As Florida fans watched the Gators’ spring game, a spark of hope was ignited as the offense showed flashes of excitement and fun. It was just a spring game, yes, but those same fans have sat and watched an offense that has sputtered season after season.
The last time Florida’s offense ranked in the top 50 in either scoring or total yards was in 2010, when Urban Meyer was the coach. In fact, Florida’s average ranking among FBS programs from 2011 to 2017 in each category was 90th and 107th.
Those numbers are, in large part, why Dan Mullen is now the coach. The last time Mullen was on the Gators’ sideline, for the 2008 season, Florida’s offense ranked fourth in scoring and 15th in total yards. Mullen is now hoping to revive a stagnant offense. And he has brought some familiar faces to help him.
Chief among them is quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, who played for Mullen at Utah and coached with Mullen at Mississippi State from 2014 to 2016. Johnson, along with the other offensive coaches, has the daunting task of bringing life to a position group that has had immense struggles for quite a few seasons.
“I think the biggest thing is just setting an expectation from the very beginning,” Johnson said. “From the position, setting the expectation and whatever happened in the past is over. You have an opportunity to start from scratch, learn the system and develop from the system so you can perform at a high level.”
There are three quarterbacks on the roster -- Feleipe Franks, Kyle Trask and Emory Jones. Jones is only a freshman, and Trask is yet to see game action. That leaves Franks as the only one who has played a down of college football.
Jones was added to the 2018 recruiting class late in the process, after Mullen and his staff were hired, and there wasn’t much film on the other two quarterbacks for Johnson and the coaches to find out what they really had before spring ball started.
“We were swamped with recruiting when we first got here, so any free moment we had, we were trying to finish up that 2018 class,” Johnson said. “But I was able to go back and just watch all of the games, pull some clips of Kyle Trask before he got hurt. Watch those guys and see what they could do, what they were doing on offense and get a feel for the personnel going into it.”
Because the offensive coaches were familiar with each other at their stop at Mississippi State, installing the offense wasn’t a concern; it was just figuring out what the quarterbacks were capable of and how they would adjust to the new system.
Franks completed 54.6 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions in what was an up-and-down season in 2017. His first season didn’t go as planned; and as Florida sputtered to a 4-7 record, naturally, that weighed on Franks mentally.
This restart was crucial for Franks and his confidence, and he has bought in completely to what the new staff is trying to implement in Gainesville.
“It’s on the right track, and these guys really know what they’re talking about,” Franks said. “Where to give guys freedom, with the playmakers we have, give them the freedom to get into space and make a play. They know how to get them open, and that’s one of the biggest things they’re doing for us is creating an offense within our offense and letting the playmakers go free.”
The full offense hasn’t been implemented yet, but Johnson is optimistic about what all three quarterbacks have done to study and stay ahead in the playbook. Franks and Trask seem to be ahead of Jones, but no starting quarterback has been named as of yet.
That’s not a concern for Johnson, as he believes reps are going to be the biggest help to each quarterback. As time goes on and the players get more and more familiar with the system, that’s when the real progress will be made.
“The beauty about our offensive staff is everybody has been together for such a long time, we kind of know the ins and outs of what we want to do in great detail,” Johnson said. “Being around each other, some of the stuff we have in is some of the stuff we had in my freshman year at Utah. For the most part, the install has been seamless, and we understand what the potential problems are and what the potential questions will be.”
That familiarity has Florida fans optimistic, as well, and hoping that Mullen can recreate some of the magic they saw when he was the offensive coordinator under Meyer -- or even some of the success this staff saw at Mississippi State.
The fans got their first real look at what this offense is moving toward, but the players have been seeing the progression since the staff arrived on campus. The staff and the players are hoping that history repeats itself and this offense gets back toward the top of the rankings.
“Coach Johnson told me there’s going to be slumps in practice when you learn a new offense, but when you get over the slump, you’re going to go straight up,” Franks said. “Once the offense gains confidence in its coaches, it goes straight up from there. It’s a process that other people don’t see of the coaches trusting the players, the players trusting the offense and the quarterback trusting himself, and we’re on the right track.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts' expression never changed throughout the course of what had to be a frustrating final scrimmage of the spring Saturday when he completed 19 of 37 passes for 195 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. The junior from Houston remained as straight-faced as ever, even as third-string quarterback Mac Jones outperformed him, winning co-Most Valuable Player, while Hurts settled for a share of the Jerry Duncan "I Like to Practice" Award.
As the more than a dozen awards were handed out following the scrimmage, Hurts took a knee and didn't say a word. He has never been particularly outgoing, but this felt different. During the upswing of 2016, as he came from nowhere to take over the starting job as a true freshman and win SEC Offensive Player of the Year, his quietness was taken for focus. As a sophomore, when he was responsible for 25 total touchdowns while throwing just one interception, it was more of the same stone-cold determination.
Now, after getting benched during the second half of the national championship game and seeing his former backup, Tua Tagovailoa, become an overnight sensation, Hurts' body language came off differently. Media and fans had questions about his confidence.
Saturday, it was as if Hurts had come full circle. When no one thought much of him as a freshman, he used the A-Day scrimmage to capture everyone's attention by completing 11 of 15 passes, including the game-winning touchdown with less than three minutes remaining. Almost overnight, he became one of the most promising young QBs in college football.
But two years and two national championship trips later, he has found himself fighting off another young, promising quarterback, Tagovailoa. Two days before A-Day, Hurts had to read how his father told Bleacher Report that the son would transfer if he didn't win the starting job again. And with Tagovailoa sidelined by injury and an opportunity to pull ahead in the competition in front of him, Hurts struggled, failing to find the end zone.
Give him credit. Hurts hasn't lashed out once, even as criticism aimed at him has mounted. During the game, he didn't berate receivers, even though they cost him at least three receptions. Nor did he tear into his offensive line, which allowed him to be sacked seven times, not to mention all the unrecorded pressures. Hurts remained stoic through it all.
Head coach Nick Saban tried to bring some of that context to the table after the scrimmage.
