College football's most compelling spring storylines

Shoulder pads popping. Whistles chirping. Coaches shouting.

After a one-year hiatus due to COVID-19, college football's spring practices are back as teams slowly begin to resume more normalcy amid the worldwide pandemic.


What hasn't changed since a year ago are the teams at the top of the sport's upper echelon -- Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Georgia.

Even with the Crimson Tide, Tigers and Buckeyes needing new quarterbacks, those perennial powers aren't expected to slip much.

Here are the storylines, players and coaches to watch this spring:

Compelling storylines


1. Alabama and Clemson reload

Star quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence and Mac Jones are projected to be among the first quarterbacks taken in the 2021 NFL draft, but the Tigers and Crimson Tide have more-than-capable replacements ready to go. Alabama's Bryce Young was the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback and top prospect in California in the class of 2020. Clemson's D.J. Uiagalelei threw for 941 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions when he started two games for Lawrence, who was sidelined with COVID-19 last season. The Tide's most pressing concern is replacing Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith and receiver Jaylen Waddle.

2. Can LSUget back on track?

Were the Tigers a one-hit wonder in putting together one of the best seasons in college football history in 2019? LSU fell off the ledge last season, finishing 5-5. The Tigers were 97th in scoring defense (34.9 points per game) and 39th in scoring offense (32 points). Bo Pelini is out after one season as defensive coordinator, and LSU coach Ed Orgeron hired Minnesota Vikings assistant Daronte Jones to replace him. Orgeron hired Jake Peetz, who worked with former LSU playcaller Joe Brady with the Carolina Panthers, to fix the offense.

3. Will Jim Harbaugh ever find the recipe at Michigan?

The Wolverines gave Harbaugh an extension that takes him through the end of the 2025 season, even though his teams have never beaten rival Ohio State and have lost four straight bowl games. Michigan has five new assistant coaches, including co-defensive coordinators Mike Macdonald and Maurice Linguist. They replace Don Brown, whom Harbaugh fired after the Wolverines ranked 79th in run defense (178.8 yards), 90th in pass defense (250.5 yards) and 95th in scoring defense (34.5) while going 2-4 in 2020.

4. Steve Sarkisian's debut at Texas

Sarkisian, the former Alabama offensive coordinator and USC and Washington coach, takes over at Texas, where Tom Herman couldn't get it done. Sarkisian has said the Longhorns will play with "all gas, no brakes." Hopefully, they'll do a better job of slowing down opponents after finishing 61st in the FBS in scoring defense (28.5 points per game) in 2020. And surely Sarkisian will do what his predecessor didn't and get the ball in Bijan Robinson's hands as much as possible.

5. Can Georgia close the gap on Alabama?

The Bulldogs should benefit from a full spring and offseason with offensive coordinator Todd Monken and quarterback JT Daniels, who played well in the final four games of 2020. Georgia is loaded at running back and wide receiver, and it has good depth on the offensive line. Its defense should again be among the best in the FBS. Its schedule is favorable. Is this the year Kirby Smart's team finally catches the Crimson Tide?

Familiar faces in new places


1. Gus Malzahn, UCF

The Gus Bus travels to UCF, where the former Auburn coach will get to work outside the pressure cooker of the Plains. His teams' offensive struggles lately led to his downfall with the Tigers, who were No. 77 in total offense in 2020, averaging 382.8 yards per game. The Knights return star quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who threw for 3,570 yards with 32 touchdowns and four picks in 10 games last season.

2. Bret Bielema, Illinois

It used to be a lot of fun being Bret Bielema, but lately, not so much. He's involved in a bitter contract dispute with Arkansas, where he was fired after going 29-34 from 2013 to 2017. After spending a couple of seasons in the NFL, Bielema has returned to his Big Ten roots. He inherits an Illini program that hasn't had a winning season in a decade.

3. Josh Heupel, Tennessee

The former UCF coach will try to extinguish the dumpster fire at UT, which figures to be headed toward NCAA probation after former coach Jeremy Pruitt was fired. A handful of the Volunteers' best players, including running back Eric Gray and offensive lineman Wanya Morris, have transferred. Star linebacker Henry To'o To'o is reportedly on his way out as well.

