10 Biggest Position Battles to Watch in 2014 Fall Camps
Training camps are starting up all over the country for college football teams, the beginning of roughly four weeks of preparation for the opening games of the 2014 season in late August. It will be the first chance for coaches to see their returning players and a full crop of newcomers working together at one time, and the practices will help finalize lineups for those first contests.
The vast majority of starting jobs are locked up, either by returning starters or key reserves from 2013. In some cases, freshmen who enrolled early or transfers earned themselves a starting spot during spring practice. Whatever is undecided will get taken care of during training camp.
While every starting position is important for that specific school, there are a handful of unfilled jobs that are so critical to a team's performance and success in 2014 that they'll be the main focus of fall camp. And it's not just internally; it's from a national standpoint.
The 10 position battles discussed in the following slides stand out as the biggest to keep an eye on during fall camp.
Notre Dame Quarterback
The contenders: Everett Golson (Jr.), Malik Zaire (R-Fr.)
Let's start off with a competition that might not really be much of a competition, depending on who you listen to. While coach Brian Kelly has declared the battle between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire to be a real one and not "artificial," according to Chris Hine of the Chicago Tribune, there's still that little matter of experience to address.
As in, one guy has a full year's worth as Notre Dame's starter, while the other has never taken a college snap.
Golson was the Irish's quarterback in 2012, when they reached the BCS title game against Alabama. While that team was much more known for its defensive prowess than for any big numbers from Golson, a passer who won his first 12 starts deserves some credit.
But Golson hasn't played since the BCS final, having spent last season away from the program due to an academic suspension. Zaire didn't play either, redshirting while senior Tommy Rees quarterbacked Notre Dame to a 9-4 record.
Zaire was a 4-star recruit in the class of 2013, and as a left-handed passer, he would provide a completely different dynamic from the right-handed Golson. Both will be working with their offensive coordinator, former Notre Dame receivers coach Mike Denbrock, for the first time this season.
Michigan State Linebacker
The contenders: Riley Bullough (So.), Ed Davis (Jr.), Darien Harris (Jr.), Mylan Hicks (Sr.), Taiwan Jones (Sr.), Jon Reschke (R-Fr.)
Michigan State lost playmakers all over its defense, but no unit suffered more departures than at linebacker. Thankfully for the Spartans, so many players saw action at those positions during 2013 that this season's group should be able to assimilate quickly. And it'll need to, since MSU's second game of the year is a big one at Oregon.
Five of the six guys listed on the two-deep depth chart, per grfx.cstv.com, played last year, but only two of them saw significant action at linebacker.
Taiwan Jones is the most experienced, having started 17 games at the "star" position the last two years, and he's in line to move to the "Mike" slot. According to Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News, "Jones is physically suited to play in the middle but must prove he can handle the change."
Ed Davis was a third-down linebacker, while Bullough—the younger brother of recent MSU grad and three-year starting linebacker Max Bullough—has been moved over from offense to try to follow in his familial footsteps.
USC Running Back
The contenders: Javorius Allen (Jr.), Justin Davis (So.), Tre Madden (Jr.)
USC's 2013 season was an amalgam of injuries, depth issues and coaching turmoil that made for craziness. But emerging from all that madness was an overabundance of experienced candidates for the Trojans' primary running back position this fall.
Javorius Allen, Justin Davis and Tre Madden are all likely to get their fair share of touches in USC's backfield, as was the case last year when the trio combined for 1,849 yards and 23 touchdowns. That accounted for more than 76 percent of the Trojans' rushing yardage and 79 percent of their scoring on the ground.
Allen was the big beneficiary of last year's scenario, which resulted from Silas Redd getting injured early. Allen ran for 785 yards and 14 touchdowns, averaging a healthy 5.8 yards per carry. Davis also ran strong, averaging 6.8 yards per touch with six TDs, but an injury slowed him down.
Though USC could easily do the committee approach at running back, odds are new coach Steve Sarkisian will want to ride one guy more than the others. It's what he did the last two years with Bishop Sankey at Washington and what would be the best approach with the Trojans.