"There was way too much pressure in the pocket for the quarterback to be able to operate like we would like," he said.
Saban said he wasn't disappointed in Hurts' performance -- not that it will do much good when the last impression we have of Hurts from now until the start of the season is the interception he threw at the end A-Day.
Never mind Hurts' full body of work, including a 26-2 record, 40 passing touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. Never mind that he has also rushed for 1,808 yards and 21 touchdowns. When Saban benched him during the national championship game and Tagovailoa threw the winning touchdown in overtime, everything changed.
It has become a battle of two years' worth of evidence versus one half. And, according to senior running back Damien Harris, what that's worth "depends on who you ask."
"You'd have to ask Coach Saban," Harris said. "Obviously, Jalen has a great body of work, and he's accomplished a lot of great things here. Tua obviously had a great second half in the national championship game, and so everyone knows he's a great player, as well. But to be honest, all that stuff is in the past, and all that matters really is how we progress moving forward and how both guys progress. Regardless of what either of them has done in the past, I don't think that's something that should be a deciding factor for either of them. Whoever is a better player, that's who the coaches are going to put on the field."
When that decision will be made, however, is anyone's guess.
Someone will need to make a choice, whether it's Saban, Hurts or Tagovailoa. It would be in Saban's best interest to let the competition go into the first few games of the season, but that's beginning to feel less likely as the prospect of transferring becomes a more tangible option for whoever finishes as the backup.
Hold on tightly because even though the spring is over, the competition continues. Hurts might have looked shaky during A-Day, but there's a reason Tagovailoa rushed back after breaking his finger during the first day of practice. After all, why play through the pain and risk further injury unless you felt you had to?
Tagovailoa might have more upside as a passer, more potential to unlock the entire offense. But he's still an unknown. He still has played only one meaningful half of college football, and even that featured one near-interception and one nearly devastating sack in overtime.
Hurts might have looked bad on A-Day, but it's worth remembering that Tagovailoa couldn't even play. As coaches are fond of pointing out, availability means something. If anything, his absence meant the competition couldn't move forward, and that's not good for either quarterback.
At this point, handicap the race at your own peril. Saturday was rough for Hurts, but it wasn't the be-all end-all.
As Harris explained, nothing that happened before means much of anything now. Tagovailoa might be the next great Alabama quarterback, and Hurts might not be ready to hand over the reins just yet.
Only one thing is certain: The clock is ticking for both.
CLEMSON, S.C. -- Hunter Renfrow was in the Clemson Tigers' weight room early in the offseason and found a group of the Tigers safeties working out. They were doing power cleans -- lifting barbells from the ground to overhead -- hitting numbers in the upper 200s, which looked about right.
Then the new quarterback sauntered over and tried it, too.
"He's power cleaning 285 like it's nothing," Renfrow said of Clemson's uber-prospect, Trevor Lawrence. "He's just physically ready."
Long before Lawrence arrived on Clemson's campus in January, fans had pronounced him "ready."
Dabo Swinney said Lawrence possessed all the tools Deshaun Watson had upon arrival, only Lawrence was a better physical specimen as a true freshman.
The recruiting websites all gushed about Lawrence, who broke one Georgia high school record after another -- many of which had been previously held by Watson.
And the fans swooned. With his long, flowing locks and cocksure demeanor, Lawrence is a QB apparently sent from central casting.
There's just one snag in the coronation -- Kelly Bryant isn't exactly planning to pass the baton.
"It's my job, man," Bryant said.
Hard to argue that point. Bryant led Clemson to an ACC title and the College Football Playoff last year, so the idea he'd be set aside for a true freshman seems a bit unrealistic.
Except that this true freshman is Lawrence, as refined a prospect as Clemson has ever had at the position. And in last year's playoff, Bryant and the Tigers' offense abruptly ceased to move the football.
Then there's the additional plot line that came after Clemson's Sugar Bowl loss to Alabama. The Crimson Tide faced off against Georgia in the national title game, trailed at the half behind struggling starting QB Jalen Hurts, then exploded in the second half after Nick Saban benched his veteran for a freshman.
And if it works for Saban, shouldn't Swinney be willing to do the same?
"It worked out then, but it doesn't always work out," Renfrow said of the comparisons to Alabama. "Kelly's been so consistent this spring and done a great job."
So that's the big question. Does Clemson value consistency or potential? Did the Tigers learn where their ceiling was with Bryant when they struggled against Alabama last season? And even if so, is it worth rolling the dice that Lawrence is able to lead them back to the playoff?
The truth is, those outside the program know precious little about Swinney's real mindset. Saturday's spring game will be fans' first live look at Lawrence in a Clemson uniform, while Bryant continues to chug along, shrugging off his next round of critics.
"I proved I could do this, silence the critics. There are still those who will question. But I know what I did last year, and that's confidence for me."
Swinney has been blunt in his assessments throughout. Bryant remains atop the depth chart. Lawrence's future is bright. What happens in September is still to be determined by what happens over the next four months.
But if Lawrence's star shines brightly on Saturday, the pressure to hand the job to the new kid will only mount, and a long offseason of Lawrence-mania could open up a serious debate when fall camp opens.
LOS ANGELES -- At the Rose Bowl, one of the hallowed places where Keith Jackson felt most at home, friends and family of the late broadcaster will hold a celebration of life in his honor on Sunday.
The event is free and open to the public, with doors opening at 3 p.m. local time.
Considered the voice of college football, Jackson provided a unique soundtrack for the sport for more than five decades before he retired in 2006. Jackson died in January at age 89.
Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts was Jackson’s broadcast partner on television later in Jackson's career, and he will be one of the speakers at the event on Sunday.
Other speakers include Bob Griese, Todd Harris, Lynn Swann, Hall of Fame basketball player Ann Meyers Drysdale, and Jason Gesser, former quarterback at Washington State University, Jackson’s alma mater.
Tim Brant, who worked with Jackson as a college football analyst at ABC, will serve as master of ceremonies.
“To be in the same business, and then in the same room and the same booth with him, it just was very special,” Fouts said. “The words to really describe our relationship are many, and it starts with friendship.
