Tag:Spring Practice Primer
Posted on: February 28, 2011 10:58 am
 

Spring Practice Primer: Mississippi State

Posted by Jerry Hinnen

College Football has no offseason. Every coach knows that the preparation for September begins now, in Spring Practice . So we here at the Eye on College Football  will get you ready as teams open spring ball with our Spring Practice Primers . Today, we look at Mississippi State , who opens its practice this Friday, March 4.

Your spring practice question: the Bulldogs are going to have something of a new-look defense. So how does it look?

For most college football fans, the first thing that comes to mind when they think of the two-year Dan Mullen era in Starkville (well, if they don't think about how close Mullen came to landing Cam Newton) is the team's bruising, tricky spread-option rushing attack. Behind poor man's Tim Tebow Chris Relf at quarterback, a beefy and well-coached offensive line, and an assortment of physical running backs, the Bulldogs finished ninth in the nation in rushing in Mullen's first season and followed that up with a 16th-place finish in 2010. With the Bulldogs going over the 200-yard mark in eight of their last nine games and returning their top nine rushers -- most notably Relf and senior tailback Vick Ballard, whose late-season surge took him all the way to 20 rushing touchdowns, tying the aforementioned Mr. Newton for most in the SEC -- there won't be any reason not to expect the Bulldogs to boast one of the nation's best running games once again in 2011. And with Relf continuing to improve his touch and the Bulldog receiving corps returning virtually intact, the inconsistent passing game could offer enough balance to make State one of the most feared attacks in the SEC, if not the nation.

But for all of that, the not-so-dirty-secret of the Bulldogs' surprising run to their 9-4 2010 record was their defense. As directed by super-aggressive first-year coordinator Manny Diaz, the Bulldogs held potent attacks from Georgia to 12 points, Florida to 7, Michigan to 17, even Auburn to a season-low 17 ... all but the latter resulting in Bulldog wins. Leading the way was linebacker Chris White, who broke out of anonymity with 110 tackles, 15.5 tackles-for-loss, and six sacks--good enough to lead the team in all three categories. Wright was joined in the linebacking unit by fellow veterans K.J Wright and Emmanuel Gatling (142 combined tackles), with the defensive line anchored by dynamic end Pernell McPhee and his 10 tackles-for-loss. McPhee and White each landed on an All-SEC first-team (McPhee the coaches', White the AP's), the only two Bulldog defenders to earn all-league honors.

The biggest problem of the Bulldogs' spring? All of the names in the previous paragraph have moved on. White, Wright, Gatling, and McPhee were all seniors; Diaz left Starkville after just the one season, agreeing to a hefty raise to replace Will Muschamp as Texas's new defensive coordinator. State will go into 2011 with an entirely new starting linebacking corps, a big question mark at one defensive end spot, a secondary that limped to a 91st-place finish in pass defense a year ago, and in promoted former defensive line coach Chris Wilson, a first-time defensive coordinator trying to fill those holes.

That seems like a lot of potential problems, but the good news for Bulldog fans is that State does boast several potential answers. Wilson did serve as co- coordinator last season and after several quality years of position coaching two excellent coordinators in Oklahoma's Brent Venables and Diaz, should be as ready as he's going to get. If McPhee's absence might create problems on the ends, the Bulldogs should be rock-solid in the middle of the defensive line with their pair of impressive junior tackles, Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox. And if the secondary was a sore spot a year ago, there's still room for optimism with all four starters returning, including freshman All-SEC safety Nickoe Whitley.

The linebackers look like a potential dilemma no matter how you slice it. But if Wilson can cobble together a unit that shows some kind of promise this spring -- and the defensive backs continue to develop, and Boyd and Cox are as good as advertised, and Wilson appears to be well in command -- it's going to be tough keeping a lid on the Bulldogs' preseason hype. Opposite Relf and the Bulldog steamroller on the other side of the ball, the only thing standing between State and a potential emergence as the biggest threat in the SEC West to Alabama and LSU is a competent defense; if that defense looks likely this spring, the ceiling will be higher than it's been in Starkville in ages.
Posted on: February 25, 2011 12:52 pm
Edited on: February 25, 2011 1:04 pm
 

Spring Practice Primer: South Florida

Posted by Chip Patterson

College Football has no offseason. Every coach knows that the preparation for September begins now, in Spring Practice. So we here at the Eye on College Football will get you ready as teams open spring ball with our Spring Practice Primers. Today, we look at South Florida, who opens its practice on March 3.

