College football spring games: Key newcomers, position battles

A lot has happened in the world of college football since Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines celebrated their national championship win three months ago -- not the least of which was Harbaugh departing for the NFL.

Nick Saban, recognized as the greatest college football coach of all time, retired from his post at Alabama, setting off a late coaching carousel chain reaction that left Kalen DeBoer in Tuscaloosa, Jedd Fisch at Washington and San José State's Brent Brennan at Arizona.

Georgia scored the top-ranked recruiting class in February, and while there are more changes ahead as the spring transfer portal swings open next week, there is action on the field this weekend in the form of spring games at many power conference schools.

To catch you up, our college football reporters offer some intriguing newcomers, breakout candidates and position battles to keep an eye on.

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Position battle to watch: Cornerback -- The Crimson Tide will be starting over at cornerback in Kalen DeBoer's first season as coach. Both starters from a year ago, Terrion Arnold and Kool-Aid McKinstry, are headed to the NFL, likely as first-round picks, and four other corners transferred. The odds-on favorite to be Alabama's top cornerback next season is USC transfer Domani Jackson. Nick Saban heavily recruited Jackson out of high school, but he chose USC. The former five-star prospect played only one season at USC on a defense that ranked 121st nationally in scoring.

After Jackson, who knows? Jahlil Hurley returns after redshirting last season and has yet to play a snap in college. Alabama brought in three highly rated freshmen -- Zabien Brown, Jaylen Mbakwe and Zay Mincey -- and all three have elite skills and are pushing to get on the field right away. Mbakwe has run a 10.47 100-meter dash. -- Chris Low


Most intriguing newcomer: Bobby Petrino -- Petrino isn't technically a newcomer, but he's back in a familiar place as Arkansas' offensive coordinator. There aren't many more fascinating storylines in college football than Petrino's return to Fayetteville, where he was 21-5 in 2010 and 2011 as the Hogs' head coach before he got into a motorcycle accident with an athletic department subordinate with whom he was having an affair, then misled his superiors to cover it up. He was Jimbo Fisher's offensive coordinator at Texas A&M last season, though it's up for debate how much of his offense he was running. Meanwhile, Sam Pittman's future with Arkansas (4-8 last season) started to come into doubt, particularly after the dismissal of offensive coordinator Dan Enos in October following a six-game losing streak.

By now, Petrino's high-flying offenses and his two straight seasons of 10 or more wins at Arkansas were sorely missed, and the two paths converged. It's an interesting gambit: If the Hogs don't win fast enough, a wildly popular interim candidate exists. But if Petrino's offense is a difference-maker, Pittman (23-25 at Arkansas) will have a shot at getting the train back on the tracks. -- Dave Wilson


Most intriguing newcomer: QB D.J. Lagway -- After accounting for 74 touchdowns (58 passing, 16 rushing) as a senior in high school, Lagway was the big prize of the Gators' recruiting class. While Graham Mertz is still in Gainesville after a season in which he completed 73% of his passes for 2,903 yards along with 20 touchdowns and just three interceptions, Lagway is the future.

After Florida's first spring scrimmage, coach Billy Napier complimented Lagway's ability to learn and retain information, along with his ability to take lessons from meetings into practice. "He's picked it up quickly, and now it's just the game management piece is next," Napier said. Perhaps we'll get a good sample of that in the spring game. -- Harry Lyles Jr.


Position battle to watch: Free safety -- While running back Trevor Etienne, who transferred from Florida, is the fancy new addition in Athens, a position battle folks should be watching is at free safety. Malaki Starks returns at strong safety, but his former running mate, Javon Bullard, is off to the NFL. Experienced players, such as Dan Jackson, David Daniel-Sisavanh and JaCorey Thomas, could fill the void, but there are also younger options, such as Justyn Rhett or five-star KJ Bolden. The Dawgs also brought in Jake Pope from Alabama.

Take it from Starks, who said earlier this week, "That room is very competitive." And don't forget about new defensive backs coach Donte Williams, who comes in from USC after Fran Brown's departure to Syracuse. The Bulldogs will figure it out because they always do, but it should be a fun battle with plenty of talent. -- Lyles


Most intriguing newcomer: QB Brock Vandagriff -- Vandagriff came to Kentucky as a graduate transfer from Georgia, where he was part of back-to-back national championship teams in 2021 and 2022. Vandagriff spent this spring taking most of the first-team reps and is expected to be the Wildcats' starter. He has two years of eligibility remaining and has drawn some comparisons within the program to former quarterback Will Levis.

Vandagriff is unproven as QB1, though, as he has played in only 13 total games, completing 12 of 21 passes for 165 yards and two touchdowns. There is experience behind Vandagriff, as Beau Allen returns to Kentucky as a graduate transfer following one season at Georgia Southern and another at Tarleton State. -- Heather Dinich


Breakout candidate: WR Kyren Lacy -- Lacy is LSU's top returning receiver and is poised to fill the holes left by the departures of Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas. Lacy, who has started 12 games for LSU, was the Tigers' No. 3 receiver last year, and has caught 54 passes for 826 yards and seven touchdowns in two seasons at Baton Rouge.

