Spring is springing in the Big Ten. Michigan and Northwestern have already hit the practice field, Minnesota, Maryland and Nebraska join them this week and the rest will follow soon.

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?

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.

[+] EnlargeJoel Stave
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesJoel Stave will be fighting for the top spot as Wisconsin looks for a starting quarterback.
7. Can Paul Chryst work magic at the quarterback position for Wisconsin? The Badgers have been a consistent Big Ten title contender for the past several years, but the quarterback position has been lacking since Russell Wilson completed his one year in Madison. New head coach/old offensive coordinator Chryst could help rectify that situation, whether it's by building on the skills of veteran Joel Stave or going young with a fresh face such as D.J. Gillins or Austin Kafentzis. Wisconsin will need much better play at that position before opening 2015 against Alabama.

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.
Spring football is off and running at several ACC schools, with many more set to kick things off in the coming days and weeks. There is no shortage of storylines throughout the league, but here are the questions that stand out above all else:

1. Does the ACC have an embarrassment of quarterback riches? It's not every day a league can withstand losing a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback to the pros (more on FSU later), but the ACC has a ton of talent coming back under center in 2015. Georgia Tech, Louisville, Miami, NC State, Pitt, Syracuse, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest all return players who started at quarterback in 2014. Thomas Sirk is the frontrunner at Duke, and he saw extended time last year as a change-of-pace quarterback, too. Then there's Clemson and North Carolina, whose talented signal-callers from last fall will miss this spring, giving others a chance to prove themselves and build depth. Which brings us to …

2. What about the No. 2 quarterbacks? Deshaun Watson may be way ahead of schedule in his recovery from ACL surgery, as Dabo Swinney said Friday, and we all know what the sophomore is capable of when he is healthy. But this spring will see others get a chance at Clemson, as last year's No. 3 signal-caller, Nick Schuessler, leads a trio of quarterbacks that includes early enrollees Kelly Bryant and Tucker Israel. At North Carolina, meanwhile, the Tar Heels will have to go through spring drills without starter Marquise Williams, who is sidelined with a hip injury. That means Mitch Trubisky, who split time with Williams in the early part of the 2014 season, will run the first team this spring.

3. How does FSU replace Jameis? More quarterback talk, you say? Why of course! Florida State lost just one game in two years with Jameis Winston as its starter, so replacing him is no easy task. Sean Maguire is back after an uneven performance in his lone start last year, but he will have to battle it out with redshirt freshman J.J. Cosentino, a former ESPN four-star prospect, and early enrollee De'Andre Johnson, another four-star prospect.

[+] EnlargePat Narduzzi
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicPat Narduzzi spent the past eight seasons as Michigan State's defensive coordinator.
4. What does Narduzzi bring to Pitt? There is just one new head coach in the ACC this time around. And, once again, he resides in the Steel City. Pat Narduzzi is the fourth different head coach to open a spring in Pittsburgh since 2010, but he walks into a pretty good situation. The Panthers boast junior studs in James Conner and Tyler Boyd on offense, and Narduzzi's defensive roots should prove valuable to a Panthers unit that struggled down the stretch last season.

5. How will BC's offensive makeover look? Few coaches have had as much early success at new stops as Steve Addazio has had at Boston College, taking a two-win team from 2012 to consecutive 7-6 seasons. In 2013, he rode Heisman finalist running back Andre Williams to a strong finish. In 2014, he relied on dual-threat transfer quarterback Tyler Murphy. This season Addazio promoted receivers coach Todd Fitch to offensive coordinator after Ryan Day left for the Philadelphia Eagles, and he is looking for a more balanced attack. This could be more challenging considering he'll be without a senior signal-caller for the first time.

6. Will early enrollees make an impact? We already mentioned Johnson at FSU, but five-star safety Derwin James could have an easier path to the field, given the Seminoles' openings in the secondary. So, too, could five-star receiver George Campbell. Similar circumstances at North Carolina could allow four-star linebacker Andre Smith to start early, especially on a Tar Heels defense that had a staff makeover and is in need of a massive turnaround from 2014.

7. Can Clemson's defense again be dominant? The Tigers boasted the nation's No. 1 defense last season, but they said goodbye to plenty of talent. Coordinator Brent Venables will have his work cut for him, but bringing back Shaq Lawson, D.J. Reader, Ben Boulware, Mackensie Alexander and Jayron Kearse is certainly a good starting point for a team that appears to be the early league frontrunner in 2015.

8. Will Louisville keep it going defensively? The Cardinals' defense was one of the bigger surprise of 2014, Bobby Petrino's first year back with the program. But all of those playmakers came from the past regime, and Petrino will be counting on transfers with troubled pasts to pitch in this year: former Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, former Georgia corner Shaq Wiggins and former TCU linebacker Devonte Fields.

9. Can Miami take advantage of the talent at its disposal? Brad Kaaya, Joseph Yearby, Gus Edwards and Stacy Coley give the Hurricanes a great starting point this spring. But Miami likely has to figure out its retooling offensive line in order to take advantage of its weapons. Questions on how this team went 6-7 last year continue to mount, and now will be as good of a time as any for the Canes to get things going and change the conversation.

