College football spring practice — Players we’re most excited to watch

Who are the players we’re excited about seeing this spring football season on each of college football’s Top 25 teams? New quarterbacks like Jalen Hurts at Oklahoma, Jacob Eason at Washington and Justin Fields at Ohio State lead the way, along with some much-hyped recruits like Kayvon Thibodeaux at Oregon.

Here’s the full list for players we’ll be watching closely this spring season.

No. 1 Clemson: WR talent

Oh, how the rich get richer. Yes, the Tigers return oodles of offensive talent, including star receivers Justyn Ross, Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers. And this spring, they’ll welcome two more: Frank Ladson, the No. 38 overall recruit and No. 5 receiver in this year’s class, and Joe Ngata, a 6-foot-2 monster who was also an ESPN 300 recruit. How often they’ll actually work with Trevor Lawrence remains a question, as they still need plenty of seasoning and remain well down the depth chart, but as Ross showed during his 1,000-yard campaign last season, it’s still possible for a true freshman to stand out in a crowded field. — David M. Hale

No. 2 Alabama: Outside linebacker Terrell Lewis

One of the biggest blows to Alabama’s defense in 2018 came before the Crimson Tide even started preseason camp. Outside linebacker Terrell Lewis tore the ACL in his right knee and was lost for the season. The Alabama coaches thought the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Lewis was going to be their most disruptive pass-rusher, so not having him put a dent in the Tide’s ability to get to opposing quarterbacks. Lewis returned to practice before the SEC championship game but didn’t play in the postseason. If he can stay healthy, he gives the Tide the kind of finisher off the edge that they’ve always seemed to have when they’ve been at their best on defense. The problem is that Lewis hasn’t been able to stay healthy to this point. He suffered ligament damage in his elbow in 2017 and missed 10 games. Even so, he’s the kind of talent that could be an NFL first-round draft pick, and even though there’s no reason to push him this spring, it will be interesting to see what Lewis looks like after missing so much of the past two seasons.– Chris Low

The Sooners landed the biggest free agent on the college football market this offseason in the Alabama grad-transfer QB, who has played in — and won — a number of big games in his career. The past two Heisman Trophy winners, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, were quarterbacks who transferred to Oklahoma. Playing in Lincoln Riley’s system, Hurts has the pedigree and talent to run that streak to three. — Jake Trotter

Georgia coach Kirby Smart wanted more speed rushing the passer off the edge, especially with D’Andre Walker gone, and that’s what makes junior college newcomer Johnson such a commodity. The 6-foot-6, 245-pound Johnson was one of the most coveted junior college prospects in the country last year and has been on campus since December. He doesn’t need much of an introduction, as most fans know him from the Netflix series “Last Chance U.” Johnson, originally from Minnesota, morphed into a star at Independence (Kansas) Community College and has the combination of speed and strength that coaches love. He’s an outside linebacker in Georgia’s scheme, but could also line up some at end depending on the situation. Bottom line: He can go get the quarterback, something the Dawgs need after finishing last in the SEC in sacks (20) during the 2018 regular season. — Low

The Georgia transfer is too obvious an answer to ignore. Fields has the potential to add another gear to Ohio State’s already lethal offense with his athleticism. He’s also never started a college game and will be asked to learn a complicated offense in just eight months. How much progress can he make during spring practice? — Dan Murphy

The Irish are in search of more field-stretchers on offense, and Austin is a prime candidate to help in that role. The 6-foot-2 sophomore will have to fend off a few challengers to lock up Miles Boykin‘s spot in the receiver rotation. He has highlight-reel potential if he gets the job, which could help Notre Dame’s evolving offense take more shots downfield. — Murphy

The blue-chip wideout stunned the college football world when he transferred to Texas after signing with USC. McCoy will need to get a waiver from the NCAA to be eligible for the 2019 season. But he’ll be with the Longhorns this spring, with an opportunity to show what he can do. — Trotter

Without question, quarterback Emory Jones will be in the spotlight as he competes with Feleipe Franks for the starting job. But the player to keep an eye on is Wilson as he makes his return from a torn ACL. Wilson showed incredible promise as a true freshman but played in only two games last season before getting hurt. He is expected to practice this spring, but just how much he can do remains to be seen. A healthy Wilson will be a huge boost to the Florida secondary, especially with CJ Henderson returning to the other starting spot. — Andrea Adelson