Can South Florida improve the offensive inconsistencies that kept them from being competitive in a wide-open Big East?  

It was some unusual circumstances that brought Skip Holtz to his first FBS head coaching job, and the unexpected arrival helped South Florida fans feel pretty good about an 8-5 finish with a Meineke Car Care Bowl win. But heading into 2011, one of the biggest questions that Holtz will have to answer has to do with the part of the game that is right in his wheel house: the offense.  Holtz' offensive roots are deep, serving as offensive coordinator under his father during Lou's stints at both Notre Dame and South Carolina. When he took the head coaching position at East Carolina, he turned a Conference USA cellar dweller into two-time conference champs. Now, he faces the challenge of turning South Florida into Big East title contenders.

An 8-5 season may look successful to a bystander, but it was the four conference losses that kept South Florida from competing in a wide-open Big East title hunt in 2010. In those four Big East losses (by an average of 7.0 points), the Bulls offense put up an average of 10.25 points, 259.75 yards, and turned the ball over 9 times. With a few more points, and a few less turnovers, Holtz could have had South Florida playing in their first-ever BCS bowl game. The results were particularly puzzling because the Bulls were able to produce offensively and win close games against Cincinnati, Rutgers, Louisville, and Miami. But now is no time for "what ifs'." With Spring Practice just days away, the focus must be shifted towards 2011.

The most obvious question in regards to South Florida's offense will be at the quarterback position. B.J. Daniels has shown great promise at times since his arrival in Tampa. But if turnovers were a big part of the offensive issues, Daniels is one of the culprits. In 2010, the starter threw 13 interceptions while only throwing 11 touchdowns. However, he finished on a strong note with a 20 for 27, three total touchdown performance against Clemson in the bowl win. But when Daniels was injured for the end of the Miami game and the following week against Connecticut, Bulls fans saw a glimpse of the other option: sophomore Bobby Eveld.

Eveld is a much more traditional pocket quarterback than Daniels. Standing 6-foot-5 and weighing in at 200 pounds, the young signal caller showed no hesitation in slinging the ball around the field in his limited action last season. Eveld's mentality can also result in turnovers (like the 3 interceptions against Connecticut), but frustrated fans will likely overlook that if they are demanding a change.

Daniels is entering spring ball as the first quarterback on the depth chart, but the word from Tampa is that the starting job is not a lock at all. Eveld will be given a chance to push Daniels for the position, and South Florida fans hope that it will only result in improvements for both players.

The offense will also be moving forward in 2011 without one half of their rushing attack: graduated running back Mo Plancher. Plancher led all rushers with 793 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2010, but often times split carries with junior Demetris Murray. Murray rushed for 533 yards and 4 touchdowns himself, and the Georgia native will have his time to shine in 2011. Murray is not a speedster, but his toughness and field vision make him one of South Florida's biggest offensive threats next season. With Plancher graduated, Spring Practice will be the first time Murray can set the tone for the rest of the running backs.

We know what to look for at the quarterback and running back positions. But the offensive line expectations are more like a game of Guess Who? Holtz said he expects to do a lot of positional experimenting this spring, including mixing up his offensive linemen. Holtz also has to figure out what he has at the wide receiver position. With Dontavia Bogan graduating (and taking his team-high numbers in receptions, yards, and touchdowns with him), the Bulls will have to shuffle out a rotation for a crop of both young talent and veterans returning from injury.

South Florida displayed a lot of potential at time in 2010, but their offensive inconsistencies kept them from making any kind of dramatic impact in the Big East. With one season left before the arrival of TCU, many are considering 2011 one of the last chances to win a weakened conference. Skip Holtz would love nothing more than to entrench his position in Tampa with a Big East title, but he is going to have to make some decisions this spring in order to deliver success to the young program.

