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Tag:Spring Practice Primer
Posted on: March 28, 2011 7:02 pm
Edited on: March 28, 2011 7:04 pm
 

Spring Practice Primer: Louisville

Posted by Chip Patterson

College Football has no offseason. Every coach knows that the preparation for September begins now, in Spring Practice . So we here at the Eye on College Football  will get you ready as teams open spring ball with our Spring Practice Primers . Today, we look at Louisville , who started spring practice last Monday.


First-year coach Charlie Strong turned last year's team of veterans into winners, but can he repeat the success with much less experience on the roster?

After the departure of Bobby Petrino, Louisville football fell into the cellar of the Big East. In three seasons under head coach Steve Kragthrope, the Cardinals only won five conference games. They had gone from being conference champs to conference chumps, a change had to be made.

Enter Charlie Strong. A seasoned veteran in the coaching community, Strong entered with a tenacity and energy that had clearly been building up during his 20+ years on the sideline as an assistant. After being passed over for multiple opportunities, Louisville was the school that gave him the keys to the kingdom. Cardinals fans may have been skeptical of the long-time assistant coach, but after seeing what he was able to do in 2010 there is only optimism for his potential with the program.

Louisville's 2010 squad was littered with frustrated upperclassmen, but that is to be expected after back-to-back 1-6 records in conference play. Strong saw potential in this group, and he was determined to get the most out of his players before they left the program. He liked the potential, but was dissatisfied with the attitudes - and he let them know. Strong ripped into the roster during his first team meeting in December 2009, shortly after his hiring. He criticized their lack of commitment in the classroom and on the field, introducing a new standard around Louisville football. Strong held up his end of the bargain, committing himself to the players and serving as an example of the energy and toughness he wanted to see on the field.

The result was their first postseason berth (and win) since the 2007 Orange Bowl win. It wasn't always pretty, but the turnaround was enough to revitalize the fan base and create a new sense of belief around the program. Even in the games that the Cardinals lost, they were almost always fighting. Five of the Cardinals' six losses were by 8 points or less. Not quite enough to become competitive in a wide-open Big East title race down the stretch, but enough to get the Cardinals back to the postseason.

One of the immediate concerns for Louisville in spring practice is their running game. At 175 yards/game, Louisville led the Big East in rushing offense last season. Much of that weight was carried by senior running back Bilal Powell. Powell racked up 1,405 yards and 11 touchdowns, despite missing a majority of two games due to injury/illness. He was spelled mostly by freshman Jeremy Wright, who picked up 327 yards and four touchdowns in limited appearances. But with Wright missing spring practice rehabbing from offseason knee surgery, opportunity will knock again for senior Victor Anderson.

Anderson exploded as a freshman in 2008, rushing for 1,047 yards and being named the Big East Rookie of the Year. But a nagging shoulder injury in 2009 eventually ended his sophomore campaign in surgery. Anderson stepped up with a 108 yard performance against Arkansas State early in 2010, but failed to find the end zone and saw his carries diminish as the season came to a close. With Powell graduated and Wright missing spring practice, Anderson can use the opportunity to reclaim his position in the running back rotation.

Finding those holes might be difficult early, with Louisville only returning one starter from last year's offensive line. Center Mario Benavides will be counted on to lead a new group of trench warriors in 2011, but for now he'll have to lead from the sidelines as he recovers from shoulder surgery. But Strong doesn't need the an experienced offensive line to lead vocally, he just needs tough players to lead by example.

"We have a lot of skill guys coming back," Strong explained to the media before spring practice began. "But what you don't ever want to do is let that be the core of your team. The toughness of your team is built up front, with the offensive and defensive lines.

"I don't mind leadership coming from that group [of skill players] if it has to, but the core of our team has to be from the front people."

That core group of offensive lineman will also have an important task this spring: getting used to a new quarterback. For now, that starting quarterback appears to be Will Stein. Formerly a walk-on, the redshirt junior is the heir apparent to the position with both of last year's starters (both seniors) gone. Louisville fans will want to see early enrollee Teddy Bridgewater, the nationally ranked dual-threat quarterback who chose the Cardinals over Miami after Randy Shannon was fired. But according to reports from practice, it seems like Bridgewater has a lot of learning left to do before he can line up with the first string.

But along with Bridgewater, there will be many inexperienced players who get to see increased time this spring due to injuries. Strong announced a list of 14 players who will miss spring practice due to injury and/or offseason surgery. The list contained several potential starters, including the aforementioned shoulder injury to Benavides, and yet another knee injury for redshirt freshman wide receiver Michaelee Harris. For a team that will be looking to replace 14 starters on offense and defense, it certainly does not help having those candidates on the sideline. Strong put is putting a positive spin on it, arguing that the extra development will only improve the depth in the long run.

