- As spring practices wrap up, several marquee programs are set to host spring games for the viewing public this weekend. Here are the new faces and position battles to keep an eye on.
The busiest Saturday of college football’s spring schedule is upon us. Six of the top 10 teams from last season’s final AP Poll take the field for their spring games this weekend, and many other big-time programs are also scheduled for intra-squad scrimmages. These events, which serve as program showcases for fans and recruits, probably won’t tell you which teams will make the College Football Playoff next season, but they’ll give you nuggets of information about depth charts, styles of play and how newcomers stand at the conclusion of spring ball. With games televised throughout the weekend, here are the names and stories to watch.
OKLAHOMA (Friday, 8:30 P.M. ET, FOX SPORTS OKLAHOMA)
Kyler Murray is out at quarterback, and Jalen Hurts is in. After delivering a heroic relief performance in the SEC title game against Georgia last season, Hurts left Alabama to join the Sooners as a grad transfer. Hurts, along with talented pass catchers CeeDee Lamb and Grant Calcaterra (who is out for the spring game), provides security for an offense that loses four starters on the offensive line. The key question for head coach Lincoln Riley will be whether his defense, under new coordinator Alex Grinch, can improve upon its struggles from last season, when it finished ranked 114th in the country in yards allowed. Edge rusher Ronnie Perkins is a candidate to break out after recording five sacks as a true freshman last season.
TEXAS A&M (Friday, 8:30 P.M. ET, SEC NETWORK+)
The Aggies won nine games in Jimbo Fisher’s first season as head coach and came into the spring with a ton of momentum on the recruiting trail. Quarterback Kellen Mond and nearly his entire receiving corps are back in College Station, but running back Trayveon Williams is headed to the NFL after rushing for 1,760 yards last season. Keep an eye on Jashaun Corbin, a sophomore tailback who averaged 5.7 yards per carry on 61 attempts last season, to take most of Williams’s carries. The Aggies also lose one of the best tight ends in the country in Jace Sternberger, which could give early enrollee Baylor Cupp an opportunity to get on the field. The defense loses its top two linebackers, which could give early enrollees Andre White Jr. and RJ Orebo a chance to figure in alongside incumbent starter Buddy Johnson there.
OHIO STATE (NOON ET, BIG TEN NETWORK)
There will be plenty of eyes on the sidelines in Columbus, after Urban Meyer’s retirement led to the promotion of offensive coordinator Ryan Day, a Chip Kelly disciple who served as interim head coach during Meyer’s three-game suspension last season. Quarterback Dwayne Haskins is also gone, but the Buckeyes have another highly-touted signal-caller ready to replace him: Georgia transfer Justin Fields, who avoided sitting out a year after obtaining an NCAA waiver. Ohio State loses three of its top four receivers from last season, but star running back J.K. Dobbins is back, and there are still a bunch of talented pass catchers on the roster—K.J. Hill, Binjimen Victor and Chris Olave should be Fields’s top weapons on the outside. Although the offense will garner most of the headlines, there are more question marks on defense, where the Buckeyes brought in co-coordinators Greg Mattison (a former Michigan defensive line coach) and Jeff Hafley (a former 49ers defensive backs coach) to replace DC Greg Schiano and co-DC Alex Grinch.
NOTRE DAME (12:30 P.M. ET, NBC SPORTS NETWORK)
The Fighting Irish ran through the 2018 regular season undefeated, but a 30–3 beatdown at the hands of eventual national champion Clemson left head coach Brian Kelly and his charges with a bitter taste in their mouths heading into the offseason. Starting quarterback Ian Book returns after a breakout 2018 campaign, but top rusher Dexter Williams and No. 1 wideout Miles Boykin are both gone. Chris Finke and Chase Claypool, who combined for 99 catches and 1,210 yards last season, are the most accomplished options back at receiver, and Jafar Armstrong and Tony Jones Jr. bring solid experience to the table at running back. Pass rushers Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem terrorized opposing offensive lines last season and should be formidable again, which will help offset the loss of tackle Jerry Tillery. Losing linebackers Drue Tranquill and Te’Von Coney means the Irish will be inexperienced in the middle of the defense, where senior Asmar Bilal, junior Jordan Genmark Heath and sophomore Paul Moala could move into bigger roles. Having Alohi Gilman, the Navy transfer who emerged as one of the top safeties in the country last year, should also help for an Irish team trying to keep pace with college football’s best.
