Spring practice is a big deal. For a program like UC's, one that is extremely young and wasn't able to get to a bowl game and capitalize on the 15 extra practices that going bowling gives spring practice is vital. But the problem is that it can be hard to get excited about spring Football. Drawing conclusions is hard, opening day being a whole 6 months out and there isn't much to base decisions on. For the most part the 1's beat up on the 2's. There might be a 100 to 150 live plays at most where it's 1's v 1's in spring practice.
All that being said there is still a reason to watch and observe spring practice. It can give you a good idea what to expect in the coming year. Not so much for the front line players, those guys are pretty well set. UC is returning 16 starters from last year, 5 on offense, 11 on defense. Of that group of 16 players I would say that there are maybe five guys that could play their way out of a spot with the ones between now and the start of the season. The starters get the pub, you will see lots of pieces in the coming weeks about the starters. But spring practice is about depth, about the younger guys playing their way into contention. For the younger guys, the handful of true freshmen partaking in Spring ball and the guys who red shirted last year this is their first chance to make an impression. Spring ball is for the underclassmen, fall camp is for the starters.
This is the biggest objective for the program before the start of the season. Last years team was dangerously thin, and not just at a couple of positions, but at all positions. The starters had to be Iron Men because the drop off from the starters to the back ups wasn't so much as a drop off as a free fall. There really wasn't a single position that was saved from the problem. Jones and Co. put out a depth chart for each and every game, but it wasn't hard to discern the difference between the actual depth chart and the published one. The actual one usually had one guy backing up two positions simultaneously, the published one listed a lot of people who played very few meaningful snaps as the first guy off the bench.
So building depth into the roster is a really big deal. Jones and Co. showed a great deal of restraint last year not burning red shirts last year. Quite a few members of the 2010 recruiting class did wind up burning, most of them on defense like Antwan Darling, Deven Drane, and Roney Lozano. Anthony McClung and Munchie Legaux were the only freshman to make an impact on offense. For the most part the class of 2010 took a red-shirt, even though guys like Camaron Beard and Brad Harrah could have played last year. Red shirting is sort of a dirty word in recruiting, but it is really the best way to go about building long term depth into a program. All of the guys who took red shirts last year will have a big time opportunity to make an impression in the spring.
Spring is also the time to try moving some pieces around. Brian Kelly was pretty active pulling huge shockers like moving Marcus Barnett to corner for a few weeks in March of 2009. Or telling Connor Barwin that he was going to be playing defense now. Some of the experiments worked, Barwin blew up and became the best DE in the conference. The epically tatted Bones moved back to receiver after the spring, though he did start at corner against Fresno State 2009.
This spring there are unlikely to be any moves as dramatic as the two cited examples. I don't think that any of the offensive players will be winding their way to defense this year. The changes are likely to much smaller and more subtle. Already Jones has discussed Walter Stewart becoming a full time defensive lineman (ed: finally) and Andre Cureton shifting inside to guard from tackle on offense. Those are the only two mentioned right now, but there will be others for sure. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see Jones channel Brian Kelly and move Travis Kelce from TE to DE between now and the start of the season, I also wouldn't be surprised at all if it worked out just as well.
I guess this point is sort of already covered in the point about Spring Practice for the young guys, but there is a very small group of people for whom spring Football might mean the most to, and that is the early enrollees. I assume that most of you know about the practice, if you don't this piece right here is an excellent introductory study. For the most part UC has been excluded from the trend in the past. The only early enrollee from the past 5 or so years was Angel Clybourn who took part in spring practice in 2009 but quit the team shortly there after. The 2011 class changes that in a big way, of the 24 commits 4 are listed as December grads, Malcolm Murray, Nick Temple, Stephen Weatherford and Shaq Washington. Murray and Washington have both been on campus since early January. Weatherford is in the UC registry and presumably taking part in spring practice. Temple has been rumored to be taking part in spring practice, but he doesn't appear in the registry so I presume not. Still three early enrollees is probably the most in program history. Washington and Murray appear to be taking advantage and should both play extensively this fall.
So those are the basic things to pay attention to. So when you read the paper and check online try to get beyond the headlines and the front line guys. Spring Football is all about the background guy, I will do my best to shed some light on what is happening deep in the wilds of the depth chart throughout spring Football.