“He showed me a lot. He helped me a lot. And we enjoyed each other’s company a lot.”
Fouts talked about the unique way in which Jackson painted a picture for college football viewers on game days, and that kept the former Chargers quarterback on his toes.
“I think the big thing was to pay attention to what he was saying and to appreciate how he was saying it,” Fouts said. “Giving him space to do his thing, and he respected my space -- that’s what made for a good team.
"He said things differently and colorfully, and sometimes it would take me out of what I was going to say, because what I was going to say would just sound so stupid,” Fouts said with a laugh.
What got through to viewers who listened to Jackson was a sincerity in his approach, Fouts said.
“He was genuine, unique and kind,” Fouts said. “His kindness came across in his broadcast. He was fair to both sides. He was, just as they say in the business, a good listen, because it was smooth, accurate and informative.”
Folks who attend the memorial service will get to hear stories and anecdotes about Jackson from his friends and former colleagues, and video that perhaps they haven't heard, along with Jackson’s signature voice.
“It’s really going to be special,” Fouts said. “And to have it at the Rose Bowl is just apropos.”
Put those Auburn championship hopes on hold for the time being.
Maybe they’ll be ready for pickup by the start of preseason camp, but not now. Not after the way the spring has played out for the Tigers thus far.
When you have a head coach defending his strength and conditioning program, as Gus Malzahn did over the weekend, you know things aren’t going well. A quick scan of Auburn’s inactive list reveals at least one linebacker, one defensive end, two receivers and a pair of centers dealing with injuries. And that’s to say nothing of star quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who had surgery on his left shoulder earlier this offseason and appears unlikely to participate in Saturday’s spring game in a meaningful way.
If there was ever a time to deal with a rash of injuries, of course it’s now. It might even help develop depth over the long term, if you’re looking for a silver lining in all of this. But that in itself doesn’t make this an ideal spring. Not when you’re a team that many consider to be a threat to come out of the SEC as a preseason top-15 pick, and especially not when you open the season against another top-15 team in Washington.
Keep in mind that Malzahn’s offense had issues to work through even before the injury bug hit. Replacing four starters on the offensive line was difficult enough before center Kaleb Kim suffered a sprained ankle, according to AL.com, and the challenge of bolstering the receiver corps was only exacerbated when starters Eli Stove and Will Hastings were sidelined with ACL injuries. It would have been helpful to see how Stidham rebounds from a bad couple of games to end last season, in which he committed a combined three turnovers in the SEC championship game and Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, but that will have to wait until he’s cleared to participate fully again.
Meanwhile, there’s a running back battle that needs to play out. Without former starters and 1,000-yard rushers Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway, the competition is wide open. Former Baylor transfer Kam Martin, who led all returning backs with 410 rushing yards last season, could step into a bigger role, but at 5-foot-10 and 182 pounds he doesn’t exactly have prototypical size. Rising sophomores Malik Miller and Devan Barrett and freshmen JaTarvious Whitlow and Asa Martin look like options as well, but Tuesday brought another wrinkle when Auburn Undercover reported that Barrett will move to receiver full time.
So, yeah, there are a lot of things for Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey to sort out in the coming weeks and months.
Don’t be surprised if the spring game is fairly one-sided as a result, but the good news for Auburn is that it might say as much about what’s missing on offense as the quality of the defense. Whereas the offensive line is replacing four starters, the defensive line welcomes back three key figures in Dontavius Russell, Marlon Davidson and Derrick Brown.
Clemson’s defensive line will get plenty of acclaim this offseason, and rightfully so considering how well it performed last year and how much it returns, but don’t sleep on Auburn up front. Throw in sophomore defensive end Nick Coe and pass-rushers T.D. Moultry and Markaviest “Big Kat” Bryant, and the Tigers should be able to get after the quarterback this season.
Tre Williams may be gone, but the linebacker corps is in good position as well with returning starters Darrell Williams and Deshaun Davis. The one thing on defense to pay close attention to during the spring game will be the secondary, which lost star cornerback Carlton Davis as well as veteran safeties Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts.
Taking a step back, the whole dynamic of the passing game will feel different come Saturday afternoon -- different quarterbacks, different receivers, different defensive backs.
With so many new faces on the field and so many familiar faces sidelined by injuries this spring, it’s hard to tell exactly where Auburn should fall in the SEC pecking order.
Maybe the Tigers are the best threat to defending champion Alabama. Maybe they can beat Washington during the first week of the season and open eyes nationally.
For now, though, Auburn remains a mystery.
When Dana Holgorsen bolted Oklahoma State for West Virginia, he left behind the foundation of what would become the nation’s best offense in 2011.
Seven years later, armed with one of college football’s top returning quarterbacks in Will Grier and a host of dynamic playmakers, Holgorsen once again has the foundation of a unit that could lay claim as the country’s top offensive attack.
“We’re holding ourselves to a high standard because we know how good we can be,” Grier told ESPN.com Monday. “And I think we can be pretty good.”
Those standards begin with Grier, who, after overcoming a messy transfer from Florida, re-emerged last season with a breakout campaign for the Mountaineers, who will finish up spring practice Saturday with their spring game.
Until he suffered a season-ending broken finger injury last November, Grier was second nationally with 34 touchdown throws and third with 3,490 passing yards.
As Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Lamar Jackson and Mason Rudolph have moved on to the NFL, Grier has risen into the pantheon of premier college quarterbacks.
"He looks like a fifth-year quarterback to me," Holgorsen told reporters last week. "It's his second year in this system, and he's much more comfortable. His timing with the guys is as good as I've seen. So from a quarterback perspective, it's as good as anyone in the country."
The same could be said of West Virginia's receiving corps.
Leading the way is David Sills V, who led the country with 18 touchdown receptions last season on the way to becoming a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver.
Famously once the 13-year-old quarterback whom Lane Kiffin offered a scholarship to USC after watching only one highlight clip, Sills has blossomed since giving up throwing passes a year ago and putting his whole focus on catching them instead.
