From Alabama's defensive line to Michigan's linebackers to Ohio State's running back, these are the 10 biggest non-QB position battles in college football.
Quarterback competitions naturally draw the most attention. As my colleague Chris Johnson noted Monday, there are plenty of high-profile ones set to get underway this spring.
But for teams with stable situations under center, and even for some with uncertainty at QB, the biggest battles of the off-season aren’t for the right to receive the snap. The squads below will spend their spring hoping to get a better sense of which players are ready to fill other critical roles besides quarterback. Here are the 10 biggest non-QB position battles to watch:
Alabama defensive line
Despite Jonathan Allen’s decision to return to Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide face some major losses on the defensive line, particularly A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed, both top-20 picks in SI.com’s latest mock draft. This being Alabama, there’s no shortage talent waiting to take their place, of course, but it’ll take the spring and possibly fall camp to settle on whom. Former five-star recruit Da’Shawn Hand and senior Dalvin Tomlinson will battle for the defensive end opening while Daron Payne and Joshua Frazier compete to start at nose guard. Five-star defensive tackle Kendell Jones could also push for playing time, but he could have to work his way in slowly because he won't arrive until the summer.
Baylor No. 2 wide receiver
Corey Coleman (1,363 receiving yards, 20 touchdowns) and Jay Lee (758 receiving yards, eight touchdowns) are gone, but KD Cannon (868 receiving yards, six touchdowns) appears poised to become the Bears' dominant receiver in 2016. So why does Baylor's No. 2 target deserve so much attention? Because no No. 2 receiver has recorded fewer than 867 yards in coach Art Briles’s offense since 2011. The battle to become the Bears' secondary target is wide open. Sophomores Chris Platt and Ishmael Zamora have the benefit of on-field experience, but former four-star recruit Blake Lynch could push for the role after redshirting last season. And don’t forget Baylor's newest additions, 2016 signees Tren’Davian Dickson and Devin Duvernay, the Nos. 3 and 4 wide receivers, respectively, in their recruiting class, according to Scout.com.
Clemson defensive ends
No position group may have more production to replace than the Tigers’ defensive ends. Not only did Shaq Lawson lead the country in tackles for loss last season, but guess who finished second? That’d be Kevin Dodd. The ferocious duo that bookended Clemson’s fierce defensive line left early for the NFL draft, adding to an off-season of massive departures for the Tigers. This comes after Clemson had to replace eight defensive starters last off-season, including ends Vic Beasley and Corey Crawford. Now sophomores Austin Bryant, Richard Yeargin and Chris Register as well as redshirt freshmen Clelin Ferrell and Sterling Johnson will fight to emerge as the next pass-rushing stars for the Tigers. However, while Dodd’s success in 2015 was somewhat surprising, Lawson had 11 tackles for loss as a reserve in ’14; none of the contenders to replace Lawson and Dodd had more than two TFL (Bryant) in '15.
LSU offensive tackles
No team returns as many starters as LSU (18), according to prognosticator Phil Steele, but the Tigers face two key holes in the offensive line that helped make running back Leonard Fournette a sensation. LSU must replace both its starters at tackle now that Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins are heading to the NFL. Les Miles has no shortage of options, including several with experience. K.J. Malone played in every game in 2015 and filled in for Hawkins at left tackle when Hawkins left in the second quarter vs. Arkansas with an ankle injury. However, when Hawkins missed the next week’s meeting with Ole Miss, Alexander moved to left tackle and Toby Weathersby filled his place on the right side. However, those were hardly the Tigers’ strongest games on offense, so perhaps Miles will look past his most experienced options for George Brown or Jevonte Domond. The wildcard in this competition is four-star recruit Willie Allen, but the 6’7”, 300-pound prospect won’t be able to join the Tigers until the summer.
New defensive coordinator Don Brown will need to engineer a massive overhaul of the Wolverines’ linebacker corps after the departures of Joe Bolden, James Ross and Desmond Morgan. Senior Ben Gedeon will take over one role. Meanwhile, Mike McCray, Noah Furbush, Reuben Jones and Devin Bush Jr. will fight for time. Bush, a three-star recruit who enrolled early, will jump right into the battle as a true freshman and could be a prime contender to play right away as long as he can learn Brown’s scheme quickly. The change in coordinator should help; he’s no further behind than anyone else. However, Michigan’s first spring practice Monday may have introduced an unexpected element to this competition—all-around stud Jabrill Peppers took some reps at outside linebacker.
Ohio State running back
With only six returning starters on offense and defense combined, Ohio State has several positions up for grabs this spring. Running back could present the most interesting competition because of both the huge shoes to fill (Ezekiel Elliott was arguably the most complete back in the country last season) and the number of candidates to fill them. Senior Bri’onte Dunn, junior Curtis Samuel, redshirt freshman Mike Weber and early-enrolling true freshman Antonio Williams will vie for carries this spring, though Samuel will reportedly miss most or all of spring practices due to a toe injury. Weber was on his way to making an impact as a true freshman before a torn meniscus led to him redshirting the fall instead. With Elliott gone now, he has a change to jump right to the top of the depth chart.
Oklahoma State offensive line
The Cowboys return more starts on the offensive line than any other team in the Big 12, but experience is only as useful as the players possessing it. Oklahoma State ranked second-worst in the country in adjusted line yards in 2015, contributing to a rushing game that gained only 3.5 yards per carry. Nearly every lineman who contributed to those dismal numbers returns, so the question is whether they can improve with another off-season of work or whether new additions like JUCO transfer Larry Williams and four-star true freshman Tramonda Moore can jump in to improve the unit. No spot is settled, and there’s essentially nowhere to go but up.
Stanford defensive end
Former five-star recruit Solomon Thomas began to live up to the hype in his redshirt freshman season last fall and should anchor the Cardinal defensive line at one end spot. The contest to play opposite Thomas could be one of the most intriguing battles in college football simply because it features two former tight ends competing for a defensive line role. Luke Kaumatule and Eric Cotton both made the switch from offense to defense and now one is likely to start at end. After taking a redshirt last year for what would have been his senior season, Kaumatule is drawing effusive praise from coach David Shaw, who thinks he “has a chance to be one of the better players in the conference at his position.”
For a team that was pummeled with horrid injury luck in 2015, 2016 isn’t off to a great start for TCU, either. Julius Lewis will miss the season after suffering an injury in the off-season, so the Horned Frogs will be even more shorthanded at cornerback this spring. Ranthony Texada is out for the spring due to a season-ending injury from last season, and Corry O’Meally graduated. Texada should be back for the fall, but Gary Patterson will need to find a replacement for Lewis, likely among Torrance Mosley, DeShawn Raymond and new additions Markell Simmons and KeShawn Somerville. Mosley brings some starting experience, while Raymond was a four-star recruit in the class of 2015.
Working toward solving the Longhorns’ quarterback quandary is undoubtedly the top item on the spring agenda for coach Charlie Strong, but he also needs to halt a defensive slide. Texas allowed .9 yards more per play in 2015 than it did in ’14 and 6.5 more points per game. Now the Longhorns must find a solution for the departure of top tackler Peter Jinkens, which means settling on a partner for rising star Malik Jefferson. Anthony Wheeler made a strong freshman debut with 36 tackles and a tackle for loss, but Breckyn Hagar or Timothy Cole could push him for the spot. That trio will battle in the spring before four-star recruit Jeffrey McCulloch joins the mix in the fall to further complicate Strong’s decision.