Whether it's a returning starting quarterback, a player returning from injury or a one picked to replace a star, there are plenty of players who need the spring to solidify their roles heading into the 2017 season. Everybody has "something to prove," but the performances of the following six players will have significant ramifications for their teams in the season ahead.
We covered Buechele yesterday when discussing his potential sophomore breakout receiver (Devin DuVernay) candidate, but he enters spring ball with his starting job in some doubt. Tom Herman didn’t directly reference LSU grad transfer Brandon Harris (who would eventually choose to attend North Carolina), but admitted that if he was open to signing a grad transfer if it helped improve the quarterback competition. That means he may not be sold on Buechele, who burst onto the scene with a scintillating performance against Notre Dame in last year’s season opener, but only logged four more wins in his freshman season. He’ll need to adjust to offensive coordinator Tim Beck’s attack and fend off touted freshman Sam Ehrlinger for the starting job. Buechele’s future is bright, but he needs to prove himself to a new coaching staff to establish his hold on the starting job.
Last year, Rosen was considered by many to be the best quarterback in college football. This year, he’s not even the best quarterback in his own city. After missing the second half of last season with a shoulder injury, Rosen’s name faded from the headlines in favor of USC’s Sam Darnold, who quarterbacked the Trojans’ win over Washington and thrilling Rose Bowl win over Penn State. Now, Rosen will need to work under his third offensive coordinator in three years (Jedd Fisch) and find a dependable receiver, which he couldn’t in his limited action last season. Rosen has the natural talent to be one of the best players in the nation, but UCLA’s instability and a porous offensive line have hurt one of the nation’s potential superstars. He’ll have the starting job once the season starts, but the question is whether the incoming junior will have the same zip as he did before his shoulder injury.
Barrett will leave Ohio State as one of the most decorated players in school history, but his struggles toward the end of last season trigger an (unlikely) quarterback competition in Columbus. This isn’t to make smoke where there is no fire—it would be stunning if Barrett weren’t under center to start the 2017 season—but he regressed from early season Heisman buzz into a liability once the Buckeyes played Michigan and Clemson. He received little help from his offensive line in both games, but Barrett will need to sharpen his accuracy (he finished 44-for-87 with one TD and three INTs in the final three games of 2016) if the Buckeyes want to make another run at the College Football Playoff. While there is almost no chance he is replaced as the starter, backups Dwayne Haskins and Tate Martell are promising young options if the season goes south early.
A potential top-five pick once he leaves school, James is one of the nation’s best players when he’s healthy. His sophomore season was mostly lost to injury, and now the Seminoles are practicing James at cornerback. The reality is that James can line up pretty much anywhere, he’s certainly strong enough to handle plenty of offensive linemen and fast enough to cover most receivers, but Florida State fans will want to see him fully recovered from the knee injury that cost him most of 2016. Adding corner to his list of responsibilities seems odd, but it makes James one of the most intriguing players to watch this spring.
The Purdue transfer was bad in his first season as LSU’s starting quarterback, but now he’ll benefit from the tutelage of new offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who helped turn Pitt from a traditional pro-style attack into a high-flying unit in 2016. Canada’s work with Nathan Peterman, once an afterthought and now a likely NFL draft pick, should excite Etling. The incoming senior struggled to stretch the offense despite the presence of star running back Leonard Fournette and backup Darius Guice, and won little support from the fans even after he assumed the starting job from Brandon Harris. Etling is a decent precision passer (he threw all of five interceptions last year in his time as starter), and there’s a chance that Canada develops Etling’s limited, but effective skill set into one of the SEC’s better offenses.
Replacing Christian McCaffrey is impossible, but Love is the player tasked with filling the former Heisman finalist’s production. Love showed well in the two games McCaffrey missed with an injury last year (he rushed for over 100 yards in both), but he’ll likely have to add a bit of muscle to his 5’ 10”, 187-pound frame if he wishes to be an every-down back next season. With Stanford also unsettled at quarterback (Keller Chryst may miss the beginning of the season after tearing his ACL in the Sun Bowl), Love will be key to the offense’s success in the beginning of the season. That will have to start with a strong showing in the spring.