2009 Spring Preview - Unit Issues
Alabama QB Greg McElroy
Alabama QB Greg McElroy
Posted Mar 25, 2009

While all the big-time programs reload, there's one unit, one spot, that needs to be worked on and improved or else it could be a team's downfall. In the Pre-Spring Overview, here are the 20 most important unit issues to deal with this off-season, like Alabama's quarterback situation.

Spring Preview 2009

The 20 Big Questions ... No. 6

By Pete Fiutak 

Spring Preview 2009
20 Big Questions

- No, 7 - Ranking the leagues

- No, 8 - The teams that could tumble

- No, 9 - The teams that could surprise

- No, 10 - The 10 coaches who must win now
- No, 11 - Is the SEC worth the hype?

- No. 12 - Will the Pac 10 finally get some respect?
- No, 13 - The top BCS. vs. non-BCS games

- No. 14 - Why no Big East love?
- No, 15 - Does the Big Ten suck?

- No. 16 - Was the Big 12 exposed?

- No, 17 - Just how good is the ACC?
- No. 18 - Are we any closer to a playoff?

- No, 19 - Potential BCS Busters

- Top 50 Non-Conference Games (No. 1 to 10)
- Top 50 Non-Conference Games (No. 11 to 20)
- Top 50 Non-Conference Games (No. 21 to 30)
- Top 50 Non-Conference Games (No. 31 to 40)
- Top 50 Non-Conference Games (No. 41 to 50
With spring ball underway, here are the 20 Big Questions to start off the offseason.

6. How’s your unit? (The areas that could prove to be the downfall of the mighty.)

Every top team (at least those we project to be around the top 25 for most of the year) will have at least one major area of concern going into the season. While all the big-time programs reload, there’s one unit, one spot, that needs to be worked on and improved or else it could be an Achilles heel and the team’s downfall (think quarterback for last year’s preseason top 15 Wisconsin team or the entire offense for Auburn). Here are the most important unit issues to deal with this off-season.

Alabama Quarterback

John Parker Wilson might not have been flashy and he might not have always come through with the big win, but he was the team’s leader who got the starting call for 40 games in a row. Greg McElroy isn’t Wilson and he is hardly a sure-thing for the No. 1 spot, but he’s been around long enough to know what he’s doing. He could be a good caretaker, but it’s Star Jackson who has everyone buzzing with his pocket passing skills. If they don’t shine, true freshman A.J. McCarron might have an opening to take the job this fall.

Boise State Receivers
The running game was hardly a problem last season, but it was QB Kellen Moore and the passing game that made the 2008 Broncos special finishing 13th in the nation and 11th in efficiency. It’ll be Austin Pettis and a major hope for the rest of the young corps to come around with Jeremy Childs, Vinny Perretta and Julian Hawkins gone after combining for 134 catches and 12 touchdowns. On the plus side, Pettis led the team with nine touchdown grabs. However, he needs help. Moore will make everyone around him better, and he’ll get the time to operate, but the receiving corps has to be ready to roll when Oregon comes to town on September 5th.

California Linebackers

Cal is always known for its great offenses, but the defense was better last season thanks to a linebacking corps that was all over the field. Zack Follett would’ve been the star of the of the Pac 10 linebackers except for all the success from the USCers. He’s gone after doing a little bit of everything, Worrell Williams was a rock on the inside, and Anthony Felder had a nice season as one of the team’s leading tacklers. There are decent veterans returning in Eddie Young and Devin Bishop, but it could take half the season before the defense jells and produces like it did in 2008. If that’s true, there will be problems with a sneaky-tough September to deal with playing Maryland, at Minnesota and at Oregon before getting USC in Berkeley.

Clemson Offensive Line
This was the team’s downfall from day one last year. Actually, it was the downfall from before day one with problems throughout spring ball. The line was constantly changing and was never consistent in any one phase. There are some excellent skill players in RB C.J. Spiller and QB Willy Korn who can carry the team to a big season, but it’s not going to happen unless the line, which at the very least is full of veterans, can improve.

