- Cam Akers could could shine as a freshman at Florida State, Michigan's rebuilt defense is in good shape and more things we learned from college football spring games.
We’ve gotten our first look at every college football team for the 2017 season, so it’s time to assess what we’ve learned. Spring practices have come and gone, capped by programs’ spring games. While it’s tempting to make too much of what are essentially scrimmages that coaches know will be heavily scrutinized and thus have an incentive to manipulate what they reveal, spring games are the closest we’ll get to in-game competition until Week 1. And they’re the last we’ll see of practices until summer camp.
So, with recognition of the limitations of this analysis, it's time to dive in on some of the biggest takeaways from 2017’s spring games.
Losing six defensive backs to the NFL draft in two years could be troubling, but the Buckeyes seemed to find plenty of answers through recruiting, including two five-star and three-four star cornerback prospects in their 2017 class. With much of that talent arriving on campus early, Ohio State’s spring game offered an early preview, which, while mostly positive, was not without its growing pains. Five-stars Jeffrey Okudah and Kendall Sheffield both got burned for touchdowns, as did four-star Shaun Wade. Luckily for the Buckeyes, they don’t need any of the three to start right away, with Denzel Ward holding one CB spot and Damon Arnette at the other. Still, plays like this hit from Sheffield offer promise for the future:
As the No. 3 overall recruit in the class of 2017 (according to Scout.com) joining a program losing its greatest running back in its history, Cam Akers entered Florida State’s spring practice with some lofty expectations. So far, he doesn’t seem fazed. The early-enrolling true freshman shined in the Seminoles’ spring game, racking up over 100 all-purpose yards, including 87 rushing yards on 10 carries. He’s not going to be Dalvin Cook right away—with Jacques Patrick and Amir Rasul around, Florida State doesn’t need him to be—but Akers’s ability to hit a hole and make defenders miss could add another weapon to the Seminoles’ offense this fall. They’ll need that with Alabama on the schedule in Week 1.
It’s easy to look at true freshman Tua Tagovailoa’s spring game stat line (18 of 30, 315 yards, three touchdowns, one interception), his pedigree (he comes from the same Honolulu high school that produced Marcus Mariota) and his recruiting ranking (No. 4 quarterback in the class of 2017, according to Scout.com), and envision an open competition with Jalen Hurts for the Crimson Tide’s starting QB role. But as SI’s Andy Staples noted, all it took was one sentence from coach Nick Saban to put the matter to rest. “[Tagovailoa] had two series with the ones,” Saban said, “and we went three-and-out in both of them.”
Playing against Alabama’s first-team defense, Hurts showed off his deep ball while completing 16 of 25 passes for 301 yards with two scores and an interception. He is the Tide’s starting quarterback. Tagovailoa’s day just means Saban and new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll have an enticing backup option if Hurts gets injured.
Perhaps the biggest reasons for optimism at Oklahoma State’s spring game were the players who weren’t there. Of course, there was plenty of talent at Boone Pickens Stadium, particularly with quarterback Mason Rudolph and wide receiver James Washington’s decisions to forgo the NFL draft for another year in Stillwater. The Cowboys are loaded at the offensive skill positions.
But no program has had a more successful spring off the field than Oklahoma State, which picked up key starters at offensive tackle and cornerback on the transfer market. Cal’s Aaron Cochran should bolster a Cowboys offensive line that made big strides last season but loses left tackle Victor Salako. And Clemson’s Adrian Baker fills a big hole at cornerback, where Oklahoma State has almost no returning experience. That’s a major vulnerability to address in the Big 12 of all conferences. If the Cowboys topple Oklahoma to win the conference title and possibly make a run at the College Football Playoff, these two off-season additions may have put them over the top.
The last time we saw Jarrett Stidham on the field, the five-star QB recruit was carving up Big 12 defenses as a true freshman at Baylor. In Stidham’s first start after Seth Russell broke a bone in his neck, he passed for 419 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions against Kansas State and finished with 934 passing yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions in three starts before breaking his ankle. A year away from big-time college football and a transfer to Auburn doesn’t seem to have diminished Stidham’s shine. He completed 16 of 20 passes for 267 yards in the Tigers’ A-Day game and demonstrated some flawless touch on his deep balls.
Led by Kamryn Pettway (209 carries, 1,224 yards) and Kerryon Johnson (182 carries, 895 yards)—both are back on the Plains this season—Auburn’s ground game guided the Tigers to the Sugar Bowl. But with the boost Stidham could provide to Auburn's aerial attack, the Tigers may be poised to return to the elite efficiency they demonstrated earlier in coach Gus Malzahn’s tenure.
One of the biggest concerns among any of the preseason playoff contenders is Michigan’s defense, which loses all but one of its starters and 22% of its production, according to SBNation. But if anything, the Wolverines defense looked like the stronger of the two units in their spring game (a development that should create some alarm on the offensive side of the ball, particularly under center, where Wilton Speight struggled). The defense had no trouble creating pressure with linebacker Devin Bush recording two sacks, and Jordan Glasgow returned an interception for a 100-yard score. There’s still work to be done to develop depth, but so far Don Brown’s unit looks to be in good shape to avoid a significant dropoff.
The hallmarks of new offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s attack were there, with plenty of motion and jet sweeps to keep the defense guessing. The problem for LSU is it’s still the same players—or, more critically, the same quarterbacks running the show. Returning starter Danny Etling completing 4 of 11 passes for 53 yards with an interception, and none of his backups looked much better. The two Tigers squads combined for 135 yards of offense on 48 plays. Four-star quarterback recruit Myles Brennan joins the mix this summer, but if LSU winds up turning over its offense to a true freshman who didn’t enroll early, that might not be a promising sign for this fall.
Shane Buechele’s future as Texas’s quarterback has been the subject of plenty of speculation this off-season after his production dropped over the second half of last season. But a related issue is perhaps a more alarming one: The Longhorns lacked a go-to receiver in 2016. No player finished with more than 420 receiving yards or three touchdowns. Based on Texas’s spring game, Collin Johnson may be poised to change that. The rising sophomore teamed up with Buechele for two touchdowns, including a difficult catch on a well-placed ball from Buechele.
Johnson finished the game with 117 yards on eight catches, while Buechele helped his own cause with 369 yards passing and three total touchdowns. Both could be in for big seasons in Tom Herman’s debut campaign.