At Ohio State, the nation’s most prominent position battle looks set to be waged at quarterback upon the return from injury of Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett. This spring, the spotlight belongs to Cardale Jones.
So which position battles require close attention over the next few weeks?
Michigan quarterbacks: It’s wide-open, with junior Shane Morris, redshirt freshman Wilton Speight and true freshman Alex Malzone auditioning for Jim Harbaugh and coordinator Tim Drevno. Speight owns a size advantage. Morris has played in parts of the past two seasons, but was ineffective in place of Devin Gardner. The spring serves only as an appetizer in this race, which figures to extend to August, when freshman Zach Gentry joins the fun.
Minnesota running backs: David Cobb meant so much to the Gophers over the past two seasons as they rolled to 16 wins. Minnesota likely can’t replace his production with one back, though redshirt freshman Jeff Jones -- a homegrown, elite recruit from the Class of 2013 -- looks physically equipped to give it a shot. Senior Rodrick Williams Jr. (who showed flashes late in the year), sophomore Berkley Edwards and redshirt freshman Rodney Smith will likely also factor in the battle for the top job.
Ohio State cornerbacks: Opposite Eli Apple, the Buckeyes must replace Doran Grant. It’s no easy task, considering Grant’s value to the Ohio State defense during its national title run. But sophomores Gareon Conley and Damon Webb look up to the task. Conley played considerably more last season after a redshirt year that followed his arrival in Columbus as the No. 1 prospect in Ohio in 2013. Webb, the top prospect out of Michigan a year later, figures to make a jump after limited action last year.
Penn State offensive tackles: The urgency here outweighs the options, and the Nittany Lions have plenty of candidates to replace Donovan Smith, gone early to the NFL. Andrew Nelson started as a freshman at right tackle and may take over on the left side. Opposite Nelson, the race is on, with redshirt freshmen Noah Beh, Brendan Brosnan, Chance Sorrell and Chasz Wright set to enter the mix. Newcomer Paris Palmer, a junior, may be the man to beat, though. True freshman Sterling Jenkins joined the program in January.
Purdue quarterbacks: Juniors Austin Appleby and Danny Etling bring considerable starting experience into the spring. Redshirt freshman David Blough, who came to Purdue with credentials equally as impressive as the other two, has yet to take a collegiate snap. But for the Boilermakers, who’ve won just one Big Ten game behind the elder quarterbacks over the past two seasons, it’s all hands on deck.
Nebraska I-backs: This is a legitimate four-man race to replace three-time 1,000-yard rusher Ameer Abdullah. Senior Imani Cross has the size and experience, with 22 career touchdowns. Junior Terrell Newby is a quicker option with skills perhaps well suited to Mike Riley’s offense. Sophomore Adam Taylor offers an impressive mix of power and speed but missed last season with a knee injury. Redshirt freshman Mikale Wilbon showed promise last year in scout-team duty.
Michigan safeties: The Wolverines have a lot back at safety, including surefire starter Jarrod Wilson. But competition for the other spot may grow fierce between the likes of senior Jeremy Clark and juniors Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas. Most intriguing, Jabrill Peppers, after injuries shortened his much-hyped true freshman season, has taken spring snaps at safety. Michigan coaches continue to audition defensive backs, so it may take much of the spring to sort out who is vying for specific spots.
Rutgers running backs: If healthy, rising senior Paul James has earned the top spot. But James needed knee surgery last fall and has battled other injuries. He’s out this spring, leaving a glut of young backs to fight for time. Sophomore Robert Martin finished last season on a strong note, but not as well as classmate Josh Hicks, who gashed North Carolina for 202 yards in the Quick Lane Bowl. Juniors Justin Goodwin and Desmon Peoples, who led the Scarlet Knights in rushing last season, add flavor to this competition.
Northwestern quarterbacks: Senior Zack Oliver is the man with the most experience as the Wildcats prepare to replace Trevor Siemian. But Oliver’s late-season turnover trouble helped open this race up for sophomore Matt Alviti and redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson. Each of the three brings a different set of skills, so a decision would help simplify matters as the season nears.
But like so many other issues in college sports, those stipends may also carry unintended consequences. Because the amount each school offers can be very different, some people are afraid it will become a recruiting incentive.
