Ten burning questions for spring football

Can 'Bama's O-line reload? What's next for Johnny Football? Cory McCartney previews spring practice.

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 Championship 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, 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.

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 2012) 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.

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 Longhorns 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), Texas has the pieces in place.

But in switching to scheme to where they’re running a play ever 15 seconds conditioning, especially on the offensive 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.

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.

Arkansas: What will Bielema’s Razorbacks 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.

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