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Sunday, February 23, 2014
Signs of spring in college football

By Ivan Maisel
ESPN.com

Fear not, College Football America! Prayer and blind faith have yet to goose our tortoise-paced planet to move us any closer to the sun. Yet your favorite sport is pleased to provide some evidence that warm weather is coming. Spring practice is here, and America, you're welcome.

Actually, Duke started on Feb. 7, which may have been too soon. The fever pitch of signing day barely had broken. Within a week, a snowstorm iced over Tobacco Road and postponed the Duke-North Carolina men's basketball game.

But this is different. Over the next two weeks, some two dozen FBS schools will begin to plant seeds that will be ready to harvest come the fall. Stanford starts Monday, and you could sense the giddiness in the Cardinal football offices late last week, when head coach David Shaw appeared at an offense meeting on campus -- while he vacationed in Hawaii.

Shaw employed a Beam Pro robot and "walked" himself into the meeting room. Hold off on the answers about replacing tailback Tyler Gaffney and four starters on the offensive line. Tell us again about the robot.

(If you must know, the favorite to replace Gaffney is redshirt sophomore Remound Wright, not Barry Sanders Jr., who is still mastering the art of pass-blocking. And given that Stanford played nine offensive linemen last season, no one is really concerned about replacing four starters.)

The Cardinal will be followed in the next two days by Michigan and Northwestern, two teams that underachieved last season. Baylor and Texas A&M, two teams that didn't, start on Friday, TCU and Maryland on Saturday.

Chris Petersen
Chris Petersen will be the first coach at a new school to start spring practice.

Note that none of the eight teams starting so soon has a new coach. That's no coincidence. In the five equity conferences, the only new coach starting spring ball in the next 10 days is Chris Petersen at Washington (March 4). New Vandy coach Derek Mason spent the beginning of last week house hunting with his family.

Between physically making a move, hiring a staff and, perhaps the most time-consuming of all, learning the names that go with 105 new faces, new coaches need all the time to prepare they can get. It will be easier for Steve Sarkisian, returning to USC after five seasons of pulling the Washington Huskies out of the ditch and into respectability.

It may be harder for Charlie Strong at Texas, because replacing a legend (Mack Brown) is always hard. It may be harder for James Franklin at Penn State, which is feeling the brunt of its NCAA penalties.

But most transitions have their bumps. Petersen already has suspended two players. Mason already has suspended an assistant coach. That's more of a new-coach thing. At Auburn, second-year Gus Malzahn has spent the past two months suspending belief.

First, Florida State won the BCS Championship after the Tigers led the game for nearly 40 minutes, right down to the last 13 seconds. Second, coaches who have trouble slowing down his offense on the field tried to do it through the rule book. Next week will come the vote on whether they succeed. If so, teams are likely to spend some of spring ball learning what to do with an offense that can't snap the ball in the first 10 seconds of the 40-second clock (save the last two minutes of the half).

Learning and teaching are at the core of any spring practice. That's why coaches love it so. Spring practice reminds them what drew them into the business in the first place. Rosters turn over 25 percent a year, give or take, and finding those new starters begins in the spring. Even by those standards, this year is a bit odd.

The best quarterback in Tuscaloosa is in Tallahassee.

The best quarterback in Tallahassee is in the bullpen.

The former, Jacob Coker, is finishing up his undergraduate degree and rehabbing his surgically repaired knee before he takes his two remaining years of eligibility to Alabama. Coker is the favorite to replace three-year starter AJ McCarron, a role which he performed at St. Paul's Episcopal High in Mobile.

The latter, Jameis Winston, is focusing on throwing strikes this season as the closer on the Seminoles baseball team. Winston, the winner of the Heisman Trophy and the national championship quarterback, has plenty to learn, according to head coach Jimbo Fisher, who has the good sense not to insist that he learn it this spring. The chance to play baseball helped convince Winston to play at Florida State.

That's why the Seminoles are learning to play while wearing the crown. Nine Florida State veterans performed at the NFL scouting combine this past weekend. Their talent and their maturity are no longer available to Fisher. The new players and, equally important, the new leaders, began to identify themselves in winter conditioning.

For Florida State, that process will continue when spring practice commences on March 19. By the way, the average high temperature in Tallahassee that day is 73 degrees. For a lot of reasons, spring practice can't get here soon enough.