South Florida will host their annual Spring Game on April 2 in Raymond James Stadium 

Click here to check out the other Spring Practice Primers
Posted on: February 24, 2011 6:25 pm
 

Spring Practice Primer: Purdue

Posted by Adam Jacobi

College Football has no offseason. Every coach knows that the preparation for September begins now, in Spring Practice. So we here at the Eye on College Football will get you ready as teams open spring ball with our Spring Practice Primers. Today, we look at Purdue, who opens its practice on March 1.

Spring Practice Question: Is Rob Henry or Robert Marve the man for Purdue? 

As far as injuries go, nobody was hit with more rotten luck than the Purdue Boilermakers last year; four key offensive starters suffered torn ACLs, gutting the team's skill position depth and leading to the Boilermakers' worst scoring output in 15 years. That Purdue ended up going just 4-8 is, well, understandable.

Fortunately, at least three of the four injured Boilermakers -- QB Robert Marve, RB Ralph Bolden, and WR Justin Siller -- are back, while WR Keith Smith still awaits word from the NCAA as to whether he'll receive a sixth year of eligibility (an announcement was expected this week). 

There's also two other returning starting quarterbacks, though: freshmen Rob Henry and Sean Robinson. Both Henry and Robinson are coming into the spring healthy, and while both QBs saw significant time under center, it's clear that Henry was the better performer last year. Robinson's quarterback rating was an anemic 70.21, and he managed just 3.3 yards per pass attempt.

Henry, on the other hand, comes into the spring session as the putative starter as Marve recovers, and the amount of repetitions Henry should get with the first team could be invaluable as Danny Hope evaluates his signal-callers. That's not to say Marve is going to sit in his room all spring long with his PS3 on or anything like that; he's going to be rehabbing that surgically repaired knee, attending practices, and watching film just like the rest of the quarterbacks, with the intention of returning to the starting lineup in August.

But what if Marve doesn't? What if Henry's entire off-season with the first-teamers provides a level of familiarity and comfort that Marve can't recreate in practice? There's obviously talent there with Henry, but it was also obvious that he wasn't ready to be on the field quite yet. And hey, that's fine; most freshmen aren't. But for all the struggling Henry did to get acclimated to the Purdue offense game-by-game, he still finished with a passer rating that was less than a point off Marve's in 2010. 

Above all else, most college football players make their biggest strides between their first and second years on the field, and to that end, Rob Henry's going to get an opportunity to improve substantially before the first game of the 2011 season. Can Marve make up that difference through and after rehab? That's something worth watching in West Lafayette.

Posted on: February 23, 2011 12:31 pm
 

Spring Practice Primer: Baylor

Posted by Tom Fornelli

College Football has no offseason. Every coach knows that the preparation for September begins now, in Spring Practice. So we here at the Eye on College Football will get you ready as teams open spring ball with our Spring Practice Primers. Today, we look at Baylor, who opens its practice on February 28.


Spring Practice Question: Can Baylor's defense catch up to its offense?

A lot of things went well for Baylor in 2010. With Robert Griffin III back for an entire season and the offense firing on all cylinders. The Bears rode their offense to a 7-6 record and the school's first bowl appearance since the 1994 Alamo Bowl. In other words, under Art Briles, it seems as if Baylor is headed in the right direction.

There's still quite a bit of work left to do, however. Yes, Baylor had a winning season, but at one point the Bears were 7-2 before losing their final four games of the season. In those final four losses, Baylor gave up an average of 47.0 points per game, which is precisely where the problem lies. Yes, Baylor was able to post 31.2 points a game on offense in 2010, but the defense gave up an average of 30.5. 

Not exactly the best formula for success. In fact, teams scored over 40 points against Baylor six times in thirteen games. It's hard to win consistently that way, which is why the focus for Baylor this spring will be on improving the defense. That's where the team's new defensive coordinator, Phil Bennett, comes in. Bennett comes to Waco after spending the last three seasons at Pitt, where he was the defensive coordinator for one of the best defenses in the Big East.

