Ralph D. Russo
AP College Football Writer
Spring comes early in college football — or at least spring practice does.
Arizona, Duke and Northwestern have already started spring practice. Stanford does Tuesday. Soon after the calendar flips to March there will be football on college campuses all over the country.
Off campus, too. Michigan opens its spring practice on Monday in Bradenton, Florida, at the IMG Academy. Maybe you have heard?
Coaches get 15 practices to sort through their rosters and implement new schemes, leading up to a spring game which in some places will pack game day-sized crowds into stadiums.
At Arizona, Rich Rodriguez has decided to take a different approach this spring. The Wildcats are focusing almost exclusively on fundamentals instead of schemes, and they won’t be playing a spring game.
“Half the scrimmages you have, or the spring game, you either don’t play your top guys or you cross your fingers that nobody gets hurt,” Rodriguez told reporters last month. “It’s good to look at schemes, but what are you trying to win? Beat your own team? It’s not nearly as important as teaching them how to play.”
At Pitt, the Panthers are taking their spring game back to the big stage.
Pittsburgh will wrap up its workouts with an intra-squad game on April 26 at Heinz Field. It will be the first time since 2011 the Panthers have held a spring game at the home they share with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Construction at Heinz last year forced Pitt to hold its spring game at nearby Highmark Stadium, a 4,000-seat facility used by a professional soccer team. In three seasons under previous coach Paul Chryst, Pitt either played its spring game at local high schools as a way for the new staff to build relationships in the area or did not have one.
The Panthers’ average attendance last year was 48,150, up 17 percent from the year before as new coach Pat Narduzzi helped excite fans.
Coming off an 8-5 season, Narduzzi hopes playing the spring game at Heinz helps Pitt develop a home-field advantage that has been challenging to cultivate off campus.
“It’s always important to get into your home field and get our kids comfortable with playing in that stadium,” Narduzzi said.
While Narduzzi and Rodriguez are taking different approaches to spring, they do have something in common: Both are breaking in new coordinators on the side of the ball that is not their specialty.
Narduzzi, the architect of Michigan State’s great defenses while working under Mark Dantonio, brought in former North Carolina State offensive coordinator Matt Canada to replace Jim Chaney, who left for Georgia.
Rodriguez parted ways with longtime assistant Jeff Casteel, who had been his defensive coordinator at West Virginia, and brought in Marcel Yates from Boise State to fix an Arizona defense that ranked 93rd in the nation in average yards allowed per play.
Here are six more teams breaking in coordinators for whom much will be expected next season.
Brady Hoke, Oregon.
Second-year coordinator Don Pellum, who has been on staff for 25 years, was demoted after the Ducks’ defense finished 98th in the nation in average yards allowed per play. Oregon prides itself on being a promote-from-within program, but coach Mark Helfrich knew the Ducks were in need of a fresh perspective. Hoke, the former Michigan coach, came through the ranks as a defensive line coach but has never been a coordinator.
Joe Moorhead, Penn State
The Nittany Lions’ first two seasons under James Franklin have produced some ugly offenses, despite having a quarterback with an NFL skill set in Christian Hackenberg. There was plenty of blame to go around, but offensive coordinator John Donovan was the one who got fired. In steps Moorhead, who spent the last four seasons as the head coach at Fordham, leading the Rams to three straight FCS playoff appearances with a high-powered spread offense.
Noel Mazzone, Texas A&M
The swag left Texas A&M’s offense with Johnny Football. Highly recruited quarterbacks have not developed. The running game has been spotty at best. The overall inconsistency led to the dismissal of 30-year-old Jake Spavital, who as it turned out was not quite ready to be the next Kliff Kingsbury. Coach Kevin Sumlin hired the veteran Mazzone away from UCLA hoping to trade some swag for production.
Bob Shoop, Tennessee.
The Volunteers’ defense was OK last season (39th in the country in yards per play) so it was a little surprising when coach Butch Jones fired coordinator John Jancek. Then it all made sense when Jones quickly pulled Shoop away from Penn State. Even burdened by limp offenses, Shoop’s Penn State defenses were excellent. The Vols have talent (DL Derek Barnett, CB Cameron Sutton) and high expectations. There will be no patience in Knoxville.
Sterlin Gilbert, Texas
The Baylor offense has been ripping up the Big 12 for most of Art Briles’ eight years as coach of the Bears. But can it save Charlie Strong at Texas? The Longhorns coach plucked the 37-year-old Gilbert from Briles’ coaching tree, luring him away from Tulsa, where he was the offensive coordinator last season under former Baylor OC Philip Montgomery. One of the best parts of Baylor’s offensive system is it usually doesn’t take long to get it up and humming. For Strong’s sake, that better be the case for Gilbert in Austin.
Manny Diaz, Miami
Diaz has fully rehabbed his reputation after it was dragged down by Mack Brown’s sinking ship at Texas. The Hurricanes will have one of the best quarterbacks (Brad Kaaya) in the country, leading an experienced offense for new coach Mark Richt. If Diaz can fix a defense that has been an underachieving mess, maybe Miami can finally reach the ACC title game.