10. Will Notre Dame get a quarterback answer? The Irish's inaugural year of quasi-ACC membership helped bring us arguably the game of the year, at Florida State. This year the Irish, who return 19 starters, will face six ACC teams, including contests against potential division frontrunners Clemson and Georgia Tech. But who is directing the offense under center will likely be determined this spring, as Everett Golson and Malik Zaire will battle it out after splitting reps in Notre Dame's bowl win over LSU. There is also always the chance that Golson, who said he graduates this spring, could transfer and play his fifth season elsewhere this fall.
As we get closer and closer to spring practices popping up all around the country, it's time to dive a little deeper into the substance of the 2015 season. That substance talk really starts right after the season, grows after national signing day and then starts to snowball during spring practice.

We'll dive into the season with 10 burning questions in the SEC this spring:

1. Who will stand out in all these quarterback battles?
OK, so the SEC is littered with quarterback battles this year:

  • Alabama
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • LSU
  • Ole Miss
  • South Carolina
  • Vanderbilt

So who will stand out this spring and propel themselves into a true starting role this fall? At Alabama, you have Jake Coker, who was supposed to be the starter last year but wasn't, and a trio of former high school standouts in Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Blake Barnett. Florida has a new coaching staff, and Jim McElwain will be very involved in the grooming of sophomore Treon Harris, who took over as the starter last November, and redshirt freshman Will Grier. Georgia has a three-man battle among Brice Ramsey -- the presumed favorite -- Faton Bauta, and redshirt freshman Jacob Park, who could slide by both. Can Anthony Jennings really grow this spring at LSU? Or will Brandon Harris finally look like the top prospect he was coming out of high school? Mercurial junior college transfer Chad Kelly is the favorite to start at Ole Miss, but sophomores DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan actually have some real SEC experience. Connor Mitch is another favorite at South Carolina, but there's a thick field of competitors gunning for that spot. And Vandy has to figure out one quarterback and keep it that way. Johnny McCrary, Patton Robinette and Wade Freebeck all played last year, but incoming freshman Kyle Shurmur should join the fray this fall.

2. Which early enrollees are primed to make a splash?
The SEC welcomed 81 early enrollees this year, so someone is sure to stand out. Keep an eye on junior college running back Jovon Robinson at Auburn, who has a chance to make an immediate impact on the Plains and possibly take the starting job this spring. Georgia needs a lot of help along its defensive line, and freshman Jonathan Ledbetter could be a key addition up front. There's an opening at cornerback at LSU and Kevin Toliver II has a real chance to step into that spot right away. Arkansas needs to replace Darius Philon, and juco Jeremiah Ledbetter could be that person.

[+] EnlargeNick Chubb
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia will look to running back Nick Chubb to carry the offensive load in 2015.
3. Will Auburn, South Carolina and Texas A&M see significant defensive improvements?
All three ranked in the bottom half of the league in total defense and scoring, but all got what appear to be upgrades in the coaching department. Will Muschamp took his superb defensive mind to Auburn after being fired as Florida's head coach, longtime LSU DC John Chavis moved to College Station, and Jon Hoke left the NFL to help the Gamecocks out. Muschamp and Chavis had better be good immediately because they are both well into the seven-figure salary club.

4. Can Florida find an identity on offense?
I feel like I've read this sentence before: The Gators haven't ranked higher than 93rd nationally in total offense the past four seasons, have had myriad quarterback issues and failed to have any sort of real consistency at receiver. First, Muschamp's Gators couldn't perfect ground-and-pound, then a failed spread offense experiment ultimately cost him his job. Now, McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier have the tall task of resurrecting Florida's offense. The defense should be fine, but this team isn't going anywhere (again) without an offense. It needs a quarterback, some help for playmaking receiver Demarcus Robinson and a pulse.

5. Who will step up at wide receiver for Alabama?
Now that Amari Cooper is gone, Alabama needs a go-to receiver, especially with a new quarterback taking over. The problem is Alabama is without its top three receivers from last year, and no one on this roster is proven. But that doesn't mean there isn't talent. Junior Chris Black and redshirt sophomore Robert Foster will get every opportunity to showcase their skills, but keep an eye on sophomore Cam Sims, who could be a special player.

6. Is Tennessee equipped to make a move in the SEC?
The recruiting classes have been great (back-to-back No. 5 finishes), a lot of perceived talent returns and the excitement level is through the roof in Knoxville. But it's time to put up, Vols. You have your quarterback in Josh Dobbs, sophomore running back Jalen Hurd has All-SEC written all over him, the receiving corps is loaded, both lines return a lot of valuable pieces -- including monster pass-rusher Derek Barnett -- and there are gems at linebacker and in the secondary. Now, the wins have to come, and that starts with a strong spring.

7. Can Missouri make it three in a row in the East despite losing so many key players?
Well, these Tigers sure haven't been afraid of the big, bad SEC. Three years in, and Mizzou has two SEC East titles. But Year 4 brings plenty of questions. Stud defensive ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden are gone, and their replacements aren't on the same level. The receiving corps is unproven, there's no left tackle and quarterback Maty Mauk has to be much better. The Tigers proved everyone wrong the Past two years, but you can't blame anyone for doubting this team now. There are, however, some key pieces returning, such as center Evan Boehm and running back Russell Hansbrough.