Florida Receivers

The defense gets everyone back, the offensive line is solid, and there’s Mr. Tebow under center to run the whole show. However, as good as the Gators were last year and as good as they’ll be this year, they have to prove they can get back to the promised land without Percy Harvin and the extremely underappreciated Louis Murphy. Florida wouldn’t have won the BCS Championship without Harvin, while Murphy always seemed to come up with the backbreaking play to put games away. David Nelson became a star late in the season and there are a slew of uber-talents from the last few recruiting classes, highlighted by T.J. Lawrence, looking to be the new playmakers. Florida is going to be terrific, but it’s not going to win another national title without a big year from the receivers.   

Georgia Defensive Line
The Dawgs always have good players ready to step in and shine at the skill spots. Joe Cox isn’t Matthew Stafford, but he’s a veteran backup quarterback who’ll be fine now that it’s his offense to run. The O line should be terrific, A.J. Green leads a good receiving corps, and the defensive back seven will be good, as always. Georgia will find new replacements for an underwhelming defensive front with the biggest goal to find steady pass rushers. There will be several interesting battles going on with Justin Houston a strong prospect to be the team’s new star. No matter who gets the jobs, finishing 72nd in the nation in sacks, and 10th in the SEC, isn’t going to cut it.

Georgia Tech Defensive Line
With all the talk about the new offense when Paul Johnson took over the Yellow Jackets last season, and all the publicity over the success late in the season, the tremendous defensive front wasn’t given its proper due. Johnson inherited a heater of a defensive front four, led by Michael Johnson and Vance Walker, that finished second in the ACC in sacks and tackles for loss and helped the D allow just 120 rushing yards per game. With only one starter returning, Derrick Morgan, the spotlight will be on. There are great prospects waiting in the wings, but this will still be an early area of concern.

LSU Defensive Line  
Over the last few years, no team in the country has been better at cranking out star college defensive linemen than LSU. The place has been a factory, but there are ten-mile wide holes needing to be filled from a line that had multi-million dollar talent and $5 worth of production (at least when compared to the talent level). New defensive line coach Brick Haley has some good prospects in Al Woods and Lazarius Levingston to start with, but there isn’t a Glenn Dorsey who’ll dominate from day one and be the star for the defense to build around.

Nebraska Quarterback
Joe Ganz would’ve been in the mix for all-star honors in just about any other year. In last year’s Big 12? Yeah, right. Ganz will be appreciated far more now that he’s gone. Even though the Huskers are hardly complete, they might be the kings of the Big 12 North if they can get some steady play from the new starting quarterback, whoever that might be. Cody Green was the hot shot freshman who was supposed to be the early leader for the job before he suffered a slight hip injury. With Patrick Witt choosing to transfer, the Huskers will be down to Zac Lee and Kody Spano for a bulk of spring ball. Green will be back, but for a player right out of high school in such a key position, he needs all the work he can get.

North Carolina Wide Receiver
Carolina has the potential to win the ACC, but it’s not going to happen if opposing defenses can tee off on the running game. The defense is loaded and there’s plenty of promise on an offense that should get better and better as the season goes on. However, the passing game that was the ACC’s most efficient is missing its top targets with Hakeem Nicks, Brooks Foster, and Brandon Tate gone. Tate will still be missed even though he was knocked out early last year with a knee injury. Greg Little is the main returning target, and he’s still getting used to the position after starting out as a running back.

Ohio State Running Back
Things aren’t quite as bad as they might appear. You might not be able to name any Buckeyes other than Terrelle Pryor, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t talent all across the board. The linebackers will turn out to be fine, the corners have some great former hot shot recruits waiting to shine, and the offensive line might be better even though several new starters will step in. What the OSU doesn’t have is Beanie Wells. With Brian Hartline and Brian Robiskie off to the NFL, the passing game isn’t going to start exploding and Pryor needs all the help he can get for the ground game. Star recruits Carlos Hyde and Jaamal Berry will likely be thrown to the wolves early on this fall, but it could be Dan Herron’s job to lose after spring ball.

Oklahoma Offensive Line
Unfortunately, the OU O line might be remembered for being unable to power the ball in to the end zone in a key moment in the national championship loss to Florida. It was the nation’s best front five and was a major reason why the record-setting offense was so unstoppable. OT Trent Williams will be starting in the NFL soon, but his return will be welcomed by a Sooner offense that loses all its other star blockers. While the Sooners will replace superstar linemen with others who will be superstars, it should take a little while for the machine to be nearly as smooth as it was over the second half of last season.

