Off-field issues, new stars emerge

ByMark Schlabach ESPN logo
Friday, April 3, 2015

Many FBS programs around the country have reached the midpoint of spring practice, including defending national champion Ohio State, where coach Urban Meyer still hasn't picked from among three really good quarterbacks.

Michigan and Syracuse will play their spring games Saturday (we haven't confirmed whether the winning team in Ann Arbor will have to run extra stadium steps), and then glorified scrimmages will begin en masse in the coming weeks.

What have we learned so far? Georgia, Notre Dame and Ohio State have really interesting quarterback competitions. Texas is going to play faster (and hopefully better) on offense, and "Coach Boom" is already laying the boom on the Plains. New Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is really popular at his alma mater (but not popular enough to be elected student body president), and USC might have identified another star receiver.

Here's a look at some of the biggest developments in spring practice so far:

1. Meyer is losing sleep

Meyer has a dilemma that a lot of coaches would love to have: He has to choose from among three quarterbacks who have won big in college.

Right now, junior Cardale Jones looks like the quarterback to beat because he's the only one healthy during spring practice. Senior Braxton Miller is still recovering from shoulder surgery that caused him to miss the 2014 season, and sophomore J.T. Barrett is still rehabbing a broken ankle that caused him to miss the final three games.

Of course, Jones led the Buckeyes to three consecutive victories at the end of the 2014 season, including a 42-20 victory over Oregon in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T.

Meyer's decision on a starter probably won't come until sometime during preseason camp, but it's already weighing heavily on his mind. He seems to have ruled out the possibility of playing two quarterbacks this coming season. So two of them could end up watching if all three quarterbacks stick around.

"That's the only thing that's starting to eat away at me a little bit," Meyer told reporters last week. "It didn't for a while because you're just so busy. But now that I'm seeing what I'm seeing, I have such great respect for all three guys."

2. Maguire takes the lead at Florida State

Ohio State isn't the only team with a heated quarterback battle. Florida State is trying to replace 2013 Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, and junior Sean Maguire appears to have an early lead in the race.

Maguire, who was Winston's backup last season, is battling sophomore John Franklin, redshirt freshman JJ Cosentino and early enrollee De'Andre Johnson for the starting job.

Maguire, from Sparta, New Jersey, is the only FSU quarterback who has attempted a pass in college. He attempted 49 passes last season and started against Clemson during Winston's suspension. Maguire completed 21 of 39 passes for 304 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions in the Seminoles' 23-17 overtime victory.

FSU coach Jimbo Fisher has been impressed with Maguire's work in spring camp so far.

"I thought his temperament and demeanor, you could tell he's been in the film room and studying things," Fisher said after a practice last week. "It looked like he wanted that job."

3. Alabama's off-field troubles

It wasn't a great week for defending SEC champion Alabama.

Early Saturday morning, Crimson Tide defensive back Geno Smith was arrested on charges of driving under the influence, his second arrest on such charges since arriving at Alabama. Smith, a senior from Atlanta, was arrested in August 2013 on DUI charges and was suspended from the season opener that year. He was expected to compete for one of two vacant starting safety spots this season.

On Saturday night, Alabama defensive tackle Jonathan Taylor was arrested on domestic violence charges. His 24-year-old girlfriend told police in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, that he assaulted her at her off-campus apartment. Taylor joined the Tide in January, after he was kicked off Georgia's team last July following his arrest for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend there. Alabama coach Nick Saban dismissed Taylor from the team on Sunday.

"This will still need to go through the legal process, but when he was given an opportunity here, it was under strict guidelines and we made it clear there was a zero-tolerance policy," Saban said in a statement.

4. Michigan's offensive line woes

If the Wolverines are going to improve quickly under Harbaugh, they'll have to be better on offense, especially up front. They're not off to a good start. Earlier this month, returning center Jack Miller decided to stop playing because of concerns about concussions and his long-term health.

Senior Graham Glasgow, another expected starter, was indefinitely suspended for violating the terms of his probation by consuming alcohol. Glasgow returned to practice last week, but Harbaugh hasn't yet commented on his status with the team.

The good news for Michigan: New offensive coordinator Tim Drevno worked last season as the running game coordinator and offensive line coach at USC, which started three freshmen up front.