Of course, the offenses of the Big East and the offenses of the Big 12 aren't really comparable, and that adjustment will be Bennett's biggest challenge.

As will be overhauling a secondary which was a problem area for the Bears in 2010. Both of the team's starting safeties, Tim Atchison and Byron Landor, have left which means two new starters in 2011. The good news is that Briles has brought in some talent in his first two recruiting classes. Ahmad Dixon and Prince Kent were two highly-touted recruits in the class of 2010, and both will have their shot at living up to their potential this season. 

Bennett has said that he plans on running a 4-3 defense in Waco, but considering the recruiting success that Baylor has had in the secondary the last few seasons, and the passing offenses of the Big 12, you do have to wonder if it'll be more of a 4-2-5 scheme when it's all said and done. Of course, if a young defensive line that will feature two sophomores in Terrance Lloyd and Gary Mason Jr. on the ends, can mature and get better at pressuring the quarterback, then a 4-3 may stick.

Will Bennett be able to mold Lloyd and Mason into the type of pass-rushers he had at Pitt? If he can help these guys become a Jabaal Sheard or a Greg Romeus, it would be a huge boost to the team's defense.

After all, Bennett doesn't have to turn this unit into a defense that is only giving up 10 points a game. The offense is going to score a lot of points for Baylor in 2011, but if the defense can start holding teams to about 24 points per game, then Baylor is going to rack up quite a few wins in 2011 and get back to another bowl game.

The work begins next week.
Posted on: February 22, 2011 5:02 am
Edited on: February 23, 2011 8:54 am
 

Spring Practice Primer: Texas

Posted by Tom Fornelli

College Football has no offseason. Every coach knows that the preparation for September begins now, in Spring Practice. So we here at the Eye on College Football will get you ready as teams open spring ball with our Spring Practice Primers. Today, we look at Texas which begins its spring practice on Thursday.

Spring Practice Question: Is Garrett Gilbert really in danger of losing the starting job?

Last month, Texas head coach Mack Brown declared the Texas quarterback position to be wide open. It seems that after a less than stellar performance from Garrett Gilbert in his first season as a starter, along with plenty of coaching turnover in Austin, Brown isn't ready to hand the job over to just anybody.

Of course, whether he truly meant it or not, we'll begin to find out on Thursday when the Longhorns begin spring practice.

If I had to lean in one direction, I'd believe Brown, but only with the understanding that the job is still Gilbert's to lose. Whether or not Gilbert was successful in 2010, he still has more experience than either Connor Wood or Case McCoy. The true wild card in all of this, however, is the addition of Bryan Harsin as Texas' co-offensive coordinator (Major Applewhite being the other co-coordinator, though something tells me Harsin wasn't brought in from Boise to defer to Applewhite).

Harsin comes from Boise State, and has no favorites amongst the quarterback trio. Gilbert may have started all 12 games for Texas last season, but he did so under Greg Davis and with Greg Davis' plays, so in that sense he's on the same ground floor that both Wood and McCoy are.

Still, this spring could be the deciding factor for Gilbert. If he can show a strong grasp of Harsin's offense over the next few weeks, he can begin to put the job on lockdown. If he struggles, then things will be a lot more interesting this fall, as both McCoy or Wood could wrestle the job away from him.

The most important thing that Gilbert will have to do to earn Harsin's trust, and make better decisions in the pocket. While Garrett was able to make enough plays with his arm and legs last season to tally 3,124 yards and 15 touchdowns, it was the 17 turnovers that most people will remember.

17 turnovers that had an awful lot to do with Texas finishing the season 5-7 and missing out on a bowl game for the first time since 1997. That cost John Mackovic his job as head coach in Austin, and though Mack survived, that fate may still befall Gilbert.

There is reason to believe that Gilbert will be able to cut down on the mistakes. First of all, he'll be a junior in 2011, and with a year of experience under his belt, he'll be a smarter player. Plus, there's some history to look at with quarterbacks under Harsin.