PennLive.com's David Jones covered this situation well on Tuesday. Based on current cost-of-attendance data, as determined by university financial aid departments, Penn State will offer the highest cost-of-attendance stipend in the Big Ten when it goes into effect next school year, at $4,788 per year per athlete. The next highest would be Wisconsin at $4,265.
Compare that to Michigan State, which would offer $1,872 per year, or Michigan at $2,054. OK, you might say, that's only a difference of about $2,000 or $3,000, so why would a recruit choose a school based on that? But add that figure up over the four or five years of a player's career, and you're talking about a difference of maybe $15,000. That's not exactly peanuts.
Some coaches are worried about how this is all going to play out.
"To me, it's going to get into being like free agency in college," Maryland coach Randy Edsall told me on signing day. "What we've heard is that some schools might have a cost of attendance of up to $6,000. Now, will kids opt to go where they can get more money? Have we opened up a can of worms, where now it becomes, 'How much money can I get at this school, compared to the other one?'"
The stipends haven't gone into effect yet and are still so new that it's hard to say for sure what will happen. But Penn State's James Franklin, who looks for every edge he can find in recruiting, has said he would use cost of attendance as a selling point.
"I know people were already selling that this year," Edsall said. "It's going to be bigger as we move forward."
The disparity in the stipend amounts isn't going to change, because those numbers are based on individual schools' tuition costs and other factors. Power 5 conference leaders have always known that the figures would vary from program to program.
But were they actually ready for this measure -- however well-intentioned -- to become a recruiting tool? We'll probably find out the first time a team loses a player who chose to go with a rival because of its higher stipend. Just another reminder that almost every change in college sports leads to another issue.
Around the league ...
- The legend of Jim Harbaugh grows daily.
- Michigan State is getting competitive in its winter workouts. Connor Cook is more comfortable with audibles.
- Minnesota was eager to open its spring practice on Tuesday. And Jeff Jones made a good first impression.
- Five things to watch during Maryland's spring practice.
- A look at some Nebraska defenders who could make a move this spring.
- Get an inside look at Northwestern's spring drills with this well-made video.
- A new honor for Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott: he had a baby penguin named after him. Urban Meyer is the most followed college football coach on Twitter, but Harbaugh is gaining.
- A walk-on kicker joined Penn State.
- Rutgers is pursuing a top Georgia running back.
- SI.com has a Big Ten spring primer.
- Former Wisconsin running backs recall their memories of John Settle, who's back in Madison coaching that position.
- Purdue is paying its assistants a bit more.
- Iowa's Carl Davis talks about his draft prospects in this Q&A.
A telltale sign of spring practice is a depth chart filled with ORs.
Coaches preach year-round competition, but it's a theme that resonates strongest during the 15 practices each spring. It's the first chapter of a team's story, and position battles often form subplots for the coming season.
Not every position will be settled by the end of the spring. Some of the nation's most intriguing spots, like the quarterback positions for national champion Ohio State and runner-up Oregon, likely won't be decided until preseason camp because of lingering injuries (Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett) or impending arrivals (Vernon Adams). But the spring provides clues about which players can take the OR away and cement themselves into key roles.
As teams continue to begin spring ball, here are 12 position competitions to track around the country (in alphabetical order). Not surprisingly, the list is quarterback heavy but features a few other spots of intrigue.
Jim Harbaugh's heroics at Michigan apparently stretch beyond the football field.
Harbaugh and one of the football program's support staffers stopped to help a pair of women who had been in a car crash on the interstate Tuesday afternoon.
A university spokesman confirmed that the Wolverines' head coach and football operations director Jim Minick provided first aid and offered their coats to the women as they waited for law enforcement to arrive shortly before 3 p.m.
The police report said the car flipped multiple times while rolling over the median on I-94 before coming to a stop in a snow embankment. No other vehicles were involved in the crash. The 53-year-old driver was partially ejected from the car through the driver's side window. She and her 73-year-old passenger were both wearing seat belts and had "non-life-threatening injuries." They were transported to a local hospital via ambulance.
Harbaugh and Minick were on their way to the airport when they saw the car and stopped to help. Michigan started its spring practice Feb. 23 but will not practice this week during the university's spring break.
