Players with the most to prove this spring

ByChris Low ESPN logo
Wednesday, April 15, 2015

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It's hard to dive head-first into this whole idea of spring when a lot of us are still digging out from under the snow. But, alas, spring football practice is here.

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That means the countdown to the 2015 college football season has officially begun.

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New stars will emerge. Coaches will land on the hot seat, and somebody's going to swear they're getting the cold shoulder from the College Football Playoff selection committee.

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Which players have the most to prove this spring and heading into the 2015 season? Some might be coming off injuries. Others weren't as productive or consistent last season, and a few are taking on even bigger roles or getting fresh starts. The players are listed alphabetically:

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WR Bralon Addison, Oregon
[br /]Oregon was without its three best receivers in the title game loss to Ohio State last season. Of course, one of those had been out all season. Addison tore his ACL last spring, and just like that, the Ducks' leading returning receiver from the 2013 team was gone. But he's back and eager to re-establish himself in a receiving corps that should be as dangerous as ever. There was some talk before the title game in January that he might play, and he even suited up during warm-ups. The Ducks, though, weren't going to use an entire year of eligibility for just one game. Addison is electric in the open field, whether he's catching passes, taking off on jet sweeps or returning punts. If everybody is healthy, Oregon should have the fastest group of receivers in the country. Addison gets to prove he's as good as new.

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QB Jake Coker, Alabama
[br /]Before he'd ever stepped onto campus last year, Coker was anointed by many as Alabama's starter after beginning his career at Florida State and then transferring. Blake Sims had other ideas, and the rest is history. Now that Coker has been a part of the Alabama program for almost a year, it's fair to evaluate what kind of quarterback he really is. He has tremendous arm strength and excellent athletic ability. What he has to prove is that he can lead a football team, make winning decisions and effectively use the talent around him. This isn't Lane Kiffin's first rodeo in developing a quarterback. Look at what he did with Sims last season. Now, it's Coker's time to make that kind of jump.

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WR Stacy Coley, Miami
[br /]Good luck finding a true freshman as electrifying and versatile as Coley was two years ago. He scored touchdowns four different ways (rushing, receiving, punt return and kickoff return) and averaged 17.9 yards per catch. But last season, he went AWOL and didn't score a single touchdown for the Hurricanes. He averaged just 8 yards per catch. To his credit, Coley said his sophomore slump is behind him and that's he only looking ahead. Miami needs him to return to his freshman form with speedy Phillip Dorsett and star running back Duke Johnson gone. Coley has the quarterback to get him the ball with talented sophomore Brad Kaaya returning. The Hurricanes hope the "real" Coley also returns.

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QB Josh Dobbs, Tennessee
[br /]If not for Dobbs and the run-pass option he provided for Tennessee's offense after Justin Worley was injured last season, there's no way the Vols would have made a bowl game. Fast-forward to this spring, and you're seeing Dobbs' name pop up on the periphery of some Heisman Trophy discussion. He's a brilliant kid and should handle the hype like a champ. But the big question is whether or not Dobbs can throw it consistently enough and has the kind of arm to use the entire field effectively. Making that happen is a priority for new offensive coordinator Mike DeBord. Dobbs has struggled throwing the ball against some of the better defenses he has faced. He has the smarts and the athleticism to be one of the better quarterbacks in the SEC. The next step is proving he can be a big-time passer.

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QB Everett Golson, Notre Dame
[br /]After giving way to Malik Zaire in the bowl game last season, Golson will have to re-earn his starting job. Golson was 7-5 as a starter for the Irish a year ago after sitting out the 2013 season because of academic improprieties. He started out on fire and led Notre Dame to a 6-0 start. His undoing was not taking care of the ball, and the Irish wound up losing five of their last six games in the regular season. Golson finished with 22 turnovers (14 interceptions and eight fumbles), but accounted for 37 touchdowns. The Irish would love to have that kind of touchdown production again without the miscues. What Golson has to show the coaches is that he can still be a playmaker without putting the ball in harm's way as much. He says he's on track to graduate. If so, he would be eligible to transfer and play elsewhere as a graduate student if he doesn't win the job this spring.

