Winners and Losers of Week 2 of College Football's Spring Game Season
The meat of spring football season came and went this weekend, as 54 FBS teams (including 30 of the 64 from power conferences) played their spring game and tied a bow on their first set of practices during the College Football Playoff era.
Because of their format and their often-relaxed style, these exhibitions are hard to evaluate. Star players with even the most minor injury can see limited or no meaningful playing time, while defenses try not to blitz and to protect the team's quarterbacks. It's difficult to draw any important conclusions.
However, one needn't look further than 2013 to see how important a spring game can potentially be. Jameis Winston launched his Heisman campaign at this very time last season, playing so well that fellow QB Clint Trickett would soon transfer to West Virginia for a chance to start.
It's hard to say if the next Jameis Winston broke out Friday or Saturday, but a number of quarterback battles did take relevant turns. The weekend also saw some other players impress or disappoint; and at this point of the season, even something so small is significant news.
But who made out the best and the worst of everyone?
Winner/Loser: QB Malik Zaire/Everett Golson, Notre Dame
Malik Zaire looks like more than a spring camp darling and much more than a mere insurance option behind Everett Golson.
Even I, who had been dismissive on the record about his chances to start in 2014, walked away impressed, thinking Zaire has a real shot to justify his prophecy and start the opening game against Rice.
Not that Golson looked bad in his first "appearance" since the 2013 BCS National Championship Game. He moved the offense along and finished with 153 passing yards and a rushing touchdown. But Zaire looked superior from start to finish—not just on the stat sheet (292 passing yards and two touchdowns) but also to anyone with eyes.
"[Zaire's] problem has been consistency of staying with progressions," said head coach Brian Kelly, according to B/R's Mike Monaco. "So that has been really good today, the consistency was much better for him."
Zaire is a smoother athlete than Golson, to the point where even Golson himself would likely not dispute it. The only thing holding him back is experience—only one QB on the roster, after all, has led a team to the national title game—and consistency reading an FBS defense.
He can't gain the first in earnest until late August, but Zaire can continue getting better at the second.
If he does, why shouldn't he pull the upset and unseat Golson?
Winner: RB Barry Sanders Jr., Stanford
By virtue of his name and his famous father, great things will always be expected from Barry Sanders Jr. On Saturday, he showed that this might finally be the season where he gets to make a difference.
Fighting with a group of capable players to replace Tyler Gaffney, Sanders starred at Stanford's spring game, gaining 68 yards on 12 carries and adding 19 yards on two receptions.
Those numbers are less gaudy than some others we'll encounter on this list, but in context—i.e., against a David Shaw defense—efficiency of that nature is impressive to say the least.
In all likelihood, the Cardinal's running back battle will not yield a workhorse as its winner. No matter now well Sanders plays, Kelsey Young (if healthy) will have a role in the backfield. However, Sanders made a strong claim Saturday to be the 1a. option for this offense, which is an encouraging step forward.
After all, he does have some Barry Sanders Sr. in his game.
Loser: Penn State Offensive Line
Penn State was an overall winner Saturday, bringing in 72,000 fans for the first game of the James Franklin era. Almost nothing could have sullied such a day.
The performance of the offensive line came close, however, which was troubling to see. Offensive line coach Herb Hand has his...well, hands full with a unit that loses three starters (and wasn't very good to begin with). But even this early in the learning process, few expected this group to struggle at a level that was downright Michigan-ian.
According to Josh Moyer of ESPN.com, PSU allowed nine sacks (despite the running clock), and the running game had just 21 yards on its first 16 carries. Center Wendy Laurent also left the game with an injury, which could fragment the unit during summer workouts.
Franklin's mere presence has re-reinvigorated the Penn State faithful, which was Saturday's most important takeaway. But he's still got some work to do before the fall.
Winner/Loser: QB Cole Stoudt/Chad Kelly, Clemson
The title of this article by The Post and Courier's Aaron Brenner (subscription required) says it all: "Cole Stoudt Shines, Chad Kelly Benched in Clemson Spring Game."
That's about all there was to the Tigers' quarterback competition Saturday. Early enrollee DeShaun Watson missed the game with a cracked collarbone, and without him, Stoudt took what was a small lead over Kelly and made it an immense one.
Stoudt finished the game 15-of-23 with 158 passing yards and two touchdowns. Kelly, meanwhile, completed 10 of 18 passes for 118 yards and two interceptions. But he was pulled from the game after publicly questioning offensive coordinator Chad Morris and receivers coach Jeff Scott's decision to punt on a fourth down, per Greg Wallace of the Associated Press.
"There's no question today Cole Stoudt today had the better day, was the better leader, was more poised, and handled the situation that was in front of him better. Everybody could see that today," said Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, per Wallace.
That about sums things up.