In the 2016 class, there are a trio of prospects who rank among the best in the area, state and country.
Fils-aime hot on the trail despite injury in 2014
Headed into the 2014 season, ESPNJr300 running back Carlin Fils-aime was a name known to college coaches, and had a handful of offers. After injuring his ankle in Game 4 caused him to miss the rest of the season, the quick and powerful back was unsure what would come of his recruitment.
That question was answered in February with offers from Ohio State, Alabama, Auburn, and Florida.
"After I got injured, I didn’t really expect to get any more offers," Said Fils-aime. "When those schools offered me I was pretty shocked because of my injury."
The Gators are one of several schools the 5-foot-10, 175-pounder plans to visit in the coming weeks.
"For now, we are trying to go up to Florida during spring break, but if not will get up there in the summer. We also want to visit Georgia, North Carolina, N.C. State if we can this summer. I’ll probably fly up to Ohio State, too. I was just at Miami, and had a great time. I was impressed with how they rotated their backs in practice, and the basketball game against North Carolina was fun."
If there is one program yet to offer that could be a game-changer in the physical back's recruitment, it would be Stanford.
"I’m a big Stanford fan. I have always liked them because they have a great law program, and if football doesn’t work out for me, I want to go into law. That is one of the schools that I do love."
Naples High head coach Bill Kramer has had some really good backs through the years, including former Ohio State star Carlos Hyde. In Fils-aime, Kramer has a talented athlete who brings a lunch-pail mentality.
"I love his competitive DNA," Said Kramer. "He works in the classroom, and is already qualified. He’s a guy that you can count on, and it matters to him every day. Our defensive players say hitting him is like hitting a light pole. He’s can make plays in really small spaces, understands leverage, and is really explosive."
Byrd one of the nation's best
The Miami Hurricanes' 2016 class is the best in the nation in the early going. One of the 10 ESPNJr 300 verbals is former Florida pledge Tyler Byrd. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound versatile prospect is blessed with rare talent according to Kramer.
"I think he’s a Top 50 wide receiver and Top 10 corner. He’s really strong physically, he’s almost 6-feet even, you are not going to outleap him, and if he gets his hands on you, you are negated. He’ll do something about every day that is just spectacular."
Though Byrd is solid with his commitment to the Hurricanes due to the love that Al Golden and staff showed throughout the entire process, programs such as Florida, Georgia, Michigan, and others remain under consideration. On Monday, Byrd said he planned to make all five of his official visits.
Riley the best on defense at Naples High
While Fils-aime and Byrd are names known both regionally and nationally on the recruiting radar, Naples High is home to one of the top sleepers in the Sunshine State in safety Chris Riley.
According to Kramer, the 6-foot-3, 180-pound talented all-around athlete is the team's best defensive player, which is saying something considering Byrd is on that same unit.
"Our best defensive player, and that’s saying something because we have some really good players. He was Southwest Florida Defensive Player of the Year for good reason. He has tremendous length, he’s physical, knows all of his run fits, and is a great tackler. We can’t count how many one-on-one tackles he’s made in space against really good players. He can also cover man, is terrific in zone, and understands how it all works and fits together."
Riley is receiving interest from North Carolina, Boston College, and a growing list of others.
"I’ve heard from North Carolina, Boston College, Purdue, Georgia Tech, Harvard and Yale," Said Riley. "North Carolina and Boston College are two I really want [offers]."
Riley had 103 tackles and two interceptions as a junior, taking home area Defensive Player of the Year honors, as well as being an all-area punter. Riley’s father, Chris Riley, played quarterback at Connecticut.
Defensive tackle Colton Strickland and kicker Jerry Nunez are also expected to receive offers in the 2016 class.
Which Big Ten players have the most at stake during spring ball?
Michigan RB Derrick Green: A heralded 2013 recruit, Green struggled with his weight as a freshman and showed some promise early last season before sustaining a broken clavicle. Jim Harbaugh's power-based offense seems ideal for Green's size and skill set, but the rising junior must assert himself this spring. Green isn't the only power back competing for the starting spot as De'Veon Smith and USC transfer Ty Isaac also are in the mix.
