NCF Nation: spring 09 wwl
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Spring football, like the season itself, is a time of rebirth and renewal.
From the likeliest BCS challenger to those teams merely hopeful of escaping from the cellar, it's a time to look ahead to later in the season with hope and promise for what could happen.
And it's no different for Big 12 teams after the completion of their spring practices.
In fact, it might be even more anticipated because the Big 12's returning collection of talent looks even better than last season when the conference had an unprecedented hammerlock on the top 15 throughout most of the second half of the season.
After the work this spring, here are some trends we saw across the conference.
Offense again will rule: With eight returning starting quarterbacks from last season, Big 12 offenses looked as if they picked up this spring from last season's arcadelike numbers when the conference accounted for five of the top eight passing offenses and five of the top nine teams nationally in scoring and total offense. The spring showed that we should likely expect more of the same this season.
The two best teams have the two best defenses: Texas and Oklahoma appear to be poised to challenge for the national championship again. They will return quarterbacks who finished 1-2 for the Heisman Trophy. But the biggest reason for the high expectations at both South powers coming out of spring practices is their defensive growth. Oklahoma has nine starters back from last season and might have the nation's most talented and deepest front seven. Texas could conceivably have the nation's top secondary, with consistent two-deep talent at every position. That ability to make consistent defensive stops will be critical for both teams and their title hopes.
If you can't stop them, tweak your defense: Kansas and Kansas State struggled mightily making defensive stops. So it's not surprising that Mark Mangino and Bill Snyder both inserted the 4-2-5 alignment to be their base defensive set. It makes sense in this conference to have as many defensive backs and playmakers on the field as possible. Even Texas is incorporating parts of a five-defensive back set with talented safety Earl Thomas playing as a nickelback. Getting as many fast defensive players on the field as possible makes sense considering all of the talented skill-position people in the league.
Baylor's "Superman" doesn't need to run track: Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin made history last season when he won the conference's 400-meter hurdles only a few weeks after enrolling in school. Despite world-class speed that someday might earn him a shot at the Olympics, Griffin decided to dedicate himself to his football team this spring. It served as a unifier for the Bears, who appear to have a roster talented enough to enable them to challenge for a bowl berth for the first time since 1994. Griffin's diligence at football might get the Bears back in the bowl picture sooner than we all think.
Heavy lifting required for the new head coaches: Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads and Kansas State's Snyder probably have a better appreciation for their rebuilding jobs after gauging the talent of their teams -- or lack thereof -- during the spring. Rhoads vowed at his introductory news conference that his teams would hit opponents as they came off the bus. After only a few practices, Rhoads was blunt when he said his team could use extra practices and needed an infusion of speed to live up to those boasts. Snyder wasn't quite as verbose, but just as busy. As KSU quarterback Carson Coffman appeared to have claimed his No. 1 quarterback job late in spring practice, Snyder quietly attracted former South Florida quarterback Grant Gregory to provide immediate competition at the position and counted the days until heralded junior-college quarterback recruit Daniel Thomas arrives to boost the talent level of his barren team. It looks as if it will be some tough early sledding for both coaches trying to return their programs to respectability.
1. Boise State still the favorite: The Broncos return a solid group of young players and will once again be the favorite to win the WAC. However, they will get strong competition from a Nevada team that has played the Broncos tough each of the past couple of seasons and should be much improved in the passing game and on defense. Also look for Louisiana Tech, Hawaii and Fresno State to make waves in the conference.
2. Idaho improving: This is the year Idaho is going to make its move. It might not be a big move, but it will be a move in the right direction. The Vandals finally have their full complement of scholarships and several players back from last year's health issues. There are talented players on the Idaho roster, and if the lines can improve, Idaho could easily get itself out of the cellar of the WAC.
3. Alexander the great: Quarterback Greg Alexander changed Hawaii's fortunes last year with strong play that ultimately took the Warriors to a bowl game. His secret? Securing the ball. Alexander had just five interceptions last season as opposed to 14 touchdowns. Two of those interceptions came in the season opener against Florida. Alexander should help Hawaii to an even better season if the offensive line can protect him.
