12 College Football Fall Camp Battles We Can't Wait to See
Conference media days are upon us, marking the second-to-last major checkpoint before the start of the season. After this, there is fall practice and then there is real, live football.
Now that we have reached this part of the offseason, looking ahead to next year gets upgraded from being "way too early" to simply being "too early." Likewise, looking ahead to fall camp gets upgraded from being "too early" to being "the appropriate time."
So to celebrate this appropriateness, let's look ahead to the position battles we can't wait to see this fall. Now that all of the incoming freshmen—and not just the early enrollees—are participating, the competitions for playing time can get started in earnest.
A number of factors were taken into consideration for this list. It tried to focus on the nationally relevant teams with questions at a certain position. If that team is introducing a blue-chip newcomer to the ranks and allowing him to compete for the job—even better.
Also, we limited ourselves to five quarterback battles, even though there are plenty other good ones out there. Those battles were added based on how close they are (Notre Dame, for example, was left off since Everett Golson is a heavy favorite to start over Malik Zaire) and on how important they are to the national narrative (what happens at LSU will have a bigger impact than what happens at Ball State).
Perhaps at some point in the coming weeks we'll rank how excited we are for all of the FBS quarterback battles. Obviously, there are more than just these five worth keeping an eye on, and there is plenty of time before fall camp to thoroughly preview it.
But at least now we are close enough to start!
Primary Candidates: Bradley Sylve vs. Cyrus Jones vs. Tony Brown vs. Marlon Humphrey
How ready are the 5-star freshmen?
Tony Brown certainly looked the part during spring practice, and Marlon Humphrey, even though he didn't enroll early, was just as highly touted, ranking No. 12 overall in the class to Brown's No. 9.
On pure talent, both of the youngsters have a chance to beat out speedy Bradley Sylve and steady Cyrus Jones for the starting jobs. That holds doubly true given the success of last year's top-20 true freshmen cornerbacks: Vernon Hargreaves III (Florida), Jalen Ramsey (Florida State) and Kendall Fuller (Virginia Tech).
Was 2013 an outlier year for freshmen corners, or can Brown and Humphrey realistically step into the top roles in Tuscaloosa?
The fall will provide the answer.
Clemson Strongside Linebacker/Nickelback
Primary Candidates: Travis Blanks vs. Dorian O'Daniel vs. T.J. Burrell vs. Korrin Wiggins
The four players above were listed in a tie for the starting spot on the depth chart Clemson released this summer.
Entering spring practice, that would have seemed like a stretch. Travis Blanks was thought to be the favorite after making 36 tackles last season, but on pure potential, he no longer looks like the best option.
That honor goes to redshirt freshman Dorian O'Daniel, who was a top-100 overall prospect in 2013 and is the best athlete of the bunch. He is also the purest linebacker of the quartet, but he is shifty enough to be an asset in coverage—something the role definitely calls for.
But does Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables opt for potential over proven production? The Tigers defense (especially in the front seven) is a veteran-laden group that can afford to try out the former. But might a freshman lapse or two come back to bite them?
O'Daniel must show his consistency during the fall.
Florida State Z Wide Receiver
Primary Candidates: Isaiah Jones vs. Christian Green vs. Ermon Lane vs. Travis Rudolph vs. Javon Harrison
Florida State lost Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw from last year's receiving trio, but it does not lack for options replacing either.
The battle in the slot is intriguing in its own right, but, because it involves a pair of blue-chip true freshmen, the battle to replace Benjamin on the outside is the one we look forward to the most.
Neither Travis Rudolph nor Ermon Lane enrolled for spring camp, which allowed established players such as Isaiah Jones to gain an even bigger leg up. At 6'4", Jones has the potential to do some of the same things as Benjamin, but it takes more than size to be so good.
The Seminoles have to be hoping for one—if not both—of their top receiving prospects to become an instant contributor. Fellow true freshman Javon Harrison is a name worth keeping an eye on, too.
Primary Candidates: Brandon Harris vs. Anthony Jennings
Anthony Jennings got his feet wet at the end of 2013, but the results were not overwhelmingly positive. Yes, he led a 99-yard touchdown drive to salvage the game against Arkansas, but he also looked out of sorts in a near-loss against Iowa in the Outback Bowl.
