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Spring practice storylines to watch

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Texas was the first major FBS program to begin spring practice when the Longhorns opened camp last Thursday, and more programs will begin early preparations for the 2013 season over the next couple of weeks.

With spring ball taking center stage across the country, let's take a look at 10 burning questions surrounding some of the most intriguing major programs.

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Taylor Kelly
US PRESSWIREQB Taylor Kelly finished ninth in the nation in passer rating last season.

Arizona State hype: There is a lot of buzz surrounding the Sun Devils after Todd Graham led the program to eight wins in his first season in Tempe. The Devils enjoyed their first winning season since 2007 and their first bowl win since 2005. But ASU feasted on its weaker opponents in 2012 while suffering through a four-game skid midway through the year when the opponents were stellar — Oregon, UCLA, Oregon State and USC all defeated the Sun Devils in that stretch. Still, there is a lot to be optimistic about if you’re an ASU fan, and it starts with the play of Taylor Kelly. The dual-threat QB finished ninth in the nation in passer rating last year as just a redshirt sophomore. He will only get better as he continues to master this offense. Meanwhile, ASU returns eight starters from a defense that tied for 17th nationally in yards per play allowed. And don’t forget that star defensive lineman Will Sutton surprised nearly everyone when he decided to come back for a final season and bypass the NFL Draft. Could ASU claim the Pac-12 South division and compete for its first Rose Bowl appearance since 1996?

Make or break for Kiffin: After entering last season as the preseason No. 1 team in America, USC severely underachieved. So head coach Lane Kiffin will be entering a crucial season hoping to avoid getting dismissed by athletic director Pat Haden. The Trojans will be shifting toward more of a 5-2 defensive scheme under new coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who will have to figure out new starters in the secondary. Keep an eye on early enrollee safety Su’a Cravens. Meanwhile, who will replace star quarterback Matt Barkley? Max Wittek started the final two games of last season but was inconsistent at best. Still, it will be difficult for either Cody Kessler or freshman spring enrollee Max Browne to win the job. The other major question is who will be USC’s new OC, and will Kiffin relinquish play-calling duties?

New-look Texas offense: There’s no question that Texas will not be able to reclaim its spot atop the Big 12 unless Manny Diaz’s defense reverts back to its 2010 and 2011 form. But another big question for the ‘Horns this spring is how their new up-tempo offense will come together over 15 practices. Head coach Mack Brown wants a lot less changing of personnel under new play-caller Major Applewhite in order to keep defenses off-balance with a no-huddle attack. Brown said he desires the offense to snap the football roughly 85 times per game this coming season after averaging just 68.5 snaps per game in 2012. Quarterback David Ash remains the key to the unit’s success, and he and Applewhite will try to build off of a strong fourth quarter in the Alamo Bowl win over Oregon State.

Year Two for TCU in the Big 12: Casey Pachall has returned to the team after receiving treatment for his substance abuse problem, but he will have competition at quarterback with Trevone Boykin remaining in the mix. But there’s no question that a healthy Pachall makes this offense stronger after he completed over 66 percent of his passes and threw just seven interceptions in 2011, his first season as the starter in Fort Worth. And with Waymon James and Nebraska transfer Aaron Green forming a solid combo in the backfield, the Horned Frogs will be strong on offense. Defensively, end Devonte Fields recorded 18.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks as a freshman, so it’s scary to think what his future holds after such a strong debut. He’ll be joined by cornerback Jason Verrett and seven other returning starters. Linebacker Kenny Cain and end Stansly Maponga are key losses, but Gary Patterson’s defense will still be one of the best units in the Big 12.

Georgia’s young defense: Mark Richt’s defense is losing a lot of top-tier talent to the NFL. Linebackers Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree and Cornelius Washington, defensive tackles John Jenkins, Kwame Geathers and Abry Jones, safeties Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams, and cornerback Sanders Commings are all departing Athens — and that’s a boatload of talent lost from Todd Grantham’s 3-4 unit. In all, the ‘Dawgs lose 12 players on defense who started at least two games for them last season. There are still a lot of talented defenders on this roster, though, including defensive back Damian Swann and defensive ends Jordan Jenkins, Garrison Smith and Ray Drew. Jenkins could be a future All-American, but it will be a dogfight for Georgia to win the SEC East even with Aaron Murray returning and the running back tandem of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall.