Yet, even as prolific as Sills was, he didn’t even lead his own team in receptions or yards last season. Complementing Sills’ downfield prowess, fellow rising senior Gary Jennings provided Grier with a go-to possession outlet and quietly topped the Big 12 with 97 receptions to go along with 1,096 yards.
“You’ve got a lot of yards returning there,” said offensive coordinator Jake Spavital. “They have a shot, when it’s all said and done, at being talked about as one of the better groups there.”
A pair of intriguing transfers could bolster that case.
Having sat out last year, former Alabama receiver T.J. Simmons is set to join the rotation, where he could provide the passing game with another dimension. Since arriving in Morgantown, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound sophomore has turned heads, especially with his physicality on jump balls.
“I love his mentality,” Grier said. “It’s been fun watching him. I’m excited to see what he can do.”
The Mountaineers are also excited to see what element former Miami tight end Jovani Haskins can bring, as well.
Since Holgorsen took over, the Mountaineers have largely gone without using tight ends in the offense. That included last season, which opened opportunities for opposing defenses to tee off on Grier while diminishing the potential of West Virginia's running game.
This season, Spavital could have the antidote to both by utilizing the combination of Haskins and Trevon Wesco. While Wesco is a block-first tight end, Haskins, at 6-4, 240 pounds, has the speed to flex out in the mold of 2017 Mackey Award winner Mark Andrews of Oklahoma -- all of which figures to give the Mountaineers a whole spread of looks they didn't have in the arsenal last year.
“There aren’t many guys with his size and stature [who] can run like he can,” Spavital said of Haskins. “That’s where I think you can start creating mismatches.”
Of course, to maximize its mismatch potential, West Virginia will have to improve upon a ground game that ranked just fifth in the Big 12 in yards per carry last season and delivered only four rushes of 30 yards or more (Oklahoma, by comparison, produced 17).
While the interior of the line remains a work in progress this spring, the Mountaineers have a pair of proven cogs coming back at the bookends in Yodny Cajuste and Colton McKivitz. Spavital is also bullish on a three-prong running back rotation that will feature zone runner Kennedy McKoy, power back Martell Pettaway and diminutive big-play freshman Alec Sinkfield, who, according to Spavital, has been “ripping it up” this spring.
“We have a lot of guys [who] can make plays,” Grier said.
With so many playmakers around Grier, the Mountaineers have the pieces to put up numbers with anyone.
The pressing question for them, though, is whether they will execute well enough to deliver the wins to contend in the Big 12.
Until Grier’s finger injury, West Virginia's offense was seventh nationally in yards per game.
But the Mountaineers also ranked all the way down at 101st in third-down-conversions, 94th in turnovers and 37th in offensive penalties.
“We were very explosive, but we were also terrible on crucial downs, turnovers and penalties,” Spavital said.
For that reason, improving in efficiency has been the overriding emphasis in Morgantown this spring.
All of which comes back to Grier.
“He’s got that playmaking gene in him where he wants to extend plays like Johnny Manziel where he could easily just make the routine play,” Spavital said. “You don’t want to handcuff him too much because he can make spectacular plays. But we’re challenging him to know when to make the routine one.”
And if Grier can hone the right combination of chain-moving checkdowns and touchdown-making heaves? The Mountaineers could finally shoot their way to the top of the Big 12 -- thanks to a loaded offense and one of the game's proven gunslingers.
“We still have a long way to go,” Grier said. “But it’s not a stretch to say we can be the best in the country -- because that’s what we’re striving to be.”
The SEC import has spent his first few months in a Michigan winter waiting on an important call from the NCAA. A good chunk of the quarterback's new neighbors in Ann Arbor have been waiting, too. Patterson announced his plans to play for the Wolverines in early December; the school formally asked the NCAA to clear him for immediate competition in February. They had not yet received a response as Patterson suited up with his new teammates for the first time Friday when the Wolverines open spring practice.
It is a wait-and-see kind of year for everyone at Michigan. Waiting can be a dull affair.
The offseason victories, noisy recruiting tactics and convention-be-damned attitude that ushered in the promise of a bright future during Jim Harbaugh’s first few years at his alma mater are no longer viewed by just about anyone as definite harbingers of success. The skeptics who want those things to translate to championships in the fall before buying into Michigan’s return to prominence are no longer just outsiders and enemies.
And so those things have largely gone away. Gone are the Twitter spats, the sleepovers, the videos of fully clothed cannonballs. Michigan and Harbaugh haven’t made much of a splash of any kind since the 2017 season came to a close at 8-5. A quiet stretch off the field now makes way for a month of actual practice. While questions about the program’s trajectory will have to wait for the fall for a meaningful response, Michigan can at least now begin to chip away at figuring out some answers for itself.
The offense needs to improve if the Wolverines are going to close the gap with the Big Ten's other elite outfits.
“We need to do better as a football team,” Harbaugh said back in December. "We’ve got to win all our games. That’s what we’re striving for.”
He’s made plenty of changes to that end. Patterson’s arrival could help. The former five-star prospect who made a strong first impression at Ole Miss before a leg injury sidelined him for the last half of 2017 will be stiff competition for the other quarterbacks already on the roster. If he’s cleared to play in 2018, though, there is no guarantee that he’ll even win the starting job. Is Patterson the magic salve to fix a group that finished 91st in the nation last season in scoring offense? Wait and see.
Last season's offensive line -- a group that allowed 2.77 sacks per game and had trouble moving the ball against tougher rush defenses -- was often a source of frustration. Michigan’s coaching staff struggled to solve the five-piece puzzle to get the Wolverines moving consistently forward.
The two men in charge of coaching that line, Greg Frey and longtime Harbaugh staff member Tim Drevno, are no longer around. Taking their place is Ed Warinner, who has a history of producing NFL-caliber linemen during past stops at Notre Dame and Ohio State. Proven line gurus have come and gone without fixing one of the fundamental problems that has vexed Michigan’s coaches since the tail end of the Rich Rodriguez era. What will Warinner’s impact be? Wait and see.
