Lingering questions following spring football from each Way-Too-Early Top 25 team

ByESPN Staff ESPN logo
Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Spring football is over and the spring transfer portal window is closed, so it's time to look at lingering questions surrounding the teams in ourWay-Too-Early Top 25.

Who will win quarterback jobs for Ohio State and Michigan? Can Texas' secondary improve?

Our reporters broke down spring overreactions already, and now they're diving into what teams still need to figure out in the next few months.

Lingering question: What will the secondary look like this season?

The back end of Georgia's defense remains in flux after it lost cornerbackKamari Lassiter and safeties Tykee Smith and Javon Bullardto the NFL draft. There's plenty of talent left in the secondary, but coach Kirby Smart said the unit had a long way to go after the spring game.

Cornerback Daylen Everette and safety Malaki Starks are the returning starters; Starks was held out of contact drills in the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery. Julian Humphrey and Daniel Harris were working at the other cornerback spot, and Joenel Aguero and JaCorey Thomas were sharing snaps at the safety spots. Veteran Dan Jackson, freshman K.J. Bolden and transfer Jake Pope were in the mix at safety as well. -- Mark Schlabach

Lingering question: Is Will Howard the answer at QB?

The Kansas State transfer was among Ohio State's high-profile portal additions this offseason. Though the Buckeyes have yet to name a starter, Howard will head into the summer presumably as the favorite to win the job over incumbent backup Devin Brown and five-star recruit Julian Sayin.

The Buckeyes appear loaded on both sides of the ball. But Ohio State making noise in the College Football Playoff will hinge heavily on whether Howard -- or another player -- can give the Buckeyes improved quarterback play from last season. -- Jake Trotter

Lingering question: Can the secondary defend the passing game this season?

We know the Ducks have the personnel and the mindset to be physical on the line of scrimmage, but how will they defend the pass game this coming season? Last year, Oregon allowed 3,022 passing yards all season, which ranked 95th in the country.

However, the Ducks did force 12 key interceptions too, and you get the feeling that their success on that side of the field this coming season will depend a lot on how much havoc they can wreak on opposing offenses and quarterbacks. The spring game was a positive sign in that regard, as true freshman cornerback Dakoda Fields made a great play downfield and snagged an interception. -- Paolo Uggetti

Lingering question: Can the secondary turn it around?

A highlight of the Texas spring game was the big performances from quarterbacks Arch Manning and Trey Owens as they each threw three touchdown passes, with Manning throwing for more than 350 yards. That's a positive way to look at a talented Texas offense. However, there's also the matter of the secondary, which finished 113th in passing yards allowed last season at 254.4 yards per game, allowing all those big plays once again.

The fallout from the game was quick, as junior cornerbackTerrance Brooks, who started 13 games last fall, entered the transfer portal three days later. Texas did get a commitment this week from San Jose State corner Jay'Vion Cole, who had seven interceptions in the past two seasons. -- Dave Wilson

Lingering question: Are there any true stars at receiver?

The Irish haven't had a receiver with 500 yards since 2021, and even those days weren't full of elite talent. SinceChase Claypooldeparted after the 2019 season, it has been more of a patchwork corps, often more reliant on tight ends for big plays. Can this year be different?

The Irish believe this could finally be the breakout season for Jayden Thomas, and they added two potential impact transfers in Kris Mitchell (FIU) and Beaux Collins (Clemson). Jaden Greathouse and Jordan Faison each showed some flashes as freshmen last year, too, so there's ample hope their development continues. It's a group with great potential, but Notre Dame has heard that story before. -- David Hale

Lingering question: How will the running back rotation shake out?

Ole Miss didn't shed a lot of tears when leading rusher Quinshon Judkins bolted for Ohio State this offseason. Nonetheless, 2,725 rushing yards and 31 touchdowns over two seasons aren't easily replaced. The projected starter, Ulysses Bentley IV, has experience as the primary ball carrier when he was at SMU in 2020 and 2021. He rushed for 540 yards and four touchdowns as Judkins' backup last season after battling injuries in 2022 in his first season at Ole Miss. Bentley was limited this spring with turf toe on his left foot and underwent surgery. He should be ready to go for preseason camp and will have plenty of competition.

Henry Parrish Jr., who started his career at Ole Miss, returns after transferring from Miami. Jacory Croskey-Merritt also transferred in from New Mexico after rushing for 1,190 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. The Rebels hope former LSU running back Logan Diggs can return from offseason knee surgery at some point during the 2024 season. Sophomore Kedrick Reescano got most of the carries this spring after not getting any carries last season. -- Chris Low

Lingering question: Who will replaceCody Schrader?

