There are no official games to be won, but the groundwork for productive seasons is laid in the spring, when players’ competitive desires can set them on paths to stardom. For some, position battles drive them to excel. For others, it’s simply an innate hunger to improve. Whatever the motivator, each of the following players impressed this spring with production they hope continues into the fall. Here is a list of 10 guys—or groups of guys—who could be set to break out in 2015.
Mike Boone, Tion Green, Hosey Williams, RBs, Cincinnati
These three running backs each made their case to be Cincinnati's primary ball-carrier in the spring game. The Bearcats' offense racked up 1,081 total yards, and Boone led the way by carrying 13 times for 152 yards with two touchdowns. Green rushed 18 times for 96 yards with two scores, while Williams added 61 yards on 12 carries. Boone and the departed Rodriguez Moore split the bulk of the carries last year, with Boone leading the team behind 650 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. Only a rising sophomore, he has plenty of time left to shine. "Mike Boone is going to be a force in college football for the next three years," coach Tommy Tuberville told reporters after the spring game. "But he's got some competition. Hosey and Tion are playing harder, with Mike Boone out there probably leading the pack. We'll have three good running backs next year."
Malachi Dupre, WR, LSU
LSU may still be searching for its starting quarterback, but whoever wins the job will have no shortage of elite targets. The Tigers return their top four pass catchers from last season, including Dupre, who showed flashes of his potential by making 14 receptions for 318 yards with five touchdowns as a true freshman. Dupre has continued to impress this off-season and dominated the spring game. He caught four balls for 112 yards with two scores, including this sensational grab.
Robert Foster and ArDarius Stewart, WRs, Alabama
Alabama is in desperate need of new playmakers after losing quarterback Blake Sims, running back T.J. Yeldon and Heisman Trophy finalist wide receiver Amari Cooper. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin’s tendency to rely heavily on a go-to wideout adds greater urgency to the search to replace Cooper. Enter Foster and Stewart, both of whom put on superb A-Day auditions. Foster hauled in six catches for 125 yards, while Stewart made eight receptions for 118 yards with two scores. Filling the shoes of Cooper—who won the Biletnikoff Award last year and broke every major receiving record at Alabama—may be impossible. Still, the Crimson Tide will need more than Derrick Henry to return to the College Football Playoff.
Derwin James, S, Florida State
Florida State’s youth stole the show at the Seminioles’ spring game, with several early enrollees grabbing the spotlight in front of a sizeable crowd. James wasted no time making an impact; he intercepted the second pass of the scrimmage and returned it 41 yards for a touchdown. With 29 players selected in the last three NFL drafts (a record since the league went to its current seven-round format in 1994), including 11 this year, Florida State has plenty of holes to fill. It will need James and other highly touted recruits to make immediate contributions.
Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas
With just five starters returning from a defense that carried the team last season, Texas needs Jefferson, an early enrollee, to quickly live up to his recruiting hype. So far, so good: Jefferson starred in the spring game, tallying six tackles, one for loss, one quarterback hurry and a forced fumble. The Longhorns moved Jefferson all over the field this spring, working him at outside linebacker, middle linebacker and a hybrid end/linebacker spot. Though Jefferson has plenty to learn after just 15 college practices, he is already earning praise from teammates. “Whenever you see an athlete like Malik come in as a freshman you always know he's going to have a few hiccups here and there, but he always makes up for it in speed, and he's always going to the ball,” junior defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway told Horns247 after the spring game. “He's always seeing and making plays. He may not do exactly it the right way, but he's going to be there to make the play.”
Jeff Lindquist, QB, Washington
Although the race for the Huskies’ starting quarterback job isn’t over, Lindquist made a move toward winning it with a solid spring. He looked particularly sharp in 11-on-11 action at Washington’s final practice, completing 13 of 16 attempts for 237 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. The rising junior will still have to compete with K.J. Carta-Samuels and early enrollee Jake Browning in fall camp, but Lindquist is the favorite to start the season opener at Boise State on Sept. 4. His accuracy improved noticeably this spring, and coach Chris Petersen told reporters he “has taken a step forward.”
Jeff Lockie, QB, Oregon
Mark Helfrich’s decision to take on Eastern Washington sensation Vernon Adams Jr. as a graduate transfer hardly acted as a vote of confidence in Lockie, the loyal backup to Marcus Mariota. That doesn’t mean Lockie will just cede the job to the former FCS star. With Adams only able to watch from the sidelines—he can’t practice with the Ducks until this summer, after he graduates—Lockie hinted that he can keep the team’s high-powered offense cruising without its Heisman winner. The rising junior didn’t let a single pass hit the turf during the spring game, completing all nine of his attempts for 223 yards with three touchdowns. Lockie’s favorite target also deserves some spring accolades; receiver Charles Nelson caught five passes for 144 yards with two scores and made an interception and three tackles while playing defense.
Dare Ogunbowale and Taiwan Deal, RBs, Wisconsin
A key part of Wisconsin’s long history of rushing success has been its diversity of options. The Badgers have had at least two players run for more than 700 yards every year since 2010. So, while Corey Clement may be the clear successor to Melvin Gordon after rushing for 949 yards last fall, Wisconsin hoped to leave the spring confident in its secondary backs. Ogunbowale and Deal both stepped up to the challenge. Deal showed some good power rushing 15 times for 76 yards in the spring game, while Ogunbowale produced a highlight-reel, 55-yard touchdown run. Ogunbowale carried 11 times for 89 yards with two scores.
Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
Early enrollee Rosen has shown every indication that he’s ready to take charge for the Bruins. He capped a consistent spring by completing 13 of 17 passes with two touchdowns and one interception during the program's final showcase. Although coach Jim Mora has yet to make a decision in UCLA's four-man quarterback race, he said after the scrimmage that Rosen has “made a lot of progress.” In fact, the No. 1 overall quarterback recruit has impressed the staff with his maturity. "We all know he can throw," offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone told the Los Angeles Times in April. "We all know he has the tangible things, the physical things. But for a young guy, he has such great composure of what's going on around him and great understanding about all the moving parts and how they work."
JaMichael Winston, DE, Arkansas
The Razorbacks hope to carry positive momentum from the end of last season into 2015, but they face some critical holes on the defensive line with end Trey Flowers and tackle Darius Philon off to the NFL. Winston’s strong spring should help ease fears, as the rising junior dominated Arkansas’s spring game with three sacks. The 6’4”, 250-pounder drew praise from coaches and teammates and could be crucial as the Hogs look to build on their three wins over the final four games of '14.