FLORIDA (1 P.M. ET, SEC NETWORK ALTERNATE)
The first year of the Dan Mullen era went smoothly for the Gators, who won 10 games and capped the season with a 41–15 Peach Bowl win over Michigan. Quarterback Feleipe Franks drastically improved from 2017 to ’18, upping his completion percentage and elevating his touchdown-to-interception ratio from 1.1:1 to 4:1. Still, Mullen has said he wants an open QB competition this spring, so redshirt freshman Emory Jones, a dual-threat option who appeared in four games last season, could get a long look during the spring gsme, even though Franks remains the favorite to land the job. The Gators return their top six pass catchers from last season, but Jawaan Taylor is a big loss at right tackle, and Texas transfer Jean Delance and Noah Banks will compete for reps to replace him. The loss of Jachai Polite, who notched 11 sacks last season, leaves a glaring void at defensive end, and one of the top candidates to replace him, Jeremiah Moon, has missed the whole spring with a broken foot. Louisville transfer Jonathan Greenard had seven sacks for the Cardinals in 2017 and is a name to watch on the edge.
WISCONSIN (1 P.M. ET, BTN2Go)
After a two-year reign atop the Big Ten West, Wisconsin dropped off in 2018, failing to win double-digit games for the first time since ’13. There’s a fair bit of turnover for an offense that’s usually stable, particularly with four starters on an excellent offensive line gone from a season ago. Alex Hornibrook, the Badgers’ starting quarterback for the past three years, transferred to Florida State this offseason, but junior Jack Coan started four games last season and true freshman Graham Mertz is the highest-rated high school quarterback to ever choose Wisconsin. Most importantly for the Badgers, running back Jonathan Taylor, who finished last season as the ninth-leading vote-getter for the Heisman Trophy, is back after rushing for 4,171 yards in his first two years in Madison.
ALABAMA (2 P.M. ET, ESPN2)
After Clemson stunned the Crimson Tide with a 44–16 trouncing in the national championship game, a school-record seven Alabama underclassmen declared for the NFL draft and a slew of assistant coaches left Tuscaloosa. Despite the turnover, Nick Saban is still in charge, Heisman finalist Tua Tagovailoa returns at quarterback and the Tide bring back an electrifying quartet of wide receivers in Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle that should make them SEC and national front-runners again. Running backs Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs are off to the NFL, but Najee Harris is back after rushing for 783 yards and averaging more yards per carry than both Harris and Jacobs in 2018. The departure of Mike Locksley (now the head coach at Maryland) has put all eyes on former Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian (who has been at Alabama before), who may not change the offense dramatically in his second stint as OC but will still have his spring game performance scrutinized. The Alabama defense lost a host of playmakers—Quinnen Williams, Mack Wilson and Saivion Smith, to name a few—but there’s still a lot of talent back, too. Raekwon Davis should anchor the interior of the defensive line, and linebackers Dylan Moses and Anfernee Jennings are back to patrol the middle of the field.
MICHIGAN STATE (2 P.M. ET, BTN2Go)
After winning 10 games in 2017, the Spartans’ offense nosedived last season en route to a 7–6 finish. Notably, quarterback Brian Lewerke saw a significant dip in his play while battling a shoulder injury. He went from throwing 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 2017 to throwing just eight touchdowns to 11 picks last season. In an attempt to get more out of his offense, head coach Mark Dantonio promoted quarterbacks coach Brad Salem to offensive coordinator and moved former co-coordinators Jim Bollman and Dave Warner to jobs as position coaches. Running back Connor Heyward handled most of the backfield touches with LJ Scott injured a year ago, so he figures to slot in at running back, and there are some receivers back, but the offense must improve in all phases for Michigan State to contend in the Big Ten East this season. Defensive lineman Kenny Willekes and linebacker Joe Bachie are the headline returners for a defense that had the best rushing defense in the country by a mile last season, but with Willekes out for the spring with a broken leg, the Spartans’ depth will get extra run.
MISSISSIPPI STATE (2 P.M. ET, ESPNU)
Entering its second year under head coach Joe Moorhead, Mississippi State will have to replace a number of key contributors from last season. All-SEC first-teamers Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons are gone from the defensive line, and quarterback Nick Fitzgerald has exhausted his eligibility after starting at quarterback for three seasons. Junior Keytaon Thompson started the opener last season while Fitzgerald was suspended and appeared in six games, but redshirt freshman Jalen Mayden and early enrollee Garrett Shrader will compete for the starting job, too. The Bulldogs bring some pieces back from a defense that finished No. 1 in the country in points allowed per game in 2018, including cornerback Cameron Dantzler and linebacker Erroll Thompson. The Bulldogs’ 2019 success will likely hinge on whether Moorhead, who directed Penn State’s attacks led by Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley, can get more out of his offense.