It's probably unrealistic to think that one person is going to replace Schrader, who was a star at running back last season for Missouri with an SEC-leading 1,627 rushing yards. Schrader's consistency and ability to produce in key moments and games were a constant in what the Tigers were able to do on offense a year ago.

Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz may look to use more running backs in 2024. Transfers Marcus Carroll (Georgia State) and Nate Noel (Appalachian State) have both played a lot of football. Missouri running backs coach Curtis Luper said Carroll and Noel remind him of theTyler Badie-Larry Rountreeduo in 2020. Jamal Roberts and Tavorus Jones are the holdovers at running back, but they combined for just one carry last season. -- Low

Lingering question: Who will QB Drew Allar be throwing to?

KeAndre Lambert-Smith transferred to Auburn last month, leaving the Nittany Lions without a single returning wideout to post more than 250 receiving yards last season. Harrison Wallace III, who had five grabs in Penn State's spring game, and Ohio State transfer Julian Fleming, who started 22 games over his career for the Buckeyes, are sure to play key roles. Kaden Saunders, who caught a touchdown from Allar in the spring game, could give the Nittany Lions some pop as well. -- Trotter

Lingering question: Who will be Alabama's finishers off the edge on defense?

Edge rushersDallas Turner and Chris Braswellhave gone to the NFL, and they take with them a combined 18 sacks from a year ago. Alabama has been blessed with a bevy of elite pass-rushers over the years, but there are no obvious replacements for the 2024 season. That doesn't mean the Crimson Tide are lacking in talent.

The new defensive staff liked what it saw this spring from redshirt junior Keanu Koht and redshirt freshman Qua Russaw. At 6-foot-2 and 242 pounds, Russaw showcased both power and quickness. Redshirt senior Quandarrius Robinson has the most experience, and the Tide hope he can have a breakout season. Redshirt freshman Keon Keeley came to Alabama as one of the top linebacker prospects in the country, but has moved to bandit end in new defensive coordinator Kane Wommack's 4-2-5 scheme and could provide some pass-rushing punch. -- Low

Lingering question: Can Cam Rising stay healthy?

Even though Rising is back and recovered from his knee surgery for one last college season, it remains unclear how he will play and react physically to live play and tackling. After the Utes' spring game -- during which he threw for 208 yards and two touchdowns in three series -- Rising looked comfortable and said he felt "strong."

One of Rising's talents before his surgery was his ability to move out of the pocket and make plays with his feet. He didn't do too much of that during the spring game, but that dimension of his game is one the Utes will certainly need in the fall. No matter what, Utah will benefit greatly from Rising's experience and veteran presence on and off the field. Time will tell if and when he can get fully back to that version of himself that helped the Utes secure back-to-back Pac-12 titles. -- Uggetti

Lingering question: How much willJordan Morganbe missed?

The 2024 first-round draft pick selected by the Green Bay Packers was the lynchpin of the Wildcats' offensive line -- and subsequent offensive attack under quarterback Noah Fifita last season. The All-Pac 12 left tackle was a force who set the tone for the entire group. Even though Arizona returned the rest of its starting line to Tucson, not having Morgan as an anchor to build the line around has forced the Wildcats to go back to the drawing board in figuring out what the unit will look like.

There's plenty of talent remaining with players such asJonah Savaiinaea, three-year starter Josh Baker, Wendell Moe and Raymond Pulido, a true freshman last year who earned a starting spot on the line. There's no shortage of talent, but finding the right combination and chemistry, something the Wildcats tried to do this spring, will be a key factor in ensuring their offensive attack is one of the most prolific in the country. -- Uggetti

Lingering question: Who will play defensive tackle?

The Tigers have two glaring holes on the interior defensive line afterMekhi Wingo and Maason Smithdeparted for the NFL. Veteran Jacobian Guillory will probably start at one spot after totaling 51 tackles and a half sack in 39 games. Converted offensive lineman Kimo Makane'ole and Florida transfer Jalen Lee were working at the other spot during the spring.

Incoming freshman Dominick McKinley might provide some help this season, but the Tigers were still looking to add at least one more tackle via the transfer portal. Defensive end Ahmad Breaux moved inside to help in the spring. LSU missed out on a couple of big transfer targets in Damonic Williams (TCU to Oklahoma) and Simeon Barrow Jr. (Michigan State to Miami). -- Schlabach

Lingering question: Who will win the QB job?