4. Strong quarterback play: The WAC could have two of the best quarterbacks in country in Boise State's Kellen Moore and Nevada's Colin Kaepernick. Both earned postseason honors last year and have already earned preseason praise from some publications and Web sites. Other quarterbacks who could roll with Moore and Kaepernick include Diondre Borel, Nathan Enderle and Alexander.
5. Strong rushing conference: Nevada might have the strongest running game in the country this year, but as a whole the WAC has several talented running backs who could create some national buzz. Louisiana Tech's Daniel Porter is a name to know, as is Idaho's Deonte Jackson and San Jose State Yonus Davis. Boise State's Jeremy Avery will take on a bigger role with Ian Johnson gone, and Utah State's Robert Turbin should be a major player as quarterback Diondre Borel works on his passing game.
1. Big 3 still supreme: After duking it out for the Mountain West title last year, Utah, BYU and TCU are once again going to be the favorites fighting for league supremacy. All three have big holes to fill in various positions, but depth and strong recruiting addressed a lot of these problems this spring, and these three teams should not only be the best in the conference, but also floating in and around the Top 25.
2. New coaches, new mindset: New Mexico, Wyoming and San Diego State all brought in big name coaches to revive their programs and all three spent the spring trying to install new offenses, new defenses and new attitudes. New Mexico coach Mike Locksley might have inherited the most talented group and will be able to win early, while Wyoming's Dave Christensen should be able to turn his program around in a couple years. San Diego State's Brady Hoke, on the other hand, faces the biggest battle in terms of recruiting, personnel and support.
3. Spreading it out: The spread is becoming the offense of choice in the Mountain West, especially with the addition of three coaches with heavy spread backgrounds. The neat thing is that several schools have different types of spread, so it's going to be tough for defenses to continually adjust. One week they might see a running quarterback, the next a pocket passer and then a guy who can do both.
4. Still the top non-AQ conference: All eyes will be on the Mountain West this fall after a spring full of BCS hoopla and congressional hearings. The conference now has a lot to live up to, but it doesn't necessarily have to have another undefeated season to make its point. It just needs to show well across the board. While Utah, BYU and TCU lead the conference, the other six teams need to show that they're worthy of a BCS bid as well.
5. Still the best defenses: The Mountain West is starting to earn a reputation for attracting high level defensive players and this year should be no different. TCU will be loaded again with defensive end Jerry Hughes returning and players such as linebacker Daryl Washington stepping into the spotlight. Utah also will have strong defensive ends with Koa Misi and Derrick Shelby. And Jan Jorgensen, one of the conference's most well-known players will be back for BYU. Not to mention tons of depth at Air Force and maybe some lesser-known talent emerging at the other schools.
1. Troy is the favorite: After losing just one game in Sun Belt play last season and returning almost all of the weapons from a year ago, Troy is the hands-down favorite to repeat and take the only guaranteed bowl berth available to the Sun Belt. But it won't be easy. There are several teams in the Sun Belt that are loaded with talent this year.
2. Conference looks stronger: Seven of the league's nine teams have the personnel to compete for the league title. The Sun Belt is always a hotly contested conference, but this might be one of the few years where several teams -- Troy, Middle Tennessee, Arkansas State, Florida Atlantic, FIU and Louisiana-Lafayette -- are stacked with high level talent. That makes this season one of the most anticipated in a long time.
3. Strong senior quarterbacking: The Sun Belt has some good quarterbacks, but the crop of senior returning quarterbacks is especially strong this season. Troy's Levi Brown, Florida Atlantic's Rusty Smith, and Arkansas State's Corey Leonard have the potential and the personnel to put up as good of statistics as any quarterback in the country.
4. Lots of new offenses: There's going to be an increase in scoring in the Sun Belt this season with a couple new offenses taking shape at Louisiana-Monroe and Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders are trying out Tony Franklin's spread offense that's been successful at Troy, and the Warhawks are going to run the hurry-up offense. The Warhawks also have switched to a 3-3-5 defense, which mean it will be hurry-up on both sides of the ball.
5. Great offseason hires: The Sun Belt went out and made some of the more impressive assistant coaching hires in the country. Middle Tennessee brought in Franklin, who was fired from Auburn, as its offensive coordinator. Florida Atlantic hired Jeff Brohm to coach quarterbacks after sending a couple to the NFL from Louisville. And Louisiana-Monroe hired Troy Reffet to teach the 3-3-5 scheme, which will be unique in the Sun Belt.