So what can Cardinals fans expect from Louisville in the fall? My guess is that they will be a team that develops as the season is progressing. They kick off the season with Murray State, Florida International, and Kentucky before getting a bye week at the end of September. The advantage for the Cardinals will be game-speed experience and one true road test before ever having to play their first conference game.

The obvious disadvantage to Louisville's schedule is nine straight games without a break to close the season. The coaching staff can only hope that the health issues of the spring don't linger into the fall. A college football season often will take its toll on a team around late October/early November. With no weeks off in their conference schedule, surviving the Big East round-robin will be the ultimate gut-check.

Last year, that would have been time for the seniors to step forward and provide an example for this team. With a younger squad, the challenge becomes greater for Strong to get the most out of his players. When they are banged up and beaten down, they will look to Strong for energy and toughness.

Luckily, those qualities don't to seem to be in short supply with Charlie Strong.

Click here for more Spring Practice Primers
Posted on: March 28, 2011 3:14 pm
 

Spring Practice Primer: Ole Miss

Posted by Jerry Hinnen

College Football has no offseason. Every coach knows that the preparation for September begins now, in Spring Practice  . So we here at the Eye on College Football    will get you ready as teams open spring ball with our Spring Practice Primers   . Today, we look at Ole Miss , which starts spring practice today.

Spring Practice Question: Can the Ole Miss defense be rebuilt?

As the local Clarion-Ledger pointed out today , the headline story regarding Houston Nutt's fourth spring camp at the Rebel helm will undoubtedly be the quarterback derby. Following Jeremiah Masoli's single-season cameo, four different quarterbacks are battling it out under new Rebel offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach David Lee: pocket passers Nathan Stanley (Masoli's backup in 2010 and the narrow favorite) and JUCO transfer Zack Stoudt, and dual-threat QBs Randall Mackey and Barry Brunetti. (Brunetti, a transfer from West Virginia, will need a hardship waiver from the NCAA in order to avoid sitting out his transfer year this fall.) Lee swears any of the four could be named the Rebel starter this fall, and given how little experience any of the four enters the competition with, he's likely not exaggerating.

But as intriguing as the quarterback battle promises to be, what's most important for the Rebels' chances this fall is what will happen on the other side of the ball. While the occasionally-rocky transition to Masoli drew plenty of attention, in the end the Rebels finished a respectable 43rd in total offense. But despite the presence of eight senior starters to begin the season, Ole Miss finished a disastrous 105th in the country in yards per-play allowed, worst in the SEC. It's fair to say the Rebels weren't paying defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix one of the nation's highest assistant salaries to watch the team lose games in which they scored 24, 31, 36 or -- in the case of their infamous season-opening embarrassment against FCS Jacksonville State -- 48 points.

Nix has survived to try and clean up his own mess, but it's not clear if he has the tools with which to do it. As you might expect from that "eight senior starters" detail, the Rebels' defensive losses are major; gone are All-SEC tackle Jerrell Powe, explosive defensive end Kentrell Lockett, leading tackler and tackler-for-loss linebacker Jonathan Cornell, a pair of senior safeties, assorted other contributors at tackle, corner, and linebacker ... Nix won't be starting from scratch, but scratch and the point he'll start from won't be more than a stone's throw apart.

There is good news for the Ole Miss defense, though, and it's two-fold:

1. Obviously, all of those seniors didn't do a whole lot for the Rebels in 2010. While there's no good way to spin the losses of players like Powe and Cornell, as a unit Ole Miss really can't get a whole lot worse than they were last season. In many cases, the new blood may prove to be a better option than the old blood was anyway.

2. Thanks to some impressive recruiting hauls (particularly by Ole Miss standards) by Nutt and his staff, the talent cupboard is far from bare. Nix won't have a lot in the way of experience to work with, but the raw material with which a good defense could be constructed should be there.

That's especially true in the front seven, where Nix will call on junior linebacker D.T. Shackelford to spearhead the rush defense after Shackelford recorded 9 tackles-for-loss a year ago and continued to flash the kind of big-hitting potential that made him one of Nutt's most prized recruits in the class of 2009. Junior weakside linebacker Joel Kight should also be ready for a big season after winning a starting job in last year's fall camp, making the LBs a strength. If Nix can find any tackles following the loss of the entire rotation from a year ago -- expect 310-pound JUCO arrival Gilbert Pena to get a long look -- the line shouldn't be too shabby, either, given the presence of high-ceiling ends like senior Wayne Dorsey, junior Gerald Rivers and sophomore Cameron Whigham. (If Lockett receives a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA, things will look even better this fall.)

The biggest question mark is in the secondary, which a year ago was roasted to the tune of 8.4 yards per passing attempt and a 6-to-24 interception-to-touchdown ratio, both easily the worst marks in the SEC. Up to nine players will compete for the four starting spots (though returning starting corner Marcus Temple is out with a sports hernia), but are any of them SEC caliber? Nix will have to hope so, with the most likely candidates senior safety Damien Jackson and sophomore safety Brishen Matthews.

