With spring practice underway across college football, most of interest will focus on quarterback battles or incoming freshmen that enrolled early to get a jumpstart on making an impact for 2013.
However, there’s always a handful of players – outside of the quarterback position – that fly under the radar that need to have a big spring practice for their team. Whether it’s a running back replacing a 1,000-yard rusher or a lineman stepping into a starting role for an all-conference player, there’s plenty of names that will be under the spotlight this spring.
Athlon continues its spring practice previews with a look at five under-the-radar players to watch in each conference during spring practice.
5 Players to Watch in Big East Spring Practice
Ralph David Abernathy IV, RB, Cincinnati
The Bearcats have a streak of three consecutive seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher, but that run could be in jeopardy in 2013. With George Winn expiring his eligibility, there’s uncertainty surrounding who will be the new Bearcats’ No. 1 back in 2013. Abernathy is the team’s leading returning rusher after recording 366 yards and three touchdowns last season. But at 5-foot-7 and 161 pounds, does he have the size be an every-down back? While Abernathy can certainly handle more than his carry total from last season (69), he doesn’t need to record 250 attempts. So if Abernathy is best-suited for an all-purpose type of role, who steps up at running back? Is it Deionte Buckley, Tion Green or incoming junior college recruits Rodriguez Moore or Hosey Williams? Settling on which position Abernathy will play in 2013 will help Cincinnati solidify the backfield pecking order.
Abraham “Nacho” Garcia, OT, Louisville
Keeping quarterback Teddy Bridgewater away from opposing defensive ends and off the ground is the top priority for Louisville for 2013. The Cardinals have some work to do on the offensive line this spring, as this unit must replace second-team All-Big East tackle Alex Kupper and first-team All-Big East center Mario Benavides. The Cardinals have three starters returning, so the offensive line isn’t going to be starting from scratch. However, Kupper and Benavides were clearly the unit’s best players in 2012. Garcia has the inside track to replace Kupper at left tackle, and the 6-foot-5 Florida native certainly has the size to be an imposing force on the edge. Garcia played in seven games last season as a true freshman, which should give him plenty of confidence going into spring ball.
Savon Huggins, RB, Rutgers
Huggins was widely considered one of the top running backs in the 2011 signing class but has yet to reach his potential in two seasons with the Scarlet Knights. In nine games in 2011, Huggins rushed for 146 yards and 56 attempts. Last season, he rushed for 410 yards and two touchdowns on 119 carries, including 179 yards in a 10-3 win over Cincinnati. With Jawan Jamison early departure to the NFL, Rutgers is counting on Huggins to carry the workload in 2013. The former top recruit has all of the talent necessary to be a star in the Big East and should contend for the conference lead in rushing yards in 2013.
Jesse Joseph, DE, Connecticut
Injuries have prematurely ended Joseph’s playing time in each of the last two years. However, when he’s healthy, he can be one of the top defensive linemen in the Big East. In 25 games during his first two years in Storrs, Joseph recorded 11 sacks and 17 tackles for a loss, while also forcing two fumbles. And in 12 contests from 2011-12, he managed just two sacks and 41 tackles. Recovering from a torn Achilles and getting back to 100 percent in one year is no easy task. However, that’s the assignment facing Joseph this spring, especially as the Huskies have to replace Trevardo Williams and Ryan Wirth from last season’s line. Joseph will be limited in spring practice as he continues to recover. However, just having him back in the mix as a leader will be crucial for Connecticut’s defense in 2013.
Thomas Niles, DE, UCF
Of the four new teams joining the Big East this year, UCF will likely have the most success in 2013. The Knights return six starters on offense, but the defense needs attention in spring practice with just four returning starters. Defensive end is a huge concern, especially since Troy Davis and Cam Henderson expired their eligibility, and Victor Gray retired in March due to injury. Niles played in 13 games at defensive tackle as a redshirt freshman last season and recorded 30 tackles, five sacks and seven tackles for a loss. Due to the losses at end, UCF is planning to move Niles to the outside. After a strong debut as a freshman last year, the Knights need Niles to build on his performance and become a key cog in the defense in 2013.
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