Commentary

Storylines emerge as spring ball begins

Originally Published: February 13, 2012
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Depending on where you live, it might seem like winter didn't start until this past weekend.

But less than a month after Alabama defeated LSU 21-0 in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game in New Orleans, college football spring practices are starting.

Army takes the field Monday, and South Alabama begins its first spring practices as a FBS team (the Jaguars join the Sun Belt Conference this coming season) Wednesday. Texas Tech starts spring practice Friday, and Boston College, Duke, San Diego State, Memphis, TCU and LSU start later this month.

Over the next three months, teams across the country will start putting together their depth charts and game plans for the 2012 season.

Here are some of college football's burning questions heading into spring practice:

[+] EnlargeDee Milliner
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireDee Milliner is one of the few returning players from Alabama's vaunted secondary.

Can defending national champion Alabama replace most of its secondary?
The Crimson Tide were hit by heavy personnel losses, especially in the secondary, where cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie and All-America safety Mark Barron left. Rising junior Dee Milliner is the only returning cornerback with any experience, so junior college transfers Deion Belue of Northeast Mississippi Community College and Travell Dixon of Eastern Arizona College -- who both enrolled at Alabama early -- will get long, hard looks this spring.

Will Zach Mettenberger give LSU a boost at quarterback?
The Tigers must replace departed quarterbacks Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, who combined to help the Tigers reach the national championship game. Mettenberger, a junior college transfer and former Georgia player, certainly looks the part -- he is 6-foot-5 and 221 pounds with a very strong arm. But Mettenberger attempted only 11 passes in his first season at LSU and didn't play in 11 of its last 12 games in 2011.

Who will step up on Michigan's defensive line?
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison accomplished a miraculous turnaround last season, as Michigan went from No. 110 in the country in total defense (450.7 yards per game) and No. 108 in scoring defense (35.2 points) in 2010 to No. 17 in total defense (322.1 yards) and No. 6 in scoring defense (17.4 points) in 2011. But the Wolverines will have to replace the heart of their defense, after tackles Mike Martin and Will Heininger and end Ryan Van Bergen departed. Rising senior Will Campbell and junior Quinton Washington are the top candidates at tackle, and junior Nathan Brink might be in line to grab Van Bergen's vacant spot.

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Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesWith a year of experience under his belt, Bobby Hart and Florida State's offensive line should show signs of improvement in 2012.

Will Florida State's offensive line get any better?
Injuries and youth along the offensive line derailed FSU's offense last season, as the Seminoles were tied for 110th nationally in sacks allowed (3.2 per game). The Seminoles defeated Notre Dame 18-14 in the Champs Sports Bowl, despite starting four freshmen on the offensive line, including 17-year-old right tackle Bobby Hart. The Seminoles lost senior left tackle Zebrie Sanders and center David Spurlock, but a lot of young linemen are coming back who were forced into action last season. Junior college transfer Daniel Glauser enrolled at FSU in January and will fight for Sanders' vacated spot in the spring.

How much have USC's defensive tackles grown up?
The Trojans bring back just about everybody from last season, which is a big reason they're considered a potential BCS championship contender in 2012. But if USC coach Lane Kiffin has one concern going into spring practice it has to be the middle of his defensive line. The Trojans lost starting tackles Christian Tupou and DaJohn Harris, who played a big role in the team's defensive improvement last season. Rising sophomores Antwaun Woods (325 pounds) and J.R. Tavai (270) will probably battle for the nose tackle job, and sophomore George Uko (295) and redshirt freshman Christian Heyward (275) will compete at defensive tackle.

Will Notre Dame settle on one quarterback?
New Fighting Irish offensive coordinator Chuck Martin -- who coached the team's safeties last season -- said he would prefer to find one quarterback during spring practice. Inconsistent quarterback play hampered the Irish last season. Rising junior Tommy Rees has the most experience, but he threw 14 interceptions and was plagued by turnovers at critical points. Andrew Hendrix attempted 37 passes last season, and Everett Golson, was redshirted in 2011. Incoming freshman Gunner Kiel of Columbus, Ind., who enrolled at Notre Dame in January, also will compete for the job this spring.

[+] EnlargeBrett Nottingham
Mark Dolejs/US PresswireBrett Nottingham looks to be Andrew Luck's successor.

Who's going to be Stanford's starting quarterback?
Whoever wins the job to replace departed Cardinal star Andrew Luck, who is probably going to be the No. 1 pick in April's NFL draft, will have the biggest shoes to fill in the country. Stanford coach David Shaw isn't saying much about the competition, although sophomore Brett Nottingham was Luck's backup last season, attempting eight passes. Juniors Robbie Picazo (three pass attempts in his college career) and Josh Nunes (two attempts) also will compete for the quarterback job this spring, along with freshmen Evan Crower and Kevin Hogan.

Can Georgia rebuild its offensive line and find help for Isaiah Crowell?
Crowell, a rising sophomore, was pretty good when he was actually on the field last season, running for 850 yards with five touchdowns, but he was injured often and undependable down the stretch in 2011. Freshman Keith Marshall, who enrolled at UGA early, will try to push Crowell this spring, and incoming freshman Todd Gurley joins the competition this summer. The Bulldogs must also replace three starters on the offensive line: center Ben Jones and tackles Justin Anderson and Cordy Glenn.