4. Bryan Harsin, Auburn

Given his lack of experience in the SEC, Harsin was a surprising choice to replace Malzahn at Auburn. On the other hand, maybe that's why he's exactly what the Tigers need -- an outsider who won't be influenced or pressured by Auburn's meddling boosters. Harsin went 69-19 and won three Mountain West Conference titles in seven seasons at Boise State.


5. Butch Jones, Arkansas State

The former Tennessee coach landed another head-coaching job after spending three seasons on Nick Saban's staff. He had success at Central Michigan and Cincinnatibut struggled at Tennessee, where his teams went 34-27 in five seasons. Then again, compared to Pruitt's tenure, maybe it wasn't that bad.

Coordinator changes



1. Bill O'Brien, offensive coordinator, Alabama

The bad news: O'Brien, the former Houston Texans coach, has the unenviable task of replacing Sarkisian, who directed one of the most prolific offenses in SEC history in 2020. The good news: The past two Tide offensive playcallers landed head-coaching jobs; Ole Miss hired Lane Kiffin in 2019. O'Brien had a 15-9 record at Penn State after taking over the program in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. He is one of two former NFL head coaches to join Saban's staff; former Jacksonville Jaguars coach Doug Marrone takes over Alabama's offensive line.

2. Marcus Freeman, defensive coordinator, Notre Dame

Freeman, 35, was the most highly sought coordinator in the FBS after his Cincinnati defense ranked 13th in total defense and eighth in scoring defense last season. The Broyles Award finalist was also LSU coach Ed Orgeron's top choice before he elected to go with the Irish. Freeman replaces Clark Lea, who left to become Vanderbilt's new coach.

3. Jeff Grimes, offensive coordinator, Baylor

Grimes worked the past three seasons at BYU, which went 11-1 in 2020 and had the No. 3 scoring offense (43.5 PPG) in the FBS. He replaces Larry Fedora, whom Baylor fired after it ranked next to last in the Big 12 in both scoring offense (23.5 points) and total offense (310.2 yards) in 2020.

4. Derek Mason, defensive coordinator, Auburn

Mason didn't have much success as Vanderbilt, like most of the head coaches before him, but he's widely regarded as one of the sport's best defensive minds. He was Stanford's defensive coordinator in 2012 and 2013; the Cardinal ranked in the top 15 in the FBS in scoring defense in both seasons. Mason and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, who previously worked at Georgia and South Carolina, give new coach Bryan Harsin's staff a distinct SEC flavor.

5. Mike Yurcich, offensive coordinator, Penn State

Nittany Lions coach James Franklin made a surprising move by hiring Yurcich to replace Kirk Ciarrocca after only one season. Penn State's offense slipped in 2020, ranking 37th in total offense (430.3 yards) and 54th in scoring (29.8 points). Yurcich, who previously worked at Texas, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, caught Cowboys coach Mike Gundy's attention while calling plays at Division II Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania.

Intriguing position battles



1. Ohio State quarterback

With former starter Justin Fieldsa projected top-10 pick in the NFL draft, the Buckeyes turn to a trio of highly regarded prospects without much experience. Backups Jack Miller III and C.J. Stroud didn't attempt a pass last season. Incoming freshman Kyle McCord was the No. 5 pocket passer and No. 31 prospect overall in the ESPN 300.

2. Texas quarterback

Casey Thompson, who is entering his fourth season in the program, took a big step in possibly replacing former starter Sam Ehlinger by throwing four touchdowns in the Longhorns' 55-23 win over Colorado in the Valero Alamo Bowl. Hudson Card, the No. 2 dual-threat quarterback in the 2020 ESPN 300 and an Austin, Texas, native, will get a strong look from Sarkisian as well.

3. USC wide receiver

The Trojans have a potential Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Kedon Slovis, but he will have to identify new targets after Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughn departed. Highly touted Bru McCoy and Colorado transfer K.D. Nixon will need to draw some attention off Drake London, who had 33 catches for 502 yards in 2020.

4. LSU quarterback

Myles Brennan completed 60.3% of his passes for 1,112 yards with 11 touchdowns in the first four games last season, before an abdomen injury caused him to miss the last seven. In his absence, Max Johnson threw for 1,069 yards with eight touchdowns and one interception in five games, highlighted with a 37-34 upset of No. 6 Florida. Orgeron promises an open competition.

