AUBURN, Ala. — Even if the weather hasn't reflected it yet, spring has sprung for the Auburn Tigers, who started a crucial 2016 camp Tuesday.
The Tigers took the field for helmet-only practices Tuesday and Thursday and will hit Jordan-Hare Stadium for the first time in 2016 Saturday morning.
Several newcomers on the coaching staff stood on the field for the first time next to some already-famous names on campus, including JUCO quarterback John Franklin III and wide receiver Kyle Davis. Other familiar faces such as defensive end Byron Cowart, linebacker Jeff Holland and running back Roc Thomas commanded the spotlight as they began their pushes for starting jobs this fall.
But what about the players who haven't gotten as much attention on Gus Malzahn's 2016 squad?
Here's a look at five players who could surprise Auburn fans this spring with their work in practices—from a pair of newly eligible transfers to an underclassman who is embracing a new offensive role.
The term "spring practice" is a relative one in college football, since several schools start (and even finish) these offseason workouts before winter is over. But what every FBS team has in common at this point in their preparations for 2016 is identifying candidates to start at key positions.
Either because they've lost a starter to graduation, injury or the NFL draft, or those who held that spot a year ago didn't meet expectations, there are hundreds of jobs up for grabs this spring. Most won't get decided until preseason practices in August, but the groundwork for that competition begins now.
We've identified the 50 most noteworthy position battles in college football that will get waged this spring. Only players who are currently on the roster—including early enrollees—and are expected to have a legitimate chance to win a starting job are listed.
REDONDO BEACH, California — Picture Redlands, California, 4-star talent Jaelan Phillips as the guy who could deliver bruises on the football field and then, one day, patch the bruises in a medical room.
It could happen.
For Phillips, who earned an invitation to The Opening finals last week, getting the most out of his academic future is just as important as—if not greater than—his athletic achievements. Ranked as the nation's No. 8 weak-side defensive end, Phillips has aspirations to earn a quality degree from a top institute of higher learning.
That degree, Phillips said, could involve him one day being addressed as "Dr. Phillips."
"I'm interested in pre-med," he said while preparing to compete at last week's The Opening Los Angeles regional. "I love anatomy and studying the body."
Fortunately for football fans, Phillips also enjoys hunting down quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers on the field. At 6'5" and 235 pounds, Phillips is a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker at Redlands East Valley High School who is equally effective at rushing the passer as he is at dropping into pass coverage.
Fifteen schools have recognized his talent so far, and he's expected to get a few more offers during the spring and summer. Texas A&M is the latest school to offer.
"It's getting pretty hectic," Phillips said. "But I'm loving it and really enjoying it. I'm still open and taking it all in and learning about all the universities."
Phillips was in Palo Alto, California, last Saturday for Stanford's junior day. Unofficial visits and spring practice appearances to UCLA and USC also are upcoming, he said. He also said he's interested in taking a visit to Notre Dame if his schedule works out.
Stanford and UCLA are two schools to keep an eye on, according to 247Sports' "crystal ball" predictions for Phillips. He said the winning school will have to balance a solid football program with an outstanding academic reputation.
"I'm really high on academics. It's been a huge thing in my entire life, and my parents really stress that," said Phillips, who, along with pre-med, has interest in business, entrepreneurship and bioengineering. "I want to be at a place where I'm comfortable the next four years of my life and after that. It'll all kind of be a gut feeling for me when it's time to make that decision."
Stanford fans will be happy to know that Phillips thoroughly enjoyed his junior-day appearance. Seeing the campus and meeting up with the players and coaching staff scored high marks.
"The academics and athletics speak for themselves," he said. "I'd been to Palo Alto once before, but to go as a recruit and see myself there the next couple of years was awesome."
The winning school will get an athlete who showed his versatility at Redlands East Valley. His 87 tackles showed he has a nose for the football. His 13 ½ sacks showed his ability to beat offensive linemen and get to the quarterback as a defensive end. His three interceptions showed that he can drop back into coverage as an outside linebacker.
What's best for schools is that he doesn't mind lining up at either position.
"I've been playing outside linebacker for longer," he said. "But as I've started growing into my body and getting taller and wider, I love rushing the passer. That's my forte and what I like doing, but I still like dropping into coverage."
Phillips is ranked in the 2017 class as a defensive end, and he earned his The Opening invitation competing with the defensive ends. Look for him to continue weighing the option of playing both defensive end and outside linebacker at the next level.
And look for him to continue monitoring schools that have the athletic and academic resumes he's looking for.
Damon Sayles is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand. All player ratings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings. Follow Damon via Twitter: @DamonSayles.
