College football spring games: Position battles and newcomers to keep an eye on

Oklahoma transfer Dillon Gabriel joins Oregon after a 30-touchdown season last year. Brian Bahr/Getty Images

There are eight spring games being played on Saturday, each by high-profile programs surrounded by questions.

Oklahoma transfer quarterback Dillon Gabriel arrives in Eugene coming off a 30-touchdown season last year with the Sooners. The question is, can he do even more with Oregon this coming season? Nineteen Colorado players have entered the transfer portal since its opening on April 16. How can coach Deion Sanders and the Buffaloes use the portal to its advantage to fill in those gaps?

We break down key position battles, potential breakout players and must-see newcomers for Saturday's games.


Position battle to watch: The Terps have five players competing for the starting quarterback job following the departure of Taulia Tagovailoa, the Big Ten's all-time leading passer. Sophomore Cameron Edge, redshirt junior Billy Edwards Jr. and NC State transfer MJ Morris have an edge in experience over redshirt freshman Champ Long and redshirt sophomore Jayden Sauray.

Coach Mike Locksley isn't expected to name a starter until deep into summer camp. Edwards had seven rushing touchdowns in eight games last season -- including three against Michigan. He was often used in short-yardage situations, and the staff would like to see if he can throw it a bit more. Morris played in nine games and started seven over the past two seasons for NC State, where he totaled 1,367 passing yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions. Edge played in two games and threw the ball just three times. -- Heather Dinich


Most intriguing newcomer: Freshman quarterback Dylan Raiola has been the talk of Lincoln ever since he pivoted from Georgia to sign with the Huskers. Raiola has been competing throughout the spring with Heinrich Haarberg, who started in all five Nebraska wins in 2023, and fellow freshman Daniel Kaelin, who became the first in-state prospect to become an Elite 11 finalist. Both Haarberg and Kaelin are capable of winning the starting job, and Raiola can't count on landing the QB1 title despite arriving at Nebraska as ESPN's top pocket passer and the No. 11 overall recruit in the 2024 class.

Coach Matt Rhule told ESPN that Raiola's "courage" to move within the pocket and look downfield, even when pressured, has stood out. Rhule is in no rush to end the quarterback competition, but Raiola's spring game performance will be under the microscope. -- Adam Rittenberg


Position battle to watch: Quarterback. Rutgers coach Greg Schiano has marked this season for a potential breakthrough, and has enough back on defense, running back and other spots to deliver. To keep pace in the expanding Big Ten, though, the Scarlet Knights need more from a passing game that finished 124th nationally in yards and 125th in efficiency.

Returning starter Gavin Wimsatt and Minnesota transfer Athan Kaliakmanis, who started last season for the Gophers, have competed throughout the spring. They will be throwing to a group of young receivers who have drawn good reviews from Schiano, including freshmen Ben Black and KJ Duff. Wimsatt has started 19 games for Rutgers over the past two seasons but must show he can distance himself from Kaliakmanis. -- Rittenberg


Most intriguing newcomer: It's hard to look beyond Oklahoma transfer quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who is coming off a 3,660-yard, 30-touchdown season with the Sooners. The Ducks will be Gabriel's third team during his college career, and after watching what Dan Lanning & Co. did with Bo Nix the past few years, it will be fascinating to see what they can get out of Gabriel in Eugene, starting with the spring showcase.

Gabriel is no stranger to fresh starts -- this will be his sixth season in college and, though he had a down year in 2021, he's never thrown for fewer than 3,000 yards. Oregon has the talent to be a title contender, but a lot will rely on how Gabriel fits and excels within the Ducks' system. -- Paolo Uggetti


Breakout player: Running back TJ Harden. With Carson Steele departing for the NFL after tallying over 3,000 rushing yards in three seasons with the Bruins, the stage is set for Harden to take on a bigger role in his third year at UCLA. Harden had a strong sophomore campaign, with 827 yards and eight touchdowns, and is primed to get more carries under a new-look Bruins attack. The spring game will be a display of a new-look UCLA team under first-time head coach DeShaun Foster and former NFL offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy. But Harden and returning quarterback Ethan Garbers are two of the players who should bring some semblance of continuity while excelling under a new offensive system. -- Uggetti


Most intriguing newcomer: The Wildcats' defense suffered heavy losses -- both to the NFL draft and to the transfer portal with the departure of head coach Jedd Fisch to Washington. But new coach Brent Brennan brought some promising additions with him from San José State, including defensive lineman Tre Smith who was a first-team All-Mountain West edge rusher last season and had 6.5 sacks.

Everyone knows the Arizona offense will be a force in the Big 12 under returning phenom quarterback Noah Fifita, but it will likely be the defense -- and players such as Smith -- who will determine how many wins Brennan can get in his first year. The Wildcats' spring game should be an interesting test case of how that defense is jelling and how Smith fits within it. -- Uggetti

West Virginia

Breakout player: Defensive lineman Sean Martin was limited in the 2023 season, with coach Neal Brown saying he had an illness that sometimes prevented him from practicing. It was a blow for the Mountaineers as Martin showed flashes in 2022 in 12 games (eight starts), including registering two sacks against Oklahoma and six tackles, a sack, 1.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble against Baylor. Brown said Martin will be at full strength in 2024, bigger and stronger at 6-foot-5 and 295 pounds, and believes he could play his way into being an early-round NFL draft pick. -- Dave Wilson


Most intriguing newcomer: Linebacker Kaleb Elarms-Orr arrives from Cal after racking up 87 tackles last year (third in the Pac-12 with 7.9 per game), including 15 against Arizona State, and was second-team all-conference. He'll plug into a new 4-2-5 defense run by Andy Avalos alongside linebacker Namdi Obiazor, a change from Joe Gillespie's 3-3-5 scheme that ranked 100th in total defense last season.

Elarms-Orr has all-conference potential and will be a crucial piece to fixing a defense that gave up 69 points to Oklahoma in the season's final game. -- Wilson

Washington State

Position battle to watch: Running back. With senior Nakia Watson and his five seasons of tailback play no longer in Pullman, the competition to be the Cougs' leading back appears to be wide open. Wazzu also dismissed sophomore running back Jaylen Jenkins from the team due to violating team rules in the middle of last season.

Djouvensky Schlenbaker, Dylan Paine and Leo Pulalasi all have minimal experience but are returning players looking to increase their carries this year. Schlenbaker and Pulalasi are two who have shown glimpses of their talent in the past, while Paine is a walk-on who has been around for five seasons now. Rounding out the group are a pair of three-star freshman prospects in Wayshawn Parker and Josh Joyner, who could get opportunities to show off their potential too. -- Uggetti


Position battle to watch: Cornerback. Last season, Travis Hunter showed off his versatile skill set, catching 57 passes for 721 yards and five touchdowns as a starting receiver, while racking up 31 tackles, three interceptions and five pass breakups starting at cornerback. This spring he's shown more of his versatility, and we have the chance to see that on display in the spring game Saturday.

Hunter has shifted inside to play nickelback. Cornerbacks coach Kevin Mathis told reporters earlier in the spring that the decision to have Hunter take reps at nickel was a byproduct of a scheme that new defensive coordinator Robert Livingston has installed. Plus, it will allow Hunter to cover the slot, where the opposition's best receiver often lines up. Transfer cornerbacks Preston Hodge and DJ McKinney have impressed in the early going, while former five-star cornerback Cormani McClain has entered the transfer portal. -- Andrea Adelson