5. Georgia cornerback


The Bulldogs bring back almost everyone on offense, and they are deep and talented on the defensive line and at linebacker. The secondary is a concern, however, after starting cornerbacks Eric Stokes, Tyson Campbell and DJ Daniel left for the NFL draft and top backup Tyrique Stevenson transferred to Miami. At least Kelee Ringo, the No. 1 cornerback and No. 8 prospect overall in the 2020 ESPN 300, is returning after missing last season with a shoulder injury. Early enrollee Nyland Green was the No. 7 cornerback in the 2021 ESPN 300.

Impact transfers


1. Jack Coan, QB, Notre Dame (via Wisconsin)

Coan started 18 games for the Badgers in 2018 and 2019, then suffered a foot injury in preseason camp and missed last season. He is probably the favorite to replace departed starter Ian Book after completing 68% of his passes for 3,278 yards with 23 touchdowns and eight interceptions at Wisconsin.

2. McKenzie Milton, QB, Florida State(via UCF)

The former Heisman Trophy candidate missed the past two seasons while recovering from a devastating right knee injury that nearly ended his career. He had 8,683 yards and 72 touchdowns with only 22 interceptions at UCF, while compiling a 27-6 record as a starter. If Milton is healthy, he will be a welcome sight for an FSU program that desperately needs stability at quarterback.

3. Charleston Rambo, WR, Miami(via Oklahoma)

After catching 43 passes for 734 yards with five touchdowns in 2019, Rambo's production slipped last season. Still, he was expected to be one of OU's top pass-catchers this coming season before unexpectedly entering the transfer portal. He is a welcome addition to a Hurricanes unit that was plagued by drops in 2020.

4. Charlie Brewer, QB, Utah (via Baylor)

When healthy, Brewer was one of the most dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks in the Big 12. He started 40 games for the Bears, including 35 of the past 36. He threw for 9,700 yards, 65 touchdowns and 28 interceptions, while running for 1,039 yards and 22 touchdowns. He will compete against Texas transfer Ja'Quinden Jackson, who was the No. 34 prospect in the 2020 ESPN 300.

5. Eric Gray, RB, Oklahoma (via Tennessee)

Gray led the Volunteers with 772 rushing yards and was second on the team with 30 catches last season. The Sooners lost their top two rushers from 2020, Rhamondre Stevenson (NFL) and T.J. Pledger (transferred to Utah), but they get back Kennedy Brooks, who opted out in 2020 because of COVID-19 concerns.

True freshmen to watch


1. J.J. McCarthy, QB, Michigan

Harbaugh has been reluctant to play true freshman quarterbacks in the past, but McCarthy is the highest-rated passer he has signed at Michigan. The No. 25 prospect overall and No. 2 dual-threat quarterback in the ESPN 300, McCarthy threw for 1,392 yards with 16 touchdowns and no interceptions at IMG Academy as a senior. With Joe Milton and Dylan McCaffrey departing, McCarthy will battle Cade McNamara and Dan Villari this spring; Texas Tech Red Raiders transfer Alan Bowman joins the battle this summer.

2. TreVeyon Henderson, RB, Ohio State

Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon was one-and-done with the Buckeyes, leaving a big hole to fill in their backfield. Henderson, from Hopewell, Virginia, was the top-rated tailback in the country, after running for 2,424 yards with 45 touchdowns as a junior in 2019 (Virginia high schools didn't play football this past fall because of COVID-19).

3. Tommy Brockermeyer, OL, Alabama

Tide coach Saban isn't afraid to start true freshmen on the offensive line, and Brockermeyer is one of the more highly regarded linemen to sign with Alabama. With left tackle Alex Leatherwood departing for the NFL, Brockermeyer (No. 2 overall in 2021 ESPN 300) and J.C. Latham (No. 5 overall) might be in the mix to replace him.

4. Will Shipley, RB, Clemson

The Tigers don't have an obvious replacement for departed star Travis Etienne. Shipley was the No. 2 running back and No. 22 player overall in the ESPN 300, after running for 4,173 yards with 50 total touchdowns in three high school seasons. He also caught 84 passes, and some recruiting analysts have compared him to Carolina Panthers star Christian McCaffrey because of his versatility.

5. Derrick Davis Jr., S, LSU

The Tigers desperately need help on the back end of a defense that surrendered 323 passing yards per game, worst in the SEC in 2020. ESPN Recruiting ranked Davis the No. 1 safety in the country; LSU held off Ohio State and Penn State to land him out of Monroeville, Pennsylvania.

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