By Zac Ellis
The official start of the college football season may still be more than three months away, but the first glimpses of each team come every year during spring practice. Spring isn’t always an accurate barometer for what to expect in the fall, but there were still a handful of noteworthy developments over the last two months nonetheless. A redshirt freshman quarterback raised a few eyebrows with his play in Tallahassee. A couple of new coaches kicked off their debut campaigns in the SEC. And off the field, the long-awaited College Football Playoff finally started to take shape.
Here are 10 lessons we learned from spring football across the country:
1. The Jameis Winston era is beginning at FSU
The search for a new starting quarterback was primed to be the major storyline at Florida State, as EJ Manuel, who threw for 7,736 career yards and 47 touchdowns in four years with the Seminoles, was selected in the first round of last month’s NFL draft. But while Jameis Winston and Clint Trickett originally appeared set for a lengthy position battle, Trickett's recent transfer to West Virginia leaves the door wide open for Winston, a redshirt freshman who wowed coaches during workouts.
Coach Jimbo Fisher stopped short of anointing Winston the starter, stating only that Winston will continue to split reps with fellow freshman Jacob Coker. But Winston’s performance throughout the spring -- especially in the ‘Noles spring game, when he finished 12-of-15 for 205 passing yards and two touchdowns -- was convincing enough to force Trickett to leave, so the competition likely isn’t as tight as Fisher would lead us to believe. Just ask former Florida State great Charlie Ward, who watched Winston pick apart the defense on April 13. “He’s special,” Ward told the Orlando Sentinel, “there’s no question about it.”
2. Oregon’s offense shouldn’t miss a beat
Chip who? Even without its old coach roaming the sidelines, the Ducks’ offense looked just as potent as ever in its first spring game under new coach Mark Helfrich. The high-flying attack reeled off 65 points, 802 yards and nine touchdowns on April 27. Fresh off a breakout freshman season, quarterback Marcus Mariota appeared ready to avoid a sophomore slump; he finished 13-of-15 for 169 yards and two scores in only four series of action.
That’s all good news for Oregon, which finished second in the country in scoring last season (49.5 points per game). But the Ducks’ offensive success shouldn’t come as a surprise: Helfrich was Kelly’s offensive coordinator in each of the past four seasons and returns a handful of key pieces to his attack. Mariota could turn into a bona fide Heisman contender, and running back De’Anthony Thomas has the all-around skill to fill the void left by Kenjon Barner’s exit in the backfield. Perhaps most importantly, eight of the 10 coaches from last season’s staff remained at Oregon, meaning it’s business as usual in Eugene.
3. Kentucky fans are ready … for football?
The hoops heads in the Bluegrass State certainly looked like football fans during Kentucky’s spring practice. Thanks to the spark provided by new head coach Mark Stoops, Big Blue faithful put together a massive turnout at the Wildcats’ spring game, with 50,831 fans venturing to Commonwealth Stadium to watch a team that finished 0-8 in SEC play last season. Only 4,500 fans witnessed Kentucky’s spring scrimmage in 2012. This year’s attendance number amounted to the largest spring crowd in program history, a testament to Stoops’ effect on the program in only a few short months.
Still, while Wildcats fans might already be on the bandwagon, the roster could require some time to rebuild. Former coach Joker Phillips’ final two seasons with the team produced a 7-17 record, and Kentucky finished 13th in the SEC in total offense and 12th in total defense last season, respectively. But what Stoops is selling must be working: After three seasons without a recruiting class ranked higher than 50th nationally, according to Rivals.com, Kentucky hauled in the 29th-ranked class just two months after Stoops took over. It’s still early, but the coach may be building something to believe in.
4. Lane Kiffin is still trying to replace Matt Barkley
USC fell well short of expectations last season, when then team with a preseason No. 1 ranking in the AP Poll limped to an underwhelming 7-6 campaign. But while Barkley didn’t look his sharpest during that run, the four-year starting quarterback’s departure still leaves a gaping hole for Kiffin to fill. The Trojans have plenty of questions to answer to put last season’s disappointment behind them, but perhaps none is more pressing than the one under center.
Despite the relative urgency, Kiffin wasn’t ready to name a starter at the conclusion of spring practice. Sophomore Cody Kessler led the way in the spring game, completing 15-of-22 passes for 242 yards and three touchdowns, but Max Wittek, who turned in a couple of unmemorable outings in place of an injured Barkley last season, remains in the mix. So is true freshman Max Browne. Fortunately, the Trojans return four players across the offensive line, as well as Biletnikoff Award winning receiver Marqise Lee. However, if USC can’t find a capable leader at quarterback, it could be another rough year for Kiffin and Co. in L.A.
5. Ohio State is ready, and eligible
The undefeated Buckeyes had to sit and watch other teams jostle for BCS position in 2012 while dealing with self-imposed sanctions. But this year, Urban Meyer’s program is once again eligible for the postseason, and, like other teams that didn’t earn bowl berths, it practiced for the first time this spring since late November. So the focus was on making up for lost time.
