Ten burning questions for spring football

Need further proof that we are completely and utterly obsessed with college football?

It’s there on the cover of Sports Illustrated,
where my former colleagues have Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller
busting through a montage of college basketball players with “sorry,
hoops, two more weeks to wait.”

Spring practice has already begun
at the likes of Arizona, Boston College and Miami, making it the
perfect time to help feed your hunger for all things college football.
So I bring to you the burning questions in need of answers this spring.

Alabama: Can the offensive line continue its domination?

With
three starters gone up front, including four-year starter Barrett
Jones, rebuilding the O-line figures to be priority No. 1 for the
two-time defending national champs.

The Crimson Tide will lean on
junior left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and right guard Anthony Steen, who
are back after starting all 14 games last season, and redshirt sophomore
Ryan Kelly, a member of the All-SEC freshman team as Jones’ backup, is
expected to step in at center. But how will a first-time starter respond
to replacing a Rimington Trophy winner?

Right guard and left
guard should offer some intrigue, with Arie Kouandjio (Cyrus’ brother),
Chad Lindsay and freshman Grant Hill battling on the right side and
redshirt junior Austin Shepherd and juco transfer Leon Brown at the
left.

There will likely be a drop-off from ’12 but this is a
group that’s not devoid of experience. Aside from obviously Brown and
Hill, all the players vying for roles appeared in at least 10 games for
‘Bama last season.

Notre Dame: What’s the Irish’s mindset?

Let’s
recount the Irish’s January: they got blown out by Alabama in the BCS
title game and there was the Manti Te’o girlfriend hoax, with coach
Brian Kelly’s flirtation with the NFL tossed in the middle.

There
are more tangible concerns with this team, including the losses of RBs
Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, who combined for 1,659 yards, Te’o, the
void at tight end and the potential for a QB controversy with Everett
Golson and Gunner Kiel, who is coming off a redshirt year.

But those are typical problems and the draw of the Irish is that they’re facing some atypical ones.

The
hangover from the loss to the Tide would be enough to deal with, but
adding in that Te’o, the Heisman Trophy runner-up and the face of last
year’s run, became a punch line, it will be interesting to see if Notre
Dame can continue its trajectory under Kelly.

Ohio State: Will Braxton Miller become a better passer?

No
one’s debating Miller’s ability with his legs as he ran for 1,271
yards, a Buckeyes quarterback record, and 13 touchdowns. His arm,
though, leaves something to be desired as Miller completed 58.7 percent
of his passes and threw six interceptions.

Miller has worked with
famed QB guru George Whitefield Jr., who was impressed by the
soon-to-be junior,
(http://buckeyextra.dispatch.com/content/stories/2013/02/26/miller-gets-help-from-famedqb-guru.html)
saying “Braxton has one of the biggest arms in college football.”

He
was at his worst on third-down, with a 48.7 completion rate and six
picks, making it an area that’s going to have to improve if he’s going
to make a run at a Heisman and keep Ohio State in the national title
race.

Texas A&M: What’s next for Johnny Football?

How
do you follow up becoming the first freshman in history to win the
Heisman Trophy? Aside from the off-field exploits, that is.

Since
Archie Griffin won back-to-back Heismans in 1974 and ’75 only Billy
Simms came close when he was runner-up in 1979 and the last two players
to try and join Griffin, Sam Bradford and Mark Ingram, didn’t finish in
the top 10 in voting.

Manziel should be well protected with Jake
Matthews taking over as Manziel’s bodyguard at left tackle with the
departure of Luke Joeckel. The Aggies also return their top rusher (Ben
Malena) and receiver (Mike Evans) but three of the other four starting
WRs are gone, along with Thomas Johnson, who left the team.

Manziel
will have to rely on an unproven, but highly regarded group of
youngsters to fill the void, including five-star recruit Ricky
Seals-Jones, if he’s going to make history again.

USC: Is this Lane Kiffin’s last stand?

After
leading the first team since 1950 to go from preseason No. 1 to losing
six games in a season, Kiffin saw his father, defensive coordinator
Monte, resign and athletic director Pat Haden proclaim his support for
the young coach.

Kiffin is revamping things on defense, with new
coordinator in Clancy Pendergast, installing a 5-2 scheme, and
quarterbacks coach Clay Helton has been promoted to offensive
coordinator.