5. Muschamp takes control of Auburn defense

Former Florida coach Will Muschamp has taken control of Auburn's defense, and the early results have been promising.

Muschamp's first order of business was shoring up the Tigers' porous secondary. Cornerback Jonathan Jones is the kind of player he can build around, and former Georgia safety Tray Matthews also has shown good signs. Matthews, who sat out last season after transferring from UGA, is a big hitter who needs to be more disciplined.

"I've been pleased with his maturity level," Muschamp told reporters. "You get humbled by some experiences you go through in life, and he has."

Defensive end Carl Lawson also has fully recovered from a torn ACL in his left knee that caused him to miss all of the 2014 season.

6. Texas picks up the pace

After ranking next to last in the Big 12 in scoring (22.6 points), total offense (360.5 yards) and passing (211.8 yards) in coach Charlie Strong's first season, the Longhorns unveiled a new offense in the first week of spring practice.

Texas is going back to a hurry-up offense that looks a lot like the spread system former coach Mack Brown tried to use in 2013. The Longhorns are employing more three-receiver sets, pistol formations and spread looks. UT also is using a no-huddle approach after it ranked ninth in the Big 12 with only 68 offensive plays per game in 2014.

Strong wants his quarterback to run with the ball more frequently, whether it's Tyrone Swoopes or Jerrod Heard or a combination of both. Strong also believes a spread offense will help in recruiting because so many high schools in Texas use that kind of system.

"I would say probably 98 percent of this state is a spread offense," Strong said last week. "The key players that you need to really recruit, those guys are the ones that are in the spread offense. So that's what you're looking for."

7. Everett Golson still competing at Notre Dame

After losing the starting job to Malik Zaire at the end of the 2014 season, there was much speculation that Golson wouldn't be back at Notre Dame. But Golson is still there this spring, battling Zaire for the starting job in spring practice.

Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly and new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford haven't tipped their hats as to which quarterback is winning the battle halfway through spring drills. Golson is scheduled to graduate from Notre Dame in May, so he could conceivably transfer to another school and play immediately as a graduate student if he doesn't win the job.

For now, though, Kelly says Golson is committed to competing for the job at Notre Dame. Golson, who had 22 turnovers last season, has done a better job of taking care of the ball during spring practice.

8. USC finds a potential star in the making

The Trojans went into spring practice having to find a replacement for All-American receiver Nelson Agholor. JuJu Smith is slated to line up on one side of the field, but USC coach Steve Sarkisian wasn't sure who would step up on the other.

Redshirt sophomore Steven Mitchell, who had seven catches for 82 yards with two touchdowns in 2014, is the leader in the clubhouse after the first couple of weeks of practice. Mitchell was a highly recruited prospect out of Mission Hills (California) Bishop Alemany High, but then tore his ACL and was a medical redshirt in 2013. Last season, Mitchell struggled to return to form and was slowed by a groin injury. This spring, Sarkisian has raved about Mitchell's ability to make catches in traffic, and he's faster nearly two years removed from the knee injury.

9. Beamer back on sideline

One of the best developments of the spring was Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer's return to the sideline. Beamer, 68, underwent throat surgery on Dec. 1 and was forced to coach from the press box as the Hokies defeated Cincinnati 33-17 in the Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman. Beamer was back on the sideline for the start of spring practice earlier this month. Virginia Tech, which is trying to rebound from a 7-6 season in 2014, is looking for someone to step up at running back and for three new starting offensive linemen and two new safeties.

10. Stave is still Wisconsin's man

New Badgers coach Paul Chryst recruited quarterback Joel Stave to Wisconsin when Chryst was the team's offensive coordinator. In Chryst's first spring practice as the Badgers' head coach, Stave has remained the team's No. 1 quarterback.

Stave, who is 20-6 as Wisconsin's starter, lost the job last season after struggling with his control. He regained the job late in the season and looks like the guy to beat heading into his senior season. The early results have been promising: Stave completed 13 of 18 passes in the Badgers' first scrimmage of the spring. Stave is battling Bart Houston, D.J. Gillins and early enrollees Alex Hornibrook and Austin Kafentzis for the starting job.