In 2008, as a freshman, Kellen Moore started every game for Boise State and threw 10 interceptions. Over the next two seasons, Moore only threw 9. 

Another reason to believe that Gilbert will improve in 2011 is that his receiving corps will get better as well. Mike Davis -- who caught 47 passes as a freshman -- will be another year older, another year better, and his play could go a long way in improving the performance of his quarterback. Whether that quarterback is Gilbert, McCoy or Wood. If Malcolm Williams and Darius White can start to reach their potential, life will be a lot easier as well.

At the end of the day, I think Gilbert will leave spring practice as the team's starter, and he'll be under center when Texas opens its season against Rice on September 3. He may have had a bad season in 2011, but the truth of it is that he's just more talented than both McCoy or Wood. So unless he has a flat-out awful performance this spring, I just don't see him losing the gig.

Of course, I didn't see Texas going 2-6 in the Big 12 last season, either. So who knows what will happen?
Posted on: February 21, 2011 5:28 pm
Edited on: February 21, 2011 6:03 pm
 

Spring Practice Primer: Stanford

Posted by Bryan Fischer

College Football has no offseason. Every coach knows that the preparation for September begins now, in Spring Practice. So we here at the Eye on College Football will get you ready as teams open spring ball with our Spring Practice Primers. Today, we look at Stanford, which begins spring practice this afternoon.

Spring practice question: Can the Cardinal keep up the momentum under new coach David Shaw?

Fresh off the best season in school history - punctuated by a 40-12 dismantling of Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl - Stanford’s offseason was filled with something rarely associated with the program: drama. After a week of will-he-or-won’t-he declare for the draft, presumed number one pick Andrew Luck stunned everyone by announcing he would stay in school. A day later, after being courted by Michigan and the Miami Dolphins, head coach Jim Harbaugh left for the San Francisco 49ers.

When hiring a new head coach was only the third most interesting thing to happen on campus during the offseason, you realize just how far Stanford football came under Harbaugh. Trying to continue what he build up is Stanford alum David Shaw, who slides into the head coaching role after being the Cardinal's offensive coordinator the past four years.

What’s his deal? For all the talk about Luck's role in the offense, Shaw is a believer in a balanced offense for one. Despite not having Heisman Trophy runner-up Toby Gerhart last season, Stanford still finished second in the Pac-10 in rushing at 214 yards per game. Though most of the backfield returns in 2011, the major storyline of spring practice is finding replacements for three starters on the offensive line, including All-American center Chase Beeler.

“From a personnel standpoint, we have a chance to be very athletic upfront,” Shaw said at his pre-spring press conference. “The question is will those guys be consistent and will they play at the same level as those who they are replacing from last year. Ability-wise, we'll be fine. This spring we'll see who is ready to step up and fill those roles. A lot of our success will depend on how we play upfront.”

Offensive line isn’t the only area of concern for the first time head coach. There are still open position battles at linebacker, defensive line, cornerback and backup quarterback. The Cardinal might need five players just to replace all-everything Owen Marecic.

“The best thing about spring practice is the pure competition,” Shaw said. “We have guys coming back who played well for us last year but will be pushed by others ready to make their marks. We've recruited very well the last couple of years and we have a lot of players who are ready to compete and fill some roles.

“The next year is always different - different players, different roles, different schemes. You always have to add, delete and change. That's where we are at right now.”

The first week or two of spring practice will be a bit of a learning experience for the new staff. Shaw named former New York Jets assistant Mike Bloomgren as offensive line coach/run game coordinator and elevated Mike Sanford to running backs coach last Friday. Bringing on coaches just four days before spring practice starts isn't ideal and is something to keep an eye on but staff continuity elsewhere should help ease the transition.

Defensively, Derek Mason and Jason Tarver will share the defensive coordinator title and attempt to fill the shoes of the highly regarded Vic Fangio. Mason will also coach the secondary and will be responsible for calling plays, while Tarver will also serve as linebackers coach.

