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Wednesday, February 27, 2013
BCS buster in the bunch?

By Mark Schlabach
ESPN.com

Will there be a BCS buster in the final season of college football's postseason as we know it?

We might start to find out if there's an upstart out there, as several of the country's top teams from non-BCS conferences open spring practice in the coming weeks. Some teams, such as Air Force, Army and Fresno State, already have started spring drills. Other teams, such as Boise State and BYU, will wait until next month.

Here's a look at what some of the top teams from the non-BCS leagues, as well as the service academies, will need to address during spring practice:

Air Force Falcons

Spring practice started: Feb. 26

Spring game: None

2012 record: 6-7 (5-3 Mountain West)

Returning starters: 8 (offense 3, defense 4, special teams 1)

Three biggest spring issues:

1. Identify playmakers: The Falcons lose starting quarterback Connor Dietz and running backs Cody Getz and Wes Cobb, who combined to run for 2,447 yards with 23 touchdowns last season. Junior Kale Pearson, from Tulsa, Okla., goes into spring practice as the favorite at quarterback, but inexperienced sophomore Jaleel Awini might push him if coach Troy Calhoun decides to open up the passing game. Pearson played in 10 games last season, completing only 41.4 percent of his passes with four interceptions, and his smallish size (5-foot-9, 175 pounds) is a concern. The Falcons also want to find ways to get the ball in Ty MacArthur's hands more. Jon Lee looks to be next in line to carry the load at running back, although Anthony LaCoste has returned to the backfield after playing safety last season.

2. Find some offensive linemen: The Falcons lost three starting linemen: tackles Jason Kons and Alex Huskisson center Jordan Eason. Guards Drew Kerber and David Lore are back, but the Falcons will have to find a center and two tackles during spring practice. The Falcons will also look for some leadership in the trenches this spring.

3. Rebuild the linebacker corps: The linebacker corps suffered more personnel losses than any other unit, with three starters departing from the 3-4 scheme. Austin Niklas and Alex Means are both gone, after combining to make 229 tackles and 20 tackles for loss in 2012. Junior Jared Jones started eight games last season, and three other juniors -- Joey Nichol, Steven Sumpter and Spencer Proctor -- are up next on the depth chart.

Army Black Knights

Spring practice started: Feb. 12

Spring game: March 8

2012 record: 2-10

Returning starters: 15 (offense 7, defense 8)

Three biggest spring issues:

1. Find a starting quarterback: The Black Knights opened spring practice earlier this month and one of their main objectives was to replace Trent Steelman, a four-year starting quarterback. Sophomore A.J. Schurr, the No. 2 quarterback for most of last season, and junior Angel Santiago look to be the favorites through the first two weeks of spring practice. Sophomore Kelvin White and senior Cody Jackson also are in the mix.

2. Find more beef for middle of defense: The Black Knights ranked No. 117 nationally in run defense last season, allowing 232.3 yards per game. Several players have changed positions to try to shore up the run defense. Backup quarterback Gino DeBartolo and backup fullback Hayden Tippett have moved to middle linebacker, and middle linebacker Geoffery Bacon has moved to free safety to strengthen the middle of the field.

3. Rebuild left side of offensive line: Army led the country in rushing last season, averaging 369.8 yards per game. If the Black Knights' triple-option offense is going to be as explosive this coming season, they'll have to find a new left tackle and left guard. Nick Bennett has emerged as the early leader at left tackle; Zach Reichert has moved from right tackle to left guard. Center Ryan Powis and right guard Steve Shumaker are back, and sophomore Justin Gilbert is working as the No. 1 right tackle.

Boise State Broncos

Spring practice starts: March 11

Spring game: April 13

2012 record: 11-2 (7-1 Mountain West)

Returning starters: 11 (offense 5, defense 5, special teams 1)

Three biggest spring issues:

1. Rebuild the offensive line: The Broncos will have to replace three starters from one of the best offensive lines in the country. Boise State allowed only 10 sacks last season, which tied for sixth fewest among FBS teams. The Broncos lose left guard Joe Kellogg, right guard Michael Ames and right tackle Brenel Myers, who combined to start 60 games during their careers. Center Matt Paradis and left tackle Charles Leno Jr. are back, along with three other players (guards Spencer Gerke and Jake Broyles and tackle Rees Odhiambo) who have started games during their college careers. The Broncos will have to find the best unit during spring practice.