No one would argue the quarterback battle isn't critical. But with what should be one of the SEC's best offensive lines (one with all five starters returning), rugged running back Branden Bolden, several big-play receivers, and Nutt and Lee's combined offensive acumen, the Rebels should have a functional attack no matter who winds up taking snaps.

The same simply can't be said of the Rebel defense--meaning that even if the QB competition grabs the headlines, it's a sure bet it's the battles on the other side of the ball that will have a huge, huge share of the coaches' attention. If Nix can't find the players this spring that will push his unit forward this fall, the Rebels are going to almost certainly spend a second season in the cellar of the SEC West.

Posted on: March 25, 2011 2:03 pm
 

Spring Practice Primer: Iowa State

Posted by Tom Fornelli

College Football has no offseason. Every coach knows that the preparation for September begins now, in Spring Practice. So we here at the Eye on College Football will get you ready as teams open spring ball with our Spring Practice Primers. Today, we look at Iowa State, which started spring practice on Tuesday.


Spring Practice Question: Is the quarterback position as wide open as Paul Rhoads claims it is?

Over the last three seasons there wasn't much question regarding who would be playing quarterback for the Iowa State Cyclones. The job was Austen Arnaud's, and one he did pretty well. Arnaud finished his Iowa State career second on the school's all-time passing yardage list with 6,777 yards, and had the highest completion percentage in school history.

However, Arnaud is gone now, and the main focus with Iowa State this spring will be the battle to replace him. 

Before practice began earlier this week, head coach Paul Rhoads declared it an open battle, and said that whichever one of his quarterbacks performs the best is going to win the job. 

"You'd like to leave spring drills after 15 practices and three full scrimmages with a guy you know is your number one," said Rhoads. "There won't be any panic if we don't."

At the moment, Jerome Tiller is atop the depth chart, and that makes a lot of sense. After all, he has the most experience on the roster, as he's been needed to fill in for Arnaud at times over the last two years thanks to injuries.

Behind Tiller is rising sophomore James Capello and redshirt freshman Jared Barnett, but I don't see either of these two wrestling the job away barring some kind of super-heroic performances this spring. No, I believe there's another quarterback Tiller should be looking over his shoulder at.

Number two on the quarterback depth chart is Steele Jantz. Let's be honest, if we were going on name alone, Jantz would win this competition easily. However, there is more to being a quarterback than having a cool name.

"I know Steele's coming to take the first place job, and it's my job to protect it," said Tiller. "And may the best player play, but I plan on it being me."

Though I'm not sure that it's Rhoads' plan.

Jantz is new to Ames, as he comes to Iowa State as a junior college transfer. One that there has been a lot of talk about in recent months. Now, while Rhoads may claim that the competition is wide open, I'm just not sure that is really the case.

Big 12 Primers
Yes, Tiller has experience with the team. The output during that time, though, has been less than stellar. Tiller has completed 51% of his passes for under 5.0 yards per attempt over the last two seasons, and has thrown only 2 touchdowns to 4 interceptions. You could point out that Tiller is mobile, but after rushing for 216 yards on 44 carries in 2009, Tiller only managed 66 yards on 42 carries in 2010.

21 of those yards came on a single carry.

Jantz, on the other hand, threw for 3,075 yards and 23 touchdowns with City College of San Francisco last season. He also ran for another 610 yards while leading the team to an 11-1 mark. Now, I know there's a huge difference between the level of play at a junior college than in the Big 12, and I don't expect Jantz to just show up and start laying waste to Oklahoma's defense right away.

What really makes me wonder if the competition is as open as it's claimed to be is that Jantz is in Ames to begin with. If Paul Rhoads was really so comfortable with the idea of Tiller taking the reins this season, then why did he bring in a junior college transfer?

Why not just sign another high school quarterback to develop in your latest recruiting class?

I just find it hard to believe that Iowa State is bringing Jantz in from San Francisco to have him send in plays from the sidelines. So while Jerome Tiller may be on top of Iowa State's depth chart to start practice, I wouldn't count on him being there for very long.
Posted on: March 25, 2011 12:19 pm
Edited on: March 25, 2011 2:00 pm
 

Spring Practice Primer: Auburn

Posted by Jerry Hinnen

College Football has no offseason. Every coach knows that the preparation for September begins now, in Spring Practice  . So we here at the Eye on College Football    will get you ready as teams open spring ball with our Spring Practice Primers   . Today, we look at Auburn , which started spring practice on Wednesday.

Spring Practice Question: Does Auburn have the playmakers to stay in contention?

In 2010, no team in America deserved the "big-play team" label more than Auburn. It's an easy argument, offensively speaking; the Tigers finished No. 1 among all BCS teams in yards per-play, first overall in yards per-pass attempt, and second overall per-rushing attempt. Cam Newton alone accounted for 46 plays of 20 yards or greater, or an average of more than three such players per game.