Wisconsin Wide Receiver
The contenders: Kenzel Doe (Sr.), Jordan Fredrick (Jr.), Jazz Peavy (R-Fr.), Krenwick Sanders (Fr.), Robert Wheelwright (So.)
When you think of Wisconsin football, the first thing is not the passing game. Yet the combination of quarterback and receivers is where the most intrigue and concern is in fall camp because that's where the biggest holes are.
Whether Joel Stave can hold off Tanner McEvoy and retain his starting job at quarterback is a big deal for the Badgers, but even more important is who that passer will throw to. The guy who was basically the only option at receiver last season, Jared Abbrederis, is gone.
Abbrederis' 78 receptions, 1,081 yards and seven touchdowns were more than the next two players combined for in each category, and those players were a running back and a tight end who have also graduated.
Jordan Fredrick, with 10 catches last season, and Kenzel Doe (seven receptions) are the grizzled veteran contenders to be Wisconsin's starting wideouts. Robert Wheelwright also had two catches in 2013. They're joined by a group of youngsters who have never taken a college snap.
Yes, Wisconsin will have a wonderful run game, thanks to junior Melvin Gordon and his backups, and could very well have a good season being as rush-heavy as needed. But coach Gary Andersen wants balance from his offense, so identifying the right people to help whomever the quarterback is serves as a very important development that he hopes will come from fall training camp.
Despite ranking 11th nationally in pass defense in 2013, the numbers that led to Alabama finishing so high against the pass don't tell the true story. The Crimson Tide were thrashed through the air most by the opponents that had well-defined passing games, including by Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
And now that secondary has to replace three starters, with the cornerback situation the most uncertain heading into the fall.
Both Cyrus Jones and Bradley Sylve saw time as starter last season, but neither could hold on to the job. They're now facing heavy competition from a pair of 5-star recruits who were each rated among the top 12 players in the class of 2014. Tony Brown enrolled in January and participated in spring ball, while Marlon Humphrey joined the program in the summer.
The chance of at least one of those true freshmen starting is strong, considering their pedigree and the returners' lack of performance outweighing their experience. But could both first-year players get the nod?
Florida State Defensive Tackle
The contenders: Keith Bryant (R-Fr.), Demarcus Christmas (Fr.), Eddie Goldman (Jr.), Desmond Hollin (Sr.), Fredrick Jones (Fr.), Nile Lawrence-Stample (Jr.), Giorgio Newberry (Jr.)
There are two starting positions that need to be filled in the middle of Florida State's defensive line, but truth be told, it's the loss of one key player from the 2013 championship team that's leading to the most concern. Timmy Jernigan was a beast of a space-eater at nose guard, accounting for three more tackles himself than all of the returning Seminoles looking to play at defensive tackle this season.
Of the players in contention, Eddie Goldman started at defensive end in 2013 but is a prime candidate to take over one of the interior spots. Though he alone can't replace what Jernigan did, Goldman's experience as part of last season's line will be very valuable to the current unit.
The other spot is wide-open, though Nile Lawrence-Stample was the starter there in six games last season and made for a great tandem alongside Jernigan. It's very likely FSU will cycle in numerous players at those positions throughout the year, though, since both Lawrence-Stample and Goldman could be the next Seminoles defenders to go pro early (as Jernigan did) if they have breakout years.
The contenders: Brandon Harris (Fr.), Anthony Jennings (So.)
When Zach Mettenberger went down with a knee injury in LSU's regular-season finale at Arkansas, it started the clock early on the process to replace the veteran quarterback who was set to graduate after 2013. That exercise has been ongoing ever since and will be the Tigers' most important fall-camp position battle.
Anthony Jennings was thrust into the spotlight in that Arkansas game, and his role in leading LSU back to victory was a promising start. But Jennings then struggled in the Outback Bowl win over Iowa, completing just seven of 19 passes for 82 yards with an interception to go along with a rushing touchdown.