Winner: WR Fred Brown, Mississippi State
Mississippi State has generated some buzz as a potential sleeper in the SEC West. Especially on offense, where quarterback Dak Prescott and almost every relevant receiver returns from a season ago, this team has a chance to be quite good.
That holds doubly true if Fred Brown becomes a contributor on the outside. There is a little bit of uncertainty opposite Jameon Lewis in the Bulldogs' receiver rotation, and Saturday, Brown stated loudly his case to be included in the conversation, finishing with 10 catches for 219 yards and two scores.
"I just came out here this spring and played my hardest each and every day," said Brown, according to the Associated Press. "...I showed the coaches what I had this spring."
If he continues showing coaches this summer and fall what he showed them this spring, Brown might be more than just the winner of the fourth receiver battle in Starkville.
He might become an integral part of the offense.
Loser: QB Closure at Arizona
A spring game doesn't need to yield a winner to each team's position battles. In fact, especially at quarterback, a team might be better off going into the summer with an open competition, as I wrote Friday.
Ideally, however, the spring game would be a good data point en route to solving a QB conundrum. Especially in the case of Arizona, which has four players competing with a realistic chance to win the starting job, some clarity before fall camp would have felt nice.
That is not what the team got Saturday.
USC transfer Jesse Scroggins got the start and looked decent but completed just three of his eight passes. Texas transfer Connor Brewer looked good-not-great also, and athletic dark horses Anu Solomon and Jerrard Randall showed flashes but didn't stand out.
Does anybody want to win this job?
Winner: QB Hutson Mason, Georgia
The stat-line—18-of-27 passing for 241 yards, one touchdown and zero interceptions—looked good, and the on-field performance did not belie the numbers. Hutson Mason looked every bit as capable, poised and confident as he's been billed.
"[Mason] did a nice job like he's been doing all spring long," said head coach Mark Richt, according to B/R's Barrett Sallee. "Finding the open targets, getting us in the right plays, right protections. I think he stood in the pocket very well and bought some time back there and made some plays. I thought he did a nice job overall."
If you squinted hard enough on Saturday, you might have seen the 14 scribbled across Mason's chest blur into the familiar 11 of Aaron Murray. Especially when he got out of the pocket and flashed some wheels, Mason made Georgia fans feel at home, like they may not crumble without the presence of their former four-year starter.
This was reassuring to say the least.
Loser: QB Trevor Knight, Oklahoma
The spring game is nothing but a one-game sample. A bad performance is nothing to freak out about—it could always be an outlier, an off-game that signals no higher meaning whatsoever.
However, the same things could be said in reverse about the Sugar Bowl. That one-game sample against Alabama served as Trevor Knight's breakout performance on the heels of a season where he was benched on more than one occasion, and to see him fail to follow up on that is troubling for obvious reasons.
Knight completed just five his of 13 passes for 53 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. That final line looked more like his season-opening stinker against Louisiana-Monroe than his season-ending masterpiece against Alabama, and although he will still be the starter in 2014, this performance (rightfully) tempers talk of his potential to compete for a Heisman.
Baker Mayfield, who transferred this winter after throwing for 2,315 yards and 12 touchdowns at Texas Tech last season, will not be eligible in 2014 due to NCAA transfer rules, but he looked like the far superior quarterback on Saturday.
That is not what OU fans were expecting to hear.
Winner: WR Josh Malone, Tennessee
No program is more excited about its incoming class than Tennessee, and no early enrollee has enjoyed a better spring game (to date) than receiver Josh Malone, who starred at Neyland Stadium Saturday with six catches for 181 yards and three touchdowns.
According to the 247Sports Composite, Malone was the No. 36 player and No. 5 receiver in the country and the top-ranked prospect in the state of Tennessee this cycle, so early production comes as little shock.
Its magnitude, however, is way ahead of schedule, as Malone looks poised to pair with Marquez North and give the Vols one of the best WR duos in the SEC for at least the next couple seasons.
"I'm very impressed with Malone," said North, according to B/R's Brad Shepard. "He's a humble guy with a good work ethic."
"He's gonna take off."
Loser: DC Todd Grantham, Louisville
Is it time for Louisville fans to panic about their defense? Not quite. But it may be time to start worrying.
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham made his first public showing since leaving Georgia for Louisville, and his unit helped make Will Gardner (32-of-37, 542 yards, 4 TD) look like a favorable concoction of Teddy Bridgewater and Ryan Mallett.
Perhaps that portends success in Bobby Petrino's vertical passing attack. Sure. But perhaps it just means the defense will be awful.
For the most part, there is no sense putting much stock in how a defense performs in the spring game. Coaches prefer to keep the scheme vanilla, afraid to show their cards on any sort of game tape. If that is what this was, UL fans have nothing to fret about.
But only if that's truly what this was.