Big East spring storylines

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Unscathed by the first round of conference realignment in 2010, the Big East was by far the most impacted by conference realignment 2.0 this past summer and fall. Now, Big East teams head into spring practice for the final time before dramatic changes alter the look of the conference beginning in 2013.

But there will be one noticeable absence, as West Virginia will be playing in the Big 12 this fall. The Mountaineers have acted as the Big East’s lifeboat since 2005, contributing to three of the conference’s four BCS bowl wins under the “new” Big East lineup.

That new lineup is about to get, well, newer. Boise State, Central Florida, Houston, Memphis, San Diego State and SMU will all join as either all-sports members or football-only members beginning in 2013. But what does the Big East have in store for the transition year? Can any of the seven remaining members* — or eight if Temple joins immediately — emerge as a Top 25 team and show up to the BCS party like the Mountaineers have done before?

Those answers begin in spring practices. Here’s what to watch.

New coaches, old philosophies
It’s easy to rag on the Big East, but consider the following: since 2006, at least one Big East school per year has gone through a coaching change, and Cincinnati, Louisville and Pittsburgh have endured a few. It’s tough, if not downright impossible, to achieve any kind of consistency with that sort of coaching turnover. Pitt and Rutgers are the latest Big East schools to see their coach depart, with Todd Graham going to Arizona State and Greg Schiano testing the NFL waters, respectively. But both programs rebounded with decent, albeit unproven, head coaching hires in Paul Chryst and Kyle Flood. For the Panthers, Chryst will look to re-establish the ground-and-pound identity that went on hiatus under Graham. Expect the Scarlet Knights to maintain similar offensive and defensive philosophies.

Quarterbacks club
With Geno Smith (WVU) and Zach Collaros (Cincy) gone, the Big East lost its two best quarterbacks. Now, the conference is left with a mixed bag of signal callers that are either young (Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville and Munchie Legaux of Cincinnati come to mind), inconsistent (South Florida’s 10th year senior B.J. Daniels) or TBD (Rutgers, UConn and Pitt).  The quarterback is the most important position in football, and right now, there isn’t much star power at that position in the Big East. Who has a good spring, and more importantly, who carries it over to the fall, will be a storyline to watch.

Drinking the Orange Kool-Aid
Remember when Syracuse was good and the Carrier Dome was one hell of a tough place to play in college football? Remember when Paul Pasqualoni was coaching future NFL stars like Donovan McNabb and Dwight Freeney? The Orange’s gridiron success seems a distant memory now –their last 10-win season came in 2001 — but believe it or not, Syracuse is still a good brand. It just needs some on-the-field success to match. Doug Marrone looks like he can be the guy to get Syracuse back to glory, but as we saw last season, injuries and suspensions can sour any team’s chances of winning. The key for the Orange will be to stay healthy during the spring and summer months. Do that, and Syracuse has a chance for a Big East championship in 2012.

Can USF hit the Bulls-eye?
As I mentioned above, South Florida quarterback B.J. Daniels has had a productive, but up-and-down career in Tampa. That has to change if the Bulls are going to be a legit contender for the Big East title. Thankfully, Daniels will have arguably the deepest and most talented group of receivers to throw to this year, with leading receiver Sterling Griffin returning after missing part of last season with an injury. The Bulls will also be breaking in a new defensive coordinator, their third in four years, with Chris Cosh. USF has talent, and they look great every year on paper. It just hasn’t translated into meaningful victories. Yet.

Cincinnati’s offensive production
Collaros is gone and Big East Offensive Player of the Year, running back Isaiah Pead, is off to the NFL. Those two combined for just over two-thirds of the Bearcats’ offense last year. Who steps up in spring practices? Cincy has a young group of running backs, including touted back Jameel Poteat, and coach Butch Jones may go with a rotation at that position, much like WVU did this past year. The Bearcats also return their top two receivers from last season, Anthony McClung and Kenbrell Thompkins.