8. Are any teams in the SEC really pegged for a national championship run?
The SEC has a handful of contenders, but none of them are polished to this point. Two favorites to watch? How about Auburn and Georgia? The Bulldogs still need to find a quarterback but might be the most complete SEC otherwise. Running back Nick Chubb seems willing to carry the offense, while the defense should fill its current holes nicely this spring. Auburn lost Nick Marshall at quarterback, but Jeremy Johnson should be fine, and this might be an even more dangerous offense with more of a passing identity. Muschamp's return can only mean good things for the defense, right? Don't sleep on Alabama, and take notice of Ole Miss and its 2013 class that probably has one final shot.

9. Can Brandon Allen finally take the next step at Arkansas?
We all know Arkansas can run the ball, but if the Hogs are going to contend in the West, they have to be able to throw. Bret Bielema knows that and so does Allen, whose 56 percent pass completions from last season has to improve. Allen wasn't consistent enough, averaging just 175.8 yards per game. He doesn't need to be Peyton Manning, but he has to take the next step in his development or Arkansas won't be able to take that next step under Bielema.

10. Can the Mississippi schools keep the momentum going?
Last year was historic for Mississippi State and Ole Miss. At one point, both were ranked third nationally, and the Bulldogs spent time at No. 1. Ole Miss is finally starting to get the depth it needs to be a contender, and the meat of that 2013 class appears to be in its final act. Mississippi State returns the league's top quarterback in Dak Prescott, and has a good foundation on both sides, even if some leaders from last year are gone. Still, Ole Miss needs a QB and Mississippi State has a few holes that need plugging. It's always an uphill battle for these two schools, but in order to really be taken seriously, they have to really compete year in and year out.
Spring has sprung, which means every team can show you hope in a handful of grass -- real or artificial.

Some Pac-12 teams have already started, such as Colorado and Stanford, and others begin this week, such as Arizona, Oregon State and USC. Others start later.

But it feels like the right time to take a look at 10 burning issues in the conference. Please keep your hands clear of this post, as it is sizzling hot.

1. Life after Marcus Mariota at Oregon: You might recall Oregon's quarterback over the past three years was a pretty fair player. But Mariota is off to the NFL, where he's sure to get blinged up, buy four Bentleys and start giving everyone alternating left-right cheek air kisses. That leaves the Ducks with a vacancy behind center. While many -- including a few of my esteemed Pac-12 blog associates -- believe Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams is almost certain to take over when he arrives in the fall, you all know I am an inveterate party pooper, so I'm skeptical the transition to an FCS QB, albeit a very good one, will be all rainbows and puppy dogs. So what happens this spring, pre-Adams, should have a high degree of relevance for the ensuing fall competition. That means Jeff Lockie and Morgan Mahalak or someone else has an opportunity to throw down the gauntlet and stake a strong claim to the job.

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
Susan Ragan/USA TODAY SportsOregon State's Gary Andersen is the only new head coach in the Pac-12.
2. Gary Andersen takes over at Oregon State: Mike Riley started the 2014 season as the dean of Pac-12 coaches. Stanford coach David Shaw went so far as to call him the Godfather, which showed Shaw was once a reader of the Pac-12 blog's "Best case-worst case" stories. Riley, however, will begin the 2015 season at Nebraska, a stunning development that is, well, still a bit stunning. Enter Andersen, who's hiring away from Big Ten power Wisconsin was almost as much of a stunner. That means the Beavers, the only Pac-12 team to change head coaches, will be installing new systems on both sides of the ball, as well as getting to know a new coaching staff. Andersen certainly will want to get past the "Hello, my name is..." phase as quickly as possible.

3. USC returns returns to national relevance? The first issue here is whether this deserved a question mark or a period, because the Trojans are fairly certain to begin the 2015 season ranked in the top 10. That means they start the season nationally relevant, period. The question mark, though, concerns whether they can sustain that elevation as they move beyond crippling NCAA sanctions with an impressive roster and improving depth. One might recall it wasn't too long ago when the program's "Unfinished Business" campaign flopped. Second-year coach Steve Sarkisian will be under not inconsiderable pressure to make sure he doesn't suffer through a Lane Kiffin redo.

4. UCLA replaces Brett Hundley: UCLA has 18 starters and a number of other contributors coming back from a team that won 10 games last season and finished ranked 14th. That makes you wonder if perhaps the wrong L.A. team is getting hyped. Ah, but the Bruins are replacing Hundley, a three-year starter who is on the short list of best QBs in program history. While it seems like more than a few folks -- NFL sorts, mostly -- are picking apart Hundley's game of late, what should stand out is how often he delivered for the Bruins, including a troika of wins over That Team From Downtown. Further, this is an interesting battle between a scrappy veteran with a familiar last name in junior Jerry Neuheisel, and a brash, touted true freshman in Josh Rosen, who entered school early with the anticipation of taking over for Hundley. It will be interesting to see if any pecking order develops this spring or if coaches drop an "or" between them on the depth chart. Oh, wait. UCLA is the only Pac-12 that doesn't publish a depth chart. Never mind.

