Spring storylines to watch for teams in 2022 Way-Too-Early college football Top 25

ByESPN Staff ESPN logo
Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Our college football reporters recently examined the biggest strengthand the biggest question markfor every team in our 2022 Way-Too-Early Top 25.

Now we turn our attention to spring practices and what to watch for as position battles get underway and teams try to fill some missing gaps and learn new systems.

Nick Saban didn't mince words when assessing the play of the Crimson Tide's backup receivers in the national title game loss to Georgia. In a speech at a coaches clinic, he said there were "three guys" and "not one of them -- not one -- could take advantage of the opportunity they had." While Saban wouldn't name names, we will. The three receivers he was likely referring to were Agiye Hall, Ja'Corey Brooks and Traeshon Holden. With stars Jameson Williams and John Metchie III off to the NFL, it's up to those three -- plus the addition of Georgia transfer Jermaine Burton, the return of JoJo Earle from injury and more -- to step up and fill the void they left behind. -- Alex Scarborough

The Buckeyes made some significant changes on defense, including bringing in new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State, as well as corners coach Tim Walton and safeties coach Perry Eliano. The new coaches got Oklahoma State corner transfer Tanner McCalister to join the team, as well as Arizona State linebacker DeaMonte Trayanum, but they lost corners Ryan Watts and Sevyn Banks, linebackers Dallas Gant and K'Vaughan Pope and a few others to the transfer portal. The team is also losing defensive linemen Tyreke Smith, Haskell Garrett and Antwuan Jackson. The defense ranked No. 38 in opponents' points scored per game, No. 29 in rush yards allowed per game, No. 97 in pass yards allowed per game and No. 61 in total yards allowed per game. That needs to change quickly if Ohio State wants to make it back to the College Football Playoff. -- Tom VanHaaren

The 2021 national champs were known for their historically great defense, which is going to have holes to fill after many expected departures for the NFL draft. One of the biggest focuses will be on the defensive line, where production from guys like Travon Walker, Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt will need to be replaced. The change in leadership will also be something to watch with Will Muschamp and Glenn Schumann taking over the defense for Dan Lanning, who is now the head man at Oregon. It's fair to expect some sort of a drop-off from a historically great defense that lost many of its faces and its leader, but watching this still incredibly talented group mesh and seeing who will stand out in it (like a Jalen Carter) will be key as Georgia looks to defend its title. -- Harry Lyles Jr.

This year's quarterback derby should be the most interesting competition since Kellen Mond and Nick Starkel duked it out in Jimbo Fisher's first season with the Aggies. After starter Haynes King, who was just a redshirt freshman, was lost for the season, Zach Calzada cemented his name in Aggie lore by playing the game of his life in the upset of Alabama. But the passing game's struggles the rest of the season held the Aggies back. Calzada transferred to Auburn, and LSU transfer Max Johnson, who threw for 27 TDs and 6 INTs last year, arrived via the portal and is the type of pro-style QB who fits Fisher's offense. Still, King is considered a tremendous athlete who hasn't had much time to show it publicly and could add another dimension at the position. Meanwhile, the coaches are enamored with incoming freshman Conner Weigman, the No. 1 QB in the ESPN 300, who was named the high school quarterback of the year by the National Quarterback Club. King should get a chance to hold on to the job, but the QB room is as loaded as it has been in years. -- Dave Wilson

Michigan's defense is losing two players projected as first-round picks in the upcoming NFL draft, according to Mel Kiper Jr., in defensive ends Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. Daxton Hill is Kiper's second-best safety prospect in the draft, and the Wolverines are also losing starting linebacker Josh Ross, safety Brad Hawkins, corner Vincent Gray and defensive tackle Chris Hinton. That is a ton of production to replace, along with a new defensive coordinator in Jessie Minter. Ross, Hutchinson and Hill were Michigan's leading tacklers, accounting for 27% of the team's total tackles, while Hutchinson and Ojabo had 25 of the team's 34 sacks. How will Michigan replace that in one offseason with no additions from the transfer portal? The defensive line is the most concerning area, where Michigan has not recruited well behind its starters, and the Wolverines don't have any clear answers to replace Hutchinson and Ojabo. -- VanHaaren