1. East is wide open: East Carolina is the favorite for the Conference USA East title because it's the reigning champion and because it returns almost all of last year's team, but it's not going to be easy. There is far more competition in C-USA this year than last. Expect teams such as Southern Miss and Memphis to put up a fight and I wouldn't discount the much-improved UCF and UAB squads either.
2. Offense on display: Houston, Tulsa and Rice lit up the scoreboard last season, but don't be surprised to see a couple of other teams jump on the high-scoring bandwagon. Teams such as UTEP, Southern Miss, Memphis, and SMU have potent offenses. C-USA could yet again take the award for the most unbelievable offensive statistics.
3. So where's the defense?: That's a good question. C-USA teams aren't usually known for their defenses, but after seeing some of the offensive advances many teams have made this spring, having a strong defense might win the title. Teams such as East Carolina and UCF have had strong defenses, but watch out for Memphis, Southern Miss and Tulsa, teams that showed strong defensive strides this spring.
4. SMU on the move?: It would be shocking if SMU went 1-11 again this year especially with so much experience returning. The key for the Mustangs will be pulling it together on defense and establishing a running game. SMU won't challenge traditional powers Houston, Rice and Tulsa, but it could make some noise foreshadowing some really good seasons for the Mustangs down the road.
5. Quarterbacking questions: Five teams went into the spring with quarterback competitions and two came out with one. The crazy thing is the competitions are at Tulsa and Rice, two of the better quarterbacking schools in the conference. Both teams each have three candidates battling it out and both would do themselves a favor to get the issue resolved quickly once fall camp begins so they can start creating some continuity on offense.
1. Notre Dame should be better: There were flashes of Notre Dame's potential at times last season and it gave a glimmer of hope that this Fighting Irish team could be a contender again. It returns enough starters and made the right moves on the coaching staff to make that happen. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen -- if he can get out of his own way -- can put up big numbers against a soft schedule and lead the Irish back into the hunt for a major bowl.
2. Navy offense could surprise: Navy's backfield will be entirely new this season and that's a concern considering the backfield was the source of almost all of the Midshipmen's offense in 2008. But there are good players in place and new quarterback Ricky Dobbs proved last season that he's ready to take the reins of this team. He admits that he still needs to work on the option, but he also has the potential to make Navy a more diversified offense in 2009.
3. Army will be a work in progress: Don't expect a quick turnaround at Army. New head coach Rich Ellerson doesn't have the right players on the roster to make the Black Knights the next Navy or even the next Cal Poly. However, Army will be a team that works hard and battles in games. That might not translate into wins, but at least it will be progress from a year ago.
4. Notre Dame's running game will be better: Tony Alford was a great hire as the running backs coach. He brings in a workmanlike effort that was missing from the running backs corps the past two seasons. Armando Allen should have a breakout year and incoming freshman Cierre Wood will also be a vital part of the backfield. If the offense can become more balanced, it will take a lot of pressure off Clausen's shoulders.
5. Navy's defense is one of the best: Navy's defense was underrated last year and ended up being a strength for the team. With seven returners, including Ross Pospisil and Jabaree Tuani, the Midshipmen are poised to have not only the best defense among the independents, but perhaps one of the top defenses in the country. The question is in the secondary, especially with the loss of safety Emmett Merchant. But if it can come along this spring, Navy will be tough to beat.
What did we learn during our Big East spring fling? Let us count the ways.
1. Defense first: The Big East lost a lot of offensive star power to NFL and graduation, including four of the league's top six rushers in 2008 and all but two members (Mardy Gilyard and Nate Byham) of the first team all-league offense. Some of the strongest units in the conference this season figure to be on the defensive side, where Rutgers, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Connecticut and South Florida all look solid. This may be a year of lower-scoring, physical grinders in league play.