5. Oregon State replaces Sean Mannion: Mannion and the Beavers didn't have a great 2014, but you don't say goodbye to a four-year starter with 83 career touchdown passes lightly and without some sense of transition, particularly when there's also a new coaching staff on hand. Things appear to be wide open between Luke Del Rio -- Mannion's backup -- Brent VanderVeen, Kyle Kempt, Marcus McMaryion, Nick Mitchell, etc. (There are seven QBs on the roster.) It seems reasonable to believe Andersen will want to winnow that list down to around three guys by the end of spring.

6. Washington's no-name defense{ The Huskies say goodbye to six defensive starters, including three -- linebackers Shaq Thompson and Hau'oli Kikaha and defensive tackle Danny Shelton -- who were first-team All-Pac-12 and earned All-American honors. All three are expected to be early picks in the NFL draft, so the talent drain is legitimate, not just a system thing. The only returning defender who earned any type of postseason recognition is true sophomore safety Budda Baker, who was honorable mention All-Pac-12 and has huge upside. That's a good start, but it's unlikely the Huskies will be able to replace these mainstays' production with typical depth-chart promotions. If the Huskies' defense is going to equal or, perhaps, exceed its 2014 numbers, it's going to have to play better as a team, which will be a key test of the second-year coaching staff led by coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski.

7. Getting coordinated: Oregon State had the only coaching change at the top, which included new coordinators on both sides of the ball, but four other teams have changed defensive coordinators and Utah replaced both coordinators, who both bolted for other jobs. Utes coach Kyle Whittingham went the familiar face route, promoting Aaron Roderick from within on offense to replace Dave Christensen, now at Texas A&M, and bringing John Pease out of retirement to replace longtime defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, who joined Andersen at Oregon State. Colorado pushed aside defensive coordinator Kent Baer, who left for UNLV, and hired former South Florida head coach Jim Leavitt, a major coup for the Buffs. UCLA replaced Jeff Ulbrich, who departed for a job with the Atlanta Falcons, with former Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, who was at West Virginia in 2014. Washington State fired Mike Breske and replaced him with Alex Grinch, a defensive backs coach at Missouri last year. That's a pretty significant amount of turnover on one side of the ball, which will make life more interesting for the conference's offensive minds, particularly early in the season.

8. Stanford rebuilds defense: Speaking of defense, the conference's best unit over the past five years is replacing seven starters, including all of its D-linemen and three of four starters in the secondary. Further, a number of injuries, most notably to D-lineman Aziz Shittu and cornerback Ronnie Harris, will muddy the waters this spring. While it seems unlikely the bottom will fall out for the Cardinal -- there's plenty of promising youngsters on hand -- it's difficult to believe this won't be a transitional season on the mean side of the ball.

9. California dreaming? Cal has 17 starters back, second most in the conference and among the most in the nation, from a team that seemed to turn a corner in 2014 in Year 2 under Sonny Dykes. That crew includes quarterback Jared Goff, an NFL prospect who could make a star turn this fall if the Bears start to win. The offense, which averaged 38 points per game last season, should be good. The question is defense. That unit improved its points surrendered total by nearly a TD from 2013 to 2014, but that still ended up ranked last in the Pac-12 at 39.8 points per game. The Bears might be good enough to become bowl eligible with a defense that is only slightly better. But if they want to take a decisive step forward in the North Division, they need to at least find a way to be mediocre on defense.

10. Next-step QBs: Last season, the Pac-12 featured a glittering group of returning starting quarterbacks led by Mariota, Hundley, Mannion and Arizona State's Taylor Kelly. This year, seven teams welcome back established QBs, but the list is far less scintillating, while a couple other teams have decided front-runners at the position, most notably Mike Bercovici at Arizona State. USC's Cody Kessler leads the bunch, but he has to show he can win big games. Goff is a candidate for all-conference honors, and Stanford's Kevin Hogan finished strong last season after muddling through the first three-fourths of the season. Arizona's Anu Solomon and Colorado's Sefo Liufau are trying to take the proverbial next step, while Utah's Travis Wilson wants to show he should be a four-year starter this spring with Kendal Thompson out with an injury. Washington's returning starter, Cyler Miles, figures to face a tough challenge this spring to retain his job, while Washington State's Luke Falk wants to build on the mostly solid job he did after replacing Connor Halliday.
PLANTATION, Fla. -- The Nike Opening Regional at Miami always brings out some of the top skill prospects in the country, with Broward and Dade counties being the most talented neighboring counties in the country. On Saturday, the event at American Heritage High School brought out more than the future stars of college football, but also some of the area's most popular former stars such as Edgerrin James and Chad Johnson, as well as Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew fame.

Here are some of the best sights and sounds from the talent-laden Miami Regional.

PLANTATION, Fla. -- The Nike football camp in Miami is generally regarded as one of the top camps, talent-wise, in the country every year and this year’s camp held at American Heritage School didn’t disappoint.


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

RecruitingNation Camp Live

February, 28, 2015
Feb 28
8:09
AM ET
Follow the action from Nike The Opening regionals in Miami and Orlando and Pylon Elite 7v7 Las Vegas.

Duke focused on building D-line

February, 27, 2015
Feb 27
1:00
PM ET
If there’s been one snag in David Cutcliffe’s grand plan to build Duke into a consistent winner, it’s been the big boys up front on defense. The recruiting has improved in nearly every corner of the Duke locker room, but snagging highly-regarded defensive linemen has remained an elusive goal.

