- Once the Final Four ends, April’s dominant college sports storyline will be the spring football games in which roles and systems are still being shaped. Here's what to keep tabs on before things tip off in Minneapolis.
While college basketball has dominated the headlines for the past month, college football teams have been preparing for the 2019 season. With most FBS teams finishing up their spring practice schedules in the next several weeks, spring games are set to take center stage in the college football world.
Spring games are often heavily scripted and aren’t always perfect indicators of what’s to come, but they provide opportunities to get a sense for how depth charts stack up heading into the summer and what new schemes generally look like under new coaches and coordinators. Now that the AAF has folded, spring games are the last form of 11-on-11 football until the real games get going in the fall. Here’s a guide for what to watch for Saturday as several compelling programs wrap up spring ball with public showcases.
Purdue (Noon ET, Big Ten Network)
After losing three straight games to start 2018, Purdue rallied to win six games and secure bowl eligibility in Jeff Brohm’s second year at the helm. A 63–14 thumping at the hands of Auburn in the Music City Bowl put a bit of a damper on the season, however, and the catalyst of Purdue’s second-half surge, senior quarterback David Blough, is now gone. Entering the spring, the presumptive starter at quarterback was senior Elijah Sindelar, who started the season-opener last season before getting benched for Blough, but Sindelar is out for the rest of the spring after tweaking the same knee he injured in 2017. In Sindelar’s absence, Brohm will get a look at a trio of young signal-callers: sophomore Nick Sipe, redshirt freshman Jack Plummer and true freshman Paul Piferi. Plus, Saturday is an opportunity to watch the highest-rated recruit Purdue’s gotten in 14 years: defensive end George Karalaftis, a West Lafayette native who should compete for snaps early.
LSU (2 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
Ed Orgeron is back for year four as head coach, and the Tigers are coming off the best season of Orgeron’s tenure, which culminated in a Fiesta Bowl win over UCF and a No. 6 finish in the final College Football Playoff rankings. For the first time since 2009–2010, LSU will bring back a starting quarterback (Joe Burrow) and an offensive coordinator (Steve Ensminger) for a second-straight year together. Burrow was a steadying force for the Tigers in 2018 with 16 touchdown passes to just five interceptions, but he struggled against two of the better defenses he faced in Alabama and Florida. LSU hired former Saints assistant Joe Brady as passing game coordinator this offseason in an attempt to modernize the offense with run-pass options, so the spring game may offer some insight into how the offense will operate in 2019. There are some defensive pieces to replace with linebacker Devin White and cornerback Greedy Williams headed to the NFL, but there are some talented players poised to break out, including true freshman cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., who was ranked as the No. 1 2019 prospect in the country by Rivals and deemed a “once in a lifetime” player by a teammate.
USC (2 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Networks)
It’s been a turbulent offseason for USC after the program’s worst season since 2000. USC retained head coach Clay Helton after many believed he was on the hot seat, and Kliff Kingsbury was the offensive coordinator for the Trojans for about a month before taking the head coaching job with the Cardinals in the NFL, so now former North Texas offensive coordinator (and Texas Tech quarterback) Graham Harrell is bringing an Air Raid system to L.A. as the new OC. Many believe sophomore quarterback JT Daniels has the inside track to start at quarterback after starting 11 games in 2018, though head coach Clay Helton has maintained there will be an open competition at quarterback, meaning redshirt sophomore Jack Sears and junior Matt Fink would also compete for signal-calling reps. It may be tough to take much from the offense’s spring game performance, though, because the Trojans lost seven defensive backs from last season’s team and are dealing with some injuries in the secondary.
