We're at about the halfway point of the 2023 college football spring games schedule as some of the top teams around the country will be wrapping up spring practices. Battles up and down the depth chart, at all positions, have dominated the conversation among fans for weeks, and now there will be a public display of what every potential starter has to offer in 2023.
It is common for coaches to avoid naming a position battle winner immediately after spring practice, choosing to let the competition play out over summer workouts and into fall camp. But by the conclusion of a team's 15 spring practices, which includes multiple competitive scrimmages, coaches have plenty of information to at least establish a pecking order for each position.
We've highlighted some of the notable position battles that are winding down across the country below, and yes, while several are quarterback battles, we're not exclusively discussing the most heralded position in the sport. The issue is that when nearly half of the top 10-12 teams in the country have an opening at QB1, the attention on the signal-callers will be boosted more so than usual.
So with quarterbacks, but also offensive linemen and wide receivers in the spotlight, here are some position battles to track as spring practices conclude around the nation.
As long as Steve Sarkisian has not named a starter under center, there will be interest in how the Longhorns plan to stack Ewers, Manning and Murphy on the depth chart. But it's very possible there is more competition for the backup quarterback spot than the starter as Texas heads into its spring game.
Ewers, at his best and healthiest, was able to flash last season in a way that supported his perfect rating and No. 1 overall prospect status coming out of high school. There were just a few injuries along the way, and some games where Ewers was not at his best. In five games against FBS teams who finished with a winning record, Ewers had five touchdowns to four interceptions. In five games against teams with a non-winning record, he had 10 touchdowns to just two interceptions. Not being at his best against the best teams left some room for this incumbent starter to defend his job in spring practice. To his credit, Ewers seems to have embraced the expectations, and the work he's put in this spring has him as the favorite to win the job over Manning and Murphy.
An interesting development to follow however, is that Manning, another five-star No. 1 overall prospect with a perfect rating coming out of high school, could end up running third to redshirt freshman Maalik Murphy. A top-10 quarterback from the 2022 recruiting class, Murphy did not see any game action last fall and was limited because of injury at the start of spring drills. That had Manning taking second-team reps, which increased the intrigue about his chances of chasing Ewers in the race. When Murphy was cleared for full participation, he returned to action as the new second-string quarterback with Manning running third.
There's no big-picture concern here; Manning's talents are obvious and the future projections remain unchanged. He's in the midst of a big transition both on and off the field, and it's possible that the same development year that benefited the likes of Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud could be the path for this highly touted quarterback looking to carve his own legacy.
Ohio State: Quarterback
Former five-star prospect McCord has more experience as the two-year backup to C.J. Stroud, but much of his action has come late in games that were already decided as victories. He's being pushed by Brown, who has no career pass attempts in college but has made a good impression in practice that has newly promoted offensive coordinator Brian Hartline enthused by the nature of the competition. Both McCord and Brown are getting first-team reps, and both have put together a mixed body of work through spring practice as a whole. It's been suggested that both are under a ton of pressure trying to deliver results that are worthy of being Stroud's successor, which might a factor in neither quarterback creating separation in the battle.
These quarterbacks are also playing behind an offensive line that's replacing three NFL-caliber starters and battling in practice against one of the most tenacious defensive lines in the Big Ten and throwing to a wide receiver group missing Emeka Egbuka, Julian Fleming and Xavier Johnson. Ryan Day says both McCord and Brown are accepting the hard coaching and he's pleased with the competition, but heading into the final week of spring practice there was no frontrunner.
That changed Wednesday, at least in terms of the spring game, when Day told reporters that Brown suffered a finger injury on his throwing hand. Brown underwent a procedure to repair the damage and will miss Saturday's scrimmage. While Brown may not be completely out of the competition thanks to his work throughout the majority of spring practice, it will be McCord as the active QB1 on Saturday for the spring game.