2. Mighty mites rule: For whatever reason, many of the playmakers who have emerged in the Big East could all apply for a 6-foot-and-under league. There are holdovers like West Virginia's Noel Devine (5-foot-8) and Louisville's Victor Anderson (5-9). Pittsburgh's Dion Lewis (5-8, on a good day) has emerged as LeSean McCoy's possible successor, while UConn may look to Jordan Todman (5-9) to fill Donald Brown's cleats. Antwon Bailey (5-8) should get a lot of carries at Syracuse, while Cincinnati may work Darrin Williams (5-7, if that) into the offense. If you like quick, small backs, the Big East is your nirvana.
3. QB and O-lines remain a concern: A few dilemmas got resolved in the spring, but many more remain at some of the vital offensive positions. Two legitimate contenders, West Virginia and South Florida, have major question marks on the offensive line, while Pitt, Rutgers, Louisville, Syracuse and Connecticut don't have firmly established starting quarterbacks heading into the fall.
4. Youth will be served: More players are seeing the field right away as freshmen across America these days, and we could be watching dozens of first-year guys making an impact in the Big East. Just about every school in the conference is counting on newcomers as reinforcements this summer. South Florida coach Jim Leavitt has said as many as 20 members of his recruiting class could play in '09. West Virginia figures to plug in several freshmen at the skill positions, while UConn will look for some immediate receiver help. Pitt might start a true freshman (Lewis) at running back, Rutgers could add freshmen to help its defensive front, not to mention possibly Tom Savage at quarterback, and Syracuse and Louisville will play anyone with skill. This looks like a transitional year in the Big East, where the next young wave of stars begins to replace the veteran big names (Pat White, Donald Brown, LeSean McCoy, Mike Teel, Kenny Britt, Scott McKillop, etc.) that left after '08.
5. Nobody knows anything: Across the Big East this spring, every coach privately wondered who the favorite would be in 2009. Only a psychic would dare try to list the order of finish in the league this coming season. The conference may enter the year without a frontrunner and without a preseason Top 25 team in the bunch, but several teams should improve as the season goes along. This could be the most unpredictable -- and therefore fun -- year ever in the Big East.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
Ahh yeah, spring football.
There's nothing like it, especially in the SEC. Crowds in excess of 50,000 turned out for spring games at Alabama, Florida and Tennessee, and ESPN carried the spring games at Alabama and Georgia live.
Never mind that the real object of spring games in this day and age is to show as little as possible.
Still, it's a glimpse of what we can expect in the fall. New faces emerge. Familiar faces take on new roles, and teams start to establish identities.
What did we learn this spring around the SEC? Here's a taste:
1. Defense is still king in the SEC: It's been nearly four months since Florida polished off Oklahoma in the BCS National Championship Game, but the debate rages on as to whether the defenses were that good in the SEC last season or if the offenses were simply that bad. The statistics say that 11 of the top 40 defenses in the country last season belonged to SEC teams. Only Arkansas fell outside the top 40 in total defense. Get ready for more of the same in 2009. Alabama, Florida, LSU and Ole Miss all appear to be loaded again on defense. Any coincidence that those four will probably be the highest rated SEC teams heading into the season?
2. Rebels are ready to challenge: The last time Ole Miss won an SEC championship, Houston Nutt was in the first grade. It's been that long. The Rebels finished 5-0-1 in the league in 1963, their second straight title under the legendary John Vaught. They haven't won one since and have factored into the Western Division race only once since the league expanded in 1992 and added a championship game. Is this the year that drought ends? The Rebels would seem to have all the pieces for a championship run. Jevan Snead is a franchise quarterback surrounded by speedy playmakers, and there might not be a deeper defensive line in the country. This is all new ground for the Rebels, though. How they handle the expectations will go a long way toward determining whether they're in Atlanta on Dec. 5.
3. Quarterback questions persist: Florida's Tim Tebow and Ole Miss' Snead will rival Oklahoma's Sam Bradford and Texas' Colt McCoy as the best quarterback duo in any one conference in the country. But after Tebow and Snead, there are more questions than answers in the SEC when it comes to the quarterback position. In many ways, it's similar to last season when Matthew Stafford and Tebow were the proven quarterback commodities in the league. Who will be this year's version of Snead, the guy who emerges from the shadows to have a big year? Arkansas' Ryan Mallett is a great fit for Bobby Petrino's system after coming over from Michigan, and look for Jordan Jefferson to show his entire repertoire at LSU now that he's gotten a taste of SEC defenses.
