- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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Will Arkansas find enough quality linebackers? Can Florida find an answer at running back? Who will South Carolina turn to in the secondary? Our SEC notebook addresses those questions and much more.
Everybody around the SEC already knew what kind of runner Kenneth Darby was. He returns next season as one of the top two backs in the league along with Auburn's Kenny Irons. But it appears that Darby will have some help in the Alabama backfield. Jimmy Johns and Roy Upchurch have both had impressive springs. Johns, a converted quarterback, brings a different dimension to the Tide. He's also showing his versatility, whether it's catching passes or making a key block. Coach Mike Shula has called Upchurch one of the biggest surprises of the spring. Both Johns and Upchurch have received their share of work. Tendonitis in his knee has limited Darby's time on the practice field. The Tide will take next week off for spring break. When they return, they will have just a week of practice remaining and then the spring game on April 1.
One of Arkansas' priorities this spring is to find some depth at linebacker. The Razorbacks only have four scholarship linebackers returning. One of those, Desmond Sims, played defensive end last season. But the need was great enough that the Hogs moved Sims to linebacker, and he's probably the front-runner to replace Pierre Brown as the starting middle linebacker next season. Sims started his Arkansas career at linebacker, although he saw only minimal playing time. The good news is that senior Sam Olajubutu is an All-SEC caliber player. But anybody who's been through a season in the SEC knows that it takes more than four linebackers to survive. Arkansas signed four freshman linebackers, and all four could end up playing some this season.
The Auburn offensive line will get its chance for redemption this weekend when the Tigers hold their spring game. That's redemption for the 16 sacks the defense racked up in last weekend's scrimmage. Defensive end Octavius Balkcom had three sacks. Two of the many position changes for the Tigers that appear to be paying dividends are Alonzo Horton moving from defensive end to linebacker and Will Herring from safety to linebacker. Herring has been among Auburn's most productive players this spring. Naturally, the Auburn offensive coaches weren't thrilled about the 16 sacks. But offensive coordinator Al Borges still saw some good things, particularly when it came to senior receiver Courtney Taylor. As for the breakdowns in the offensive line, coach Tommy Tuberville said it's a case of some guys not improving as much as the coaches had hoped this spring.
The Gators are still a couple of weeks away from starting spring practice, but second-year coach Urban Meyer is already sounding a few warning bells for his club. He's made it known that he's not going to overhaul the offense for Chris Leak in his final season. Sure, he will tweak it to adjust to what Leak does best, which is throw the football, but Meyer is adamant that Leak will have to run the ball better and that the Gators will run some option. Meyer said touted freshman quarterback Tim Tebow will have to earn his playing time. Tebow now weighs 242 pounds and recently bench-pressed 225 pounds 24 times. Meyer has been especially hard on his tailbacks. Florida never established an every-down back last season. Meyer said Kestahn Moore will open the spring as the No. 1 tailback, but he also said he wasn't going to "watch the trash" he did last season. DeShawn Wynn and Markus Manson will also compete for the tailback job.
Georgia will take this week off from spring practice and will resume next week. The Bulldogs will hold their first major scrimmage next weekend. One player who won't be on the field next season is receiver Sean Bailey, who tore his ACL in the Sugar Bowl loss to West Virginia. Bailey has elected to sit out this season so that he can fully rehabilitate the knee. His absence next season puts even more pressure on the Georgia receivers, who have dropped too many passes the last few seasons for Mark Richt's liking. The good news is that senior Mario Raley has shown some signs this spring of finally living up to his high school billing. The starters this spring have been Mohamed Massaquoi and Kenneth Harris. Raley has been working as the slot receiver in the starting rotation.
While most eyes will be on the quarterback battle this spring between Andreé Woodson and Curtis Pulley, a big part of their success will hinge on what happens at receiver. Kentucky lost three of its top four receivers from last season. Keenan Burton, provided he can stay healthy, has a chance to be a big-time playmaker. He needs others around him, though, to emerge. Holdovers Dicky Lyons Jr., Demoreo Ford, as well as Steve Johnson, E.J. Adams and LaShun Watson, will get plenty of chances to show what they can do. Although the Wildcats aren't practicing yet this spring, they're still working the recruiting front. Defensive lineman Jeff Boyd of Indianapolis committed to the Wildcats this week, becoming their first commitment for the 2007 class.