2. Find some running backs: The Broncos must replace tailback D.J. Harper, who ran for 1,137 yards with 15 touchdowns in 2012. Sophomore Jay Ajayi looks like the heir apparent; he ran for 548 yards with four touchdowns last season. He averaged 6.7 yards per carry and looks ready to take over the main role. The Broncos will take a long look at junior college transfer Derrick Thomas, who enrolled in January, after running for 829 yards with nine touchdowns at Butler County (Kan.) Community College.

3. Revamp the secondary: The secondary already was going to get an overhaul after losing starting cornerbacks Jamar Taylor and Jerrell Gavins. Then safety Lee Hightower was indefinitely suspended from the team on Feb. 4. Hightower had 31 tackles and one interception before he was suspended before last season's game against Wyoming. His future with the Broncos doesn't look good.

BYU Cougars

Spring practice starts: March 4

Spring game: March 30

2012 record: 8-5

Returning starters: 14 (offense 8, defense 5, special teams 1)

Three biggest spring issues:

1. Find an offensive identity: After BYU's offense sputtered throughout the 2012 season, coach Bronco Mendenhall completely overhauled his offensive coaching staff, bringing in five new assistants on that side of the ball. He rehired former offensive coordinator Robert Anae, who spent the past two seasons at Arizona after directing BYU's offense from 2005 to 2010. Garett Tujague was hired as offensive line coach, Jason Beck as quarterbacks coach, Guy Holliday as receivers coach and Mark Atuaia as running backs coach.

2. Gauge Taysom Hill's health: With quarterbacks Riley Nelson and James Lark departing, Hill is the only returning quarterback with any experience. He was off to a great start last season before tearing a knee ligament in his left knee on his final carry in a 6-3 win over Utah State. Hill underwent surgery and missed the final seven games. He's expected to be back for spring practice and hopes to improve his passing.

3. Rebuild the defensive front: The Cougars will have to find a new rotation on their defensive front after losing star end Ezekiel Ansah, nose tackle Romney Fuga and end Russell Tialavea. At least star linebacker Kyle Van Noy decided to return for his senior season.

Fresno State Bulldogs

Spring practice started: Feb. 22

Spring game: March 23

2012 record: 9-4 (7-1 Mountain West)

Returning starters: 16 (offense 7, defense 8, special teams 1)

Three biggest spring issues:

1. Find a workhorse: The Bulldogs lose tailback Robbie Rouse, the school's all-time leading rusher, who ran for 4,647 yards with 37 touchdowns the past four seasons. Rouse ran the ball 282 times with 63 catches last season, so he was a huge part of Fresno State's offense. Sophomore Marteze Waller, who ran for 174 yards with one touchdown as a freshman, is a top contender to replace him, along with BYU transfer Josh Quezada. Quezada ran for 803 yards in two seasons with the Cougars.

2. Replace the All-American safety: As important as Rouse was on offense, departed starting strong safety Phillip Thomas was just as valuable on defense. He intercepted eight passes last season, returning three of them for touchdowns. He also led the Bulldogs with 84 tackles and 12 tackles for loss. Junior college transfer Rodney Mathews, who enrolled at Fresno State in January, opened spring practice as the No. 1 strong safety.

3. Shore up the offensive line: The Bulldogs want to get a little more physical and tougher up front on offense, and they'll look for two new starters in spring practice. Center Richard Helepiko and left guard Matt Hunt departed. Lars Bramer was working as the No. 1 center in the first week of spring practice, with James Le'au stepping in at left guard.

Navy Midshipmen

Spring practice starts: March 18

Spring game: April 12

2012 record: 8-5

Returning starters: 15 (offense 6, defense 7, special teams 2)

Three biggest spring issues:

1. Rebuild left side of offensive line: Navy brings back three starters on the offensive line, but it will have to replace starting left tackle Ryan Paulson and left guard Josh Cabral, who started 38 consecutive games to finish his career. Sophomore Joey Gaston will try to win the left tackle job, but he'll have to beat out Bradyn Heap, who started at right tackle before breaking his leg last season. E.K. Binns is the projected starter at right guard going into spring practice, and Thomas Stone is the No. 1 left guard. Guard Jake Zuzek will miss the spring with an undisclosed injury, but is expected to challenge Stone in preseason camp.