Even if Jennings looked a little better, the door probably would have been open for freshman Brandon Harris to come in and compete for the starting job. But Jennings' struggles left it more open, and what happened in the spring game blew the door off its hinges entirely.
Even though he only completed 11-of-28 passes (which is pretty awful), Harris made the most of his completions, throwing for 195 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He rushed for 77 yards, too. By contrast, Jennings had 157 yards on 17 passes, "rushed" for minus-22 yards (on sacks) and had one touchdown to two interceptions.
After the game, Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee said the starting job was "Harris' to lose." But that doesn't mean he's won it quite yet. He and Jennings will continue to wage this battle throughout the fall.
Ohio State Inside Linebacker
Primary Candidates: Curtis Grant vs. Raekwon McMillan
Curtis Grant has been decent but underwhelming since arriving in Columbus as a 5-star recruit in 2011. He started 12 games last season but didn't do enough to ensure himself a starting job in 2014.
A lot of that, though, has to do with whom Grant is competing against: namely, Raekwon McMillan. The younger, shinier version of a 5-star recruit was the highest-rated player in Ohio State's class and the No. 1 inside linebacker in the country this past cycle.
According to Ari Wasserman of Cleveland.com, co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said Ohio State would "be at its best if its seniors were at its best," which would seem to hint at a preference for Grant. But those comments came in early March—before McMillan tore up spring camp—and are perhaps not entirely germane.
Whoever wins this job will have earned it.
Oklahoma Running Back
Primary Candidates: Keith Ford vs. Joe Mixon vs. Alex Ross vs. Samaje Perine
On paper, the biggest obstacle between Oklahoma and a trip to the College Football Playoff is what it has at the skill positions.
Which isn't to say it doesn't have talent. It very much does. Especially in the backfield, where Keith Ford was a 5-star recruit in 2013 and Joe Mixon was a 5-star recruit in 2014, it has the pedigree of a prospective Big 12 and national champion.
But which—if either—of those two guys will step up and become the lead back? After the spring Alex Ross just had, the role of top dog will not be handed to anyone. And that holds doubly true once running-back-in-a-fullback's-body Samaje Perine (5'11", 243 lbs) joins the fray alongside Mixon during fall camp.
Some type of split between these options seems likely, but at this point that is all that is "known." How that split is delegated will come down to how each player performs in August practices.
Oregon No. 3 Receiver
Primary Candidates: Dwayne Stanford vs. Chance Allen vs. B.J. Kelley vs. Darren Carrington vs. Jalen Brown
With Bralon Addison (probably) lost for the season with a torn ACL, Keanon Lowe is embracing his role as the lone tested receiver at Oregon, and redshirt freshman/track superstar Devon Allen all but secured a spot in the starting lineup during spring camp.
But in the past, Oregon has essentially used three receivers as starters, and since Lowe and Allen both appear capable of playing from the slot, if need be, almost any type of player could win the role. Whether it be a bigger or a smaller body—the best guy will play.
Despite his ill-suited name, Dwayne Stanford is 6'5" and rangy, which makes him an intriguing outside option. Darren Carrington also had a nice spring camp. Chance Allen made some plays in mop-up duty last season, Jalen Brown is a redshirt freshman and former U.S. Army All-American and B.J. Kelley is entering his fourth season with the team.
There is raw talent up and down this roster, and they'll all duke it out to land that coveted No. 3 role during fall camp.
Primary Candidates: Justin Worley vs. Josh Dobbs
Contrary to popular belief, Tennessee head coach Butch Jones does not think quarterback will be a problem area (once again) in 2014. In fact, per Bleacher Report's Brad Shepard, Jones said at SEC Media Days that he expects the position to be a "strength."
The most likely candidate right now appears to be Justin Worley, a senior who didn't blow anyone away last season but looked more confident this spring. Per Paul Fortenberry of Rivals.com, he also just enjoyed a nice week at the Manning Passing Academy—enough so that Archie Manning called Jones to praise Worley.