But it wasn't just the offense. The Tiger defense hemorrhaged yards and points at a rate far, far greater than any previous BCS championship-winning team, finishing a mediocre 60th in the FBS in total defense and 53rd in scoring defense. But led by Nick Fairley's constant presence in opposing backfields, the Tigers made up for it with an SEC- leading (and sixth nationally ) 99 tackles-for-loss. Combine that with a penchant for timely turnovers -- like Antoine Carter's famous strip-from-behind of Mark Ingram to keep Auburn alive during their first-half struggles against Alabama -- and the Auburn defense kept its head just enough above water (BCS title game excepted) for the offense to power its way to a crystal football.

Entering 2011, it's likely Auburn will need more of the same. The offense won't be built to grind out four-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust drives, not with Newton's third-down magic gone and four offensive line starters representing nearly 200 career starts having departed. (Not that Gus Malzahn has ever designed his offenses to plug away Wisconsin- style, of course.) The defense may not be able to get a whole lot worse in terms of down-to-down success, but it may not get much better, either, with all three members of the late-season defensive tackle rotation graduated, six of their top seven tacklers gone, the top three safeties departed (following Mike McNeil's involvement in the recent four-player armed robbery embarrassment), two senior defensive ends, etc.

All of that means that to either move the ball or get stops, Auburn will have to stick to the same big-play formula that worked so well in 2010. But this begs the question that's going to hang over the Tigers throughout spring practice: who's going to make those big plays? No Newton, no Fairley, no Carter, no Darvin Adams, no Terrell Zachery (the underrated big-play threat at wideout who averaged better than 14 yards a reception), no Josh Bynes, no Zac Etheridge ... where are those difference-making plays going to come from?

There's an easy answer for Auburn at running back, at least, where Mike Dyer and Onterio McCalebb form what should be one of the better inside-outside running combos in the SEC, if not the country. (Though both will need to stay healthy; Auburn's third option at tailback is likely to be true freshman Tre Mason.) But everywhere else, the "Help Wanted" sign will be in the window. A few candidates that will need to prove themselves up to the job this spring:

Corey Lemonier: The only returning starter on Auburn's defensive line is redshirt sophomore end Nosa Eguae, but it's the hotly recruited sophomore defensive end from south Florida who's most likely to emerge as a pass-rushing force in the vein of former Tiger greats like Quentin Groves. In any case, it's the ends that will have to fill Fairley's disruptive shoes; with nothing but new tackles on the inside, they'll have their hands full focusing on plugging up opposing running games.

Trovon Reed: Another member of the Tigers' well-regarded 2010 recruiting haul, Reed was on track to play a sizable role last fall as both receiver and Wildcat quarterback before an injury in fall camp forced him to redshirt. Emory Blake is a nice start, but there would seem to be room in the Tiger receiving corps for a poor man's Percy Harvin- type rushing/receiving threat; if healthy, Reed needs to show he can fill that role.

Neiko Thorpe: One of the few bright spots in Auburn's disastrous 5-7 2008 campaign, Thorpe was expected by many on the Plains to develop into a lockdown, All-SEC corner after a freshman season that saw him hold down a starting job from Day 1 and make freshman all-conference. It hasn't happened, as Thorpe has spent much of the past two seasons getting beaten deep and watching other players (Walt McFadden, Demond Washington) emerge as Auburn's best one-on-one cover guys. Now Ted Roof has moved Thorpe to safety, both to take advantage of Thorpe's size (6'2", 185) and provide cover at one of Auburn's thinnest positions. If the position switch doesn't generate some big plays out of the Auburn secondary, it's not easy to see what will.

Spring Practice Primers
Then, of course, there's Barrett Trotter, the likely heir to Newton's throne after serving as the Heisman winner's backup last season. Though Trotter still has to fend off challenges from Clint Moseley this spring and highly-regarded incoming freshman Kiehl Frazier this fall,his mobility and knowledge of the offense should see him safely through to the starter's job ... if he can make the downfield throws that have been Malzahn's stock-in-trade since the day he moved to the college ranks.

Thanks to three years of savvy recruiting by Chizik and Co., there's no shortage of candidates for the playmaking roles Auburn so desperately needs. But it's one thing to put those candidates on a roster; it's another to see them perform on the practice field, the spring game, under the lights. If players like those above aren't putting their best foot forward this spring, it's hard to see how Auburn doesn't fall out of contention in their follow-up season in the most cutthroat division in college football.


Posted on: March 24, 2011 7:39 pm
Edited on: March 24, 2011 7:46 pm
 

Spring Practice Primer: Arizona State

Posted by Bryan Fischer

College Football has no offseason. Every coach knows that the preparation for September begins now, in Spring Practice. So we here at the Eye on College Football  will get you ready as teams open spring ball with our Spring Practice Primers. Today, we look at Arizona State, who started spring practice on Tuesday. 

Spring Practice Question: Are Brock Osweiler and Vontaze Burfict ready to step up and lead the Sun Devils?

