Spring football has wrapped up for most FBS programs, and with that, we’ll have to hit pause on speculating about Tua Tagovailoa’s hand, Shea Patterson’s eligibility, who will replace Saquon Barkley—or whatever other line of inquiry has dominated your favorite team’s offseason. All those storylines and more will return with added urgency by the time fall camp begins in just about three months, obscuring any sweeping conclusions drawn in the spring months, but first, a moment of recognition for these six players whose 2018 outlook improved during spring practice.
Nebraska QB Adrian Martinez
First-year coach Scott Frost has a quarterback decision to make, with Martinez, the jewel of Frost’s first recruiting class, and redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia in a two-man race now that Patrick O’Brien has decided to transfer. (Sophomore walk-on Andrew Bunch remains on the roster.) If Martinez is not the outright favorite after his strong spring, then he has certainly made a legitimate case for Frost to open with a true freshman calling the shots. Martinez threw for 114 yards, ran for 60 and accounted for four touchdowns in the spring game, a performance that came close to overshadowing the mere presence of Frost on Nebraska’s sideline.
There likely won’t be a final word on the quarterback battle until fall camp, but Martinez’s mobility should swing the coaching staff in his favor. The rest of the Cornhuskers’ quarterbacks—including UCF transfer Noah Vedral, who will sit out the season—were ineffective in the running game on Saturday, while Martinez shone with both his pocket presence and his speed.
Florida DE Antonneous Clayton
Clayton was the top-rated recruit in Florida’s class and the No. 27 player in the country according to the 247Sports Composite, but he has barely played in his first two seasons in Gainesville, logging just 10 tackles so far. If spring practice is any indication, that’s about to change. The 6'2", 254-pound weakside end started spring ball getting most of his reps with the No. 3 defense, but he rose through the ranks and managed back-to-back sacks in Florida’s spring game. The new coaching staff might just be the spark Clayton needs to become a factor.
LSU RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire
The Tigers lost Derrius Guice to the NFL, but just as Guice seamlessly replaced Leonard Fournette last year, the next running back up should do just fine. Edwards-Helaire, Guice’s former high school teammate at Baton Rouge Catholic who arrived on campus to rave reviews last year, stood out in an April 14 scrimmage with 18 carries for 109 yards (and five touchdowns, mostly from short yardage). In the spring game the next weekend, he logged another 74 yards, and though he’ll see competition from senior Nick Brossette (who scored five times himself in an early April scrimmage) incoming freshman Chris Curry, the job looks like it’s his to keep for the fall.
Alabama QB Mac Jones
Alabama quarterbacks not named Tua Tagovailoa had a chance to shine in the Crimson Tide’s spring game over the weekend, and it seemed like the quarterback with the best shot at making a positive impression was Jalen Hurts, the two-year starter Tagovailoa replaced in the national title game. Instead, redshirt freshman third-stringer Jones stole the show. Hurts looked unsteady in the A-Day game, exhibiting some of the same uneasiness in the pocket that led to his benching and prompting some pointed criticism from Nick Saban that was picked up by ESPN’s mics. Meanwhile, Jones completed 23 of 35 passes for 289 yards, with two touchdown passes and one interception.
Granted, the odds of Jones winning the job remain long. It’s likely that Hurts will transfer if he doesn’t win the starting job, and in that scenario, only an injury would keep Tagovailoa off the field. That said, Jones’s big day should provide some reassurance that Alabama’s second string won’t be in dire straits if the loser of the quarterback battles does end up leaving the team.
West Virginia QB Will Grier
As the incumbent starter, Grier had nothing on the line during spring ball, but the quarterback turnover elsewhere at the top of the Big 12 has him positioned for a big year as long as he stays healthy all the way to December. Grier is the presumptive favorite to be the best trigger man in the conference after he threw for 3,490 yards and completed 64.4% of his passes for 3,490 yards and 34 touchdowns with 12 interceptions in a 2017 season cut short by a hand injury. Still, those 12 picks were the most in the league, and Grier will need to improve his decision-making next season to give the Mountaineers a conference title shot—and keep his name in contention for the Heisman. West Virginia canceled its spring game due to a snowy forecast, but multiple reports out of Morgantown told of an impressive few weeks of practice for Grier.
UCLA QB Austin Burton
Under new coach Chip Kelly, UCLA has no shortage of quarterbacks competing to replace Josh Rosen; the Bruins went through spring ball with four QBs (Burton, fellow sophomores Devon Modster and Matt Lynch and redshirt freshman Jackson Gibbs) and will have two more on campus in time for fall camp (Michigan grad transfer Wilton Speight and freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson).
Going into the spring, Modster and Lynch were considered favorites for the job—and they still might be—but Burton is earning more frequent mention in a competition so crowded, it might as well be anyone’s to win. Burton was the only quarterback to pass for more than 100 yards in the spring game, finishing the day with 116 yards, a touchdown and an interception and reportedly looking comfortable during the downs he played. When the Bruins reconvene this summer, Burton should get a shot to make his case in the crowded battle for the starting job.