Drevno also served as Michigan’s offensive coordinator, and his departure to coach running backs at Southern California means that Harbaugh has reason to revisit how the staff is organized on that side of the ball. Former Florida head coach Jim McElwain and former Central Michigan assistant Sherrone Moore are the other newcomers on the offense. Spring ball might provide some clarity on how that part of the staff will be structured.
Harbaugh has always been and will be involved in calling plays and laying out an identity for his team’s offenses, but he now has an experienced playcaller and coordinator at his disposal with McElwain. Michigan fans will remember the work he did in helping Nick Saban win a national title at Alabama and molding top-notch wide receivers at several stops in his career. They might also remember the Gators team that Michigan beat last September that struggled for three years to find consistent success on offense. Which is a better representation of how McElwain will affect the Wolverines? Wait and see.
Michigan added an elite transfer quarterback and hired five new coaches since December. And yet, relatively, it has been a quiet offseason in Ann Arbor.
There haven’t been any feather-ruffling controversies stirred up and dissected by talk radio and other football opiners. Few, if any, saw the staff overhaul as a move of panic or reason to declare that Harbaugh’s job is in any jeopardy. Not even the three-week cameo by Dan Enos -- who left town shortly after unpacking his bags for the quarterback-coaching job at Alabama -- was seen as cause to roll out the frequent criticism that Harbaugh is an unsustainably demanding boss who wears his colleagues thin.
There isn’t much use in bold proclamations around Michigan this season; most of them have already been made at one point or another. Spring ball might provide some clue as to how the Wolverines will try to do better, but for the actual results, they’ll have to wait and see.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Mark Richt stands in what will soon be his old office at Miami’s Hecht Athletic Center and gazes through the window as construction workers bring to life what might as well have been a dream when Richt returned to his alma mater as head coach in December 2015.
The Hurricanes’ new $34 million indoor practice facility and football operations building are scheduled for completion in August. Richt still recalls what longtime Miami baseball coach Jim Morris, who will retire following this season, told him at the groundbreaking ceremony.
Morris looked at Richt and said, “You don’t understand. This is a miracle, what’s happening right now.”
The Hurricanes, who have long lagged behind in the facilities arms race, are finally getting up to speed, and it’s no accident that $28 million of the total cost was raised in nine months after Richt got the job. Not only did Richt play a leading role in the fundraising effort, helping to secure the $14 million lead gift from Carol Soffer and her family, but he also ponied up $1 million of his own money.
This is home for Richt, and so was Georgia before he was pushed out in November 2015, and he’s very clear about why he’s back where it all began for him in college 40 years ago as a backup quarterback to Hall of Famer Jim Kelly.
“I keep telling people that I didn’t come here just because it was my alma mater,” Richt told ESPN. “I came here because you can win. If you do things right and get the support you need, you can win. It’s been proven. The players have always been here. You just have to make sure you get the right ones, and a lot of the other things they used to ding us on, our facilities and things like that, they’re not going to be able to do that anymore with this brand-new building and the improvements to Hard Rock Stadium.”
Richt turns casually to the shelves on the wall behind his desk and points to some of The U’s most cherished memorabilia from the glory years.
“There’s five national championship footballs signed by the national championship coaches here,” Richt said. “It can be done again, and that’s what we’re working toward every day: to bring this program back to where we all expect it to be.”
In just two seasons, Richt has Miami racing in that direction. The Hurricanes won 10 games last season for the first time since 2003 and captured its first ACC Coastal Division title. The finish to the season wasn’t what Richt or anybody in these parts wanted. The Hurricanes lost their last three games, including a 38-3 blowout loss to Clemson in the ACC championship game. But Miami climbed as high as No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings, signaling to the rest of the college football world that The U is indeed relevant again for all of the right reasons.
The challenge now is going from relevant status to championship status.
“We limped into the end of the year,” Richt said of last season’s disappointing finish. “Our three best offensive players got hurt, and we don’t have a lot of depth still, dudes that can step right in there and play championship ball. That’s where we need to catch up.”
The good news is that the returns on the recruiting trail have been promising. Miami finished No. 8 nationally in ESPN’s recruiting rankings for the 2018 class, ahead of in-state rivals Florida State (11th) and Florida (13th) and just a couple of notches below the teams that have accounted for the past three national titles, Alabama (sixth) and Clemson (fifth).
Richt is equally encouraged by the way the 2019 class is coming along. The Hurricanes already have 12 commitments, 11 from the state of Florida.
“If we recruit like we’ve been recruiting for four or five seasons in a row, then we’ll have that kind of depth, the kind you see at Clemson and Alabama,” Richt said. “At least we’re battling Florida, Florida State, Clemson, Georgia, Alabama and Auburn. Everybody is down here in South Florida trying to recruit players, so if you get your share of the local kids and the kids in the state, you’re going to have a team that has the ingredients to win championships.”
As much as anything, Richt offers stability to a Miami program that has sorely lacked it, be it a result of coaching turnover, NCAA sanctions stemming from the Nevin Shapiro scandal or a roster in flux.
“When I got here, Miami was still on probation,” Richt said. “We still haven’t gotten our [scholarship] numbers up to 85. Last year we were at 73 but could have been higher. It just takes time to get your numbers back. You have a max in any given year, and that can only get you so far, and then you have attrition. You can’t make it up in one year. We lost kids to the NFL, lost kids who knew they weren’t going to play here and wanted to go someplace else and play, which happens everywhere.
“You will also have some discipline issues: not guys who were bad guys, but guys who weren’t going to do what they were supposed to do -- go to class, be prepared, be respectful and do your best. That’s really all I’m asking.”
In return, Richt, 58, is promising that he has put down roots, despite who else might call. Like in his 15 seasons at Georgia, Richt had inquiries this offseason about other jobs.
“But I never let it get to a point where I talk to them about the job,” Richt said. “It’s happened my whole career. I never once have tried to leverage another job for more money. I don’t think that’s right. The day we took the job, my mentality has always been, ‘If you’re the head coach, too many lives depend on you.’ If I just say on a whim, ‘You know, I think I’d rather go here,’ well, all these recruits you said something to, all these coaches you said something to, what about them?
