Spring standouts: 10 players poised for breakout seasons
College coaches routinely preach about the importance of the summer months for players. With spring practice come and gone, the summer is when players can take matters into their own hands with weightlifting and conditioning. But strong springs often serve as momentum for the rest of the off-season, alluding to the possibility of bigger things ahead in the fall.
So which college football players stood out during spring practice? SI.com breaks down 10 names, listed alphabetically, who turned heads on the field this spring.
Asmar Bilal, Notre Dame LB
Notre Dame’s defense will look very different this fall with the departure of linebacker Jaylon Smith, an All-America last season who led the Irish with 113 tackles and won the Butkis Award. The Dallas Cowboys selected Smith in the second round of the NFL draft, and this spring Notre Dame spent time finding his replacement. Linebacker Asmar Bilal could be that answer; Bilal redshirted last season working mostly at outside linebacker, but he impressed inside at Smith’s old position this spring. “Is he Jaylon Smith? No,” Notre Dame linebackers coach Mike Elston said, per ND Insider. “But he’s got great potential. Jaylon had to start somewhere, and that’s where Asmar is. He’s at the starting point of what we see as a very promising career.”
Shane Buechele, Texas QB
A true freshman quarterback stole the show during Texas’s spring game, which had to make new Longhorns offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert smile. Shane Buechele, a two-time all-state honoree at Lamar High in Arlington, Texas, completed 22 of 41 passes for 299 yards with two touchdowns in Texas’s spring game. Of course, Buechele’s performance hardly guarantees him a starting job in Austin. Tyrone Swoopes, who went 4 for 16 for 71 yards with two picks in the scrimmage, is a seasoned but inconsistent senior, and Jerrod Heard missed the back end of spring with a shoulder injury. But Buechele looks like the quarterback of the future—if not the present—for the Longhorns.
Malik Dorton, USC DT
Expect a different defensive line at USC this fall. The Trojans lose three starters in tackle Delvon Simmons, end Greg Townsend Jr. and nose tackle Antwaun Woods, the last of whom was a three-year starter and an All-Pac-12 first-team selection in 2015. That meant coach Clay Helton spent much of this spring searching for new blood along his line. One bright spot was Malik Dorton, a redshirt sophomore and former outside linebacker who played in just two games in ’15. This spring Dorton converted to defensive tackle and worked primarily with the first-team defense, drawing praise from USC coaches. The Don Bosco Prep product looks to be a major piece of the Trojans’ defensive line rotation in the fall.
Torrance Gibson, Ohio State WR
Last season Torrence Gibson landed in Columbus as a highly touted, five-star quarterback signee. But in 2016 Gibson should impact Ohio State’s offense as a receiver. This spring the converted Gibson spent much of workouts battling for the role vacated by the departed Michael Thomas. In the spring game the sophomore hauled in six catches for 50 yards with two touchdowns, prompting coach Urban Meyer to praise his athleticism. “He's got a 35-inch vertical jump, and we're going to teach him how to use that thing,” Meyer told reporters. “He's a very good young man. He's trying really hard.”
Damien Harris, Alabama RB
Replacing Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry was at or near the top of Alabama’s priorities this off-season. Sophomore Bo Scarbrough entered spring practices as the presumed successor in the backfield, but it was Damien Harris who showed out in the A-Day spring game. The sophomore ran for 114 yards on 20 carries while also catching two passes for 20 yards. Both Harris and Scarbrough should be part of the offense this fall, but Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban singled out Harris’s efforts after the spring game. “Damien Harris had a really nice day,” Saban told reporters. “[He] looked quick and explosive and he did a really nice job.”
Van Jefferson, Ole Miss WR
Ole Miss loses a couple of key receivers in Cody Core and Laquon Treadwell, which made Van Jefferson’s emergence during spring that much more exciting. The 6’2’’, 180-pound redshirt freshman from Brentwood, Tenn., earned the team’s Eli Manning Award for most improved offensive player during workouts. Rebels coach Hugh Freeze ended spring pleased with a player who could impact Ole Miss’s high-flying offense this fall. “I thought [Jefferson] just had a really solid spring,” Freeze said. “Van is wired a little differently. He really understands what to do with the time he has and work. He really stood out.”
Kendall Joseph, Clemson LB
This time last year Joseph was wrapping up a stellar spring in the middle of Clemson’s defense. Then a string of injuries—capped by knee surgery in fall camp—limited Joseph’s 2015 season; he played just 63 snaps at middle linebacker. This spring, with B.J. Goodson having vacated that position, Joseph took advantage of his opportunity. He notched a team-leading seven tackles for the Orange squad in Clemson’s spring game and will likely line up as a leader in the middle of the Tigers’ defense. Joseph’s emergence will be even more critical as Clemson works to rebuild its defensive line for the second straight year.
Jamal Lyles, Michigan State TE
It’s easy to see why Jamal Lyles caught the eye of Michigan State fans during the Spartans’ spring game. Lyles, a senior tight end, led all receivers with 56 yards and three catches. He also lined up at defensive end and notched a sack and two tackles for loss. The 6’3’’, 265-pounder has the size to evolve into a pass-rusher if necessary, which could be a nice option as the Spartans look to replace three starters on the defensive line. Plus Lyles, who caught only eight passes in 2015, served as a bigger part of the passing game this spring. After the spring game, Dantonio mentioned Lyles first when asked about impact players this off-season. “I thought Jamal Lyles played well today,” Dantonio told reporters. “I thought he made a move, had a big defensive tackle for a loss. I think he's had a good spring.”
Dillon Mitchell, Oregon WR
Oregon played without a good chunk of its receiving corps during its spring game, missing names like Devon Allen, Jalen Brown, Alex Ofodile and Dwayne Stanford. But those absences opened up an opportunity for freshman receiver Dillon Mitchell to show off his abilities. The early enrollee out of Memphis led all receivers with seven catches for 104 yards, grabbing touchdown catches of 31 and 32 yards. Graduate transfer quarterback Dakota Prukop, who threw both touchdown passes to Mitchell, said the freshman’s potential won’t shock anybody in the locker room anymore. “Not surprised at all by his performance today,” Prukop told Oregon’s team website. “If anything, I should have gotten the ball to him more.”
Mitch Trubisky, North Carolina QB
North Carolina coach Larry Fedora wasted no time in tabbing his new starting quarterback after spring practice. One week after redshirt junior Mitch Trubisky completed 13 of 22 passes—including 10 of his first 11 attempts—for 148 yards with one touchdown in the Tar Heels’ spring game, Fedora announced Trubisky as the replacement for the departed Marquise Williams. Trubisky is hardly a new face in Chapel Hill as he enters his fourth season, and he’ll take over a North Carolina squad that returns most of the roster that went 11–3 last year. That’s why much will be expected from the seasoned Trubisky this fall.