Maryland WR Levern Jacobs: After a productive 2013 season (47 receptions, 640 yards), Jacobs was set to start for Maryland before being suspended for the season for his role in a July altercation. Jacobs was found not guilty of assault in December and could emerge as Maryland's top receiving option as the team must replace standouts Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, who combined for 113 receptions and 1,367 yards last fall.
Rutgers QB Chris Laviano: Laviano served as Gary Nova's backup last season, but there's no guarantee he will be the Scarlet Knights' starter in 2015. He must beat out talented LSU transfer Hayden Rettig this spring. Laviano's experience must boost him as Rettig seemingly has all the tools to guide an offense returning standout receiver Leonte Carroo.
Ohio State LB Raekwon McMillan: The jewel of Ohio State's 2014 recruiting class stepped into the fire last season and had respectable results (54 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, one interception). He now must take on a bigger role as Ohio State has a hole to fill at middle linebacker and undoubtedly sees McMillan, a freakish athlete, as the future.
Michigan DB Jabrill Peppers: Peppers is flipping out with excitement about spring ball after a much-anticipated freshman season that didn't go according to plan. The No. 2 player in the 2014 recruiting class missed most of last fall with injuries but has the skills to bolster Michigan's secondary, if he proves himself to a new defensive staff led by coordinator D.J. Durkin. Peppers will take reps at safety and cornerback this spring.
Minnesota's redshirt freshman WRs: A passing offense ranked 119th nationally last season is preventing Minnesota from taking the next step, and the Gophers lose dynamic tight end Maxx Williams to the NFL draft. Receiver depth should be the team's top priority, and four redshirt freshmen -- Desmond Gant, Isaiah Gentry, Melvin Holland Jr. and Jerry Gibson -- take on bigger roles this spring. All four have good size, and hopes are especially high for Gentry.
Penn State OT Andrew Nelson: Some will put quarterback Christian Hackenberg on the prove-it list, but the junior showed in 2013 what he can do with a capable offensive line blocking for him. Big Ten coaches were adamant Hackenberg's struggles last season primarily stemmed from the issues up front. He will need better protection from players like Nelson, who started every game as a redshirt freshman last season and could move from right tackle to the left side.
Wisconsin QB Joel Stave: He is 21-7 as the Badgers' starting quarterback but comes off of a season where he completed a career-low 53.4 percent of his passes and threw more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (9). Perhaps the return of coach Paul Chryst is just what Stave needs to cement himself as the starter and finish his career strong. If not, challengers are waiting.
Nebraska WR Jamal Turner: Nebraska upgraded its passing game late in Bo Pelini's tenure and could take another step under Mike Riley, who produced plenty of standout wideouts at Oregon State. Turner has been unlucky on the injury front but still brings unique skills to a receiver corps looking for someone to complement Jordan Westerkamp and fill the void left by Kenny Bell. It's now or never for Turner, who arrived at Nebraska with so much hype.
The same cannot be said of at least five teams in the Big Ten this spring.
Ohio State -- clearly not on any quarterback-deprived list -- and Michigan made this rundown by Ben Kercheval of Bleacher Report on the top QB battles of spring. It includes predicted post-spring leaders at the position.
Michigan practice is already underway, though on break this week.
Maryland and Nebraska get started before the end of the week in addition to Minnesota. The Terrapins, while likely set with Caleb Rowe, who's expected back from knee surgery in plenty of time for fall camp, are splitting time between Shane Cockerille and Perry Hills in the spring.
Let's take a look at the best Big Ten spring QB battles, sans Ohio State, where it won't get all that interesting until closer to summer:
Michigan candidates: Shane Morris (junior next season), Wilton Speight (redshirt freshman) and Alex Malzone (true freshman)
Predicted post-spring leader: Morris, simply because of his experience. But this race will extend into the spring, when true freshman Zach Gentry joins the mix. And don't go to sleep on a summer surprise.
Iowa candidates: Jake Rudock (senior), C.J. Beathard (junior)
Predicted post-spring leader: Beathard. He'll get the benefit of the doubt this spring -- treatment to which Rudock has grown accustomed over the past two years -- after the Hawkeyes placed the junior atop the depth chart in January.