“Every time you hire a coach, you’re taking the coach, his wife and his kids on an adventure. They’re trusting you and believing in you enough to become a staff member. I don’t want to just walk into a room and say, ‘Hey, guys, thanks for helping me get to where I really want to be.’ It’s the same thing with these kids. They’ve had enough disappointment, enough men leave their lives. You’re trying to build trust, and then you bolt on them because of money or because of whatever? I’ve just never been able to get past that part of it.”
Richt isn’t judging. He certainly understands coaches “wanting to stay ahead of the chopping block” if they’ve been somewhere for a while and there’s a push to get rid of them. He was well aware that he was on that “chopping block” at Georgia, but he had other priorities that were more important to him than getting out of town before he received a pink slip.
“I got to raise my kids in one city for 15 years,” Richt said. “My daughter, Anya, went from pre-K to graduating high school in the same school. You can’t put a price on that.”
Although he never would have left Georgia had he not been fired, Richt is grateful for his time in Athens and equally grateful to be back coaching at a place that means so much to him.
“I spent 15 years of my life at Georgia. It was great. We embraced it and poured our lives into it. But when it was time to go, it was time to go,” Richt said. “We really do trust God with what’s going on. There have been so many awesome things that have happened here at Miami. It’s been incredible. It’s a time in our lives when [my wife] Katharyn and I are empty-nesting. We live in Coconut Grove and are having a ball, and I’m also getting a chance to help my alma mater. Even this new building right here, whenever I’m gone -- whether it’s a year from now or 10 years from now -- we would have made some kind of impact on the program in a big way.
“Everywhere you go, there are people who need you.”
Well, Miami needed Richt, too, and he and the Hurricanes are building back to the future.
There is one obvious question about Louisville football this spring, and it is the one question that is sure to be asked more than any other between now and the season opener against Alabama in September: What does life look like without Lamar Jackson?
While it is true that any team with a departing Heisman Trophy winner gets asked the same question, it feels a little different with the Cardinals. Perhaps that is because Jackson is a generational talent who succeeded in areas most quarterbacks cannot -- from his devastating speed to his second-level burst to his ability to throw 80 yards without wasting a sliver of effort.
Jackson made the Louisville offense look different because he was different -- the first player in school history to win a Heisman, and the only player in recent history to draw comparisons to Michael Vick. Now that Jackson is gone, it stands to reason that Louisville will recalibrate itself on offense and look, well, different.
Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino does not want to give a whole lot away, especially with such an important opener looming. But what he will say is that he has a starter going into the spring, and he does not hesitate at that: Former ESPN 300 prospect Jawon Pass has been groomed for this moment over the past two seasons, serving as Jackson’s backup while learning every part of the Louisville offense.
“He’s been here for two years now and he’s done a really good job,” Petrino said in a recent phone interview. “He understands the offense. He’s very intelligent. He’s always a guy who was paying attention and ready to get in and play; and every time he got in, he did a really good job. He’s had a really good offseason in our strength and conditioning program. He’s gotten stronger and slimmer, and I anticipate him having a real good year for us.”
At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, Pass is much bigger and more physical than Jackson, two of the most obvious differences between the two.
Jackson relied heavily on his speed and quickness, often opting to run first. Jackson ended up rushing for over 1,500 yards in each of the past two seasons -- numbers that no quarterback under Petrino had previously posted.
Pass does have running ability, but it would be a shock if he ran for as many yards as Jackson did.
“You never anticipate that much,” Petrino said about Jackson’s 4,132 career yards rushing. “I think that was just a real unique and special player. That was something he did better than anyone else in the country, so you want to utilize his abilities.
“The offense will change because we’ll mold it around Jawon’s strengths and what he does best, his ability to throw, his ability to run. He could line up and execute right now the same things that Lamar did. He’s not going to make all those cuts, but he certainly can run.”
Where Jackson was a mostly overlooked three-star prospect on the recruiting trail, Pass came into Louisville in the class of 2016 as one of the most highly touted quarterbacks in the country. Nicknamed “Puma” as a child, Pass became an ESPN 300 prospect and chose Louisville over Auburn thanks, in part, to his older brother, Khane, a safety on the Cards.
During open practices, it was easy to see why Pass earned scholarship offers from elite programs across the country. Not only is he a physically imposing presence -- he drew comparisons to Cam Newton in high school because of his size -- his arm strength left observers marveling.
Game experience helped too. In five games last season, Pass completed 69.7 percent of his passes. Though he played in mop-up duty in those contests, the completion percentage, in particular, impressed the coaching staff.
But being the starter is obviously different than learning behind the Heisman Trophy winner. The pressure intensifies, and so does the scrutiny.
“Jawon needs to be himself, do what he needs to do well, and again, he’s a guy that’s played quarterback his whole life,” Petrino said. “He’s played at a real high level in high school, so he needs to be himself; and what we need to do is mold the offense around him and what he does best. We’ll be different than what it was with Lamar because they’re two different guys. I always feel like it’s our job as coaches to install everything, put it all in and then make sure that we mold it to the quarterback.”
Petrino believes Louisville will have its best offensive line since he returned to the school in 2014, so that also should be beneficial for Pass. The Cards return two of their top three receivers in Jaylen Smith and Seth Dawkins. But without question, the running back position remains a wild card, especially since Petrino wants his backs to get more carries.
So there remains plenty to do this spring. But it seems certain that Pass is the player Petrino wants to entrust his offense to headed into the 2018 campaign. We won’t find out how it really looks until kickoff Sept. 1.
On Tuesday around 3:30 p.m. CT, you’ll see a series of breathless posts come across your social media timelines from reporters as they leave the first practice of the spring at the University of Alabama.
That’s right, it’s finally time for the next step in Alabama’s quarterback competition. Hurts, a junior who went 25-2 as a starter before being benched at halftime of the national championship game, will fight to keep the starting job from Tagovailoa, the sophomore who replaced him and orchestrated a comeback for the ages, complete with a game-winning touchdown pass in overtime.
