They’ve Got Next: 10 Players Moving Into Star Roles at Spring Football

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Equinoxes, spring training, and NCAA hoops be damned: March means it’s time for the ritual rebirth that is spring football, when we get our first, nebulous glimpse of the impending college football season. As always, the start of spring practice means new coaches, new controversies, and great expectations for anyone who has yet to net out as an irredeemable bust, and even for some who have. This time of year, everyone deserves a fresh start.

Of course, that air of optimism makes a lot more sense for certain players than for others, whether due to talent, circumstance, or both. Here are the 10 new spring starters with the best chance to remake well-established roles in their own image before the mercury begins to rise.

Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin

Compared to the other players on this list, Clement is a known quantity, having already churned out nearly 1,500 yards over the past two years in Melvin Gordon’s long, dreadlocked shadow. But even if he hadn’t yet taken his first handoff, Clement would still deserve top billing here merely by virtue of inheriting the role of “starting tailback at Wisconsin,” a perennial star vehicle that has produced at least one 1,000-yard rusher — and occasionally two of them — in 20 of the past 22 seasons.1 Obviously, Gordon is an especially tough act to follow on the heels of the best individual campaign by a college running back since Barry Sanders. But the same could have been said when Gordon emerged as the heir apparent to Montee Ball, a consensus All-American in 2011 and 2012, and when Ball took the baton from John Clay, the Big Ten’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2009. Before Clay, the spotlight belonged to another oversize thumper, P.J. Hill, who racked up just shy of 4,000 yards in three years and was then promptly forgotten by the rest of the country. Taking over as the Badgers’ feature back is like landing the lead in the next Batman: Fans may shift their loyalties to the new guy every few years, but as long as you’re in the uniform, you’re going to generate some fairly spectacular returns.

Clement is an ideal successor: His prototypical size (5-foot-11, 217 pounds), his four-star pedigree as a recruit, and his starter-like production as a backup all affirm his potential as an every-down workhorse, and incoming head coach Paul Chryst — a born-and-bred Wisconsinite who served as the Badgers offensive coordinator from 2005 to 2011 — is a well-established acolyte of the Cro-Mag philosophy that has defined Wisconsin for decades. As long as Clement is healthy, there’s not much doubt about his ability to produce. The only real question at this point is how much of the load he’s going to have to carry by himself.

Jovon Robinson, RB, Auburn

Auburn has also enjoyed its share of above-the-fold backs over the years, and Robinson might have already taken his place in that lineage if not for an academic scandal in 2012 that threatened to derail his career.2 Instead, he has spent the last two years just across state lines, at Georgia Military College, biding his time while racking up truly obscene stats on a weekly basis.

Robinson reenrolled at Auburn in December as the nation’s no. 1 juco prospect, just in time to go through bowl practices with the team; this spring, he’s sharing the top of the depth chart with another former five-star recruit, sophomore Roc Thomas, in an attack that produced the SEC’s leading rusher in both 2013 (Tre Mason) and 2014 (Cameron Artis-Payne). Considering that Robinson will be eligible for the draft in 2016, the Tigers should enjoy finally having him around while they can.

Marquavius Lewis, DE, South Carolina

South Carolina’s pass rush languished in a pathetic, post–Jadeveon Clowney funk in 2014, coming in dead last in the SEC in both total sacks (14) and Adjusted Sack Rate; worse, only four of those sacks were credited to defensive ends. Accordingly, Carolina made upgrading the edges a red-siren priority in recruiting, adding seven new defensive ends in the 2015 recruiting class, five of whom are juco or prep school transfers arriving with more or less explicit expectations to relegate last year’s underachieving ends to the scrap heap. “We were not looking to overhaul the entire defensive line,” defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward told a local outlet earlier this month, in the wake of a mass exodus from last year’s defense. “We just felt like we needed some edge rushers that could get to the quarterback without having to call a blitz. We didn’t have that. When you have 14 sacks and eight come from the linebackers, obviously your ends are not as effective as you need them to be.”