Coach Brian Kelly said Lacy used to be "easily distracted at times" but has played with a newfound consistency this spring. "What has happened here, more than anything else, is he has found the right zone to be in as it relates to practicing and preparation," Kelly said. "He learned a lot last year watching Malik and BT and the way they came to practice every day and performed, and said, 'I can do this, too.' I'm really proud of him and happy for him because he's going to have a breakout season because of it." -- Dinich

Ole Miss

Most intriguing newcomer: DE Princely Umanmielen -- Lane Kiffin has brought in an assortment of intriguing newcomers on both sides of the ball and has worked the transfer portal as well as anyone. The 2024 Rebels will have new faces from several SEC teams, and they're counting on Umanmielen to make a major impact at defensive end. Edge rushers are always at a premium, and the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Umanmielen has experience and production going for him. He played four seasons at Florida (25 starts) and recorded 11.5 tackles for loss, including seven sacks, last season.

Kiffin made it a priority to get bigger, stronger and faster this offseason, and Umanmielen fits that mold. Kiffin said this spring that Umanmielen has "ideal size, length and speed to be a really good player, one that you don't have to say, 'OK, here's how we'd use somebody to kind of hide some of the deficiencies,' which we've done a lot here." -- Low


Most intriguing newcomer: TE Holden Staes -- The Vols needed help at tight end with Jacob Warren and McCallan Castles gone, so they brought in Staes after he spent two seasons at Notre Dame. Look for the 6-4, 242-pounder to become a frequent target for first-year starting quarterback Nico Iamaleava.

One reason Staes picked Tennessee was the way the Vols have used their tight ends under coach Josh Heupel. Staes caught 15 passes for 176 yards and four touchdowns last season for Notre Dame. He has really good hands and can make plays in space, but his blocking ability jumped out to the Tennessee coaches as much as anything. Staes is still adjusting to the pace of Tennessee's up-tempo offense, but his versatility should be a factor in both the passing and running games. -- Low

Ohio State

Most intriguing newcomer: QB Will Howard -- Ohio State fans will get their first glimpse of the Kansas State transfer, who entered the spring as the front-runner to take over at quarterback for Kyle McCord (now at Syracuse). Howard brings the dual-threat element back to the Buckeyes' backfield, rushing for 351 yards and nine touchdowns for the Wildcats last season.

The pressure is on Ohio State after a third consecutive loss to Michigan, the reigning national champions. But following an aggressive offseason in the transfer portal -- coupled with the hiring of offensive coordinator Chip Kelly -- the Buckeyes boast the players to pursue their own national title. Still, their hopes figure to hinge heavily on Howard -- or his primary competition for the job, Devin Brown -- providing improved quarterback play. -- Jake Trotter

Penn State

Position battles to watch: Offensive tackle and wide receiver -- Penn State lost starting tackles Olu Fashanu, a projected first-round NFL draft pick, and Caedan Wallace from a line that showed some improvement but lacked the performance needed against top competition. The team added Wisconsin transfer Nolan Rucci, an ESPN top-40 recruit in 2021 from the state, who joins returnees such as Drew Shelton, Anthony Donkoh and J'ven Williams. Shelton is out this spring while recovering from surgery, which has created strong competition between Rucci, Donkoh and Williams, which coach James Franklin said would continue into fall camp.

Wide receiver also will be in the spotlight after a tough 2023 season. KeAndre Lambert-Smith and Harrison Wallace III both return, and Penn State added Ohio State transfer Julian Fleming. Will those three or a group of younger players provide the reliable targets quarterback Drew Allar needs? -- Adam Rittenberg


Most intriguing newcomer: RB Reggie Love III -- Love is new to Purdue but not to several of the Boilermakers coaches who joined Ryan Walters from Illinois. He had 883 rushing yards and six touchdowns during the past two seasons for the Illini, and will provide a strong complement to Purdue's lead back Devin Mockobee.

Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell has multiple players who can attack defenses on the ground, as Hudson Card (203 rush yards, five TDs in 2023) brings more mobility than most Air Raid quarterbacks. Although Love had only 15 receptions at Illinois, his pass-catching ability could be amplified for the Boilers. Other newcomers to watch include defensive back transfers Nyland Green (Georgia) and Kyndrich Breedlove (Colorado), and defensive line transfer CJ Madden (Georgia). -- Rittenberg

Boston College

Most intriguing newcomer: Head coach Bill O'Brien -- What exactly will Boston College look like this year under O'Brien? It's a fascinating question. He's among the most accomplished playcallers in football, but his history -- at Alabama, Penn State and with the New England Patriots and Houston Texans -- doesn't suggest a guy eager to throw caution to the wind and play wide-open, backyard football.

But look at BC's 2023 season under Jeff Hafley, and that's when the Eagles were most dangerous, with quarterback Thomas Castellanos getting outside the pocket, winging it downfield and scrambling for yards on broken plays. In all, 17.4% of BC's offense came on scrambles or throws outside the pocket, the third-highest rate in the ACC. So will it be more of the same with Castellanos, or can O'Brien help his QB develop as a pocket passer? -- David Hale

Georgia Tech

Breakout candidate: QB Haynes King -- One could argue that the same could have been said last spring, but King is still a breakout candidate for the Yellow Jackets. In his first full year as a starter -- also Brent Key's first full season as head coach -- King was electric. He completed 62% of his passes for 2,842 yards, 27 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, and added 737 yards on the ground with 10 touchdowns, averaging 6.1 yards per rush.