The battle to replaceJ.J. McCarthyremains wide open heading into the summer. Jack Tuttle, entering his seventh season, backed up McCarthy last fall and has the most experience but is coming back from an injury. Davis Warren was the star of the spring game. Alex Orji can run and throw. Jayden Denegal and freshman Jadyn Davis could factor in the mix as well. Who emerges in the preseason will be the storyline to watch as Michigan enters into a new era. -- Trotter

Lingering question: What will the full-strength offense look like?

Jackson Arnold took some deep shots in the spring game, going 10-of-20 for 233 yards with two touchdowns, including a 64-yard pass to Purdue receiver transfer Deion Burks, who was the star of the show with 174 yards and two scores on five catches. But the Sooners took the field without receivers Jalil Farooq, Andrel Anthony and Nic Anderson, and with no Jovantae Barnes at running back.

With so many bodies at the position, receiverGavin Freeman has already opted to transfer to Oklahoma State. But with a new-look offensive line, a new offensive coordinator in Seth Littrell and a new starting QB in Arnold, there's still plenty of curiosity about what shape the offense will take with all the starters back in the lineup. -- Wilson

Lingering question: Who will step up in the front seven?

Florida State loses its top two linebackers and tacklers in Kalen DeLoach (drafted No. 68) andTatum Bethune (No. 70), in addition to its sack leader in Jared Verse(No. 9). Those three are important players for the Seminoles to replace -- particularly DeLoach, who did just about everything as the heart of the defense a year ago, with 10.5 tackles for loss, an interception and two forced fumbles.

Let's start at linebacker, where Florida State expects veteran DJ Lundy to step up and become the leader of the unit. Coaches are also high on Blake Nichelson, who showed flashes as a true freshman. Up front, Florida State returns veterans who will take on bigger roles, including Pat Payton and Joshua Farmer, while it also expects a big year from transfer Marvin Jones Jr., who played well in the spring game. Watch for Darrell Jackson in the interior of the defense as well, after he sat out last year because of NCAA transfer rules. Finding the right rotation up front so Florida State can go two-deep will be an area to watch come fall camp. -- Andrea Adelson

Lingering question: What will Tennessee's secondary look like?

The Vols lost their top six defensive backs from a year ago, some who were multiyear starters, so there's not really a veteran presence on the back end. But a handful of defensive backs return who played meaningful snaps during the latter part of the 2023 season, including cornerbacks Rickey Gibson III and safeties Andre Turrentine and Jourdan Thomas, who's poised to take over at the hybrid "star" role.

The big get in the portal was Oregon State cornerback Jermod McCoy, who earned Freshman All-America honors a year ago. Temple transfer Jalen McMurray was one of Tennessee's most consistent cornerbacks this spring, and true freshman Boo Carter and Middle Tennessee transfer Jakobe Thomas are both new faces to watch at safety. -- Low

Lingering question: Who will start at defensive end?

Given the returning production for Oklahoma State, it is much better positioned going into this season than it was last year. However, one area that we probably won't know who starts until the season is at defensive end.

Kody Walterscheid has the most game experience at the position with 17 starts and 50 games played. Obi Ezeigbo is a Division II transfer the team hopes can make the leap to Big 12 football. There's familiarity with Ezeigbo, since Gannon University is where defensive coordinator Bryan Nardo was before coming to Stillwater. -- Harry Lyles Jr.

Lingering question: Can the Wolfpack run the ball?

Yes, we saw transfers Jordan Waters and Hollywood Smothers turn in nice performances in the spring game. But last year, NC State had to rely on QB Brennan Armstrong and receiver KC Concepcion to handle virtually all rushing duties.

Over the past three seasons, NC State's running backs averaged less than 100 yards per game on the ground (119th in FBS in that span). And at the root of the problem is the run blocking, which has afforded tailbacks 1.67 yards before contact per carry since the start of 2021, good for 123rd nationally. The pieces looked much better this spring, but NC State's backfield still has a lot to prove. -- Hale

Lingering question: Is the secondary elite?

A year ago, Clemson's defense was among the best in the country, led in large part by an elite secondary that just saw one of its corners --Nate Wiggins-- selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Gone, too, are safety Andrew Mukuba (transferred to Texas), safety Jalyn Phillips and corner Sheridan Jones. Yet, there is certainly a case to be made that the new faces have a higher ceiling.