Oh what a difference a year makes.

Coming out of spring practice a year ago, Arizona State was picked to finish in the bottom half of the Pac-10 and faced issues at just about every position group. Entering the spring this year, the Sun Devils are now considered the favorite to win a Pac-12 South title thanks to 18 returning starters from last year's squad that played top ten teams Oregon, Stanford and Wisconsin tough.

"I thought last year we were really close, now I feel like we're here," head coach Dennis Erickson said at his pre-spring press conference. "Now we've got to do it on the field. Numbers wise, even though we've got a lot of seniors, we do have a lot of young guys playing. We're finally at a place, where if we have the success we think we're going to have next year, that we can plug guys in the year after that and the year after that and the year after that."

One starter returning is junior quarterback Brock Osweiler but it might be a bit of a stretch to actually call him a returning starter. Osweiler played in just five games last season but came on strong in two starts at the end of the year, a blow out of UCLA and an upset win at archrival Arizona.

"Yes, without a question, he is the guy," Erickson said. "Now who is two...that's kind of where we are going into spring football."

In addition to refining the 6-foot-7 quarterback's game this spring, finding a backup (important considering the revolving door at the position recently) is an unexpected challenge for Erickson and staff. Former starter Steven Threet had to retire due to concussions and Samson Szakacsy left the team to pursue other interests. Despite the vacancy at backup quarterback, Erickson still feels as though he has a talented group of quarterbacks with Osweiler, redshirt freshman Taylor Kelly and early enrollee Michael Bercovici.

"It's the best I've ever been around in college, or any place I have ever been, I've never had it that deep," Erickson said "Three of them are unproven, of course. But physical talent...from what you can see is pretty amazing."

Quite a statement for the fifth-year head coach to make considering some of his stops in college and the NFL, such as with the Miami Hurricanes and the San Francisco 49ers. All three quarterbacks have strong arms and can throw it anywhere on the field but Osweiler's maturity and experience have him firmly planted atop the depth chart. The lack of a quarterback battle has allowed him to focus less on beating another player and more on just being himself.

"It's a lot different," Osweiler told the Arizona Republic. "I'm a lot more comfortable. I've been in the offense for a year, and it's a little different. There's not exactly a quarterback competition, so it kind of takes that weight off you and just allows you to play."

Fans in Tempe are hoping that he can duplicate his numbers from the games against UCLA and Arizona, where he threw five touchdowns and no picks in helping the team reach the .500 mark on the year. With the expectation that Osweiler can successfully pilot the offense, Arizona State is undergoing a few minor tweaks this spring in order to help him get the ball in the hands of playmakers like running back Cameron Marshall.

"I think we'll add a few things. It might even be simpler than it's been," Erickson said. "I think one thing we can do right now is line up and run the football without having to trick people. I don't know if that's more complex or simpler. But we're not going to change a lot of things. I think that happens sometimes when you look at this offense is you have success and start putting too much in and they don't become as good."

On the other side of the ball, personal foul machine Vontaze Burfict is expected to - and we're not joking - take on a leadership role as an upperclassman this year. Though he has typically been known for a lack of self control on the field, the recent offseason program has given the talented middle linebacker a chance to help his team instead of hurt it.

"It's amazing his change in the last three months. Now, he doesn't miss workouts, ever," Erickson said. "He's a leader out there doing all sorts of stuff. He's in the best shape I've ever seen him in. He's a big time leader out there.

"The light just came on. I think the light came on at the end of last year. I think from the Stanford game on. I think having some success and winning, and saying maybe that gray-haired (coach) knows a little bit about what's going on."

Spring Practice Primers
In addition to showing NFL scouts he has what it takes to play at the next level between the ears, the 6-foot-3, 240 pound linebacker has set a high bar for the season that goes beyond just a division title.

"I'm trying to get us to a national championship," Burfict said, "and to do that, I feel like I need to become more of a leader."

In addition to leading by example, Burfict will have to get used to playing behind two new defensive tackles following the departure of Lawrence Guy and Saia Falahola. Oft-injured tackle Corey Adams is talented but needs to stay on the field and Will Sutton will return after being academically ineligible last season. Despite a few new parts on defense, all eyes this spring will be on how the new and improved Burfict plays.

"I don't know why he had that chip on his shoulder. Maybe it was immaturity," Erickson said. "But it's totally different now."

The head coach hopes spring practice is totally different from years past as well. In addition to seeing Osweiler and Burfict step up their roles on the team, Erickson understands how much this spring means for the future of the program.

"I mean this is my fifth year. I have been going at this for four years," he said. "For me, I think it's a very important season for this program, no question about it."

If the Sun Devils are going to take the leap this upcoming spring and lay the foundation for a run, they'll have to hope Osweiler and Burfict take the necessary leap as leaders. The talk is certainly encouraging and there's no doubt that Osweiler is top dog on offense and Burfict has a better head on his shoulders on defense. But if Arizona State wants to see success in the fall, the next few weeks of spring practice are all about seeing if the two can start walking the walk and not mearly talking the talk.