New head coach Marcus Freeman has a veteran defense at his (and defensive coordinator Al Golden's) disposal. His offensive line should be stout. He has tight end Michael Mayer, one of the best security blankets in the country. But he doesn't have running back Kyren Williams, and he doesn't have quarterback Jack Coan. The running back corps appears stocked with options, so this spring's biggest storyline will be pretty obvious: Can either Tyler Buchner or Drew Pyne seize control of the quarterback job? Buchner, a top-50 recruit in the 2021 class, completed 21 of 35 passes and flashed major explosiveness with his legs, but Pyne thrived late in the Irish's big win over Wisconsin. Both bring unique skill sets to the table. Will one stand out over the other? -- Bill Connelly

For the Utes, the next possible step is the toughest one. They came within a few plays of winning the Rose Bowl, which means the margins for a more successful season are slim. The obvious shortcoming in Pasadena was in the secondary, where a lack of depth meant injury issues were especially problematic. So it makes sense to prioritize that in the spring. There are some key departures the Utes will have to account for, but as important as Devin Lloyd and Britain Covey were on the field, it's their leadership void that will be missed most in the spring. -- Kyle Bonagura

The Wolfpack are poised to have a special season in 2022, returning virtually every key defender, along with star QB Devin Leary. But the big, looming question is in the backfield, where finding a consistent ground game has been an ongoing problem for years. The problems seem to start up front, with the Wolfpack ranking 98th in yards per rush before contact last season, 113th in 2020 and 105th in 2019. But the fact that NC State also loses playmaker Bam Knight to the NFL draft makes the backfield situation even more complicated. Spring ball can be a tough time to figure out the ground game without risking injuries, but this needs to be a priority if the Wolfpack want to take the next step into playoff contention in 2022.-- David M. Hale

The Cowboys had one of their greatest seasons in history last year. Despite coming up literally inches short in the Big 12 title game, there was still room to celebrate a season that included a Bedlam win over Oklahoma in Stillwater and a rally over Notre Dame. But a lot of that greatness was keyed by a defense led by coordinator Jim Knowles and middle linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez, who amassed more than 400 tackles in his OSU career, including 129 in 2021. Both are gone, and Derek Mason is now overseeing the defense after moving from Auburn. Quarterback Spencer Sanders showed flashes of brilliance along with plays that are just as confounding, but the defense always kept the Cowboys in the game. If the teeth remain, Mike Gundy has shown the ability to coax an offense to vast improvement. --Wilson

Somebody is going to have to fill the shoes of Kenneth Walker III, who was the second-leading rusher in the FBS with 1,636 yards in 12 games. Mel Tucker isn't short of candidates, after adding transfers in former Wisconsin running back Jalen Berger (who had 389 rushing yards and three touchdowns in seven games) in mid-December and 2020 Pac-12 offensive player of the year Jarek Broussard from Colorado in late January. The pair will join Elijah Collins, Jordon Simmons, Harold Joiner, Donovan Eaglin, Caleb Wolf and Davion Primm. Collins led the Spartans in rushing in 2019, then Simmons did in 2020 before Walker came along as a transfer himself from Wake Forest. Broussard won't be around until the summer, but there will be a lot for that group to work out in spring, which will be running behind an offensive line with three new starters. -- Lyles

In a spring filled with new faces in new places, the most interesting storyline is the QB returning at Clemson. D.J. Uiagalelei was supposed to be a superstar, a Heisman Trophy candidate, the next in a long line of elite Clemson QBs. Instead, he slogged through a miserable 2021. While his national ad campaign with Dr. Pepper aired dozens of times every Saturday, Uiagalelei threw just nine TD passes. How can he recover from that? There's optimism that he got better as the season progressed, and certainly Clemson is in a better position to support him at the offensive skill positions. But with so many new coaches on staff and freshman Cade Klubnik enrolled early and pushing for reps, it will be interesting to see whether Uiagalelei can finally blossom into the player so many folks thought he would be, or if he'll end up losing his job and moving on from the Tigers. --Hale

After a frustrating season under center for Oregon last year, this spring brings a few new hopes that the Ducks are banking on to vault them into contention sooner rather than later. Bo Nix's move from Auburn to Eugene was surprising, but less so when you consider new head coach Dan Lanning hired Florida State offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham. Dillingham was the quarterbacks coach at Auburn in 2019 when Nix won SEC Rookie of the Year. The blueprint to succeed is there, and at the very least, Nix will be a drastic change of pace from Anthony Brown, butNix isn't the only quarterback to keep an eye on. Redshirt freshman Ty Thompson is slated to be Oregon's quarterback of the future. The former No. 3 quarterback in 2021 was the first five-star at the position to ever sign with the Ducks. Thompson is a dual-threat quarterback with boundless potential, and if he impresses from the spring, the battle between him and Nix could get competitive as the season nears. -- Paolo Uggetti