Clemson (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
The last time the Tigers took the field, they dominated Alabama to win their second national championship under Dabo Swinney. Clemson returns a ton of firepower on offense, led by potential Heisman candidate and second-year quarterback Trevor Lawrence, running back Travis Etienne and wide receivers Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins (although ageless slot threat Hunter Renfrow is finally gone). The questions for the defending champs lie on defense, particularly on the defensive line, where the departures of Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and Dexter Lawrence leave a hole in production. Sophomore Xavier Thomas figures to be the next Clemson star pass rusher, and Nyles Pinckney and Jordan Williams should slot in as the two starting defensive tackles after seeing solid playing time last season.
Florida State (4 p.m. ET, ACC NETWORK EXTRA)
After posting their first losing campaign since 1976 in head coach Willie Taggart’s first season, the Seminoles enter 2019 with big question marks at a number of key spots. Taggart dismissed incumbent starting quarterback Deondre Francois after Francois’s girlfriend accused the former FSU quarterback of domestic abuse, which leaves James Blackman as the expected starter at quarterback. Blackman has been decent in his two seasons in Tallahassee, tossing 24 touchdowns to 12 interceptions in 15 games (13 of which were starts). There are only two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster, which puts the turnover on the offensive line into focus. Taggart brought in former Houston offensive coordinator Kendal Briles to run the offense, so Saturday will be a first look at how Briles implements a quicker tempo and spread principles into the Seminoles’ offense.
South Carolina (Noon ET, SEC Network)
The Gamecocks were mediocre in 2018, going 0–5 against ranked opponents and 7–1 against unranked teams. Jake Bentley returns at quarterback for his final season of eligibility, but his top target, star receiver Deebo Samuel, is gone; Bryan Edwards should slot into the No. 1 receiver spot after hauling in 55 catches for 846 yards a season ago. The Gamecocks also bring back their two most productive defenders in linebacker T.J. Brunson and tackle Javon Kinlaw.
Boston College (Noon ET, ACC NETWORK EXTRA)
Returning tailback AJ Dillon is a potential Heisman Trophy candidate, and junior quarterback Anthony Brown enters 2019 having started 22 games at quarterback. The Eagles’ offense was surprisingly explosive in 2018 but will need to be more consistent this season for BC to make a major leap. There’s turnover on the offensive line and in the secondary, so Saturday’s scrimmage will present a look at how the depth chart looks in those areas. The Eagles will also have new coordinators on both sides of the ball under head coach Steve Addazio: Mike Bajakian takes over as offensive coordinator after four seasons as the quarterbacks coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Bill Sheridan, who served as BC’s linebackers coach in 2018, has been promoted to defensive coordinator.
NC STATE (1 p.m. ET, ACC NETWORK EXTRA)
The arrow is pointing up for Dave Doeren and the Wolfpack, which have won nine games in back-to-back seasons, but NC State will have to replace three-year starter Ryan Finley at quarterback. There are four underclassmen vying for the starting job: true freshman Ty Evans, redshirt freshman Devin Leary and sophomores Bailey Hockman and Matthew McKay. Offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz left for the head-coaching job at Appalachian State, so Kurt Roper, who was most recently the quarterbacks coach at Colorado but had recent success in the Triangle as Duke’s OC, will take over the offense.
OLE MISS (4 p.m. ET, SEC NETWORK)
The Rebels are breaking in new coordinators this spring in former Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez on offense and former Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre on defense. Coming off a 5–7 season in head coach Matt Luke’s first year as full-time head coach, the Rebels have to replace Jordan Ta’amu at quarterback and their top three receivers from last season. Matt Corral is the only returning quarterback with game experience, so it’s a good bet that he’ll start at QB, though early enrollees Grant Tisdale and Kinkead Dent could also be in the mix. Mohamed Sanogo is also back at middle linebacker after leading the team in tackles in 2018.
ARKANSAS (4 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
The Razorbacks disappointed in Chad Morris’s first season as head coach by turning in a winless season in the SEC. The first order of business for the coaching staff is to identify a starting quarterback; the contenders for that role are sophomore Connor Noland and SMU graduate transfer Ben Hicks. Several offensive line departures also create some uncertainty for a team with an uphill climb in the loaded SEC West.