2. Identify inside linebackers: Despite being undersized, the Midshipmen were pretty salty on defense last season; they ranked No. 54 nationally in scoring defense, allowing 25.7 points per game. But Navy will have to replace two of its top tacklers: inside linebacker Matt Warrick and outside linebacker Keegan Wetzel. Warrick led the Midshipmen with 93 tackles and Wetzel had a team-high 14½ tackles for loss and seven sacks. Senior Cody Peterson is back at one inside linebacker spot, and Vinnie Mauro, Joe Worth and Anthony Lewis will battle for the other spot. Fullback Maika Polamalu and safety James Britton have also moved to inside linebacker.

3. Expand the passing game: Navy's coaches think sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds has a chance to be pretty special if he continues to improve as a passer. As a freshman, he completed 56.5 percent of his passes for 898 yards with nine touchdowns and two interceptions, while going 6-2 in eight starts. Reynolds also ran for 649 yards with 10 touchdowns while directing Navy's triple-option offense. The Midshipmen might ask him to throw the ball more often in 2013 as it expands his playbook. Navy ranked No. 117 nationally in passing last season, averaging only 104.8 yards per game.

Northern Illinois Huskies

Spring practice starts: March 20

Spring game: April 13

2012 record: 12-2 (8-0 MAC)

Returning starters: 14 (offense 9, defense 4, special teams 1)

Three biggest spring issues:

1. Rebuild the defensive front: The Huskies will have to replace much of the defense that helped lead them to the Discover Orange Bowl last season. The personnel losses are especially heavy on the defensive line, where three starters are going to have to be replaced. Departed ends Alan Baxter and Sean Progar and tackle Nabal Jefferson combined to make 28½ tackles for loss and 18 sacks in 2012. Seniors George Rainey, Ken Bishop and Joe Windsor, juniors Donovan Gordon and Jason Meehan and sophomore Perez Ford will be fighting for spots in the defensive line rotation during the spring.

2. Find help at linebacker and defensive back: The back of the NIU defense will have to fill some pretty big holes this spring, too. Starting linebackers Victor Jacques (47 tackles) and Tyrone Clark (86 tackles, 10 tackles for loss) are gone, along with cornerback Rashaan Melvin (55 tackles, one interception) and safety Demetrius Stone (77 tackles, two interceptions). Linebackers Boomer Mays and Michael Santacaterina played a lot last season and seem poised to step into starting roles in 2013.

3. Identify a No. 1 receiver: Huskies quarterback Jordan Lynch loses his favorite target, as senior Martel Moore departs after catching 75 passes for 1,083 yards with 13 touchdowns. Starting receiver Perez Ashford, who caught 34 passes for 373 yards with one touchdown, is also gone. The good news: NIU brings back four receivers who caught at least 11 passes last season. Tommylee Lewis, a 5-7 sophomore, caught 48 passes for 539 yards with five touchdowns in 2012.

Tulsa Golden Hurricane

Spring practice starts: March 5

Spring game: April 6

2012 record: 11-3 (7-1 Conference USA)

Returning starters: 13 (offense 8, defense 3, special teams 2)

Three biggest spring issues:

1. Rebuild the defense: The Golden Hurricane loses eight defensive starters, including star linebacker DeAundre Brown, who led the team with 125 tackles and 17 tackles for loss. But Tulsa figures to spend the most attention on its defensive line, where all four starters must be replaced. Departed ends Jared St. John and Cory Dorris combined for 17½ sacks last season, and tackles Derrick Jackson and Daeshon Bufford were the top run-stoppers. Ends Brentom Todd and Derrick Alexander and tackle Derrick Luetjen were the top reserves last season.

2. Reload the secondary: Tulsa also loses three of its four starting defensive backs, so it will try to find a starting lineup and depth during spring practice. Departed safety Dexter McCoil, who had 91 tackles and set a school record with 18 career interceptions, is the biggest loss. Starting cornerbacks Lowell Rose and John Flanders also are gone. Free safety Marco Nelson is the only returning starter in the secondary, but safeties Luke Snider and Michael Mudoh and cornerback Dwight Dobbins got a lot of reps in 2012.

3. Fill holes on the offensive line: The Golden Hurricane lose only three starters on offense, but they're pretty big losses. All-Conference USA tackles Jared Grigg and Brian DeShane are gone, along with Trent Dupy, a four-year starting center. Garrett Stafford and Garrett Gladd both played tackle at times last season, and starting guards Jake Alexander and Stetson Burnett are back.