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College football spring games 2021: Storylines to watch as Notre Dame, Oregon and more hit the field

The last big spring game Saturday will take place this weekend as 12 FBS programs including Notre Dame, Oregon, Washington, Nebraska and Virginia hit the field to wrap up their spring practice sessions. The Fighting Irish are hoping to build off of last season’s run to the ACC Championship Game and College Football Playoff, the latter of which is something that the Ducks and Huskies have been eyeing for several years. 

Meanwhile, Cornhuskers coach Scott Frost will have plenty of pressure facing him in 2021. A strong spring game showing won’t necessarily eliminate that pressure — or have much of an impact at all — but it will give fans and boosters something to be excited about heading into the second half of the offseason.

Here’s a quick primer on what to keep an eye on Saturday afternoon in college football. All start times Eastern. 

Notre Dame: Jack Coan’s big chance

12:30 p.m. on Peacock

The Ian Book era ended with a whimper against Alabama in the College Football Playoff national semifinal when he averaged 5.9 yards per attempt, didn’t toss a touchdown and threw one interception in the Rose Bowl loss. Even though he’s gone, there is plenty of experience under center in the form of Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan. A foot injury cost Coan his starting job last year, but the 6-foot-3, 221-pounder threw for 2,727 yards and 18 touchdowns as the Badgers’ starter in 2019. Sophomore Drew Pyne is the primary challenger to take the top spot on the depth chart, which likely won’t be solidified until fall camp. What does the offense look like? Coan’s foot injury will likely limit his mobility moving forward, but he has proven that he can sling it during his career. Will coach Brian Kelly have the trust in him to pick up right where Book left off? How much of the playbook will he give the inexperienced Pyne? All eyes will be on the potential successors to Book’s throne. 

Oregon: Joe Moorhead’s new offense

5 p.m. on Pac-12 Networks

The quarterback situation never really got settled last season due to a multitude of issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic and a late-season switch from Tyler Shough to Anthony Brown. Shough is gone, which means that it should be Brown’s show. The former Boston College starter has a big arm and is more than a capable runner. That fits well into what offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead wants to do. What’s more, Oregon returns six players who started up front last year as well as star running backs CJ Verdell and Travis Dye. Bottom line: if this offense gets halfway decent quarterback play, it should harken back to the dynamic offenses that were successful under former Ducks coach Chip Kelly (and Mark Helfrich’s first two seasons in 2013-14). At that point, the defense just has to be average in order to make them not only the class of the Pac-12, but a legitimate CFP contender.

Washington: Return of the defense

3 p.m.

If Oregon’s offense is going to be elite, it’ll be up to the Huskies to counter the same kind of stifling defense it produced last year when it won the Pac-12 North. The defensive front has been next-level good, according to reports out of Seattle, and that has been a huge help to the secondary which includes Oklahoma transfer Brendan Radley-Hiles. With that said, star linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui — who led the Pac-12 in sacks (seven) and sacks per game (1.25) last year — will miss up to 10 months with a torn Achilles. Who will step up in his place? There are plenty of options and a pedigree of success within the Washington program, and a strong showing on Saturday will put concerns of Huskies’ fans at ease. 

Nebraska: If not now, when?

2 p.m. on Big Ten Network

It seems like quarterback Adrian Martinez has been in Lincoln for a decade, but he has never seemed to live up to the fanfare that accompanied him when coach Scott Frost took over in 2018. The two have been linked since then, but the offense never seemed to take off like Frost’s did when he was at UCF. That has put the two under enormous pressure in 2021, and that has to be eased on Saturday by Martinez, who’s charged with finally living up to the hype in his fourth year as the starter. Will he put the concerns of Cornhuskers fans at ease, or will there be more concern that Martinez and Frost will be more sizzle than steak?

Virginia: Big plays

Noon

Virginia finished 13th in the ACC in plays of 20 or more yards last year with 42, and that has to change of the Cavaliers are going to get back to the ACC Championship Game. Now that junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong is entrenched as the starter after taking over the top spot on the depth chart last year, it’ll be on him to make it happen. Tight end Jelani Woods — a transfer from Oklahoma State — will be a key contributor this year after he played a significant role in three seasons in Stillwater. Billy Kemp IV led the team in receiving last year and should be the focal point of the offense on Saturday now that fellow receiver Lavel Davis Jr. will miss the game with an injury. Bottom line: this offense should be dangerous now that it has plenty of experience. Saturday will give us a glimpse as to how much it has progressed on downfield shots.

Kansas: What does Leipold have to work with?

7 p.m. on ESPN+

The Jayhawks announced Friday that ex-Buffalo coach Lance Leipold will take over following the conclusion of spring practice, and we will find out what he has to work with on Saturday night. The strength of the team could come at cornerback, where Karon Prunty returns after a successful freshman season. He’ll lead a defensive backfield that will be critical in stopping the high-flying offenses in the Big 12. The quarterback situation is unsettled, and it will be hard to glean any information from them considering Leipold will likely come in with a clean slate. Running backs Velton Gardner and Daniel Hishaw Jr. have the potential to be a solid one-two punch in an offense that was built around the running game when Leipold was at Buffalo. Mostly though, it will be the celebration of a coaching hire that could work out well for the Jayhawks.

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