The most important storylines to watch in this weekend’s spring games
Another April weekend ahead means another week of college football spring games on Saturday.
This week’s slate includes both teams from last season’s national championship game — Georgia and Alabama — as well as several high-profile games from Ohio State to Miami and beyond.
We’ll once again find out which quarterbacks will take control of the QB1 spots and which freshmen will make a name for themselves in front of college fans for the first time.
Here are the games on our radar this week.
3 p.m. ET, ESPN+ and SECN+
A first look at some familiar faces
Nick Saban has been strategic when it comes to the transfer portal. Instead of going all out, he has utilized it more like the NFL does free agency, targeting specific needs. And, in what should be a surprise to exactly no one, he has landed some of the best players available. Remember LSU All-American cornerback Eli Ricks? He’s at Alabama now, effectively replacing Josh Jobe. How about Georgia Tech All-ACC running back/return specialist Jahmyr Gibbs? He’s at Alabama, too, filling in for Brian Robinson Jr. The Crimson Tide lost to Georgia in the CFP National Championship Game. A few weeks later, Saban signed the Bulldogs’ top receiver, Jermaine Burton, who should help make up for the loss of Jameson Williams and John Metchie. — Alex Scarborough
Noon ET, ESPN+ and SECN+
Which players are going to be receiving threats?
Treylon Burks perhaps wasn’t one of the most well-known names at the wide receiver position in the country, but you better believe he meant a lot to Sam Pittman’s offense. In 12 games, Burks had 1,104 yards and 11 touchdowns. One player to keep an eye on will be Warren Thompson, the Razorbacks’ most experienced receiver returning from the 2021 squad with 19 catches for 304 yards and two touchdowns. Another will be Oklahoma transfer Jadon Haselwood, who led the Sooners with 39 receptions a year ago and added six touchdowns. The Razorbacks have four starters back on the offensive line (though they need to figure out left tackle), so the hope becomes that quarterback KJ Jefferson has enough weapons around him to make the offense click in 2022. — Harry Lyles Jr.
6 p.m. ET, ACC Network and the ESPN App
How will Duke look in its first spring game under Mike Elko?
First-year coach Mike Elko knows he has some rebuilding to do after Duke struggled to a 3-9 record last year, leading to the departure of longtime coach David Cutcliffe. There are a number of issues for the Blue Devils to start to fix — too many turnovers, too many missed tackles, not enough big plays on offense and too many big plays allowed on defense. Among the key areas to fill: quarterback and running back, where the Blue Devils lost All-ACC player Mataeo Durant (1,241 yards, 9 TDs). Duke has only two scholarship quarterbacks available this spring — Jordan Moore and Riley Leonard — and they are splitting the reps. Offensive coordinator Kevin Johns said he wants to see both players settle down a little bit more in the offense. Defensively, Duke has put a huge emphasis on returning to the fundamentals and tackling. A year ago, Duke allowed an average of 7.1 yards per play and nearly 40 points per game. Elko, who was a stellar defensive coordinator at various stops before coming to Duke, is sure to change that. — Andrea Adelson
1 p.m. ET, ESPN2 and the ESPN App
Who stands out in the title defense?
The Bulldogs are coming off a national championship season and will send plenty of players to the NFL. For that reason, Georgia is going to look different, especially on the defensive side of the football. The defensive line was arguably the Bulldogs’ signature, and with Jordan Davis, Devonte Wyatt and Travon Walker gone, Jalen Carter is viewed as the next star. Seeing who else prospers around him will be worth keeping an eye on. As a P.S.: While the offense will look pretty familiar, watch out for Dominick Blaylock, who is supposedly the healthiest he has been since 2019 and could be another great weapon for Stetson Bennett. — Lyles Jr.
Noon ET, ACC Network and the ESPN App
How will the excitement surrounding Mario Cristobal translate into what we see in the spring game?
There is a new vibe surrounding the Miami football program now that Cristobal has taken over. Miami will play its spring game at the home of MLS club Inter Miami CF because Hard Rock Stadium is unavailable — and the Hurricanes announced earlier in the week the game is sold out. That is just one small indication of how much the fans in South Florida are anticipating what Cristobal and his staff are going to bring to the table. But to answer the age-old question about when Miami will return to competing for championships, the Hurricanes have to win games more consistently than they have over the past two decades. With quarterback Tyler Van Dyke returning to lead the offense, expectations are high, but there is work to be done. Two major areas to keep an eye on Saturday are receiver and defensive line, where Miami needs to find standouts and build depth. Cristobal believes the offensive line might be the most improved part of the team, so that bears watching as well. — Adelson
2 p.m. ET, BTN
Who carries the load at running back with Kenneth Walker III gone?