Despite a successful 12-2 season that ended with Houston as one of the only two ranked teams in the state of Texas, the Cougars struggled to keep their quarterback upright and their running backs forward all season long. Houston's offensive line allowed 38 sacks and its run game was 85th in the nation. Dana Holgorsen's team returns a 3,500-yard, 30-touchdown quarterback in Clayton Tune and a talented running back in rising sophomore Alton McCaskill, who despite the offensive line struggles, still managed to amass 18 touchdowns on the season. The Cougars did aim to address this weakness on the recruiting trail by bringing in three three-star offensive linemen. Though they all will be freshmen this season, the need for a revamped line going into next season could see them win some time on the field as soon as this spring. -- Uggetti

Defense, defense, defense. As good as Wake was on offense last year -- and for much of the season, the Deacons were as explosive as any team in the country -- it was nearly as miserable on defense. The end result was coordinator Lyle Hemphill moving on to Duke, replaced by former Charlotte coach Brad Lambert. It's a great addition for Dave Clawson's staff, but now the hard work comes, getting the players attuned to Lambert's system and finding out who's ready to step up into a bigger role as the Deacons look to replace their top pass rusher (Luiji Vilain) and their defensive leader (LB Luke Masterson).-- Hale

Iowa's defense mastered the art of the turnover in 2021, and three of the primary reasons for that are gone. Safeties Dane Belton and Jack Koerner and cornerback Matt Hankins combined for 10 interceptions and 16 pass breakups last year, and while the Hawkeyes aren't bereft of ballhawks -- corners Riley Moss and Jermari Harris are back -- that's still a lot of turnover for a such a vital unit. Both safeties were excellent in run support, too. Who will take over on the back line? How do they look? The front seven will be wonderfully experienced in 2022, and the Hawkeyes should still force loads of obvious passing situations, but that only matters if a remodeled secondary can take advantage. -- Connelly

The Bears' running game was a revelation in 2021, as Abram Smith set the single-season school record with 1,601 yards and backup Trestan Ebner added 799. The duo helped Baylor finish No. 5 in the country with 3,070 yards on the ground, but neither will be back in 2022.Taye McWilliams showed flashes of explosiveness early in the season (17 carries, 181 yards) and has a huge opportunity this spring to make the starting job his own. Beyond McWilliams, no one else left on the roster really factored in last season, which makes the spring especially important for the running back room. Craig Williams, Jordan Jenkins, Qualan Jones and, maybe, Josh Fleeks all figure to be in line for key auditions. -- Bonagura

It's a new/old era in Norman, with former Bob Stoops lieutenant Brent Venables taking over after former Stoops coordinator Lincoln Riley up and left for USC. So what is there to watch? How about everything. Is Dillon Gabriel the answer at quarterback after star freshman Caleb Williams joined Riley in L.A.? Can the offensive line come together to buy Gabriel time after Spencer Rattler and Williams both bought time last year? Under Venables' watch, will the defense add back some bite that was lacking? -- Wilson

Tyler Allgeier's departure for the NFL leaves 1,606 rushing yards to be replaced next season, a hole that is tough to understate. For the past two seasons, Allgeier's reliability has been one of the primary reasons BYU has sustained such a high level of success. Lopini Katoa experienced some success in a backup role in 2021 (61 carries, 242 yards), but he's not as proven as Cal transfer Christopher Brooks, who has enrolled after committing to BYU last month. If coach Kalani Sitake can get a better sense of what the rotation should be coming out of spring ball, it will check an important box. -- Bonagura

Offensively, the Bearcats will be losing quarterback Desmond Ridderbut are still expected to return seven starters on that side of the ball, while redshirt freshman Evan Prater, Ohio's Mr. Football in 2019, will be the favorite to take over the quarterback position. Defense is where the Bearcats shined the past two seasons, and that unit is going to look much different in 2022, because of talented departures in cornerbacks Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant,leading tackler Joel Dublankoand top pass rusher Curtis Brooks. Defensive end Mario Eugenio, cornerback Oliver Bridgesand defensive tackle Derrick Shepard will be additions to keep an eye on, as the Bearcats attempt to keep a strong defensive identity that has served them well. -- Lyles

