Spring practice is easy to overlook as March Madness, NFL free agency, and the return of baseball dominate the news cycle. However, for many fans, this is an incredibly important time of year when we get to learn about different teams.
Here are a few questions that each team in the AAC needs to answer this Spring.
Just how different will the offense look under new OC Gino Guidugli?
Mike Denbrock had been the offensive coordinator at Cincinnati for all of Luke Fickell’s time as head coach, but left following the season to take the same job at LSU. Given his long history of working with Brian Kelly, this wasn’t a huge surprise. It did, however, mean Fickell needed to hire a new offensive coordinator. He went with an internal promotion in Gino Guidugli. The 39-year-old was a running backs coach at Central Michigan before joining Fickell’s staff in the same role in 2017. Since then, he’s been a quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator for his alma mater.
For now, there’s no reason to expect much change in the structure of the offense. Guidugli largely learned from Denbrock, so there’s not much reason to think he would make massive changes to the offense.
Is the Bearcats defense ready to deal with extreme turnover?
No one has recruited or developed talent in the AAC as well as Cincinnati since Fickell came to town. They’ll need that depth that they’ve built over the past few seasons to shine through because they’ve lost a ton of talent to graduation and the draft.
How much more room does Holton Ahlers have to grow?
At this point, it feels like Holton Ahlers has been with ECU since Ruffin McNeill’s time in Greenville. And, while Ahlers hasn’t been with the Pirates quite that long, 2022 will be his fifth year playing for ECU. During his time, there have been moments where the big lefty has looked like Tim Tebow in college, and times when he’s looked more like Tebow in the NFL. Ahlers has a ton of great intangibles, but he lacks consistency. As coach Mike Houston has made ECU a better all around team, a consistent Ahlers would tie them together.
How confident are the Pirates coming into 2022?
ECU football hasn’t had much to be confident about since McNeill was fired. The Scottie Montgomery era was a disaster and the Mike Houston rebuild wasn’t overnight. 2021 was their first time even being bowl eligible since 2014. If you’re not careful, players can start listening to outside noise about the quality of a program. The Pirates should be confident coming into 2022, but will they be? We should be able to get an idea this Spring.
Who can possibly replace Marcus Jones?
Marcus Jones was one of the best players in the AAC last season, and he gave Houston incredible flexibility. A lockdown defensive back who had a nose for the ball, Jones made interceptions and pick-sixes a habit. He was also an elite return man, who won’t be replaced easily. So, how does Houston go about it? The answer is probably some kind of Moneyball approach. You don’t find one player to replace Jones. You find someone who can return kicks. You find another who can cover, and if you don’t have a new lockdown corner, you manufacture better coverage situations. That could be trying to confuse quarterbacks more or double teaming more. At the end of the day, it’s not practical to directly replace Marcus Jones, but you do have to try.
What can a healthy Clayton Tune do?
Clayton Tune went from being a quarterback with plenty of potential to one of the best quarterbacks in the AAC last season. He did so, even though he was playing injured. Tune was dealing with a hamstring injury last season. It had been suggested that this improved his passing, by keeping him in the pocket. But, now that we know what Tune the passer can do, it will be interesting to see what Tune can do as an all-around athlete.
Are the Tigers starting to feel outside pressure?
It will be interesting to know if Memphis is starting to feel pressure in the 2022 season. Since winning the AAC, going to the Cotton Bowl, and losing Mike Norvell to Florida State, the Tigers haven’t been the same team. Sure, they’ve been respectable, but they haven’t been scary. In particular, their offense hasn’t been nearly as explosive as it once was. There is a lot of pressure to compete for the AAC crown at Memphis, and there are questions about the job Ryan Silverfield has done to this point. Are the Tigers feeling those whispers getting louder?
Who steps up to help Seth Henigan from the skills positions?
Freshman quarterback Seth Henigan was a major bright spot for the Tigers in 2021. Now, he’s looking to take the next step forward in his development. However, he’s going to have to take that next step forward without the stud wide receiver Calvin Austin III. Tight end Sean Dykes was the second leading receiver, behind Calvin Austin III, and only about half as productive. He’s gone too.
Javon Ivory ends up being the leading returning receiver for the Tigers. He only had 29 catches for 413 yards in 2021. Last year’s leading rusher, Brandon Thomas, only had 669 yards on the ground, a far cry from the explosive running backs of just a few seasons ago.
So, who can step up and help Henigan. You have to figure Thomas is going to be expected to step up and get more touches in 2022 while staying as productive as he was in 2021. Meanwhile, Ivory is still around to get the ball in 2022. He’ll need help, though. The Tigers need weapons, a problem they’re not used to having.
Can Tai Lavatai consistently be “the guy” at quarterback for Navy?
When Tai Lavatai was healthy in 2021, he looked confident and under control of the Navy triple option. That’s something that the Midshipmen desperately need. Their offense doesn’t work without a quick thinking and athletic quarterback. Lavatai absolutely has the ability to be the guy for Navy, but he needs to go out and do it consistently. That includes staying healthy.
Who is really the offensive coordinator?
Last year, Navy made some ugly headlines. Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk fired offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper after a slow start to the season. Head Coach Ken Niumatalolo wasn’t happy about this, fighting for Jasper to stay on the staff as the quarterbacks coach and publicly speaking about how important Jasper’s knowledge of the triple option is to Navy. Now, entering Spring practice, Navy still doesn’t have an offensive coordinator listed on their roster. Ivin Jasper is still a quarterbacks coach. So, who is going to be calling plays and coming up with the offensive scheme in 2022? Will it be Jasper, or potentially running game coordinator Ashley Ingram? How much influence and time will Niumatalolo spend there?
How does SMU replace last year’s star skill players?