Nobody in the LSU camp has been more disappointed this spring than running back Alley Broussard. His rehabilitation on his surgically repaired knee is not going nearly as well as Broussard would like. He missed the entire 2005 season after suffering the injury in a preseason scrimmage. Broussard was the Tigers' leading rusher in 2004 and one of the more bruising runners in the league. But setbacks in his ACL rehabilitation have limited how much he's been able to practice this spring. His frustration reached the point where some speculated that he might quit the team, but head coach Les Miles said that wasn't the case. Broussard isn't the only LSU running back sidelined this spring. Justin Vincent is also recovering from an injury.
Dan Werner, Mississippi's new offensive coordinator, got his first scrimmage look at the Rebels last Saturday. The reviews were mixed. Mississippi's running game looks like it will be in good hands with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Mico McSwain. Both had good days. McSwain took a swing pass and turned it into a 37-yard touchdown. The Rebels will need more of those athletic type of plays from their playmakers next season. The passing game remains non-existent, though, and Werner conceded that incoming quarterback Brent Schaeffer couldn't get to Oxford soon enough. Schaeffer, the former Tennessee quarterback, is finishing up junior college and will be on campus this summer. Bruce Hall was the starting quarterback when the spring began, but head coach Ed Orgeron isn't ruling out moving him to another position.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
One of the more impressive looking athletes on Mississippi State's practice field this spring has been newcomer Anthony Johnson from Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy. Johnson figures to help the Bulldogs at cornerback and as a return specialist. Johnson only had to spend a semester at Hargrave and enrolled at Mississippi State in time to go through spring practice. Junior college receiver Tony Burks is the other newcomer participating this spring, and the Bulldogs already look better at the receiver position with Burks' ability to go get the football. Through the first week of practice, the defensive line looks like it will be Mississippi State's strength. Nose tackle Antonio Johnson and defensive end Deljuan Robinson are both off to impressive starts. The Bulldogs won't practice this week because of spring break and will return to the field next week.
South Carolina Gamecocks
When the season ended a year ago, most South Carolina fans probably felt pretty good about what the secondary might look like next season. But then cornerback Johnathan Joseph and safety Ko Simpson both decided to turn pro. The result has been cornerback Fred Bennett retooling his role. He's no longer the "other" guy in the secondary. He's now the leader and somebody the younger defensive backs will watch intently. This is a big spring for sophomore Carlos Thomas, who will slide into the other cornerback spot. Two players who figure to add to the Gamecocks' offensive arsenal are running back Cory Boyd and receiver O.J. Murdock. Boyd was suspended last season, while Murdock redshirted. Both have already made head-turning plays this spring.
While most of the chatter centers around quarterback Erik Ainge and whether or not he can recover from a disappointing sophomore season, Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer said his biggest concern was his defensive line. The Vols lost four players from last season, including three starters up front. One of the keys will be the development of tackle Demonte Bolden, who didn't come on last season like coaches thought he would. Redshirt freshman Dan Williams will also be one to watch, especially with the injury to Vlad Richard. At end, Robert Ayers has the ability to be an All-SEC player. Consistency will be his challenge. Junior college newcomer Walter Fisher is also off to a good start this spring at end. The player making the most of a position change has been Adam Myers-White, who had a big scrimmage last weekend. He's now at linebacker after coming to Tennessee as a safety.
The Commodores opened spring practice this week with what coach Bobby Johnson said was a full-fledged quarterback competition. There was some thought that Chris Nickson was a cinch to step in for Jay Cutler. Not so fast, according to Johnson. He said redshirt freshman Mackenzi Adams would get a chance to compete for the job this spring. Adams is more from Cutler mold. He's a strong passer, but also able to take off and run. Nickson is the faster of the two and will look to run. His challenge will be improving his accuracy. The Commodores will be without cornerback Sean Dixon this spring. He's out with a stress fracture in his foot. They're also moving Kevin Joyce to weak side linebacker.
Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.
With spring practices kicked off, our SEC notebook addresses the big questions for each team.