- With Georgia and Oregon in action this weekend, here's what to watch as the last few playoff hopefuls wind down spring practice.
The spring football season is coming to a close. Most programs have wrapped up spring practice, but there are still a few notable exhibition games left in the final two weekends of April. You can’t learn everything about a team from its spring game, but you can get a sense of where certain players fall on the depth chart, and in the televised games, the announcers often drop valuable nuggets of information from their time around the program in the days leading up to the game.
Spring games can also serve as checkpoints in ongoing position battles, and the transfer portal has heated up recently as players have been notified of where they stand heading into the summer. This weekend is really the final big one for spring games, and it’s the last weekend with live football games on TV until the season gets going in the fall.
With that in mind, here are the storylines and players to watch on Saturday:
MIAMI (NOON ET, NOT TELEVISED)
Mark Richt abruptly stepped down after a disappointing 7–6 finish in 2018, so Miami called back its defensive coordinator of the past three seasons, Manny Diaz, to take over the job after an 18-day stint as the head coach at Temple. Diaz, the son of former Miami mayor Manny Diaz Sr., is tasked with reviving the once-dominant program, and his chances for immediate improvement in year one start with the quarterback position. Miami has been active in the transfer market this offseason, most notably by landing Ohio State transfer quarterback Tate Martell, who earned an NCAA waiver to gain immediate eligibility. Martell has reportedly struggled this spring, but it’ll likely be him or redshirt sophomore N’Kosi Perry, who started several games last season, under center in 2019. Redshirt freshman Jarren Williams is in the race too.
The Hurricanes bring back a trio of talented linebackers that should keep the defense steady, led by first-team all-ACC pick Shaq Quarterman, but the major questions this spring come on offense, where Dan Enos has taken over as coordinator after spending one year as Alabama’s quarterbacks coach. Saturday’s spring game in Orlando, which is really the second of two open practices, will provide one final look at the quarterbacks before the summer gets underway.
GEORGIA (2 p.m. ET, SEC NETWORK)
Close losses to Alabama have defined the past two seasons for the Bulldogs, who came up just short in the national championship game two seasons ago and the SEC title game this past December. Four of the Bulldogs’ top five receivers are gone, leaving Jeremiah Holloman and Miami transfer Lawrence Cager as the most accomplished receivers back. Most importantly, Jake Fromm returns for his third season as starting quarterback, this year without Justin Fields lurking behind him on the depth chart. There’s some rebuilding to do on defense with several key starters gone and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker off to be the head coach at Colorado, but there’s talent back with safeties J.R. Reed and Richard LeCounte and linebackers Monty Rice and Tae Crowder. The spring game will give head coach Kirby Smart a chance to get looks at a green group of receivers and a new-look defensive line.
UCLA (2 p.m. ET, PAC-12 NETWORK)
There’s basically nowhere to go but up for UCLA in year two of the Chip Kelly era. Five straight losses to start the year set the tone for a 3–9 season in 2018, but the Bruins did beat USC. Highly-touted true freshman QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson started seven games last season in a debut defined by injury and inconsistency, struggling with his accuracy throwing down the field. How much he improves will likely determine UCLA’s success more than anything else this fall. Running back Joshua Kelley broke out for 1,243 rushing yards last season after transferring from UC Davis, so he should help provide balance and stability for the offense. The defense, which struggled last season, has a good percentage of its production back up front and in the secondary, but all eyes will be on Thompson-Robinson and Kelly’s offense Saturday.
WASHINGTON STATE (4 p.m. ET, PAC-12 NETWORK)
Mike Leach and the Cougars are coming off an 11-win season, but star quarterback Gardner Minshew is gone. Leach may turn to another grad transfer at quarterback this season in Gage Gubrud, who put up massive passing numbers at the FCS level for Eastern Washington. Gubrud’s track record would seem to give him the edge, but an ankle injury has limited his availability this spring, meaning that redshirt seniors Anthony Gordon and Trey Tinsley may take the spotlight on Saturday. The defensive line loses several key contributors, though West Virginia transfer nose tackle Lamonte McDougle could be an instant-impact addition after sitting out last season per NCAA transfer rules.
The spring game will give the coaching staff an opportunity to gauge replacements at quarterback, running back and left tackle heading into the summer. Regression seems likely for the Cougars in 2019 with so many key pieces from last fall gone, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone if a team coached by Mike Leach exceeds expectations again.
OREGON (5 p.m. ET, PAC-12 NETWORK)
The Ducks enter Mario Cristobal’s second season as head coach with a real chance to win the Pac-12. Oregon has a future first-round pick in quarterback Justin Herbert, 17 total returning starters and a top-10 recruiting class to provide an infusion of young talent. All five starters on the offensive line return, though wide receiver Dillon Mitchell’s departure leaves some question of who the go-to options will be at wide receiver. Penn State grad transfer Juwan Johnson should help, and returners Jaylon Redd and Brendan Schooler are also relatively experienced on the outside. Kayvon Thibodeaux, who was considered the No. 1 overall recruit in the class of 2019 by some outlets, will be a player to watch at defensive end as he works to earn playing time right away.
With Herbert leading the charge, the question for Oregon is whether it can challenge for a playoff spot this season. The spring game probably won’t say much about the Ducks’ ceiling, but it will at least showcase the talent Cristobal and his staff are collecting in Eugene.