- Which top teams will have major battles at positions other than quarterback this spring? Taking a look at which teams need to sort out their depth charts.
Quarterbacks are important, but they’re not the only players vying for jobs in spring practice. So after SI’s Chris Johnson broke down the top QB battles of the spring, it’s time to take a look at the other 21 starters that make up an offense and defense.
For nearly every team in the hunt for a conference title or College Football Playoff berth, there’s some key position in flux at the start of 2017. Spring practices offer the first chance to find answers to off-season vulnerabilities. Here are 10 critical non-quarterback position battles to watch over the next few weeks:
For all the concern about Jalen Hurts’s hold on the quarterback spot, the Crimson Tide have much more to sort out on the offensive line. The biggest battle to watch is for a starting tackle spot, now that left tackle Cam Robinson is off to the NFL. Jonah Williams returns to fill one tackle spot, but it’s unclear if he will stay at right tackle (which he played last season) or slide into Robinson’s slot on the left side.
Regardless, the competition for the open spot will be fierce. Junior Lester Cotton boasts the most experience—he played in nine games last season—but little of it at tackle. And then there’s the newest crop of elite recruits, led by five-star Alex Leatherwood, the No. 3 tackle recruit in the class of 2017, according to Scout.com. He may have too much talent to keep off the field, and his early enrollment will allow him to jump right into the competition this spring.
The Seminoles lose the left side of their offensive line from last season as tackle Roderick Johnson and guard Kareem Are depart Tallahassee. The guard spot should be fairly simple to replace as sophomore Cole Minshew started the final three games of the season after Landon Dickerson got hurt. Dickerson is still recovering, but once healthy, he and Minshew should assume the two guard spots. The bigger question is the open tackle role. Rick Leonard presumably will occupy one tackle spot after losing and then regaining the starting right tackle job last season. Leonard’s counterpart could come down to Abdul Bello, Jauan Williams or Josh Ball. With quarterback Deondre Francois needing to progress in his second year as the starter and the running game in flux without Dalvin Cook, the Seminoles need to find stability on the line.
This is a tough spot to evaluate because Arden Key could render any competition moot, but with Key taking a leave of absence from the team and his return slated for “the appropriate time,” the Tigers have to be considering who might step in for the SEC’s 2016 leader in sacks per game. Coach Ed Orgeron mentioned Andre Anthony and Ray Thornton as the top candidates, along with Sci Martin. Martin appeared sparingly in five games last season while Anthony didn’t get NCAA clearance and Thornton redshirted, so this competition won’t be decided by past production. Anthony and Thornton both were four-star recruits in LSU’s 2016 class.
The Wolverines face a massive shakeup throughout their roster with only five returning starters, fewest in the FBS. Still, the turnover is starkest at receiver, where top pass-catchers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson along with a host of other playmakers all depart. With Grant Perry suspended pending the results of his legal case, Michigan’s top returning eligible receiver is Eddie McDoom, who caught five passes for 59 yards last season. So who will emerge as quarterback Wilton Speight’s new favorite targets? McDoom’s speed puts him in the mix. But perhaps the most exciting options are two early-enrollees, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Trarik Black, both among the top 16 wide receiver recruits in the class of 2017, according to Scout.com. Peoples-Jones is particularly appealing as the top wide receiver prospect.
The Buckeyes lose three starters in their secondary for the second straight season, and while Denzel Ward has a virtual lock on one of the open cornerback spots, the other one features a fascinating battle that includes three high-profile new faces. Ohio State loaded up on elite corners this recruiting class, including five-star Jeffrey Okudah, the No. 2 corner in the class, and four-star Shaun Wade, both early-enrollees. The Buckeyes also landed five-star juco transfer Kendall Sheffield, the top juco prospect in the country, according to Scout.com. The infusion of talent should leave Damon Arnette, Ohio State’s nickel last season, well aware that he needs to fight to avoid getting passed up.
It’s tough losing the leading rusher in program history. It’s hard to replace the production of the No. 2 player in the country in all-purpose yards. Losing both at the same position? That leaves a big hole to fill. Rodney Anderson has generated plenty of buzz in his two seasons in Norman but almost none of it in games due to injuries that wiped out nearly all of his 2015 season and his entire 2016 season. Abdul Adams got the most work of any returning back last season, averaging 5.3 yards per carry on 53 attempts. And true freshman Trey Sermon boasts loads of potential after enrolling early as a four-star recruit.
Penn State returns seven starters on defense but loses both of its defensive ends, Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan, and their combined 21 tackles for loss and 12 sacks. The Nittany Lions used a large rotation on their defensive line, so they have plenty of options with experience to sort through. Torrence Brown brings the most playing time, having appeared in every game last season with four starts. He’s a favorite to land one of the spots. Ryan Buchholz finished last year with three sacks while Shareef Miller made 5.5 tackles for loss as a redshirt freshman. And then there’s Shane Simmons, one of Penn State’s top prizes in its 2016 recruiting class. After redshirting last season, the former ninth-ranked defensive end recruit in the country will finally get a chance to vie for playing time this spring.