Oklahoma State Safeties

It’s all there. The offense will be unstoppable with the star weapons returning to almost assure OSU will finish among the top five in the nation in yards. The Cowboys will simply outbomb its way to wins, but to win the Big 12 South they’ll need to find a way to get to Colt McCoy, Sam Bradford, and all the other good conference passers. The defensive line needs to do more than just generate pressure; it needs to come up with more sacks. Until that happens, the secondary needs more production from the safeties even though two new starters need to be found. Shane Jarka and Swanson Miller are good prospects who could be the Big 12’s biggest under-the-radar difference makers in the race.

Ole Miss Defensive Backs
The Rebel pass defense was the worst in the SEC allowing 222 yards per game even though there were games against Memphis, Wake Forest, and Auburn. Texas Tech, Florida and South Carolina all had big games, too. There might not be a who’s who of passing attacks on the schedule, but if Ole Miss wants to come up with the huge season its fans are hoping for (in other words, an SEC West title), the secondary will have to be a strength by the end of the year. Don’t let the stats fool you as the season goes on; it’ll all come down to an SEC title game against Florida or Georgia if the Rebels can get there. Look at the Arkansas game on October 24th for the true indicator of whether or not things have improved.

Oregon Offensive Line
The Duck running game was fantastic thanks to a terrific stable of backs, along with mobile QB Jeremiah Masoli, and they had plenty of room to move behind a big-time offensive line that got better and better as the season went on. Now, four starters are gone, including all-everything center Max Unger, but there are decent veterans ready to step in and produce. It’s going to take a little while to come up with the right combination. Finding the right players for the right spots will be job one. Getting everyone on the same page is vital with at trip to Boise State early on.

Penn State Receivers

There are major problems in a few areas that were big strengths last year. Offensive line, secondary, defensive end, and most importantly, wide receiver, will all need work. The Nittany Lions lose an epic class of targets that was so strong over the last four years as Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood aren’t going to be quickly replaced. QB Daryll Clark is a good veteran who’ll make the new targets better, but there isn’t anyone who’ll be as good, at least right away, as any of the top three former stars. The top returning wide receiver is Graham Zug, but he only caught 11 passes for 174 yards and two touchdowns.

Texas Running Backs
Was it the offensive line or the running backs? Colt McCoy led the team in rushing, and that wasn’t a positive in any way. The talent is there in the backfield, with more help to be added to the mix with Tre Newton showing the potential to be a factor and Chris Whaley the star recruit who should see time right away. Vondrell McGee, Foswhitt Whitaker and Cody Johnson form the working definition of running back by committee production, and now they need to do more to make sure McCoy doesn’t have to carry the ground game. By design, expect McCoy to run less which means the backs will have to produce more.

USC Quarterback
Of course, much of the attention will be on the defense, especially the linebackers, but the reloading might not take all that long, if at all. The big question mark is at quarterback where Mitch Mustain, Aaron Corp and Matt Barkley will battle it out to see who gets the keys to the car.  New quarterback coach Jeremy Bates will play a key role in getting a bit more consistency out of a passing game that was good, but wasn’t as devastating as it should’ve been on a consistent basis. Yes, USC finished first in the Pac 10 in both passing and passing efficiency, but it’s not like there was a ton of competition in a league woefully short on good air attacks. But it’s not about passing stats at USC; it’s about playing for a national championship. John David Booty couldn’t do it. Neither could Mark Sanchez or Carson Palmer. The Trojans can go to Pasadena for the national title, instead of another Rose Bowl, if one of the quarterback options turns out to be a star right away. The Ohio State game comes up early on the slate.   

Virginia Tech Offensive Line
The defense will get the most work this spring with several new starters needing to shine in key spots. But it’s Virginia Tech; everything will be fine. The offense that was 103rd in the country in yards and 90th in scoring needs to be far better until the D can come around. The line has to be far, far better in pass protection after allowing 42 sacks. To be far, mobile QB Tyrod Taylor had a lot to do with the bad stats, but the line really was a problem. Pounding away for the ground game won’t be enough.

West Virginia Offensive Line
The Mountaineers always come up with good linemen who fit the system. However, considering this will be the first year without Pat White under center since the program became a part of the college football elite again, the last thing the team needs is a shaky front five. New starting quarterback Jarrett Brown will be more than fine, and he could be special if the line replaces the three lost starters. Considering last year’s line was so average, this group could be the difference between a good season and a trip to the BCS.