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  • Spring football is a time for new faces and surprise standouts. Which key players have boosted their 2019 expectations?
By Joan Niesen
April 23, 2019

The school year is winding down at many colleges, and the last wave of spring games (with Washington, Virginia and a few more left to go in the final weekend of April) has given us a final glimpse of college football before the long wait until August. And although spring ball is often defined by position battles that are endlessly debated and then left unresolved, it is possible to appreciate the rising stock of some of the top performers around the country, even if they haven’t all won jobs outright yet.

From players who could be in for a rapid rise in the eyes of NFL draft evaluators to guys who might be the keys to getting their teams to the next level in the fall, here’s a look at six performances that left a positive impression this spring.

Penn State QB Sean Clifford

Clifford was supposed to be the Nittany Lions’ backup next fall; after electing not to transfer last offseason, rising senior Tommy Stevens had been expected to inherit Trace McSorley’s starting job. That assumption remained true for most of the spring, until Stevens unexpectedly entered the transfer portal earlier this month. The vacant starting quarterback role in State College is now Clifford’s to lose, which may be a result of how impressive the redshirt sophomore looked this spring. The 6'2" quarterback was one of the top recruits at his position in the class of 2017, and in limited playing time for the Nittany Lions he’s shown an ability to throw the deep ball accurately.

In Penn State’s spring game on April 13, Clifford finished with 118 yards and a touchdown; he also ran for 31 yards, more than any other player on his scrimmage team.

Washington State QB Anthony Gordon

Mike Leach is in search of a new quarterback after losing Gardner Minshew, and he was facing a muddled field going into spring ball. That’s still the case, but over the past month, Gordon won some major brownie points. Gage Gubrud, a graduate transfer from Eastern Washington, was thought to have the edge for the job, but he suffered a lower-body injury during a team training session in March and missed the spring. Enter Gordon, the rising senior who’s attempted all of five passes in two seasons at Washington State. He was the star of Wazzu’s spring game on April 20, completing 21 of 30 pass attempts for 234 yards and three touchdowns. Beyond that, Gordon was consistent all spring, and when the entire field is healthy come fall camp, he may have a leg up thanks to his performance this month.

Missouri QB Kelly Bryant

Missouri’s new quarterback isn’t competing for a job; the graduate transfer from Clemson was virtually assured the Tigers’ starting spot when he announced his college decision this winter. And his performance this spring may not be a harbinger of hardware to come for his new school, which is in the process of appealing NCAA sanctions that include a bowl ban for the 2019 season. So why include Bryant on this list? He may have become a nationally relevant player two years ago, but the culmination of his journey since then will be a breakthrough event of its own.

Bryant watched Deshaun Watson from the sideline for two years, then took over in 2017 and led Clemson to the College Football Playoff, where it lost to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl semifinal. Last fall, Bryant lost his job to freshman phenom Trevor Lawrence, left the team after four weeks to preserve his final year of eligibility and landed at Missouri, looking to put together a season good enough to impress NFL scouts and end his college career on his own terms. In the early going, Bryant has been nothing but impressive for his new Tigers, winning over the locker room and adding new wrinkles to their offense. Second-year offensive coordinator Derek Dooley has already installed more plays than he had this time last year, according to a report from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and in Missouri’s spring game, Bryant completed his first eight passes and finished 12 of 17 through the air.

Michigan WR Mike Sainristil

Michigan’s offense has been a stumbling block in recent years, and with quarterback Shea Patterson back for a second year as the starter and new coordinator Josh Gattis brought in from Alabama, the Wolverines are eager to take a step forward. With 2018’s leading receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins sitting out the spring with injuries, early-enrollee freshman Mike Sainristil has had a chance to show off what he might be able to contribute. Harbaugh went so far as to name Sainristil the team’s starting “H” receiver (in the slot) in early April, citing his quickness, speed and blocking.

Sainristil played on both sides of the ball in high school, but for now, Michigan is assessing him only on offense. Still, Harbaugh has given glowing reviews with each opportunity he’s had to discuss the freshman, and even when Peoples-Jones and Collins return in the fall, he’s played well enough to get his name in the mix.

USC RB Markese Stepp

USC lost its leading rusher from 2018, Aca’Cedric Ware, to graduation, and it remains to be seen how it deploys the position next fall in new coordinator Graham Harrell’s offense. Stepp, who redshirted after playing in four games as a freshman last season, is in line for more attention after his performance this spring and in USC’s spring game, where he scored the day’s first touchdown on a long run.

Mike Jinks is the Trojans’ new running backs coach, and before he left for an unsuccessful stint as Bowling Green’s head coach, he oversaw the rise of DeAndre Washington at Texas Tech as part of Kliff Kingsbury’s staff. USC has more often relied on a group of backs to share the load, and Stepp’s performance this spring should give him a chance to get in the mix. He proved this month that he’s capable of ripping off longer runs and muscling the ball in from the goal line, and at 6'0" and 230 pounds, he could become an imposing force on the field.

Ohio State WR Garrett Wilson

An early enrollee and the only five-star offensive player in Ryan Day’s first recruiting class as Buckeyes head coach, Wilson made a great first impression in Columbus. He was the No. 2 receiver in the class of 2019, and at the college level, he looks the part. In the Buckeyes’ spring game on April 13, he pulled in what might have been the most impressive touchdown of the day, jumping to catch a high touchdown pass from Matthew Baldwin in the back corner of the end zone. He finished with four catches for 44 yards on the day.

As Justin Fields takes over for Dwayne Haskins behind center this season, the Buckeyes are looking to replace the production of three of their four receivers who finished 2018 with 500 or more yards. (K.J. Hill is back for his senior year and well-positioned to become the top target.) That leaves a huge opening for Wilson, who proved this spring that he can make an immediate impact on an offense that might need it.

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