The return of Luck, however, is key for building on the success of last year. Shaw shouldn't have too much trouble keeping Stanford’s offense from dipping too much from last year’s unit that set a school-record for points scored and finished ninth in the nation in scoring. Having the Heisman Trophy front-runner under center tends to help but running backs Stepfan Taylor, Anthony Wilkerson and others will also contribute. 

“With Andrew coming back, I've felt pretty good going to bed at night,” Shaw said. “I think he is comfortable with me in my role and I'm extremely comfortable with him. We have an established relationship that will only get better.”

With a manageable schedule (Oregon and Notre Dame at home to go along with just four road games) and lots of talent surrounding a future number one pick in the NFL Draft, Shaw could not have asked for a better situation to take over. With a little bit of Luck and a dash of good coaching, don’t expect a drop off from Stanford after using David Shaw's first spring practice to ease the transition from Jim Harbaugh.

Posted on: February 18, 2011 12:15 pm
 

Spring Practice Primer: Texas Tech

Posted by Tom Fornelli

College Football has no offseason. Every coach knows that the preparation for September begins now, in Spring Practice. So we here at the Eye on College Football will get you ready as teams open spring ball with our Spring Practice Primers. Today, we look at Texas Tech, who open their spring practice on Friday.

Spring practice question: Can Texas Tech get on the defensive?

For quite a while now, Texas Tech has been known as a one-dimensional team for the most part. An offense that is capable of putting up 40+ points in a game against anybody, but also a defense just as likely to give up 50. Of course, that's not the way Tommy Tuberville has done things where he's gone.

This is a man that was involved in a game with a 3-2 final score after all, beating Mississippi State while coaching Auburn. So what I'm looking at this spring when it comes to Texas Tech is whether or not we're going to see any improvement on defense. Yes, Taylor Potts has graduated and there will be a battle for the quarterback job this spring, but Tech has had plenty of good quarterbacks in its history.

It's the Tech defense that has cost the team a chance at winning the Big 12. Which is precisely why Texas Tech went out and hired Chad Glasgow, the former secondary coach at TCU, as his new defensive coordinator.

In 2010 Texas Tech gave up more points per game (30.3) than any other team in the Big 12 except Kansas, and was last in the conference in pass defense, allowing 306.0 yards per game. Which is precisely the area where Tuberville and Glasgow will have to improve the defense.

Luckily for the both of them, they have options. Two starters from 2010 in LaRon Moore and Franklin Mitchem are gone, but there is still some talent left in the cupboard. Cody Davis and Will Ford are both returning starters in the secondary, and then there are sophomores Tre Porter and Jarvis Phillips. Both the sophomores have the potential to be key players in Tech's secondary, and if they're going to achieve that potential, the work needs to begin this spring.

Of course, the secondary is not the only place that will need work. Along with both Davis and Ford leaving, Texas Tech also loses starters in Colby Whitlock, Bront Bird, and Brian Duncan. So somebody is going to have to step up and fill the void. A playmaker will need to emerge. If not a member of the secondary, then where?

The player I'd keep an eye on this spring is defensive end Scott Smith. Smith will be a senior in 2011, and only played in four games last season before being suspended by Tuberville for the remainder of the season in October for violating team rules. In those four games, though, the defensive end did manage three sacks.

The best pass defense has always been a good pass rush, and if Smith has learned from his mistakes and gets himself ready to play in 2011, his impact could be huge for the Tech defense. 

We'll begin to find out today.
Posted on: February 18, 2011 12:16 am
 

Spring Practice Primer: Army, Navy, Air Force

Posted by Adam Jacobi

College Football has no offseason. Every coach knows that the preparation for September begins now, in Spring Practice. So we here at the Eye on College Football will get you ready as teams open spring ball with our Spring Practice Primers. Today, we look at the service academies -- Army, Navy, and the Air Force Academy -- who all began spring practice yesterday.

Spring Practice Question: Who's going to take the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy in 2011? 