Brandon Harris, a 4-star recruit from LSU's stellar 2014 recruiting class, enrolled early and competed head-to-head with Jennings throughout spring practice. Harris fared better in the spring game, though Jennings is listed first on the depth chart in the Tigers' media guide.
The winner of the competition will be working with a slew of talented weapons, but most of them don't have a lot of experience. The wide receiver corps will be particularly young, though LSU has a strong mix of newcomers and veterans to turn to at running back.
Ohio State Running Back
The contenders: Warren Ball (So.), Bri'onte Dunn (So.), Ezekiel Elliott (So.), Curtis Samuel (Fr.), Rod Smith (Sr.)
Carlos Hyde was the most consistent part of Ohio State's offense in 2013 after missing the first three games of the season, finishing with more than 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns along with a 7.3 yards-per-carry average. His production will be sorely missed, though it might not be that bad depending on who takes his place.
The Buckeyes have several options to turn to, though the best bets are a pair of sophomores who both have attributes that will make for a great go-to back. The leader of the pack, according to Bill Rabinowitz of the Columbus Dispatch, is Ezekiel Elliott. He wrote that Elliott "might have the inside track" on Bri'onte Dunn and others.
Elliott averaged 8.7 yards per carry on his 30 touches in 2013, getting 162 yards in the blowout win over FCS Florida A&M. Dunn had similar production in 2012 before getting redshirted last season to save his eligibility.
Texas A&M Quarterback
The contenders: Kyle Allen (Fr.), Kenny Hill (So.)
The challenge is both simple and complicated. The simple part is that Texas A&M's quarterback is just one person, but what makes things complicated is that one person has to step in for the most polarizing and exciting player from the last two years of college football.
While Johnny Manziel is busy trying to win the starting job with the Cleveland Browns, one of his former teammates and a prized recruit will square off during each practice this month to determine who gets to take his place. Kenny Hill backed him up in four games in 2013, sharing that job with Matt Joeckel, who transferred in the offseason to thin the herd for the competition.
But Kyle Allen ensured that it would be a competition. Even though he's only the third-best recruit in Texas A&M's 2014 class, he comes in with a big arm and the chance to play right away. He was aided by Hill's suspension during the spring because of a public-intoxication arrest.
Whoever gets the starting nod will get a baptism by fire and a high-profile one at that. Texas A&M's opener on Aug. 28 is at South Carolina and will mark the first-ever college football game to be shown on the new SEC Network.
The contenders: Cooper Bateman (R-Fr.), Jacob Coker (Jr.), Blake Sims (Sr.)
It's hard to believe that a program as talent-rich as Alabama would have one open position that was so critical to the team's success, but that's what the Crimson Tide face as they try to find a successor to three-year starting quarterback AJ McCarron. The decision about who that will be could mean the difference between another title run and a disappointing 2014 season.
Blake Sims was the de facto leader after spring practice, but it wasn't a full competition because it didn't involve Jacob Coker. Coker, the Florida State transfer who backed up 2013 Heisman winner Jameis Winston until suffering a knee injury in November, is a graduate student who can play right away and is being given as much of a chance to win the job as anyone else.
Coker's late arrival means coach Nick Saban will take his time evaluating the contenders, and early indications are he won't be giving in to what's apt to be constant media queries about the competition.
"We're not going to be in any hurry to try to make a prediction about what's going to happen at that position," Saban told Andrew Gribble of AL.com. "We can't. As anxious as everybody is to know and as anxious as everybody is to find out, we can't make something happen before we get an opportunity to evaluate it fairly for everybody."
As much as Saban would probably like such a statement to nip interest in the bud, he knows it won't.
The questions will be posed each and every day, with the daily performances of Coker, Sims and Cooper Bateman getting scrutinized as closely as a political candidate's voting record. And when a decision is made, don't expect Saban to go public with it until as close to the Aug. 30 opener against West Virginia as he can.
All recruiting info courtesy of 247Sports.com.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.