UM spring practice begins Tuesday with heavy focus on the quarterback, with N’Kosi Perry and Jarren Williams trying to wrest the job from Malik Rosier.
But these half dozen storylines also bear monitoring:
1. Can early enrollee Lorenzo Lingard quickly become this team’s top back?
Don’t underestimate Travis Homer, who filled in capably for Mark Walton, averaged 5.9 per carry and scored eight touchdowns. He could continue starting in 2018 because he did everything the coaches asked and more.
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But Lingard – as a five-star recruit - is in a different class. Teammates have been impressed by his work ethic in the offseason program. He will play a lot. The question is whether his raw talent compels coaches to give him 12 to 15 carries a game, even with Homer and Deejay Dallas warranting touches.
Lingard “has the size, the leg drive, is fast,” Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said. “An angular runner who makes people miss. He has potential to be best running back they’ve had in a long time.”
Trayone Gray and Robert Burns can make their case for bit roles this spring; freshman Camron Davis and highly-touted fullback Realus George aren’t yet enrolled.
2. Who emerges as the best defensive tackles with Richard McIntosh Jr. and Kendrick Norton gone?
UM has seven on scholarship, and three competing for starting jobs will be there this spring: Gerald Willis (the feedback from coaches and players has been positive after last year’s peculiar leave of absence in which he participated only on the scout team), Pat Bethel (thrived after moving to tackle last season) and Jonathan Ford (coaches believe he has first-round talent).
Tyreic Martin, who hasn’t played a snap in two years, also will be participating in spring. Freshmen Nesta Silvera and Jordan Miller and Illinois grad transfer Tito Odenigbo join the competition this summer.
3. Who replaces departing offensive linemen Kc McDermott at tackle and Trevor Darling at guard?
Tyree St. Louis returns as a starter at one tackle spot, with Kai-Leon Herbert having every chance to replace McDermott at the other. If Herbert or George Brown or none of the other tackles excels this spring, UM has said it could revisit the idea of moving Navaughn Donaldson from guard to tackle.
Corey Gaynor, Hayden Mahoney and potentially early enrollee Delone Scaife are top contenders for the guard spot opposite Donaldson. Tyler Gauthier returns at center, but Gaynor could push him.
Tackle John Campbell joins Scaife as early enrollees. Two other guards – Tennessee transfer Venzell Boulware and Cleveland Reed – arrive this summer.
4. Can early enrollees Gilbert Frierson and D.J. Ivey get a leg up on summer arrivals Al Blades Jr. and Nigel Bethel in the battle for two rotation cornerback spots?
Michael Jackson, Jhavonte Dean and Trajan Bandy are the only three veterans returning, and at least two of the freshmen will play a lot.
“Frierson is very physical,” recruiting analyst Larry Blustein said. “I like D.J. Ivey a lot. Versatile kid. Has played cornerback at South Dade. This is a very good defensive back group.”
5. Can early enrollee Greg Rousseau show enough to earn major playing time? Demetrius Jackson (who will be limited this spring after last season’s knee injury), Joe Jackson and Jon Garvin should be UM’s top three defensive ends, in some order.
That leaves Rousseau battling Scott Patchan – who was moved back from tight end – for the No. 4 defensive end job.
Blustein calls Rousseau “the most unusual athlete I’ve seen in a long time. He can play wide receiver, tight end, safety, defensive end. He looks, body wise, like [UM receiver] Lawrence Cager.
“I call him the Pocket Knife because he can do everything. [UM safeties coach Ephraim] Banda and [then-UM defensive line coach Craig] Kuligowski smiled the whole the night when they saw him play safety in jamboree.”
6. Who emerges as starting receivers?
Ahmmon Richards, who will be limited this spring after knee surgery, will be one. UM will sometimes open with two receivers when George is in the backfield.
But when UM opens with three receivers, the other spots are wide open among Jeff Thomas (started four games last year and a slight favorite heading into spring ball), Mike Harley Jr. and Lawrence Cager, with Dayall Harris, Darrell Langham and early enrollees Brian Hightower and Daquris Wiggins in the mix for playing time.
Five-star Mark Pope and four-star Marquez Ezzard arrive this summer.
• A few other things:
Nobody will be surprised if four-star safety Gurvan Hall, an early enrollee, pushes Derrick Smith and Amari Carter for playing time behind Jaquan Johnson and Sheldrick Redwine. And Redwine will need to fend off those three young players to keep his starting job.
Asked which of UM’s freshmen defensive backs has the best chance to be an elite college player and NFL player, Blustein said Hall.
“Hall is a big time kid; makes plays all over the place and has very good quickness,” Blustein said….
The two elite tight end recruits, Brevin Jordan and Will Mallory, aren’t enrolled yet. So Michael Irvin and Brian Polendey will have every chance this spring to make their case for playing time. Polendey must show he can do more than block....
New kicker Bubba Baxa, who’s replacing Michael Badgley, doesn’t arrive until the summer.