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May 11, 2011

Five questions from each league as summer begins

Spring practice has ended, and now comes a fan's version of nuclear winter: almost four months without football.

While it's hard to find a coach upset with how spring practice unfolded, it's also hard to find a coach who doesn't have a few things to fret about over the summer.

Here's a look at five key questions in each of the Big Six leagues and five key questions involving some teams outside the Big Six.

Is North Carolina State QB Mike Glennon as good as coach Tom O'Brien thinks he is?
He'd better be, for O'Brien's sake. O'Brien made one of the boldest - and riskiest - moves of the offseason by naming Glennon his starting quarterback even as incumbent and former first-team All-ACC selection Russell Wilson pondered whether to return for his final season of eligibility. Wilson, who is currently playing minor-league ball in the Colorado Rockies' organization, eventually was granted his release and is free to choose a new school if he plans to play football this season. O'Brien essentially is giving up on the chance for one more season with Wilson in order to have two seasons with Glennon, a former four-star prospect who conceivably could have transferred if he didn't get the job this year. O'Brien, who mentored Matt Ryan and Matt Hasselbeck at Boston College, has said Glennon is as talented as any quarterback he's coached. But if Glennon struggles this season while Wilson shines elsewhere, O'Brien will face heavy scrutiny.
Who's the quarterback at Miami?
The competition between Jacory Harris and Stephen Morris will last well into the summer. The winner might not be known until Miami begins its first offensive series in the opener at Maryland. New coach Al Golden said at the end of spring practice that the competition was "too close to call.'' Harris has served as Miami's starting quarterback the past two seasons, but he sustained a concussion that allowed Morris to start the final four regular-season games last year. Morris also outplayed Harris in last season's Sun Bowl loss to Notre Dame. Both candidates must do a better job of avoiding turnovers. Harris and Morris each threw two interceptions in the spring game. Miami quarterbacks threw 27 interceptions last season, the most of any FBS team.
How will QB Logan Thomas and TB David Wilson fill the holes in Virginia Tech's backfield?
Virginia Tech lost as much firepower in the offensive backfield as any team in the country. ACC player of the year Tyrod Taylor used up his eligibility and star TBs Ryan Williams and Darren Evans entered the draft. The spring performances of Thomas and Wilson suggest the Hokies still have a couple of major weapons. Thomas showed plenty of star potential and has the type of size - 6 feet 6 and 245 pounds - that coaches love to see in the post-Cam Newton era. Wilson divided his time between football and track this spring, but he showed plenty of big-play ability in scrimmages. Of course, it's one thing to perform in spring practice; how will these guys do once the games matter? Taylor, Williams and Evans were proven performers. The Hokies still don't know quite what they have in Thomas and Wilson.
Can Florida State put together a championship-caliber offensive line?
Florida State heads into the summer as the likely ACC favorite. The Seminoles have a promising quarterback in E.J. Manuel, one of the nation's premier pass rushers in Brandon Jenkins and plenty of depth at running back and in the secondary. But the Seminoles won't earn a BCS bid unless they're at least adequate in the offensive line, where they must replace All-America G Rodney Hudson and four-year starting C Ryan McMahon. Offensive line coach Rick Trickett's track record suggests the Seminoles eventually will be strong up front, but spring practice revealed the process could take some time. FSU returns Andrew Datko and Zebrie Sanders at tackle, but the middle of the line remains uncertain. The most likely candidates at guard are Bryan Stork and David Spurlock, who missed the final seven games of last season because of concussions. The Seminoles need a big season from probable starting center Jacob Farhenkrug, a North Dakota State College of Science transfer entering his first season of Division I football.
How long will it take for Clemson to adjust to new offensive coordinator Chad Morris' uptempo scheme? And how long will it take for ACC defenses to adjust to Clemson?
The good news for Morris is that he may have found an ideal fit for his version of the spread in QB Tajh Boyd, who won raves for his spring performance. Clemson should be able to run effectively, as the Tigers had two 100-yard rushers (Demont Buice and Roderick McDowell) in the spring game even though Andre Ellington sat out spring practice as he recovers from toe surgery. Boyd figures to have some growing pains in his first season as a starter, and Clemson's lack of proven receivers could force them to rely heavily on their talent-laden freshman class. But this offense eventually should work well because it's unlike any other scheme in the ACC. It could take a while for conference rivals to figure out how to defend it.
Big East
How much stock should we put into lofty spring-game numbers for QBs Geno Smith and Tino Sunseri ?
