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August 3, 2010

Position battles to watch as fall camp begins

Finally, after an interminable offseason, football is here again.

Almost every FBS team opens fall practice this week, and with fall practice comes the promise of numerous good position battles.

Here's a look at some of the more intriguing position battles in each league, listed alphabetically by team within the league breakdown.

The Big Six conferences are first, followed by the other five leagues.


ACC

Miami running back: Graig Cooper's health status complicates this competition. Cooper has led Miami in rushing in each of the past three seasons, but his status remains uncertain because of a knee injury he sustained in the Champs Sports Bowl loss to Wisconsin. With or without Cooper, the Hurricanes have plenty of talented backs competing for carries. Damien Berry rushed for 616 yards on 93 carries last year, redshirt freshman Lamar Miller has shown plenty of promise and sophomore Mike James also should fit into the equation somehow.

North Carolina quarterback: Senior T.J. Yates has spent each of the past three seasons as the starter, but his disappointing 2009 performance has put his job in jeopardy. Yates ranked 97th in the nation in passing efficiency and threw more interceptions (15) than touchdown passes (14). Yates is facing competition from redshirt freshman Bryn Renner, the No. 5 pro-style quarterback in the 2009 recruiting class. It's difficult to imagine North Carolina starting a redshirt freshman over a senior in the Sept. 4 season opener against LSU, but Tar Heels coach Butch Davis hasn't ruled out that possibility.

N.C. State running back: The departures of Toney Baker and Jai Eugene leave the Wolfpack without any running backs who rushed for more than 79 yards last season. The top returning rusher is quarterback Russell Wilson. The top two candidates to take over as the Wolfpack's feature back are junior Curtis Underwood and sophomore James Washington. Underwood redshirted last season after rushing for 116 yards on 32 carries in 2008. Washington scored three touchdowns last year in an early-season win over Murray State, but he missed the last six games of the season with a knee injury.

Virginia Tech defensive tackle: Fifth-year senior John Graves is set at one tackle spot, while junior Kwamaine Battle and sophomore Antoine Hopkins are competing for the right to replace the departed Cordarrow Thompson in the starting lineup. Battle heads into preseason camp with the slight edge, but Hopkins has closed the gap after performing well in spring practice. Battle needs to stay healthy, as he has had surgery on each of his shoulders during his playing career. Hopkins has plenty of upside, but he must develop more consistency. The Tech front seven has some question marks, so the earlier this is solved, the better it will be for the Hokies.

Wake Forest quarterback: The successor to four-year starter Riley Skinner will be a player who hasn't attempted a pass in a college game. The identity of that player remains uncertain. Junior Skylar Jones exited spring practice as the front-runner, but he was in that spot because sophomore Ted Stachitas missed two scrimmages with a hamstring injury and redshirt freshman Brendan Cross sat out a scrimmage with a concussion. Preseason training camp should give Stachitas and Cross a chance to play catch-up. Cross is the son of former San Francisco 49ers center Randy Cross, while Stachitas followed Tim Tebow as quarterback at Ponte Vedra Beach (Fla.) Nease.


BIG EAST

Connecticut running back: Jordan Todman will be the starting running back, but given the Huskies' history, he won't be the only one to carry the ball. Three of Connecticut's past four backup running backs have rushed for at least 674 yards. Andre Dixon topped 1,000 yards last season. And Randy Edsall, being Randy Edsall, won't just hand the feature back spot to Todman. D.J. Shoemate took advantage of NCAA rules allowing him to play immediately after transferring from USC. Kelmetrus Wylie, Robbie Frey and Jonathan Jean-Louis also are hungry to enter the rotation.

Louisville quarterback: Remember when the Louisville quarterback used to be good for at least second-team all-conference honors? The days of Brian Brohm, Stefan LeFors, Dave Ragone and Chris Redman are long gone. First-year coach Charlie Strong and coordinator Mike Sanford are desperate to find someone who can run the new offense. Adam Froman, Justin Burke and Will Stein started at times last season, when the Cardinals ranked 71st in the nation in passing. Sanford, Urban Meyer's offensive coordinator at Utah, will install a spread-option attack, so ability to run the ball would be a plus. Froman is the leader going into camp. The Big East doesn't have many experienced quarterbacks, but Louisville is the only team in the league with a bona-fide quarterback competition going into the season.