To say there has usually been a talent disparity among the triumverate of military academy football programs is, to say the least, an understatement. If the outcomes of football games were random events, then the odds of the three teams splitting their series at 1-1 apiece would be one in four. In practice, only four times since the inception of the trophy 39 years ago has that happened. Which program is superior changes, of course -- Air Force leads the series, but with only a plurality of trophy wins instead of a majority -- but rarely is it the case that all three teams are on equal footing coming into a season.

We may be at such a situation, though. 2010 marked the first instance in college football history that Army, Navy, and the Air Force all reached bowl games in the same season. Will the trio repeat the feat in 2011? It's quite possible.

Air Force comes into the 2011 (pardon the expression) flying high, and it's easy to see why: the Falcons beat took the C-i-C trophy for the first time in eight years last season, besting Navy 14-6 and walloping Army 42-22. Better yet, QB Tim Jefferson is back for his senior season after rushing for 15 touchdowns and throwing for 10 more. He's the linchpin of the offense and one of the best option quarterbacks in the nation.

The Air Force offense is hardly a one-man show, of course, and it's no surprise that four different players notched over 100 carries on the season in 2010. Tailback and human/waterbug hybrid Asher Clark is also back; Clark led the Falcons in rushing yardage and added five more rushing TDs.

Still, it'll be interesting to see how Air Force's ground game changes with the addition of Des Kitchings as running backs coach and running game coordinator. Kitchings was most recently at Vanderbilt for three seasons, and he was brought in to replace Jamel Singleton, the longtime Air Force assistant who recently joined the staff of incoming Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson this offseason. There probably won't be sweeping changes or anything -- this is still Troy Calhoun's team, after all -- but this is our first opportunity to see how Kitchings addresses the Falcons' ground game and what changes he might implement.

While the current Commander-in-Chief's Trophy holder is Air Force, this rivalry has belonged to Navy for the majority of the decade; the Midshipmen swept the three-pronged rivalry for the seven prior seasons, and even despite losing to the Falcons in 2010, Navy still went 9-4 and earned a bowl bid. This is still a very strong program, in other words.

Unfortunately for Navy, the impossible task of replacing Ricky Dobbs begins this week. Dobbs was arguably Navy's best quarterback since the days of Roger Staubach ('63), and though Dobbs didn't live up to his preseason Heisman hype as a senior, for crying out loud, the man had Heisman hype. Senior-to-be Kriss Proctor appears to be the best bet to replace Dobbs, but if Navy sees a solid spring from Trey Miller, there could be some drama at the QB position.

Where Navy really needs to excel this spring is on defense, however. The Midshipmen struggled at times in 2010, giving up 23 points and almost 400 yards per game, and now that defense needs to replace six starters. Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo recently restructured some of his defensive assistants' responsibilities; perhaps that will help the Middies' middling D.

As for Army, for once, the Black Knights are no slouch, having reached their first bowl in 13 years last season: a stirring (if sloppy) 16-14 upset of SMU in the Armed Forces Bowl. The Cadets return starting quarterback Trent Steelman... sort of. Steelman will miss spring practice after undergoing shoulder surgery last month. It's on his non-throwing shoulder --the left -- so even if rehabilitation goes slowly, it shouldn't drastically affect his throwing motion.

That said, in 2010, Steelman ran the ball 197 times (which isn't even counting the option plays where he pitched the ball and absorbed contact) to 133 pass attempts, so it's not like he can hide a bum shoulder by hanging out in the pocket all afternoon. The Black Knights will look to depend on Steelman in the fall, so it will be extremely interesting to see how the offense handles not having its leader in the saddle during these spring sessions.

The Black Knights' new team captain is linebacker Steven Erzinger, replacing graduating linebacker Stephen Anderson (so many linebackers; so many Steves) who held the title for the last two seasons. Army technically ranked 29th in total defense in 2010, but a closer look at the yards given up per play actually puts Army down at 84th in the nation, so the defense wasn't so much "good" as "not on the field very much." Erzinger's first task, without doubt, is to get his guys into that "good" category if the Cadets want a shot at the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy.

 
 
 
 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com