But all of these reviews are conjectural. Especially during the offseason, practice reports must be viewed with a wary eye. Doesn't it seem like every player looks "great" during spring camp?
Sophomore Josh Dobbs will push Worley this fall and has a legitimate (albeit underdog) shot of winning the job. Tennessee's schedule is not conducive to a huge turnaround this season, so it might make sense, at some point, to let the younger QB play.
It also might make sense since Dobbs is the more mobile option, and Tennessee's offensive line, which has to replace just about everybody, could prove to be a bit of a nightmare.
These two aren't neck-and-neck…but they're closer than people think.
Primary Candidates: David Ash vs. Tyrone Swoopes vs. Jerrod Heard
How healthy is David Ash?
Is Tyrone Swoopes playing the wrong position?
Who is this Jerrod Heard kid anyway?
All of those questions will loom over Austin, Texas, during fall practice, and each is fair in its own right. Ash is the safest, most reliable option, but only if he's able to take the field; Swoopes is a gifted athlete who can't throw a consistent spiral; and Heard is the most exciting of the bunch but still hasn't even practiced with the team.
Despite their well-documented struggles in 2013, the Longhorns almost won the Big 12. At every position except quarterback, they appear to have the talent to compete for another league title as soon as this season. But Charlie Strong and Shawn Watson are used to winning with Teddy Bridgewater under center.
Are any of these guys even 75 percent of that?
Texas A&M Quarterback
Primary Candidates: Kyle Allen vs. Kenny Hill
Who wants to be the next Hall of Famer?
Seriously. I admit that's a little reductive, but Kevin Sumlin's last two quarterbacks are the all-time leading passer in college football history and the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy. His system helped turn Case Keenum and Johnny Manziel into honest-to-God legends.
Kyle Allen is probably the clubhouse leader despite being the true freshman in the race. Kenny Hill's suspension (for drunkenly passing out in a flower planter) during spring camp gave the nation's No. 1 QB prospect some extra first-team reps, and he made them count.
But Hill's scrambling ability adds a different, Manziel-esque dimension to the offense that Allen can't provide. Sumlin's offense worked from the pocket with Keenum—whom Allen's game actually resembles quite a bit—but maybe he learned a thing of two from Manziel.
Maybe now he wants a guy who can extend a broken play.
USC Strongside Linebacker
Primary Candidates: Jabari Ruffin vs. Quinton Powell
This one is as close as it gets.
According to Bleacher Report's Trenise Ferreira, Jabari Ruffin and Quinton Powell traded first-team reps throughout spring practice; at this point, she writes, the winner of the battle "is anyone's guess."
As freshmen last season, Ruffin (a redshirt) had 22 tackles, and Powell (a true) had 20. In terms of pedigree, both were 4-star recruits, although Ruffin had a .9719 (out of 1.0000) on the 247Sports composite rankings, and Powell had a .9259.
All of those things would seem to give Powell a small advantage. But it's really small advantage. One year of extra experience is important, but a couple extra tackles and recruiting points? Not as much.
These two should continue trading reps throughout August.
Primary Candidates: Tanner McEvoy vs. Joel Stave
Joel Stave has won a lot of games at Wisconsin and boasts a career passer rating of 140.8. That's not too shabby for a player so frequently criticized—even with the added benefit of Wisconsin's running game.
But is he still the right guy for this job?
Stave represents the safe option under center, which is normally all the Badgers need. They can rely on their offensive line, their running backs and their defense to do the heavy lifting. The quarterback just needs to look up, find Jared Abbrederis and lob the ball his way.
But now, after a seemingly decade-long career, Abbrederis is gone to the NFL. The defense has rare question marks too. The running game remains on point, but the Badgers cannot—debatably—keep opting for the safe option under center. They might need to roll the dice.
Tanner McEvoy represents that dice roll. He is 6'6" and athletic enough that he contributed at safety after losing the quarterback job last season (whereas Stave is as stone-footed as they come). He doesn't have the seasoning to guarantee this team stays very good, but he has the physical gifts to potentially make it great.
Which does Gary Andersen prefer?
Note: All recruiting info refers to the 247Sports composite rankings.