Pittsburgh cornerback: The Panthers are still looking for a cornerback to play alongside Antwuan Reed. The secondary struggled at times last season -- and that was on a team that led the nation in sacks. If Pitt doesn't have the same kind of pass rush, it will put added pressure on the cornerbacks. Senior Ricky Gary and junior college transfer Saheed Imoru will compete to play opposite Reed.

Rutgers offensive line: Protecting Tom Savage and paving the way for the running game is the big question mark for the Scarlet Knights' offense. The departures of left tackle Anthony Davis and center Ryan Blaszczyk make this even more critical. The biggest position contest is between Caleb Ruch and Antwan Lowery at left guard. Standout guard Art Forst is moving to tackle. Depth will be a question to start the season.

USF defensive end: George Selvie was the most-decorated defensive player in school history and Jason Pierre-Paul was a first-round draft pick. Somehow, though, the Bulls still ranked seventh in the Big East in sacks. This group won't have nearly as much name recognition, but the Bulls will have more options. The first-stringers going into the season are seniors David Bedford and Craig Marshall. But USF has two highly touted newcomers. Redshirt freshman Ryne Giddins is one of the most heavily recruited players in school history. Claude Davis was a four-star junior college recruit. Adding depth will be Patrick Hampton, who has been a backup the past two seasons.


BIG TEN

Iowa running back: Three viable options -- all sophomores -- are in the running. Last season, Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher stepped up big time after Jewel Hampton was lost for the season with a preseason ACL injury. Hampton, who ran for 463 yards as a backup as a true freshman in 2008, is back and ready to compete. Robinson led the team with 775 yards in 2009. Wegher ranked second with 528 yards.

Michigan quarterback: There are three contenders. Sophomore Tate Forcier started every game last season, but he'll be pushed by fellow sophomore Denard Robinson, who is a better athlete but a raw passer. True freshman Devin Gardner also is in the mix, but he appears to be a long shot. Expect the battle between Forcier and Robinson to last until the waning days of training camp. If Robinson doesn't win the starting job, Michigan's coaches almost assuredly will have some kind of package for him anyway.

Michigan State kicker: Brett Swenson is gone, leaving East Lansing as the school's leading career scorer. He also hit a school-record 15 consecutive field-goal attempts in 2009. Swenson hit a Big Ten-best 19-of-22 field-goal attempts last fall. The guy was flat-out money. Walk-on Dan Conroy and redshirt freshman Kevin Muma will battle. For most schools to enjoy a strong season, the kicker must make a few big kicks. Will one of these guys be capable?

Penn State quarterback: With Daryll Clark gone, the battle among sophomore Kevin Newsome, junior Matt McGloin and true freshman Paul Jones to start will make headlines. Newsome has an uneven spring, but still should win the spot. There also will be a competition at linebacker, where three new starters are needed. Michael Mauti has one outside spot sewn up. He would have started last season had he not suffered a knee injury. Those in contention for the other two spots are seniors Bani Gbadyu and Chris Colasanti, juniors Nathan Stupar and Mike Yancich and sophomore Gerald Hodges. Colasanti in the middle and Stupar at the other outside spot could be considered the favorites.

Wisconsin center and guard: The competition on the interior of the offensive should be intense. Sophomores Peter Konz and Travis Frederick, junior Kevin Zeitler and senior Bill Nagy are fighting for a guard slot and the center spot. All of the contenders have starting experience. Frederick has started at guard and center; Konz has started at center; Zeitler and Nagy have started at guard. Guard John Moffitt could move to center if need be. Frederick (at center) and Zeitler (the guard spot opposite Moffitt) are the leading contenders to emerge with starting jobs.


BIG 12

Kansas quarterback: The competition to replace Todd Reesing, the leading passer in school history, is a close call between Kale Pick and Jordan Webb, neither of whom have significant playing experience. Pick attempted five passes last season as Reesing's backup, and Webb redshirted. Both were three-star prospects coming out of high school.

Missouri middle linebacker: Will Ebner and Luke Lambert are both called returning starters, but there is only room for one in the middle in the Tigers' 4-3 scheme. Lambert was the starter last season until suffering a shoulder injury. Ebner stepped in and posted 78 tackles, the team's third-highest total.

Nebraska quarterback: Incumbent starter Zac Lee missed spring football recovering from surgery on his throwing arm. That opened the door for sophomore Cody Green and redshirt freshman Taylor Martinez, both of whom had strong showings. Going into camp, the race for the starting job is neck and neck and neck. Green probably has the most upside, but Lee is the most polished candidate.

