Preview: What to watch in the non-AQs

With spring practice dates closing in, let’s take a look at three issues facing 10 non-AQ teams.

Boise State

Spring practice starts: March 7.

Spring game: April 16.

What to watch:

The obvious storyline is what happens to the offense with leading receivers Austin Pettis and Titus Young gone. The two combined for 142 receptions, 2,166 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2010. Tyler Shoemaker is the top candidate to step in and fill one of the slots. Also watch for Geraldo Hiwat and Chris Potter, who already has proved to be valuable on special teams.

Bryan Harsin has left as offensive coordinator and Brent Pease is in. Pease was the Broncos’ receivers coach, so he knows well what his players can do. We’ll see whether Boise State can pick right up on offense in 2011 with some of the new faces.

The secondary will be missing three starters -- Winston Venable, Brandyn Thompson and Jeron Johnson. One player to keep an eye on to potentially replace Venable is a junior college player out of Blinn College -- 6-foot, 210-pound safety/linebacker Dextrell Simmons. He is enrolled and will participate in spring practice. Johnson was a four-year starter and led the team in tackles the past three years, and his position is wide open.


Spring practice starts: March 14

Spring scrimmage: April 9.

What to watch:

Coach Bronco Mendenhall says he will open the competition at quarterback between Jake Heaps and Riley Nelson, who is expected to be healthy following surgery during the season. Heaps should be the front-runner going into the spring, especially after his bowl performance. You can bet BYU will avoid splitting the quarterback duties in 2011.

The coaching staff had a shake-up of sorts in the offseason. New coordinator Brandon Doman takes over and has vowed to return to the days of old -- lots of downfield passing. With that said, highly touted receiver Ross Apo is going to be a definite player to watch this spring as he returns from an injury to his index finger.

On defense, BYU loses its unquestioned leader, safety Andrew Rich. He led the team with 111 tackles and five interceptions last season. Travis Uale and Jray Galea’i could be the front-runners to replace him. Whoever does end up in his role is going to have to step up in a big way in BYU’s first season as an independent.


Spring practice starts: March 9.

Spring game: April 15.

What to watch:

Lots of change coming to the offense. Bryant Moniz is back, but he will be without four starters on the offensive line, his top two receivers in Greg Salas and Kealoha Pilares, and leading rusher Alex Green. At receiver, Royce Pollard returns. The coaching staff also is eager to see junior college transfer Darius Bright, who redshirted this past season.

Corey Paredes returns to anchor the defense, a huge plus for the Warriors. He had a breakout season in 2010 and even bigger things will be expected in 2011. The big hole Hawaii has to fill is at safety, where Mana Silva is gone. Silva ranked third in the nation with eight interceptions this past season.

With so many players gone on offense, how will Moniz respond? Will he make his receivers into different versions of Salas and Pilares because of the offensive system Hawaii runs? Or did those two guys make him look good? He had a horrific performance in the bowl game against Tulsa, throwing four interceptions, and is going to have to work hard to groom the playmakers around him.


Spring practice starts: March 7.

Spring game: April 9.

What to watch:

Case Keenum isn’t expected to be 100 percent to participate in the spring drills, but his return will be noticeable anyway. Keenum was granted a sixth year of eligibility and most likely will be doing plenty of throwing while Cotton Turner and David Piland share the snaps.

Houston has plenty of depth at running back, and now coach Kevin Sumlin has to sort through it with some spirited competition with Bryce Beall, Michael Hayes and Chris Wilson all returning. Charles Sims is out for spring practice but is expected to be eligible for the fall.

Defensively, Houston is going to have to show more improvement than it did in 2011. Leading tackler Sammy Brown returns along with most of the other starters. But this will be the team’s second season in the 3-4, so the unit has got to step up and help the offense out. For all that was made of the defensive overhaul, Houston once again had one of the worst defenses in the nation.

Middle Tennessee

Spring practice starts: March 16.

Spring game: April 9.

What to watch:

The Blue Raiders had a disappointing season thanks in part to what happened with quarterback Dwight Dasher, who had to miss four games because of an NCAA suspension. At least that means Middle Tennessee has experienced quarterbacks in the fold going into the spring. That competition will center around Logan Kilgore and Jeff Murphy.

Middle Tennessee also will have a new offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator. Willie Simmons will run the offense and Steve Ellis will run the defense. Simmons is going to have to continue to try to maintain an up-tempo style without relying on a running quarterback, the way the Blue Raiders did with Dasher.

Defensively, Middle Tennessee has to replace Jamari Lattimore, who had 11.5 sacks last season and ranked No. 7 in the country. The unit is going to be extremely young going into 2011, so extra coaching on fundamentals may be necessary during the spring. The Blue Raiders cannot afford to be as undisciplined as they were in 2010.