As it stands, more than a third of the Gamecocks’ entire roster this fall will consist of first-year players. But no one in the new class arrives with more hype than Lewis, a 6-foot-4, 278-pound Carolina native who enrolled in December by way of Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College, and who might be counted on for more immediate production this fall than any other newcomer in the country.

Chris Black, WR, Alabama

chris-black-alabama-triStacy Revere/Getty Images

I’m not suggesting Black is in line to “replace” Amari Cooper, who single-handedly transformed Alabama’s stodgy offense into one of the most aggressive, feared passing attacks in the SEC; even with a long line of blue-chip successors stacked up behind him, Cooper is irreplaceable. In addition to its headliner, though, Alabama also lost its no. 2 and no. 3 receivers, outgoing seniors DeAndrew White and Christion Jones, essentially leaving offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and whoever winds up playing quarterback to reinvent the passing game from scratch.

Among the up-and-coming candidates at wide receiver, Black wasn’t the most decorated as a recruit (that distinction belongs to sophomore Robert Foster or incoming freshman Calvin Ridley, who’s still in high school), and most of his production to date has been relegated to garbage time.3 Still, as a redshirt junior, Black is the most experienced target, and the one who’s usually singled out as a certain starter. Assuming Bama still plans to venture outside of its shell occasionally, he’ll have every opportunity to be the beneficiary.

Raekwon McMillan, MLB, Ohio State

The defending champs are stacked for another run in 2015 behind essentially the same cast that stormed to the title last year, give or take a star quarterback. Like most of the holdovers, the few new faces being penciled into the starting lineup all arrived in Columbus to great acclaim as recruits, none of them more so than McMillan, a former five-star prospect who also had the distinction of leading a burgeoning wave of players born in the mid-’90s named “Raekwon.”

McMillan got his fair share of meaningful field time last year, most notably against Maryland, where he returned an interception for a touchdown and fueled the expectations that will accompany his ascension to first string. As a sophomore, he may or may not represent an instant upgrade over outgoing senior Curtis Grant, but anyone searching for an Achilles’ heel on the Buckeyes’ depth chart will have to find it somewhere else.

Peter Kalambayi, OLB, Stanford

On the whole, Stanford’s tumble from the Top 25 last year after back-to-back conference championships in 2012 and ’13 read as an alarming regression, but that wasn’t true across the board. Defensively, the Cardinal reinforced their alpha status by leading the Pac-12 in both yards and points allowed for the third year in a row, actually improving slightly on their 2012-13 returns in both categories, and doing so with the veteran core of those championship teams toiling away at the fringes of NFL rosters. Entering 2015, the turnover is even more dramatic: Eight starters from the 2014 defense are gone, including the two players who spent the most time in opposing backfields, Kevin Anderson and James Vaughters. The defensive line in particular is about as thin as it can be.

As far as the pass rush is concerned, though, there’s reason for optimism thanks to Kalambayi, a former four-star recruit poised to assume the mantle. Although he’s not a returning starter, having come off the bench in every game last year behind Vaughters, Kalambayi is a known quantity off the edge, having matched Vaughters with 6.5 sacks in 2014. (Three of those takedowns came in an early win over Washington, for which Kalambayi was named Pac-12 defensive player of the week.) His graduation into a full-time role this spring is a mere formality, and from there all-conference-caliber production seems likely to come with the territory.

Roderick Johnson, OT, Florida State

For this entry, the designation of “next big thing” is quite literal: At 6-foot-7, 330 pounds, Johnson was the largest member of Florida State’s roster last year as a true freshman, and he turned out to be a quiet but important piece of FSU’s playoff run when he moved into the starting lineup at left tackle in November. The other four O-line starters down the stretch were all seniors who started every game during the Seminoles’ two-year, 28-game winning streak.