Jim Harbaugh said he’s “sleeping better at night” after the Wolverines scooped up Central Michigan transfer Danna to replace some big losses along the defensive line. Danna, who had 9.5 sacks for the Chippewas last season on his way to earning a first-team All-America grade from Pro Football Focus, should help Don Brown’s defense stay deep and aggressive at the line of scrimmage. — Murphy

As the No. 1-ranked overall player in the ESPN 300, the start to Thibodeaux’s career is naturally going to be worth paying attention to. He has the kind of pedigree that makes it easy to picture him playing an important role from Day 1 — and playing it well. Those expectations can be tough to balance with the fact that there are several examples where similarly touted players have made little to no impact wherever they ended up. The clear consensus is that Thibodeaux should be a special player, which is why it’ll be so interesting to see what type of initial impressions he makes in Eugene, where he enrolled early. — Kyle Bonagura

The sophomore running back figures to be the successor to departed All-SEC talent Trayveon Williams. Jimbo Fisher’s offense places a heavy emphasis on the run game and Williams benefited; Corbin should enjoy similar success once he steps into the lead role. He’s fast and explosive, as evidenced by his 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Arkansas last season, and with a lot of returnees on the offensive line, he should have plenty of opportunities to shine. — Sam Khan Jr.

The cornerback, ranked No. 1 nationally at his position in the 2019 ESPN 300, has received effusive praise from Ed Orgeron since getting on campus in January. Coach O expects Stingley, a 6-foot-1, 188-pound hometown product, to challenge for a starting job. He has great ball skills, is instinctive, and in addition to being another to continue LSU’s “DBU” tradition, he also could be a factor as a punt returner. — Khan

No. 13 Washington State: QB Gage Gubrud

Washington State coach Mike Leach’s decision to go after East Carolina quarterback Gardner Minshew worked out better than anyone could have reasonably hoped, as the Cougars set a single-season school record for wins while Minshew finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. Gubrud arrives from Eastern Washington as a more proven player than Minshew was. He threw for 9,984 yards — including 5,160 in 2016 — during his time just up the highway in Cheney and was one of the best quarterbacks at the FCS. It’s reasonable to expect he’ll be the Cougars’ starter to open the season.– Bonagura

Wimbush ranks among the biggest-name quarterback transfers in the entire country after deciding to head to UCF from Notre Dame. It is not a foregone conclusion that he will win the starting job, though. The Knights will get their first glimpse at what Wimbush can do when spring football opens, as he competes with Darriel Mack Jr. to start. UCF turned to Mack last season after McKenzie Milton went down, and he led the Knights to the American Athletic Conference championship and a spot in the Fiesta Bowl. But with Milton out indefinitely, UCF needed to add a veteran quarterback to the roster to help with depth and competition. — Adelson

Fans got a sneak peak at running back Abdul Adams and receiver Trishton Jackson in the bowl game, with both scoring touchdowns, but there’s still lots of excitement surrounding the two transfers. But if they’re going to be successful in 2019, the bigger question mark is at quarterback, which makes DeVito the guy under the brightest spotlight this spring. DeVito had some fine moments backing up Eric Dungey last season, but he has some big shoes to fill, and his consistency needs to take a big step forward. There’s no doubting the talent, but replacing Dungey is no easy task, either. — Hale

This easily could have been defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos, who had eight sacks and 20 tackles for loss last season for the Nittany Lions. But Parsons led the team in total tackles with 83 and had 1.5 sacks on the season, showing why he was the No. 7 recruit in the 2018 class. If Parsons was able to put together that kind of a season as a true freshman, Penn State fans should be excited about his sophomore campaign. The Nittany Lions’ defense will be looking for leaders this season, and Parsons should be at the front of the line to step up. — Tom VanHaaren