Rutgers candidates: Chris Laviano (sophomore), Hayden Rettig (sophomore), Giovanni Rescigno (redshirt freshman)
Predicted post-spring leader: Rettig. He's got an upside that the other two can't match, and with a season to acclimate after his transfer from LSU, look for Rettig to emerge this spring as one of the league's top newcomers.
Northwestern candidates: Zack Oliver (senior), Matt Alviti (sophomore), Clayton Thorson (redshirt freshman)
Predicted post-spring leader: Oliver, who's tall and strong and maybe a bit underappreciated this spring because of his turnover-prone play to finish last season. He'll enjoy a nice spring, but the battle will continue in August, and don't count out Thorson.
Purdue candidates: Austin Appleby (junior), Danny Etling (junior), David Blough (redshirt freshman)
Predicted post-spring leader: Appleby, in perhaps the league's toughest spring call. He faded in November, and both competitors will apply pressure in the spring. But Appleby will draw strength from his best moments of 2014.
Around the rest of the league:
- Former Minnesota tight end Maxx Williams draws a crowd at pro day. No jail time for Philip Nelson, the ex-Gopher QB convicted of misdemeanor assault.
- Potential surprises for Michigan this spring.
- Nebraska looks to feature a vertical passing game under new coach Mike Riley. Meanwhile, former secondary coach Charlton Warren is finally named to the same position at North Carolina.
- Shilique Calhoun has been impressed with the intensity of Michigan State's winter workouts.
- Tim Beckman wants his players to think about playing for a Big Ten title in 2015.
- Iowa offers discounted tickets to students.
- Penn State coach James Franklin shares some thoughts on his core values.
- Ohio State headlines another list of spring storylines. And the Buckeyes grab a top recruit out of Washington, D.C.
- Maryland prepares to open practice this spring without its top quarterback and running back.
- Former Wisconsin QB Jon Budmayr remains connected to coach Paul Chryst.
- Former Rutgers defensive back Patrick Kivlehan bids for a roster spot this spring with the Seattle Mariners.
It's hard to dive head-first into this whole idea of spring when a lot of us are still digging out from under the snow. But, alas, spring football practice is here.
That means the countdown to the 2015 college football season has officially begun.
New stars will emerge. Coaches will land on the hot seat, and somebody's going to swear they're getting the cold shoulder from the College Football Playoff selection committee.
Which players have the most to prove this spring and heading into the 2015 season? Some might be coming off injuries. Others weren't as productive or consistent last season, and a few are taking on even bigger roles or getting fresh starts. The players are listed alphabetically:
WR Bralon Addison, Oregon
Oregon was without its three best receivers in the title game loss to Ohio State last season. Of course, one of those had been out all season. Addison tore his ACL last spring, and just like that, the Ducks' leading returning receiver from the 2013 team was gone. But he's back and eager to re-establish himself in a receiving corps that should be as dangerous as ever. There was some talk before the title game in January that he might play, and he even suited up during warm-ups. The Ducks, though, weren't going to use an entire year of eligibility for just one game. Addison is electric in the open field, whether he's catching passes, taking off on jet sweeps or returning punts. If everybody is healthy, Oregon should have the fastest group of receivers in the country. Addison gets to prove he's as good as new.
With spring in the air, we've got some burning questions about the league during this season of practice and hope:
1. Who's going to win the Ohio State quarterback race? This is a question destined to not return an answer this spring. That's because only Cardale Jones will be healthy enough to go through full spring drills. J.T. Barrett will do some light seven-on-seven stuff as he recovers from a broken ankle, while Braxton Miller won't be cleared to throw with his medically repaired shoulder until at least May. So Jones has a chance to gain an early edge in perhaps the most interesting quarterback battle of all time. Can he seize it?
2. How quickly does Jim Harbaugh remake Michigan's culture? Expecting an overnight turnaround in Ann Arbor is unfair and unrealistic, even with Harbaugh's sterling track record. The Wolverines need to find answers at quarterback, running back and receiver, but the more pressing issue is simply developing more toughness than they showed throughout much of the Brady Hoke era. How quickly Michigan adapts to Harbaugh's ways will determine how fast this rebuilding effort will go, and Harbaugh let the message be known last week.