How quickly will Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller pick up Urban Meyer's spread offense?
At his introductory news conference, Meyer couldn't temper his excitement over putting Miller under center in his spread offense. Ohio State fans really couldn't complain about Miller's performance last season, after he was thrust into the starting role because Terrelle Pryor was suspended and then turned pro. Miller completed 54.1 percent of his passes for 1,159 yards with 13 touchdowns and four interceptions. He also ran for 715 yards with seven scores, and Meyer figures to take advantage of his speed and elusiveness with more quarterback draws and option plays.

What will Wisconsin look like?
The Badgers not only have to replace quarterback Russell Wilson, but there also will be six new assistant coaches on the field this spring. Badgers coach Bret Bielema lost offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, who left to become Pittsburgh's new coach. Co-defensive coordinators Chris Ash and Charlie Partridge and running backs coach Thomas Hammock are the only holdovers. New offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who coached at Northern Illinois last season, will oversee a quarterback battle that might include as many as five candidates this fall.

[+] EnlargeChelf
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiClint Chelf appears to be the favorite to replace record-setting QB Brandon Weeden.

Who's going to be Oklahoma State's quarterback?
The competition in Stillwater figures to be pretty fierce this spring, as the Cowboys will try to replace record-setting quarterback Brandon Weeden, who threw for 4,727 yards with 37 touchdowns and 13 interceptions last season. Junior Clint Chelf, who threw 30 passes as Weeden's backup last season, probably goes into spring practice with a slight edge. But Chelf will be pushed by redshirt freshman J.W. Walsh, and Wes Lunt, who enrolled at OSU in January. Whoever wins the starting job will have to find new playmakers, with record-setting receiver Justin Blackmon and Josh Cooper departing.

Will South Carolina's Connor Shaw continue to improve as a passer?
Shaw played pretty well after winning the job from senior Stephen Garcia last season, completing 68 percent of his passes for 866 yards with eight touchdowns and three interceptions in the final five games. Shaw, a rising junior, also ran for 351 yards with seven touchdowns down the stretch as he led the Gamecocks to a 4-1 record. With a full spring and summer as a starter under his belt, Shaw should have a better command of the offense.

Is Bryan Bennett ready to take the controls of Oregon's high-octane offense?
Bennett, a rising sophomore from Encino, Calif., doesn't have much of a choice, after former Ducks quarterback Darron Thomas surprised nearly everyone by turning pro after the 2011 season. Bennett played in eight games last season, completing 25 of 46 passes for 369 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions. At least Oregon has a couple of replacements ready for departed tailback LaMichael James: De'Anthony Thomas and Kenjon Barner combined to run for more than 1,500 yards with 18 touchdowns last season.

[+] EnlargePease
Steve Conner/Icon SMIBrent Pease directed Kellen Moore and Boise. Life will be different at Florida.

How much will new offensive coordinator Brent Pease help Florida's offense?
Pease, who directed Boise State's offense last season, will be under a microscope this spring after replacing departed offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, who left to become Kansas' new coach. The good news: Florida's offense can't get much worse. The Gators ranked 71st in scoring (25.5 points), 89th in passing (185.7 yards) and 73rd in rushing (143 yards) and never seemed to have much of a plan. Pease must not only rebuild the confidence of rising sophomore quarterbacks Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel, but also get some production out of Florida's underachieving receiver corps. No Florida receiver had more than 21 catches last season and only one had more than 264 receiving yards.

Who's going to run the ball for Virginia Tech?
The Hokies have lost a boatload of star running backs the past couple of seasons, after Ryan Williams and Darren Evans both turned pro early after the 2010 season and then David Wilson bolted after running for a school-record 1,709 yards with nine touchdowns last season. The Hokies also lost Wilson's top backup, Josh Oglesby, so the job is wide open going into spring practice. Highly regarded freshman J.C. Coleman enrolled at Virginia Tech in January, and incoming freshman Drew Harris will join the competition this summer.

Can Clemson rebuild its offensive line?
The Tigers bring the key skill players from offensive coordinator Chad Morris' high-paced attack, with quarterback Tajh Boyd, receiver Sammy Watkins and tailback Andre Ellington all coming back for their second season in the system. But the Tigers must replace four starting offensive linemen: left tackle Phillip Price, left guard David Smith, right guard Antoine McClain and right tackle Landon Walker. Center Dalton Freeman is the only returning starter, and Morris will look at a lot of new faces and rotations this spring.

What will West Virginia's defense look like?
The Mountaineers still haven't finalized their defensive coaching staff, after longtime coordinator Jeff Casteel and two other assistants left to join Rich Rodriguez's staff at Arizona. Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen is abandoning Casteel's 3-3-5 stack scheme and will incorporate a more traditional four-man front. Holgorsen hired Oklahoma State safeties coach Joe DeForest as his co-defensive coordinator, but the Mountaineers must still hire two other defensive assistants.

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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