The Trojans still have Biletnikoff Award winner
Marqise Lee, but it’s likely his production drops significantly with USC
breaking in a new QB in either Max Wittek, Cody Kessler or Max Browne.
Plus, the defense, which will be experienced up front, will have four
new starters in the secondary.

It’s a scenario that would seem to put even more heat on Kiffin this fall.

Oregon: Is Mark Helfrich up to the task?

He
took over the Ducks after Chip Kelly bolted for the Eagles and no new
coach, let alone one in his first head-coaching job, faces more pressure
than Helfrich.

Kelly laid the groundwork, taking Oregon to four
straight BCS bowl berths and left QB Marcus Mariota, RB De’Anthony
Thomas as the offense’s centerpieces. Oregon figures to be in the top
five in the polls and Helfrich will be expected to produce like his
predecessor did.

Of course doing so won’t make this program his
own. Helfrich needs to take the Ducks to the next level and that’s going
to take time. But as a first-year coach, Helfrich couldn’t ask for a
better situation in taking over a team poised for a BCS title run.

Texas: Can an up-tempo offense make the ‘Horns a force again?

Mack
Brown is opting to join the break-neck-paced offensive revolution and
Major Applewhite will be calling the plays in Austin with the hope that
this change can revitalize a ‘Horns passing attack that ranked 6th in
the Big 12 (263.1 ypg).

With 10 returning starters on offense,
(the ‘Horns bring back a nation’s-best 19 in all) headlined by QB David
Ash and receivers Mike Davis (931 yards and seven TDs) and Jaxon Shipley
(59 receptions for 737 yards and six TDs) and a RB rotation led by
Johnathan Gray (737 yards), the ‘Horns will have the pieces in place.

But
in switching to scheme to where they’re running a play ever 15 seconds
conditioning, especially on the O-line and a defense, which as a
byproduct, will be on the field more, is key. This spring is pivotal of
Texas is going to keep up with their Big 12 brethren offensively.

Clemson: Can the defense improve?

The
Tigers’ front seven should be bolstered by Oklahoma transfer Kellen
Jones playing alongside Stephone Anthony at linebacker, underscoring
that it’s the secondary, which ranked 71st in FBS (240.3 yards per game)
where the Tiers need the most improvement.

There are some
positive signs with cornerback Marti Jenkins, who missed all of 2012
with a sports hernia, returning and last year’s starters Bashaud
Breeland and Darius Robinson are healthy again.

Both safety spots
are open, though junior Robert Smith (104 snaps ’12) and sophomore
Travis Blanks (eight starts last year) appear to be the favorite but
they’ll be pressed from a signing class that includes early enrollee
Jadar Johnson.

Still it will be an unproven group and one that
may be the difference between contenting for a BCS title and not just an
ACC one.

Arkansas: What will Bielema’s Hogs look like?

Bret
Bielema is known for his ground-and-pound approach, which produced
seven 1,000-yard rushers in seven years at Wisconsin. But will we see a
more balanced attack in his teaming with coordinator Jim Chaney, who
directed a Tennessee offense that was second in the SEC last season in
passing?

The Razorbacks may not have a choice in their approach,
at least in Year 1 under Bielema after losing seven starters on offense,
including their leading passer, rusher and receiver from last season.

While
the QB duel between redshirt sophomore Brandon Allen (186 yards and a
TD in ‘12) and fifth-year senior Brandon Mitchell (332 career yards and
three TDs) is the clash to watch, the smart money is still on this being
a running-heavy team behind sophomore Jonathan Williams (439 total
yards and two touchdowns), who could be the star of the spring in
Fayetteville.  

Early Enrollees: Who will have the biggest impact?

Mike Gillislee is gone and Florida is looking for a new lead back and the son of former Gator Fred Taylor could be the answer.

Kelvin
Taylor, (5-foot-11, 216 pounds) racked up 2,423 yards and 41 touchdowns
on 237 carries during his senior season at Glades Day (Belle Glade,
Fla.) High School. He’ll enter camp below sophomore Matt Jones (52
carries for 275 yards and three TDs) and sophomore Mack Brown (102 yards
on 25 carries) but the mere fact that he’s already on campus should be a
sign that the leading rusher in Florida prep history will command
immediately playing time.