10 biggest things we learned from 2016 spring games
It’s a college football tradition like no other: overreacting to spring games.
Sure, we all love when 90,000 people pack a stadium in April to watch a glorified scrimmage, one that slates our football-crazed thirsts during the off-season. But coaches rarely divulge key information during spring games. Instead, many wait until the fall to make important roster decisions.
Still, while little gets definitively settled during the spring, it’s possible to glean one or two tidbits from these scrimmages. So how did we get smarter this off-season? SI.com breaks down 10 things we learned from this year’s spring games.
1. Texas might have a young answer at quarterback
Charlie Strong knew he had to fix Texas’s stagnant offense heading into 2016. That’s why he brought in Tulsa offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert to install his version of an up-tempo attack. Of course, the Longhorns need a quarterback to run that offense, and by the end of the spring, true freshman Shane Buechele looked like the answer. Buechele completed 22 of 41 passes for 299 yards with two touchdowns in a spring game shortened by bad weather. Senior Tyrone Swoopes, meanwhile, went 4 for 16 for 71 yards with two picks. Buechele’s performance doesn’t mean he’s the odds-on favorite to win the starting job, as Swoopes enters the summer with much more starting experience. But after the spring game Strong described the freshman as having “a really good day.”
2. Kirby Smart has a quarterback conundrum on his hands at Georgia
A record 93,000 fans filled Sanford Stadium to witness what might be the quarterback of the future for Georgia. But for now the question is whether five-star signee Jacob Eason is this year’s starter. The freshman wowed at G-Day, completing 19 of 29 passes for 244 yards with one touchdown. The Bulldogs brings back senior Greyson Lambert, who was inconsistent but still won 10 of the 12 games he started last season. Plus, first-year head coach Kirby Smart has already hinted that Lambert might have a slight edge in the competition. But even as a freshman, Eason proved he has the talent to be special right now.
3. Clemson’s rebuilt defensive line is taking shape
For the second straight season, Clemson must totally rebuild its defensive line. The Tigers were able to do so last year with great success, but with ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd and tackle D.J. Reader departing this off-season, the program needed to find answers once again. In Clemson’s spring game sophomore end Austin Bryant and sophomore tackle-turned-end Christian Wilkins both impressed at Memorial Stadium. Touted early enrollee Dexter Lawrence notched a sack, as did senior tackle Carlos Watkins. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables wasn’t thrilled with the way his defense played in the spring game, but it was clear Clemson has necessary pieces to fill holes along its line.
4. USC coach Clay Helton didn’t expect a tight quarterback race
Prior to spring junior Max Browne appeared the clear-cut favorite to replace the departed Cody Kessler as USC’s starting quarterback. But the Trojans’ spring game showed why redshirt freshman Sam Darnold has made a clear push for the job. Darnold completed 6 of 7 passes for 63 yards with two touchdowns while Browne, a former five-star signee, went 7 for 11 for 114 yards with three scores. Afterward coach Clay Helton admitted he didn’t expect the competition to advance past spring, but that’s where the Trojans stand. “I really thought coming into [spring] you would expect there to be a big separation between Max and the rest of the quarterbacks,” Helton said.
5. Stanford remains in search of an identity on its offensive line
Coach David Shaw must do more this off-season than replace longtime starter Kevin Hogan at quarterback. Stanford also enters 2016 looking for new blood along the offensive line, which loses three starters in Josh Garnett, Kyle Murphy and Graham Shuler. But Shaw went out of his way to praise tackle David Bright after the Cardinal’s spring game, lauding Bright’s versatility and telling reporters the senior “helps me sleep at night right now.” Added Shaw, “He’s really smart, knows all the positions, and he’s physical.” As for the quarterbacks, Shaw stopped short of tabbing a favorite between Ryan Burns and Keller Chryst, both of whom had sharp days in the scrimmage.
6. Don’t expect a significant drop-off in Ohio State’s talent in 2016
Ohio State may have lost 14 likely NFL draft picks from last season’s roster, but coach Urban Meyer’s cupboard looked stocked in front of 100,000 fans at the Buckeyes’ spring game. Three players—Jerome Backer, Malik Hooker and Marshon Lattimore—snagged wild interceptions for the defense. A few receivers showed big-play abilities, as well, such as Terry McLaurin (four catches, 111 yards, one TD), Torrance Gibson (six catches, 50 yards, 2 TDs) and Parris Campbell (three catches, 106 yards). And even though quarterback J.T. Barrett put up a lackluster day—13 of 22 for 102 yards with no touchdowns and two sacks—the talented junior is a known commodity and exited spring as the presumptive starter. Ohio State’s depth was on full display this spring.
7. Quarterback Deondre Francois excelled for Florida State
Playing in front of a hometown Orlando crowd during Florida State’s spring game, Deondre Francois made a compelling case to become the ‘Noles’ next starting quarterback. The redshirt freshman compiled 283 total yards (246 passing, 37 rushing), two touchdowns and also threw two picks for the Gold squad. Florida State’s quarterback competition isn’t over, of course; true freshman Malik Henry went 15 of 22 with two touchdowns in the spring game while senior Sean Maguire missed all of spring after ankle surgery. But that didn’t stop coach Jimbo Fisher from praising Francois’s performance in the ‘Noles’ final scrimmage. “I thought Deondre did a great job keeping his poise the whole game,” Fisher said. “I really did.”
8. Alabama coach Nick Saban still knows how to tackle
Youth was served at quarterback during Alabama’s spring game. Redshirt freshman Blake Barnett (9 for 16, 112 yards) and true freshman Jalen Hurts (11 for 15, 120 yards) outshined redshirt junior Cooper Bateman (9 for 24, 86 yards), who started with the first-team offense. But it was Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban who had the play of the day on defense. During one series Barnett rolled back to avoid a sack and ended up running into a well-dressed Saban. Afterwards Saban was asked about his tackling prowess. “I usually can get out of the way, but I didn’t do a very good job of that today,” Saban told reporters.
9. Notre Dame’s quarterback battle is likely a two-man race
Sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer slightly outperformed junior Malik Zaire in Notre Dame’s spring game, going 10 of 17 for 113 yards. Zaire—who broke his ankle in the second game of the 2015 season, allowing Kizer to emerge as the team’s starter—completed 6 of 15 passes for 120 yards. Fighting Irish fans hoping for a push from sophomore Brandon Wimbush might be disappointed heading into the summer. "I haven't figured out how I can get [Wimbush] involved in this race for starting quarterback," coach Brian Kelly told reporters. "Somebody would have to give up reps, and I'm not prepared to do that right now.” Wimbush finished 7 for 11 for 52 yards in the spring game.
10. Watch out for Washington’s defense… again
Washington’s spring game ended in a fitting fashion: a strong defensive stop by the Huskies, who stuffed quarterback K.J. Carta-Samuels’s scramble on fourth down. Last season Washington finished with the Pac-12’s No. 1 defense (18.8 points per game), and that unit returns eight starters in 2016. That’s why much is expected from coach Chris Petersen’s squad this fall. But what do the Huskies expect? “Pure domination,” linebacker Keishawn Bierria said, per Adam Jude of The Seattle Times. “I want that jewelry, you know what I’m saying? I want to make sure whatever we do, it lasts forever.”