Miami: Offensive line
Spring game: April 14
Names to know: Francis Mauigoa, Samson Okunlola, Javien Cohen, Matthew Lee
Mauigoa and Okunlola are two five-star freshmen who were the highest-rated players in Mario Cristobal's top-10 recruiting class in 2023, and there's a chance at least one of them will end up in the starting lineup for the season-opener against Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 1. Cristobal had already identified the position as a need and found a couple of instant-impact additions from the transfer portal with guard Javien Cohen from Alabama and center Matthew Lee from UCF. But while starting left tackle Zion Nelson continues his work back to full health from knee issues, there have been opportunities this spring for first-string snaps among the other tackles on the roster.
The success of Miami's offense, which performed well below expectations in 2022, has to start with an effective offensive line. Cristobal has singled out the importance of winning at the line of scrimmage since his introductory press conference, and this spring is where the coaching staff's ability to develop and gel talent is going to be put to the test. There was enough of a need up front for Miami to go get multiple instant-impact transfers and true freshmen, and whether Mauigoa or Okunlola start in Week 1 for the Hurricanes may not be as important as the development that happens so they're ready to be significant contributors in the rotation. Shannon Dawson's Air Raid offense is going to put a lot of reps up for grabs, and these four newcomers are going to be a key factor in the group's makeup and depth in the upcoming season.
Penn State: Wide receiver
While Penn State is like Ohio State, Alabama and Georgia in saying goodbye to a multi-year starting quarterback at the end of 2022, the succession plan for the post-Sean Clifford era in Happy Valley brings far less uncertainty around the position in spring practice. Drew Allar, the five-star prospect from the 2022 class, is the highest-rated quarterback signed by James Franklin since his arrival in Happy Valley. He appeared in 10 of 13 games during his true freshman season last fall, but all of the action came in the second half and most was in the fourth quarter of lopsided Penn State wins. It was laying the foundation for a clean transition from Clifford to Allar, meaning this spring the biggest question isn't who takes over at QB as much as who steps up to replace a massive hole in production at wide receiver.
Both of Penn State's top two receivers from 2022 are off to the NFL Draft. Parker Washington and Mitchell Tinsley combined for 97 catches and 1,188 receiving yards, meaning more than a third of last year's receiving production needs to be replaced. Some of those answers are in-house options, like KeAndre Lambert-Smith. The 6-1 junior is the top returning receiver from 2022, and he's been a big-play threat the last two seasons falling among team leaders in yards per catch. Penn State has had great turnover in recent years with receivers working their way up to being the next No. 1. Jahan Dotson ran second to KJ Hamler until he took after as the next No. 1, and then Parker Washington was behind Doston before emerging as the team's leading receiver in 2022. Lambert-Smith could be next in line, and there's a lot of hope that he is one of many established players on the roster that make a leap this spring.
But this is not a situation where the success of Allar and the passing game is hanging on one player's development, because Penn State's staff has put in work to make sure that the room has depth and versatility in 2023. Malik McClain had three touchdowns for Florida State last season before transferring to Happy Valley in the winter, and after spring practice, the wide receiver room will get another portal addition in the highly touted Dante Cephas from Kent State. Cephas, a Pittsburgh native, was a two-time All-MAC first team selection and has nearly 2,000 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns over the last two seasons. He was one of the highest-rated wide receiver players in the transfer portal during the winter window, but his role in the offense won't be visible until the team's gearing up for the season in fall camp.
We're continuing a theme from some of these battles, where the anticipation of the unknown might be taking a back seat to competitive game experience. That's not the specific reason Milroe might have an edge on Simpson, but it is among the advantages he carried into spring practice. Alabama's coaches were pleased with Simpson's development throughout last season, but even Nick Saban acknowledged that work was done in a different and less competitive situation. Milroe was thrown into the fire on the road at Arkansas after Bryce Young's injury and guided the Crimson Tide to a 49-26 win. He turned around one week later for his first career start against Texas A&M and had a hand in all three touchdowns during Alabama's 24-21 win. As new offensive coordinator Tommy Rees gets a sense of how the different pieces in this Alabama offense are working together, it may be Milroe's versatility that gives him the edge.