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LSU’s new OC: Tigers head coach Les Miles tabbed Cam Cameron as the new offensive coordinator of the Bayou Bengals, as former OC Greg Studrawa will move back to offensive line coach and quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe will assume an administrative role. This is good news for quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who should get to take some shots down the field in this offense. Both Miles and Cameron love the power run game, but the new OC loves to go aerial as well. And Mettenberger will have almost his entire receiving corps back except for Russell Shepard. A player who threw for over 200 yards in four of his final five games of 2012 could be primed for a breakout year.

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George Atkinson III
US PRESSWIRERB George Atkinson III scored five TDs on the ground in a reserve role last year.

The ND ground game: Notre Dame loses Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick, and those are big losses considering head coach Brian Kelly made the rushing attack the focus of the offense. But the coaching staff is high on George Atkinson III, who has the speed to be a major factor. But will he be physical enough in between the tackles? Cam McDaniel also will fight for carries along with USC transfer Amir Carlisle, who was lost for the season last year when he broke his ankle. This trio will be the focus this spring until freshmen Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston arrive in the summer months.

A rebound year for Thomas?: Virginia Tech dual-threat quarterback Logan Thomas entered the 2012 season as a likely first-round selection in the opinion of many draft experts. In fact, some analysts considered him the best QB in the draft this year if he decided to come out. For whatever reason — reshuffled offensive line, new corps of receivers, inexperienced backs or just mental lapses by Thomas himself — the signal-caller struggled mightily. Now, with Scot Loeffler in Blacksburg as the Hokies’ new offensive coordinator, can Thomas reclaim his once-high draft stock during his senior season? Minimizing his mistakes and living up to his immense potential will be the No. 1 challenge for Thomas starting this spring.

Andersen’s first offense at Wisconsin: It will be interesting to see how new Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen’s offense will look in his first spring in Madison. The Badgers don’t have a player with the dual-threat capabilities of Chuckie Keeton, who was phenomenal for Andersen at Utah State, although one dual-threat is on his way to Wisconsin soon enough. But for now, Andersen has options under center with three players returning who started last year: Danny O'Brien, Joel Stave and Curt Phillips. Andersen also inherits Bart Houston, who was a highly regarded recruit in the Class of 2012, and Jon Budmayr, who was supposed to take over for Russell Wilson but has dealt with multiple arm issues. No matter who is at QB, expect the ground game to remain a focus with James White and Melvin Gordon in the backfield.

The new Big East: The league will begin (actually, continue) its extreme transformation this summer when it officially welcomes Central Florida, Houston, Memphis and SMU while saying goodbye to Pittsburgh and Syracuse. We know that Louisville is the class of the league, as the Cardinals could be a preseason Top 10 team with Teddy Bridgewater under center. But who is the second-best team in the league? Willie Taggart and South Florida? Kyle Flood and Rutgers? Perhaps one of the new members? UCF returns 3,000-yard passer Blake Bortles, running back Storm Johnson and a solid defensive line, while Houston returns 14 starters. Memphis is led by young head coach Justin Fuente, but the Tigers just don’t have the depth. And SMU loses many of its best players. The best bet for most intriguing newcomer seems to be UCF.

Other storylines to watch:

Will highly touted redshirt freshman Zach Kline win the starting quarterback job at Cal under new head coach Sonny Dykes?

Can Arizona improve defensively entering its second year playing in the 3-3-5 scheme?

With EJ Manuel moving onto the NFL, can Clint Trickett hold off intriguing sophomore Jacob Coker and redshirt freshman Jameis Winston for the starting job under center at Florida State?

Mark Helfrich steps in for Chip Kelly as head coach at Oregon. But those weren’t the only coaching changes in Eugene. Scott Frost steps in as offensive coordinator, while Ron Aiken and Matt Lubick arrived as the new defensive line coach and wide receivers coach, respectively.

Can new coordinator Ted Roof continue the momentum that the Georgia Tech defense built late in the 2012 season? The Yellow Jackets return eight starters to the unit.

Miami (FL) struggled mightily on defense last fall, ranking No. 112 nationally in rushing defense, No. 102 in passing defense and No. 82 scoring defense. The Hurricanes can’t compete for a Coastal division crown without improvement on that side of the ball.

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