matter.
Predicted starter: Swoopes
Texas A&M left tackle
After the Aggies got used to seeing their left tackles go early in the first round of the NFL draft, it’s strange entering 2015 with some uncertainty at the position. But after Luke Joeckel, Jake Matthews and Cedric Ogbuehi, the next successor to the blind side at Kyle Field, isn’t quite as apparent. Last year’s right tackle, Germain Ifedi, opted to return to College Station rather than enter the draft and could move over to the left side. However, Ogbuehi had some trouble making the same switch, so coach Kevin Sumlin may be hesitant to try it again.
Avery Gennesy and Jermaine Eluemunor, the pair of four-star juco transfers Texas A&M brought in last year and redshirted, should be in the mix somewhere on the line, with Eluemunor possibly moving to guard if Gennesy wins the tackle spot. But don’t forget about Koda Martin, the three-star tight end recruit who moved onto the line and won the scout team’s offensive MVP award last year. Sumlin said in September that Martin was “the next great future offensive lineman.”
The Aggies ranked 12th in the SEC in rushing offense last season, leading to offensive line coach B.J. Anderson’s dismissal, so expect the O-line to get plenty of attention between now and September.
Predicted starter: Gennesy
Michigan State cornerbacks
Similar to Texas A&M and left tackles, it’s hard to imagine Michigan State not having a clear answer at cornerback. But after losing Darqueze Dennard last year and Trae Waynes this year, the Spartans need to find a new shutdown corner to continue the “No Fly Zone” tradition.
Darian Hicks started the first 10 games of 2014 opposite Waynes but was such a vulnerability that Michigan State had wide receiver Tony Lippett play both ways. After an offseason to shake off last year’s struggles and learn from his mistakes, Hicks is still a favorite to win back a starting job.
Formerly a safety, Demetrious Cox should find a better opportunity to win a starting job at cornerback with RJ Williamson and Montae Nicholson likely taking over the safety spots. The switch is hardly a surprise for Cox, who already was planning to train with Dennard as far back as November.
Arjen Colquhoun and Jermaine Edmondson both earned some playing time last year, but neither earned a start when Hicks got benched. Redshirt freshmen Vayante Copeland, who performed well in fall practices, and Jalen Watts-Jackson could try to jump into the mix despite their limited experience.
Predicted starters: Hicks and Cox
Auburn running back
The Tigers return just 53 carries from their 2014 running back corps but add a key component to the mix this spring. Jovon Robinson, the top junior college recruit this year, immediately moves to the forefront of Auburn’s battle to replace Cameron Artis-Payne. Guz Malzahn has a strong track record making immediate stars out of juco transfers; consider his success with quarterback Nick Marshall and wide receiver D’haquille Williams. At 235 pounds, Robinson brings a more powerful build than Malzahn has typically utilized at running back, but his 3,198 rushing yards in two seasons at Georgia Military College speak for themselves.
Rising sophomore Roc Thomas has the advantage on Robinson of a year of experience in the program and gained 5.0 yards per carry on 43 carries last year. With his speed on the perimeter, he could be used in tandem with Robinson, though Thomas hopes greater patience will lead to more success running between the tackles, too. Peyton Barber saw limited action last year but will also compete for the No. 1 job this spring. As a power back like Robinson, he faces an uphill climb to earn significant playing time.
Predicted start: Robinson
Penn State offensive tackles
A year after Christian Hackenberg was sacked 44 times, a juco transfer could be part of the solution to Penn State’s offensive line woes. With sensational left tackle Donovan Smith off to the NFL draft, rising sophomore Andrew Nelson must step into more of a leadership role. Nelson will earn one of the starting tackle spots, either sticking on the right side where he started last year or moving to the blind side. His counterpart will be decided in the spring, but four-star junior college transfer Paris Palmer should get a long look from coach James Franklin. At 6’7” and 278 pounds, Palmer was the top junior college offensive line recruit this year.
As Penn State heads into its first season completely free from NCAA sanctions, the lack of depth those sanctions created clearly shows along the offensive line. Palmer’s top competition consists of four redshirt freshmen—Noah Beh, Brendan Brosnan, Chance Sorrell and Chasz Wright—all of whom came to the Nittany Lions as three-star recruits and redshirted last year, and true freshman Sterling Jenkins, a three-star recruit from the class of 2015 who enrolled early.
Predicted starters: Nelson and Palmer