King is one of the best returning quarterbacks in the ACC, and after leading Tech to its first bowl win in seven years, it's fair to expect even more in Year 2. If he's able to limit turnovers, the Yellow Jackets have an opportunity to take another step in 2024. Saturday's spring game is one of the most anticipated in Midtown Atlanta in a while, and King is a big reason. -- Lyles


Most intriguing newcomer: QB Cam Ward -- This is an easy one. Ward's decision to come to Miami, after initially deciding to enter the NFL draft, is fascinating because it shifted the entire conversation around the Hurricanes. Before Ward, who played at Washington State the past two seasons, shifted gears, Miami signed Albany transfer Reese Poffenbarger to beef up the quarterback room. But now? Miami appears to have one of the strongest quarterbacks in the ACC headed into the season.

The spring game will be our first chance to see how Ward fits into this offense under coordinator Shannon Dawson, and how he jells with his receivers. Miami has two veterans returning in Xavier Restrepo and Jacolby George, and young talent that could be ready to emerge in Isaiah Horton, JoJo Trader, Ny Carr and Ray Ray Joseph. Miami has not had consistent quarterback play since Tyler Van Dyke was a freshman in 2021. If Ward is able to live up to the expectations, the Hurricanes will have a shot to be in the hunt for the ACC title. -- Andrea Adelson


Position battle to watch: Quarterback -- Technically, there's no battle here. Head coach Pat Narduzzi insists Nate Yarnell is his guy, and Yarnell seems to be eager to flex some muscle in a new up-tempo offense in 2024. But Yarnell has only two games of serious work under his belt, and his role as the de facto starter was defined mostly on the back of solid performances against BC and Duke to end last season.

That Christian Veilleux, who started six games last season, and Alabama transfer Eli Holstein also are on the roster supposedly just means Pitt has depth at the position. But a strong spring game for Yarnell would help quell any rumblings about a QB battle among the fans this summer, even if Narduzzi is convinced he has his guy either way. -- Hale

Virginia Tech

Breakout candidate: LB Jaden Keller -- A redshirt junior, Keller has grown by leaps and bounds from his arrival as an undersized playmaker in the middle of the field, and yet, Virginia Tech still hasn't seen the best of him. Keller has made four starts in his career and had some nice moments, but head coach Brent Pry said he remains a player the team hopes will emerge as a genuine star.

This spring has probably been the closest to that breakthrough for Keller, who figures to be the starter at middle linebacker in the fall, and Pry said Keller has been at his best during the Hokies' scrimmages at Lane Stadium. Expect Keller to put on another show Saturday, this time with fans watching. -- Hale


Most intriguing newcomer: QB Brendan Sorsby -- Sorsby was thrown into the deep end as a redshirt freshman at Indiana last season, and while he didn't exactly thrive, he did produce numbers similar to those of Cincinnati's Emory Jones -- Jones was 68th in Total QBR, Sorsby 71st -- only Jones was a senior.

With a senior-heavy line and a skill corps that features not only a 1,000-yard rusher (Corey Kiner) and go-to receiver (senior Xzavier Henderson) but also a wave of intriguing transfers, such as Ohio State running back Evan Pryor and explosive UTEP slot man Tyrin Smith, Cincinnati's offense should improve a decent amount if it has a quarterback ready to improve with it. Sorsby showed hints of being that guy last fall, and he could show a few more glimpses in the spring game. -- Bill Connelly


Position battle to watch: Offensive line -- New Cougars coach Willie Fritz, who replaces Dana Holgorsen, is quite the intriguing newcomer, but much of his offensive line will be as new as he is. The lone exception is right guard Tank Jenkins, who is returning for his seventh collegiate season (two at Texas A&M, four at Houston).

Houston will look to integrate three transfers (Dakota White, a 30-game starter at Lousiana Tech; Jake Wiley from UCLA; and Cedric Melton, who arrived from Ole Miss) along with five offensive linemen the Cougars signed this year. The good news is every position is up for grabs after a coaching change, but the bad news is that's a lot of new faces at a key position after a 4-8 season in Houston's first year in the Big 12. -- Wilson


Most intriguing newcomer: WR Dorian Singer -- Singer also fit this billing at USC a year ago. He was coming off a brilliant 2022 season at Arizona in which he caught 66 passes for 1,105 yards with six touchdowns and was named second-team All-Pac-12. But after transferring to USC last year to catch passes from the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Caleb Williams, Singer's production regressed. He never quite got in sync with Williams the way other USC receivers did and finished with just 24 catches for 289 yards and three scores.

In hopes of regaining his 2022 form, Singer jumped back in the portal and landed at Utah, which was in desperate need of some offensive playmakers after finishing No. 120 in the country in receiving yards per game (165.8). -- Kyle Bonagura