As the only returning starter up front — and one of only a handful of returning regulars across the entire offense — Johnson is already so entrenched that coach Jimbo Fisher told reporters on the first day of spring drills that his big sophomore-to-be looked like a 10-year veteran. Still, this is Johnson’s first go-around as a full-season starter, so for FSU’s new quarterback’s sake, let’s hope Fisher wasn’t just speaking relatively.

Jabrill Peppers, DB, Michigan

For readers who keep tabs on the hyperbolic world of college football recruiting, Peppers needs no introduction, but he could certainly benefit from a reset. Far from being the dynamic, instant-impact star the hype led Michigan fans to expect,4 Peppers spent most of his freshman campaign on ice, nursing a vague leg injury and venting his frustration as the Brady Hoke era in Ann Arbor lurched to a depressing close. In keeping with the seasonal theme, this spring marks a fresh start: A new coach is in charge, Peppers’s freshman eligibility has been restored, and expectations for a healthy Peppers are well on their way to matching 2014 levels.

Yeah, actually, let’s just go ahead and dial the hype back up to 11.

Seth Russell, QB, Baylor

seth-russell-baylor-triCooper Neill/Getty Images

Can you name the last Art Briles quarterback who didnt break the bank statistically? You can’t, because he doesn’t exist: In 12 years as a I-A/FBS head coach, Briles has overseen the gonzo stylings of Kevin Kolb, Case Keenum, Robert Griffin III, Nick Florence, and Bryce Petty, a quintet responsible for 57,043 yards and 421 touchdowns over the course of their college careers. Baylor’s offense is a perpetual pinball machine — the Bears led the nation in both total and scoring offense last year for the second year in a row — and it doesn’t require a five-star, NFL-ready specimen to operate at full tilt.

Russell, a redshirt junior with one career start and a ton of garbage time under his belt as Petty’s understudy, is not a five-star, NFL-ready specimen by any means, and although he is competing against a superlative talent this spring in early-enrolling freshman Jarrett Stidham, all signs out of Waco suggest that Russell is the default QB1 until proven otherwise. Baylor has barely missed out on a national title shot the past two years, turning in consecutive 11-1 records in the regular season, and given the returning talent across the board, 2015 will decidedly not be about laying a foundation for the future. “Right now, Seth is going to have to get beat out,” Briles told ESPN at the start of spring drills. “He’s the guy that’s been here, knows the system, and we’ll see how those other guys develop.” Translation: If you have a fantasy team, Russell is the guy you want on it.

Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA

If you’re itching to get a jump on the next freshman prodigy behind center, your best bet is “Chosen” Rosen, both the most coveted quarterback in the 2015 class and the one most likely to make an instant splash this spring. Rosen enrolled at UCLA on January 5, just three days after Brett Hundley played his last game in the Alamo Bowl, portending a smooth transition from the Hundley era (in which the Bruins shed their middling, underachieving rep and reasserted their relevance in the Pac-12 South) to the era in which Rosen and his blue-chip classmates stand to elevate the program nationally.

Standing in the way of that narrative for the time being is junior Jerry Neuheisel, the magnificently coiffed son of ex-UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, who bizarrely declined to burn Hundley’s redshirt despite an uninspiring performance from his veteran quarterbacks back in 2011; the elder Neuheisel was canned at the end of that season, and Hundley eventually left school with an extra year of eligibility on the table anyway. Surely the folks in Westwood won’t let the same family delay the inevitable again.

Filed Under: College Football, Spring Football, Wisconsin Badgers, Corey Clement, Auburn Tigers, Jovon Robinson, South Carolina Gamecocks, Marquavius Lewis, Alabama Crimson Tide, Chris Black, Ohio State Buckeyes, Raekwon McMillan, Stanford Cardinal, Peter Kalambayi, Florida State Seminoles, Roderick Johnson, Michigan Wolverines, Jabrill Peppers, Baylor Bears, Seth Russell, UCLA Bruins, Josh Rosen, Football, NCAAF, Freshmen, Recruits, College Football Recruiting, National Signing Day 2015, National Signing Day, Signing Day, Matt Hinton

Matt Hinton is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ MattRHinton