Meyer returns much of last year’s unbeaten roster, including quarterback Braxton Miller, the 2012 Big Ten offensive player of the year. Miller finished 16-of-25 for 217 passing yards and three total touchdowns in the spring game. In all, Ohio State brings back nine offensive starters from a unit that led the Big Ten with an average of 37.2 points per game. “I would be disappointed if we’re not the best offense in the Big Ten,” Meyer said after the spring scrimmage. Still, questions remain in Columbus. The Buckeyes bring back only four returning starters on defense.
6. Alabama’s offense is still finding its footing
Nick Saban’s program is known for its routinely dominant defense, but its offense played a crucial role in Alabama’s third BCS title run in four seasons. The Crimson Tide averaged 445.5 yards per game in 2012, a total that ranked fourth in the SEC and 31st in the country, respectively. If the team’s spring game was any indication, though, there’s still some fine-tuning left to do in Tuscaloosa.
Returning quarterback AJ McCarron finished 19-of-30 for 223 yards and a score, but he also tossed two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown. The teams combined for nine turnovers, prompting the usual spring groans from Saban. Alabama’s offense brings back a number of key players, including McCarron, receiver Amari Cooper and running back T.J. Yeldon, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards as Eddie Lacy’s backup last year. But it returns just two starters on the offensive line, and a relatively green unit will need to shape up before ‘Bama opens against Virginia Tech this fall. But as Saban noted after the scrimmage, he’s witnessed the same struggles with previous championship rosters. “I wasn’t happy with any of those teams at this point,” he said.
7. UCLA’s future looks bright
The Bruins won their most games since 2005 (nine) in Jim Mora Jr.’s first season at the helm in 2012, and that momentum carried over to spring practice, where there was a palpable feeling of optimism. UCLA returns a proven quarterback in Brett Hundley, who threw for 3,740 yards and 29 touchdowns in 14 starts last year. And he performed well in the spring scrimmage; he passed for 179 yards and two scores.
UCLA also brings back leading receiver Shaquelle Evans, but the offense must replace 1,700-yard tailback Johnathan Franklin, the program’s all-time leading rusher, as well as five additional starters. But Mora added a big part of his future rushing equation when former Pitt tailback Rushel Shell, one of the top running back prospects in the class 2012, opted to transfer to the Bruins last month. Shell will have to sit out the 2013 season to regain eligibility, but coupled with Mora’s recent recruiting success -- his 2013 class ranked eighth in Rivals.com’s rankings -- there’s plenty of reason to expect the program’s resurgence to continue.
8. Jadeveon Clowney should be ready to dominate
South Carolina’s monster defensive end might have been the top overall pick in last month’s NFL draft had he been eligible to leave the Gamecocks after his sophomore season. In fact, that’s why many analysts questioned whether or not Clowney would even play in 2013 to avoid risking injury. Clowney was limited in spring practice, and aside from a 54-yard touchdown grab from the sidelines in the spring game, he didn’t suit up for the scrimmage. But missing the entire season reportedly never crossed the junior’s mind. Now, there’s no reason to think he won’t continue his defensive dominance come fall.
Entering 2013, Clowney sits just eight sacks and 19 tackles for loss shy of South Carolina’s all-time records. With a repeat of his 2012 production, Clowney would surpass both of those marks. The only question: With the Gamecocks returning just five starters on defense, is Clowney ready to take on a heavier workload? As of now, all signs point to yes.
9. Gus Malzahn's return has Auburn fans giddy
After suffering through a dismal 2012 season in which the Tigers finished 3-9 and 0-8 in the SEC, Auburn fans breathed a sigh of relief when the school lured Gus Malzahn back after just one season at Arkansas State. And in a relatively short amount of time, the new coach has managed to inject life into the program he helped guide to the BCS title three seasons ago; an Auburn-record 83,401 fans showed up to the annual A-Day spring game, the biggest turnout of any spring game in the country. The offense showed signs of life in the scrimmage, scoring six total touchdowns -- four more than last spring’s mark. Juco tailback Cameron Artis-Payne was the star, racking up 117 rushing yards and 47 receiving yards.
Now, the Tigers’ turnaround could continue into the fall. Malzahn inked a highly touted recruiting class, and he brings a clear sense of familiarity to Auburn’s attack. That’s welcome news after a season of offensive ineptitude: The Tigers mustered only 156.6 passing yards per game (112th in the nation) and scored fewer than 20 points seven different times last year.
10. We have a playoff!
It’s finally official. As spring practice wound to a close, conference commissioners announced some of the details surrounding the upcoming college football playoff, which is named, well, the College Football Playoff. Following two semifinal bowls, the first College Football Championship Game will kick off on Jan. 12, 2015 at Cowboys Stadium, ending the 15-year run of the oft-criticized BCS.
One more season exists under the current system, but the playoff still generated plenty of discussion this spring. The issue of playing eight or nine conference games continues to gain steam, and many continue to wonder who might comprise the playoff selection committee -- and how they’ll be selected. There’s much left to figure out, but one thing is clear: The playoff’s unveiling last month has fans more excited than ever for the future of the sport.MANDEL: Breaking down the new College Football Playoff