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The Notre Dame Fighting Irish were one victory away from presenting their case as a contender for the national title last year, and they return the talent to snag that final necessary win in 2016.
However, Brian Kelly's team might be eliminated from the conversation well before the closing weeks of the upcoming campaign.
Though injuries significantly impacted Notre Dame's 2015 season, those cannot be projected with any shred of certainty. So factors like that do not affect either the case for or against the Irish.
Rather, the conversation focuses on players, coaches and already-known external forces—most notably, the schedule.
Why the Irish Can Make a Run
First question: Malik Zaire or DeShone Kizer? Considering the talent of both players, there won't be a more important or discussed quarterback battle in all of college football this offseason.
Second question: Is there a wrong choice? Kizer assembled a tremendous unexpected season after stepping in for Zaire.
While there's no easy answer to either question, the competition isn't quite a parallel to 2015 Ohio State with Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett. Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford is the primary reason why.
The Buckeyes' struggles last season certainly were the result of Tom Herman's departure to Houston, whose success certainly was a result of Herman's arrival. Similarly, Sanford had a tremendous effect on his team's offense. Ohio State can't say the same for Tim Beck and Ed Warinner.
Although play-calling duties are shared, Sanford's impact showed in Kizer's rapid progression. The redshirt freshman took Notre Dame to the brink of a College Football Playoff appearance.
We've seen the level at which Kizer is capable of playing, and that should only increase with another offseason. Plus, Zaire is expected to make a full recovery. The Irish have the ability to thrive under a top coordinator in Sanford.
And it helps to have a schedule in which most of the games considered the toughest are against programs replacing multiyear starting quarterbacks.
Connor Cook (Michigan State), Kevin Hogan (Stanford) and Cody Kessler (USC) each exhausted their eligibility. Keenan Reynolds (Navy), Jacoby Brissett (North Carolina State) and Michael Brewer (Virginia Tech) did the same.
Additionally, Thomas Sirk (Duke) may miss the 2016 season after tearing his left Achilles. At this moment, Brad Kaaya (Miami) is the lone daunting matchup for the Notre Dame defense.
Once the campaign begins, we'll discover which quarterbacks replacing those starters are ready to succeed at a high level. For now, though, it's a matter of development—and keeping up with what Sanford has done for the Irish.
The Case Against Notre Dame
Although the feeling surrounding Notre Dame's quarterback dilemma is different than Ohio State, the numbers aren't. Zaire, like Jones, has less than a handful of games as a starter but excelled. Kizer, like Barrett, is the younger quarterback with more production.
In all likelihood, though, the Irish won't have a two-quarterback system or utilize special packages in the red zone. Kelly has never truly embraced that for an extended period of action. Tommy Rees and Everett Golson shared time in 2012, but Golson was the clear No. 1 guy.
So what happens at the first sign of trouble?
That won't necessarily be a product of offensive problems, either.
The defense lost six of its top eight tacklers, including potential first-round NFL draft pick Jaylon Smith (114) as well as fellow linebacker Joe Schmidt (78). Plus, the productive and disruptive tandem of Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara is headed to the pros.
Consequently, the resurgence of Jarron Jones and development of the front seven is paramount to the defense's success in 2016. One player will not completely replace Day, nor will one seamlessly step in for Smith.
Notre Dame's attack must reload, too.
Along with three starters—Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin and Steve Elmer—on the offensive line, premier vertical threat Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle are all gone. JJ Stankevitz of CSN Chicago notes Fuller isn't worried about the transition on the outside.
However, Fuller, Brown, Carlisle and C.J. Prosise combined for 69.7, 74.9 and 80 percent of the team's receptions, yards and touchdowns, respectively.
Torii Hunter Jr., Corey Robinson, Equanimeous St. Brown and Tarean Folston, among others, have sizable shoes to fill and must consistently produce against top opponents. The Irish don't encounter any particularly brutal stretch, but they will challenge a handful of tough foes.
Michigan State and Duke travel to South Bend in September, followed by Stanford and Miami in October. Notre Dame hosts a potentially dangerous Virginia Tech offense on Nov. 19 before heading out to the Coliseum and closing the regular season vs. USC.
Even just one loss complicates the Irish's title hopes.
The College Football Playoff committee gives preference to programs that won a conference championship. That's simply a part of the protocol if an independent isn't "unequivocally one of the four best teams in the country."
Unless Notre Dame establishes itself as a clear-cut top-four squad in 2016—in other words, undefeated—the uphill battle may be too difficult for a promising Irish squad to climb.
All recruiting information via 247Sports. Stats from cfbstats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.
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