Hope blooms at spring practice
Just days after spring training opened in Florida and Arizona, pitchers and catchers are reporting to the University of Texas.
Pitchers and catchers -- or as we refer to them, quarterbacks and receivers -- blockers, runners, kickers, all of them, start spring practice on Thursday for the Longhorns. Spring ball will continue to unfold across the country for the next 10 weeks, reaffirming that college football is pretty much a 12-month sport now. Is this a great country or what?
It has been a mere six weeks since Alabama won its third national championship in four seasons. A mere six weeks and an entire season ago -- in that time, Oregon coach Chip Kelly left for the Philadelphia Eagles; Johnny Manziel's bodyguard, Outland-Trophy-winning left tackle Luke Joeckel, left Texas A&M early for the NFL draft; the Crimson Tide signed the best recruiting class in the nation.
OK, maybe not everything is changing, but the axis of the game never stops turning. Seniors leave and freshmen remove their redshirts. New staffs arrive and stay up late trying to memorize their players' names and faces without resorting to putting names on helmets. And hope, like azaleas and changes in the depth chart, blooms every spring.
In College Station, hope is head coach Kevin Sumlin leaning back, pulling in the reins on the runaway optimism that has engulfed Texas A&M after last season's 11-2 record and top-five finish. It has never taken much to make an Aggie fan brag. But now that there is something to brag about, Sumlin is reminding everyone that Texas A&M is building on one season of success in a league with seven years of national champions.
In Los Angeles, hope is simply a new start after USC turned a 6-1 start into a 7-6 finish. Alas, the problems of depth that ate away at the Trojans last season can't be fixed. The NCAA-mandated scholarship reductions remain in effect. But USC is healthier and surely happier, even if quarterback Matt Barkley has departed.
Hope is also third-year sophomore quarterback Max Wittek, absorbing the lessons of being thrown onto the field before he was ready against UCLA and Georgia Tech. Mostly, Wittek is hoping that the cold wind that plagued him at the Sun Bowl doesn't come anywhere near a stadium with the Trojans in it.
Though USC must still deal with NCAA penalties, in Chapel Hill and Columbus, hope is the potential of a bowl game. Ohio State may have played for the BCS championship last month were it not for its NCAA postseason penalty. They are eligible again this season.
That's not the case in State College, where hope is finding the maturity and leadership that Penn State needed and received from its senior class a year ago. As the Nittany Lions descend into the darkest depths of their NCAA sentence, coach Bill O'Brien and his staff will continue to look for any way to help their team maintain its focus. The Nittany Lions will not play in a bowl game before 2016 but they may play a game in Ireland.
In Gainesville, hope is finding an offense for Florida now that bellcow tailback Mike Gillislee has taken his 244 carries to the NFL combine. The Gators threw for 146.3 yards per game last season, which ranked 114th in the FBS. The six teams that finished behind Florida included all three service academies and Georgia Tech, all of which run option offenses.
Quarterback Jeff Driskel will have to work on making faster decisions this spring. Driskel might suffer by comparison to Manziel, also a redshirt sophomore, but Gator fans are banking on the notion that Driskel spent last season learning on the job.
In Iowa City, hope is that a new season has arrived after the injuries left Iowa (4-8) unable to move the chains, much less score points. The Hawkeyes, every last one of them, scored 26 touchdowns, two fewer than Louisiana Tech tailback Kenneth Dixon. Iowa went 2-4 in games decided by three points or fewer. The attrition caused by injury is over. The team is as close to full strength as it has been since last spring.
In Pittsburgh, hope is evident in the stability that the Panthers feel even as they prepare for their new home in the ACC. That's because head coach Paul Chryst has remained for a second season, something his two predecessors, Todd Graham (one season) and Mike Haywood (2½ weeks), failed to do.
The Panthers must replace quarterback Tino Sunseri and tailback Ray Graham as well as defensive coordinator David Huxtable, who left for North Carolina State. But the players and coaches don't have to develop trust in one another. They start the spring with it.
In South Bend, hope has been buttressed by expectation. Once Notre Dame brushes off its dismal performance against Alabama in the BCS Championship game, the Fighting Irish will focus on the 12-0 regular season and how to build upon it. Head coach Brian Kelly doesn't have to worry about quarterback. Few players at any position in the country made the progress that Everett Golson did a year ago.
It's a good thing that Golson can move in and out of the pocket. The Irish must replace nearly the entire offensive line plus Mackey Award winner Tyler Eifert at tight end. But the greater concern is finding leadership to replace what Notre Dame received from linebacker Manti Te'o, defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore and safety Zeke Motta.
In Tuscaloosa, hope is found in the simple notion that Alabama has done all of this before. It is heresy to suggest within earshot of head coach Nick Saban that the 2013 Crimson Tide will have an advantage over any team.
In any other program, that might be the entire running game. At Alabama, sophomore T.J. Yeldon also rushed for more than 1,000 yards. The depth on the offensive line is such that there is more focus on replacing six starters on defense. By the time the Crimson Tide begins working out next month, spring practice will be in full swing. It's about time.