Spring practice starts: March 28

Spring game: April 22

What to watch:

Ricky Dobbs is gone, along with his leadership and his record-breaking feats. Kriss Proctor is set to step in for the two-year starter, who has been the face of the program for the past several seasons. Proctor has taken limited snaps in games, so getting him up to speed in the spring is going to be incredibly important. Alexander Teich does return, so he should be a big help.

Navy takes a hit defensively, losing Tyler Simmons, Kevin Edwards and Wyatt Middleton. It’s hard to argue that Navy had anybody more experienced than Middleton, who started every game but two in his career with the Midshipmen.

It will be interesting to see how Navy responds to a bit of adversity it experienced in 2010. The Midshipmen lost the Commander-In-Chief Trophy for the first time since 2002, and ended the season with a tough loss to San Diego State in the S.D. County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl. This is a team that loses many senior starters going into 2011, so it will be important to develop leaders in the spring.


Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 16

What to watch:

Nevada is without quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who set countless school and NCAA records in his time as a starter. Tyler Lantrip has had time to learn behind Kaepernick, but has nowhere near the same experience as his predecessor does in running the offense.

The Wolf Pack must also replace Vai Taua, who was coming off the best season of his career with 1,610 yards and 19 rushing touchdowns. Mike Ball is the leading candidate to replace him in the starting lineup. Lampford Mark tore his ACL this past season, so his status for the spring and the upcoming season is up in the air. If Lantrip and Ball are the starters, spring would be a great time to work on their chemistry.

Nevada made big strides defensively under first-year coordinator Andy Buh, but the Wolf Pack lose Dontay Moch, who set the WAC and school career records for tackles for loss. Kaelin Burnett has a chance to be used in much the same way Nevada used Moch. In fact, Moch told me in January he had groomed Burnett to be his successor.

Northern Illinois

Spring practice starts: March 22.

Spring game: Saturday, April 23.

What to watch:

With a new coaching staff in place, we will get our first glimpse at Dave Doeren as head coach. How will he lead his new team and what changes will he make? Will this team still be a run-first team playing solid, aggressive defense? How many personnel changes will he make? We will have to stay tuned.

One of the biggest personnel changes he will have to make is at running back, where MAC Offensive Player of the Year Chad Spann is gone. Spann ran for 1,388 yards and 22 touchdowns this past season and will be missed. But the Huskies usually do a good job of plugging in the next guy. In this case, that could be Jasmin Hopkins or Cameron Bell.

Defensively, the Huskies lose two of their best players in Jake Coffman and leading tackler Alex Kube. Coffman returned to the team after initially deciding to retire and had an incredible season, leading the team with 9.5 tackles. The military veteran provided unquestioned leadership and wisdom that is going to be difficult to replace.


Spring practice starts: March 5.

Spring scrimmage: April 2.

What to watch:

Replacing Andy Dalton is going to be the biggest story going into the spring. Right now it is between two players who have never started a collegiate game -- Casey Pachall and Matt Brown. Pachall served as Dalton’s backup last season, while Brown is a redshirt freshman. The race between them is wide open. Yogi Gallegos, who was third string, has transferred.

The defense loses five starters going into 2011, including team leader Tejay Johnson. There is no clear front-runner to replace him, and coach Gary Patterson may move some players around on defense to get the right guy into his role. Three on the defensive line are also gone, including Wayne Daniels.

How will the team respond without Dalton and Johnson? Both had the intangible leadership that a team needs for chemistry and camaraderie. This may sound hard to believe, but TCU will have a new starting quarterback for the first time since 2006. Back then, the Horned Frogs had never been to a BCS game.


Spring practice starts: March 18.

Spring game: April 16.

What to watch:

The continued development of Jeff Godfrey is going to be a big part of spring practice. Coach George O’Leary would love to open up more of his playbook to Godfrey now that the quarterback has one year of starting experience under his belt. What Godfrey did as a true freshman was fabulous, but more will be expected.

Somebody needs to emerge at running back. It appears UCF has a logjam at this position, especially with the return of Brynn Harvey, who was tabbed to be the starter in 2010 before a knee injury shelved him for the season. Without him, Latavius Murray and Ronnie Weaver stepped in. Now the trio will be fighting for playing time.

Defensive end Bruce Miller leaves a big void to fill. The two-time Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year holds the school record for sacks and brought incredible leadership to the team. Not only that, UCF will have a new defensive coordinator with Dave Huxtable gone to Wisconsin. Huxtable was a big reason the defense has been so good the past two seasons.