And so during the spring when Cutcliffe is busy looking for a starting QB, replacing a record-setting wide receiver and finding the heir apparent for the league’s leading tackler, it’s the defensive line that is the Blue Devils’ top concern.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cutcliffe
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesAs the Blue Devils head into the spring, the defensive line remains a big concern for coach David Cutcliffe.
 “There are guys who have played a lot of football around here, but the question is, will they be able to replace the production we had?” coordinator Jim Knowles said. “D tackles are our plus and D ends are still a wait and see.”

It’s one issue that three of last year’s four starters on the line — not to mention both starting linebackers - graduated, but turnover on the line isn’t necessarily the biggest issue at Duke. Even through the unprecedented success of the past three years, when the Blue Devils went to bowl games each season, the D line has been more of a patchwork system than a well-oiled machine.

Since 2012, Duke ranks 51st among Power 5 schools, allowing 4.81 yards per carry to other power conference teams. The Blue Devils are 56th in sack rate, dumping the QB on just 5 percent of his passing attempts. Only Iowa State has recorded fewer tackles for a loss or no gain against the run than Duke among Power 5 programs during that span.

In other words, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

On the inside, Knowles is actually quite pleased with what he’ll have to work with this season. Senior Carlos Wray is the defensive front’s lone returning starter from 2014, and he’ll be flanked by a chorus of developing talent. Junior A.J. Wolf and redshirt sophomore Mike Ramsay have seen some playing time already, and Knowles is thrilled with the development of redshirt freshmen Quaven Ferguson and Edgar Cerenord.

“Those guys are guys we haven’t had around here -- big and strong and agile,” Knowles said. “You can see how the recruiting has gotten better. Duke’s always going to be challenged to recruit defensive linemen, and those two guys and Ramsey represent a different type of player. Overall, inside, we will be better and that has shown up this spring. Our defensive tackles are really controlling things inside.”

It’s on the edge that things are more complicated.

Last season’s three most productive ends have moved on, and their replacements are largely a handful of converted linebackers. Duke even shifted responsibilities for assistant Jim Collins, who will now work heavily with the defensive ends.

“We put Jim Collins with those guys exclusively because you have a bunch of former linebackers there,” Knowles said.

At Duke, the game plan generally involves taking some disparate parts and trying to find a few bodies that fit the mold on the line, but the moves didn’t stop there. Safety Dwayne Norman will shift to linebacker, and the plan -- once he’s healthy -- is to frequently use linebacker Kelby Brown as a much-needed edge rusher.

“[Brown] is going to have to become more of a pass rusher for us in the mold of Scooby Wright at Arizona,” Knowles said.

For that to happen, Norman needs to fill the hole on the weakside and the secondary has to be strong. Norman had made a name for himself among Duke’s coaches by playing both physically and aggressively at safety during his first two seasons on the field, but with the safety position well stocked, the move to linebacker seemed a natural fit.

So far, the spring has been a learning process for Norman, and while he’s added about six pounds to his frame, he’s focused on bulking up more for his new role.

“Learning the plays, learning the schemes, recognizing plays -- as the spring goes on, I’m getting better,” Norman said.

If he can fill the job, that should free Brown up to rush the passer more often than he has in years past, and that, Knowles said, could help erase some of the deficits at defensive end. Still, Brown has his own concerns. During fall camp last year, he tore his ACL and missed the entirety of the season. He’s been working out with the team this spring, but he’s not participated in drills or been subjected to contact since the injury. There’s ample optimism about Brown’s recovery, but he still has some significant barriers to overcome before he’s 100 percent.

“Kelby Brown in the middle helps solve a lot of problems,” Knowles said. “He’s a guy who understands the defense, knows the ins and outs and makes tackles. So he can make a lot of people right.”

For now though, there remain a lot of moving pieces. It’s a work in progress, Knowles said, but the picture is starting to come into focus, even if a few parts still don’t quite fit.

“Every year it’s gotten a little bit better,” Knowles said. “But it’s not an overnight process. Nothing around here has been. When you do things the right way, it takes time, and that’s what you’ve seen.”
The Big Ten is exploring the idea of a "year of readiness" for freshmen. Perhaps the league should consult with Northwestern's Justin Jackson.

He arrived in Evanston last summer and immediately had to adjust to the school's rigid academics, familiarize himself with a slew of new teammates, and absorb the Wildcats' playbook. Any thoughts he might be eased into a role were dismissed early in preseason camp, when starting running back Venric Mark decided to transfer.

"I do see where they're coming from, because it's really tough [as a true freshman]," Jackson said. "But I also see the downside of it. You have a lot of guys who may be the best at their position, and if they can't play, it would really hurt their football team."

[+] EnlargeJustin Jackson
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesNorthwestern's Justin Jackson had six 100-yard performances as a freshman last season.
Imagine where Northwestern would have been last season without an eligible Jackson. He led the team in rushing in all 12 games and had six 100-yard performances. He was one of seven Big Ten backs to run for at least 1,000 yards, and he begins 2015 as the second-leading returning rusher in the conference, behind only Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott. He was easily the best offensive player on a 5-7 team.

Jackson did all that without a full offseason to train, something he's getting now as the Wildcats opened spring practice on Wednesday.