(*note: Syracuse and Pitt will be leaving for the ACC; exactly when is still being determined) 

Alabama QB Jalen Hurts uses photo of Clemson celebrating title win as motivational phone background

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Nick Saban said last week that the loss to Clemson in the the national championship game earlier this year is one that he’ll never get over, although he didn’t go so far as to compare it to a death in the family. One playing member of Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide team is taking to steps to ensure that he never forgets, either.

Jalen Hurts was the Tide’s talented true freshman starting quarterback who helped lead ‘Bama into the title game and, with a 30-yard touchdown run with just over two minutes left, gave his team a 31-28 lead. That lead was short-lived, however, as Deshaun Watson led his Tigers on an epic 88-yard drive that was capped by his two-yard touchdown pass with just one tick left on the clock for the 35-31 win.

The stunning last-second loss is something that Hurts makes a conscious effort to remind himself of daily as the rising sophomore, as the background on his smartphone, has a picture of Clemson players celebrating their win.

“We’re obviously all on our phones all the time,” Hurts said according to al.com after this past weekend’s spring game. “Every time I unlock it, it’s kind of a reminder. It kind of humbles me and keeps me motivated. …

“It’s not a grudge at all. It’s just something that keeps it on the back of your shoulder like, yeah, it’s still there. Remember why you’re doing it because at the end of the day, the goal for this team is to win the national championship.

Father of former Florida State WR Travis Rudolph killed in accidental shooting

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The father of Florida State wide receiver Travis Rudolph was killed Friday in an accidental shooting, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement on Monday.

According to the Sheriff’s Office, Darryl Rudolph was working on repairs inside a West Palm Beach, Fla., when a gun accidentally fired in an adjacent room, hitting him in the back/neck area. He was transported to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 55 years old.

The younger Rudolph was Florida State’s leading receiver over the past two seasons before becoming an early-entrant into this week’s NFL Draft. He gained viral notoriety after a photo snapped of him sitting at lunch with an autistic elementary school student hit Facebook.

“When I used to coach and help other kids with football, basketball and sports, Travis was small but he used to pay attention to what I was doing,” the elder Rudolph said in an interview with ESPN last year. “I told them get your education. You can be the best athlete in the world, but without an education, you’re not going very far. That’s what Travis followed through on.”

LSU QB Danny Etling undergoes back surgery

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LSU quarterback Danny Etling has undergone surgery to relieve back pain, the program announced Monday.

“Danny had a minor back procedure this morning and everything went alright,” head coach Ed Orgeron said in a statement (and not in an Arrested Development way).

Etling has played through back pain for months, according to Ross Dellenger from The Advocate, and this procedure should remove that pain.

In a possibly related story, Etling went 4-of-11 for 53 yards in LSU’s spring game.

A transfer from Purdue, Etling appeared in 11 games for the Tigers last season, completing 160-of-269 passes (59.5 percent) for 2,123 yards (7.9 yards per attempt) with 11 touchdowns against five interceptions.

Etling’s recovery from Monday’s procedure is expected to be a short one.

Willie Taggart defends Oregon’s offseason workouts in interview

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Things got off to a rocky start for new Oregon head coach Willie Taggart. Among the issues Taggart was forced to deal with soon after accepting the job of head coach at Oregon was players falling ill during and after offseason workouts.

Three Ducks were hospitalized in January to treat symptoms of rhabdomyolysis, a product of overworking leading to soft tissue and possible kidney damage. Oregon suspended strength and conditioning coach Irele Oderinde following the hospital treatments to players, and questions about his certification were thrust under a microscope. Despite the unfortunate situation in Eugene, Taggart has defended his program’s workout routine in an interview with Stewart Mandel of FOXSports.com.

“We know we didn’t do anything to try to hurt our kids. We’d done [the same program] everywhere we’ve been and never had a problem,” Taggart explained in the interview. “I think our guys just overworked themselves and didn’t hydrate. … They were trying to impress the new coaches.”

It seems Taggart has been trying to raise the bar at Oregon and find a way to make his new players tougher overall. That is a common strategy for a new coach in a new program, so Taggart’s mission is not unique in that sense.

Maybe it was just a tough physical transition in the approach to workouts after years of Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich running the show. Will this all pay off in the end? Taggart sure hopes so.