Texas free safety: Earl Thomas, who grabbed eight interceptions last season, left early for the NFL, leaving an opportunity for someone to break into the starting lineup. Junior Christian Scott may be the popular choice, but he'll have to hold off sophomore Kenny Vaccaro and junior Nolan Brewster, who is coming back from a shoulder injury. Scott is the best athlete of the group.

Texas Tech quarterback: Taylor Potts has a stronger arm and threw for 3,440 yards last season. Yet he was lifted in the Alamo Bowl for Steven Sheffield, who completed 74.3 percent of his attempts and had 14 touchdowns in a limited role last season. Expect the winner to throw the ball a bit less than he did last season, as coach Tommy Tuberville seems likely to want to lean on the run more than predecessor Mike Leach.


PAC-10

California backup running back: Really, backup running back is a big deal at Cal. The second-stringer gets a good share of carries and is groomed to be the next starter. There is no shortage of candidates vying to spell starter Shane Vereen. Dasarte Yarnway is a powerful bruiser, Isi Sofele is small but has great speed and breakaway ability, and Covaughn Deboskie-Johnson is powerful and has recovered from a broken wrist.

Stanford running back: So who will step in and try to pick up some of the slack left by the departure of All-America Toby Gerhart? The primary competitors are sophomores Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney and senior Jeremy Stewart. None had more than 303 rushing yards last season, and one will get significantly more carries this season.

UCLA running back: Three running backs who logged carries for the Bruins last season are back and an influx of new talent will make this an intense competition. Johnathan Franklin led the Bruins in rushing with just 566 yards, but veterans Derrick Coleman and Damien Thigpen and heralded incoming freshmen Jordon James and Malcolm Jones will push for carries.

USC middle linebacker: Chris Galippo and Devon Kennard both arrived at USC as highly touted recruits. Galippo has had injury issues, but had a solid year with 70 tackles last season. "Solid" might not be good enough told hold off Kennard, who started his career at end. One of these guys may end up at another position.

Washington State tight end: The Cougars want more production from that position. Skylar Stormo leads all returnees -- with just three catches last season. Stormo, Zach Tatman, Aaron Gehring and Andrei Lintz, who is coming back from injury, and incoming freshman Aaron Dunn will get a chance.


SEC

Arkansas cornerback: The Hogs were rancid against the pass last season. Rudell Crim, who was a starting corner last season, was moved to strong safety during the spring and looks likely to stay there. That means the top three corners are incumbent starter Ramon Broadway, Isaac Madison (back after missing '09 with a knee injury) and Darius Winston (a backup as a true freshman last season). Winston is a former five-star recruit who was a recruiting coup in 2009. Madison isn't necessarily flashy, but he is steady. He and Broadway have the inside track on starting jobs, but don't count out Winston.

Florida cornerback: Junior Janoris Jenkins is set at one spot. He was quite good as a true freshman in 2008 but slumped a bit last season, when teams often threw his way to avoid Joe Haden on the other side. Haden is gone to the NFL after being a first-round pick of the Cleveland Browns. The one notable aspect for each contender to replace Haden? A lack of experience. The leading contenders are senior Moses Jenkins, sophomore Jeremy Brown and true freshmen Cody Riggs, Joshua Shaw and Jaylen Watkins. Brown hasn't played a down of college football because of back issues, but if he's healthy, he will be the guy. In the short amount of time he has been healthy, he has shown all the traits to be a solid corner. Moses Jenkins has good size (6-2/188) but has been almost exclusively a special teams performer; he has 22 career tackles. Expect all three freshmen to see varying amounts of time; Shaw probably has the most upside.

Kentucky quarterback: The Wildcats have a shot at a top-three finish in the SEC East if they receive sterling quarterback play. Senior Mike Hartline, sophomore Morgan Newton and redshirt freshman Ryan Mossakowski are the contenders for the job. Hartline started the first five games last season before suffering a knee injury, and Newton was thrown into the fray as a true freshman. He wasn't ready but showed some flashes. Mossakowski is the best pure passer of the trio, Newton the best athlete and Hartline the best all-around quarterback. Hartline held a slight lead coming out of spring ball, and new coach Joker Phillips has said he would like to name a starter early in fall camp.