Two of the biggest shakeups in the Big East are the changes in offenses at West Virginia and Pittsburgh. If the spring games are an indication, the quarterbacks are catching on to the new schemes. West Virginia's Smith was 26-of-37 passes for 388 yards and four touchdowns; Pitt's Sunseri was 35-of-55 for 416 yards and two touchdowns, with an interception. Both performances can be major confidence-builders, but there are lingering concerns for both teams. Each has concerns on the offensive line, and West Virginia needs to find a replacement for Noel Devine. Cautious optimism seems to be the theme for the Panthers and Mountaineers.
Is Louisville RB Victor Anderson the league's comeback player of the year?
Louisville senior TB Bilal Powell was the Big East's breakout player last season, when he rushed for 1,405 yards and 11 touchdowns. Now, Charlie Strong and his coaching staff are hoping Anderson can resuscitate his career in similar fashion. Anderson rushed for 1,047 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman in 2008, but he managed only 759 yards and five touchdowns combined in the past two seasons. He has battled injuries, and if he can stay healthy and consistent, Anderson would provide a boost to a backfield that loses Powell and is breaking in a new quarterback. A positive sign for Anderson: He rushed for 72 yards and two touchdowns on six carries in the spring game, including a 58-yard score.
Which of the league's maligned offensive lines will put it together this season?
Last season, the common thread in the Big East was inexperience at quarterback. But with returning starting quarterbacks at five schools, the theme this season is the offensive lines. Five Big East teams ranked in the bottom 50 nationally in sacks allowed; Rutgers surrendered 61 sacks, the most of any school nationally. The Scarlet Knights, Cincinnati, Louisville, Pittsburgh and USF will head into fall drills with line questions. The teams that can answer those questions will be in position to contend for a league title.
Can Cincinnati field a competent defense?
The Bearcats' defensive deficiencies caught up with them last season, when the Bearcats finished second-to-last in the league in total defense and forced a league-low 14 turnovers. Only six teams nationally forced fewer turnovers. In past seasons, Cincinnati could say it had a young and inexperienced defense. That won't be the case this fall: Every starter returns, and 2009 starting cornerback Dominique Battle also returns. Coach Butch Jones has a potential star in DT Derek Wolfe. Meanwhile, Walter Stewart, now a full-time end after adding 35 pounds in the offseason, could be a playmaker after recording three sacks in the final spring scrimmage. The defense still lacks depth at linebacker and safety, though.
Who will step up at linebacker for Syracuse?
A team doesn't go from winning nine combined games in a three-year period to winning eight in a single season because of an improvement in just one area. That said, it's tough to argue with the way LBs Doug Hogue and Derrell Smith became standouts for Syracuse's defense, which ranked seventh nationally by allowing just 301.5 yards per game. Hogue and Smith are gone, and Syracuse coordinator Scott Shafer has significant questions at the position. Marquis Spruill had a standout freshman season (51 tackles), but he's moving from the strongside to the middle. Malcolm Cater and Brice Hawkes saw playing time as freshmen last season, but both have been dismissed from the team. The group is undersized and undermanned. Senior Dan Vaughan, who can play every linebacker position, had a good spring, as did prep school arrival Dyshawn Davis. Syracuse needs the group to jell and stay healthy.
Big Ten
Who will quarterback Ohio State?
Terrelle Pryor is suspended for the first five games, creating a huge void. No sure starter emerged from spring drills, with Braxton Miller, Joe Bauserman, Taylor Graham and Kenny Guiton set to resume their battle in training camp. Bauserman is the most experienced and safest choice, but he's a pedestrian talent. Don't be shocked if Miller emerges. Miller, a true freshman who enrolled early, has the ability to make plays with his feet and arm. He also has a cool demeanor in the pocket and a strong arm.
Can Iowa regain its mojo?
The Hawkeyes raced to a 7-2 start in 2010 before the wheels came off. Iowa lost its last three regular-season games before rebounding to upset Missouri in the Insight Bowl. Everyone was saying the right things in the spring, but can the Hawkeyes contend this fall. This is a program that was hounded with issues late last year and into 2011. WR Derrell Johnson-Koulianos was arrested in December on multiple drug counts. TB Adam Robinson, the team's top rusher in 2010 with 889 yards and 10 touchdowns, was arrested for marijuana possession and booted from the team in January. Thirteen players were hospitalized in January with a muscle disorder caused by grueling workouts that made many question the program's conditioning tactics. Then there are the personnel losses at quarterback (Ricky Stanzi) and along the defensive line (three draft picks). This will be an interesting 2011 in Iowa City.
Will QB Denard Robinson be his usual explosive self in Michigan's new offense?