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RB Derrick Green, Michigan
[br /]The Jim Harbaugh era begins at Michigan this fall, and something we know about Harbaugh is that he's almost always had a go-to running back who can get the tough yards, move the chains and be the workhorse. In Harbaugh's 11 seasons as a head coach (both college and the NFL), he has had a 1,000-yard running back nine times. Green reported to spring practice weighing 234 pounds after playing at about 220 a year ago. It appears to be good weight. He missed the last half of the 2014 season after breaking his clavicle. The Wolverines will have some stiff competition in the backfield, including USC transfer Ty Isaac. Drake Johnson will also be back in the fall after tearing his ACL against Ohio State. Green came to Michigan as one of the top running back prospects in the country. It may be now or never if he's going to live up to that billing.

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QB Cody Kessler, USC
[br /]A quick glance at Kessler's final numbers last season validate why he's a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate for the 2015 season and why the Trojans are being mentioned prominently in the College Football Playoff talk. Kessler passed for 3,826 yards and 39 touchdowns and was intercepted just five times. Six different times last season, he threw at least four touchdown passes in a game. So what does he have to prove? Playing better against the Trojans' better opponents. Kessler was just OK against the three teams on the schedule last season that finished in the top 20 in the final polls. Two of those were losses -- Arizona State and UCLA. In those three games, he averaged 224 passing yards and threw two touchdown passes, two interceptions and was sacked 10 times. The best quarterbacks play their best in the biggest games, and that will be Kessler's challenge in 2015.

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DE Carl Lawson, Auburn
[br /]The Tigers struggled to generate a pass rush last season, and losing Carl Lawson in the offseason to a torn ACL was a big reason why. Well, Lawson has been medically cleared to return and will participate in spring practice. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn thinks the Tigers will be able to rush the passer without having to blitz as much with a healthy Lawson in the lineup. He was one of the SEC's top young defenders in 2013 on his way to earning Freshman All-America honors. Auburn managed just 10 sacks in eight SEC games last season with Lawson sidelined. New coordinator Will Muschamp will look to make Lawson the linchpin of that defense, and the Tigers will need the 6-2, 260-pound sophomore to regain his explosiveness off the edge if they're going to be a championship defense in 2015.

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DT Davion Pierson, TCU
[br /]Ask Gary Patterson what the key is for TCU being back in the College Football Playoff hunt, and he'll tell you the Horned Frogs need to grow up in a hurry on defense. Six of the top seven tacklers from a year ago are gone, and it's imperative that leaders on defense emerge. Pierson was already cut from that cloth, but the Horned Frogs are going to need even more from the 6-foot-2, 305-pound senior this season. It's a TCU defensive line that has a chance to be dominant with its depth and versatility, and Pierson will be the one to set that tone. While he might have played in the shadow of Chucky Hunter last season, Pierson is the alpha dog of that defensive front now. He has always been a very good player. The challenge now is to become an All-Big 12 player and raise everybody else's game around him.

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QB Seth Russell, Baylor
[br /]We've heard the stories about Russell being a freakish athlete and Baylor's version of the "Human Highlight Film" on the basketball court. But now it's his time to prove he can quarterback this team to another Big 12 championship and into College Football Playoff contention. The recent quarterback legacy at Baylor speaks for itself. Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy in 2011, and Bryce Petty passed for 8,055 yards and 61 touchdowns the past two seasons in leading Baylor to consecutive Big 12 titles. In between, Nick Florence set a school record with 4,309 passing yards. Russell, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound junior, is the one to beat this spring after serving as Petty's backup the past two seasons. He has a big arm and will provide the Bears with a running threat from the quarterback position that Petty didn't really give them. Most of the other key pieces on offense are back, too. The only thing left is Russell solidifying this spring that he's the right trigger man to keep the party going in Waco.

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Here are a few more around the country with something to prove:

[br /]• TE Jerell Adams, South Carolina

[br /]• DT Kenny Bigelow, USC

[br /]• LB/S Josh Harvey-Clemons, Louisville

[br /]• QB Christian Hackenberg, Penn State

[br /]• QB Kevin Hogan, Stanford

[br /]• QB Jeremy Johnson, Auburn

[br /]• QB Jeff Lockie, Oregon

[br /]• DT Luther Maddy, Virginia Tech

[br /]• QB Sean Maguire, Florida State

[br /]• LB Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State

[br /]• WR Malcolm Mitchell, Georgia

[br /]• CB/S Jabrill Peppers, Michigan

[br /]• DT Hassan Ridgeway, Texas

[br /]• QB Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State

[br /]• QB Joel Stave, Wisconsin[br /][br /][br /][br /]