"I feel so much better," he said. "Some of the guys who were injured last year but are the same year as me had their first practice this week, and I was like, 'That was me last year in the fall.' It was crazy out there. Now I'm much more comfortable, I know the playbook a lot better and I can help the other guys."

Jackson, who was listed at 185 pounds last season, says he's put on about 10 pounds this winter. He hopes that helps him get ready for another potentially heavy workload, after he had 245 carries in 2014.

But rather than hit a freshman wall, he seemed to get stronger as the season went on. He ran for at least 130 yards in each of his final three games, including a memorable 149-yard day in the overtime upset win at Notre Dame.

The great news for Northwestern is that Jackson is not remotely satisfied with his impressive first year. In addition to the extra weight, he's worked hard on his flexibility and explosiveness after ripping off only two 40-plus yard runs last season.

"I had a lot of those runs that were right there, where it would be 15, 17 yards and I was close to breaking them," he said. "I'll never be the best at it, because I'm not Venric Mark. I'm not a 4.3 [40-yard dash]-type dude. But I can try to improve my speed and my strength so I can break out of tackles and be that guy. You don't have to have 4.3, 4.4 speed to break long runs. You just have to be smart about it and use what you have to your advantage."

Jackson's main advantages thus far have included his vision and how hard he runs. Plus his dedication to getting better through study. "Whenever I'm bored," he says, "I just pop on the film."

It's that kind of attitude that ensured Jackson was more than ready as a true freshman.

"I think that would be a tough sell," he said of the freshman ineligibility idea, "because a lot of freshmen right now are coming in more prepared to play. It's tough, but if you have great teammates and a great support system, you can definitely do it."

Not every freshman can be as good as Jackson, of course. But we're very curious to see how good he can be as a sophomore.
The Nike Football Opening Regionals will officially begin on Saturday at American Heritage High in Plantation, Florida, with many of South Florida’s best scheduled to attend with hopes of earning invites to The Opening held in early July at the Nike World Headquarters.

Here are five things of many to know.


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Hundreds of the West's top prospects will head to Las Vegas this weekend for one of the region's marquee 7-on-7 events -- the Pylon Elite 7v7. For the past seven years, this event has helped unknown prospects become household recruiting names and provides potential bragging rights for the team who can stake a claim as the West's best. Pool play runs all day Saturday with single elimination games beginning Sunday morning. Here are five things to keep an eye on during the event.


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

video
If you asked Mike Leach, odds are he'd probably tell you his job at Washington State is a wee bit more difficult than he might have expected when he was first hired. And it won't be long before Wake Forest fans start to realize just how remarkable Jim Grobe's tenure was in Winston-Salem.

For a variety of reasons -- namely money, scheduling, academics, facilities and recruiting -- the path to the College Football Playoff is simply easier for some Power 5 coaches and nearly impossible for others. Here's a look at the top-10 easiest coaching paths to the playoff, starting with the easiest, and the 10 most difficult coaching jobs:

EASIEST COACHING PATHS TO THE PLAYOFF

1. Texas
One of the wealthiest, most visible brand-name programs in the country wants for nothing -- and unlike Florida State, it doesn't have to navigate through a conference title game. Right now it's in a catch-22 situation. Texas has to win to own the state in recruiting again, but it has to get the recruits to win.

2. Florida State
The Noles can own and have owned the ACC, with Clemson being their most difficult hurdle. The combination of first-class facilities, in-state recruiting and available salary money makes this one of the most desirable jobs for a coach aspiring to reach the playoff.

3. Ohio State
The East Division isn't easy, but it's manageable, and the Big 33 recruiting turf and financial security -- along with the incredible support and facilities -- puts this brand-name program on the fast track to the playoff. It's easy to sell the program that has been the flagship of the conference for more than a decade.

4. Oklahoma
With no conference title game to trip over, the Sooners have one of the easiest paths to the playoff, not to mention the facilities and financial resources to recruit players and pay coaches.

5. Clemson
It's on par with the SEC as far as recruiting and facilities, but has an easier league to navigate. The program has the resources and salaries needed to recruit and coach a top-four team.

6. USC
When this storied program is at full strength -- without scholarship limitations and postseason penalties -- there's nothing in the way of a top-four ranking. Its pipeline of players to the NFL is proof.

7. Notre Dame
The Irish control their strength of schedule and can now sell an ACC bowl lineup to recruits.

8. Georgia
The Bulldogs have owned the state, and while Florida has to contend with FSU (and dreadful facilities), Georgia has had the upper hand in the series against Georgia Tech. Everything is in place for a title run.

9. Alabama
The program oozes money and tradition, luring the best players in the country. It's ranked low because of a grueling SEC West schedule and conference title game to navigate through.

10. LSU
Much like Alabama, the Tigers are the epitome of SEC success, able to cherry-pick recruits and pay for the best coaches in the country. The biggest obstacle is LSU's own conference schedule.

MOST DIFFICULT COACHING PATHS TO THE PLAYOFF

1. Vanderbilt
There's no school in the country with more of an uphill battle to the playoff than Vandy. The stringent academic requirements are a big reason the program can't recruit the elite athletes necessary to compete with the top teams in the league -- which is why it never will.

2. Wake Forest
The smallest school in the BCS had one historic Orange Bowl run, but that was an anomaly, not the trend. It's not the best program in the state, let alone the Atlantic Division.