But before this runaway train gets too far down the tracks, let’s all take a deep breath. Remember that almost nothing that happens in the coming weeks means much of anything, starting with reports of who might or might not have taken the first-team reps in practice on Tuesday. That’s only an artificial starting point.
Sorry, but answers just will not come quickly or easily out of Tuscaloosa. Nick Saban isn’t about to let it play out like that. He never has.
Whether it’s AJ McCarron, Blake Sims, Jake Coker or Hurts, Saban has never deviated from the wait-and-see approach in terms of naming a starting quarterback. McCarron and Phillip Sims swapped snaps early in the season in 2011; Sims and Coker did the same in 2014, and Coker and Cooper Bateman in 2015. Hurts didn’t start the season-opener against USC in 2016, it was Blake Barnett.
Hurts will get every opportunity to keep his job this season, and Tagovailoa will be given every opportunity to supplant him. That means waiting all spring, summer and, possibly, fall. It would take an epic face plant or a season-ending injury to one of the quarterbacks to fast-forward the timeline before, say, SEC media days in June.
In fact, you can expect more of the same refrain Saban delivered the morning after the national championship. With Tagovailoa seated beside him, Saban told reporters, “Look, we have two good quarterbacks on our team, no doubt. I think that we haven’t really made a decision about that, and it’s not imperative we make one right now.”
If anything, it’s imperative Saban slow-plays the competition as best he can, since a quick decision in the spring could lead to one of the quarterbacks transferring. The reported commitment of former East Carolina QB Gardner Minshew -- a grad transfer — represents a safe-guarding against that possibility.
But more than the roster management issues involved, it’s hard to see this being anything other than an excruciating decision for Saban that will come down to a question of trust versus pure talent.
Saban and Hurts have formed a strong relationship over two years that has included weekly one-on-one film sessions during the season. Hurts has described Saban as a father figure, and he has been nothing if not a trustworthy scion, throwing only 10 interceptions in two full seasons.
Saban, in turn, has praised Hurts at every opportunity. Hurts’ intelligence and leadership are self-evident. His ability to make plays, especially running the ball, gives Alabama a wrinkle offensively that’s difficult to defend.
Tagovailoa, on the other hand, is a wild card. He’s a gunslinger who isn’t afraid to throw into traffic. He’s fearless -- and with good reason. His arm strength and accuracy are on another level from those of Hurts.
But the lefty was prone to turnovers and other mistakes as a freshman last season. It has been all but lost to history already, but you'll recall that he threw one terrible interception in that national championship game and took a horrific sack that set up the now-famous second-and-26 touchdown pass. Saban might be enamored by Tagovailoa's potential as a passer, but his boom-or-bust mentality might take a few years off the 66-year-old coach’s life.
Think about it: Saban seems like the last coach in the world to employ a gun-slinging quarterback. If anything, his quarterbacks have always been given the backhanded compliment of being so-called “game managers” who are simply facilitators of the offense, rather than playmakers themselves. To suddenly deviate from that would represent a seismic shift in Saban’s thinking.
Then again, for the longest time, no one thought Saban would give up his pro-style, ball-control offense, and then he brought in Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator -- again. No one would have thought that, either, as Kiffin changed everything to incorporate spread and no-huddle concepts. So, really, anything is possible.
A number of questions present themselves in the Hurts-Tagovailoa debate: How do you design an offense with two quarterbacks who are totally different stylistically? Or do you run two different offenses altogether? Or -- and here’s the big one -- do you dare try to run a two-quarterback system, rotating Hurts and Tagovailoa?
The latter seems unlikely, but who knows? Nothing is off the table right now. Nor should it be. It’s spring, not fall camp or the start of the regular season. It's a time for experimentation. When Saban spoke to ESPN’s Chris Low earlier this month, he told him that “if both guys can play winning football, it's not out of the question that we'll find a role for both guys in fairness to both guys.”
With a new offensive coordinator (Mike Locksley) and a new quarterbacks coach (Dan Enos), Saban can try any number of things.
So, again, patience is the key here.
If Hurts seems like he’s taking the first-team reps during practice on Tuesday, that’s not necessarily a sign of things to come. If anything, it’s probably a nod to his seniority.
Tagovailoa will get every opportunity to win the job. His talent dictates that he be given that chance.
But what happened in Atlanta during the national championship game was only the first step. Now comes the rest of what could be a long journey.
Over the next few weeks, we'll be chatting with each ACC coach to go over the highs and lows of 2017 and take a look at what's in store for spring practice and the season ahead.
Next up, Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson, whose Yellow Jackets missed out on a bowl for the second time in three years, but could prove an intriguing team in 2018.
What's the take on last year? You were in virtually every game, saw your offense really blossom despite a lot of turnover, and yet, you finished 5-6 and missed a bowl.
Johnson: It was frustrating and disappointing. We had a lot of close games and we couldn't find a way to pull them out. I think in four different games, we were up two scores in the second half. We lost those games we felt like we had a chance to win, and then not having a chance to play the full schedule was frustrating, too. So to finish one game under .500 was certainly not what we set out to be, and everyone was disappointed.
Johnson: Oh yeah, there's no question he can improve a great deal. We just finished a lot of the cut-ups, and he was dynamic with the ball in his hands and did a nice job of creating some things when there wasn't a lot there. But he can be way more consistent, especially in the passing game and with his reads, as well. There were times when we missed way too many reads.
When you talk about the struggles in the passing game, how much of that is on Marshall, how much on the reads he's making, how much on the receivers not getting open?
Johnson: Usually it's all of the above. Finding the right reads, being accurate, having guys who can get separation. For us, the better our running game is, the better our passing game will be since a lot of it is geared off play-action. If we do a better job with the reads and in the running game, the passing game is going to be better.
The foundation of what you guys do starts up front, and you return four starters on the line who are young overall, but with significant experience. Do you see the O-line as a real strength?