4. Richt going back to his roots: Georgia's Mark Richt might be the most tenured coach in the SEC at his current school, but he's treating the 2009 season like it's his maiden voyage. In other words, there won't be any shortcuts. Richt thinks his team might have lost sight last season of how important attention to detail is when it comes to the razor-thin margin of winning championships in this league and winning enough games to go to a decent bowl. The Bulldogs' approach in the offseason and in the spring has been reminiscent of what it was like when Richt first arrived in Athens. "We're not leaving anything to chance," said Richt, who likes the physical, hard-edged mentality he's seen from his club after a glut of injuries forced the Bulldogs to change the way they practiced and prepared a year ago.
5. Climbing aboard the Lane Train: Regardless of what Lane Kiffin does with the Tennessee program next season, it won't be fair to fully judge him until he's had a chance to bring in at least two more recruiting classes. He's off to an impressive start in the department of wooing talent. Getting the likes of Bryce Brown, Nu'Keese Richardson, Janzen Jackson and Darren Myles in such a short period of time was a coup for the Vols. He's also galvanized much of the Tennessee fan base with his energy, brashness and penchant for calling out the likes of Urban Meyer, Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier -- three guys who've combined for four national titles. Can the 33-year-old Kiffin back up his big talk? We won't have to wait long to find out. The Vols pay a visit to the Swamp on Sept. 19.
With so many new coaches in the Mid-American Conference, the spring was full of learning experiences, some better than others.
There is one lesson that was constant throughout the league: All of the teams are stacked with talent, making next year's race to the MAC Championship very exciting and anyone's game.
Here a few things that we learned about the MAC this spring:
1. Lots of players return: Across the board, the MAC seems to return several players from last year's teams, including some of the more big name players from several schools. Ball State, Bowling Green and Western Michigan are on the low end, returning 11 players from last year, but each of those teams return at least one star from last year's squad and have several players who made significant contributions last season.
2. Still a quarterback conference: Yes, Nate Davis and Drew Willy have moved on to the NFL, but familiar names such as Dan LeFevour, Tim Hiller and Tyler Sheehan are still carrying the torch for a conference that has been known for its quarterback play. A couple new names will surface this year, too, including Buffalo's Zach Maynard and Ball State's Kelly Page. And don't overlook some guys such as Ohio's Boo Jackson and Northern Illinois' Chandler Harnish, who are both poised for a big year.
3. Defense? What defense? If you're planning to tune into a MAC game hoping to see a defensive battle, think again. This conference has been known for its offense and it will continue to be that way for the foreseeable future. Sure, there will be a couple teams, such as Northern Illinois, that break the mold, but for the most part, the road to the championship is paved with touchdowns. Lots and lots of touchdowns.
4. Showcasing some of the best receivers: The MAC is an underrated conference for NFL-caliber receivers, but there are some names to watch heading into this season. Headlining that list is Buffalo's Naaman Roosevelt, who was the best receiver in the conference and one of the top 10 receivers in the country a year ago. Central Michigan receivers Antonio Brown and Bryan Anderson, Eastern Michigan's Jacory Stone and Toledo's Stephen Williams also have a shot at being NFL players with high-level seasons.
5. I know I said there was no defense, but ... There are a couple great defensive players who are worth watching as we enter camp. Toledo safety Barry Church will likely be one of the highest-rated products. Central Michigan defensive lineman Frank Zombo has a chance to be one of the best linemen in the league and linebacker teammate Nick Bellore might lead the conference in tackles for the second consecutive season. Also, Kent State defensive back Brian Lainhart has the opportunity to make the Golden Flashes a player in the conference.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Anyone who thinks spring football is simply an SEC pastime didn't attend Ohio State's spring game on April 25.
A spring game record crowd of 95,722 showed up at Ohio Stadium to see Jim Tressel's hideous Hawaiian shirt and a bunch of new starters on both sides of the ball for the Buckeyes. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor didn't let down the fans, showcasing his improved footwork and mechanics.
There was similar intrigue in other Big Ten cities this spring, as Penn State tried to reload, Michigan tried to rebuild and teams like Iowa, Michigan State, Northwestern and Minnesota tried to continue the momentum generated from last fall.