NEBRASKA (2 P.M. ET, BIG TEN NETWORK)
Scott Frost’s first season in charge of the Cornhuskers got off to a nightmare start as Nebraska dropped its first six games, including a home loss to Troy. The ship steadied eventually, though, and Nebraska won four of its final six with dynamic true freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez emerging as a difference-maker as a dual-threat QB. Martinez threw for 2,600 yards and rushed for 629 in 2018, and some spring game highlight-reel plays will only further his status as a potential Heisman candidate by the time next season rolls around. Grad transfer Darrion Daniels is a player to watch along the defensive line.
PENN STATE (3 P.M. ET, BTN2Go)
It feels like a new era in Happy Valley for head coach James Franklin, who loses a great deal of production from last season’s iteration of the Nittany Lions. In particular, the graduation of quarterback Trace McSorley leaves a major void. McSorley had the ball in his hands more than almost any other player in college football and was the winningest signal-caller in Penn State history, so he’ll be difficult to replace. His backup last season, senior Tommy Stevens, is thought to be the next in line at quarterback, although redshirt sophomore Sean Clifford and redshirt freshman Will Levis have the chance to make things interesting if they turn heads on Saturday and close the gap any further this summer. Sophomore Ricky Slade, who had 257 rushing yards last season, and freshmen Noah Cain and Devyn Ford are the prime candidates to replace NFL-bound running back Miles Sanders. Early enrollee Brandon Smith is a name to watch at linebacker, and Yetur Gross-Matos and Robert Windsor are back on the defensive line after combining for 15.5 sacks last season.
AUBURN (4 P.M. ET, SEC NETWORK)
The Tigers were up-and-down last season, going 8–5 overall but 3–5 in the SEC. Head coach Gus Malzahn needs to pick a replacement for quarterback Jarrett Stidham, and he may turn to five-star recruit Bo Nix to run the offense in 2019 as a true freshman. Junior Malik Willis and redshirt freshmen Joey Gatewood and Cord Sandberg are also possibilities, and A-Day provides a golden opportunity to give all four a trial. One other name to watch offensively: running back JaTarvious Whitlow, who flashed star potential as a redshirt freshman last season. Star defensive lineman Derrick Brown also surprised many by opting to return to school, which gives Auburn a top-tier defensive line that gets its first public opportunity to flex its muscles on Saturday.
STANFORD (4 P.M. ET, PAC-12 NETWORK)
The Cardinal won nine games last season under head coach David Shaw, and they have some key pieces coming back to boost their Pac-12 title ambitions, including K.J. Costello, who returns at quarterback after a successful 2018 season without the usual services of injury-riddled running back Bryce Love. Offensively, it could be tough to take much from the spring game because there are a host of injuries on the offensive line, but there are key depth chart questions on defense, specifically at linebacker, that Shaw could move closer to an answer on. Curtis Robinson, who has experience as an outside linebacker, will move inside this spring, but linebacker is a question mark nonetheless after the losses of Bobby Okereke and Joey Alfieri. Sophomore Paulson Adebo also returns as one of the best cornerbacks in the country.
MICHIGAN (5 P.M. ET, NOT TELEVISED)
Jim Harbaugh has won 10 games in three of his first four seasons in Ann Arbor, but his inability to win The Game continues to draw most of the attention surrounding the Wolverines. This year, with Urban Meyer gone and Ohio State coming to the Big House, Harbaugh may have his best chance yet to take down the Buckeyes. This spring, Michigan breaks in new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, who will be tasked with squeezing every ounce of production out of returning quarterback Shea Patterson. It’s reasonable to assume Patterson and the offense will operate at a quicker tempo under Gattis in an effort to generate more explosive plays, but the structure of the offense, and how much more aggressive Harbaugh is willing to be, is still up in the air. Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary are big losses on the defensive line, so players like Josh Uche, Kwity Paye and Michael Dwumfour will likely assume elevated roles for revered coordinator Don Brown. The Wolverines’ spring game is just a scrimmage at the end of practice, so it won’t be as much of a game-like experience as some of the others here.
TEXAS (7:30 P.M. ET, LONGHORN NETWORK)
“Longhorn Nation, we’re baaaaaaack.” These are the words Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger proclaimed after a Sugar Bowl win over Georgia to close last season, and he had a point. In 2018, Ehlinger emerged as one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation by totaling nearly 3,800 yards and 41 touchdowns as a sophomore. Ehlinger gives head coach Tom Herman a dynamic playmaker to build the offense around, but the Longhorns need more out of their running backs than they got last season. Keaontay Ingram figures to be the feature back after rushing for 708 yards as a freshman. On defense, there are some questions as the Longhorns have to replace eight starters. Caden Sterns is a budding star at safety, and defensive linemen Malcolm Roach and Joseph Ossai are primed for bigger roles after showing promise at the close of last season. If the scrimmage itself doesn’t entice you, Ludacris is performing after the game.