Treylon Burks emerged as one of the best receivers in the country last season, catching 66 passes for 1,104 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also ran for 112 yards and one score. And now all that production is gone, off to the NFL, and Razorback fans are left to wonder who will pick up the slack seeing as Burks had more catches than the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 receivers combined (Tyson Morris, Trey Knox and Warren Thompson). Thompson is poised to take on a bigger role, and Ketron Jackson Jr. could be a breakout candidate. But the player to watch will be Oklahoma transfer Jadon Haselwood, the former No. 1-ranked receiver in the Class of 2019 who had 39 catches for 399 yards and six touchdowns last year. -- Scarborough

Offensive coordinator Liam Coen started a process that had been long overdue at Kentucky last season, modernizing an offense that for so long had neglected the passing game. But just as it felt like progress was being made, the 36-year-old was lured back to the NFL and his former team, the Los Angeles Rams. Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops isn't reversing course, though. By bringing in former San Francisco 49ers assistant Rich Scangarello to replace Coen last week, Stoops signaled that he wants to continue to pursue an updated pro-style system that should pair well with the dual-threat ability of quarterback Will Levis. -- Scarborough

Lincoln Riley's new team has a lot of luster going into spring. Quarterback Caleb Williamsgave Beats headphones to the women's basketball team, the program had beach days in February, and it's still riding high after cleaning up in the transfer portal. But the shiny new toys can work only if the foundation is there. As spring nears, one of the more interesting facets of the new regime will be how it goes about dealing with what has been USC's weakness the past few years: the trenches. On both sides of the line, USC has fallen behind the curve that premier programs like Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State have set. New offensive coordinator Josh Henson, who is also the offensive line coach, will have his work cut out for him in trying to not just protect Williams, but in allowing him to shine like he did, at times, at Oklahoma. On the other side of the ball, replacing Drake Jackson (who had five sacks last season) will be key to revamping a Trojans defense (88th last year) that needs to improve dramatically if USC wants to get back to the top. -- Uggetti

Seeing the new-look offense in Oxford will be the focus this spring. The big and obvious departures -- offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby and quarterback Matt Corral-- are important. But the Rebels are also losing leading rusher Jerrion Ealy, as well as wideouts Dontario Drummond and Braylon Sanders. New offensive coordinator Charlie Weis Jr. is now tasked with limiting the drop-off for Ole Miss, and will have help from some key transfers in quarterback Jaxson Dart (USC), running back Zach Evans (TCU), wide receiver Jordan Watkins (Louisville), offensive tackle Mason Brooks (WKU) and tight end Michael Trigg (USC). Weis is entering his first Power 5 coordinating gig, and his job in Year 1 could be much easier thanks to the portal than it otherwise would have been. -- Lyles

The Badgers found a run game last season with freshman running back Braelon Allen, who finished the season with 1,268 yards and 12 touchdowns. The pass game still struggled most of the season, though, with Graham Mertz finishing the season with 1,958 passing yards, 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Coach Paul Chryst hired Bobby Engram from the Baltimore Ravens to take over as the new offensive coordinator, and Engram will need to figure out how to get more consistency out of the passing game. Mertz was ranked No. 88 in total pass yards, No. 92 in completion percentage and 115 in touchdown to interception ratio. Having Allen and the run game helps, but the pass game needs work. -- VanHaaren

How is a drastically remodeled offense taking shape? It isn't the only question that matters in Columbia this spring, but it is by far the biggest. Shane Beamer's Gamecocks overachieved in 2021, but they did so with an offense that mainly held them back -- they ranked 44th in points allowed per drive, but only 101st in points scored. Beamer, of course, dipped heavily into the transfer portal to straighten things out, bringing in not only marquee quarterback Spencer Rattler (Oklahoma) but also running back Christian Beal-Smith (Wake Forest) and tight end Austin Stogner (Oklahoma). They must all play at a high level if the Gamecocks have any chance of living up to top-25 hype, and Rattler and Beal-Smith are in for spring. What do they have to offer? How is offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield intending to deploy Rattler and company? We'll see! -- Connelly

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