Spring games have begun as teams spend the next month winding down spring practices and preparing to enter the offseason conditioning portion of the college football calendar. Every fan is dialed into whatever information they can get from scrimmages or open practices, hoping to get an idea of what the depth chart is going to look like in the fall. Most coaches won’t declare winners here in April, but we can often glean who has the leg up in these battles based on who is running with the presumed starters as teams work to build chemistry among the players who will be competing on the field in the fall.
While quarterback battles are the easy headlines for many fans, we’ve identified a few other positions as well to highlight here in a trip around the country, checking in on some of the key position battles in college football this spring. Still, quarterbacks are mentioned as well, of course, because any team with College Football Playoff hopes knows that it needs a game-changer at the position in order to succeed at the highest levels of the modern game.
Alabama: Wide receivers
While Bryce Young is the presumed starting QB, taking over for Heisman Trophy finalist Mac Jones, sorting out the production hole left by Heisman winner DeVonta Smith carries far more uncertainty. With Smith and Jaylen Waddle off to the NFL along with Najee Harris, the last pieces of the star-studded recruiting classes that helped win national championships in 2017 and 2020 are gone. But since Alabama is Alabama, there are, of course, options.
We saw John Metchie III emerge after Waddle’s injury and finish with nearly 1,000 yards on the season, but he’s going to miss Alabama’s A-Day spring game this Saturday as he continues to rehab from injury. Slade Bolden will almost certainly have a role in the offense, potentially as a versatile inside or slot receiver, but what’s interesting will be who emerges as the new game-changers on the outside. Javon Baker and Thaiu Jones-Bell are four-star prospects from the Tide’s 2020 class, both ranking among the top 35 players at the position, and could be in line for those snaps in the offense. Adding intrigue to the discussion is Bill O’Brien assuming the role of offensive coordinator. With that in mind, look for Jahleel Billingsley to have a huge season and potentially emerge as one of the top tight ends in the country.
Names to know: Jack Miller, CJ Stroud, Kyle McCord
Miller started the 2020 season as the listed backup to Fields, but Stroud finished the year as the No. 2 and was the more highly-rated prospect from Ohio State’s 2020 recruiting class. McCord is a five-star freshman out of Pennsylvania from the 2021 class that enrolled early and will be in the mix as well. The high ceiling of Stroud, the No. 3 quarterback in the class behind DJ Uiagalelei and Bryce Young, gives him an edge if we’re setting odds on the battle. But with two sophomores and a freshman in the mix, I’d expect this battle to go as long as Day can stretch it out.
With the spring game coming up this weekend, the feeling out of Columbus is that the Buckeyes should be in a good spot regardless of who ends up being the starter thanks to the talent level of all three, the depth and, most importantly, the strength of the wide receiver position. With Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, Jackson Smith-Njigba, Julian Fleming in addition to the tight ends, any quarterback in Ohio State’s offense is going to look good.
Oklahoma has routinely fielded one of the top offensive lines in the entire country, but there’s some key pieces that need to be replaced in order for the Sooners to meet that high standard established under offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh. They bring back both starting guards in Marquis Hayes and Tyrese Robinson but need new starters at tackle and center, a position that was held down the last three seasons by one of the best in the country in Creed Humphrey.
Lincoln Riley has turned to the transfer portal to address these needs, bringing in Morris from Tennessee to play tackle — likely opposite Erik Swenson — and Chris Murray from UCLA to play center. Getting that group to gel quickly is key to Oklahoma’s hopes of not just making the College Football Playoff again, but contending for a national championship.
The biggest name to know is DeMarvion Overshown, but he has been out all of spring after undergoing shoulder surgery prior to spring practice. The reason why the linebackers are so important to Texas, especially for this spring, is the task of replacing both All-American Joseph Ossai (off to the NFL Draft) and Juwan Mitchell (in the transfer portal with few signs indicating a possible return to the team).