Junior Jeadyn Lukus was a five-star recruit when he arrived, and he has gotten snippets of playing time in each of the past two years, though he'll be battling sophomore Shelton Lewis for playing time. Sophomore Avieon Terrell -- the younger brother of former Clemson standout A.J. Terrell -- should step seamlessly into a starting corner role, which he held for parts of last season. And returners R.J. Mickens and Khalil Barnes have flashed impressive potential. The question comes from a limited number of snaps, but the ceiling for the group certainly looks high. -- Hale

Lingering question: Can Avery Johnson live up to the starting QB role?

We're not going to know the answer to this question until the season starts, but it feels like the biggest lingering question remains how good can Avery Johnson be in replacing Will Howard. There's reason for optimism on the ground, given the presence of Johnson, DJ Giddensand Dylan Edwards.

Elsewhere, this is a team that has lost its best pass-catchers inPhillip Brooks and Ben Sinnott, and four of its six offensive linemen who started in 2023, including new Dallas CowboyCooper Beebe. Adjustments have been made, but seeing how the final product forms remains the biggest question. -- Lyles

Lingering question: Is the transfer portal helping Louisville?

Louisville has had great success using the transfer portal -- in fact, its 27 additions a year ago helped the Cardinals make the ACC championship game in Year 1 under coach Jeff Brohm.

This spring, there have been a few question marks after incoming transfers Peny Boone and Tyler Baron quickly reentered the transfer portal after spending one semester with the Cards. Add in returning linebacker Jaylin Alderman, who also entered the portal in the spring and has since committed to Miami, and there are some lingering questions about what exactly happened. -- Adelson

Lingering question: Will the new offensive line work, and will it be enough to keep QBJalon Daniels healthy?

The Jayhawks allowed the fewest sacks in the Big 12 in the 2021 and 2022 seasons. Coming out of 2023, they lose three starters inDominick Puni, Mike Novitsky and Ar'maj Reed-Adams, as well as OL coach Scott Fuchs.

Daryl Agpalsa is Fuchs' replacement and will be tasked with reshaping a line that will hopefully help keep Daniels healthy, which will be the key to any success the Jayhawks have this season. -- Lyles

Lingering question: Who will replaceRay Davis?

There are some big shoes to fill in the backfield after Davis was a one-and-done starter at tailback for the Wildcats. The former Vanderbilt transfer accounted for 68% of Kentucky's rushing yards and 78% of its rushing touchdowns in 2023.

That's not good news for an offense that ranked 12th in the SEC with 127.9 yards per game. Chip Trayanum is a veteran runner who was stuck behind TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams at Ohio State the past two seasons. Former NC State transfer Demie Sumo-Karngbaye and freshman Jason Patterson seemed to be next in line during the spring. With four starting offensive linemen coming back, Kentucky has to figure out a way to be more efficient in the running game. -- Schlabach

Lingering question: How will Miami's revamped defensive front fare?

Miami returns freshman All-American Rueben Bain to anchor a unit that will have a different look in 2024. Seven players have entered the transfer portal since the season ended, but the Hurricanes have gone into the portal to help solidify the position.

Elijah Alston (Marshall), C.J. Clark (NC State) and Marley Cook (Middle Tennessee) participated in spring ball, and there are a few early enrollee freshmen who could contribute as well in Marquise Lightfoot andArmondo Blount. Plus, Miami is hoping Akheem Mesidoris back to full strength after he was hurt in Week 2 last year and missed the rest of the season. -- Adelson

Lingering question: How will Conner Weigman look in the Aggies' new offense?

The Aggies limped to the end of the Jimbo Fisher era with multiple quarterbacks starting games the past two seasons. With a new coach in Mike Elko and a new offensive coordinator in Collin Klein, there is new opportunity for a quarterbacks room that has already earned some confidence.

Weigman started eight games in the past two seasons and had moments where he looked like a star in the making (five TDs in last year's season opener, 336 yards passing vs. Miami). But Jaylen Henderson looked like a star in relief, completing 25 of 35 passes for 294 yards and two TDs on the road against LSU late in the year, before freshman Marcel Reed took over for an injured Henderson in the Texas Bowl to throw for 361 yards and run for 44 more against Oklahoma State. Weigman (foot) was still limited this spring, going just 5-of-14 in the spring game, but Elko was all positive about Weigman's trajectory and the work he put in this spring to learn the offense despite not being 100%. -- Wilson