Rich Rodriguez and his spread offense are out; Brady Hoke and his West Coast-oriented attack are in. How will this impact Robinson, who was the Big Ten Player of the Year last season? Offensive coordinator Al Borges will emphasize man blocking and the power game. But Borges has said that he never has had a quarterback like Robinson and will accommodate his strengths. He'd be foolish not to. The Wolverines figure to be in shotgun as much as 50 percent of the time, using rollouts and designed runs. But they're not going to run "D-Rob" 30 times a game and risk injury. He got banged up too often last season, missing time in 10 of 13 games. Look for a blend of Robinson's highlight-reel stuff from last season, with a heavier emphasis on throwing out of the pocket and getting more help in the ground game from the running backs. Robinson likely will run for fewer yards but throw for more.
Has Northwestern tightened its defense?
No doubt, it will be key for QB Dan Persa to be fully recovered from a torn Achilles that ended his 2010 season in November. But it will be more vital for the Wildcats' defense to improve. The unit fell apart late last season, allowing 163 points in the final three contests - all losses. Wisconsin hung 70 on Northwestern. The Wildcats ranked 10th in the Big Ten (426.2 ypg) in total defense. Stopping the pass was especially problematic, as Northwestern yielded 25 TD passes. It will be important for coordinator Mike Hankwitz's unit to generate more big plays after the defense ranked 10th in the conference in tackles for loss and sacks.
Who will play quarterback at Penn State?
Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin received equal reps this spring, but neither emerged with an edge. Muddling the situation is that Bolden still is contemplating transferring. He became the first true freshman to start a season opener at quarterback under Joe Paterno. Bolden showed flashes before suffering a concussion in late October against Minnesota. McGloin is a former walk-on who looked good down the stretch and finished 2010 as the starter. Paul Jones and Kevin Newsome also were in the mix in the spring, but the job figures to come down to Bolden and McGloin.
Big 12
Is Oklahoma really the best bet to win the national championship?
The consensus opinion seems to be that OU will be ranked No. 1 in the preseason. QB Landry Jones and WRs Ryan Broyles and Kenny Stills make the Sooners passing game among the country's most dangerous. But OU will have a new starting running back - perhaps freshman Brandon Williams. In addition, the defense allowed more than 30 points in both losses and more than 40 points in a win last season, and must replace DE Jeremy Beal and FS Quinton Carter, a pair of all-conference selections.
Can Texas bounce back from a last season's disappointing 5-7 record?
The Longhorns' quest to bounce back from their first losing season under Mack Brown depends heavily on quarterback play and whether an effective running game can be built. Wholesale changes to the coaching staff, including both coordinators, add a touch of mystery. Forget spring ball; no one will truly know anything about Texas until mid-September.
Can Oklahoma State finally win a conference championship?
Although the Cowboys finished in a three-way tie for the Big 12 South title last season, they haven't won an outright conference title since 1976. Oklahoma State's offense will be explosive with QB Brandon Weeden and WR Justin Blackmon, but the defense must be bolstered. The Cowboys do get the Sooners in Stillwater, so that could help.
Is this Texas A&M's year?
From all accounts, the Aggies should be even better than last season, when they finished 9-4, tied for first in the Big 12 South and beat both teams that played in the conference championship game (Oklahoma and Nebraska). With the exception of DE/LB Von Miller, all their top players return, including QB Ryan Tannehill, WR Jeff Fuller and RB Cyrus Gray. But the Aggies must play Oklahoma in Norman, where they've typically had big problems. They were beaten 65-10 in 2009 in their most recent visit to Norman.
Is Missouri going to take a step back?
The Tigers have posted at least 10 wins in three of the past four seasons, but maintaining that level of success may be difficult without QB Blaine Gabbert and DE Aldon Smith, who opted to enter the NFL draft. The battle for the starting quarterback job was supposed to be rejoined in August, but Tyler Gabbert announced Monday he was transferring, which likely means James Franklin is the man for the Tigers.
Does Oregon have the defense to make another national championship run?
There's little doubt the Ducks offense will remain explosive, but there are potential problems on defense. Oregon must replace three starters in the defensive line and two at linebacker. To complicate matters, Kiko Alonso, who had a strong spring and appeared set to take over for departed Casey Matthews at middle linebacker, has been indefinitely suspended after an arrest on burglary charges.
How will Jim Harbaugh's departure affect Stanford?
Sometimes, a heralded coach leaves and a program keeps rolling along; other times, it collapses. Whether Stanford, which was 12-1 last season, keeps surging under coach David Shaw remains to be seen. QB Andrew Luck's return will ensure the Cardinal are formidable, but it's possible Luck may not be as effective without Harbaugh on the sideline. Forget spring drills; we won't know what Harbaugh's departure truly means until late September.