Early takeaways from Alabama's spring drills, specifically Saban's assessment of the quarterback play in scrimmages, have pointed to this battle being very much undecided, however. Milroe and Simpson were both praised for their game management and ball security in the team's first scrimmage, and those will be the most important requirements to meet through the rest of spring practice and in the spring game. If Simpson, a former five-star prospect, was not ready for his opportunity to battle for starter's snaps, that would have been revealed at this point in the process. Now Saban and Rees have the kind of problem any coach dreams of at the quarterback position: two good options pushing each other to improve while competing at every turn.
The game management demands come as Rees is adding versatility to Alabama's run game and the wide receiver room looks to improve its level of play after personnel churn in recent seasons. The offensive line is looking to regain its nastiness as well, all of which could set up for a balanced and efficient Crimson Tide offense. Bryce Young was responsible for some mind-blowing highlights as the Crimson Tide's starter, but Alabama hopes it doesn't need Bryce Young-level heroics from its quarterback to compete for championships this fall.
By many accounts, this is a true battle heading into the weekend with Carson Beck and Brock Vandagriff sharing first-team reps all through spring practice. Beck has great command of the offense thanks in part to three years in the program, and Mike Bobo returning as offensive coordinator won't change the overall principles of what Kirby Smart would like from his offense. Beck has more game experience as well, but has not been able to pull away from Vandagriff in the competition this spring.
Vandagriff was in the recruiting class behind Beck, so there's not a major edge in program familiarity, and he was a higher-rated prospect coming out of high school. A five-star recruit ranked as one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the 2021 cycle, Vandagriff carries an advantage in running ability that could end up being a factor if Smart and Bobo want to lean on those skills in 2023. And the fact that Vandagriff is pretty much on par with Beck in this battle probably speaks to how he's been able to flash that five-star potential during a spring practice that is the most significant exposure he's had with the first-team offense.
Reading between the lines of Smart's analysis heading into the spring game, this is not a quarterback competition we should expect to end after spring practice. It's possible that the battle continues through fall camp and all the way into the season. Smart seems concerned about the state of the offense at other positions, notably wide receiver and offensive line, and wants to get those areas shored up before the offensive staff can make a final decision on which quarterback gives the Bulldogs their best chance for a historic three-peat national championship run in 2023.
Oklahoma Wide receiver
Oklahoma quarterback Dillon Gabriel ranked second in the Big 12 last season in passer rating, passing touchdowns (25) and yards per attempt (8.6), trailing only Heisman Trophy finalist Max Duggan in all three categories. But as the Sooners look to become more efficient and effective on offense — the 2022 season being the first since 2014 that Oklahoma ranked outside the top 15 nationally in yards per play with a 6.24 average that ranked 30th — Gabriel is working to meet those challenges with a lot of receiving production missing from his first year in Norman.
The wide receiver room is losing 1,000-yard receiver Marvin Mims along with Theo Wease to the NFL Draft, and starting tight end Brayden Willis has transferred to Missouri. Throw in the departure of former running back Eric Gray and the offense has lost four of its top six pass catchers from 2022 and more than two-thirds of the team's total receiving yards on the season. Other than junior Jalil Farooq (37 receptions, 466 yards) and senior Drake Stoops (39 catches, 393 yards), there are no returning players for Oklahoma who had double-digit receptions or more than 70 yards receiving on the season.
So who is going to step up in an offense that's built to test defenses through the air, if for no other reason than the presence of an experienced and prolific quarterback?
New wide receivers coach Emmett Jones has a couple of options to work with this spring. Sophomore Nic Anderson could be poised for a breakout season after dealing with injuries most of 2022, and 6-5 sophomore Jayden Gibson presents a physical advantage the Sooners have not had at the position in recent years. Tight end Austin Stogner is back in Norman after transferring to South Carolina for one season, and the transfer portal has also provided one of the more intriguing additions to the wide receiver room with Andrel Anthony from Michigan. A 6-1 speedster with the ability to stretch a defense, Anthony is still working through the transition in tempo and terminology upon joining the Oklahoma offense, but his skill set could prove to be a valuable piece in the team's success.