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 Pac-12 Spring Practice
Devon Kennard, DE, USC
Even though USC has a question mark at quarterback, it may not be the biggest issue facing this team in 2013. The defense is undergoing some changes after allowing 394 yards a game last season and finishing eighth in the conference against the run. Monte Kiffin left the coaching staff, so Lane Kiffin hired former California and NFL defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast to resurrect the defense. Pendergast’s experience with the Pac-12 should come in handy at USC, but the Trojans will also get a boost from seven starters coming back, along with Kennard’s return from a season-ending injury last year. In three years with USC, Kennard has recorded 135 tackles and four sacks. And after shuffling between defensive end and linebacker in the early part of his career, the Arizona native should be a perfect fit in Pendergast’s defense. Kennard is expected to spend some time on the line of scrimmage but will also drop back into coverage and rush the quarterback similar to a 3-4 linebacker. With Kennard at full strength and back in the lineup, he is expected to be a key component to what should be a much-improved defense in 2013.
Related Content: 2013 USC Spring Preview
Boseko Lokombo, LB, Oregon
The Ducks return seven starters on defense, but the four departing players were among the best in the Pac-12 at their respective positions. End/linebacker Dion Jordan, tackle Isaac Remington and linebackers Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay will be missed. With the front seven in need of repair, coordinator Nick Aliotti will be leaning on Lokombo for leadership in the linebacking corps. In 13 games last season, Lokombo made 12 starts and recorded 39 tackles and two sacks. And in his career, Lokombo has registered 108 stops and four total sacks. With the departures of Alonso and Clay, Lokombo will team with Derrick Malone and Tyson Coleman to help keep Oregon’s defense near the top of the Pac-12.
Paul Perkins, RB, UCLA
Running backs are usually one of the easiest places to replace production, but UCLA will have its hands full as it tries to fill the big shoes left by Johnathan Franklin. During his four years in Westwood, Franklin rushed for 4,403 yards and 31 touchdowns and caught 58 passes for 517 yards and three scores. With Damien Thigpen recovering from a torn ACL, Jordan James and Malcolm Jones failing to claim the top spot, the door is open for Perkins to win the starting job this spring. The Arizona native was a three-star recruit by Rivals.com in the 2012 signing class and was redshirted by the coaching staff in his first year on campus. Perkins doesn’t have to be Franklin, but he needs to give UCLA’s rushing attack some punch. If Perkins doesn’t claim the job, the Bruins’ backfield situation will be a concern going into fall practice.
Richard Smith, WR, Arizona State
With the departure of Jamal Miles and Rashad Ross, Arizona State’s receiving corps will be under the spotlight in spring practice. The Sun Devils have Pac-12 South title aspirations, but new playmakers must be found to help quarterback Taylor Kelly. Tight end Chris Coyle should be among the best in the conference, but no returning receiver had more than 21 catches last year. After catching 14 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns last year, Smith is expected to emerge as one of Arizona State’s top receivers in 2013. The sophomore isn’t the biggest target at 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, but he possesses excellent speed and quickness. If Smith steps up this spring, it would go a long way towards easing some of the coaching staff’s concerns about the receiving corps.
Khalil Wilkes, C, Stanford
Outside of replacing running back Stepfan Taylor, the biggest task for coach David Shaw this preseason is to fill the void left behind by Sam Schwartzstein at center. Wilkes is the early frontrunner to claim the starting job, but he is locked into a tight battle with Graham Shuler, Conor McFadden and Kevin Danser. The senior made 13 starts last season at left guard but shifting to center would strengthen Stanford’s offensive line, as it would allow sophomore Andrus Peat to crack the lineup at left tackle. Even if Wilkes doesn’t win the starting center spot, he is a valuable swingman to have around, especially since he saw time at tackle and guard last year.
Related Content: 2013 Stanford Spring Preview
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