Can UCLA's Rick Neuheisel and Washington State's Paul Wulff save their jobs?
Administrators have shown remarkable patience as the Bruins and Cougars have floundered in three seasons under their current coaches. Both need to win this year. Thought to be the key to restoring UCLA to past glory, Neuheisel, once a Bruins quarterback, has managed just 15 victories in his three seasons. Offensive ineptitude has been the major problem. But while the offense showed some signs that it might be improving this spring, the defense has major holes to fill. The Cougars have only five wins under Wulff, but seem to be making progress. An injury-free year for a change would help.
How competitive will newcomers Colorado and Utah be in their first seasons in the league?
Colorado struggled in the Big 12 for the past five seasons, while Utah was a big fish in the small Mountain West pond and now must prove it can play at a high level on a weekly basis. Neither will be favored to win the South Division, but beware: New teams in conferences have a history of being successful.
Can Arizona State challenge for the conference championship?
The Sun Devils haven't had a winning record in three seasons, but there is talk they could win the conference in 2011. QB Brock Osweiler has shown marked improvement, the offensive line no longer is a liability and the defense figures to be quite good despite CB Omar Bolden being lost to a torn ACL. With USC ineligible for the championship, Arizona State should be the consensus pick to win the South Division. Last season, the Sun Devils played well in competitive losses to Oregon and Stanford. Of course, Arizona State has disappointed before, no nothing can be taken for granted in Tempe.
Who is going to be the quarterback at Auburn?
Talk about pressure. Barrett Trotter and Clint Moseley battled this spring to replace Cameron Newton, the Heisman winner and the guy who went No. 1 overall in the draft. Take Newton off last season's team, and the Tigers likely would've been in the Chick-fil-A Bowl rather than playing for the national title. Both aspiring starters had their moments in the spring, but the battle will continue into fall drills - and true freshman Kiehl Frazier now gets into the mix. Frazier, a four-star recruit, probably has more upside than Trotter or Moseley, but you'd think, given that Auburn has a lot of other questions, Tigers coaches would rather not go with a true freshman quarterback. Auburn opens with Utah State, but things get considerably tougher after that, with five of the next six games against bowl teams from last season, including trips to Clemson, South Carolina and Arkansas.
Who is going to be the quarterback at Alabama?
Unlike their archrival, the Tide don't have many concerns at all. Indeed, figuring out the starting quarterback is the only pressing issue the Tide will face when fall practice begins. Strong-armed A.J. McCarron looked to be the guy heading into spring practice, but Phillip Sims showed enough that coaches have held off in naming a starter. The Alabama team of 2011 looks as if it will follow the blueprint of the Alabama team of 2009 - you know, the one that won the national title. The Tide will have a stout defense, a big-time offensive line and a stud running back. As long as the quarterback doesn't mess things up, Alabama is going to be fine.
Who is going to be the go-to receiver at Georgia?
Sophomore Aaron Murray likely will be the quarterback on the preseason All-SEC team, and TE Orson Charles should be an effective weapon this fall. But there is a hole at tailback and at wide receiver. True freshman Isaiah Crowell arrives this summer and should be the starting tailback. As for the go-to receiver, that remains a mystery. Junior Tavarres King had a good spring game, but he will enter the season with 47 career receptions. Murray has a big upside and Charles is a good one, but there will be a lot of unproven talent around them and a depth-shy line blocking for them. It's vital that King - or someone - emerge as a star at wide receiver.
How good will Florida's secondary be with three new starters?
The new coaching staff thought they would be able to build the defense around Janoris Jenkins, who likely would've been considered the nation's top cornerback going into the season. But Jenkins was booted off the team last week after his second marijuana arrest of the year, and the secondary went from being OK to being a question for a team that already had a lot of questions. Jenkins had missed spring ball following shoulder surgery, so the other corners on the roster received a lot of reps. The one returning starter in the secondary is junior CB Jeremy Brown, who has battled back problems throughout his career and likely would've been the nickelback had Jenkins remained on the team. Now, he should start at corner along with sophomore Cody Riggs, who has speed and toughness but is just 5 feet 8. The new safeties will be sophomore Matt Elam at strong safety and junior Josh Evans at free safety. Elam is a former five-star prospect who played extensively last season as the nickelback. But Florida is going to miss All-America SS Ahmad Black, and depth at safety is iffy. It would help if there's a pass rush this season; last season's pass rush was embarrassingly weak. Going by spring performance, coaches expect sophomore E/LB Ronald Powell to be a force off the edge. Will his spring performance carry over to the fall?
What is the deal with QB Stephen Garcia at South Carolina?
