8 College Football Players Who Dazzled in Early Spring Game Action
College football spring games are a discovery zone.
The annual end-of-spring-practice competitions have little impact on the reputation and future playing time of known stars and established starters, as the scrimmage is meant more as a final tuneup than anything else.
The same can't be said for the newcomers, backups and other reserves who make up most of a team's roster. For them, this is their time to shine.
While much more stock will be placed on performance and development during preseason training camp, what happens in the spring game can be used as a springboard toward future success. Those who stand out during this competition will be the talk of the spring and summer...though whether that translates into fall success is unknown.
We're about halfway through the spring game schedule for FBS schools, and so far a handful of players have dazzled above and beyond others.
Imani Cross, Nebraska
Imani Cross has seen limited action as a backup running back for Nebraska during his two seasons, though he has contributed to the tune of 17 rushing touchdowns on 140 carries.
That's the same number of TDs as starting tailback Ameer Abdullah, but the 6'1", 225-pound Cross has taken a backseat to Abdullah in terms of touches and overall game impact. Most of Cross' carries would come in mop-up time, and he managed just 23 rushes in the Cornhuskers' final six Big Ten games last season.
Cross will once again be behind Abdullah this fall, but his 100-yard, two-touchdown performance on just six carries in Nebraska's April 12 spring game shows that he's still eager to push for more time.
Abdullah has been durable and reliable the past two years, but if he were to come up lame, Cross has shown he is willing and able to pick up the slack.
Will Gardner, Louisville
Will Gardner saw only a few snaps as Teddy Bridgewater's backup last season, completing eight of 12 passes for 112 yards and two touchdowns. It wasn't the best sample size to reference, but as the most experienced quarterback on Louisville's roster, he entered spring ball as the favorite for the starting job.
But if the work he put in during the Cardinals' spring game is any indication, he's 100 percent new coach Bobby Petrino's guy to lead the offense.
Gardner, a redshirt sophomore, had an absurd stat line in the April 11 scrimmage, going 32-of-37 for 542 yards and four touchdowns with an interception. He connected with four different receivers for 100 yards apiece.
Granted, everyone on Louisville's offense seemed to tear it up in the spring game (running backs Michael Dyer and L.J. Scott combined for 278 yards and four TDs), but Gardner's production is a sign that Petrino plans to open it up and return the Cardinals to their days of being a scoring juggernaut...back when Petrino was the coach the first time out.
Josh Malone, Tennessee
Josh Malone was the most heralded of Tennessee's bumper crop of recruits, a class that landed the Volunteers the No. 7 ranking for 2014, per 247Sports. He was also one of 14 who enrolled in school early to help Tennessee get a jump on its continued offensive revamp.
Malone made headlines throughout spring practice, then capped it off with six catches for 181 yards and three touchdowns in Tennessee's spring game on April 12.
While such numbers should be taken lightly, writes Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee, there has to be some optimism that guys such as Malone could prove to be the answer for the Volunteers' lackluster offensive punch from the first season of the Butch Jones era in 2013.
How Malone fares in Tennessee's opener Aug. 31, against a stingy Utah State defense, will be the real barometer. But at 6'2" and 191 pounds, the true freshman looks like he's going to be a huge force to be reckoned with in the SEC.
Hutson Mason, Georgia
Hutson Mason was thrown into the fire late last season after Aaron Murray tore knee ligaments, and the inexperienced quarterback did about as well as one could have expected. He led Georgia to an overtime victory over rival Georgia Tech, then threw for 320 yards in the Bulldogs' Gator Bowl loss to Nebraska.
Mason continued his progression toward being the full-time starter with a solid spring game outing on April 12, throwing for 241 yards and a touchdown without an interception.
The fifth-year senior has waited his turn behind Murray, and while he may not be as prolific a passer as the SEC's all-time yardage and touchdown leader was, Mason looks to be a solid successor to bridge the gap between 2013 and 4-star true freshman Jacob Park, per 247Sports, in 2015.
Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
Oklahoma fans who either went to or watched the Sooners' spring game on April 12 saw an awesome display of accuracy and efficiency from Baker Mayfield, who completed all nine of his passes for 125 yards and two touchdowns.
But they'll have to savor that experience, because Mayfield isn't eligible to play in 2014 after transferring from Texas Tech. With Tech he threw for 2,315 yards and 12 touchdowns in eight games as a freshman last season.
Mayfield's performance came on the same afternoon that Oklahoma starter Trevor Knight struggled. Though he won't be able to come on in relief of Knight this fall, knowing what he's capable of will be something the Sooners can look to in the future.
DaVonte' Neal, Arizona
DaVonte' Neal played receiver and on special teams as a true freshman for Notre Dame during its run to the BCS title game in 2012, but a desire to be closer to family prompted him to transfer to Arizona. Neal was not granted a hardship appeal and had to sit out last season.
Neal's arrival gave a huge boost to an Arizona receiving corps that was very young and inexperienced last year, and his first chance to show off his skills in a game situation went well during the Wildcats' spring game on April 12.
Though he only had one catch, it was a big one. Neal took a short pass and turned upfield with a burst, breaking tackles and outrunning defenders for a 44-yard touchdown.
Davis Webb, Texas Tech
Davis Webb started several games for Texas Tech as a true freshman last season, but it wasn't until his breakout performance in the Holiday Bowl (28-of-41 passing, 403 yards, four touchdowns) that he distanced himself from the competition at quarterback.
It helped that both Baker Mayfield and Michael Brewer transferred during the offseason.
Any concern that Webb might slack off during spring ball, knowing he'd locked up the starting job already, was quashed with his performance in the April 12 spring game. He was 25-of-37 for 354 yards and four touchdowns, and according to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal's Krista Pirtle, he threw 13 TDs and no interceptions in the Red Raiders' four scrimmages this spring.
Malik Zaire, Notre Dame
Malik Zaire threw down the gauntlet earlier this spring when he declared he would be Notre Dame's starting quarterback for its Aug. 30 opener against Rice, despite having never taken a college snap and with 2012 starter Everett Golson back in the fold after a season-long suspension.
The redshirt freshman did his best to back up his words with actions during the Fighting Irish's spring game on April 12, throwing for 292 yards and two touchdowns.
"I feel like I established a little more in terms of being the playmaker and the consistent quarterback I know I can be for this team," Zaire said, via Chris Hine of the Chicago Tribune. "They're going to put the best guy out there, whoever it is, and I feel like I have to play at my top level at all times being out there for all the fans."
While his spring game performance alone won't guarantee Zaire the job, it was a great way to end the spring with some momentum before the final competition begins in preseason training camp.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen at @realBJP.
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