Posted on: March 24, 2011 1:48 pm
 

Spring Practice Primer: Notre Dame

Posted by Tom Fornelli

College Football has no offseason. Every coach knows that the preparation for September begins now, in Spring Practice . So we here at the Eye on College Football  will get you ready as teams open spring ball with our Spring Practice Primers . Today, we look at Notre Dame, which started spring practice on Wednesday.

Spring Practice Question: Can Notre Dame finally establish a running game?

When it comes to the way that Notre Dame finished its 2010 season, there are a lot of positives to talk about. Four straight victories against teams like Utah, USC and Miami that came as a bit of a surprise considering the Irish did it without starting quarterback Dayne Crist and starting tailback Armando Allen.

Instead the team was led by backup quarterback Tommy Rees, and a defense that played better than any unit the folks in South Bend have seen in quite a while.

So, it's no surprise that going in to the spring, the questions most people seem to be asking about Notre Dame have to do with the quarterback competition and the defense. Does Tommy Rees have a chance to keep the starting job? Will someone else emerge to replace both Rees and Crist? Can this defense maintain its late-season play, and can Manti Te'o get even better?

All are good questions to ask, and will definitely have a large impact on where Notre Dame goes in Brian Kelly's second season. Still, these aren't questions that can really be answered this spring. For the second year in a row, Dayne Crist is coming off of knee surgery and will be limited in the spring. Te'o is coming off of knee surgery as well, and won't be at full-speed either. So while we may see hints of things to come in those two areas, the answers will not come until later this summer.

One area that not many people are talking about, and also played a huge role in the late season turnaround that will definitely have a huge impact on the Irish in 2011 as well, is the running back position.

Since Charlie Weis replaced Tyrone Willingham in 2005, the running game that Notre Dame was once built upon has disappeared. The team hasn't had a featured tailback that could produce or be counted on since. Armando Allen had the talent, but through his first three seasons the results were inconsistent, and he was marred by injuries.

After having his senior season end early due to an injury, Allen is no longer in South Bend, though it turns out that Allen's absence may have been a blessing in disguise. With both Allen and Dayne Crist out, Brian Kelly placed a greater emphasis on the running game over the last month of the season.

The best friend that both a quarterback and a defense can have is a good running game. It takes pressure off of the quarterback, and time off of the clock, which allows a defense to rest on the sidelines.

The majority of the work replacing Allen went to Cierre Wood and Robert Hughes. Wood ran for at least 80 yards in four consecutive games, while Hughes played a large role in Notre Dame's victory over USC. Of course, like Allen, Hughes is gone. That leaves Cierre Wood as the team's top option, and this spring the Irish hope to find out whether he's ready to carry the load full-time.

The team feels he can, but Wood still has a bit to learn. While it's hard to deny the talent and explosiveness that Wood holds, he did show a tendency to dance a bit with the ball during his first season. There's no doubt that two words will be drilled into Wood's brain this spring: "north" and "south." If Wood can learn to hit the hole instead of dancing around and trying to run away from everybody, he definitely has the speed to break some huge runs for the Irish this season.


More Notre Dame

Wood won't be alone, however, as Notre Dame has other backs behind him on the depth chart. Jonas Gray is a senior that hasn't had much of a chance to prove himself during his first three years, but the Irish would like to see the 230-pound running back take on the role that Robert Hughes had last season, and be a short-yardage back. There's also Cameron Roberson, who redshirted in 2010, but has a lot of the qualities that Kelly and company are looking for.

He has the size to run between the tackles, and though he doesn't have great speed, he is a north-south runner. If Wood and Gray fail to meet expectations, Roberson could see himself climb up the depth chart.

Then there's Theo Riddick. Riddick came to Notre Dame as a running back before being moved to wide receiver. He could be the best running back that the Irish have on the roster, and Brian Kelly has hinted about moving him back to the position in 2011.

Which back will emerge as the team's starter, nobody knows yet. What we do know is that Brian Kelly saw how important having an effective ground game could be for his team at the end of last season, and that he'll look to keep it going in 2011.

It'll be up to one of these players, or maybe all of them, to see that it does. After all, it could be the difference between another lackluster season in South Bend, or waking up those echoes they talk so much about.
Posted on: March 23, 2011 2:48 pm
 

Spring Practice Primer: Texas A&M

Posted by Tom Fornelli

College Football has no offseason. Every coach knows that the preparation for September begins now, in Spring Practice . So we here at the Eye on College Football  will get you ready as teams open spring ball with our Spring Practice Primers . Today, we look at Texas A&M, who started spring practice on Tuesday. 

Spring Practice Question: How exactly does a team go about replacing Von Miller?