Here are five lessons from this spring:
1. Quarterback play will be better -- It couldn't get much worse, but the development of players like Pryor, Iowa's Ricky Stanzi and Michigan State's Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol bodes well for the fall. Penn State's Daryll Clark picked up where he left off after earning first-team all-conference honors in 2008, and Illinois' Juice Williams will be solid. Minnesota and Wisconsin should be deeper at the quarterback position, as freshmen MarQueis Gray and Curt Phillips came on strong toward the end of practice. Although the league lacks elite wide receivers, the Big Ten will pass the ball better this fall.
2. JoePa is back -- He never really left, but the 82-year-old Penn State head coach feels like himself again following hip-replacement surgery in November. Paterno was back on the practice field this spring and fully intends to return to the sideline Sept. 5 against Akron. His assistants deserve most of the credit for last year's championship team, but the lead Lion is back and has plenty on his plate this summer as Penn State tries to replace standouts at offensive line, wide receiver and defensive end.
3. Wolverines feel great with Tate -- Michigan's quarterback competition is far from over, but Rich Rodriguez can feel a bit better about the position after the way true freshman Tate Forcier developed this spring. Forcier, an early enrollee, had his growing pains but also showcased the mobility and creativity Michigan needs at quarterback and sorely lacked in 2008. The freshman left Michigan fans feeling good after tossing four touchdown passes and running for another score in the spring game.
4. This is still a running back's league -- Despite losing five of its top six rushers, including Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene, the Big Ten once again appears to be loaded at running back entering the fall. In addition to known commodities like Evan Royster and John Clay, several backs developed nicely this spring, including Ohio State's Brandon Saine and Dan Herron, Illinois' Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure, Purdue's Ralph Bolden and Northwestern's Jeravin Matthews. Michigan might have the league's deepest running backs corps after true freshman Vincent Smith blossomed this spring.
5. Indiana schools could be in trouble -- The Hoosier State could have another rough season after both Purdue and Indiana lost major contributors on offense. Purdue sophomore quarterback Justin Siller, who started three games last season and brought tremendous athleticism to the backfield, was dismissed from school for violating academic policy. Indiana said goodbye to former record-setting quarterback Kellen Lewis, who was dismissed for a second violation of team rules. There will be a lot riding on Joey Elliott and Ben Chappell this season as the Boilers and Hoosiers try to climb out of the Big Ten cellar.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
We spent a lot of time talking about quarterbacks this spring in the Pac-10, most particularly USC's quarterback competition -- did ya hear, Aaron Corp's No. 1 but this freshman Matt Barkley looks like the bees' knees!
The other general theme isn't new: After reviewing the tea leaves on the table, does any team have the karmic -- and talent -- potential to unseat USC from the top of the Pac-10?
The answer? Maybe.
What we learned. Or developed a hunch about.
1. Oregon State's quarterback situation is ... interesting: You have two starting quarterbacks who are seniors. One is going to sit. No other way to describe it. Lyle Moevao threw for 2,500 yards and 19 touchdowns last year but he sat out spring practices with a shoulder injury, which is exactly what happened to Sean Canfield last year before he lost his starting job. By the way, Canfield went 3-0 -- two starts -- subbing for Moevao in 2008. Though he struggled in the spring game with three interceptions, Canfield played well enough throughout that he probably owns a slight lead heading into the offseason.
2. USC's defense may not be as good as 2008, but it's probably as good as anyone else: The 2008 USC defense had more future NFL players on it than any other unit in the nation. And the 2009 version might not be any different, though there's clearly youth and inexperience to fret about from the Trojans' perspective. Still, start with perhaps the best secondary in the nation, led by safeties Taylor Mays and Josh Pinkard. Then consider the breakout spring of end Everson Griffen, who could win the Pac-10 sack title if he remains focused. Further, word is the three new linebackers might not match the NFL-ready standard of Rey Maualuga, Clay Matthews and Brian Cushing, but Malcolm Smith, Chris Galippo and Michael Morgan are faster. Toss in some impressive youngsters up front, and it's hard to imagine this crew not ranking among the nation's top 10 in just about every category.