3. Washington State
The Cougs are the Pac-12's most isolated, rural program, making recruiting difficult -- the heart of Wazzu's troubles over the past 11 straight losing seasons. It also doesn't help to be looking up at Oregon in the North Division.

4. Colorado
After nine straight losing seasons, the Buffs have faded into irrelevance, and they're competing in a South Division that's on the upswing, led by USC and Arizona. The coaching turnover, subpar recruiting and lack of investment in facilities have made the past decade a disaster.

5. Indiana
The Hoosiers have been stuck in a rut of mediocrity and are outpaced when it comes to facilities and coaching hires. Equally as problematic is IU's place in the East Division, alongside heavyweights Ohio State and Michigan State.

6. Kansas
The program has always been overshadowed by its hoops counterpart and hasn't been relevant in football since its 2007 Orange Bowl appearance.

7. Purdue
The fans have lost interest -- and apparently so have the recruits -- but the program also hasn't had the financial backing it needs to stay on pace with the rest of the conference.

8. Iowa State
Not only is there not much in-state talent, but the Cyclones have to share it with rival Iowa.

9. Kentucky
The program has made a renewed financial commitment recently and has demonstrated that bowl eligibility is a reality, but Kentucky has to win the SEC East before it can be taken seriously as a playoff contender.

10. Syracuse
There's a sense of apathy surrounding the program, which is stuck in the ACC's stronger Atlantic Division with FSU, Clemson and Louisville. There's not enough depth on Syracuse's roster to overcome injuries -- or the schedule.
In a year in which Wake Forest posted historically bad numbers on offense, it's telling that there might actually be less optimism about what's in store for 2015 at Syracuse than there is in Winston-Salem. At Wake, there's at least the hope that a young team will learn from the struggles and get better. At Syracuse, the situation feels far more untenable.

Here's why: As bad as Wake was throughout 2014, there was at least small fragments of progress. And over the final half of the season, there's no question Syracuse actually had the worse offense.

Over those last five games, Syracuse scored 47 points, the fewest in the nation by a touchdown. In the past decade, there have been 734 seasons played by AQ or Power 5 teams, and only two -- 2008 Washington and 2009 Washington State -- scored fewer points over their final five games. Those two teams finished a combined 1-23.

That's about as bad as it gets -- and in some areas, markedly worse even than what was happening at Wake Forest at the same time. It's not surprising either that, despite a defense that ranked 18th nationally during that same stretch, the Orange finished by losing five straight.

Now that defense figures to have grave concerns, too. Eight of Syracuse's top 10 tacklers from 2014 are gone, including Dyshawn Davis, Durell Eskridge and Cameron Lynch. As coordinator Chuck Bullough told Syracuse.com, it's going to be “a challenging year” on D.

So, is there any hope for the Orange in 2015?

The reality is that Syracuse isn't going to challenge for the Atlantic, and the most likely scenario is another long, painful season. But historical precedent doesn't necessarily doom the Orange, and there's reason to think last year's dreadful conclusion wasn't an accurate representation of the real Syracuse offense.

Tim Lester took over as offensive coordinator midyear, and he couldn't change much at the time.

Terrel Hunt was injured, and Syracuse cycled through young QBs after that. The offensive line was bruised and battered with numerous starters missing time.

"It was the perfect storm," Lester said.

In other words, the Syracuse offense of 2015 won't be the Syracuse offense of 2014 by any real approximation, and change of any sort after a stretch like that is an upgrade.

Overall last year, Syracuse had a touchdown rate (TD/drives) of just 8.4 percent vs. its Power 5 opponents. Since 2004, only three teams have posted a lower rate, and only 14 total have posted a rate worse than 10 percent. Oddly, three of those others happened in 2014 (Wake, Vanderbilt and Penn State, which miraculously finished 7-6).

Seven of those teams improved their win total the following year, which is good news for Syracuse. Of course, since the average team on that list won only 2.5 games, there wasn't much room to go but up.

Still, there were noteworthy names.
  • In 2006, Stanford went 1-11 while posting a TD rate of 6.0 percent -- the worst (by a wide margin) of any Power 5 team in this study. A year later, with Jim Harbaugh on board as coach, the Cardinal added three wins to their total and doubled its TD rate to 12.4 percent.
  • In 2008, Auburn finished 5-7 with a TD rate of 8.5 percent. A year later, with Gene Chizik taking over as head coach, the Tigers jumped to eight wins with a TD rate of 24.4 percent.
  • In 2011, Ole Miss was a dismal 2-10 with a TD rate of 10 percent. A year later, Hugh Freeze came aboard as head coach and the Rebels won seven games and upped their TD rate to 22.6 percent.
  • And most notably, in 2012, Auburn again was awful offensively, posting a TD rate of 8.2 percent and finishing the year just 3-9. A year later, with Gus Malzahn taking over as head coach, Auburn scored TDs on 32.7 percent of its drives vs. Power 5 foes and played for a national championship.

Perhaps you've noticed a common thread here. Each improved dramatically only after a change in leadership at the top. Malzahn, Freeze and Harbaugh were all offensive-minded head coaches, and while Chizik was not, he did have Malzahn as his OC in 2009.