Johnson: It should be a good unit. We have most of them back, and three of them are juniors who have been starting since they were freshmen. You hope they'll be bigger and stronger, but I think we lost really one receiver, Ricky Jeune, who was our go-to guy last year that we've got to find that guy a little. But other than that, we pretty much return everybody [on offense] except for Shamire [Devine].
What kind of impact can new defensive coordinator Nate Woody make? Is it more cultural on X's and O's?
Johnson: The cultural standpoint, we'll see. The team kind of sets that. It'll be interesting to see, we're going from an even front to an odd front, so there'll be some position changes for some guys. I think our guys are excited about it. He's been pretty aggressive, and I think kids enjoy playing in that style of defense.
People always question the challenge of preparing a defense when it practices against your style of offense. I'm not sure it's really dramatically different than teams with tempo or spread style offenses, but do you see it as something unique you have to deal with when trying to get the defense straightened out?
Johnson: I think that's just a crock. It's excuses. Playing against our offense is not a whole lot different than playing against the spread with the zone-reads and all that stuff. You play it the same way. If you look, I think the offense should help the defense. That's one of the things I was impressed with Nate, when I talked to him about it; he embraces it because it helps play the run, it helps make you tough, and all you have to look -- a team like Army, those teams are top five, top 10 in the country in defense. So it hasn't hurt them. When I was at Georgia Southern, we were perennially in the top 10 in defense. If anything, you play less snaps. We probably played less possessions and less snaps than anybody in the country except Army a year ago. A normal game for us is 10 to 12 possessions. For everybody else, it's 17 to 18, so you're essentially playing a quarter less every game.
You lost some established talent in the secondary. Is that your big concern defensively heading into spring?
Johnson: I think we clearly lost some guys who started there and played a lot, and we feel like we've got some good young guys that are going to get a chance to finally play. We'll see what happens. I think it makes it a lot easier back there if you can get some pressure, and the area we struggled in defensively so much was in the area of sacks and tackles for loss. So if we don't improve in that aspect of it, it's not going to matter who's in the secondary.
Would you prefer your guys approach spring ball with a chip on their shoulder because of last year, or do you think it's best to start fresh?
Johnson: I think the guys who played certainly need to remember what it was like. But we don't dwell on it. Every team is different. When we start in the spring, we'll start with the fundamentals and try to improve on the things we need to improve upon. With a new defensive installation, it'll be about how fast they can go. We'll be day-to-day and see if we can get caught up. There'll be a lot of position changes over there. Some of the guys who were inside backers may be outside. Some safeties may be backers. So all that thing will sort itself out. Offensively, we just have to get better at our basic stuff. We can be so much better than we were a year ago.
He wanted a stiffer challenge. He wanted to teach kindergarten.
Wilkins, chuckling at the thought, isn’t quite ready to go there, but he does have a new outlook on school teachers. That’s because Wilkins has been moonlighting as a substitute teacher the past few weeks and even dared to fill in one day in a pre-kindergarten and kindergarten class at James M. Brown Elementary School in Walhalla, South Carolina.
“It was fun, but took a lot out of me,” said Wilkins, throwing his eyes wide open and exhaling slowly. “I felt like Arnold Schwarzenegger in ‘Kindergarten Cop’ with all those little kids. Talk about energy, but it was a real cool experience.”
And not just for the kids, who were mesmerized by their new 6-foot-4, 300-pound instructor.
“The other teachers were the ones who knew who I was because so many of them are lifelong Clemson fans,” Wilkins said. “Some of them would kind of poke their heads in and take slow walks past the classroom, just taking their time. But the kindergarteners ... they just see me as a giant. They love being affectionate and having attention.”
Ashley Robertson, the principal at James M. Brown Elementary School, has three degrees from Clemson, and the only Clemson football games she’s missed over the years were the ones when she was in the hospital delivering her three children. So when she got the news last week that Wilkins would be filling in at her school, she in her own words went full-blown “fangirl.”
In fact, when she received the text message that morning while getting in the car to take her kids to school, she let out a yell rivaling anything you might hear at Death Valley on Saturday afternoons in the fall.
“I was screaming at the top of my lungs, and my kids were wondering what was going on,” Robertson recounted. “I was the first person to go meet him and take him to the office. He was great and wanted to keep it very professional, so we made everybody aware that while we did have a national champion among us that we didn’t want to bother him for pictures and autographs. It was clear he was there to do his job and not for publicity.”
When Wilkins first walked into his classroom, the kids were all sitting on the carpet and waiting. And as their towering substitute entered, one of the kids immediately piped up and exclaimed, “That is one big Mister right there.”
Robertson now wishes that she would have taken one picture of Wilkins that day.
“I was walking behind him in the hall, and he was holding a little girl’s hand and escorting her back to class. It was adorable,” Robertson said. “They loved that he took them to PE and played with them, played popcorn bingo with them, but he’d also get down on the carpet with them and help them with their math stations. He was a natural.”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney isn’t surprised. He said Wilkins will frequently stay after practice and help with the younger defensive linemen while they’re getting extra work on technique and pass-rushing moves.
“That’s typical Christian,” Swinney said. “He’s one of those guys who’s always going to do everything he can to leave it better than he found it.”
Wilkins, who has already earned his undergraduate degree at Clemson in communications, had to go through the proper protocol and be approved before being added to the substitute teacher list. He has also filled in a few days at Walhalla High School in the Oconee County school district in upstate South Carolina.
His pay is a robust $80 per day, which is just a blip of what Wilkins would have earned had he turned pro. But he said the experience is priceless.
“I love working with kids and empowering them,” Wilkins said. “It’s challenging, a lot more than you think, and sometimes more challenging than anything on the field.”
Wilkins joked that one of the first things he did was try to find the teachers' lounge.
“You always thought teachers don’t really do much as a young person, but you see how much goes into it and how tiring the days are,” he said. “You have an imaginary sense of what teachers actually do and always thought a teachers' lounge was a real thing. I had this whole perception that everybody was sitting around in there smoking cigarettes.
“Maybe back in the day, it might have been like that. But not now. It’s work, a lot of hard work, takes a lot of planning, and you better be prepared for just about anything.”
Even the nuances of popcorn bingo.