There are a lot of reasons to be excited about 2011 in College Station. After starting the season with a pedestrian record of 3-3, the Aggies reeled off six straight victories before falling to LSU in the Cotton Bowl. Those wins weren't over pushovers, either, as they included victories against Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas. The Aggies were also a team that could win in a multitude of ways.

If they had to outscore an opponent, they did, as in a 42-30 win over Baylor. Then there were the defensive struggles like the 9-6 barnburner against Nebraska.

What's even better for the Aggies? Seventeen returning starters -- nine on offense, eight on defense -- which is more than anybody else in the Big 12 can lay claim to. All of which means that 2011 should be a good season for Texas A&M, but even though seventeen players return, there is one glaring absence in the Aggies defense that ranked second in the Big 12 with points allowed last year.

How exactly does a team replace a player like Von Miller?

Many eyes will be on Ryan Tannehill this spring as he enters practice as the team's starting quarterback after supplanting Jerrod Johnson last season, but I don't see any possibility of Johnson taking the job back barring injury this year. To me, the big thing to watch with the Aggies this spring will be on the defensive side of the ball where the team looks to maintain the momentum it regained last season.

Defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter did an excellent job of re-establishing the Wrecking Crew in 2010, and ignored flirtatious advances from Tulsa during the offseason. Still, this year will prove to be a tougher task since he no longer has a talent like Miller around.

Miller was one of those talents that doesn't come around very often. Playing the Joker position, Miller could sometimes be found at defensive end or outside linebacker. He probably could have kicked extra points if the team had asked him to. The truth was, no matter where he lined up, all you had to do to find Miller was follow the football. He'd be there sooner rather than later.

Spring Practice Primers
The key for Texas A&M will be to make sure it realizes it can't just plug somebody in Miller's place and expect them to produce the same type of results. Which is what Damontre Moore, Miller's likely replacement, will have to tell himself as well.

Of course, there's the possibility that Moore will be used exclusively as a defensive end. Entering his sophomore season, Moore is already 6'4 and 248 pounds. Should he continue to grow into his frame, he may end up too big to play linebacker.

Which is where guys like Dominique Patterson and Kyle Mangan will come in to play as well. Mangan didn't play all that well during the Cotton Bowl when he was forced into duty, but with an entire spring to work and months to prepare for the season, he may grow into the role.

As for Patterson, like Moore, he'll be a sophomore in 2011. Is he ready to make an impact this quickly? He may have to. After all, Miller isn't the only linebacker that the Aggies lose, as Michael Hodges has moved on as well.

Odds are that in order to replace Miller, it's not going to take one player. Instead the entire Aggies defense will have to step up its game to replace its leader.

Whether it can do that will likely go a long way in determining whether the Aggies are bound for another nine-win season, or if they'll be hoisting up a Big 12 Championship trophy come the end of the year.

College Station starts to learn the answers to these questions this week.
Posted on: March 23, 2011 2:08 pm
Edited on: March 23, 2011 2:44 pm
 

Spring Practice Primer: USC

Posted by Bryan Fischer

College Football has no offseason. Every coach knows that the preparation for September begins now, in Spring Practice. So we here at the Eye on College Football  will get you ready as teams open spring ball with our Spring Practice Primers . Today, we look at USC, who started spring practice last Friday.


Spring Practice Question: Is there depth on both sides of the ball in year two of the Lane Kiffin era?

At a time when most college students were just waking up for their first class of the day, quarterback Matt Barkley lofted a beautiful deep ball to wide receiver Robert Woods to wrap up USC's first spring practice. The perfectly thrown post route was one of the few things the Trojans looked sharp at during their first early morning workout, which began at 7:30 a.m.

"Kiffin always wants to end on a bang," Barkley said. "We're just getting used to it. There should be better tempo in the days to come."

Many USC players arrive at the football facilities at 5 a.m. to stretch and get taped before heading to meetings at 6 a.m. The practices are similar to how Pac-10 rival Oregon operates but Kiffin's idea switch to the early practices was not a result of what the Ducks have been doing.

"It's actually something, over the last couple of years, that I wanted to do," Kiffin said. "Because of class schedules you have to do it a year in advance because of registration and to block these hours. At Tennessee we wanted to do it but we weren't there for a full year before spring. It's something I want to look at in the spring and could be a possibility for the fall."

Although Kiffin hasn't made up his mind on the practice schedule this fall, he is hoping several of his players are able to get some playing time in before the spring ends. After battling a general lack of numbers and several injuries throughout last season, the Trojans will limit full contact drills and do more 7-on-7 in place of full team periods.

“The scary thing is, we’re 19 short and we just started," Kiffin said. "Usually you’re short at the end of spring. Hopefully we don’t add to that list, and possibly get some guys back.”

