Non-AQ spring previews

Let's take a look at some spring storylines for selected non-AQ teams.


Spring practice start date: March 12

Spring game: April 14

End date: April 16

What to watch:

  • Gus Malzahn era begins. Hugh Freeze took Arkansas State to the Sun Belt title in his only year on the job. Now the Gus Malzahn era begins, with promises to continue the high-flying attack that dominated the league last year. Malzahn obviously has made his name as one of the top offensive minds in the game, so it will be interesting to see how he interacts with reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year Ryan Aplin.

  • Michael Dyer's eligibility? The former Auburn running back has transferred to Arkansas State, but his eligibility for 2012 is unclear. The school has considered filing a hardship waiver to the NCAA because of an ailing family member. If approved, he would be eligible immediately.

  • Big defensive losses. The Red Wolves are losing some of their best players on defense -- Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year Brandon Joiner as well as first-team selections Demario Davis, Darryl Feemster and Kelcie McCray. In fact, only 10 starters return to the team, so there will be plenty of position battles this spring.


Spring practice start date: March 12

Spring game: April 14

What to watch:

  • Replacing Kellen Moore. This is not just a local story. It is a national story. Trying to replace the winningest quarterback in NCAA history is going to overshadow anything Boise State does during practice in the spring or fall. There are several contenders: junior Joe Southwick, sophomore Grant Hedrick, redshirt freshman Jimmy Laughrea and true freshman Nick Patti, already enrolled. Southwick has served as the backup to Moore the past two seasons, while Patti is a highly heralded recruit out of Florida with similarities to Moore. You can bet this will not be settled in the spring.

  • Youth. Moore is not the only starter who has to be replaced. This will be a relatively inexperienced team when it comes to starts. Several big-time contributors are gone, including running back Doug Martin, left tackle Nate Potter and defensive linemen Shea McClellin, Billy Winn, Tyrone Crawford, Chase Baker, linebacker Byron Hout and safety George Iloka. By some counts, Boise State has only six returning starters for 2012.

  • Big East early? This has nothing to do with on-the-field matters, but there remains the possibility that Boise State could jump to the Big East a year early to fill the hole left by West Virginia.


Spring practice start date: March 5

Spring end date: March 30 (spring game TBA)

What to watch:

  • QB depth. Riley Nelson goes into the season as the unquestioned starter after replacing Jake Heaps nearly midway through last season. Nelson's energy and enthusiasm helped the Cougars end with a 10-win season in Year 1 as an independent. This team is now officially his from the start of the season. Now, can he stay healthy? He has gotten injured in 2010 and 2011, and there is not much experience behind him with Heaps having gone to Kansas. Depth must be developed.

  • Replacing Matt Reynolds. Reynolds was a rock for the Cougars at left tackle the past several seasons, so his shoes are big ones to fill on the offensive line. It helps that three starters are returning on the line, but Reynolds tied a school record with 52 starts in his BYU career. High school All-American Ryker Mathews would seem to be the favorite to win this spot. He missed last season with a foot injury.

  • Eason gone. Perhaps one of the most underrated players on the defense was Corby Eason, who was tied for the team lead with 14 pass breakups. He is gone, and Jordan Johnson will get his chance at cornerback.


Spring practice start date: March 21

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

  • Bye-bye, Case. Just like Boise State, the Cougars must replace record-setting quarterback Case Keenum, who got a sixth year of eligibility and proceeded to smash a number of NCAA passing marks. Unlike Boise, the Cougars have a quarterback with starting experience. That would be David Piland, who took over in 2010 when Keenum and backup Cotton Turner got hurt. Piland got the luxury of redshirting last season, and he goes into spring as the heir apparent. How much has he improved?

  • Tony Levine takes over. Kevin Sumlin is gone, and Levine was promoted to head coach. That should certainly ease the transition, but Levine is going to want to put his own stamp on the program. What changes will we see with the way he runs practice and schemes? This will be a perfect time for Levine to learn with trial and error before spring practice begins.

  • Sammy Brown gone. Brown was just as important to the defense as Keenum was to the offense, and his departure is a major hole. The entire linebacker corps has questions, with Marcus McGraw and Phillip Steward also gone. Those three players ranked among the top four in tackles for the season.


Spring practice start date: March 19

Spring game: April 14

What to watch:

  • Miller time. Trey Miller goes into the spring as the starter at quarterback. He did play in several games last season and was pretty inconsistent. But now that he has some playing time under his belt and the full-time starting quarterback job, he can start to take some ownership of this team.

  • Get tougher. Coach Ken Niumatalolo wants his players to get tougher, both physically and mentally. Last season was not what anybody at Navy anticipated, and the heartbreaking losses are simply tough to accept. But Niumatalolo is not going with scheme changes in the spring to get his team back to a bowl game. It is all about making sure his players are tough-minded and fighting for one another.

  • Discipline. That means playing with much more discipline, and paying attention to detail. When you lose five games by three points or fewer, you start to understand you have to do everything right, even the little things.


Spring practice start date: March 28

Spring game: April 21

What to watch:

  • Lynch time. All-everything quarterback Chandler Harnish is gone, leaving the job to his backup for the past two seasons, Jordan Lynch. He is a former safety and, according to the folks who know, plays like one. He also is apparently a better runner than Harnish. Lynch has seen his share of playing time, but how will he fare now that he is in command of the entire offense?

  • Offensive line. How do the Huskies replace four seniors with a combined 151 career starts? With Trevor Olson, Joe Pawlak, Scott Wedige and Keith Otis gone, Logan Pegram is the lone returner. The line had much to do with the success of Harnish and the offense last season. They gave up just 12 sacks and ranked No. 12 in the country in rushing offense and No. 11 in total offense.

  • Defensive strength. Northern Illinois returns eight starters on defense but also should get a boost from two more players -- 2010 starters Devon Butler at middle linebacker and Tyrone Clark at weakside linebacker. Butler sat out after he was injured in a shooting last April; Clark sat out for undisclosed personal reasons but practiced with the team throughout the year. Butler dressed out for bowl practices, although he didn't do any contact.


Spring practice start date: March 5

Spring game: April 14

What to watch:

  • No Austin Davis. Terrific dual-threat quarterback Austin Davis is gone, leaving a big question mark at the position. Backup Arsenio Favor is expected to get the first-string reps during spring practice, but there definitely will be those watching for incoming freshman Anthony Alford come the fall. New coach Ellis Johnson tried to recruit Alford to South Carolina. Alford also was a baseball player, like Davis.

  • Ellis Johnson takes over. Southern Miss has built a winning tradition, and Johnson is taking over the surprise Conference USA champs. But he faces some rebuilding questions both on offense and defense. How does he handle these in his first head-coaching opportunity? Johnson has been a lifelong assistant, and worked under many good head coaches. How he adapts now that he is in charge is definitely something to watch.

  • Defense rebuilding. Six key players from the front seven are gone, including Cordarro Law and Ronnie Thornton. There also is a new coaching staff in place for these players to get used to. Remember, some are going on their third defensive coordinator in three years.