Overshown is going to be one of the key players in Texas’ new-look defense led by co-coordinators Pete Kwiatowski and Jeff Choate, but here in the spring, keep your eye on LSU transfer Ray Thornton as well as Ford and Gbenda, a pair of in-state rotation players who saw plenty of action in 2020 but now have the opportunity to emerge as potential starters.
Florida: Wide receiver and tight end
The exodus on offense for the Gators is notable, so there’s plenty of snaps and reps up for grabs. How those positions shake out will have an impact on the ceiling for presumed starting quarterback Emory Jones. Not only is Kyle Pitts gone, but so is Kadarius Toney, Trevon Grimes and even offensive coordinator Brian Johnson.
Copeland and Whittemore should be in line for a good amount of work, but look for Henderson or Weston as potential breakout candidates. This is a deep room that also includes Justin Shorter coming off his first season with the Gators after transferring from Penn State and a pair of big-body tight ends in Keon Zipperer and Kemore Gamble that don’t need to be Kyle Pitts to serve as a major factor in the offense.
If a tree falls in the woods and a spring game happens with no media and no fans, does it make a sound? Michigan held its under-the-radar spring game over the weekend, and all we have for analysis at our disposal are a few highlights released by the team.
McNamara is ahead in the quarterback race after leading the Blue team to a 22-10 win and being named spring game MVP. McCarthy brought plenty of intrigue as an early enrollee who happens too be the highest-rated high school quarterback prospect signed by Jim Harbaugh, but the same tools that allowed McNamara to win the job away from Joe Milton in 2020 have helped give him an advantage in the battle this spring. We’ll return to this quarterback room in the fall when McCarthy’s had a full offseason of college conditioning and Texas Tech transfer Alan Bowman joins the mix as transfer with immediate eligibility.
Georgia: Wide receiver
Clearly, the headline here is how important the wide receiver position is following George Pickens tearing his ACL. Kirby Smart wants the Bulldogs to have an explosive and vertical passing attack with JT Daniels at quarterback this fall, so they need some wide receivers to emerge as high-level game-changers to bring that to fruition. Unfortunately, this is definitely going to be a battle that spills into the fall because, as you’ll see in Georgia’s spring game, there just aren’t that many healthy wide receivers.
Blaylock and Rosemy-Jacksaint are both working their way back to full health after season-ending injuries in 2020 (Blaylock an ACL in preseason camp; Rosemy-Jacksaint a broken ankle in the loss to Florida), and Burton suffered a hyperextended knee in spring practice that will keep him out of the spring game. Look for that to provide a handful of young receivers the opportunity to make plays downfield, among them redshirt freshman Robinson, as Georgia fans hope to turn this injury-riddled room into a strength by the time everyone (sans Pickens) is back to full health.
Iowa: Defensive line
According to 247Sports, it’s possible that the Hawkeyes are going to use “as many as 10 players in the defensive line rotation.” That’s what happens when you lose the likes of Daviyon Nixon, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, and fellow first-team all-conference selection Chauncey Golston.
Iowa does, however, return VanValkenburg as the one constant on a group that has been a key piece of the program’s identity over the years, but those other positions on the line are very much up for grabs. Black, a redshirt freshman, is almost certainly going to get a chance to run with the starters early, but there’s a long list of competitors for spots at both tackle and end that will get their opportunities this spring and into the fall.
It’s difficult not to assume that Coan has an edge here based on the motivations of his exit from Wisconsin and arrival in South Bend, but we’ve seen enough quarterback battles to at least wait for his first impressions on the practice field before putting the assumed starter tag next to his name in our notes.
Coan, with 18 starts at Wisconsin under his belt including a Big Ten championship Game and a Rose Bowl appearance in 2019, is enrolled and will be available for spring practice, but the most intriguing competitor for the job is freshman Tyler Buchner. The four-star member of Notre Dame’s 2021 recruiting class is enrolled early and will also get a shot to push for his spot on the depth chart and maybe even playing time.