At Syracuse, the 2015 season will feature many of the same key players -- Lester, Hunt and head coach Scott Shafer chief among them -- who were around last year. That's got a lot of Orange fans doubtful that much will change.

But perhaps things aren't quite so bad. A healthy Hunt has to be an improvement over the QB quagmire of last year's second half, and he spent the latter half of last season in the coaches box with Lester, learning and watching the game from a new angle. Lester now has a chance to install his own offense, and he's focused on using his quarterback's strengths. The Atlantic was stacked with strong defenses a year ago, but that should shift a bit in 2015. Maybe.

"[Last year,] I didn't put anything in moving forward with the offense. I just did the best job with the things we'd been doing since I got here," Lester said. "At this point, I'm putting in my offense, our offense, and it's formations, names, cadence, everything. If we're going to go, we're going with something I've run, I have experience with, and our coaches can do a great job teaching. We've carried over two or three pass names or formation names, but other than that, everything else is new."

It's spring -- even in a place like Syracuse, where there's still snow on the ground and dismal memories of last season in the air -- so there's hope.

"We're trying to make the transition as easy possible, but they're all fired up about what we're doing," Lester said. "It's a fresh start."

The real reason Urban Meyer was stuck at sea?

February, 25, 2015
Feb 25
4:45
PM ET
The official story is that Ohio State coach Urban Meyer was stuck at sea because a thick fog kept the Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas from returning to port in Tampa, Florida. Meyer was on the annual Buckeye Cruise for Cancer, a major fundraiser to benefit the Urban & Shelley Meyer Fund for cancer research and The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center. So instead of docking on Monday, they returned on Tuesday.

But maybe there was a little more to it than just the fog.
It is an important spring for several players in the Big 12.

Some are fighting to keep their jobs, others are trying not to be forgotten and others have to fight off lauded Class of 2015 recruits. Here's a look at several Big 12 players who have plenty to gain during spring football.

Chris Johnson, QB, Baylor: With Seth Russell as the clear favorite to replace Bryce Petty as the starting quarterback, Johnson needs a strong spring to ensure the competition continues into the fall. He’ll also need to hold off highly regarded true freshman Jarrett Stidham.

Vernell Trent, DT, Iowa State: Trent had a decent redshirt freshman season, starting three games and finishing with 10 tackles in 2014. But ISU signed a pair of defensive tackles in the Class of 2015 with an eye on Demond Tucker and Bobby Leath becoming immediate impact performers. A good spring would help Trent secure a spot in the Cyclones’ defense.

[+] EnlargeMontell Cozart
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesMontell Cozart must impress the new Kansas coaching staff this spring.
Montell Cozart, QB, Kansas: The junior went from unquestioned starting quarterback to afterthought in a span of a few months. Former coach Charlie Weis anointed Cozart to be the Jayhawks quarterback of the future, but he faltered and eventually was replaced by Michael Cummings in 2014. If Cozart has any hope making a major impact during his Jayhawks career, he needs to impress the new coaching staff this spring.

Judah Jones, WR, Kansas State: The Wildcats are hoping to replace the playmaking skills of Tyler Lockett. One player isn’t going to do it, but Jones has the upside to become a key player in KSU’s offense while also making an impact on special teams. KSU has several other options at receiver, so Jones needs to rise above the competition if he hopes to separate himself this spring.

Trevor Knight, QB, Oklahoma: The junior has started 15 games during the past two seasons but faces stern competition to keep his starting spot with Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield becoming eligible in the fall. As Lincoln Riley brings his version of the Air Raid to OU, many assume Mayfield is the best bet to trigger the attack. Knight can use the spring to remind everyone of his unique physical gifts.

Marcell Ateman, WR, Oklahoma State: It’s time for Ateman to step up and separate himself at the receiver spot. At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, he brings size, speed and ball skills that are tough to duplicate, but he doesn’t dominate the way he should. With plenty of competition at the position, he needs to show he is ready to match his All-Big 12 talent with All-Big 12 production.

Daje Johnson, WR, Texas: When he touches the ball, Johnson looks like the dynamic playmaker the Longhorns have longed for during the past few seasons, but he constantly takes himself out of the equation by making bad decisions off the field. This spring is the opportunity for him to show he has the focus needed to make his final season on the 40 acres a breakout year.

Foster Sawyer and Grayson Muehlstein, QBs, TCU: The battle to backup Trevone Boykin should be interesting, so the spring gives Sawyer and Muehlstein the chance to lay claim to the No. 2 spot. Both quarterbacks should get plenty of chances to impress and the winner of the backup quarterback derby could set themselves up to take over in 2016.

Davis Webb, QB, Texas Tech: A strong finish to the 2014 season by Patrick Mahomes has resulted in Webb being overlooked in many ways, but a healthy Webb was productive during his first two seasons in Kliff Kingsbury’s program. The job is open heading into spring and Webb can make sure the quarterback battle in Lubbock is one of the most interesting aspects of Big 12 football in the spring.

Daikiel Shorts, WR, West Virginia: The Mountaineers need to fill the void left by Kevin White and Mario Alford. Shorts has been a contributor to the WVU offense since his true freshman season but hasn’t really developed into a game-changing target. This spring will give him the chance to show he can be a primary target for Dana Holgorsen’s team.

SPONSORED HEADLINES