3. The conference of ... running backs: The Pac-10 might feature the best collection of running backs in the nation. Five 1,000-yard rushers are schedule to return, including California's Jahvid Best, the conference's top Heisman Trophy candidate, and Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers, who won the conference's Offensive Player of the Year award as a true freshman. Toss in Oregon's LeGarrette Blount, a potential first-day NFL draft pick in 2010, and Stanford's Toby Gerhart and Arizona's Nic Grigsby, not to mention the six-deep stable of runners at USC, and the battle for first-team Pac-10 might be more arduous than All-American.
4. But can anyone block? Three teams that ran the ball well last year -- Arizona, Oregon and Oregon State -- lost three starting offensive linemen, including early-round NFL draft picks. Four others -- Arizona State, UCLA, Washington and Washington State -- were just lousy up front last fall. Even Stanford and California, which should be fairly stout, lost their best blockers from 2008. The conference's only sure thing up front is USC, which welcomes back its entire starting five, including All-American center Kristopher O'Dowd. Moreover, the teams that entered spring with questions on the line didn't get many answers three weeks later. O-line play might be the most critical issue facing the conference in 2009, even more so than at quarterback.
5. Sarkisian and Kelly bring new energy: Steve Sarkisian and Chip Kelly inherited completely different situations, but both made a mark by upping the intensity of practices. Sarkisian, of course, took over a lifeless program that Tyrone Willingham ran into the ground (uncharitable, but inarguable). He opened up practices and practically begged boosters and old Huskies greats to come visit. He also increased the tempo and energy level of practices -- heck, everything around the team -- which might do more than anything to get the Huskies a handful of wins next fall. Meanwhile, Kelly took over for one of the best coaches in the nation, Mike Bellotti, and brought a little East Coast volume to Ducks practices. He's not completely renovating the Ducks, who finished in the nation's top 10 last year, but he's going to add his own coat of paint -- which at Oregon, as you known, probably will be a fairly loud shade.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
There were all kinds of story lines this spring, from trouble in Tallahassee to ACC commissioner John Swofford representing the BCS in Congress. New coordinators were introduced, and new players stepped into the spotlight.
There was a particular buzz around the new offenses at Miami and Virginia, and Don Brown's defense earned rave reviews at Maryland as did Kevin Steele's at Clemson. Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams stole the show as far as newcomers go.
Only two players -- Florida State's E.J. Manuel and Wake Forest's Brandon Ghee -- were injured on the first day of practice and missed the whole spring. Other than that, there weren't any major injuries or catastrophes.
There were plenty of things we could take away from the spring in analyzing how the ACC will fare this fall.
Here's a look at a few things we learned in the ACC this spring:
1. This conference can run. Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Maryland, NC State ... the list goes on. The question now is how these coaching staffs will split the carries. Some teams welcomed former leading rushers back from injuries, like NC State's Toney Baker and Duke's Re'quan Boyette. It seems like every team in the ACC has a legitimate difference maker at running back, and it should be a strength of the league this fall, especially considering ...
2. Veteran receivers are at a premium. UNC and Virginia got hit the hardest by graduation and the NFL, but Maryland also lost Darrius Heyward-Bey, Wake Forest lost D.J. Boldin, and Florida State should be holding open tryouts. Young receivers were scrambling to establish themselves all over the ACC this spring. There's talent at the position, it just hasn't been tested anywhere but Miami.
3. Offensive improvement up front. Boston College, Florida State, Clemson, Virginia and Wake Forest are among several teams with at least four starters returning on the offensive line. Virginia Tech's struggles on offense can be traced in part to a lack of athleticism up front, and that appears to have changed. Experience throughout the league should help ease the transition for some skill players and rookie backup quarterbacks.
4. There is improvement from the ground up. And it starts in the Coastal Division with Virginia and Duke. The Blue Devils had nowhere to go but up, and the pressure was on Al Groh to raise the bar after missing the postseason last year. NC State's progress should make the Atlantic Division race interesting. If you thought last year was a wild ride in the ACC, '09 should be even more unpredictable.
5. It's OK to follow your dreams. Former basketball player Greg Paulus was offered a tryout as a receiver with Duke's football team, and Miami forward Jimmy Graham was offered a tryout as a tight end with the Hurricanes, which he accepted. It will be interesting to see how both of their stories end, and whether or not switching sports in the final year of eligibility becomes a more popular trend.