Mel Tucker showed the immediate dividends the transfer portal could pay in 2021 with an 11-win season and a victory over Pittsburgh in the Peach Bowl. Kenneth Walker III’s arrival from Wake Forest went as well as anyone could have expected, with 1,636 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns. With Walker now off to the NFL, Tucker went to the portal again this offseason, bringing in Jalen Berger from Wisconsin and Jarek Broussard, who played for Tucker at Colorado prior to Tucker’s departure for East Lansing. Jordon Simmons and Elijah Collins, who combined for 380 yards and no touchdowns, lead a group of internal options for offensive coordinator Jay Johnson. Even with quarterback Payton Thorne and wide receiver Jayden Reed returning, Tucker has emphasized his desire for a strong running attack, and who steps up early on might dictate the Spartans’ fortunes in 2022. — Blake Baumgartner
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Noon ET, ESPN+ and SECN+
Is Will Rogers ready to be a star?
He might already be. You might have missed it last season, given Bryce Young’s Heisman Trophy run at Alabama and Matt Corral’s action-packed pairing with Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss, but Rogers threw for the most yards per game in the SEC. He also had the highest completion percentage of any starter in the conference, and the second-most completions of 20-plus yards. Another year in Mike Leach’s system should only make him better. But there’s one glaring concern that will hopefully be answered somewhat by the spring game: Who will block for him? Remember, both offensive tackles, Charles Cross and Scott Lashley, are gone. — Scarborough
Noon ET, BTN
How does the new defense look?
The defense is the biggest question for Ohio State this season after the Buckeyes finished No. 29 in rushing yards allowed per game, No. 97 in passing yards allowed per game and No. 61 in total yards allowed per game. Ryan Day made coaching changes on the defensive side and brought in Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State to fix the defense. Unfortunately for fans, Day told reporters the defensive playcalling in the spring game will be very basic, so there might not be much to learn at this point from observation. Knowles is aiming to fix the pass rush, the secondary and the unit as a whole, as it didn’t perform up to par this past season. — Tom VanHaaren
2 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network
What does progress look like?
Ever since Jonathan Smith arrived after the disastrous Gary Andersen experiment, the Beavers have been on an upward trajectory. Setting aside the 2020 COVID-19 season, Oregon State has gone 2-10, 5-7 and 7-6 under Smith, including a 5-4 mark in Pac-12 play last year (the first winning record in conference since 2012). This year is a bit different: The Beavers have to replace first-team All-Pac-12 players RB B.J. Baylor and center Nathan Eldridge. One player to keep an eye on in the spring game is early-enrollee freshman RB Damien Martinez. — Kyle Bonagura
South Carolina Gamecocks
7 p.m. ET, ESPN+ and SECN+
Let’s see how Spencer Rattler looks
Shane Beamer landed one of the top players from the transfer portal this offseason in former Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler. Rattler was a Heisman favorite going into last season, before losing his job to Caleb Williams after a rough start. Now Rattler gets a reset in Columbia under Beamer, who not only got the most out of his South Carolina team in 2021, but has prior experience with Rattler from his time at Oklahoma. Along with Rattler, seeing who emerges around him will be something to keep an eye on as the Gamecocks try to boost an offense that was second-to-last in total yards as well as points per game last season in the SEC. — Lyles Jr.
2 p.m., ACC Network and the ESPN App
How will Wake Forest improve defensively?
This might be the storyline for the entire 2022 season, but the spring game will give us our first glimpse at the defense under new coordinator Brad Lambert, in his second stint at Wake Forest. While the Deacs put together a historic 11-win season a year ago, their defense also let them down at times and gave up far too many yards and big plays. So coach Dave Clawson made a change and went with Lambert, whose past successes (especially at Wake under Jim Grobe) made him a hire who was widely applauded. One key area to keep an eye on is linebacker, where there is not as much depth as one would like. One player to keep an eye on moving forward is defensive tackle Kobie Turner, a transfer from Richmond who had 27 straight starts for the Spiders and was an All-Colonial Athletic Association first-team selection two straight seasons. — Adelson
2 p.m. ET, ESPN+ and SECN+
Nick Howell’s defense, and the energy it brings
Clark Lea is entering his second year as Vanderbilt’s head coach, but it will be the first year for defensive coordinator Nick Howell. Howell joined the staff in January after six seasons at Virginia, and set the expectations for his group in March. “This spring we kind of know what to expect,” he said. “We know it’s high intensity, total effort. We know what to expect so we’re just going to come out here and play all-out every snap. We know the plays, we know everything, there’s no guessing. We just have to go out and do it.” Sustaining that energy is going to be important for a Vanderbilt team that’s likely to be at the bottom of the SEC again in 2022, but will try to work its way in the right direction from a 2-10 2021 season. — Lyles Jr.
4 p.m., ACC Network
What will the Hokies do at quarterback?
Truth be told, that is just one of the many questions first-year coach Brent Pry has had to answer as the Hokies headed into the offseason. But since quarterback is the most high-profile position — and Virginia Tech has struggled there over the past several seasons — it is the one most fans want to know. Two transfers are competing for the job: Jason Brown (South Carolina) and Grant Wells (Marshall), and Pry recently said he would love to have a starter named after spring wraps while also conceding that might not happen. Connor Blumrick, who played quarterback last season, has been practicing this spring at receiver. The Hokies have also made several position switches across the defense, which should come as no surprise because Pry is a former defensive coordinator. But it also speaks to the need to shake some things up on a roster that has holes that must be filled. — Adelson
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