LSU tailback: The Tigers struggled mightily on the ground last season, ranking 11th in the SEC and 90th nationally at 122.8 yards per game. The mediocre rushing attack put way too much pressure on quarterback Jordan Jefferson, and he wasn't up to the task. Improving the running game has to be priority No. 1 for the Tigers. Senior Richard Murphy is returning from an ACL injury to his right knee; he had reconstructive surgery on his left knee in high school. He seems the likely starter. Junior Stevan Ridley ran for 180 yards last season, and while he's a tough runner, he's not a breakaway threat. Redshirt freshman Michael Ford does have good speed and might be the best all-around back of the trio. Look for wide receiver Russell Shepard to factor heavily in the running game. He had 45 carries last season and should easily double that this season. LSU coaches must get the ball in his hands at least 10 times per game in some fashion.

South Carolina tailback: This should be quite an entertaining story line to follow. The Gamecocks' top signee was tailback Marcus Lattimore, and coach Steve Spurrier never has been shy about playing true freshmen. Lattimore will be vying with three holdovers: senior Brian Maddox and sophomores Jarvis Giles and Kenny Miles. Miles led the way last season with 626 yards. Maddox is a tough inside runner, while the speedy Giles sometimes makes too much of an effort to make everything a big play. The Gamecocks were last in the SEC and 91st in the nation in rushing last season, and for that reason, Lattimore may be the guy to beat for the job.


CONFERENCE USA

East Carolina quarterback: Former Boston College starter Dominique Davis, who left BC for academic reasons before last season, will be the guy to watch in fall drills. Sophomore Brad Wornick, a former walk-on, was the No. 1 quarterback coming out of spring ball, and he did a nice job grasping coordinator Lincoln Riley's pass-first offense (Riley had been inside receivers coach at Texas Tech). Redshirt freshman Rio Johnson and sophomore Josh Jordan are the others in the mix. No one doubts Davis' athleticism, but he never has played in a pass-happy offense. His ACC experience obviously is a plus.

Southern Miss wide receiver: DeAndre Brown will be the Golden Eagles' go-to guy, and a 70-catch, 12-TD season is a legitimate goal. But who will be the Nos. 2 and 3 receivers in Southern Miss' spread attack? As talented as Brown is, he will be stuck to like glue by opposing defenses unless some more competent receivers step up. Plus, given Southern Miss' question at running back -- most notably, is there a feature back on campus? -- finding some complementary receivers becomes even more important. Sophomore Quintin Pierce and senior Johdrick Morris are other veterans who have seen a lot of time, but they combined for just 33 receptions and three TDs last season. JC transfer Kelvin Bolden, who played alongside Brown in high school in Moss Point, Miss., arrives highly touted; he suffered a concussion early in spring practice, which put him on the shelf. His speed makes him a potential standout. Redshirt freshman Francisco Llanos and juniors William Spight and Ryan Balentine also are in the hunt for playing time. Balentine and Spight have a combined seven career catches.

Tulsa running back: The Golden Hurricane averaged 150.8 rushing yards per game last season, but no running back on the roster had more than 389 yards and quarterback G.J. Kinne is the leading returning rusher. FB Charles Clay is a weapon, but more as a receiver than as a runner. Incumbent starter Jamad Williams heads into fall camp atop the depth chart, but JC transfer Derrick Hall (who signed with Texas A&M out of high school), true freshman Ja'Terian Douglas and sophomore Alex Singleton also are vying for the job. Tulsa must run more effectively this season to take pressure off Kinne, who wore down last season.


MID-AMERICAN

Bowling Green quarterback: It will be a three-man race between redshirt freshman Matt Schilz, redshirt freshman Kellen Pagel -- son of former NFL signal-caller Mike -- and sophomore Aaron Pankratz to replace Tyler Sheehan at quarterback. Schilz was the leader exiting spring drills, but this race remains open.

Kent State running back: There's an experienced group of backs (5,269 career yards among the contenders) vying for the starting job. Eugene Jarvis is back for a sixth season after missing all but two games last season with a kidney injury. Jarvis (3,426 career yards) is 564 yards away from becoming the Golden Flashes' leading career rusher. But senior Andre Flowers (778), junior Jacquise Terry (819) and sophomore Dri Archer (246) also are in the battle.

Northern Illinois quarterback: Incumbent starter Chandler Harnish missed part of the spring with a knee injury, but the injury responded to rehab and he didn't need surgery. Still, Harnish has gone down with injury each of the past two seasons, which makes coaches nervous. He will have to fight off fellow junior DeMarcus Grady, who has started games each of the past two seasons, and junior college transfer Casey Weston, who may have the best arm of the bunch. Redshirt freshmen Jordan Lynch and A.J. Hill also are jockeying for position. Steady play at quarterback could be the difference between winning the league and finishing second in the MAC West.