SMU is losing a ton of talent from last season’s explosive offense, and they’re losing that talent as they try to adjust to life under a new coaching staff. Danny Gray and Reggie Roberson are key wide receivers on their way to the NFL. So is tight end Grant Calcaterra, who was a major piece of the puzzle in 2021. The Mustangs were also hit with a surprise loss, as running back Ulysses Bentley IV transferred to Ole Miss. That’s a ton of talent that Lashlee needs to find replacements for in 2022. Whether that comes from players currently on the roster who step up or from the transfer portal remains to be seen.
Will the new staff try something new or different on the defensive side of the ball?
During the Sonny Dykes’ years, SMU found success despite their defense being a general liability. This Spring we will start to see a practical difference to the defensive approach under a new coaching staff, both in how they coach defenders and approach the game strategically.
Is Stan Drayton prepared to take on head coaching duties?
Stan Drayton might very well be the best running backs coach in all of college football. His coaching career started in 1993 at Alleghany, a Division III team in Meadville, PA where Drayton also played running back. Since then, he’s worked his way to some of college football’s elite programs and has spent time in the NFL as well. During that time, he’s coached running backs like Brian Westbrook, Ezekiel Elliott, Carlos Hyde, and Bijan Robinson. His record as a coach is great and he knows Eastern Pennsylvania well. However, Drayton also has never been a coordinator. He’s only ever been a position coach, with some time doubling as an assistant head coach and running game coordinator at Texas. That’s a big jump to make. Is he ready?
Will the culture change in Philadelphia?
The end of the Rod Carey era at Temple saw the program devolve, and by the end the culture was completely broken. Fixing that culture is going to be incredibly important for the new coaching staff to make. That started in Winter workouts and is going to be clearer to everyone now that Spring practice has begun.
On his third offensive coordinator in as many seasons, how can Michael Pratt grow in the Green Wave offense?
When Michael Pratt hit the field as a true freshman in 2020, he was an incredibly exciting phenomenon. He did have a few too many interceptions, but with more time in Will Hall’s system, he should have improved. Then, Hall took the Southern Miss job and Chip Long came in, the team was displaced by a massive hurricane, and Pratt only marginally improved. Long left for Georgia Tech, and now Pratt has a new offensive coordinator again. Will Pratt take a leap forward, or will it be like hitting the reset button again?
With an experienced roster, how motivated is this team coming off a 2-10 season?
Last year was a massive challenge for Tulane. The Green Wave had to spend the first month of the season in Birmingham, due to Hurricane Ida. It seemed to stunt their entire season, and it wasn’t until November they showed much improvement on the field. It ended up being the worst season on the field for Willie Fritz at Tulane. Now, you have to wonder about the motivation of Tulane in 2022. Are they determined to prove 2021 was a fluke, or are they more resigned in their approach?
Can Tulsa build on recent success?
The Philip Montgomery era at Tulsa has been full of ups and downs. 2020 saw Tulsa play for the AAC Championship, going 6-3 overall. After a slow start in 2022, Tulsa bounced back and managed to make and win a bowl game, going 7-6. Now, can Tulsa take that success and roll it into the 2022 season? If the Golden Hurricane can, they have a manageable September and could put themselves in position for a great season.
Is Davis Brin ready to be one of the AAC’s elite quarterbacks?
There was no promise that Davis Brin was going to be Tulsa’s starter going into last season. After starting for them, and throwing for over 3,000 yards, Brin has a chance to take a step into the realm of the top AAC quarterbacks. He’ll need to be more consistent to do so, and seriously cut down on the turnovers, but he definitely has the raw talent to do so.
Is there really a quarterback competition in Orlando?
Mikey Keene was dealt a bad hand as a true freshman. Dillon Gabriel went down with a broken collarbone early in the season, meaning Keene had to go into play before he was really ready. Gabriel ended up transferring to Oklahoma and UCF brought in Ole Miss transfer John Rhys Plumlee. Before the rise of Matt Corral, Plumlee was a great running quarterback but he moved to wide receiver to make room for Corral. He transferred to UCF to play quarterback again, and it was assumed the job was his.
However, offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey made the comment that Plumlee needs to relearn how to play quarterback. It implies he has work to do, and who’s to say that Keene hasn’t made a big leap in year two? That’s when McKenzie Milton made his jump into the realm of the elite, after all. So, will this actually be a quarterback competition? If so, who wins?
Does UCF have an answer to its kicking woes?
UCF has, to put it politely, not been able to find a reliable kicker since Matthew Wright graduated. During Josh Heupel’s time as head coach, it seemed like special teams were largely overlooked, but one player has taken on the brunt of UCF fans’ angst over special teams, Daniel Obarski. Despite having a bazooka for a leg, Obarski has major accuracy issues, making just 57% of field goals in 2021. It was clear that Gus Malzahn didn’t always trust him too. So, what has been done to fix the problem?
How much will Timmy McClain develop in one offseason?
USF has had some trouble finding consistent quarterback play since Quinton Flowers graduated. Blake Barnett was supposed to be the solution, but he didn’t live up to the hype and missed time with injuries. Since he moved on from USF, the position has been a revolving door. That is, until Timmy McClain came in and started to get consistent playing time. He’s a great athlete with tons of upside. Can he take a leap forward and develop into the quarterback USF needs?
Jeff Scott is going all in on bringing in transfers to help now. Will it work?
It’s clear that the time to start winning is now for Jeff Scott. He was always going to be given time to develop the program, but the results have been catastrophic so far. In two seasons, USF has one FBS win. That was against 2021 Temple. He’s decided to lean heavily into the transfer portal to try and fill gaps on the roster. Whether or not it’s going to help is still a mystery, though.