Garcia, a fifth-year senior, has been suspended indefinitely by coach Steve Spurrier. Backup QB Connor Wood didn't exactly wow people during spring drills, leading to rumors that former North Carolina State QB Russell Wilson - who has graduated but has a season of eligibility remaining - could be headed to Columbia. (Interestingly, Garcia graduated last weekend, and that has led to some speculation that he might move on.) The Gamecocks seem likely to head into the season as the favorite to again win the SEC East title. But the quarterback situation definitely gives pause. It's obvious that Spurrier doesn't totally trust Garcia, but it's also obvious Spurrier has no one else. Garcia has been suspended five times since arriving at South Carolina as an early enrollee in January 2007, but he seems likely to be the starter when the season opens Sept. 3 against East Carolina. "If you don't think Stephen Garcia will probably get to line up in the fall, then you need to go move your turnip truck out of the parking lot and leave," Gamecocks defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said recently at a Gamecock Club meeting. "I don't have any official word on that, but I think Stephen Garcia will probably get another shot. But I hope it's not the kind of shots he's been taking lately."
Who's going to catch San Diego State QB Ryan Lindley's passes?
Lindley is a fourth-year starter who may rank among the nation's top 10 quarterbacks, but his production likely will drop this season because of an inexperienced receiving corps. Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson caught a combined 136 passes for 2,572 yards and 18 touchdowns, but both were seniors last season. Their departures leave San Diego State with an unsettled receiving corps. Dominique Sandifer (23 catches for 263 yards and no touchdowns last season) and Dylan Denso (4-39-0) exited spring practice atop the depth chart, but they could face a challenge this summer from redshirt freshman Ezell Ruffin and sophomore Osmond Nicholas among others. Lindley and TB Ronnie Hillman give San Diego State a quarterback-running back duo that rivals just about any program in the nation, but the Aztecs will have a tough time matching their success from last season unless at least one of the unproven receivers steps up.
How many games - if any - will Notre Dame WR Michael Floyd miss this season?
Floyd got a huge break last month when Notre Dame's Office of Residence Life opted against suspending him for the 2011 season after his March 21 arrest on a drunken-driving charge. Now it's up to coach Brian Kelly to determine what type of punishment to hand out to his All-America candidate. Floyd pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor charge on May 2. Notre Dame heads into the season as a legitimate contender for a BCS bowl, but the Irish lack depth in the receiving corps and could struggle to win games Floyd sits out.
Who will run the Pistol at Nevada ?
Colin Kaepernick led Nevada to its best record (13-1) in school history last season. Now all eyes are on his replacement. Senior Tyler Lantrip ended the spring as the presumptive starter, but sophomore Mason Magleby and redshirt freshman Cody Fajardo are in the mix, too. Fajardo has the look of a future star and is a more natural fit for the Kaepernick-style Pistol offense. Coach Chris Ault isn't afraid to adjust based on personnel, so Lantrip's qualities as a pocket passer will get a long look. None of the options are experienced - Lantrip has attempted 23 career passes, which is 23 more than the other two combined.
Who will be Toledo's quarterback?
Toledo could be the top team in the MAC if this issue is resolved. Austin Dantin and Terrance Owens looked good in the spring, but this derby likely won't be resolved until the week of the season opener. Dantin won the job last season, then suffered a shoulder injury. Owens came on and wowed with his powerful left arm, throwing it hard, deep and accurately. Dantin is more of a runner, percentage-passer and natural leader. Owens has a huge arm and can run, but still is still learning to assert himself with teammates.
Will East Carolina field a defense this season?
OK, so we're being overly cynical with the question. Still, ECU's defense was rancid last season. The Pirates averaged 36.8 points per game last season - and finished 6-7. That's because they allowed 44.0 points per game. ECU surrendered at least 42 points 10 times and at least 49 six times, including 76 to Navy and 62 to Rice (Rice!?!?). QB Dominique Davis returns, and he and senior WR Lance Lewis have a legit chance to be the most productive pass-catch combo in the nation. Lewis caught 89 passes last season - when he was the No. 2 option. ECU coaches kept it simple and focused on defensive fundamentals during the spring, and coach Ruffin McNeill was pleased with how his defenders responded. "We did add some nickel packages and five defensive back schemes toward the end," he said after spring drills. "It is our plan to introduce more of the defense during the summer and two-a-days." McNeill needs some defensive playmakers to emerge. ECU was 99th nationally in tackles for loss, tied for 109th in sacks and 66th in interceptions last season. If ECU's defense can improve from atrocious to adequate, the Pirates will have a shot at the title in the East Division of Conference USA.

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