MOUNTAIN WEST

BYU quarterback: Four players still have a legitimate shot to win the job as Max Hall's successor. Candidates are junior Riley Nelson, sophomore James Lark, redshirt freshman Jason Munns and true freshman Jake Heaps. Nelson, the only left-hander in the group, appeared in seven games as Hall's backup last season. Nelson also started eight games for Utah State in 2006 before going on a church mission and eventually transferring to BYU. Heaps was the No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the 2010 recruiting class. Lark and Munns are returning from missions.

Colorado State running back: John Mosure -- who led Miami-Dade County in rushing as a high school senior -- started eight games last season and rushed for 650 yards, while Leonard Mason ran for a team-high 766 yards in mostly a backup role. Joining the backfield this season is UCLA transfer Raymond Carter, who began his college career as the No. 3 all-purpose back and No. 85 overall prospect in the 2007 recruiting class. Colorado State also has redshirt freshman Chris Nwoke, who heads into preseason camp behind Carter but ahead of Mason and Mosure on the depth chart.

TCU defensive end: The battle to replace first-round pick Jerry Hughes is tight enough that three players took turns at the No. 1 spot on the depth chart this spring. Ross Forrest enters preseason camp as the front-runner after taking a medical redshirt in 2009, but redshirt freshman Stansly Maponga and junior Braylon Broughton also could win the job.


SUN BELT

Florida International quarterback: The Golden Panthers could finish as high as third in the league, assuming they get competent quarterback play. Senior Wayne Younger -- who has started 12 games in his career -- is back and is vying for the job with Mississippi State transfer Wesley Carroll. Carroll was supposed to grab the job in spring ball but underwhelmed, which will surprise no one who saw him play at Mississippi State. FIU has a good group of receivers, but those guys risk being underutilized again unless the quarterback play takes a giant step forward.

Louisiana-Lafayette running back: If the running game comes around, ULL could be the surprise team in the Sun Belt. Robert Walker ran for 3,897 yards and 51 TDs in his last two seasons at Mamou (La.) High (about 800 students in grades 5-12). He signed with ULL in February 2009 but didn't arrive on campus until January. He impressed coaches until he tweaked his hamstring. But he's a little guy (5-7/179), and there are questions about whether he can be a feature back and get 18-20 carries a game. Julian Shankle, who was a backup last season, was atop the depth chart after spring practice, but he lacks top-end speed. True freshman Aaron Spikes and JC transfer Kevis Streeter also will be in the mix. Spikes ran for more than 1,500 yards as a high school junior in Dallas, but an ankle injury wrecked his senior season and the one-time Texas Tech commitment ended up at ULL.

Middle Tennessee linebacker: The Blue Raiders' offense should be the best in the league, but there are some concerns on defense, most notably at linebacker and tackle. We're going to focus on middle linebacker. Danny Carmichael had 87 tackles and six sacks last season, and the Blue Raiders need someone to approximate those numbers. Senior Antwan Davis is battling junior Gorby Loreus for the job. Davis has more experience and probably would be the steadier player, but Loreus is the better athlete and likely would provide more big plays.


Western Athletic

Boise State linebacker: The Broncos mix and match their linebackers depending on the situation, and they have enough players to do so. The biggest competition will be at the "inside" spot (Boise State's base defense is a 4-2-5) with Derrell Acrey and Byron Hout. Acrey is poised to become a full-time player after recording 34 tackles and two interceptions last season. Hout, a former defensive end best known for being on the receiving end of a punch from LaGarrette Blount, will keep the pressure on Acrey.

Louisiana Tech quarterback: The Bulldogs have a returning starter at quarterback in Ross Jenkins, but the coaching change brings questions. Jenkins had a good junior season, throwing 17 touchdown passes and five interceptions, but the offense under new coach Sonny Dykes and coordinator Tony Franklin is changing drastically. Jenkins has the experience, but Auburn transfer Steve Ensminger (who was not at Auburn during Franklin's short stint there) and sophomore Colby Cameron may have more potential.

New Mexico State quarterback: The Aggies' quarterback play last season was atrocious. Ryan Fleming and Trevor Walls completed only half their passes and tossed a combined 17 interceptions and six touchdowns. Seth Smith is a 1,000-yard back, so if New Mexico State finds a stable quarterback, the Aggies could have an adequate offense. The answer may end be redshirt freshman Tanner Rust, true freshman Andrew Manley or junior college transfer Matt Christian.



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