A 20th player, tailback Marc Tyler is likely to be added to the list after aggravating his hamstring muscle while stretching out for a pass on the first day. One young player who could use the opening to get into the mix at running back is redshirt freshman D.J. Morgan. Fully recovered from knee surgery his senior year in high school, Morgan is reportedly the fastest player on the team and could be a nice change of pace back to pair with a bruiser like Tyler. Also in the mix is Dillon Baxter, who hopes to rebound from a disappointing freshman campaign and translate some of the talent that made him a YouTube sensation in his first season.

Paving the way for the backfield is a talented but limited group of offensive lineman. Starting left tackle Matt Kalil is healthy and is looking to build on a very solid debut season protecting Barkley's blind side. Returning starter Khaled Holmes will receive snaps at both guard and center but will be limited the first few weeks with a neck stinger. Center Abe Markowitz and guard/tackle Kevin Graf will sit out some or all of spring practice due to injuries. Some reinforcements have arrived in junior college transfers David Garness and Jeremy Galten. The two should provide added depth but they must quickly get up to speed with the offensive terminology.

Things aren't much better, depth-wise, across the trenches on the defensive line. Tackle Christian Tupou will be limited while recovering from a knee surgery last season and defensive end Wes Horton will also miss part of spring practice with a foot injury. Defensive end Armond Armstead is being held out after being hospitalized for a heart condition and hopes to be cleared by doctors by the end of the month. Position coach Ed Orgeron is looking to get the most out of the group that is practicing, including talented defensive end Nick Perry and defensive tackle DaJohn "Juicy" Harris.

Linebackers Chris Galippo, Devon Kennard and Shane Horton will also watch most of spring practice from the sideline. Though all three are expected to start in the fall, their vacant positions will allow many of the younger players to receive extra repetitions and build a bit of depth at a position that has had it lacking for several years. Marquis Simmons, Hayes Pullard and safety-turned-linebacker Dion Bailey are three of the players the coaching staff has high hopes for and expects to get better with the added practice time.

"Even though it's a bummer that those guys missed, it's kind of a blessing in disguise that we can get the young guys a bunch of work," linebackers coach Joe Barry said. "At linebacker, it's all about reps and seeing things 1,000 times. The only way you can see things 1,000 times is if you get snaps. The young guys are getting a bunch of work so it's actually good for us."

The secondary is probably the healthiest of any of the position groups and has several players who should compete for playing time. Safeties Marshall Jones, T.J. McDonald, Jawanza Starling and Demetrius Wright are a talented, physical group that gives defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin a lot of flexibility on the back end. Though senior starter Shareece Wright is off to the NFL, Nickell Robey, Tony Burnett and Brian Baucham all have experience at cornerback and redshirt freshman Anthony Brown has looked good in practice as well.

The defensive backs usually has their hands full going against a fast group of wide receivers every day. A freshman All-American, Woods has easily become the number one option on offense and is - quite simply - a playmaker with the ball in his hands. Brandon Carswell, De'Von Flournoy and Markeith Ambles should all contribute for new receivers coach Ted Gilmore but red zone target Kyle Prater will be sidelined with a foot injury. Senior tight end Rhett Ellison will be an integral part of the offense and don't be surprised to see youngsters Christian Thomas, Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer involved in two tight end sets.

With a deep group of weapons on offense, USC is looking to experiment with more of a spread-based attack this spring. The coaching staff is hoping that Barkley's third year of spring practice and an offense that relies the quarterback making plays translates into an even better season this fall.

"He needs to take the next step from being a really good quarterback to a great quarterback," Kiffin said. "Last year he improved a lot on his decision making and you saw his touchdown to interception ratio increase dramatically. Now he needs to do that again and take a leadership role and put everything on his back. He did that at times last year but now he just needs to be more consistent with that."

Spring Practice Primers
While Kiffin is looking for Barkley to take his game to the next level, he also has to worry about who is backing him following the departure of senior Mitch Mustain. Two early enrollees, Cody Kessler and Max Wittek, and redshirt freshman Jesse Scroggins will battle things out for the number two quarterback spot. Barkley has taken on the role of mentor to the young players, helping them with their playbook and giving lessons from when he was a freshman going through spring drills for the first time.

Left somewhat unsaid by the coaches and the players however, is the status of USC's NCAA infractions appeal. The Trojans are hoping to play in a bowl game this upcoming season and have asked for several scholarships back from their original penalties stemming from the Reggie Bush case. It has been nine weeks since USC argued their case in front of the Infractions Appeals Committee and it's very likely that the team will have to deal with a decision coming in the middle of spring practice.

"I haven't thought about it in awhile," Barkley said. "It's not affecting how I'm playing right now. We're obviously hoping for the best in whatever comes out of that situation but it's not affecting how we're getting ready for the season."

In the mean time, the work in and around Heritage Hall continues. There's no new system to learn on either side of the ball and the coaching staff returns mostly intact so the Trojans' focus this spring is mostly on themselves. Kiffin hopes to find some depth in his second year as head coach and there's certainly some talent on the roster. 

Despite being down in numbers, there's some depth this season for USC. Only time will tell how much there really is though.

 
 
 
 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com