3. What will Nebraska look like under Mike Riley? Huskers athletic director Shawn Eichorst surprised the college football world by hiring Riley away from Oregon State. Riley couldn't possibly be more different, personality-wise, from previous Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. But what does that mean in how Big Red looks on the field? Riley has been known for running a pro-style offense, though he says he'll design the offense around the strength of his players. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. will need to fend off challenges to his job this spring. The Huskers seemed to take on the volatile traits of Pelini during his tenure; can they now mirror Riley's straight-forward, low-key approach?
Embracing the art of Hard Work is to disappearing from society. Therefore, we at Michigan Football designate 2015 as the year of Hard Work— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) February 27, 2015
4. Who'll win the quarterback job at Iowa, Northwestern, Rutgers and Purdue? Who starts under center will be the dominant story line at all four places this spring. At Iowa, head coach Kirk Ferentz will let C.J. Beathard battle incumbent two-year starter Jake Rudock. Northwestern has a three-man scrum, with Zack Oliver, Matt Alviti and Clayton Thorson fighting to replace Trevor Siemien. Chris Laviano and LSU transfer Hayden Rettig are the main candidates to succeed Gary Nova at Rutgers. And Purdue will open things up once again between Austin Appleby, Danny Etling and David Blough. These competitions could all last until fall camp but will be heavily scrutinized in March and April.
5. How does Michigan State replace its stars? Under Mark Dantonio, the Spartans have usually just moved on to the next guy when a star leaves. But Michigan State, which could be ranked in the top 10 in the preseason, still has to replace some of the most productive players in recent program history, including running back Jeremy Langford, receiver Tony Lippett, cornerback Trae Waynes, defensive end Marcus Rush and safety Kurtis Drummond. We'll get to see this spring just how well those holes can be filled.
6. Can Penn State fix its offensive line? Christian Hackenberg's bruises from last year might just now be healing, as the Nittany Lions' offensive line was one of the worst in the country in 2014. The best player on that line, left tackle Donovan Smith, left for the NFL, and starting guard Miles Dieffenbach also is gone. Yet there's hope for improvement, thanks to incoming juice transfer Paris Palmer, true freshman Sterling Jenkins and some young players who redshirted. Penn State must begin to find the right mix and build cohesion there this spring.
8. Does Minnesota have any receivers? Jerry Kill and his staff think they can improve one of the biggest problem positions in recent years for the Gophers. Redshirt freshmen Isaiah Gentry, Melvin Holland Jr. and Desmond Gant are full of promise. They need to start fulfilling it this spring, because the security blanket of tight end Maxx Williams is gone.
9. Can changes help the defenses at Illinois and Maryland? If the Illini are going to build some momentum after last season's bowl appearance, their leaky defense must improve. Tim Beckman hired former NFL assistant Mike Phair as co-defensive coordinator this offseason, and job No. 1 is figuring out a way to stop the run, which Illinois hasn't been able to do for a few years. Maryland parted ways with defensive coordinator Brian Stewart a little more than a year after giving him a contract extension and elevated inside linebackers coach Keith Dudzinski to the role. The Terps will also switch to a 4-3 base and hope to right a defense that rarely dominated in 2014.
10. Where's the next wave of running back stars? Last season saw an unprecedented amount of production from elite running backs, including Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Indiana's Tevin Coleman, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Minnesota's David Cobb and Langford. All of those guys are gone, but budding superstars such as Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott, Wisconsin's Corey Clement and Northwestern's Justin Jackson remain. In a league that churns out tailback talent, plenty of new names are sure to emerge as well.
Defending national champion Ohio State might have too many quarterbacks.
As spring football practice opens around the country, many of the sport's best teams will start to sort out quarterback questions. Six of the teams that finished in the top 10 of the final Associated Press top 25 poll in 2014 -- Oregon, Alabama, Florida State, Baylor, Georgia and UCLA -- will have new quarterbacks this coming season.
Coaches Contending For 'King Of Spring'
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
TBD Kent State Illinois TBD Southern Illinois Indiana TBD Illinois State Iowa TBD Richmond Maryland TBD BYU Nebraska TBD Norfolk State Rutgers TBD Penn State Temple TBD Stanford Northwestern TBD Wisconsin Alabama