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Finally, the focus is back on the field

3/9/2004

Spring football is upon us, and excuse college football fans if they dig into news of scrimmages and skeleton drills with more than the typical relish.

Off the field, the game needs fixing, which is why there's delight in an on-field fix. Most of us wrote off the 2003 offseason as an aberration. All of the jarring news -- the coaching scandals at Alabama and Washington, the ACC's raid of the Big East -- appeared to be one-time events.

But this winter has been a match. It started with the BCS controversy, which (further) revealed the idiocy of the system, and we can only hope that the promised review returns common sense to the national championship. Yet the BCS pales before the rape accusations at Colorado, the misconduct of San Diego State coach
Tom Craft, and the continual drumbeat of malfeasance.

It may be that societal standards have changed. Craft endangered his job by striking a player, which decades ago was a matter of course. After I wrote a column suggesting that paid official visits were the official name for teenaged debauchery at campuses across the country, an assistant coach gently chastised me in an e-mail.

"As always, a scandal promotes a general consensus that everybody is doing it," he wrote, more in the tone of a sigh than a lecture. It's tough to change conventional wisdom, especially in a sport where the same teams contend year-in and year-out. If nothing else, the changes afoot in Division I-A may make some unconventional changes, nowhere more so than in the ACC.

Coaches at Virginia Tech and Miami no longer have the luxury of a mental data bank filled with specific knowledge of the coaches and players that they see every year. Those teams are gone off their fall dance card, and the staffs in Blacksburg and Coral Gables have to spend their winters boning up on a schedule full of newcomers.

Spring is a time for warning shots across the bow. Players get them from coaches, who send messages to the self-satisfied that last year laurels won't hold back this year's hardy. The messages are usually sent via depth chart, as Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville did Monday, when wide receiver Ben Obomanu, who started 10 games in 2003 as a sophomore, found himself on the second team behind Courtney Taylor, who came off the bench last fall and became an All-SEC freshman.

Spring is a time for change. A year ago, Missouri redshirt freshman Dedrick Harrington won the job as starting rover. A year older, bigger and stronger, the 6-foot-3, 227-pound Harrington begins spring ball as a starting linebacker.

Spring is a time to reap the benefits of winter. Jobs can be won when players are enduring those 6 a.m. February workouts, the coaches watching every twitch. You never know what news the next SportsCenter will bring. You never know when a judge will step away from precedent and open the door for underclassmen to leave early for the NFL.

U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin provided economic freedom for college players and additional angst for their coaches, who now must recruit players through the entrance with one eye on the exit. The projection of USC as a preseason favorite to win its second consecutive national championship has turned fuzzy.

When Trojan sophomore Mike Williams bolted through the door that Maurice Clarett forced open, he took with him the feeling of confidence that USC provided to fans and soothsayers. Williams made quarterback Matt Leinart look good and would have allowed receivers Steve Smith and Whitney Lewis to start their sophomore season without having to be a Go-To Guy.

A judge in New York signs a decree, and the reverberations are felt most vividly a continent away. USC is no longer a sure bet. Williams is gone, and now two-year starting right tackle Winston Justice, the man who has lefty Leinart's back, has been suspended from classes for two weeks and banned from spring ball. Justice was arrested last week and booked on suspicion of felony assault with a deadly weapon after an incident near campus.

Eyes turn back to LSU, which must replace a gamebreaking wideout of its own in Michael Clayton. The bigger issue is replacing Tigers quarterback Matt Mauck, who has gone supposedly to the NFL and probably to dental school. The hope is that redshirt freshman JaMarcus Russell has learned enough to begin to reap his enormous potential. The reality is that senior Marcus Randall will provide a steady hand until Russell is ready.

Replacing Mauck pales before the tasks at Ole Miss, where Michael Spurlock will try to become the son that Archie and Olivia Manning never knew they had, and at North Carolina State, where no one not named Rivers has started at quarterback since the 20th century.

The same thought, only more so, applies at Nebraska, where coach Bill Callahan will officially begin the task of breaking a chain of command that spans to the Kennedy Administration. Bob Devaney begat Tom Osborne begat Frank Solich, and there is no more begetting. Nowhere more than Lincoln does spring promise change.

As messy as the firing of Solich was, and as much as firing a coach who won nine games speaks to the pressures that build higher every year, it will be fascinating to watch the changes Callahan makes, and certainly less insidious than what is occurring off the field in college football. All hail spring practice.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.