When Eason arrived for spring practice last year, it was noteworthy but didn’t really affect the immediate future. Everyone knew he would likely serve as the scout-team quarterback in the fall as he sat out the required season following his transfer from Georgia. Still, the past year has also been an audition of sorts to be the starter in 2019, and spring is when that really begins to ramp up into a clear competition to replace Jake Browning. Eason was good enough to start at Georgia as a true freshman, which makes him an intriguing player to see progress from between now and, likely, into the season. — Bonagura

There are two standout reasons to look forward to seeing Huntley this spring. First, he missed the final five games last season due to a broken collarbone, so it will be encouraging to see him on the field, healthy again. He was making progress before he went down, but now has to shift gears to learn new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s offense. It’s fair to wonder whether Ludwig’s arrival should open up a competition between Huntley and Jason Shelley, but it’s clear the Utes still consider Huntley the starter. Shelley helped guide the Utes to three consecutive victories to close the 2018 regular season and clinch a spot in the Pac-12 championship game. — Bonagura

Johnson was the top-ranked pocket passer in the 2017 recruiting class, signed with Clemson and by all accounts had a bright future ahead of him. Trevor Lawrence then entered the picture and Johnson transferred to Northwestern. He sat out the 2018 season and now, with Clayton Thorson moving on, Johnson looks to be the starter for the Wildcats in 2019. We haven’t seen much of him in college, so it will be interesting to see him in the spring and find out if he will be able to bring Northwestern’s offense to a new level. — VanHaaren

As a redshirt freshman, Adebo quietly had one of the most impressive breakthrough seasons of any young player in the country. He was a second-team All-American according to the Football Writers Association of America and a first-team All-Pac-12 selection. If he builds well off his debut season, Adebo might be in a position to leave for the NFL after just two seasons — whether he’s interested in that route or not. — Bonagura

Starter Alex Hornibrook announced his intentions to transfer from the program, leaving Mertz, Jack Coan and Chase Wolf as the quarterbacks on the roster. The Badgers were No. 6 in rush yards per game last season but 118th in pass yards. Mertz was an early enrollee and is setting his sights on taking over the starting position. Ranked as the No. 1 pocket passer in his class, 21st overall, he has the talent to elevate the air attack, and it will be intriguing to see how far along he is in the spring. — VanHaaren

As a sophomore in 2018, Epenesa tallied 10.5 sacks, ranking No. 9 among all FBS players and tops on the team. He also led the Hawkeyes in tackles for loss, with 16.5, and should be able to improve on those numbers in 2019. Iowa is losing a few starters along the defensive line, so Epenesa’s role is going to increase in his junior season. His improvement should be fun to watch this spring as he evolves into a potential NFL draft pick. — VanHaaren

No. 23 Auburn: QB Bo Nix

One thing that’s crystal clear heading into spring practice on the Plains is that it’s Gus Malzahn’s show on offense. He’s the one who will be calling the plays, and although it’s yet to be determined who the Tigers’ quarterback will be, most eyes will be on Nix, a heralded true freshman. He’s the son of former Auburn quarterback Patrick Nix, who coached Bo in high school. The younger Nix, who enrolled early at Auburn, led his high school to back-to-back state championships and set an Alabama state high school record for total offense in a career. He’s the first player to surpass 12,000 yards. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Nix combines accuracy throwing the ball with the kind of mobility that has served quarterbacks well in Malzahn’s system. Nix still has to win the starting job, not to mention win the team. He’ll get a jump start on both this spring. — Low

We know young playmakers Adrian Martinez and JD Spielman are going to be fun to watch, but the odds of Nebraska’s offense continuing to improve in 2019 might hinge on finding a solid option in the middle of the offensive line. Coach Scott Frost converted Jurgens from a tight end to a center midway through his freshman season. He called Jurgens as good of a blocker as the Cornhuskers had on their roster and stuck him in a position where they have no experience and little depth. So yes, the promise of an athletic center leading the charge for Frost’s fast-paced attack is worth watching this spring in Lincoln. — Murphy

With Army’s top three fullbacks from last season, including outgoing starter Darnell Woolfolk, gone, the Black Knights will be counting on Slomka to fill the void. Slomka, who once was committed to Ohio State to play lacrosse, brings speed and, potentially, big-play capability to the fullback spot in Army’s option attack. — Trotter

Source link